Thematic Solitaires for the Spare Time Challenged

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Variation AND tenseness?

Morten Monrad Pedersen
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Can board games be both tense and varied? A while ago I argued that it’s very hard to accomplish, since going for variation makes it hard to balance the game well enough to make it consistently tense. Game designer Wes Erni seems to have regarded this a challenge and tried to make a game he codesigned, Mound Builders, do both. The question now is: Did he succeed?

Wes’ attempt at taking up the challenge prompted me to revisit my thesis of variation vs. tenseness and that turned into a blogpost where discussed some new perspectives on the thesis.

In that post I ended up with a diagram, showing various games plotted subjectively in a diagram of variation and tenseness.

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My initial assumption had been that good games would stick close to the line in the diagram that illustrates the tradeoff between variation and tenseness, but the game We Must Tell the Emperor showed me that I was wrong.

In terms of this diagram what Wes set out to do was make a game, Mound Builders, that went significantly above the line (which I’ve reviewed here).

Mound Builders is a game from the States of Siege series, just like Soviet Dawn, Legions of Darkness, and We Must Tell the Emperor, shown in the above diagram. The States of Siege series is a series of tower defense games, where you defend a central location from enemy armies moving towards you via a set of linear tracks. Each turn an event card is drawn that controls, which enemy armies move this turn and whether something special occurs. You’ll also be given a number of actions that can be spend on pushing back the enemies or improving your position. The shared DNA of these games makes it easier to analyze the differences between them and the gameplay effects those differences cause.

Going for the upper right

Before getting to Mound Builders I’m going to talk about another game that seems to try and do the same thing as MB: Dawn of the Zeds, which is yet another States of Siege game. Dawn of the Zeds is a very tense game and it attempts achieve higher variation than Legions of Darkness by throwing in a lot of extra features and chrome.

One of the ways in which Dawn of the Zeds achieves high tenseness is by making you emotionally invested in the game – particularly in your defensive “army”. In this game your “army” are represented directly on the board. This is contrary to most States of Siege games the player controls an abstract army that’s never present on the board and which never takes damage. In Dawn of the Zeds, on the other hand, each part of your army is represented by a physical counter moving around the board, and they take damage and die. I’ve argued in a previous post (Making a game feel tense through emotional investment) that this increases the player’s emotional investment in the game, so I’m not going to belabor the point here.

Dawn of the Zeds also gives a part of your army personality, by having several heroes each with their own abilities and backstory. This makes them feel more real and can thus make the emotional attachment stronger, which increases the tension of the battles they’re in.

The result is a game, that’s very tense, but still has some variation, so it seems that the goal that Wes set out to achieve has already been achieved to some extent by a previous game in the series.

One of my reasons for positing the dichotomy between tenseness and variation was that lots of variation makes it very hard to make sure that you’ve balanced everything and the amount of playtesting needed can rise exponentially. If you go for high variation, it’s simply much more likely that you’ll miss some combination of player options and game events that’ll break the tenseness of the game.

Unfortunately, Dawn of the Zeds illustrates my point. Since it has been found (by the aforementioned Wes as it happens) to contain a gamebreak and if you find the break, then Zeds is neither tense nor varied. I hasten to add that I don’t see it as much of an issue, since even knowing that it existed I couldn’t come up with it. So, if not for the fact that I asked to be told how it works I never would have known, and I’d say that you have to be wired differently than the average gamer to come up with the gamebreak . It’s also not something that can be pulled off every time, but it seems that it’s enough to kill the fun in the game if you try to use the strategy and it should make winning much too easy.

We can now add Dawn of the Zeds to our diagram in two places depending on whether the player has found the gamebreak or not.

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The upcoming Director’s Cut expansion for the game is said to contain a fix (EDIT: The fix was actually posted here on The Geek 20 hours before this post went live), so maybe we’ll be able to remove the gamebreak version of Dawn of the Zeds from the diagram.

Tenseness through empire building

In most States of Siege games you’re handed an “empire” that you’re then asked to defend. Some of the games in the series allow you to modify this empire to some extent, e.g. you can build a few fortified defensive positions, e.g. Levee en Masse, Empires in America, We Must Tell the Emperor, and Dawn of the Zeds. The player freedom allowed by this is fairly limited though, e.g. in We Must Tell the Emperor you can build up to 2 fortified positions, one of which can only be built in one single space and the other less powerful one also has limited placement options.

Mound Builders changes this fundamentally.

In Mound Builders chiefdom markers are placed randomly on each board space as you explore them and you have to decide which chiefdoms to try to incorporate in your empire. The combination of chiefdoms in your empire determines the size of your economy, which influence the number of actions you can take per turn, and a couple of rare chiefdoms each give you an extra gameplay option if you control them.

