Jeff's World of Game Design

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What skills does your game test?

Jeff Warrender
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A previous post in this series asked where fun comes from; what sorts of experiences are enjoyable?

A related question is the subject of this post: what sorts of skills are worth making the centerpiece of a game?

In the early days of online game design forums, we talked a lot about mechanics and how they could promote interesting decisions, but we talked relatively little about the skills that different mechanics required of our players. And I think this is still true: design discussions often are "theme first or mechanics first?", and the common admonition to game designers is "find the fun." Let me say that again: "find the fun." Is that not shocking? We are supposed to go and expend effort coming up with gimmicky mechanics or oddball (or pedestrian) themes, and only THEN do we see whether we've emerged with something that people consider fun. It's far too infrequent that we design games "fun-first" or "skill-first", and perhaps these posts will encourage us to think that way, or at least to have in mind the particular experiences or skills that our games will explore so that we know what we're trying to achieve with those mechanics and themes.

Becoming skilled at a particular game requires exploration of that game, just as becoming skilled at soccer or basketball require dedicated practice at those sports. Yet, just as some sports test different physical skills to different degrees (soccer or swimming require enormous cardiovascular endurance, baseball or archery much less so), so too we can break games down to some underlying player skills that they test. We would expect that certain mechanics naturally emphasize certain skills, but one way to find innovative approaches to design may be to explore mechanics/skills pairings that we wouldn't normally expect to find together. As a simple example, a worker placement game where the worker spots are auctioned off will use an entirely different player skill than worker placement games tend to use, and this could unlock different player experiences. Additionally, it's possible for a single game to require a mixture of skills, or to permit different approaches that allow different skills to offer viable paths to victory. These could also be useful approaches, both to evoke some aspect of the game's theme (reality is rarely so monochrome as to test only one thing in isolation) and to avoid coronating the player who is in greatest possession of the game's central skill.

Here are some familiar gaming skills, and some discussion of some well-known games that use them.

Optimization

Optimization problems are familiar considerations in engine-building games like Race for the Galaxy or deck-builders like Dominion. The skill in such games is to see a wide variety of possible effects that various acquisitions can deliver, and to blend those into a harmonious and efficient machine whose output is greater than the sum of its parts. Thus this skill entails being able to spot and identify synergies, but also to assign a correct value to the pursuit of such synergies. Seeing a card in a draft row whose price starts high and comes down as it progresses, the skill is to know how much it's worth to you to acquire that card so you don't overpay for it.

Optimization can also be found in games with a strong spatial element, such as placement games like Carcassonne. There are many possible legal ways to place the tile you're given, but often you can find one that's "best". (Carc has the added feature of requiring some risk in how future placements will unfold). Route-planning or pick-up-and-deliver games like Merchant of Venus or Elfenland also have a strong efficiency component: players need to be able to find the route that best accomplishes the goal while requiring the fewest moves or resources or whatever. Sometimes this requires considering a variety of permutations to achieve optimal performance. For example, in Elfenland it may be possible to use a dragon or a cloud in the mountains, but only the dragon can be used in the desert, so optimal play is obvious in such a case. Good optimization puzzles entail more considerations than this, of course!

But "puzzle" is the right word, and games that are especially "puzzle-like", or that have "point-salad" gameplay can explore this skill, by presenting the player with many good options but requiring that the player find the best available option. The problem this can create is that, in principle, any puzzle element is theoretically solvable by any player given enough time, and so this type of gameplay technically encourages players to play very slowly to consider all possibilities so as to ensure that they've always picked the best possible option. The way around this is to restrict the number of options or to impose other considerations that make finding "the perfect play" difficult, e.g. through the introduction of uncertainty as to how things will unfold.

Prioritization

In classic German games, prioritization was really the central skill; it was what put the agony in those famous agonizing decisions. You have more things to do than you are allowed to do, and so you must pick which ones to focus on. The nice thing about this skill is that it's really two skills in one, and a good game can test both.

First, there's the long-range aspect to prioritization, which, yes, is a bit like strategy, but it's really more about identifying the right things to focus on in the aggregate. If you know that you need 10 VP to win, and there are multiple ways of getting those VPs, prioritizing which ones to pursue based on how attainable they are is an important part of doing well. We can amplify these problems for the player if particular strategic paths entail scarcity concerns or player comparisons, such that players have to prioritize going after something before it runs out, or to a greater degree than their opponents.

Then, there are the short-range prioritization problems, the ways-and-means of getting to the end state you're aiming at. What is the order in which you are going to do things? What are the incremental steps that have to happen in order to achieve some larger goal or acquire some beneficial commodity? Of the options you have this turn, which is on the path toward your long range priorities, and/or is one of your available options so attractive that your long range priorities should shift in response?

Acquire is a favorite of mine and its turn sequence is a classic example of both of these kinds of prioritization considerations. You may only buy three blocks of stock per turn, and thus must decide, do you need shares in a chain that might merge soon, do you need shares in a chain that may get big (and that you want to acquire cheaply), do you need to outpace an opponent who is also gunning for majority control in another chain? The answer is almost always "yes" to all of these, so the restriction forces you to select which opportunities are the most urgent to capitalize on.

