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Subject: Action-point mechanics in co-op games rss

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Glen Dresser
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So all of the co-op games I own, and the vast majority that I've played, use an action-point mechanic. I'm thinking about designing a co-op game where action points are a reasonable fit, but I'm thinking about ways it could be changed up.

Here's what I see as the good:
Intuitive - it's easy for even non-gamers to pick it up. My 4-year-old enjoys them.

Constricts available options nicely, while still allowing you to do a lot. Typically, you've got approximately four types of actions that you can decide between and use to craft a turn.

Easy to balance, since you can adjust the A.P. cost of available actions.

Useful for more literal, less abstract games, where you've got thematic actions to choose from, like shore-up, extinguish, move, etc.

The bad:
Generally not simultaneous, resulting in situations where a simple pair of actions might take a full round if the players aren't in an ideal order, and potentially a long time between a player's turns.

Tends to favour each player performing independent actions (ie. I'm going to head over to that part of the board and explore, since I can do all of that without needing to coordinate my actions with anyone else. I'll meet up with you guys later if I get into trouble.)

Exacerbates quarterbacking (if that tendency already exists in your group), since everyone sits and watches one person plan out their move.

Used a lot. Not necessarily a bad thing, it's used a lot because it's a good system. But honestly I'm just feeling a little tired of A.P.s in their most common iteration.




As an experiment, I decided to use Forbidden Island as a template, and think how the action-point mechanism could be modified (while most other rules kept the same) to create a different co-op experience. It doesn't need to throw the idea of Action Points out the window completely.

Here's my first idea: create a deck of 40 action cards, numbered #1-#40. Each card also gets one action on it. (For example, #1-move, #2-shore-up, #3-give card, #4-claim treasure, #5-move, #6-shore-up, etc., up to #40. Although you wouldn't want an equal number of each... in the case of F.I., you might want 50% move, 30% shore up, 15% trade, 5% claim treasure.)

Each player has 5 of these cards in hand. Each round, players have 60 seconds to trade action cards (always at a 1-to-1 ratio) between one another. There are no location-specific constraints or anything, you can trade action cards with any other player. This is essentially the team working out their plan for this round (and plan for future rounds as well).
Within that 60 seconds, each player must also play at most 2 action cards. These cards then take effect in order of lowest number to highest. Afterwards, the board resolves as normal (but with the difficulty adjusted to balance the improved efficiency.) At the end of the round, everyone draws action cards up to 5 again.
So, let's say one player is passing by another player and that player wants to give them a treasure card, with both players moving on after the hand-off. In Forbidden Island, this can take a full round. But with this action-card model, this can be achieved by player A playing #5-Move, #32-Move; and player B playing #15-Give Card, #22-Move. Thus, you can coordinate actions as a team much more efficiently than the straight-up, turn-based action-point model.

Gameplay, in theory, becomes more about action-sequencing, which solves some of the turn-based problems of A.Ps. I'm not sure if it would improve or worsen the potential for quarterbacking.
It definitely places more constraints on the players, since if they don't have the right cards, they simply can't perform certain actions. But because players are playing 2 and saving 3 cards each turn, they shouldn't run into this problem if they're planning ahead.


So, how would you modify the action point system in Forbidden Island or another co-op game to make it a more interesting experience?
 
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John "Omega" Williams
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Mice and Mystics and Warhammer Quest are two that do not. You have movement points. But your actions are XYZ each turn.
 
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Jeremy Lennert
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octothorp wrote:
It definitely places more constraints on the players, since if they don't have the right cards, they simply can't perform certain actions. But because players are playing 2 and saving 3 cards each turn, they shouldn't run into this problem if they're planning ahead.

I think you'll find planning doesn't actually help much. As long as the only way for a card to leave players' collective hands is by playing it, then in the long term, players essentially have to play every card they draw, because any card they don't play is going to sit in their hands forever and thereby reduce their effective hand size.

If you have only a handful of action types, and they're roughly equally common, that may not be too bad (though there's always a small chance that you draw nothing but "move" for the first 5 turns, and you're just stuck). But if you have obscure actions that are only used in special situations ("trading with other players" is like this in many co-ops), I think you'll find that players can never get those cards when they need them unless you put way too many in the deck and clog up their hands.

Most games where you primarily rely on playing cards to accomplish stuff have some mechanic that lets you easily cycle past cards you don't currently want. For example, in The Red Dragon Inn, you can discard any number of cards from your hand every turn before drawing up to your hand limit; in Race for the Galaxy, every card in your hand can be discarded as a basic unit of currency.

Rather than making 50% of the deck "move" cards, maybe you want to say that you can choose to use any card as a "move" instead of what the card says?
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Glen Dresser
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Good points, Jeremy. Some sort of card turnover system would be necessary.

Perhaps something that has an almost deckbuilder-esque feel to it (not in card acquisition but in card movement), where some of the cards are cards that affect the supply of cards the players draw from (everybody draws one additional card next round; look at next five cards and choose one; return a card played this round to your hand; etc.)

I think another factor would be number of players: In a four-player game, for example, you could assume that the numbers are going to even out quickly because you're spending cards a lot faster. Two players though, would have a potential slog through the deck to find the cards that they need. And they'd have only 6 slots to stow cards for later, while a four-player game has 12.

It would also be affected by the number of other random elements in the game: there's just no way to anticipate, for example, what treasure cards you are going to acquire in Forbidden Island, and thus when and how often you'll need to give away cards. On the other hand, a game with fewer luck elements might be suited to this sort of system better, where you can say, "we're probably going to need to perform action-x sometime in the next three rounds, so if you find an action-x card, hang onto it at all costs."

Thanks for the input, I'll think on this some more.
 
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John Breckenridge
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There might be something that could be done similar to the old game show "Press Your Luck," where the contestants had to take at least one spin (the show's version of action points) but could then pass their unused spins to another player.

Suppose Player 1 and Player 2 each start the round with 5 AP tokens each. It's P1's turn but she needs P2 to do something else first, so she spends 1AP to pass her 4 other AP tokens to P2. P2 now has 9 AP, and he spends 5 to do actions, and then one more to pass the 3 left over back to P1. P1 then uses 2 of them to do stuff and banks the remaining one to keep for use later.
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Glen Dresser
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Interesting idea, John.

Another variation on APs could be the ability to play an action as an 'interrupt' in another player's turn, at an extra cost. So, in the case of Forbidden Island, in the middle of another player's turn, you can spend two P1 moves using 1AP, P2 pays an extra AP (2 in total) to give P1 a treasure card, then P1 moves once more and claims a treasure. On P2's turn, he's only got one AP left, but he's probably put the team further ahead than making P1 wait a round to get a treasure card.
 
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Billy Lumiukko
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How about a cake break!
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I like your idea quite much. At least, as mentioned, for a game with many players it probably works great. I especially like the limited time to trade and play actions, my gut feeling is that it would make the game more interesting and even more stressful (one of my friend always says the she gets a bit stressed as the island is sinking under us) in a good way.

Another mechanics that I like is the timeline where players spend action points and advance that much on the timeline and the last player always play. It also make the game faster because it's not one big turn but everybody plays at the same time.
In the case of forbidden island it could be for example:
- move 2 timeline steps
- shore up 2 timeline steps
- give treasure card 1 timeline step
- claim treasure 3 timeline steps

The sinking of the island is a bit tricky but it could be some milestones on the timeline and everytime the last player goes over those milestones, you draw a sinking card.

That way you can also combine moving and trading cards and then still moving.

Of course, since there is no end of 'round', the timeline should be a circle and you move your marker around it, passing those milestones that make you sink until you either win or lose.

What do you think of such system?
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