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Subject: The danger of dependencies in game design rss

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Kim Brebach
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Many gamers enjoy interacting card / game play that created combinational effects that solve problems or win more, better, cleverer etc. Achieving those interactions creates spikes of cleverness and achievement satisfaction - memorable plays.

But how many times have you drawn a situationally dependent card in a game that WOULD have been great IF you met its criteria for play... but you just cant seem to do that 2, 3 or 4 turns in a row. Its a dead card with future potential. But what if you draw a bunch of them and you get more and more frustrated and less likely to win?

And what if that was a deeply embedded problem in a game?

Lots of things can happen, you fall behind, become disengaged, and if it seems an endemic issue you put your sad face on and don't play it again.

An example
I love Smash up generally for all the reasons people love it.

However last time we played it at 4 players 2 of us suffered a zero mid game dude draws over a 3 - 4 turn span. We had lots of action cards but no new dudes and our few dudes on the table got killed or discarded as they do. Not only is playing a dude the KEY 50% part of your turn in the game (you score base win VPs mostly from dude stat totals), but in my case (ninja / pirates if you know it) I believe 4 of the 7 or 8 action cards in my hand were dependent on doing something to my dudes (eg moving them or sacrificing them to blow stuff up). 2 of us fell a little out of love with smash up right there. We even considered getting a second copy so we could reweigh the decks in favour of dudes (all sorts of game balance issues there.)

Of course with the risk of card deadness comes the greater reward of combinational kung fu. Building the management of such risk and reward around dependencies should be a key part of design. In CCGs you manage that via deck construction. In deckbuilders it's a key part of your strategic choice about how to build your deck inside the game. It stands to reason that games without such selection facets will suffer more from imbalances in dependent card proportions. In 4 player smash up you have to use all 8 decks so you get what you get - ie limited selection options even if you have meta awareness of poor deck combos.

The solution options in smash up?
1. More dudes (my 2 decks had 50% dudes ie 10 dudes in each, 20 / 40 cards were dudes. Sounds a lot. but I imagine the stats show you will get some bad dude runs even with smash ups 2 card draws a turn. You want to reduce that probability)
2. fewer completely dependent (action) cards.
3. more independently useful actions / cards
4. more independently useful cards that also have synergistic dependencies (That's the sweet spot for me but it adds wording and conceptual complexity to the game design).
5. some core ability to churn cards in hand with replacements.
6. some other use for dead cards (ie they can be used as fuel for some other effect.)

I have similar issues in the card game im developing which i feel ive generally covered as per above. But I doubt ive thought of everything.

What specific or general solutions to dependency issues do you guys like?
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Adam Kazimierczak
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Some games mitigate this dead card phenomenon by having dual use cards: weaker effect without the requirement, stronger effect if you have it. Vampire: The Eternal Struggle had standard and superior versions of the disciplines, with the costlier vampires having the superior versions (in general) and allowing superior plays from the same cards. There were also Discipline cards that could upgrade a weenie to superior or add a discipline to someone who doesn't have it at all.

Twilight Struggle has the event cards double as operation cards if you choose to use them for the numeric value; then they get really tricky by mixing the two factions' cards into one deck so that how you deal with potentially harmful enemy cards in your hand is a strategy (so there are effectively no "dead cards").

Games with faction specific cards or prerequisite cards (land in Magic or dudes in Smash Up) are just being lazy if they don't have mechanisms to prevent land/dude screwage.



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Laura Creighton
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I don't know Smash Up.

There are a lot of games where this is a problem that doesn't matter, because the game is quick enough that you just play 2 games out of 3, or 5 games out of 8 or something. What you do about a string of bad luck is 'shuffle and deal again'.
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Kim Brebach
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kaziam wrote:


Games with faction specific cards or prerequisite cards (land in Magic or dudes in Smash Up) are just being lazy if they don't have mechanisms to prevent land/dude screwage.



Yep I agree generally - but maybe less thorough than they could have been rather than lazy?
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Kim Brebach
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lacreighton wrote:
I don't know Smash Up.

There are a lot of games where this is a problem that doesn't matter, because the game is quick enough that you just play 2 games out of 3, or 5 games out of 8 or something. What you do about a string of bad luck is 'shuffle and deal again'.


Can't agree that it doesn't matter at all, less maybe yes - but 45 mins lost due to design flaws and utter random screwage defined by the game (not other players) during a short game is still precious time I'd rather have been more engaged with. Eg where I was trying to work out how to arrange the most optimal plays with what I've got, rather than bemoaning that I can't really do anything because of bad luck.

