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Subject: Do special powers limit choice? rss

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Bill Cook
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Everybody seems to love special powers in a game. This players gets to look at the top two cards in the deck and pick the one they like. That player gets an extra victory point every time they earn a brown-cube resource. Etc.

Am I the only cranky geezer who doesn't like this mechanic? Too often the special power dictates how I play. If I get the extra victory point with every brown cube, you can bet I'm going to go after brown cubes. Instead of me getting to pick from all the different victory paths, the special power picks for me.
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Pete
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Would you prefer to always play exactly the same way no matter what, because that seems to be the alternative...

Pete (thinks player powers inject variance into games which otherwise might not have any)
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"What do you mean, I can't pay in Meeples?"
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Asymmetry provides variety, helps keep a game feeling fresh even after multiple plays. Unless a power is so strong it's always the right choice to use in every situation to the exclusion of all other actions, I don't think they limit choice. They can guide choices, making certain other actions more helpful for specific players, which is often helpful in a game that has many options.

A presence or lack of asymmetrical abilities doesn't stop a game from being poorly designed, which is what you describe. If the correct action, asymmetric or not, is always the same, that's not a game; it's an exercise in component-pushing.
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3 Minute Boardgames
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EMBison wrote:
Everybody seems to love special powers in a game. This players gets to look at the top two cards in the deck and pick the one they like. That player gets an extra victory point every time they earn a brown-cube resource. Etc.

Am I the only cranky geezer who doesn't like this mechanic? Too often the special power dictates how I play. If I get the extra victory point with every brown cube, you can bet I'm going to go after brown cubes. Instead of me getting to pick from all the different victory paths, the special power picks for me.


I get where you are coming from, and its a fine line to balance a game so that your "special powers" don't funnel you into a prescribed play style.

Some powers will occasionally dictate a choice or a play style, but I guess it depends on how strong the definition of the power is and how many choices are in the game. The brown cube example is good, if the game has trading cubes as a minor part, that's fine. But if the game is entirely about stock-piling cubes, then absolutely you will be pigeonholed.

Some games give you full factions with very different play styles, TI3 is a good example, the factions have so many specials that they can feel vastly different, but there are so many choices in that game that it seems to work out.

Other games, like cosmic encounter and dungeon crawlers would be very thin without the unique powers making each player/character special.

 
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Krawhitham B
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I agree to the extent that special powers can dictate your opening moves(s) in a game, but ideally the game is designed in a way that you can gain new powers/abilities/bonuses as the game goes on.

You can argue that you rarely have a genuine choice because something in the game state dictates an optimal move.
 
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Derry Salewski
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There's tons of top rated games that don't feature them. Concordia (though you can get an expansion!) Keyflower, Castles of Burgundy, Age of Empires (though you can use an expansion for that too but I don't) and Endeavor are among my favorite euros. Then there are card games where you customize as you go along like race for the galaxy, agricola, Deus or la granja . . . I assume you're not complaining too much about those since it's kinda the whole point. Games like Dominant species it's pretty flavorful but would likely work fine without them.

MANY games like that the effect is pretty minimal.

Top rated ones where it is a feature like scythe seem to have done a good job with balancing.

Lots of games to choose from, so I don't think I'd worry much were I you.
 
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Dániel Lányi
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EMBison wrote:
This players gets to look at the top two cards in the deck and pick the one they like.

That player gets an extra victory point every time they earn a brown-cube resource.


I think these two examples actually show what's a good power and what's not. The first one gives me more options, but the second one is boring and really pushes you in a certain direction.
That said, even the second type of power can work well, if you are doing enough other things in the game and/or the game makes you not being able to focus on doing just one thing.
 
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Fedja Buz
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I like the idea of a special power personally.

I find special powers that help initially but start fading in relevance to the end of the game, or vice versa are a more interesting mechanic than special powers that dictate your entire strategy and have the same impact throughout the game.
 
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Trent Boardgamer
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Whilst special powers are an integral part of some games, there are plenty where you can play the game and simply elect not to use individual character/team powers as a game variant (Sometimes the powers are the game variant). Not to mention the stacks of games that don't have this mechanism in the first place.

If it bothers you, it can easily be avoided. If you are more just interested in discussing why people like the mechanism and does it increase variety or not well then...

Personally I find they can mix basic games up enough to keep them feeling fresh and by using different characters/team power sets it makes you approach the same game in a different way. Personally I find this increases replayability.

Lets consider a couple of examples. King of Tokyo for instance is pretty bland in it's own right and after a few games you lose interest. However throw Power Up! expansion in and the game actually becomes kind of fun and varied and it's actually interesting to play the different characters over time.

Colt Express, is pretty bland without character powers, but with them means it's harder to predict certain outcomes (Which is essential to the game actually being fun). I couldn't imagine playing this game more than once without character powers.

We also need to think about the many games that use it due to the thematic setting of the game. If playing a fantasy game I certainly want the Barbarian to feel different to play than the Elf Wizard for instance.

Yes sure, I agree powers will dictate a better path or strategy to follow, but once you mix that up amongst the various character powers I really don't see the problem.

If I think of a repetitive game, such as Pandemic Legacy, the various character abilities actually create variance, as you have more than one to choose from and it's more about running with characters that supplement your other choices, whilst at the same time ensuring they are mission appropriate. We found we mixed up our character selection in this game and it added to the game as you felt like more and more changed each mission in an exciting and new way.

Sure there can be issues with balancing, but that's more of a game issue than a mechanism issue imo. At the end of the day variety is the spice of life.
 
