The unhelpful hand of fate

In Wizard’s Academy I wrote a rule called the helpful hand of fate. It’s a simple rule: Whenever the rules are ambiguous the players may choose what happens. Rules like this are pretty common in cooperative games. The much lauded Gloomhaven will allow the players to choose where a monster goes when its AI generates ambiguity. This sort of rule allows the designer to cover a host of situations that emerge from more complex rule sets without needing a lot of edge case rules. They also give the players an extra decision point, which can come with the opportunity to demonstrate skill if which outcome will benefit the group is ambiguous enough.

I’ve never seen the alternative used. I cannot think of one game that uses the ‘unhelpful hand of fate’ which asks a group to pick whichever outcome will benefit the group the least.

I can imagine how a game might benefit from it. It could be used to establish an hostile atmosphere, which suits games like Dark Souls. It could narrow the difference between the high-skill and low-skill experience, as a more experienced group would more successfully identify the resolutions that would harm them the most.

I have ideas about where it might go wrong. I think players might attribute mistakes differently – in “pick the best” if someone winds up picking something that makes the game harder then at worst they’re bad at the game. Conversely in “pick the worst” if someone winds up picking something that makes the game better they might be cheating.

I suspect players judgements of themselves will be more relevant here than the judgements of others. Few players are willing to make an accusation of cheating, they are even reluctant if someone at the table flagrantly is. On the other hand relatively many players may punish themselves asking “Did I really resolve that in the manner that was worse for me or on some level did I make it move East because I knew it would work out?”

There may also be problems if it asymmetrically affects different players. If you’re picking the best then “A bad thing happens to me or to someone else” can be talked about. You can argue why it’s best for it not to hit you and how you will benefit the group. On the other hand trying to argue that you could easily deal with it and it’d be worse for it to hit the other person just seems…mean? It seems like something that might undermine the spirit of a cooperative game and group cohesion. In “pick best” confidence leads to sacrifice for the group, in “pick worst” confidence leads to saying you have to kick the less confident player when they’re down. And argue the case for that. That feels like it might be off.

That said, I have to say “I suspect” and “feels like” because I’ve never actually playtested an unhelpful hand of fate rule. Instinctively I feel like it wouldn’t work. More I feel like I’d find myself uncomfortable playing such a game, cursing the designer for not making a less ambiguous resolution method. On the other hand I’m perfectly happy playing games with the opposite rule and objectively I can’t think of a reason that picking the best should be any less difficult or ambiguous than picking the worst.

I’d be interested to know if anyone has ever heard of a game using such a rule or if anyone has ever had direct experience of playtesting one

Finding The Minimum Viable Game

Conventional wisdom dictates that it’s best to start with the most refined, precise possible example of your game before adding extra stuff. There’s a logic to this: Your extras depend on the core game and altering the core game will often mean discarding or at least mutilating them. If you design a really cool movement special ability before you’ve made sure your system for movement does the job then you’ll put yourself in a position of either deleting something that’s working great or having bad decisions at a lower level locked in.

To counter this you build the minimum playable version of your game, test and refine that until your core is great, then add things to the working core.

A lovely idea in principle, but how do you decide what the minimal viable version of your game is?

Let’s pretend you are the designer of Dominion (Unless you are Donald X in which case you don’t have to pretend) and have decided to work on the MVG before designing all of those fiddly special actions. What exactly is that?

Is it a game with only copper and estates? That’s enough to have a choice of what to buy every round and shows off the core tension between “I need points to win but points make it harder to buy stuff”

Or does it need to contain gold too? So you get that effect in which adding a lower value treasure is helpful early on but its presence will become detrimental later?

Or does it need at least one action card because they’re a fundamental part of the game and also running out action card piles is part of the game over condition.

Or does it need at least two action cards because the limit on how many can be played is part of the game and having one that allows +action and one that doesn’t is part of the core game?

The minimum viable game is a non-trivial problem. If you tried to refine the game from just having a copper pile and estate pile you’d either find you couldn’t make your supposed core fun to play no matter what or copper and estates would become complex in ways that mutated the game beyond all recognition.

On the other hand you could just as easily justify to yourself that you have to include everything for one reason or another which defeats the point of the exercise.

