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We’re constantly building new things so there’s a lot on. If you’re looking for recent news, game design articles and stuff like that, just scroll down. There are hundreds of posts on the subject! At the bottom right you can see some categories if you’re interested in particular ideas or projects.

If you’re interested in one of our games the bar along the top links to pages about particular games. Each page has an overview of the game, shows off some of the art and lets you know where you can get it.

Teleportation

I’m presently working on a game in which players control runners who are navigating a maze with the assistance of various teleportation devices. Each player has a hand of devices and uses 1-3 each move to help their runner get to where they want to be. I’d like the teleporters to all feel different to use and the ideal move not to be obvious so there are some meaningful choices in what’s used when and what’s held back. I figured it might be interesting to use todays post to brainstorm ideas and talk about their pros and cons.

The Lovely No Limits Teleporter
Effect: Place yourself on any space within N spaces of your current location.
Pros: Simple. Useful.
Cons: Simply better than almost anything else. Would need a small N to balance with other cards.

The Leeroy Jenkins
Effect: Move forwards N spaces ignoring all intervening stuff.
Pros: Simple.
Cons: Very similar to normal movement. Board design or other player obstructions need to be significant to justify its inclusion.

Cardinal Teleportio
Effect: Move in a particular compass direction N spaces ignoring all intervening stuff.
Pros: Simple.
Cons: Could be completely useless to someone moving towards an objective in a different direction. Potential to be a “lucky” or “unlucky” draw irrespective of players skill at setting up opportunities.

Place Thief
Effect: Choose another runner within N steps, swap position.
Pros: Could have take that style effects.
Cons: Could have take that style effects.

Murphy’s Teleporter
Effect: Your opponent chooses a space you go there.
Pros: Puts an interesting choice for one player in another players turn, potential for dramatic desperation moves.
Cons: Would need some significant other advantage for anyone to ever be willing to play it.

Slingshot
Effect: Choose another runner who is N spaces away. Place yourself on any space within N spaces of them.
Pros: Potential to act as a catch up option, potential for teamwork in setting up several runners to use each others positions.
Cons: Might be too many turns on which a useful anchor doesn’t exist and its just a dead card. Board size and population density strongly impact usefulness.

The Escher Step
Effect: Choose another space with N spaces that is the same as your current space in all respects but location (If you are in a 1 wide corridor next to an exist, it must be a 1 wide corridor next to an exit)
Pros: Leads to interesting possibilities with a high N.
Cons: Awkward to codify in rules, possible analysis paralysis.

These also work in most combinations. For instance you could have Murphy’s Slingshot which anchors to a player of your choice but your opponent chooses in which direction it fires you.

What will work in practice will depend a lot on the interaction between the teleport steps and the base moves – but having a small list to populate a simple prototype allows for some basic testing and refinement (and all game design is testing).

Even the obviously bad ideas belong in this sort of early test. Murphy’s isn’t going to make it through in its unmodified format – but throwing in the card to see what the implications are when it’s played give an indication of the best thing to combine it with or what sort of magnitude of payoff it requires to justify its inclusion.

Early testing is as much about finding exactly why and how things don’t work as finding what does work. The lessons taken from the more obvious missteps can prevent more subtle ones from creeping in later in the process.

Hope you’re all having fun, I’m off to test a bad game.

Consequences of Precise Probabilities

Pathfinder

I’ve been playing the digital adaptation of the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game lately. Besides the bugs (and dear me there are a lot) it’s a pretty faithful recreation of the physical game – yet I’m finding one aspect of it is making me play very differently: Every time you do something to modify a die roll the game shows you the probability of the roll succeeding and permits you to undo that modification.

Probabilities in Rise of the Runelords

Many of the bonuses in the game are represented by extra dice. At any given point you usually have access to a whole load of these bonuses, but use of them has a very noticeable opportunity cost leading to you seeking to use as few as possible. On a typical turn you might hit into a situation like this:

You’re righting something that needs a total of 22 to beat.
You subtract one from each die rolled.

You can punch at D6 or attack with a sword at D6+D8 or cast a spell at D10+D6+D6+2
You have four blessings which will give you a D6 if you’re attacking physically or a D10 if it’s a spell.
One of those blessings gives two dice instead of one if it’s used for a D6.
You could discard the sword, losing the ability to use it again and get an extra D6
Your mate you shuffle part of his hand into the deck to provide an extra D4+2
You have an item you can discard for a bonus D4 but that applies to all fights this round (Which is at its best if you save your blessings since each blessing could also be used to flip another card and maybe get into another fight if it’s not used here)
One of the other players has a spell that gives +3 to strength rolls so works with the sword but not if you’ve cast a spell.

Computing the probability of success using each combination of bonuses would be a massive headache. Heck even the base combinations would take some doing. But the game does it instantly and displays the number for you.

How does it change the game?

The obvious first degree effects are that it means I make optimal decisions. If I can get a bonus one of two ways and the cost to both is the same then I’ll always pick the bonus that’s best in the situation. That’s not such a big deal, I’d probably have done it anyway most of the time.

The major impact it’s had has been in how I’ve learned the game over repeat plays.

In tabletop I doubt I’d notice the difference between a 91% and 97% chance of success. It’d always be at the point of “I’ve got a big pile of dice and the average expected result is at least twice what I need to roll – it’s gonna be fine.” Yet providing the probabilities makes me sensitive to it. It’s a game that can be won or lost on a single roll – tripling the chance of failure for that roll (from 3% to 9%) is actually a really important difference in those critical situations.

It’s harder to pin down how these things are altering the emotional experience of the game. I’m making better moves, but am I enjoying the game more or less for that? The reaction to a roll seems different – on the one hand I get “Well I decided to stick at 95% and not throw another card in, 1 in 20 chances happen all the time” where I’d have got “That roll is so absurdly below average, I hate you dice.” but on the other hand failing a >99% roll is a worse kick in the teeth than it’d have been if you weren’t aware of just how good the odds were.

