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Subject: A Lesson in Unexpected Card Interactions rss

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Ben Marshalkowski
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One of my in-progress game designs follows a traditional scheme in card games: a base set of rules with a series of abilities that break those rules in one way or another. As a result, the first playtest is almost destined to reveal some unexpected combinations of effects.

The game played pretty well, and everyone was intrigued by the premise, but as always, there was work to be done, and I had some interesting realizations about card-based and exception-to-the-rule-based design.

Cracks in the Shell
In any game with modular rule-breakers, the more moving parts you introduce, the more interesting interactions you see. One feature of the game is the fact that no two rounds play exactly the same, because each round has a card with a different target number and a different rule to affect gameplay. Couple this with the variable powers of the thieves and you get an almost infinite assortment of rule and power combinations, which will inevitably lead to some strange overlaps.

For example, when the Con Man (add 3 to a card worth 3 or less) is played with the Bodyguard (all cards worth 3 or less are worth 0), which takes precedence? It can be a relatively easy fix, i.e., a rule that sets the order of operations, but that’s another rule on the pile, and an interaction that has to be planned for.

Same song, new verse
The concept of variable powers and unexpected combos is nothing new. Magic: The Gathering was basically built on the idea of mixing and matching spells, creatures and effects to find the most powerful results. Of course, this wasn’t the most airtight system for game balance; with hundreds of cards in the mix, certain combinations and even single cards were just too powerful, becoming banned in competition, or required to be limited in their use.

Small World is another textbook example of unexpected combinations. Again, each faction and each ability is balanced against the others as a whole. But certain combinations create powerful options for players, such as Fortified Trolls that require all of an opponent’s strength to dislodge, or Pillaging Orcs who pile on coins. The players can balance these out by making a conscious effort to stand against them, but the players must make that decision, and they must have the means to mount a successful opposition, lest the other player get an unfair advantage.

Small World is an interesting case study because the randomness lies in the faction/power combinations, not in the combat (for the most part). As a result, if a player is lucky enough to grab a power combo, the other players don’t need to rely on luck to take them out. They can strategically plan to build up their forces and take them out by any means necessary, without worrying about a bad roll of the dice. If you have 6 units at your disposal, you will be able to dispatch that 1 troll on a mountain with a cave and a fortress.

The same goes for Magic: The Gathering. While you can’t control which card you draw each turn, once the cards are on the table, the results are pre-ordained by what is written. You don’t have to worry about what you roll on a d6 to successfully banish an enchantment on the table.

The Ability to React
The chaotic effects of variable powers can work, but there has to be enough control so that players can counter those effects if they wish to do so. In its core rules, Agricola gives each player 7 occupations and 7 minor improvements exclusive to them. As a result, one player may get a set of cards that allows them to build a more efficient farm much earlier. And by its nature, Agricola affords few opportunities for other players to counter this advantage.

Some players counter the effect of lucky combinations in Agricola by using a drafting system, so all players are more likely to build a decent combo for themselves, or to allow players to draw 10 cards and pick their best 7. But this still makes it the players’ responsibility to rebalance the game – in this case, not through gameplay, but by modifying the actual rules of the game.

When a game’s mechanics disrupt that balance, the players must be empowered to right it, and they shouldn’t be hindered in that effort, whether by luck or by obstacles inherent in the game.

Conclusion
A game experience can be enhanced by variable effects, creating an almost procedurally-generated level of replayability on the tabletop. But this approach to variability puts the responsibility on the player to ensure balance, and if they are not given the tools to strike that balance, the game will likely be dismissed as too luck-based or simply frustrating.

Full article: http://marshalkowski.com/blog/unexpected-interactions/
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Derek H
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Its probably too late at night for me ... but, what exactly was the lesson learnt from this?
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Ben Marshalkowski
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Variable powers can be fun, but also unfair. Make sure you give the other players the means to fight back.
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Craig C
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I'd imagine this is more common the more "rule breaker" cards/effects you have in your game. It's trickier to find all of those combinations beforehand.
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Jeremy Lennert
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I'll echo Derek: this post seems to meander a lot and say little.

The main points I noticed were "skillful play should have an opportunity to overcome luck" and "games need a clearly-defined sequence of play when the order of operations can change the outcome", but neither of those seems particularly related to rule-modifying cards, and I doubt you needed such a long post to convince most readers of both of those points.

From the thread title, I was expecting an amusing anecdote about a subtle power combination in your game with an especially comical or game-breaking result. *shrug*
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Adam H
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BoardGame_Ben wrote:
Variable powers can be fun, but also unfair. Make sure you give the other players the means to fight back.


I thought this was pretty clear from the article. It was an interesting discussion of the idea. I'm not sure why others are so critical.

Antistone wrote:
From the thread title, I was expecting an amusing anecdote about a subtle power combination in your game with an especially comical or game-breaking result. *shrug*


Why would "A Lesson in Unexpected Card Interactions" be amusing or comical?
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Katherine Boag
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FoggyPlanet wrote:
Antistone wrote:
From the thread title, I was expecting an amusing anecdote about a subtle power combination in your game with an especially comical or game-breaking result. *shrug*


Why would "A Lesson in Unexpected Card Interactions" be amusing or comical?


The unexpected is often comical?
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Jeremy Lennert
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Not just unexpected events, but unexpected interpretations are at the heart of a lot of humor. "What's black and white and read all over?" is funny because you thought the guy telling it said "red" and the punch-line changes your interpretation of the set-up. A game rule that gives rise to unexpected implications due to being evaluated in an unforeseen context can very easily create similar humor.

And if it wasn't funny, we'd be less likely to hear about it (anecdotes that are boring or embarassing to the speaker aren't told as often).

There may also be some schadenfreude involved, since "a story about unexpected card interactions" implies that something went wrong, but for someone other than the audience.
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