Personally I reckon it’d be somewhere around having the treasure and vp cards and 3-4 action cards that are intended as archetypical examples of common things players will do (Say Village, Smithy, Remodel, Militia and Woodcutter). But there’s no hard and fast way to say “Yeah, that’s the right amount of fancy actions for the game to be enjoyable so I can test and refine on that without getting bogged down in making others that might be made redundant as I change things”. It’s obvious that having none leaves you with something that’s not really much of a game, but for any particular list you could almost always justify removing some member from it.

So given those limitations how do you find the MVG for your own design?

Coming back to your games interesting decisions is never a bad move. If a game is a series of interesting choices, then the minimal viable game is the parts of the game sufficient to produce its most interesting choice.

Start by asking “At what moment will a player of this game go ‘I want to X and I want to Y, but if X then not Y but if Y then not X” Then once that’s identified look at what’s needed for that choice to work.

That’s not limited just to creating the choice, but also in making it have payoff. Sure the player has to have (at least) two options, but there has to be enough going on that it’s not trivially obvious which they should pick. There also needs to be a result that’ll let a player look back and see if they made that choice poorly or well.

Sometimes this requires things that are like the icing on the cake. It could be that the core of your game doesn’t work unless everyone’s got a special power or there are cards that create exceptions or whatever. That’s fine, your minimum game doesn’t have to be about “Destroy everything that looks like a sprinkle”, but it should manage “Use the minimum number of sprinkles”. If two different powers are enough to test that the core of your game is up to holding the weight of everything else you want to put on it then you don’t even need to design enough to get the game going at its highest player count.

Your minimum viable game might not be that minimal, in order to be viable, but it’s worth knowing what it is. Having a clear idea of what your core is, why it works, what’s critical to it and what’s you expanding on it will help with every other thing.

What does the minimal version of the last game you played look like?


I had an interesting experience working on Genesis the last couple of weeks. It involved spending money on things we turned out not to need and making changes then reversing them and did something to make me think of icons differently. I thought I’d share it in the hopes of preventing other people from making similar mistakes.

In this game the players are gods, each god has several purviews (Like mastery over water, death and animals or whatever) and each purview has a champion. Here’s Ripple, the champion of water, as her card appeared at the start of that time:

Obviously this is prototype time. The final thing won’t look like this and that’s not our art. It’s getting nowhere near a finished product. Just something to fill the space till we’ve paid an artist to draw something specially for the game.

I want to draw your attention to the icon at the bottom left. That’s a free icon from  which is a fantastic resource for any designer in the process of prototyping a game. The icons can even be freely used on a finished commercial product if you like, though generally I try not to.

Anyway do you see how its flecks are escaping the boundaries of the icon? That’s because it’s an icon that’s designed to go onto a square that I’ve put onto a circle. A lot of the games icons are like that, they annoy me every time I look at them.

It also looks bigger than the circle next to it. That’s an optical illusion, you can print the card and cut it in half and match up the circles to prove it to yourself if you like 😉 That they’re different styles makes them look different sizes which is all kinds of messy.

So I asked a designer to get an icon together for me that would fit the imagery of the rest of the card, looking to improve it with some more consistency. This is where I ended up:

Well not quite here – this time the left circle actually is smaller, but that’s my mistake. I don’t seem to have an image from after it was fixed but fixed it was and I got it in front of playtesters.

The feedback was immediate “The old version was better” “We actively liked it that the icon overspilled its bounds”. I figured maybe people liked what they were familiar with so tried playing it with some brand new people showing both sets of cards and saying “We’ve not settled on a direction”. It was unanimous – the coloured icons were preferred.

There was other feedback too and I continue to work on the game, changing the design in accordance with things people suggest and working on balance tweaks here and there. Here’s Ripple in the version I’m testing at the moment:

So what did I learn from all of this?

Well firstly that I need to be aware of my own perceptions. A lot of designers get games wrong for colourblind people because they’re not colourblind.

Conversely I am colourblind and pay little attention to it as a signifier. Moving all of the icons into the same palette significantly increased the time it took players to figure what did what. Only by seconds, but an increase in seconds for a task that’s done a lot of time in a game can be the difference between something which plays smoothly and something which feels juddery and uncertain.

Just because I recognise icons by shape first doesn’t mean other people aren’t seeing colour first and having them all be different colours makes it easier and faster for players to recognise them and make judgements.

