Thematic Solitaires for the Spare Time Challenged

A blog about solitaire games and how to design them. I'm your host, Morten, co-designer of solo modes for games such as Scythe, Gaia Project and Viticulture.
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Morten’s guide to the States of Siege series – part 4: Tension vs. variation

Morten Monrad Pedersen
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Some of my best experiences of solitaire gaming come from periods within a session where I’m constantly teetering on the brink of oblivion, where I feel like I could lose the game every single turn but manage to hang on until I finally succeed or get crushed. On the other hand, I also like games with a lot of variation.

Often high-tension and high-variability gameplay are at odds with each other. The tension zone is generally narrow and it’s hard to keep the game there as a designer if you don’t keep a tight control of the gameplay and that tight control is hard to maintain if there are many highly variable factors in the game.

As discussed in previous posts, the States of Siege series contains games with various levels of tension and variation (part 2 and part 3).

In this post I’ll focus on that trade-off, mainly using the games Soviet Dawn and Legions of Darkness. Note, that for Legions of Darkness it seemed to me that the difficulty level was a bit off, so I ended up using a slight tweak to the rules. This tweak has no effect on the variability or designer control it simply moves the difficulty level into my preferred tension zone.

The two games are of roughly the same complexity, but they go in very different directions in relation to tension and variation.

Two very different states of siege

In Legions of Darkness there’s a choice between two sets of enemies, but other than that it basically throws everything at you each game and the two armies are fairly similar. I normally end up with most of the extra stuff you can buy (spells and heroes), all the tracks are pressuring me at some point in the game, and I go through nearly all the cards, so each plays basically shows me all there is to see. This means that the all play sessions are from a high-level perspective similar, but they’re high on tension.

Soviet Dawn on the other hand plays out very differently each time. In my first play I got extremely lucky and won after only 17 of 48 possible turns, while the second game saw me get my ass kicked in half that number of turns (if I remember correctly that was because of the Czar pivotal event discussed in a previous post).

In Legions of Darkness 5 of the 6 enemies are active all the time while in SD only 3 out of 6 starts active and the number can change at variable points throughout the game and you can knock out some of them for good. This variation in the number of active armies leads to vastly different sessions with accompanying variation in difficulty level.

As I’ve discussed previously, Soviet Dawn also has a lot of variability in how the event cards come out, in its “research” system (called the Red Army Reorganization system), and pivotal events. This leads to high variation, but the tension is all over the place.

Soviet Dawn rarely had the edge-of-my-seat-excitement feel that Legions of Darkness offers. Instead it has been more of an I-wonder-what-story-will-be-told-this-time experience and this element is strongly supported by the historic flavor text on the event cards.

When storytelling, not tension and variation is the goal

The two games illustrate the tension-variation trade-off. It’s simply hard to design a solitaire game that’s both constantly tense and very varied, because it’s hard to design a set of challenges for the player that’s just the right difficulty all the time even though the situation and the player’s power can vary a lot.

We can illustrate the trade-off by plotting the two games in a tension-variation diagram.

From gallery of mortenmdk

It would be reasonable to expect that each designer will choose their own sweet spot close to the line shown in the diagram, but We Must Tell the Emperor challenges that notion by going significantly below the line.

This game has you controlling Japan’s WWII Pacific Theater efforts on a high level from the Pearl Harbor attack and until the end of war. At the beginning of the game you’re in a strong position, you can easily hold back your opponents, and make your position even stronger. Later, your enemies grow powerful and aggressive, and you’ll inevitably start to lose ground.

As discussed previously the game’s event deck has the Leveé-structure (it’s divided into three acts, each act has a separate deck of event cards, and has specific card pairs at the act 1-2 and 2-3 transitions).

Putting all this together we get a game that’s more tightly scripted than Soviet Dawn and Legions of Darkness. Which means that the tension curve of the game is similar from game to game, following an arc of starting with little (immediate) tension for the first half of the game, which then ramps up dramatically towards the end.

This means that WMTtE is both fairly low on tension and variation and thus fall below the line in the diagram (you may disagree with my subjective placement of the games in the diagram, but the exact placement isn’t important to my points in this post).

From gallery of mortenmdk

This would seem like a bad thing, but the design goal for WMTtE is different. The designer, Steve Carey, puts it this way:

”Steve Carey” wrote:
a key element of the design, namely placing the player squarely in the role of Japan with an emotional anchor.

Experience the euphoria of running amok in the early war deck, the shock of having your juggernaut stopped in the middle war deck, and then enduring the crushing blows of the late war deck.

Winning or losing was never a major consideration for me (though who doesn't like to win, so we had to keep things at least semi-reasonable), it was mostly about capturing the emotional impact of the war on Japan and transferring as much of that as I could to the player in the span of an hour.