For me that's the difference between an OK game subject to screwage and a great game where you always have some capacity to influence the outcomes.
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This is part of the reason that card grabbers exist in card games - cards that just let you search for specific card types. They can solve the problem sometimes (though they can also end up as more deadweight if they are not carefully balanced).
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Adam Kazimierczak
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"Lazy" is a bit harsh, but I really do think it's lazy design to accept that a percentage of the time your players are just going to have to suck it up while your game takes a long smelly dump on them. Garfield saw it and altered his designs after Magic to fix the problem: note that Netrunner has no "land shortage" problems to speak of. Meanwhile many of the copycat CCGs just repeated the land resource model and refused to innovate.

In non-collectible fixed deck card games it is worse because it is not your poor deck design to blame but the designer's poor deck design. I felt this way during GOSU if you don't draft cards but just draw your hand. One game would be a comborgy of chaining effects and the next would be a craptastic failure.

Life's too short for slot machine payout card games.
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Sturv Tafvherd
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kaziam wrote:
"Lazy" is a bit harsh, but I really do think it's lazy design to accept that a percentage of the time your players are just going to have to suck it up while your game takes a long smelly dump on them. Garfield saw it and altered his designs after Magic to fix the problem: note that Netrunner has no "land shortage" problems to speak of. Meanwhile many of the copycat CCGs just repeated the land resource model and refused to innovate.

In non-collectible fixed deck card games it is worse because it is not your poor deck design to blame but the designer's poor deck design. I felt this way during GOSU if you don't draft cards but just draw your hand. One game would be a comborgy of chaining effects and the next would be a craptastic failure.

Life's too short for slot machine payout card games.


Very well put!

I also echo your earlier reply: "having dual use cards" ... and I'll offer up a similar one ... Have every card double up as some kind of resource.

In Shadowfist, almost every card also provides a "resource", allowing you to bring other things into play.

Take that up another notch and apply it to a game like Magic: the Gathering ... the main "random screwage" in M:tG is getting mana/land screwed in your opening hand. If you apply this "dual use" concept, you would allow the player to discard cards from his hand, and he would get an amount of mana equal to the color of the cards he discarded.

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Adam Kazimierczak
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Shadowfist was my 3rd favorite CCG, and I agree that it excelled at avoiding dead cards. It's interesting that CCGs battled with this over a decade ago but some current board/card games didn't get the memo. In some ways CCGs really pushed card gaming to evolve in their attempt to stay relevant in a post-Magic environment, whereas these days card games are considered a "lighter game" subtype and content with filler status games like King of Tokyo, trick taking variants and set collection/deck building engines.

Cards being a much more versatile and controllable randomizer than dice, I for one hope more games push their strategic potential in games to come (or I'll be forced to make those games myself ).
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Kim Brebach
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Yeah dual use is good. I like what you described from Vampire where there is just an enhancement requirement to a boosted effect, but always a baseline playable effect. I'd forgotten that.

That new deckbuilder 3012 seems to have a few dual use cards e.g. choose effect A or effect B, but they should be thematically coherent / logical at the risk of seeming clumsy or arbitrary.

Secondary use as a resource was on my list. Its key for sure. Although i do recall in our first game of (new) Glory to Rome it took us a long time to not get too focused on the card text while in hand and learn that they are actually mostly roles or resources. You can build them into something (where the text actually counts a LOT) but that seems their third most common use. Intuitively we just presumed the text on the card was the key use.
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Kim Brebach
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kaziam wrote:
Shadowfist was my 3rd favorite CCG, and I agree that it excelled at avoiding dead cards. It's interesting that CCGs battled with this over a decade ago but some current board/card games didn't get the memo. In some ways CCGs really pushed card gaming to evolve in their attempt to stay relevant in a post-Magic environment, whereas these days card games are considered a "lighter game" subtype and content with filler status games like King of Tokyo, trick taking variants and set collection/deck building engines.

Cards being a much more versatile and controllable randomizer than dice, I for one hope more games push their strategic potential in games to come (or I'll be forced to make those games myself ).


Couldn't agree more! You might like what I'm developing as it aims for a deeper strategic but still tactical experience. It features tightly interlaced and highly interactive CCG/LCG style gameplay for 2 - 4 players within a fixed card set in a box, with both tableau and deck building elements. And some new twists.

Oh and hopefully minimal dependency crud.
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linoleum blownaparte
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San Juan / Race for the Galaxy / Revolver

Each card can only be put in play by discarding a certain number of other cards.

A card is never useless because it can always be money.