Secondly I would never in a million years have asked a designer to draw me an icon using an instruction like “I need a 15mm circle with an icon inside it, but the icon should overflow the limits of the circle going up to 3mm over the line” but the proportion of players who thought that was a deliberate design choice and liked it is somewhat mindboggling. I’m sure someone drawing to make that an interesting style on purpose can do a better job than I did by just putting a square peg in a round hole – but I’ll get someone to knock together some icons like that deliberately drawn and see if we can’t improve the process while taking advantage of a happy accident.

I’m still not sure how to face the “optical illusion makes coloured icon next to the other icon look bigger” thing, especially if the icon overlapping its bonds is part of that, but I’m going to try a bunch of stuff.

When we test something we don’t always wind up testing what we intended to, but I think it’s good to be open to new ideas.

Double It

In the back of one of the manuals for the Civilization computer games – I forget which one – there’s a section that talks about how the game was designed. This contains a nugget of wisdom for game designers of any stripe: “If something isn’t working, double it or halve it.”

I think that this principle is a very sound one. Suppose you have a situation like “The penalty for juggling while skateboarding isn’t high enough – nobody feels its that difficult in game, though everyone agrees it would actually make it quite a lot harder in the real world. Plus the guy who can force people to skateboard feels way underpowered because putting people on skateboards is barely impacting their juggling at all.”

It might be tempting to increase the penalty by one and see if it makes a difference. The problem is that playtesting tends to produce a fairly limited set of data points, because of random variance (Even if the game has no randomness the skill of the players you have is a factor and even if you are testing with the same players over and over they will have good days and bad days). It’s fully possible to have an experience where something is weak, so you make it more powerful and then to play a half dozen games in which it does even worse. Just by chance.

So to actually see the difference there’s a sense to making big changes. We’ll not increase the penalty by one – we’ll double it! It may well be that doubling makes it waaay too hard to juggle while skateboarding, but if that’s the case you know the undoubled variable was a little too small and doubled was far too high and that gives you information to pick the right point in between. Compared to the very real chance of learning nothing with a one point bump, there’s a good argument for doubling.

The thing about doubling is that you really have to understand where your zero point is.

Imagine two systems for a game.
In system A I roll D6 + 3 and need to get a 7+
In system B I roll D12 + 3 and need to get a 9+
The chance of success in both are the same. But if (for whatever reason) we double that +3 then they change a lot. I don’t know about you, but I’d be super confident of rolling 7 or higher on D6+6.

The trick is to understand what doubling something actually *is*, specifically it’s making it twice as big relative to zero. However in our first game zero is clearly not the default state, presumably when we set the target as “7+” we anticipated that under normal conditions the player would have some sort of bonus to the roll. Perhaps in the average situation a player has +1 to this roll – in that case we should treat that average case as zero and double relative to that. So when we want to double our +3 modifier rather than doubling the number itself we double the difference between it and the zero point, making it a +5.

If you’re feeling fancy you could look at the ratio of success to failure and aim to double that rather than doing anything with the raw numbers. D6+3 will have a ratio of 1:1 between successes and failures, so we might want to double that to 2:1, which means wanting a 66% chance of success. That means we want 3/6 sides of the dice to result in success and so can make the modifier D6+4 – it turns out that the random factor and target numbers we’re working with are sufficiently small that in this case a one point bump does make a big enough difference!

I’ve been doing a lot of this with Genesis recently, having built up datasets to the point that they show me which things it’s great to be a god of (Fire, Showmanship) and which ones tend to lead to failure (Madness, Undead) I wanted to make a new version to rebalance things. However it takes a *lot* of plays to get a decent amount of data for Genesis since a lot of the gods aren’t used in any given game so keeping the number of iterations down is important. That means adopting a policy of making significant changes that are going to show enough of a difference to meaningfully drive decisions, but doubling the level of a card in this game isn’t something that makes sense. A card is level 1-10 so fully half of them can’t be doubled without extending the range. It’s been better to look at “How many other cards in the game will this beat” and to aim to change that number significantly, though of course changing any card slightly changes that number for every other card 😉

The point is that while doubling a thing feels dramatic making big changes during testing is healthy. You learn more than small changes and sometimes it turns out that a big change is what you needed and you can keep it as is. The rule of “double” isn’t necessarily important so much as the overall philosophy, but if you do want to keep it the trick is to be mindful of what you’re doubling and relative to what zero point: Raw numbers often don’t tell the whole story.