There’s also a conflating factor in the game being single player. “Shall I throw in my other characters extra card to squeak an extra 2% chance to win out of this roll” is a fundamentally different question to “Shall I ask Jane to give up her extra go so I can have a 2% extra chance to succeed?”

Overall I think being aware of the exact probabilities sharpens the game. Dice are fickle, but over time, over many rolls, fair. It makes me more aware of smaller changes which in turn means I think about choices that I might otherwise have discarded out of hand. Ultimately it frees me from arithmetic to enjoy what the designers intended the game to be.

What’s the take away for designers?

Games can be more or less explicit about the probabilities of success involved in doing things. A magic computer box that does the numbers is not a necessity: Settlers of Catan dots its pieces to show dice probabilities. It would not be possible to do something for more complex mechanics like the examples shown here – but the mechanics themselves can be streamlined.

It’s also not an all or nothing approach. For instance Race for the Galaxy includes a card that allows you to guess the cost of the top card of the deck and draw it if you were correct. That card contains a little table showing how many of each cost of card are included in the deck. This doesn’t mean you can calculate the probability (I mean you could if you wanted to sit and count the number of cards of each cost currently in play and that you’ve personally discarded) but it makes it less obscure – you have a better idea of what it might be than if you didn’t have the contextual information.

Most games are likely to benefit from giving the players more information and more powerful tools to make decision – if the rest of the game supports that. There are some games that being able to work out the odds of each move *is* the gameplay and these calculations are intentionally on the cusp of human ability – but for more games working out the best move is the gameplay and understanding the odds of various outcomes is a tool in reaching the more interesting factors that define the best move in that particular game.

Tone

One Trillion Dollars

I’m presently working on a game in which a team of players take the role of evil masterminds trying to get one trillion dollars out of the UN. Each turn they get cards and can either play half of them or threaten to play all of them and offer not to for some fixed amount of money. Their goal is to get enough money doing this. The UN player can catch and arrest them all, but the cards they play make this harder, so they need to strike a balance between giving up too much money and losing and letting too many cards be played and be unable to win (Which as the evil players can get money in some other ways will also result in a loss).

Tone of Threats

The initial threats deck I’ve made by marking cities on a world map in a “This city is in a convenient place for my map” kind of a way and then picking something a mastermind might do to each city to threaten it.

This has lead to threats which have a tone all over the place. Kidnapping the queen of England is maybe a bit silly, but something someone could plausibly do that would definitely cause an uproar. Awakening the Egyptian mummies would definitely cause problems in Cairo but is clearly stepping into fantasy. You could definitely do something to Taipei and Beijing by annexing Taiwan but… actually that whole situation is pretty real and real people’s lives are going to be quite affected by how it plays out.

Just going through cities and writing the first thing that popped into my head has lead this version to be all over the place. This is a problem.

Who cares about tone?

I was going to start this off printing a user review of Escape the Nightmare but the user has deleted it :O

It boiled down to “I really like this game mechanically but can’t play it with my preferred groups because the tone of the art means it can’t be played in those circles.”

Which is a fair cop. I *did* make a light party game which had art including dismemberment and disfigurement. I probably shouldn’t have done, it made a great game less accessible to some audiences and less enjoyable to others.

How do you get tone right?

I don’t know. I really don’t. “Inconsistent tone” is an accusation that could be reasonably levelled at all of the games I’ve made.

I’m hoping that being more conscious of it is a good starting point. Previously I’ve tried to generate as many good ideas as possible that fit the theme – which has lead to a lot of good ideas. I’ve then winnowed them away through playtesting, removing things which don’t pull their weight gameplay wise – which is also very important.

Designers talk a lot of about theme vs mechanics and the compromises made in order to carry both. I think that it might be wise for me to look at this set of cards in terms of theme-tone-mechanics and start removing cards from the set that significantly fail in any one of the three areas.

I think it’ll be hard to say goodbye to something that fits the theme and presents great gameplay because of tone inconsistencies – but it should lead to a stronger game. I’m a very mechanics oriented player so I’m constantly fighting the desire to go “Screw everything else” but for most players enjoyment is a combination of factors. There will be opportunities to make relatively small sacrifices in other areas for relatively large gains here, so I just need to be alert for them.

What do you think?

This post has been less useful to designers reading it than others because rather than it being “Here’s a thing I’ve figured out, let me share” it’s “Here’s something I’m figuring out and where I’m going with it at the moment.” So some of the readers almost certainly have a better idea about it than I do – more than usual I’d encourage folks to comment and for readers to read the comments. I know I will be 😉

 

Dollar Auction

Dollar Auctions

A dollar auction is a thought experiment in economics in which someone auctions a dollar under the following terms: You can bid any amount you want, you can win a dollar for a cent, but if you make the second highest bid you still pay up.

Implications

Using the economic “perfectly rational” actors things get quite pricey.

Initially it makes sense to bid $0.01 to win $1
When someone else bids $0.02 it’s still a good proposition to bid $0.03 to win $1
This continues until someone bids $1. At this point the other bidder is looking at bidding $1.01 for $1. That’s a clear loss. But it is only a loss of $0.01, compared to a loss of $0.99 for stopping now. So a higher bid is still rational.
This continues until…actually it just continues. There’s no until. The dollar will sell for infinity dollars.

In economics this is a criticism of a particular means of conceptualising “perfectly rational” actors and the suggestion that the idea is flawed or at least needs some refinement. But we’re not economists.

Auctions in Games

Board games have been using auctions for a while. They’re a really neat mechanic since they sidestep a lot of balancing issues.

If something is auctioned the players are setting the price. You don’t need to say “Card A costs 4 and card B costs 5” and risk having valued those cards incorrectly. You just auction them off and the players will set the values. This is particularly powerful because it is sensative to the meta-context of the game – some things can be impossible to set costs for becuase their value changes dramatically depending on what else is in play, the state of the game and (sometimes) the sort of people playing.

