Variable Player Powers
Ken H.
United States
Amherst
Ohio
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Variable powers are my favorite game mechanic. I'm starting this list to highlight games that I already like, and to (hopefully) discover new games that I would also like.

I notice that if you use the Geek feature of listing games by mechanic, the Variable Player Powers list comes up with something like 400-500 games. Some of the games clearly do NOT have variable player powers as I define the term (Fluxx, for instance), and yet some games that clearly DO have it are not listed under this category (Magic Realm, for instance).

Here is my definition of variable player powers, for purposes of this list:

1. Significant Powers: The "power" is some type of action, effect, playing piece, or special rule that is important enough to alter your strategy. It is generally NOT something that changes the goal of the game, however. ("Variable player objectives" would be a different category.)

2. Unique Powers: Your power is unique to yourself, and each player has a significantly different one. Standard two-player hex and counter wargames don't usually qualify, even if players have unique pieces -- the fact that my tank has a firepower of 8 and yours only has 7 is not significantly different (at least not enough to make this list).

3. Constant Powers: This means that while powers are "variable" from game to game, they remain the same for the duration of a single game. Your "power" is determined before the game starts, and is part of the game until the end. Acquiring new abilities during the game doesn't qualify by itself.

4. Numerous Powers: There should be more powers than there are players. In other words, not all powers are used in every game. One of the best advantages of variable powers is the amount of replayability they offer. When the same powers are in every game, that important element is lost.


I assume most of the 500 "variable powers" games listed on the Geek do not actually meet this definition. That's okay -- just a different interpretation of what the phrase means. For my purposes, the above interpretation describes the type of game I am most interested in.

Feel free to add to the list.
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1. Board Game: Cosmic Encounter [Average Rating:6.93 Overall Rank:802]
Ken H.
United States
Amherst
Ohio
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I'm sure nobody is surprised that this is the first entry on the list. CE is the quintessential variable power game, and is the one I used to formulate my definition of the term.

I've said before (both seriously and jokingly) that it is the best game ever. I understand some don't like it, though. Reading the negative comments, I see that the main criticism people have is that the powers are unbalanced.

Let me respond with some solutions to this perceived "problem", but first I want to point out three things. Take them as you will:

1. White moving first in chess.
2. Seating order in Puerto Rico.
3. A "good hand" vs. a "bad hand" in almost any card game.

Okay, on to the solutions for people who dislike games where players don't have identical starting positions:

Solution #1 -- There are many variant methods for selecting powers -- it doesn't have to be totally random. Check online or make up your own methods. One interesting version allows you to write down the names of five powers that you want -- you get the one that is highest on your list, so long as no other player wrote it down also.

Solution #2 -- Don't use powers that you don't like. Many think Virus is too strong. If that's your opinion, just say whenever the game comes out, Virus goes back in the box. It's no problem -- the game still "works" with only 74 powers left (or however many there are).

Solution #3 -- Cosmic Encounter is a social game. When you have a social game where you can attack people, you have a political game. So, use your powers of persuasion to convince other players to attack the person who has the strongest power. Make them pray that they get a weaker power in the next game.
 
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2. Board Game: Alien Space Battle Manual [Average Rating:6.92 Overall Rank:9481] [Average Rating:6.92 Unranked]
Ken H.
United States
Amherst
Ohio
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Unlike CE, this game probably comes as a surprise on this list. In fact, this is the game that inspired the list. It came out several years BEFORE Cosmic Encounter, and is a completely different game, but I see a clear connection.

It's a tactical game of spaceship combat that you play on the floor. You use string and a compass to line up your shots. It's a pretty cool game even without variable powers. For purposes of this list, though, the most interesting facet of the game is that each player has a unique ship. Ships have different amounts of weaponry, shields, drives, etc. And each ship has a unique ability. One can turn invisible, one can fire twice, a few have unique weapons, etc.
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3. Board Game: Lost Worlds [Average Rating:6.51 Overall Rank:3331] [Average Rating:6.51 Unranked]
Ken H.
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Amherst
Ohio
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This game simulates a duel between two warriors. Each warrior has different levels of strength and agility, a different combination of maneuvers he can perform, and most of them have a few unique moves.

