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How to design expert difficulty levels - as taught by Sylvion and its brethren

Morten Monrad Pedersen
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When designing solo games, solo modes, or coops you face the challenge that different players will have different skill and experience levels and so it will increase the appeal and longevity of your game if you include multiple difficulty levels. In this post I’ll discuss techniques for making harder difficulty levels.

There are many ways to go about his and as it turns out most things worth learning about doing this in solo and coop games can be learned from the game Sylvion .

The reason that Sylvion inspired me to write this post is that it (like the other Oniverse games) consists of a set of mini-expansions and variants that influence the difficulty level in multiple different ways, so I can discuss many different approaches to designing expert difficulty levels without having to introduce a bazillion games.

That said, I will include a couple of Sylvion’s siblings (Onirim and Nautilion) to cover some of the ground not covered by Sylvion.

Sylvion in 5 bullets and a picture

If you haven’t played Sylvion, here’s the executive summary:

* Sylvion is a solo and 2-player coop.
* It’s an almost pure card game that mixes deck building with tower forest defense.
* The first part of the game is a mini-game where you acquire cards for your deck.
* The second part is a tower forest defense game where you you draw 3 cards from your deck per turn into your hand and you can play as many cards from your hand as you want.
* While fighting off the enemies you simultaneously whittle down your deck to the most important cards.

Board Game: Sylvion

A game of Sylvion in progress. The fire elementals (enemies) come from the right and marches left. Image credit: Michael Young

Decrease the decision

I’ll start on a low note with a difficulty mechanic that I dislike. It consists of reducing the number of cards you draw per turn from 3 to 2.

The definitely makes the game harder, but you now take one third fewer actions per time the enemies act, which lowers the time spent on your turn compared to handling the enemies by one third.

Now, what is the fun part of a solo/coop game? Is it taking your own turn and making interesting decisions or is it handling the bookkeeping of moving monsters etc.?

I’m going out on limb here and say that I’m pretty sure that all of us answered “taking your own turn and making interesting decisions” and thus the card reduction system makes the game less fun. Not only is it the wrong way to go for this reason, it’s even worse because those who need the increased difficulty are also those who don’t want or need a smaller decision space as caused by the lower number of actions.

The mechanic does have an advantage, though, since it saves you from having to playtest to look for exploits and thus the mechanic is fairly cheap to add.

Board Game: Sylvion

Image credit: mattia83 cola

More of the existing challenges simultaneously

An alternative and in my opinion better way to increase the number of the challenges that are already in the game and requiring the player to overcome them within the same number of turns.

Instead of decreasing the number of actions taken by the player (by going from 3 to 2 cards per turn) while keeping the number of actions taken by the game the same, you can keep the player’s number of actions constant while increasing that of the game. This is another way to achieve the same result of changing the ratio of player actions to game actions.

Psychologically this is probably better, since it doesn’t feel like a loss of agency and your ability to perform combos doesn’t change. That said it still means that you spend more time on the game’s turn relative to your own.

There’s a better way to do this, though, and that is to increase the number of challenges the player must overcome within the normal number of turns, but having the challenge be such that they don’t require upkeep, but instead give you more stuff to consider during your turn, which widens the decision space and player agency instead of lowering both.

Sylvion doesn’t have such a system, so I’ll briefly visit it’s sibling, Onirim. In the “Happy Dreams and Dark Premonitions” mini-expansion for Onirim you draw 4 dark premonitions during setup out of a set of 8. These are obstacles that you must overcome or avoid during the game.

These are balanced by the happy dreams from the title and so the difficulty level remains roughly the same, but there’s a variant that requires you to include 5 or 6 dark premonitions instead of 4 to make the game harder.

This increases the difficulty without hurting player agency and without adding extra rules and thus it’s a much better mechanic in my opinion.

Make existing challenges harder

Alternatively, you can make existing challenges harder. Sylvion doesn’t do this, but it’s sibling Nautilion does so in the built-in “Mercenaries” mini-expansion the combat power of an enemy (the Phantom submarine) can be increased to make an existing challenge harder.

This is a very easy way to increase the difficulty level without increasing the complexity of the game and it doesn’t require extra playtesting beyond playtesting for balance, but it also doesn’t add much in the way of interesting decisions.

Add a new challenge simultaneously

As an alternative to requiring the player to complete more of the same challenges in the same number of turns, you can add a new challenge and Sylvion does this in what’s my favorite way of increasing the difficulty level in the game.

This comes in the form of a mini-expansion called “The Ravage!” that adds a new enemy (the Ravage) with new mechanics that joins the normal enemies without increasing your own powers, so it’s an extra challenge on top of the challenge of the normal game.