There are two popular models for auctions in games:

Traditional auctions, in which players take it in turns to bid higher and higher until everyone but one player has backed down. They pay and get the thing, while everyone else takes their money back. Like you’d do in Monopoly or Power Grid. (I probably don’t need examples to illustrate this point but something tickled me about being able to use those two together)

Blind auctions, in which players simultaneously choose how much they’re going to bid and reveal all at once. All of the bids are lost, but only the highest bidder gets the thing. Or in some cases players are bidding for something akin to turn order and everyone is placed relative to their bid.

I can’t think of an example of a game that uses a dollar auction model in which the second place (or more) players lose their bids.

Could it work in a game?

Almost certainly someone has made it work and I’ve simply not played the game or games where it does, but let’s speculate anyway 😉

The good news is that it creates a complex situation in which there’s not an obvious dominant strategy. If all players but one refuse to take part in this sort of auction the player who does is at a significant advantage. If everyone but one takes part the one who stays out has a definite advantage. Optimal play with this sort of auction will be based on meta-knowledge of what the other players are likely to do. It’s also somewhat fertile ground for table talk and informal agreements beyond the structure of the game. Some players hate that, but a game that sets an expectation that it is to be played that way can attract players who don’t.

The bad news is mostly loaded into the difficulties of making it fun to lose these sorts of auction. Inherently the player who comes second will lose resources, potentially a lot of resources, and have nothing to show for it. It’s important this not remove them from being in a position to make meaningful decisions in the game. There’s also the danger of a run away winner where someone says “I have the most shinies, I am going to outbid anyone who tries to get this thing, so if you bid you will lose money for nothing, therefore you will not bid and I will get it for one shiny. With everything costing me one shiny it is easy for me to have the most shinies forever.” In theory a strategy like that could be broken where other players cooperate to break their strangehold on the “most shinies” position, but such cooperation is difficult where’s an intrinsic motivation to be the contributing member who contributes the least.

What would the working game look like?

I think there’d be two main ways to mitigate the problems auctions like this could cause:

The first would be to make a game in which the thing players are bidding with refreshes frequently. If you had 10 coins a turn to bid and couldn’t carry them over from turn to turn then nobody could maintain a “most shinies” position and someone who lost everything to get nothing is back in the action fairly quickly.

The second would be to make a game in which the social dynamics took centre stage and other game mechanics were supporting the making and breaking of alliances in a way that mean someone who bid second and lost *was* getting something meaningful. They were knocking down the money available to the winner which is somehow good for their alliance and good for them.

Is it a good idea?

Maybe! I don’t know. The point of the blog is to discuss design ideas, see what it inspires and get used to thinking of mechanics in different ways. In that it’s been an interesting topic to divert onto for a few minutes 🙂

Space Food Truck

Recently I’ve come across a computer game that I wanted to talk about, becuase it’s basically a deckbuilding board game with sprinkles and has some interesting ideas. It’s called Space Food Truck.

The Game

The gameplay will be very familiar to anyone who’s ever played a deckbuilder:

The game is cooperative and each turn starts with a random event (usually but not always bad, escalating in severity as the game goes on). Once that’s done you play all of the cards in your hand. These let you do things related to your job, which in aggregate will let you fly your truck around, pick up ingredients, cook them and deliver them to the target planets winning the game. Then you discard all of the cards you have left over and buy one or more cards to add to your discard pile. Finally you draw a new hand, shuffling your discard pile if your deck has expired.

So far, so standard. So why bring it up?

The devil is in the details. This game uses a host of different mechanics, some of which I’m wouldn’t usually to think of as a deckbuilding mechanics, in interesting ways. There’s nothing you won’t have seen before in this game, but there are times that the mix of mechanics generates something more than the sum of it’s parts. This is a good goal for any designer, so I’d like to explore them by way of looking at how using a mechanic in a new context can generate new gameplay in the hopes of inspiring ideas for other genres.

Power

All cards have a power value. The most important cards in your deck will scale based on how much power you choose to supply them with. For example if you play a repair card you might need to discard one power for each thing you want to repair. But of course a card that’s discarded for power can’t be played.

I’ve always been a big fan of “choose cards to discard to be allowed to play other cards” as a mechanic, meaningful choices are central to good gameplay and this is the sort of mechanic that helps to develop it. It also provides extra delineation between cards, allowing the presentation of choices between buying cards worth lots of coins, cards which have good abilities or cards which provide a lot of power.

It’s not used to its fullest possible effect here though. It could have been a means to flatten out some of the luck of the draw and make player skill more central. In a lot of games a hand of all of one type of card then a hand of all of another is often less desirable than getting a good mix. If important action cards had high power values then drawing them all together would lead to thoughts like “Huh, all three repair cards, well we’re not repairing for a few turns after this while I draw through the rest of the deck – but at least this turn I can fix everything!” Instead important actions have been assigned low, or even 0 power, which means the mechanic instead exacerbates the luck of the draw.

That seems like a missed opportunity.

Roles

The variation between playable roles is quite intensive and well implemented.

The captain is the only person who can move the ship and restock the supply. If the ship doesn’t move there’ll be no new cards to buy at the end of the turn – if you don’t buy a card you get a useless leftovers card that bloats your deck to no advantage.

The scientist is the only person who can improve people’s ability to do their core job. Everyone can buy cards each turn, but these come from a common pool of generic cards. The captain can never buy an extra “Fly the ship this turn” card, which is bad news since decks will inevitably get larger as the game goes on so the main jobs get done less and less consistently. The scientist’s research power adds new core cards to everyone’s decks, letting them do their main jobs more effectively.

The chef is the only person who can cook meals, necessary to win the game. However that’s a skill that’s only needed on a few turns, so the designers needed to give him a second strength. What they’ve settled on is an exceptional ability to destroy cards in both their own and other people’s decks. Even the most expensive “destroy card” options in the generic deck are typically less good than the chef’s starting options.