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Michael Dillenbeck
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You are probably not alone. Special powers can limit play, but as mentioned a well designed game will use special powers to shape play. To use a tabletop roleplaying game analogy from the 80s - TSR's AD&D you chose a class and it limited the role you would play in the game (which eventually evolved into the MMO paradigms of Tank, Booster, Healer/Medic, Melee/Ranged DPS type whatever they are called, etc); but in Iron Crown Enterprise's Rolemaster you chose a profession but all skills were purchasable (your profession merely shaped the cost of those skills, thus shaping how you play without restricting it).

Personally, I am of the Rolemaster styled board game player - I like special powers that shape play. Chess is fun and I will always love a good game of it, and Scrabble is fun, and many games start you out on equal footing (Caverna, for example) - but special powers will shape play.

For example, one of my favorite games is 7 Ages: Each player can control up to 2-7 empires (depending on player count) based on 110 empire cards - each has its own way of scoring Glory; some have unique powers (some are Nomads and thus don't have to follow the "sticky" areas and leave an occupying unit); some have unique named leaders (about half), each has its own eras it can be brought out into play; and each empire card is also a number value (no dice is used in the game), an event it can be used for instead, and an "artifact" (technology, wonder, government, religion, or special event like "world war") that it can be used for. Top it off, all 15 counter mixes are different. They are paired light/dark for 7 colors, where the light is weaker but more numerous; and the black counter set is very small but with very powerful units.

Another example, my favorite game is Bios Megafauna 1st Edition. In this game, players are almost the same. However, they have a dentition rating - the lower the teeth, the better carnivores they are; the higher the teeth, the better herbivores. This is used during the competition for territory (biomes), but DNA letters take precedence first (so it is a "tie breaker" element). Also, player starting faction determines their starting biome and start location. Otherwise, all players are equal at the start of play.

There is definitely a faction of gamers that prefer to start exactly equal and let pure skill determine who becomes leader. For some of us, this leads to static openings (such as in Chess, there is only a few ways to go); and it also leads to lower replay value. I prefer Agricola to Caverna because of the starting card variable powers... but there are many that prefer the equalness of Caverna to Agricola. Its odd, I see equal footing being susceptible to luck during play determining the winner, while others who like equal footing see variable powers being susceptible to luck during initial setup determining the winner. Oh well, both are equally viable.
 
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I don't like them when they force the associated faction to only play a certain strategy because it's the only viable one as a result of the special powers.
 
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Trevor Taylor
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I think there is a line which in a different place for everyone when it comes to asymmetry in games. I really enjoy hidden scoring cards (like in Tiny Epic Galaxies, Guilds of London or Shakespeare). It adds a deduction element to games and also give people a potential focus in games which can have too much variety for new players.

Same goes with powers. In Race for the Galaxy, Roll for the Galaxy and Terraforming Mars I've had people complain that they felt the starting cards/tiles/corporation dictated too strongly what they were going to do that game, but for me, these just add a new spanner in the works of these very re-playable games, so they keep the challenge fresh. Also for new players these are great at giving players something to focus on in these games with so much choice that can be overwhelming.

I've never played a lengthy game (over an hour) where the asymmetric powers forced you down a single strategic path. Sometimes this happens to a certain extent in shorter games, but this is fine for a game that takes very little time. In longer games there tends to be so much choice that it does not drive your strategy, but it may steer you towards one choice over another as specific times in the game.
 
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In a good balanced game each special power is equally powerful.

Each brown cube you have at the end of the game might give you an extra point but I get to choose between 2 cards each time I draw a card, that gives me extra options to score during the game, while another player gets resources for 1 gold cheaper so he can build faster and more often and score more points that way.

Yes, it might steer you into a certain tactic but the next time you play the game, you try a different power and it will feel a little more fresh while being the same game.
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Donald Walsh
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I don't think it's an issue unless one of 2 things happen:

1) They are unbalanced (lots of games have this issue, but still many enjoy games like this)

2) They overly dictate/control the way you play (best example is Scythe, and lots of people enjoy this one, and many flat out believe that navigating the player board combos is integral to the game).

Actually I think Scythe suffers from both, which is why I would prefer to play other games. But again, I am probably in the minority, along with the OP.
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marc lecours
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I agree special powers limit choices. But so does not having special powers. So it becomes a question of degree.

If you play without special powers, then at any given point in a game there is a best way to play (or best strategy). For some games it is very evident what the best strategy is. For other games it is very hard to tell because the different paths are closely balanced.

If you play with special powers, Then at any given point in a game, there is a best way to play(or best strategy). For some games it is very evident what the best strategy is (especially if the special powers are very powerful). At the very least there are now 4 or 5 different experiences (one per special power) when playing the game.

But a well designed game will have the special powers only strong enough to nudge you out of your comfort zone. You still have many tough choices only now they are shifted a bit because of the special powers. Some strategies become less good and hopefully an equal number of new strategies become viable.

I agree that when the special powers are too strong, You end up playing with a very narrow set of best options.
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Cris Whetstone
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I think it only works if it fits in well with the theme and/or gameplay in a way that makes the game tick.

Lately, in the way the OP describes, variable player powers have been used often as a crutch to inject artificial variance into a game. The game can then be said to be 're-playable' because of different starting conditions and powers. In reality, it usually means different players are focusing on those powers each game without really offering distinctively interactive games.

So yes, I think in many cases they merely are another artificial channel to guide people down a certain path of optimization. If used in a creative way they can make a game more interesting.
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