This game is interesting because the "variable" aspect of the powers is mostly chrome (though not all). The underlying game system does not change all that much, but by giving certain maneuvers a different name and color, the designer creates significant perceived variety.
 
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4. Board Game: Magic Realm [Average Rating:7.16 Overall Rank:929]
Ken H.
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Amherst
Ohio
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Surely this is a variable powers game, although it is not listed as one. In this game, each player has a character that has a unique set of counters for attack, defense and magic. Each character also has different relationships with the neutral forces in the game. While those facets may not be enough to qualify as variable powers, the game goes a step further and gives each character two special abilities.

There is overlap in the abilities, but no two characters are exactly alike. In fact, none are really even all that similar when you take all of the counters and relationships into account.
 
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5. Board Game: Talisman [Average Rating:6.38 Overall Rank:1755]
Ken H.
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Amherst
Ohio
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Hmmm, I guess the fantasy theme has a strong correlation with the variable powers mechanic.

In this game, the powers are minor. I think they just barely qualify as "significant" per my definition.

I'm not crazy about this game, although I used to like it. Too much luck for me.
 
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6. Board Game: Squad Leader [Average Rating:7.48 Overall Rank:473]
Ken H.
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Although I said above that hex-and-counter games won't generally qualify, this game is different. Not because players have different starting forces, but instead because of the special rules that pertain to each nationality. The Finns can self-rally, the Americans can fix equipment, the Russians go berserk, etc.
 
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7. Board Game: HeroClix [Average Rating:6.50 Overall Rank:1765] [Average Rating:6.50 Unranked]
Ken H.
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Amherst
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This is a tough one. I don't think it necessarily satisfies the "Unique power" aspect of the definition. Technically, both players could have the exact same forces. Or, even with different pieces, their special abilities could be essentially the same.

Still, I'm going to list this game because the subject matter practically demands to be on this list.

If you get away from the super-competitive aspect of Hero Clix, and instead play it as more of a simulation of comic book fights (where characters usually don't fight themselves, and Firelord is not in every issue), then it comes closer to my definition of a variable power game.
 
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8. Board Game: Magic: The Gathering [Average Rating:7.45 Overall Rank:156] [Average Rating:7.45 Unranked]
Ken H.
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Technically, I suppose any collectible game comes close to meeting the definition.

Again, you have to resist the super-competitive aspects of the game that require everyone to use the same internet decks. If you play with quirky theme decks, this game satisfies my definition quite well.
 
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9. Board Game: Star Traders [Average Rating:6.28 Overall Rank:5452]
Steffan O'Sullivan
United States
Plymouth
NH
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This one meets your requirements but doesn't list it in the category. While not a "10" this is still a good game.
 
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10. Board Game: Dune [Average Rating:5.78 Overall Rank:9179]
Ken H.
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Amherst
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By popular demand, I'm adding Dune to the list even though it's debateable whether it has enough powers to meet the definition. The limited number of powers is basically a function of making a game based on a book -- you can't really add as much creativity and replayability when you're confined to a pre-existing work.

Still, it is designed by Eon and is obviously descended from Cosmic Encounter. Each player takes one of the factions, which each have several unique abilities, and sometimes unique victory conditions too. To me, the game looks very similar to CE in the way it uses the powers, although the game itself is quite different.

The game is rare, and most BGG'ers (including me) have never played it. But like CE, there aren't many people who like it only a little -- if you're a fan, odds are you love this game.

--> As noted in the comments below, this is the wrong version of Dune.
 
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11. Board Game: BANG! [Average Rating:6.54 Overall Rank:1018]
Ken H.
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Also by popular demand, I add this one. I know very little about it, seeing as how it was published in the past 10 years (which is a big blind spot for me in the world of board games, with rare exceptions).