So, while my initial thought was that games falling significantly below the line would be bad games, I must say that Steve Carey changed my mind on this with WMTtE, because he succeeded in conveying the feel of the Japanese situation and the game taught me about the war in the Pacific. So, while the game is not that varied and only immediately tense during the last part I still felt that it was a good game because of the story it told and the theme it conveyed (and I played it 13 times so it definitely has replay value as a game).

The lesson here is that there are other valid design goals than trying to stick close to the variation-tension line. Telling stories and conveying “feel” is one way of doing that.

Before moving on, it’s important to note that here I’m talking about the immediate tension, you’re not going to lose in the beginning, but there’s a long-term tension, because you know that if you don’t do well initially, the going will get tough once you hit the frying pan of the last half.

Achieving variation and tension via rubber banding

The question now becomes whether variation and tension are mutually exclusive or stated in an opposite way: Is it possible to go significantly above the variation-tension line?

One way to do that is to use rubber banding mechanisms and while that’s not something the States of Siege games are high on, there are examples.

Let me start by briefly explaining what a rubber banding mechanism is: A game can have an average for how well you’re intended to do. Sometimes you’ll do better than that and sometimes worse. Now imagine that you’re tied by a rubber band to the intended average performance. If the you’re doing better than the average the rubber band will pull you down towards it and if you’re doing worse, you’ll be pulled up.

As a simple (partial example), we can take Malta Besieged by the abovementioned Steve Carey. In that game the central location has a fortification called the Malta Fort that gives you a free defensive action if an enemy army enters it. Thus, if you’re not doing well, you’re likely to have enemies attack your central location and thus you get free actions that you wouldn’t otherwise have gotten, which is half a rubber band (it pulls you up towards the average, never down).

The pulling-down part comes when you’re doing so well that you have pushed an enemy army all the way back. If you then get a free push-back of that army, it’ll be wasted as will any beneficial die roll modifiers.

There also another pulling-down mechanism via the game’s North African track which has a mechanism where the further you push the enemy back, the longer your supply lines get and so you get a penalty when fighting.

Achieving variation and tension via rule changes

When I’ve been talking about variation in this post, I’ve focused on variation from one play to the next. Variation, however, can also come in the form of in-game variation. In games like Levée en Masse there’s variation via the event deck, but each turn follows the exact same rules and the event cards are all that are different between the acts.

Zulus of the Ramparts (1st edition) went beyond the event deck to create in game variation, because it added a rule change between acts 1 and 2 (a change from day to night).

Mound Builders took this idea multiple steps further. It has some impactful rule changes between each of the 3 acts. In the first act, you expand and build an empire using conquest and diplomacy. In act 2, you can no longer expand and fending off attackers and your empire will gradually collapse. Finally, act 3 has a boss monster (the Spanish Conquistadors) that comes with its own special rule set.

This means that the game has major variation within one play without the designer losing control. While each play of Mound Builders follows the same pattern the game is as varied over a number of plays as a game that has much larger between games variation but each turn follows the same rules.

Because of this Mound Builders manages to go above the variation-tension line.

From gallery of mortenmdk

The price is that the game became more complex and harder to learn because of those in game rule changes.

Achieving variation and tension via emotional attachment

Instead of adding tension via game mechanisms, some games cheat a bit, by not actually being tenser, but still feeling that way. Mound Builders does this in part by getting you emotionally invested in the game.

Most States of Siege games hands you an “empire” to defend that’s usually just the central space and some non-descript borders. Mound Builders changes this by giving you 10 turns to create your own empire where the spaces you conquer are populated by village tiles that produce various goods and have variable defensive values. I’m much more emotionally attached to something I’ve built myself than something non-descript that I get handed to me every time I start the game, and this can lead its defense to feel more tense than it actually is.

We could call this a difference between mechanical tension and perceived tension.

Dawn of the Zeds (3rd edition) achieves a lot of perceived tension (it also has mechanical tension) by making all your player units come alive. All of them are represented on the board, they can get hurt and killed, and many have names and special abilities. This is in stark contrast to the basic States of Siege engine, where not a single one of your units exists physically. Instead they’re abstractly available everywhere along the frontlines.

This can lead you to care more about your units than you should from a strict mechanical point of view and that leads to increased perceived tension (unless you’re my friend Wes “Game Breaker” Erni, in which case this doesn’t apply to you )).

To me that emotional attachment as well as a good balance variation and tension takes Dawn of the Zeds the further above the line than any other game.

From gallery of mortenmdk

Next up

I’ll now leave tension and variation behind and in the next post we’ll have a chat about dice, event resolution, and combat.

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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