The engineer is there to make sure you don’t lose. Events will damage the ship and crew, lowering its capabilities in various ways. If it’s hull gets damaged enough it explodes and everyone loses. On the other hand different sorts of damage might cause people to draw fewer cards each turn or be unable to play some actions. The engineer decides what to fix in what order.

Given that the distinction between the roles is generated by approximately 4 cards in a 10 card initial deck (plus whatever the scientist researches over the course of the game) the roles feel very different. They all involve some sort of meaningful decision – whether it’s research priorities, which deck to burn cards from or where to fly – and they all wind up feeling very different to play.

Asymmetrical roles can add a lot to a game and give it some decent replayability. I suspect some of that is wasted here as I reckon the average person playing the game is probably on single player as all four roles – but as a primer on how to make asymmetric roles interesting and distinct it’s got some good ideas.

Restock

One of the defining features of a deckbuilder is how it limits which cards a player can buy to add to their deck. Dominon established the genre by selecting a limited number at the start of the game, but allow players access to all of them every turn. Others, like Legendary, have a limited supply drawn that’s refreshed after players take cards from it.

Space Food Truck takes an interesting step in treating “available options” as a resource. If the captain is willing to play a jump card and expend fuel and avoids crossing the path of places she’s visited before then she gets to draw a random selection of cards which she may add to those that are available to buy. There are a limited number of slots for these cards and it’s up to her which ones are discarded and which ones are available for the rest of the team to buy.

Having stocking the cards that people can buy from as an explicit game event opens up more meaningful choices. The actions that will lead to the most frequent restocks and doing several restocks to get the ideal mix of choices rather than “whatever was lying around” will often conflict with other desirable outcomes like “take the most efficient route” or “move primarily through systems where we know that we want what will happen to us on that planet to happen”.

This is a mechanic I’d like to see someone do more with. The decisions in Space Food Truck are often relatively trivial “everyone getting a leftovers is sufficiently bad that the jump to a new planet is worth it regardless of other consequences” or “we have fewer new cards from this planet than we have slots so we’re taking everything” aren’t tense, exciting, decisions. I’m sure a game built around playing with the stock situation some more could do a lot with it, but this shows how the potential is there to be realised.

Conclusion

Space Food Truck is not the best game I’ve ever played (well worth the price though) but it demonstrates the power of taking mechanics into unfamiliar territory and messing with assumptions. As much as there are ideas from this particular game I’d like to see taken forward, I think more generally it’s good to bear in mind how we don’t need to always be trying to come up with something new as much as innovative mixes for ingredients we’ve already got on the shelf.

An Unfair Game

Today we’re going to turn an assumption about what makes a good design on its head and see what shakes out. The assumption is this: An asymmetric game should be balanced such that players of equal skill have a reasonable chance to win no matter which side (or position or whatever) they start with.

Players Have Unequal Skill

This seems obvious, but it’s worth saying out loud, since it’s the reason to do the thing. In most games if one player is better they will tend to win. Sometimes this is desirable, especially in something like a competition scenario, but I’m not sure it’s always desirable.

If a parent plays with their kid should they always beat them, or else decide not to and lose by deliberate poor play?

Should the outcome of a game between an experienced player and someone they’re introducing to games for the first time be a foregone conclusion?

If people like playing together socially but are at different levels of skill is the best possible design one where one constantly beats the other?

I don’t think the answer to any of these questions is “yes”. I feel that in a lot of situations players are best served by a design if they have an exciting close game that comes down to the wire and whichever one of them most surpasses their personal best comes out on top.

I think there’s a place for an unfair game, in which positions are intentionally unbalanced. With the goal of creating a tense close game between players of different levels of experience.

What Features Does It Need?

The gameplay on the “hard” side needs to have a high skill ceiling. In principle the game is allowing one player to make up for a gulf in raw power through good play, so there needs to be a lot of delineation in how well it can be played. There’s no sense playing snakes and ladders with one player starting 10 spaces ahead, the lack of options in the game gives the player who’s behind no means to catch up.

The gameplay on the “easy” side needs to have accessible play, FOO strategies and at least a moderate skill ceiling. Let’s break those down one by one:

Accessible play is necessary because the side is intended as a means to introduce new players to games, so it shouldn’t assume too much prior experience of familiarity with different mechanics. You’d want it to be as playable as any gateway game.

FOO strategies are a part of accessible play and it’d be helpful for developing the game. Some relatively obvious strong plays offer a new player somewhere to get started and provide a baseline for what the game might expect a player in that position to do.

However it’s important that there be better approaches available. If one side is more powerful but its gameplay is just “Flip a card, do what the card says” then you’ve essentially relegated one player to running part of a solo game for the experienced player. There needs to be the genuine opportunities for subtle and clever plays from both sides for everyone to be truely involved in the game.

Themes

In discussing mechanical issues it’s easy to nudge theme over to one side and forget about it, but the funny thing is that there are loads of games that use themes more suited to this sort of situation than the games they’re actually in.

I think it’s to do with the nature of stories that people like:

A plucky group of heroes entering a dungeon filled with monsters and traps.

A single ninja infiltrating a castle packed with guards.

A small rebel group taking on the might of an Empire!

We like underdog stories. So why not make a game in which the underdogs really are underdogs? Making major mechanical decisions just to deliver on a theme can often generate a fairly flawed game, but if we’re looking at an unbalanced game anyway why not really nail a theme that’s been attempted a bunch of times but never in any fidelity?

Pulling it Together

I’ve started trying a few prototypes for this sort of game this week. My first attempt was one called HappyLand in which a director of an amusement park was trying to get his guests to have enough fun while his guests were desperately trying to leave and get on with their lives.

The visitors started with a deck allowing some short moves and obtained resources to add cards to their deck by moving through certain spaces, permitting them to work up to longer moves or to overcome obstacles that blocked movement such as walls and mascots.

The director draw two cards and played one each turn. This let her move visitors or mascots around or set them objectives (Like “ride the waterslide”) such that failing to do so added 0-value (“smile”) cards to their deck.

