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 😉