Thematic Dice Rolling Systems

A while back I wrote an article comparing different ways to roll some dice and get a result that produced the same average result but had different probability profiles. Today I wanted to talk about a way to make use of some of those features: Making the method of dice rolling tie into the theme of a game.

Consider Zombicide. If we grab ourselves a precision rifle and fire on a zombie we roll 1D6 and will kill it on a 3+. One the other hand if we go for the submachinegun we roll 3D6 and will kill it if any of them work out as a 5+. The rules never explicitly state “Accurate weapons roll fewer dice but need lower numbers to hit, inaccurate ones do the opposite” but the pattern is established through repetition on most of the games weapons.

This is a good feature for a game to have. Ideally a game should have a lot of little things that are needed for the game to progress and serve other gameplay purposes building on each other to establish links between the theme of the game and what the players are actually doing. Even if the probability is the same if you set off some kind of huge explosion throwing a large pile of dice is more satisfyingly “explosiony” than throwing a small pile.

However as well as the visceral feel we should also remember what different systems do to the probability curve. Thematically you might want an explosion to be and feel chaotic compared to – say – a sniper. Throwing a boatload of dice has that visceral feel, but in terms of what it actually does the “many dice” thing tends to be more reliable because when you roll several dice together you get a bell curve. That is to say that the average result occurs more often and the extreme result less often, compared to rolling one dice where rolling a middle number and rolling the highest or lowest number all have the same chance to happen.

So are we stuck in a situation where the visceral feel of a thing is directly opposed to its actual effect on the game? Of course not!

We can think about how we apply modifiers. If someone is rolling some D6s and needs X+ on each one to get a hit we’ve got three levers: We can change how many dice are rolled, we can change what result is needed for a hit and we can change how many hits are needed.

On a side note, it’s generally desirable to modify as few things as possible so that when someone sees “-1” they know what it applies to because the game is consistent – but it’s still worth considering which one to modify.

If a modifier applies to the number of dice it has a more profound effect on “1D6 3+” than “3D6 5+”. Adding an extra dice increases the chance of success by 23% for the first pool, only by 9% for the second. Taking one away is even more profound since with zero dice the first pool can’t succeed at all.

By contrast if it applies to the number that has to be rolled it will affect the “Big dice, high number needed” pool more dramatically since that target number applies to every dice and it has more dice to be affected.

So if we’re looking to make it so that we can use a big pile of dice for explosions or shotguns or risky behaviour in general but also have the probability profile make those things riskier rather than more certain – where does this mean we put our modifiers?

The answer is “It depends”. Specifically it depends on why you might be modifying a dice roll. If the most common sort of modifier is a positive modifier because the character doing it is really skilled it makes the most sense for it to be a dice modifier. That way a skilled character gets the most out of doing a precision activity – the game will “feel right” when a champion marksman adds more to a sniper rifle than a scattergun.

On the other hand if the most common modifiers are negative situational modifiers because the weapon’s old or you moved or whatever then applying them to the target number may have the desired effect. The chaotic weapon will break down when the circumstances are against it but the reliable one will – well – be reliable.

Modifiers aren’t our only option either. A lot of games use rerolls as a means to provide reliability. If you’re happy that your game won’t be slowed down too much by the extra decision and roll step involved in having one then providing them can be a way to distinguish risky but dynamic actions from reliable less dynamic ones. That way we can still give our grenade a huge dice pool but make our sniper rifle’s smaller dice pool stick more closely to the bell curve – if the pool is smaller but less than half the size then providing one reroll makes it effectively larger in terms of reliability – so it can be small for the visceral action of picking dice up and doing things with them but large in the abstract mathematical sense of how it actually behaves.

Finally – the most important thing to consider is how a game breaks free of a fail/success binary. The examples above talked about “Roll one hit to succeed” but even in the Zombicide example, there’s a reason to roll more than one hit. If the player scores several hits they kill several zombies – good times.

This feeds into the theme as well. It means that “3D6 5+” has an advantage over “1D6 3+” not only in having a better average and being able to more consistently score a success – but also in that it can potentially kill up to 3 zombies where the other version will only ever kill 1.

It didn’t have to be this way – the rule could have been “Look at only the highest dice, if it’s below the target number nothing happens, otherwise it kills a zombie plus an additional zombie for each point it exceeds the target by”. Then a 3+ could kill up to 4 zombies and 5+ could only get 2 even if it had lots of dice.

