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Morten’s guide to the States of Siege series – part 3: Designer control, storytelling, and pivotal events

Morten Monrad Pedersen
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In part 2 of this series I introduced the major event deck structures used by the games in the States of Siege series and compared them (you don’t need to read it to continue here). One of the core elements of that comparison was the trade-off between designer control and game variation.

Apart from the deck structure, there’s another important way in which event cards are involved in such trade-offs.

Designer control vs. game variation using pivotal events

In the first game of the series, Israeli Independence you can knock a specific enemy army completely out of the game if it’s on the last space of its track when a specific card is drawn (IIRC there are three armies each with their own knock-out card).

This is an example of a pivotal event mechanism where a single event has a huge impact on your chances to win. Knocking out an enemy army greatly increases your chance of winning, since there’ll now be significantly fewer enemy advances to counter.

The pivotal event system in Israeli Independence is optional in that you can decide whether to go for it or not and that decision is a core decision in the game. Keeping one or more armies on their last space means that you have fewer actions to handle other armies that might be threatening you, which puts you at risk right now and if the knockout card shows up at the wrong time, you’ve that risk was unnecessary and you might waste actions and beneficial die roll modifiers. Thus, the system implements a significant push your luck mechanism that has a cost and risk but a big potential payoff.

The result is interesting decisions, tension, and YES! moments, but the cost is that in some cases the game’s tension can evaporate if you pull it off.

Push-your-luck-mechanisms of this gain-a-major-benefit kind can work as a Hail Mary, because if you’re terminally behind you can go all in on the a low probability knockout blow and if you pull it off, you could be back in the game. This means that a game that would otherwise have been just a boring play out the proof of losing game, can become tense again while you go for the Hail Mary. This can lead to “YES!” moments, but the cost is that in some cases the game’s tension can evaporate if you pull it off.


Board Game: Israeli Independence: The First Arab-Israeli War

Two armies have been knocked out in Israeli Independence. Image credit: Marc Figueras.



Other games in the series have pivotal event mechanisms that are mandatory. An example of that is the “Forcing of The Narrows” event card in Ottoman Sunset. Upon drawing this card, a series of die-roll tests are performed based on how many defensive positions you’ve built up and if you don’t win enough of those tests, you immediately lose. We’ll talk about this when we get to embedded minigames later in this blog series.

A slightly less extreme example is the Czar mechanism in Soviet Dawn. In that pivotal event system, you must conquer and hold a specific city before an attempt is made to rescue the Czar which happens when a specific event card is drawn. If you haven’t conquered the city in time you don’t lose immediately as you do in Ottoman Sunset, but as far as I remember it, you get a penalty so bad that you might as well pack up.

Apart from the difference between being optional vs. mandatory the games differ because in Israeli Independence you can get a huge benefit from the pivotal event, while in Ottoman Sunset you do not gain any benefit, instead you immediately lose the game.

All pivotal events whether positive or negative and whether Hail Mary or not can create tension while you try to get ready for the one-shot events, each card draw is exiting, and it gives the game lots of variation. The flipside is that the arrival of the pivotal event is random and can come so early that you don’t have a sufficient time to prepare and it can also give the runaway leader issue that Israeli Independence has and thus swinginess is dialed up: You risk being completely hosed by Lady Luck or you might end up with a cakewalk.

On the other end of the scale we have a game like Mound Builders, where the event cards do not have wild swings or specific things you must do before card X or lose. Instead it has a boss monster mechanism in form of the Spanish conquistadors who arrive late in the game and march towards you turn by turn.

This takes the one-shot mechanism and spreads it out over multiple turns so to speak. It comes at the end giving you the first 90% of the game to prepare and once it happens you still have multiple turns to save your ass. This gives you more influence and reduces luck, but on the flip side it doesn’t give you the explosive one card climax – still, it does feel pretty darn tense.

I’ll return to the topic of luck in the States of Siege games in a later post in this series.

The event deck as a storytelling device

The Spanish boss monster of Mound Builders is a great storytelling device because it allows for a tense and satisfying showdown at the end of the story. In the other games the pivotal events are also tense moments in the story arc of the game, but they have the disadvantage that they arrive in the middle of the game and so you can sometimes get the big climax in the middle of the story, which weakens the storytelling. This is of course inevitable because they simulate historical events which rather impolitely refuse to follow the structure of good storytelling.

The pivotal events are of course only a part of the storytelling in the SoS games. Another major part is the event deck in its totality. It’s the beat to which the game’s story dances.

In the previous post I talked about how event deck structures influence the designer’s ability to tell stories e.g. the Israeli-structure gives the designer little control over the game’s story arc, but that works just fine for a quick game like Israeli Independence – I’d even say that trying to shoehorn in more story arc structure via event deck structure would have been a very bad decision, since that would add to the setup time and you don’t want much setup time in a game that an experienced player can play in 3 minutes.

The Soviet-structure that introduced a split of the event deck into 3 acts allowed better control of the storytelling and it helps when the historical backdrop of a conforms roughly to the classical 3-act coming of age structure. This is the case for Soviet Dawn (at least it seems that way based on my limited historical knowledge) – of course except for the fact that we’re talking about a union of countries and a political system instead of a young person - and there’s no romance involved .