The visitors won by escaping the park, the director won by emptying the smile pile.

Having worked on it for a week and taking the time to write a short article about it today I’m not sure that HappyLand is the game I’m looking for, so I’m likely to dissect it for parts. Some thoughts on this prototype:

Deckbuilding is a strong mechanic for the “underdog” side. It requires a degree of planning ahead and creates a lot of tension between “needed now” and “needed ever”. It’s also somewhat subject to disruption and can help create the skill ceiling for the other side, especially if they’re adding cards do the deck that are anything other than unalloyed evil.

I’m not sure HappyLand was the right theme, but something that’s at least child friendly seems important, given age is going to be one of the main reasons for disparity of experience. It’s important the game not come across as “for kids” though, that’s going to be a fine line to walk.

The many against one aspect needs some consideration. The one vs one situation is easy enough and many vs many is going to be much harder to work with – but which way around should it be? Is a hypothetical group more likely to be a bunch of experienced players and one new player or the other way around? Is it better for several players to gang up on the strongest player or the weakest player to be thrown into a position of power over everyone else? Those seem appealing in different ways.

There’s still plenty to do with this, but it’s an idea I’d like to explore some more.

 

Social Deduction for Introverts

Introduction

I introduced One Night Ultimate Vampire to a new group this week and we got talking about it after the fact. Some folks liked it, others didn’t, there’s one criticism I wanted to highlight and talk about:

“in large numbers the shy folks really have to fight to be heard”

I thought this was really interesting because it describes something that I think applies to the genre rather than the game.

The Problem

A social deduction game has two elements – broadly “social” and “deduction”

You have to work things out. Partly from hard facts and partly from softer information about what people say and do.

Having worked things out you need to persuade people of some truth (either the actual truth or some alternative you’ve made up based on what you’ve figured out).

If the conversation is dominated by a few voices then the quieter people don’t get to play the second half of the game. Which is obviously a bad thing.

But the incentive structure for the game is that dominating the conversation is a good thing. People will try to build several narratives and the successful player will be the one who can make their narrative the strongest (if they’ve got their deductions right).

So the challenge for the designer is structuring the game in a way that rewards players for making more space for other players to speak up. Even if they wouldn’t usually, perhaps especially if they didn’t usually.

Not a Solution: Play with nicer people who make sure everyone gets a go

I bring this up briefly because someone always suggests it for problems like these 😉

This is a solution for *players* but it’s not a solution for *designers*. You can’t print on the side of the box “Only play this if you’re nice” and expect that to work.

A player should seek a group that they enjoy.

Where it doesn’t compromise other design goals, a designer should aim to make their game enjoyable by many types of different group.

Existing Solutions: Information Dispersal

The #1 way these sorts of games handle this issue is to make sure that all of the players have different useful bits of information. The theory being that if everyone knows something critical to their teams success then everyone will have something to say in the discussion and it will be in their teams interests to make sure it’s heard. Since the average player is on the biggest team the average player should have the support of most of the table.

It’s a neat theory, but there are a few ways it can fall down.

The first is if someone’s information isn’t useful to any other person. If all you have is “I am not a baddie” that’s not worth much. You can figure things based on that, but when you say it to the table it’s meaningless because everyone claims to be not a baddie.

The second is if the group prioritises the social over the deduction. Players new to the genre very often see leading the discussion and influencing who dies as the winning strategy. Information dispersal can only work if two conditions are met:

1. The players need the information to correctly know what they need to do to win
2. The players recognise that they need that information.

In new groups there can be a tendency to try to control the conversation without finding much out, which makes the conversation controller look powerful. If they lose anyway it can be easy for a player to attribute that to “bad luck” rather than “poor deduction” and not realise that giving players with extra hidden info more of a voice would’ve lead to a win and it was the conversation control that cost them the game.

The third is where info comes out relatively trivially and discussion on how to interpret it dominates the game. If you have 20 seconds of “Everyone says their thing” and then half an hour of arguing about it – the half hour argument is most of the game. The 20 seconds of being involved hasn’t really solved the problem, because the player still sat out of a lot of the game.

Existing Solutions: Regulated Speech

Some games will make explicit rulings about when and how a player is able to speak. In the online mafia game Town of Salem if there are enough votes to hang someone everyone else’s chat is literally disabled for 20 seconds and only that person gets to speak. Then everyone makes a final yes/no vote on whether to kill them.

Giving a player a moment to speak mandated by the rules ensures that they get to make a point at the most critical juncture means a person can get a word in edgeways at the most critical juncture.

Existing Solutions: Power at a Point

In Mafia de Cuba one player is the godfather. They will ultimately decide the outcome of the game, there’s no vote, just their word for who they think is a thief.

This has an interesting effect on group dynamics, in that one person is imbued with power in a way that distorts the conversation and that person is also the person with the most to gain from getting all of the information. If the godfather says “I want to hear from Eric now” then Eric is going to get to speak. Whether he wants to or not 😉

Other games harness this to a lesser extent, giving a player the right to choose what thing is being voted on or some special power they can use during or just after the discussion – but the purpose is the same: Get someone to chair the meeting.

Existing Solutions: Parallel Discussions

Two Rooms and a Boom takes a different approach. If a big discussion with a bajillion players is going to lead to some folks not getting to sidle into the game. So what if it was broken down into a whole bunch of smaller discussions? What if there was an active advantage to having quiet 1:1 discussions that other players didn’t notice or hear?

The answer is that play becomes very different, but everyone will be getting to do something most of the time. It’s not a perfect solution in that you can still wind up with sidelined players in 2RaaB due to its other mechanics, but it does very neatly deal with this particular issue.

Potential Solutions

Because “Information dispersal” is baked in, I’m not sure how many designers have been actively considering this as an issue rather than it being a thing that gets worked out naturally by tinkering with rules in playtesting.

Heck I’ve published a social deduction game and never really consciously thought about it!