The rule makes sense for that game – it’s intuitive that a spray of automatic fire could kill several zombies were one very well placed shot usually wouldn’t – but perhaps your game isn’t about shooting zombies. Perhaps your player is rolling for their ad campaign to convince the nation that keeping the planet inhabitable to humans is more important than saving a few quid on groceries. If your critical success is “Convinced some persuasive celebrity” then maybe a “Brute force the campaign with lots of money” approach should roll lots of dice and be consistently effective, but you want the best chance of a critical effect to lie with a “Carefully targetted ads” approach.

There’s not only one way to do these things – the point of this article is to remind us to be conscious of them. There are a hundred ways to resolve “I’d like the player to throw some randomisers to see if this works” into a rule. It’s worth taking the time to pick the one that not only makes your game work best as an abstract mathematical model, but also the one that’ll help players to be invested in the theme and for the things that happen to seem like they intuitively make sense from the actions the mechanics are describing.

Know what you don’t want

A brief apology for missing last week’s update – my spine failed while I was swimming and made a semi-convincing attempt to drown me (but it’ll have to try harder than that!) I’ll write a bonus post next week to make up for it 🙂

Genesis Icons

I recently hired a graphic designer to put together some icons for the upcoming Genesis game. I told them that I needed icons for a number of different domains, which would be things gods had power over. So a water icon for the god of water, a death icon for the god of death and so on. Specified the size of the icon, showed the graphic design it was going to slot into, provided some hex codes for the colour palette I wanted to use and left it with him. Here’s the first draft that got sent to me for approval:

Continue reading

Artists Brief

During 404:Law Not Found I wrote a post about how well it worked to give artists a really broad brief. I’d asked the guy doing the cover of the game “Draw something with robots, during the game they will do these 15 visually interesting things, pick 3-5 and put them all onto a cover.” The result was great so I wrote about how good it is to give artists a broad brief and trust them as experts to create something fantastic!

Other Approaches

I’ve finished another five games since then and worked with a variety of artists under a different conditions and would like to update my thoughts with the benefit of greater experience.

Famously the Dunning-Kruger effect describes a phenomenon where the more you learn the less you think you know. This accurately describes my experience in this field! I no longer think that I know the best way for working with any artist, because I’ve seen a much greater variety of artists and worked in a greater variety of styles.

The trick is to find the right style for the right artist. You’ll typically pick an artist to work with based on their previous portfolio and being impressed with how well they can do work in the style you’re interested in for your game. Unless you have very good information you’re really unlikely to pick an artist on the basis of the approach they have to working with you.

This is also a reflexive problem because artists will show a portfolio of their work but won’t show something saying “I like working in this way” because they’re doing the same in the opposite direction 😉 Each one has had a range of clients and have worked differently with different clients and are trying to pick the right approach to suit each client.

So you tend to pick artists knowing a lot about their art and relatively little about how they work best and have to figure that out later. And that’s okay, since the art is the main thing, but a good way to work goes a long way towards getting the best art for the game (or other project).

Art Brief

Once you’ve hired an artist they’ll expect you to tell them what to draw. Let’s pretend we live in a world where the idea of King Arthur doesn’t exist and we’ve made him up for a board game and are trying to express how to draw him. How do we describe that to an artist?

“I would like you to draw a tall man in his late twenties early thirties with blue eyes and straight blonde hair down just past his shoulders. He should have an athletic frame, though largely obscured by plate armour. The armour should be metallic and shiny, reflecting light towards the viewer. He should have a sword and shield, the sword in his right hand. The sword should be large, have a golden crossguard, but be pointed into the ground – the image is of him standing at rest rather than attacking someone. The shield should be white with a red cross. Rather than a helmet he should wear a golden crown.”

“I would like you to draw King Arthur. First an foremost he’s a knight, honourable, pure, righteous. He is Christian and he is king of England. He has a magic sword that was bequeathed on him by the lady in the lake. He is a just ruler and tries to make sure that all of his knights voices are considered equally around his round table. He wasn’t born into the king thing, it’s something he came into from a common background, at the time the game’s set he’s pretty new to it.”