From what I understand, in Bang! each player has a different role, but there aren't many roles and they will reappear in every game. However, each player also has a unique character, and there are plenty of characters so that you have different ones in every game.

What I don't know is if the *characters* are significantly different. That is, does your choice of character affect your strategy in the game?

Anyway, this game seems pretty popular and sounds fun. I will have to look into it more.
 
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12. Board Game: Strange Synergy [Average Rating:5.77 Overall Rank:8836]
Alex Baker
United States
Unspecified
California
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Strange Synergy almost certainly qualifies for this category. In addition to each player building heroes with sets of power cards (out of a much larger pool than is used in one game), each team has a unique bonus (though there is only one of these per possible player).
 
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13. Board Game: Dune [Average Rating:7.62 Overall Rank:215]
Trevor Gunter
United States
Madison
Wisconsin
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Not to be confused with unrelated movie tie-in, the Avalon Hill Dune game was designed by the same people that made Cosmic Encounter, and thus shares some of its characteristics.

There are only six factions in the game, but each is rather dramatically different. Most factions have multiple powers, and those powers reflect the capabilities the faction had in the book.
 
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14. Board Game: Dragon Pass [Average Rating:6.80 Overall Rank:3124]
Michael Weber
Germany
Wendeburg
Germany
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Dragon Pass

The two players field the Sartar or Lunar army set in Glorantha). Each army has it's special troops and uses magic - the power of the lunar magic is dependent on moon phases
Also, you have minor powers that can be allied by spending political points. On top of that you have neutral counters (like dinosaurs and dragons) all over the place that can be allied by occupying their hex.
Excellent game
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15. Board Game: Illuminati [Average Rating:6.17 Overall Rank:2452]
Michael Weber
Germany
Wendeburg
Germany
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Illuminati

probably THE game with variable forces...
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16. Board Game: Duel of Ages Set 1: Worldspanner [Average Rating:6.57 Overall Rank:1738]
Ken H.
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Amherst
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Suggested by Spiff (thanks)

Ahhhh, now this looks like it fits the bill nicely.

In a review on this site, Tom Vasel describes it as "a cross between Mageknight, Cosmic Encounter, Frag, Squad Leader, Warhammer, MTG, and an RPG."

Now *that* sounds cool. Distinctly different characters, lots of them, a variable board, a fantasy setting, and several of the games Tom compares this to are in my top 10.

I've only read a little bit about it so far, but at first glance, my reaction is Why Don't I Have This Already??! I'm putting it at the top of my buy list for now (not that the list actually gets used much -- two 19-month-old babies suck up a lot of disposeable income).

I'm interested in hearing what others think. I see that most of the negative comments on the Geek pertain to too much dice-rolling, or players who aren't interested in the theme. Neither of those "problems" concern me. Feel free to tell me other reasons why I shouldn't get it though (or why it doesn't fit this list).

 
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17. Board Game: Runebound (First Edition) [Average Rating:6.19 Overall Rank:2941]
Ken H.
United States
Amherst
Ohio
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Suggested by Komodo

This new release by Martin Wallace is an RPG-style board game in the spirit of Talisman. It looks like it is more complex and less random than Talisman, and also a bit shorter. The characters have something like 8 different stats ranging from 0 to 5, and they each have a special ability like being able to attack twice, or reroll a die once per turn, etc. As far as I could tell, the abilities are unique and the characters are even more distinct because of their different stats.

The basic game ships with 12 characters, and apparently an expansion is on the way with 20 more.

You also gain loot during the game (apparently a huge variety here), and so your abilities increase as you play. I wonder if the loot eventually eclipses your character's innate abilities, as it does in many of these fantasy games.

Anyway, this certainly fits the list, and looks fun. I'm adding it to my wanted list. The artwork looks pretty good too, at least the board does -- I can't quite make out the cards in the images.
 
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