So perhaps there are untapped solutions that haven’t yet been tried. The main one that occurs to me at the moment is likely due to ongoing discussion about asymmetric resources. What would a social deduction game look like if the capacity to talk was a limited resource?

Could you have a game in which people said things like “Rose just spoke for the third time which means she can’t be a villager, I am which means this is the last thing I’m going to be able to say.” I think there’s some unexplored potential there.

I’m sure there are other solutions out there waiting to be discovered. I look forward to playing them 😀

History of Games

There’s a project that may or may not happen, that I can’t talk about in detail at the moment, that has an odd requirement: We need to take the development of board games and split it into four “ages” each of which contains games that modern gamers would recognise and at least have some inkling of the rules of. Let’s give it a go!

The Oldest Game

For a long time I had it in my head that the oldest game is Go. Board game geek lists it as being invented in -2200, Wikipedia says the earliest written record of it is -400, I’m not sure what the definitively pinned down date is, but that game is old!

It’s not the oldest though, at some point in the past I was misinformed and never challenged my assumptions. I’m confidently informed that Senet is older and we’ve found some wicked neat sets in old tombs. That game is looking at -3500.

It’s probably not the oldest game was, because we found these beauties. Those are from 1500 years before our oldest copy of Senet so, the oldest game was, uh…whatever that is. Maybe. Or they really are some sort of counting stone and not a game at all. Or “ritual purposes” 😉

Chess and Cards

When Western non gamers talk about old games they’re usually thinking about chess and a variety of games played with a 54 card deck. Chess is 1450, thousands of years after the really old games and cards got started around 850 but they didn’t mutate into what we’d recognise as a pack of playing cards until they came to Europe and went through various mutations over the 14th to 19th centuries.

Classic Board Games

I tried asking a few people a generation older than me what they thought classic modern board games were – as in stuff that wasn’t ancient and part of anything they’d think of as “history” – but that has been around forever. The answers I got were Monopoly, Snakes and Ladders and Risk. Huh, there’s no BGG article for Snakes and Ladders, a few specific variations are mentioned, but the main one is missing. Does that seem like a weird gap to anyone else?

In any event as I’m sure most of your know S&L technically fits in with the ancient games, being derived from an Indian game that’s at least a thousand years older than chess. But they’re probably thinking of the Milton Bradley thing that got ported over in 1943 – which would fit with the dates of the other two (1933 and 1959 respectively). Basically they’re naming things that were already in the house when they were kids.

Games that were already in the house when I was a kid

I remember growing up with the 80s bookcase games. Technically I they might have entered the house after me (I was born 1984) but they predated my ability to form memories which amounted to the same thing. Also the sort of boxes that people manufactured back then were weak – after a couple of years of regular play they looked like some artefact from the before times and my parents liked games.

So mentally, on some level, old games to me means gems like Titan and atrocities against gaming like Outdoor Survival. Some of these games would be recognised by folks who didn’t grow up with them on account of Fantasy Flight deciding to publish a bunch of old games in shiny new formats.

Modern Games

Getting into things that people would talk about as actually modern games I can observe the development of that over my lifetime. Catan rocking up in the mid 90s and people wondering if maybe it wouldn’t be terrible forever if Euros had some randomness, or Ameritrash games had some theme. Dominion swaggering up in 2008 saying “Maybe we haven’t found *all* of the genres yet followed shortly by everyone losing their shit and making a million clone babies. Pandemic jump onto the stage around the same time and raising “Cooperative games are a thing” to volume that eclipsed some muffled cries of “But we’ve had those for years”. Followed by Risk Legacy announcing “I’m too much game to only appear in a potted history of game development the one time!”

Alongside all of this Kickstarter waggled its eyebrows suggestively and whispered “What if you could support games you wanted, even if they were too niche for a publisher to pick up? What if you got to talk with the designer before it was printed and could make sure it’d grow in the way you wanted? What if you got more components per pound because the distributor doesn’t get a cut? All of this could be yours!” and people saying “Yaaaay” but suddenly sometimes money disappears with no game showing up and also minis everywhere whether you like them or not. So some of the people were sad and swore never to do it again. But enough people loved the promise of a million minis and kept Cool Mini or Not printing as much money as they wanted.

Parallel Developments

As all of this happened alongside board gaming, war gaming and roleplaying were also growing up. Wargames asking questions like “What if we had models instead of counters?” and then “This is a lot of painting, can we use fewer models?” While roleplaying asked questions like “What if as well as killing everything we did some role playing?” and then “Do we need to kill anything at all?” (With a side order of “Yes you have to kill everything and also what if there were a million supplements to help you do more of that”)

The project I’m looking at doesn’t need to deal with either of those things in detail, but it might be worth leaning out of the window on the drive past and grabbing an idea or two from each.

Putting it All Together

History is messy and things overlap. It’s also really big, I’ve barely scratched the surface here, you could fill tomes and tomes with a full history of board games developing over the years. Though I’d like to see a board games history presented in the manner of this history of the world.

What I need is four distinct “ages” of board games that are nice and neat and that each one contains at least a few games that’d be iconic and recognised by the average gamer who doesn’t care at all deeply about the history of things.

What I’m considering at the moment is this:

Ancient Games
This covers almost all of human history, right up to -5000 to 1900. I’m aware this is misuse of the term “ancient”. While historically there are thousands of years between things like Chess and Go I think that a lot of players mentally dump them into the same category. Despite its absurdly broad time catchment I suspect this grouping will feel natural to most gamers.

Classic Games
This covers 1900-1945, pulling in the classic Milton Bradley stuff like Monpoly and (modern) Snakes and Ladders. Things that people will perceive as “too recent to be history” but also “too dated for most people to remember them being invented”. There’s a possibility of doing something a bit messy here and treating the dates like guidelines and assigning games based on the sort of school of design it feels like they’re from – by date Risk doesn’t belong in this category but people may feel it fits here more naturally.