But notice this: from a combinatorial standpoint, Acquire offers you many possible permutations of how your stock-buying phase of your turn could resolve, but the framework is incredibly simple: buy three blocks of stock. You are immediately worrying about what is the best trio of purchases. This is different from, say, a drafting game where there are 10 cards in a display and each confers a different power. Thus we enhance our players' ability to prioritize the easier we make it for them to see what will be the potential ramifications of their choices.

Anticipation/Timing

Many games feature an element that provides income and an element that provides VP, and an astute player must "switch" from acquiring the former to acquiring the latter when the end game is in sight, to end up with the most points before time runs out. Dominion features this. Timing is largely about reading the game state and being the first to jump on an important opportunity.

"Card rivers" in drafting games like Through the Ages are an example of this, in that you must decide how long to wait for the card you want to flow down the river, where it can be acquired more cheaply. But, like every good decision, this carries risk: another player may be willing to acquire the card at a higher price than you.

The woefully underused Dutch auction of Merchants of Amsterdam is a great system for achieving this kind of timing problem in parallel: the price ticks down until someone slaps the timer, pays the current price and receives the item that's up for bid. This shows how fear of missing out can impose interesting timing problems that, though primarily psychological rather than mechanical, can be fun to grapple with.

But good timing problems can come in other forms and can be made challenging with other countervailing considerations. For example, in Vinci you must choose when to retire your current civilization and start a new one. This eats a turn which costs tempo, but on the other hand you must consider how much more your current civ can realistically achieve, and whether any particularly promising civ tiles are available in the display. Moving at the right time is key but it's not always clear when the right time is.

Or consider the timing problem of Web of Power, in which entering a new area means that you may only place one cloister. This means that you're opening up opportunities for others, and don't get to be as efficient with your first placement, yet sometimes the timing is right to be the first in a region, for example if you wish to extend a cloister chain or if you hope to, in a later turn, secure a majority in advisors in that region to connect with other adjacent regions. Because of the inefficiency that opening a region carries, it's usually a progressive unfolding of the board that one sees, and so knowing when to be the one to open a new territory is a key timing problem that a skillful player will be able to navigate.

"Soft Skills"

Here we have in mind skills that involve "working" the other players: things like negotiation/haggling, bluffing, and mind-reading. These are largely social skills and so extroverts tend to possess them to a greater degree, and, perhaps more significantly, may enjoy the experience of such games to a greater degree.

There are sub-categories within games that test these skills. Trading games like Chinatown and Sidereal Confluence and even Civilization are all about overcoming individual scarcity problems by redistributing the commodities that I individually have in mutually beneficial ways. While trading games do rely on salesmanship, more often it's a matter of identifying what your opponent needs, and being the one to provide that. Thus there's the related skill of knowing how badly they want it, and by extension, how much they're willing to pay for it; knowing how far you can push them. These games also test the skill of getting in the right ballpark with the first offer. Asking for the moon gets you laughed out of the room, and will result in the player going to someone else for what they need. And, they also reward establishing good working relationships: making a few easy and fair trades early builds a rapport that will allow us to work together later. All of these are generally positive interactions, and it's rare that driving a hard bargain and squeezing the most out of every deal is the way to win the game.

Some of these considerations drive the interaction in another main sub-category, deal-making games. Of course the classic example of this is Diplomacy. The main difference between trading and deal-making games is that the latter nearly always features "the backstab" as a vital element of gameplay. At some point in the game, someone else is going to be stabbed in a way that alters the game, and you want to be the one holding the knife if possible. These games aren't just testing your ability to make deals, but also your ability to persuade your opponents that you're in earnest, your visibility to read the intentions and opportunities of your opponents, and most of all your sense of timing, to know when is the opportune moment to strike. Deal-making games can therefore be thought of as "strategic lying" games.

Although it would seem that "strategic lying" is not exactly in vogue at the moment, it may be more correct to see that it has been amalgamated into a different style of game. There have always been bluffing games, like Poker or Perudo, but more recently we have what I call "bluffing salesmanship" games, like The Resistance or Mafia/Werewolf, where you're trying to convince the other players that you are the trustworthy one of the bunch. It's interesting to wonder why lying in the context of a social deduction game is more tolerable than lying in the context of a complex deal-making game, but it may be partly that lying, and the identification of the liar, are the central element of the game, rather than an unpleasant experience that you undergo if you're on the business end of the backstab.

Deduction/inference

Social deduction games are really more about inference and interpretation of your opponents' words and actions, but pure deduction games have been with us for some time and are always popular. Of course the most famous is Clue, but part of Clue's staying power as a deduction game isn't that it's familiar, but that it's easy to play. The suspect sheet lets you tick off possibilities and see quickly which elements you don't yet have information about. Of course, paying attention to how many cards your opponents see is a way to accelerate your deduction, and so there's room for an attentive player to do well. But other deduction games like Sleuth are very challenging to play because the chains of logic that flow from each revealed piece of information have several branches that are challenging to hold onto.