Thus you construct your own empire during the first short act of the game, and therefore you’ll it’ll feel like your empire that you’re defending, not an empire handed to you by someone else, and thus you’re likely to feel an emotional attachment to the empire, which makes fighting for it feel more tense.

I like this aspect of Mound Builders, but it carries a risk: Getting off to a good start will give you a large empire and thus a large income, which will make the rest of the game easier, while a bad start with a small empire will hamper you for the rest of the game. So, the risk of the empire building part of the game is that it might generate runaway leader and fallaway leader syndromes,

Tenseness through fragility

Wes has already written at length about how he handled these two issues in the game (here and here), so I’ll not delve much into that except to say that in my opinion the most efficient of the ways the design deals with them is through fragility. By that I mean that things can go south very quickly in Mound Builders, so even in the games where everything was going well, the game still felt tense.

While it’s clear that having the player’s empire be fragile is a way to combat Runaway Leader Syndrome, it may sound counterintuitive that it also helps with fallaway loser syndrome. The way it does this is rather backhandedly by giving the player a mercifully quick death instead of a having to play out the longwinded proof of losing.

Apart from the tenseness created by a fragile empire, the game has a “boss monster” that always looms on the horizon in the form of Spanish conquistadors who will come to plunder your empire and they’re strong and relentless.

The Spanish use a rubber banding mechanic where the strength of the army Spanish army is determined by the economic strength of your empire. This makes thematic sense in that large wealth will make you a more attractive target, and mechanically it makes sure that the Spanish will be a threat no matter how strong your empire is.

Variation

The random chiefdom placements and initial empire building not only gives tenseness as described above, it also gives variation, because it means that the empire you end up with can be very different between games. Thus in one game you might push one track all way back and defend it tooth and nail, while in the next you’ll ignore it except for basic defenses.

Mound Builders also takes a page from Soviet Dawn. The latter has game changing events that impacts the rest of the game, these events happens in some plays and not in others and this is one source of the large variation in the game. MB has two such game changing events. One for embracing a religion (“The Buzzard Cult”), which allows you to play more aggressively by removing a penalty that you get for rolling 1s in many situations, and one that expands your storages that allows you to save an additional action point from one turn to the next, which can be important strategically.

In my opinion, Soviet Dawn takes the idea too far, because the events can make the game close to impossible or too easy in one fell swoop. Mound Builders’ game changing events are fewer and not quite as game changing as Soviet Dawn’s, you don’t win Mound Builders because you embrace the Buzzard Cult, it’ll probably help you, but winning is not given, and there’s actually also a downside to it. This means that the tenseness of the game remains reasonably intact, the downside compared to Soviet Dawn is of course that the events don’t give nearly the same amount of variation as Soviet Dawn’s do.

Using a narrative structure to achieve variation

A while back I wrote about using the classic three act structure to create narratives in board games, and I used Mound Builders as an example, because it follows the structure well, with three distinct phases in the game. There’s the empire building first act, then there’s a long second act that’s more like the usual States of Siege games, and finally a third act having a showdown with the Spanish conquistadors.

Some of the previous States of Siege games such as We Must Tell the Emperor and Soviet Dawn also have three acts, which are implemented by dividing the set of event cards into three decks each with their own distinct feel. Mound Builders takes this a significant step further by changing and adding rules from one act to the next. This enhanced act structure means that the gameplay changes significantly over the course of a game and thus makes the game feel more varied

Building tense and varied mounds?

So has Wes Erni and his co-designer Ben Madison succeeded in making a game that both tense and varied? Well, I’ll reply by trying to plot Mound Builders on the tenseness-variation chart as seen below.

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As you can see, my answer is “yes”, but not “YES”. I think that Mound Builders does stand out in going above the tenseness-variation tradeoff line, but it’s not by a huge margin. This could be interpreted like me saying that the two gentlemen didn’t do a good job, but nothing could be further from the truth, because I think just trying to go much above the line is close to being a quixotic quest, and going as far as Mound Builders has without a gamebreak or strong imbalance being found is quite impressive.

Variation or tenseness?

This post started out as an email to Wes, but while starting to write that mail I quickly realized that there was enough material for a blogpost. While writing that post I again realized that I had more to say than could be written in just one post, and while they may not seem all that related to an outside observer the following 4 posts are actually written because I was trying to write that single mail to Wes:

1 Variation or tenseness revisited
2 Making a game feel tense through emotional investment
3 Making compelling narratives in board games using the three-act structure
4 Using physicality and drooling dogs to create player engagement

So, with today’s post I ended up with 5 long posts instead of what was supposed to be a single fairly brief email.

The same thing happened when I was writing a reply to another game designer. Back then I ended up with a five post series on rubberbanding, so it seems that I should just try to write a couple more mails to game designers, and then I’ll quickly have written enough to make a book on game design .
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