The Divide
The Ameritrash / Eurogame thing feels less clear cut these days than it used to, but having an explicit age in which we’ve got those streams of development happening in parallel seems like an important note not to miss. Also while it’s not really how game development is today (partially thanks to the internet) the consequences of it are still echoing. So having an age that goes 1945-1995 to capture how that is before global communications really get going seems like a neat thing to do.

Modern Games
And finally 1995-present covers everything in boxes that still look nicer after a decade than the bookcase games did after a year (Though I suppose I should acknowledge that as a child I looked after games less well). This age has a dual problem of being too narrow (in that it covers the smallest number of years) and too broad (in that it covers the largest number of games people will recognise if I name them). I suppose its inevitable that whichever age that includes “present” will wind up that way.

I’m not sure that I’m completely satisfied with this way of looking at things, but as a guideline to do a first draft of something it’ll do. Like most of the things I do as a game designer having a starting point is the most important thing because the main process of the work is endless testing and improvement 😉

Resource Asymmetry

Introduction

Lately I’ve been playing a computer game called Tales of Maj’Eyal. I wanted to talk a little bit about how resource management in that game works and what lessons we can take away for board games. Let’s dive in.

Description of Resources in ToME

Characters in ToME all have some sort of resource that they use in order to activate their abilities. The resources vary considerably but they’re all used in the same way, you click on an ability and it uses the appropriate amount of resource. Let’s look at a few:

Stamina. Click the ability, stamina is reduced by the cost, if you don’t have enough then you can’t use the ability. It comes back over time.

Mana. Click the ability, mana is reduced by the cost, if you don’t have enough then you can’t use the ability. Depending on who you are it might not come back naturally and you need to use another ability to restore it.

Souls. Click the ability, souls are reduced by the cost, if you don’t have enough then you can’t use the ability. Comes back each time you kill someone while close enough to hoover up their soul.

Equilibrium. Click the ability, equilibrium is increased by the cost. Then there’s a %chance roll to see if the ability happens or if you’ve wasted your turn – the higher your equilibrium the higher the chance of a missed turn. It falls over time.

Paradox. Click the ability, paradox is increased by the cost. Then there’s a %chance roll to see if you get a paradox backlash instead of your ability – the higher your paradox the higher the chance of a backlash and the more extreme the backlash. Your current paradox level also acts as a multiplier for the power of your spells, so high paradox makes you more powerful. It returns to a level of your choice over time.

Insanity. Click the ability, insanity is reduced by the cost, if you don’t have enough then you can’t use the ability. The higher it is the greater the random number added or subtracted from everything you do. It falls over time and can only be restored in combat by using abilities that generate it on hitting enemies.

There are a bunch more: Hate, Vim, Positive Energy, Negative Energy and Psi – but you get the idea.

Why do we care?

The consequence of this variety of resources is that similar abilities can feel very different because of the resources they use. You can have two abilities that fundamentally do the same thing – say shoot a beam damaging everything along the beam – but the resource it uses depends on how you apply it.

If it uses mana then it makes sense to use it early and often, but you want to keep a plan in mind to escape combat and recover if you run short. If it relies on insanity then your opening gambit needs to include some insanity gain to make it useful, so you’re trying to find a way to combo with another ability that both generates insanity and pulls opponents into a line to get the most out of the follow up. If it’s using paradox then you can use it an awful lot, but there’s an associated risk – do you start at a high pardox so your opening salvo hits hard or a low one so you get more shots before you risk exploding yourself?

The fact that the ability/resource combination is meaningful allows a game to have a lot of skills. In the same amount of time you could design ten abilities, you could design five abilities and five resources – generating a total of twenty five possible abilities. Not all of those would be any good, some would surely be eliminated through playtesting, but it’s a way to put a lot of variety into a game without having a huge amount of rules to learn.

Asymmetric Resources in Board Games

There are plenty of games that’ll let you arrive at the same outcome through different

expenditures

. Race for the Galaxy has cards that’ll allow you to play a some planets by discarding cards or by having enough military. Descent will let you move a space using a point of movement or a point of fatigue. You can hold a territory in Game of Thrones using a unit or using a power token.

Doing the same thing using different resources that function in different ways is a great source of meaningful decisions – but in these games it’s not the core of the game, it’s a neat extra thing.

There are also games that let you simultaneously manage several resources in order to buy things using their combination. Something like Splendor offering the player several types of gem to make their purchases. But in these games the resources all behave in fundamentally the same way.

I can’t think of an example of a tabletop game that’s really embraced the possibilities of concurrent asymmetric resources either as a way to create distinctions between players or to produce meaningful decisions in how players progress – but I’d be really interested to see one attempted. If I don’t find one perhaps I’ll give it a whirl some day.

How about you, have you heard of one? Is there a game I should try to see how this works in practice?

Third Order Balancing in Genesis

Today’s topic is third order balancing, but I’m going to talk about it in the context of a game I’m working on called Genesis. Partly because that makes it easier to understand and partly because writing about the subject might help me find new solutions for that game. Let’s get started!

Genesis is a game in which the players take the role of gods struggling over the world. Each player selects three domains to decide what sort of god they are – these are things that could finish the phrase “God of…” like war, death, love etc.

Each domain grants the player a champion, each one of which has three cards, giving everyone a hand of nine to begin the game. On their turn each player simultaneously chooses and plays a card. If they play a card for a champion they’ve already got in play the old one is discarded, otherwise it’s added to their existing champions. All champions (including ones still present from previous turns) use their special ability. Finally the champion with the highest power is added to a winners pile.

Whoever has the most champions in the winners pile after someone runs out of cards (Usually nine turns) wins the game.

So far, so good – so what’s the balancing problem?

Well obviously it’s desirable to make sure that the domains have a roughly equal chance to win. If one offers champions that are simply better than the others then you may as well pack away the game after domains are chosen and announce the player with that domain the winner.

So the first order balancing problem is “How do I make sure each domain has roughly equal power?”