Then in playtesting you keep careful track of which cards keep getting "cashed" and you rebalance them to be cheaper or more powerful.
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Kim Brebach
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Linoleumblownaparte wrote:
San Juan / Race for the Galaxy / Revolver

Each card can only be put in play by discarding a certain number of other cards.

A card is never useless because it can always be money.

Then in playtesting you keep careful track of which cards keep getting "cashed" and you rebalance them to be cheaper or more powerful.


linoleum blownaparte. Best name on the Geek. Respect! and not too shabby with your theory too.

Yep that works in games where card drawing is THE economic foundation. But the careful balancing of that card drawing engine then becomes critical. RftG does that well from memory, but Glory to Rome i think is subject to much more disparate spikes in that area, which may or may not be unbalancing. I haven't played it enough yet to get a real feel for it - but it seemed pretty disproportionate to jump from drawing up to 5 cards when thinking to drawing up to 9 cards when thinking with whatever building gives that power...

Playtest tracking the cards discarded as money / resource is a great analytics tip - but perhaps more valid with playtesters familiar with the game in my experience as first time players will often gravitate to playing the simpler stuff they can understand, while discarding the more complicated options. Although identifying those cards requiring simplification is also useful.

If you guys keep adding new ideas I'll try to revise my initial list as the thread dries up in a summary post.
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Laura Creighton
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The approach that Glory to Rome takes to game balance is, as far as I know, unique. Make so many insanely overpowered building powers that everybody gets one. (If you aren't working on one, you are losing the game.) Anybody know any other games that do this?
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Kim Brebach
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lacreighton wrote:
The approach that Glory to Rome takes to game balance is, as far as I know, unique. Make so many insanely overpowered building powers that everybody gets one. (If you aren't working on one, you are losing the game.) Anybody know any other games that do this?


...and everything is so whack you can't quite tell what's actually broken?

I've not seen that before. It makes it interesting but very swingy VP wise. Maybe I just need to play it 100 times to work out some optimal approaches.
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Laura Creighton
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It's not so much 'you cannot tell what is broken' but 'does it really matter how many kilotons your nuclear weapon has?' More than enough, is enough. For instance, in one of my first games, I built the Aqueduct. This allows you a) to double the size of your clientele and b) to add a card from your hand to your clientele every time you perform the patron action, even if you do not take a patron from the pool. I slaughtered my opponent. It was not fun for him.

I thought -- what a horribly unbalanced card. So I read the descriptions of the buildings again. And fell over laughing. There are about a dozen insanely powerful buildings. The way to win this game is to get one. Our conclusion is that the game is not all that good with 2, because there is a good chance that one person will get an insanely powerful building built before the other person has a chance to draw enough cards to get their insanely powerful building starter card. But that is not the same thing as saying that the game is unbalanced. It feels more like - balance is a non-issue. And I've never played a game that feels like that before.
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Adam Kazimierczak
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lacreighton wrote:
It's not so much 'you cannot tell what is broken' but 'does it really matter how many kilotons your nuclear weapon has?' More than enough, is enough. For instance, in one of my first games, I built the Aqueduct. This allows you a) to double the size of your clientele and b) to add a card from your hand to your clientele every time you perform the patron action, even if you do not take a patron from the pool. I slaughtered my opponent. It was not fun for him.

I thought -- what a horribly unbalanced card. So I read the descriptions of the buildings again. And fell over laughing. There are about a dozen insanely powerful buildings. The way to win this game is to get one. Our conclusion is that the game is not all that good with 2, because there is a good chance that one person will get an insanely powerful building built before the other person has a chance to draw enough cards to get their insanely powerful building starter card. But that is not the same thing as saying that the game is unbalanced. It feels more like - balance is a non-issue. And I've never played a game that feels like that before.


Magic and a few other CCGs feel like that: ridiculously powerful rare cards that if made into the focus of a deck creates a degenerate rule breaking loop that guarantees victory.

Some games like to break their own rules and kick special abilities up from good to INSANE, that combined with just the right card draw will obliterate anything. This works best in a short, mostly luck based game because someone won't have a long strategic plan destroyed by a nuclear combo. Some games that do this include:

Cosmic Encounter
Chaos Marauders
Epic Spell Wars of the Battle Wizards: Duel at Mt. Skullzfyre
Rex: Final Days of an Empire

I'm not saying these are bad games, they just eschew balance in favor of adrenaline pumping highs and lows.
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Laura Creighton
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I'm not explaining this properly, I see. GtR is not about emotional highs and lows -- at least for me. You calmly and methodically plan a strategy that revolves around some totally devestrating building you have. Meanwhile your opponents are doing the same. The upshot is that it is very, very, funny. Especially if you have been playing a brain-burning calculate things down to the last dollar economic simulation all day before. GtR is a silly game. But strategic too, for all that. As I said -- unique in my experience.
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Matt Green
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kaziam wrote:
In non-collectible fixed deck card games it is worse because it is not your poor deck design to blame but the designer's poor deck design. I felt this way during GOSU if you don't draft cards but just draw your hand. One game would be a comborgy of chaining effects and the next would be a craptastic failure.


ish.