The reasons it’s my favorite in the game are that:

* It adds a new mechanic that widens the decision space in an interesting way and forces me to juggle more balls at the same time. This is just what the doctor ordered for me, when I outgrew the normal difficulty.

* It amps up the difficulty level thought the entire game, which means that the game remains tense and exciting throughout even though I’ve become skilled.

There are dangers in using this technique, though:

* It might change the game too much,
* make non-experts feel that they’re not playing the full game,
* it’s one more mechanic for the player to handle,
* and it’s one more mechanic to make work for the designer and so more playtesting and development are required.

Board Game: Sylvion

The only non-card component in the game: The Ravage. Image credit: Crazy Adam

Achievements

Back in the section on limiting the player agency I criticized rule that reduced the player to drawing cards per turn instead of 3, because it shifted the time spent ratio more towards spending time on bookkeeping.

That gets old fast, but when seen as a special challenge that you try out a few times it can be fun. This is exactly the kind of mechanic that got popularized under the name “achievements” in video games.

So, if instead of making the expert difficulty level a single challenge, you can create multiple challenges that can be played one at a time and thus you extend the longevity of the game.

Luckily, Sylvion sort of has an achievement system in the form of the “Extraordinary Feast and Betrayal” mini-expansion included in the box. The feats from the title are a set of helpful cards four of which are alternate victory conditions. It’s easy to choose one of these alternate victory conditions and play achievement style to win using a specific one of them. This variant is not included in the rules, though.

Board Game: Sylvion

One of the four alternate victory condition cards (“Doves’ Armistice”). Simon Wilcock

Changing “hit points”

As mentioned in the quick summary of Syvion you’re defending a forest and the health of that forest is represented by 12 tree cards. One side of those cards is the “bloom” side and on the other is the “desolate” side. If we translate this to standard game terms the cards with the bloom side up are your hit points. You lose if you reach 0 HP (all 12 cards are on the desolate side).

Board Game: Sylvion

Tree cards: Bloom side (top) and desolate side (bottom). Image credit: Björn Forsberg

As you might have guessed by now one difficulty level adjustment in Sylvion is to adjust the number of HP you start with.

Increasing the difficulty level this way is simple and requires little additional playtesting. If it works out just right it can keep you hovering a hair above 0 HP throughout the game and so you’ll be forced to make decisions that helps you avoid losing right now, but aren’t the best decisions for achieving the end goal of the game and thus the difficulty level goes up by adding tense and interesting trade-off decisions.

It’s not all roses, though, and if you’re able to restore your HP back to the normal level, the game is also back to normal difficulty level and so the lowered starting HP is just an initial bump to get over instead of making the game itself harder.

Rubber banding

An alternative to the methods discussed above is to make the game adjust the difficulty level on the fly depending on your performance. The idea here is that the game becomes harder if you do well and easier if you do badly.

Mario Kart for example gives you better weapons if you’re behind than if you’re ahead, which keeps the game tense and decreases virtual player elimination, but it also makes no sense within what I perceive the game’s thematic space to be and once I noticed it stood out as ham-fisted and unfairly hurting skillful play.

This kind of balancing is called rubber banding and you can see why if you imagine a 2-player race where a rubber band is tied between the two players. Once one player gets ahead the rubber band will pull the two towards each other and thus balance the game automatically.

Onirim has a nice rubber banding mechanic, but before we can get to that, we need to know a bit about the game. During the game you either play cards to the table which brings you closer to winning or you discard cards, which doesn’t bring you closer to your goal and instead just wastes the cards. Thus, you can view the ratio of cards on the table to cards in the discard pile as a measure of how well you’re doing (I’m painting broad strokes here).

The included mini-expansion, “The Book of Steps Lost and Found”, changes this, by allowing you use the discarded cards to pay for casting helpful spells. This means that when you’re doing badly in the main game, you become able to cast more spells that help you, while if you’re doing well, you’ll have fewer cards for casting spells.

Within the whimsical dream world of the game it makes sense to me that you can either spend your “resources” on bringing you towards your goal or on casting spells.

Rubber banding can be hard to pull off without feeling gamey and unfair, but when done right it provides a balancing mechanic that keeps the game in the tension zone and sometimes also expands the decision space.

Board Game: Onirim (Second Edition)

The cards for the “The Book of Steps Lost and Found”. Image credit: Flann Christenson

Executive summary

If we want to make expert difficulty levels, Sylvion and its brethren teaches us these good techniques:

* Have more of the existing challenges simultaneously.
* Make the existing challenges harder.
* Add new challenges on top of the existing ones.
* Use achievements.

They’ve teach us to be careful when lowering “hit points” and using rubber banding.

And finally, they’ve taught us to avoid decreasing the decision space.
much extra playtesting.
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