1) The young fledgling hero (the Soviet Union) rebels against its parent (the Czar’s Russia)
2) with thoughts and values different from all the adults (Communism vs. the older governmental systems),
3) having and old mentor (Karl Marx and if I remember correctly also indirectly Robespierre of the French revolution),
4) overcoming adversity (internal conflicts with Czar loyalists and wars with foreign powers),
5) and finding their identity and place in the world as a strong adult (the well-established Soviet Union).

In relation to the game’s retelling of this story there’s a fly in the ointment, though, and that’s the mechanism that shuffles in the cards from the second and third acts at random times which can mess up the story arc somewhat.

This issue is resolved in the Levée-structure (from Levée en Masse) because there the acts are never shuffled together.

Soviet Dawn’s story arc of becoming more powerful and overcoming the enemies goes against the grain of several other States of Siege games, e.g. Ottoman Sunset, Hapsburg Eclipse, We Must Tell the Emperor, and Mound Builders that all have “protagonists” that historically got weaker and collapsed during the time period the games span.

Board Game: Soviet Dawn: The Russian Civil War, 1918-1921

The full set of event cards in Soviet Dawn in chronological order. The three decks are color coded and it can be seen that they don’t conform completely to the historical order, implying that the designer took some historic liberties to make the game work as a game. Image credit: David Kennedy


Another game in the series, Dawn of the Zeds (3rd edition), has the distinct advantage that it’s about the Zombie Apocalypse and so have no real-life events it should adhere to – at least not that I know of and so it can ramp up the tension as the game progresses towards the end without being held back by historical events, which is both good storytelling and what anyone who’ve watched zombie movies would expect.

Mound Builders is a historical game that overcomes the issue of that history not having an actual climax by taking a historical liberty and allowing the mound builder culture to survive until the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors (which they didn’t in real life). This allowed the designers to create a tense climax by having the Spanish act as a boss monster mechanism at the end of the game.

Using flavor text to tell stories

The flavor text on the event cards help tell the story of the game by fleshing out the events to be more than just a list of game effects. Examples from Soviet Dawn include:

1) The Polish army is added to the game with the flavor text explaining that a national uprising was launched in Poland in the aftermath of the first World War.
2) Some significant gameplay changes being explained by the capture or non-capture of the Czar.
3) An advance of the allied forces being explained by a British force being sent in to defend some oil fields.

On the other hand, Soviet Dawn also has flavor text, where I don’t see any coupling to the mechanical effects. E.g. a card that advances the armies of Poland, Baltic and the Allies has a text about anti-Semitic pogroms with no direct coupling to armies or fighting.

Worse are situations such as:

1) Flavor text that makes no sense in relation to the game state, e.g. a text about “the Reds” being pushed out of Finland where this has already happened in game or the Red army staying in firm control of Finland.
2) Cards that create contradictions if they come out in the wrong order such as General Anton Denikin leading an army after he has fled and is no longer in control of it. If they come out in the right order, though, they help create a consistent linear narrative.

Achieving the latter is of course easier in the more controlled Levée deck structure (see part 2).

Soviet Dawn, Levée en Masse as well as the vast majority of the the other SoS games are historical games and thus have a rich setting already with the story already being written. This naturally supports flavor text that has some elements of linear story telling.

A game like Dawn of the Zeds, has event cards that are one-off events in no particular order (IIRC) and it relies on emergent narratives created by the player based on those one of events combined with the in game effects and actions.

Mound Builders takes a third approach, because its flavor text bears little relation to the game events. Instead it gives background information about the Mound Builder culture. The reason for this is that very little is known about their history. So, the flavor text sets the background of the game, but doesn’t explain the events.


Board Game: Mound Builders

Mound Builders: Setting the scene without telling the story. Image credit: Wm Seabrook.



The event deck: Storyteller or an integral part of the strategy for a player

It’s not only the designer who has to decide how to approach the event deck, as a player you can also approach it in two fundamentally different ways.

1) Playing for exploration and story.
2) Playing to win.

I prefer to play the game, without looking at a single card outside of actually playing the game (option 1). Doing it this way means that I don’t know what can happen, which creates tension and I get to play out a story that I don’t know ahead of time. You could say that I use the event deck as a storyteller.

Of course, as I play multiple times, I learn the event cards better and better which transforms the game to a more strategic and less story focused experience. I like that change and the gradual improvement of my strategy as I learn.

Other players will instead analyze the event cards in detail, map out the number of advances each enemy army will get, etc. and use that to formulate strategies and thus increase their chance of winning (i.e. option 2).

This choice is out of the designer’s control and completely up to you as the player.

While I’m firmly in the Type 1 camp, I paradoxically often end up playing in gamey way to win the game in all other ways than by looking through the event cards. This happens as I play a game more and more, but it has also happened more and more over my time with the series. As I’ve played more of the games I’ve learned what makes them tick and thus can attack their mechanical hearts instead of their theme. I’ll return to this in a later post in the series (it’s currently planned for post 9, but that can change).





Preliminary table of contents for the series:

1) The boring introduction
2) Event deck structures
Interlude: Sad news about VPG
3) Designer control, storytelling, and pivotal events
4) Tension vs. variation
5) Dice, event resolution, and combat
6) Track systems
7) Embedded minigames
8) The Currency of the States of Siege
9) Math attacks
10) Are the States of Siege games luck fests?
11) The three production processes
+ an unknown number of posts with my ranking and mini-reviews of the games.
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