There are some fairly obvious answers here. Making sure that all champions in a domain have the same total power and then adjusting it up or down a smidge based on how useful their abilities are seems like the answer. The abilities follow a standard form of having two icons, one for who is targeted and one for what happens to them. A handful of standard abilities like “target all enemies” and “discard from play” occur across all domains, but each domain also has a unique icon that only appears to cards from that domain. That’s what makes being a “God of disaster” feel like being a “God of *disaster*” rather than “The god wot gets a 3 5 and 8 rather than a 1 6 and 9”.

Special abilities make things tricky because the context of the game then starts to matter. For instance the champion of beasts has a power 4 monster card that grants itself the pack leader icon which gives +1 power for each monster in play. So what power should I consider that card? Played in isolation its a 4 – but in theory there might be four players with three monsters out each so he could be a 16. I could work out the average number of beasts in play if everyone’s playing randomly – but people won’t play randomly.

You might anticipate that the player choosing the beast domain will choose two other domains that have a lot of monsters in so that they can power up thier own ability. Their opponent might decide to be a god of water. This gives them access to the powerful flood card and its “Destroy all monsters in play” ability.

So is the champion of beasts any good? Are they a decent 7 because their owner will synergise with three monsters, or are they weak because they signal a creature type giving the opponent information to exploit?

The second order balancing problem is “How do I make sure each domain has roughly equal power, accounting for the fact that players will choose other cards knowing it’s in play?”

But wait, it gets worse! Suppose I have chosen to be the god of beasts and my opponent has decided to counter by being a god of water. I still want to play monsters to get my bonus, but have to account for the possibility that my opponent will play “kill all monsters”. Can I do anything about that?

You bet I can! I could decide to be a god of weather and have beasts with the “Unaffected by abilities that cause instant kills” or I could be a god if disaster and have “Destroy and protect effects are reversed, all destroy powers protect and all protect powers destroy”. My opponent has similar options, they could see that I’ve planned for their plan, but they can plan for my plan that I’ve planned for thier plan! Perhaps they’ll take “God of fear” with its “Target does not get to use its ability” powers.

Which gives us a tough time of balancing – because in order to determine how powerful we think the beasts domain is we’re now taking into account the existence of the fear domain. But, when it’s time to edit the fear domain, we need to take into account the existence of the beasts domain.

Which gives us the third order problem that languidly brings us to the point of this post: “How do I make sure each domain has roughly equal power, accounting for the fact that players will choose other cards knowing its in play and then choose cards knowing *those* cards are in play?”

“Not easily”

Now the ultimate answer is, of course, the same as it always is: Lots of playtesting!

No matter what tricks we try to pull there’s no substitute for watching the game played lots of times and seeing which domains tend to win and lose and making changes based on that.

But with the interconnectedness of all cards being what it is, there’s a huge advantage to starting playtesting from a position that’s closer to our goal state than one at random. So let’s consider what we can do.

The obvious first step is to aim for the champions of each domain to have the same total power – since printed power ranges 1-9 then an average of 5 might seem appropriate. However we intend to reduce power totals later in line with how good the cards abilities are, so actually starting at an average of 6 or 7 seems like a smarter idea.

The next step is harder, which is to determine the average value of abilities and adjust the power of cards downwards accordingly. Here the goal is to make a determination of how much an ability is worth and remove the appropriate amount of power form some card in its domain.

Now a player can enhance an ability by playing cards it synergises with and their opponent can do the opposite. The active player has an advantage here since they know when they’re going to play the second half of the combo, but their opponent might get their timing wrong. However the active player might not want to pair it with the best possible option to make it harder for their opponent to predict and counter. Here I make the following assumption “The value of an ability is worth approximately what it’ll be worth when combo’d with the second best option in a situation that’s halfway between a random situation and the optimal position to play that ability in.” and go forward on that basis.

The third step is the hardest, how best to account for possible counterplay? Here I forget about balancing individual abilities and try to address the problem through a design philosophy. The philosophy is simply this: “Any tactic that is anticipated and properly countered will be utterly crushed.”

The core of the game is selecting champions and using them at the right moment to maximise their effectiveness. Perfect timing should be rewarded and implementing this philosophy means every ability has the same value at the third order: It’s always 0 because your opponent has always won. This simplifies the calculation substantially.

This calls for the game to contain cards which are very strong given the right predictions. “Kill all X” are highly effective, so long as every card has a class and every class has at least one kill all associated. Also cards of a form “Make a prediction about the card your opponent has chosen but not yet revealed, if you’re right then kill it.” Then things that counter or reverse particular abilities like “Your opponents card targets itself rather than its intended target” or “Kill powers now protect and protect powers now kill”.

This is a process I’ve now been through with this game over nine times.

Each time I rewrite a great many cards trying to obtain a new balance that makes me happy – one that makes the domains equally likely to win, but also preserves their uniquess and makes the game more about skill than luck. A player needs enough information to make a prediction or the game falls apart – a perfect information zero randomness game can be a game of chance if players don’t make meaningful decisions after all.

The iterations of playtesting are having an impact on how easily I can value abilities. At first “This is worth a +1 that is worth a +2” was pretty much guesswork – but as time goes on I’m more likely to change an ability in a way that is right first time. Or to anticipate how making a change in one place means that something that’s worked just fine for the last three iterations now also needs to change, without needing to see an unenjoyable game to see it happen.

So the advice I wanted to offer was this:

1.It’s good to have some sort of abstract (I hesitate to say necessarily mathematical) model to get your early game as close to a goal as possible before testing.
2. Don’t abandon the model when you start testing. Instead refine it and keep using it, it’ll make each iteration more productive.
3. You can nuke the third order balancing problem by making a certain order of prediction powerful against everything (Though this is only a start).

This game isn’t perfect yet and my approach isn’t perfect either, but that’s where I’m at today. I’ll let you know if it’s any different tomorrow.

(Also no pictures this week because the server won’t let me upload them. How do folks feel about that? Are the pictures adding much and nicely breaking up the text or did they just get in the way?)