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Subject: Fixing Sibling Rivalry rss

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Dylan Green
United States
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Sibling Rivalry works as a game to give players the “Gambler's Thrill.” I don't know if that is an actual term, but it is one I herd someone use once and I like it. The problem with Sibling Rivalry is that it doesn't work as well as it could. In this article I will attempt to explain why this is so and purpose some possible changes to the game that will make it better. At the heart of this discussion is the nature of “The Gambler's Thrill” and what makes it tick. I hope that this can make not only this game, but the design of such games easier for others in the future.
Firstly, a brief discussion of how Sibling Rivalry functions for those who have not played the game. I discovered Sibling Rivalry when I read the text Rules of Play in the summer of 2007. This book would change my views of game design and facilitate my design process making my first successful game design possible.

Shameless Plug:

Richard Garfield (of Magic: The Gathering fame) designed the game for this book. It is a game of push your luck that attempts to recreate the escalating conflict of a bunch of kids seeking to out-do each other in poking, prodding, and all around frustrating each other. I remember these days fondly with my little sister and cousin the back of my family's tiny Japanese car on long drives to Montana from our home in Wyoming. The game board consists of two parts: a conflict board near the bottom of the page, and a score track at the top. Here is a board I made so that I didn't need to play on the book.

Each player has two tokens, one one the conflict board and one on the score track. On each players turn they throw a hand of five dice. The goal is to roll numbers equal to the column in the conflict board that they currently control. The columns are 2-6. Play starts with the first player on the 2's column. This players will throw dice hopping to get 2's. With each 2 they would move their token up the two column. If you look at the attached link for the board you will see that each column has numbers in the bottom of each space. These are the points a player will collect if, after they have ended their turn and the dice have made their way around the table, they remain in control of that column. When this happens I advance my second token along the Score Track (at the top of the page). First one to the end of the score track wins.
But that wouldn't be much of a game would it. When a player rolls the dice 1's are set aside. If a player ever has more than a certain number of 1's (usually 3, though this can change if one's token on the score track is on an Angel they get 4 ones. A Devil only allows you 2.) their turn is over and they loose control of their column and loose points equal to the number of 1's rolled (that is their token on the score track moves backwards a number of spaces equal to the number of 1's rolled).

As and example. I'm first player, I roll the dice hoping for 2's. I roll a 2, a 1, and a bunch of other numbers. The 1 gets set asides, the two moves my token along the 2's column 1 space. All of the dice, besides the 1, are re-rolled. I could continue to do this as long as I wanted, or until I had 3 or more 1's “in my pocket,” or set-aside.

When your turn came around you could go for 3's (worth more points) or you could try for 2's. If you try for 2's you must get higher on the 2's track than I am, thus bumping me off. If you do this I would get no points when my turn came around again.

So thats how you play. Go play a round or two... I'll wait.


You done? Ok good. Did you notice something? Yeah. No matter which column you're in, it is damn hard to get more than 4 spaces high on the column. Most attempts will end around 3 spaces. So I get up to space 3 on the 2's column. Are you going to try and bump me off? Well no, not really. Firstly it's damn hard to do so. The odds of beating me on the 2's column are against you, and there is another factor at work here. You want to escalate the conflict. If I'm controlling the 2's column it's hard to beat me, and the 3's column is worth more points anyway! This means that players will almost always escalate the conflict rather than bump another player off. This is means that only on the 6's column is there real competition. Players will always go for more points rather than attempt to attack another player, unless that player has a chance to win the game immediately. This is the first problem with Sibling Rivalry as a game; there is a dearth of player interaction.

The second problem with Sibling Rivalry is that as one climbs up the columns, gaining points, one is in greater and greater danger of losing those points as the 1's pile up on the side of the table. Eventually one reaches a point where the risk of loosing the points you've accumulated is greater than the reward of only getting 1 more. Eventually I will be sitting on a space (most likely 3-4 spaces up a column) with two 1's hanging out on the side threatening me with the loss of all of my nice tasty points, and I will look up the column and see that if I throw the dice again I can get 1 more point, and if I throw again I am quite likely to loose all of my points. A this stage in the game I will hold, and pass the dice to the next player. This player will look at my position, see it is unassailable, and that he can get more points by escalating the conflict anyway, at which point he will move on to the next column. The next player will do the same, so will the next, so will the next. With little desire to push their luck, and no desire to bump off other players everyone essentially climb a column as high as they can, and sit there.

So there are 2 problems we need to solve. We need to encourage players to compete more, and we need to encourage more “push-your-luck.” The second problem is easier to solve, so let us start there. The flaw in the push-your-luck arises from a imbalance in risk and reward. Eventually the risks outweigh the rewards and players hold at this safety point. To counter this I suggest this modification to the conflict board. Instead of each space in a column being worth 1 more point than the space below it I recommend that the rewards increase geometrically. In this case the board would look like this:

Score + 7: (30) (31) (32) (33) (34)
Score + 6: (23) (24) (25) (26) (27)
Score + 5: (17) (18) (19) (20) (21)
Score + 4: (12) (13) (14) (15) (16)
Score + 3: (8) (9) (10) (11) (12)
Score + 2: (5) (6) (7) (8) (9)
Score + 1: (3) (4) (5) (6) (7)
Roll this #: {2} {3} {4} {5} {6}

Under this system There are more points available to a player the higher they climb in a column. This serves the purpose of encouraging a player to push-their-luck. With increased risk, comes increased reward. A simple change, but an important one. This is the heart and soul of push-your-luck. Risk and reward must always be in balance or the game stagnates. If there is a place where these concepts slip out of balance a dominant strategy will arise; be it giving up early or always throwing the dice no matter what. This was quite the revelation for me as I've been fascinated by games like this for some time. Even Blackjack pivots on this very basic point. You, generally ,will hold at 15-17. At this point the risk will usually outweigh the reward.

This change would necessitate extending the Score Track, but I would just scrap it entirely. I would simply have 100 points available, these could be poker chips or glass beads or whatever. Players would compete for points for a certain number of rounds (maybe number of players multiplied by 3). This would put a time limit on what is, otherwise, a longish game.

As for player interaction there are a few things one could do, but the first thing I would do is that if a player bumps another player off of a column, and they remained in control of that column long enough to gain points, they would steal the points from the player they bumped off. This would allow players a way to actually profit from spoiling another's plans and allow for aggressive gameplay.

The second change I would consider making to the game, to discourage constant escalation, is to make a roll on a column successful on all numbers greater than the number of the column. That way if I'm on the 2's column its easy to get points. But if I escalate to the 3's or 4's column, sure I have the ability to gain higher scores, but I don't have the same chance succeed. This might make it to easy to gain points on the low columns though.

Another ways to increase player interaction are to only use a number of columns equal to the number of players +1. This would limit the amount of mathematical space players can occupy, forcing them to bump into each other more.

Finally another option to increase player interaction would be simply to start on the 6's column and work downwards. This way players might “escalate” the conflict, but doing so would actually cost them points in the long run. While this option works, it doesn't fit thematically nor does it make the game quite as dramatic.

Anyway I hope this has been enlightening to someone. I've had these ideas rolling around for sometime now. I hope you remember the balance of risk and reward in push-your-luck, as well as other designs. When risk and reward are not in balance in a game of imperfect information, stagnation or dominate strategies will arise.
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