GOSU uses cards as payment to some extent in getting different clans into play, but yes. GOSU is a great game as long as you only play it 2 player, the opening hands are drafted and, ideally, you are playing with Kamakor. It could have done with a lot more playtesting, but then so could a lot of games.

A better (or worse) example would be London. This uses cards as payment, but some cards are so good and the decks so small that the best play rapidly becomes throwing cards away to burn through the current deck to find the power cards. The game only really starts once the deck has been around once and the power cards distributed. A nasty piece of design.
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Kim Brebach
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mgreen02 wrote:
kaziam wrote:
In non-collectible fixed deck card games it is worse because it is not your poor deck design to blame but the designer's poor deck design. I felt this way during GOSU if you don't draft cards but just draw your hand. One game would be a comborgy of chaining effects and the next would be a craptastic failure.


ish.

GOSU uses cards as payment to some extent in getting different clans into play, but yes. GOSU is a great game as long as you only play it 2 player, the opening hands are drafted and, ideally, you are playing with Kamakor. It could have done with a lot more playtesting, but then so could a lot of games.


Agree re GOSU game. Only got to play base game 2 players, 3 or 4 times but I remember its hand resource management being really tight in a good way. Heard Kamakor was more overpowered and not integratable because of that though. But great fun standalone?
 
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linoleum blownaparte
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lacreighton wrote:
The approach that Glory to Rome takes to game balance is, as far as I know, unique. Make so many insanely overpowered building powers that everybody gets one. (If you aren't working on one, you are losing the game.) Anybody know any other games that do this?


This is also Innovation, except in that game the main strategy is to stare hard at your cards until you realize you've accidentally drawn a nuclear combo. Then you play it.
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I have never played Smash Up, mainly because the Zombie art freaks me out.

But what you describe is what make Wiz War one of the most enjoyable games I have:

You get insane combos like: Cast a sandstorm. Walk into the sandstorm and the cast a spell that makes you change places with another character on he other side of the board. The other character ends up in the sandstorm.

These combos are rare, and present themselves maybe once a game, or not even once a game. But when they do, they are epic, and the stuff of urban legend.

But: Every card is useful on its own. There are no cards that you cannot use for something. No cards are dependent on others to be useful. The combos that you can get are there by design, but also rare by design.

Which I believe makes for very good design.
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Derek H
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Linoleumblownaparte wrote:
lacreighton wrote:
The approach that Glory to Rome takes to game balance is, as far as I know, unique. Make so many insanely overpowered building powers that everybody gets one. (If you aren't working on one, you are losing the game.) Anybody know any other games that do this?

This is also Innovation, except in that game the main strategy is to stare hard at your cards until you realize you've accidentally drawn a nuclear combo. Then you play it.

I assume the makes this a joke - for non-players you need to know that Innovation is insanely well balanced (30+ very close 2 player games...)
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When I first played Race for the Galaxy, I didn't like it that much. Part of my frustration was the dependency issue you mention.

I like finance and investing. Once I started thinking about the game from an investment perspective, I started enjoying it a ton more.

Real-life money management is like this: how much money do I spend now, and how much do I save for later? What do I do with my savings? Do I use a savings account, which has very little risk, but will grow very little over time; or do I invest in the stock market, which swings up and down, but generally trends up over time? If I over-invest in stocks, the market might crash at the same time I run into unexpected expenses, forcing me to sell at a loss. If I over-invest in safe things like CD's, I'm giving up a huge profit potential.

So in Race for the Galaxy, I started using the concepts of "time horizon", "volatility", and "opportunity cost". I started thinking things like, "how long in the future will I be able to benefit from this card?", "what is my risk/reward ratio for this card?", "what might I be giving up by hanging on to this card?" I would then seek to balance my "portfolio" (hand), to make sure I wasn't over-weighted with too much risk, too long/short a time horizon, etc.

At that point, playing the game became a balancing act between my short-term needs, possible long-term gains, and hedging against uncertainty. For me, this is actually incredibly fun and intellectually challenging. Even though I'm dealing with randomness, whether I win or lose isn't entirely 'the luck of the draw'.
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