Thus it would seem that good deduction games are about coming up with a fun means of parsing the information puzzle. Mystery of the Abbey adds a fun twist with the "revelation" mechanic; in addition to getting partial points for being partially right, a revelation announced at the right time can set your opponents scrambling in the wrong direction. Mr. Jack is really a spatial game in which your ability to gain (or protect) information hinges on skillfully moving the pieces, but of course, this skillful movement necessitates that you grasp the deduction implications of where the pieces end up. And of course, as suspects are ticked off, they are flipped over to their "safe" side, making it easy to remember who is still potentially of interest.

Thus deduction games tend to be very cerebral, but careful attention must be paid to giving players access to tools to track information so that they can focus energy on making connections between the facts they've learned, and don't have to try to remember everything they've learned.

Risk management

There's an entire post on this subject, but what I think needs to be re-iterated here is that risk management is indeed a skill. So often we look at a game with a random element and think "well, the person who rolled best will win". Sometimes that's true, but in a well-designed game, the winner will usually be the player who made the best use of calculated risks. As mentioned above, Poker hands are dealt out randomly, but skillful players tend to win over and over because of skill at choosing when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em, as they say.

It's tempting, then, to think that human computers can do well in risk-based games because they can quickly assess the odds of a random event and play the safer side of those odds. But risk is about more than probability. It's about the convergence of likelihood and consequence. If there's a low-likelihood option with a poor reward, that's a poor play, but a low-likelihood option with a high reward may not be. The key is to be able to assess which options are worthy of the risk, and of course a good game should make this determination difficult, and ideally dependent on the opponents.

Diamant is great for this, because a card that awards many gems is indeed great, but it's better for you if you stay in and everyone else goes out. Here, then, risk management is all about predicting what your opponents will do. Certainly there is guessing involved, but it's also about being able to evaluate the up-side and down-side of going out or staying in and being able to predict how your opponents are likely to make this same evaluation, so you can do the opposite of what the crowd will do.

Anagrams

Of course everyone is familiar with Scrabble and Boggle and Bananagrams and games like that. "Word games" are mostly their own genre and are played primarily by people with big vocabularies who want to combine letters to make words. The bigger your vocabulary, the more obscure a word you can pull out of a seemingly useless pile of letters.

I mention this skill here because there are some recent designs that show that even a well-worn concept like this can have broader appeal when given a fresh implementation. Prolix/Wordsy is an anagram game, but you aren't limited to the letters in your hand. You can provide an unlimited number of free letters, and so this game is a dream come true for people who are, well, prolix and want to show off. But the skillful player will take advantage of the letters that are currently worth points. I've previously mentioned Stinker, which is an anagram game in which you're making an anagram as a witty response to a prompt. This to me is one of the few anagram/word games where the skill isn't just to make a word, but is rather to make something that's semantically meaningful. Finally Paperback is a deck-building game with letters, which makes sense when you think about it: can you construct a deck with letters that will enable you to make a lot of words? Anyone who has watched Wheel of Fortune knows what those letters are. This shows that there may be interesting avenues for creative export of familiar gaming concepts to different styles of game.

Memory

Memory has gotten a bad rap over the years and it's not clear why. My only guess is that it's the core element of 'childish' games like, well, Memory, but it's also associated with card-counting in gambling games. Many games have used memory elements, including most famously the Castillo in El Grande or hidden shares in Acquire. The problem is that this splits players into two groups. For players with excellent memories, the challenge of card-counting or Castillo-counting is pretty easy, so they are essentially playing with more information than their opponents. For players with imperfect memories, these elements have a "fog of war" effect where you have some vague impressions about who has done what or what cards you've seen, but you're trying to go based on impression rather than on perfect information. Games that aim to deliver the latter experience will work only with players who lack perfect memories. Now this is true of most people so it's not much of a stretch to expect that a game with such elements can find an audience, but there will be a vocal chorus of detractors unless the game also plays well with all information open.

An alternative is just to try to develop a memory game that's sufficiently hard that even players with very good memories find it hard, or that they have no advantage even having excellent memories. Of course this is a challenge that's really only worth undertaking if you have a player with perfect memory in your group, although perhaps it can be adequately simulated by just letting one player play with perfect information. But more importantly, if the memory test is so challenging that no one can successfully perform it, then there's hardly any difference between the memory test and a random system. Except, the memory system is strictly worse, because you're asking players to use valuable brain space to attempt something very challenging when in reality it's a waste of that mental energy.



This isn't an exhaustive list of gaming skills, but hopefully it will encourage us to look for the skills that lie behind our game mechanics, to try to find new mechanics to test those skills or new skills to be tested with a familiar mechanic, and to think in terms of the specific nature of the challenge we're presenting. Caber-tossing and darts both involve a "throwing stuff" mechanic, but the skills they test are quite different. Thinking this way about tabletop games may lead us to new approaches to design as well.
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