“I would like you to draw the leader character for my game. The power their player gets it to be able to choose another player to draw a card each turn – so the big thing really is being able to contribute to the successes of the characters followers. The art also needs to show that the character is a “knight” type. That means that cards which affect knights can affect that player. These are typically themed around stuff which plays on a knights honour or stuff to do with the physical trappings of being a knight (Like “broken sword” or things like that)”

“I would like you to draw a character for my game. They should look like this:
The blonde anime character has the best hair, the armour with the cross has the best heradlry, the guy with the mace has a good face structure but is too dour. The first one has the best armour. Just put those together and make a new character.”

Consider how the same artist might draw different things in response to those different requests. The first one might get you the closest to what you’re imagining, but is also something of a straightjacket – the artist may have had a better idea that gets lost because it’s so specific.

The second means you get something that symbolises what you’re looking for, but it might be totally different to what you’ve imagined and you’d have no basis to complain if it were. For instance the sword might have sea serpent imagery because it came from the lake. Or he might have armour that looks like he’s got a stylised collar like a catholic priest. Or any number of other ways those words could be interpreted.

The third focuses on mechanics and means that you’ll get a consistency between your mechanics and art. If you’ve told your artist “This is a knight type” and what that means in game about a half dozen characters then there’s a good chance there’ll be visual similarities between all of your knights that makes it feel more intuitive when the knight affecting cards hit em. This is something that’s changed in how Magic commissions art over the years – in the early editions they didn’t tell artists whether creatures they were drawing had the “fly” mechanic or not and there were loads of depictions of flying creatures that could not fly – something they explicitly changed down the line. Of course only talking about mechanics has resulted in a brief that could be wildly different to how the designer might have imagined him: There’s nothing there to say this isn’t a middle aged female asian leader like Cheng I Sao (but less pirate and more knight).

The fourth has the advantage of overcoming a designers inability to describe things. A picture says a thousand words – describing a face in just words tends to result in a childs finger painting at best (police sketch artists are wizards) – being able to point and say “That one. Ooh with that guys moustache. And that ones shield.” is pretty good. Most artists can blend inspirations like this well, a few don’t like it because it feels derivative, though that’s the minority.


In reality you’re going to combine approaches. Say a little about appearance, show an image or two, mention relevant mechanics (especially if they’re recurring) and say a little about story (since some artists get inspired to add things) and so on.

But each artist likes a different mix, some want loads of reference images, some want really detailed physical descriptions, some want to be told a story of key personality traits and to make up their own details (So long as they feel comfortable you won’t balk and declare something not what you wanted after a lot of work).

As far as I can tell the best thing to do is treat it like you’re about to have kinky sex. You both know what you want and have some oddly specific expertise, but don’t really know what the other person wants and are aware there’s a variety of tastes. It’s a little awkward to stop and talk about it rather than just jumping into what you came here to do – but well worth taking the time to communicate in terms of how things turn out.

I try to let artists know that I’ve generally been delighted with what’s come out of letting high quality artists draw what they want to draw and that so long as they run it by me first – up to and including major changes like flipping a character’s gender or race. I tend to engage an artist before I’ve finished the final balance pass of a game so that I’ve got some wiggle room if a piece of art makes me go “Wow, that is such a cool detail, there really should be some small thing about that in the game proper.”

I like to show a brief for something that’s got a bit of a balance between different types of information and ask for feedback on the brief itself. I think a lot of artists find that odd or unexpected – I’m paying them so in theory I can just say “Hop to it” – it’s unsettling to the natural order for someone to say “Is it okay if I ask you to do it like this” I’ve generally had good results from it though. It’s amazing how many people will think “This brief sucks, I needed those details and this crap is irrelevant” and grumble about it to their mates but won’t tell the client. It’s a good place to actively solicit feedback because 20 minutes spent discussing what sort of information this particular artist likes emphasised in their briefs can save a phenomenal amount of wasted time and money down the line.

If there’s one takeaway I wanted to offer writing about this – it’s that! Don’t jump straight into talking about the work, talk about how to talk about the work first 😉 Not all artists are the same, not all projects are the same, the very best approach for your game will depend upon the individual game and the individual artist. And you want to make the very best game you can, right?


This blog is generally aimed at game designers (and gamers who are interested in how the sausages are made) but I think I’ll cross post to art and graphic design to get some feedback on these ideas from artists. I’ve made a few games and worked with a few artists and that’s made me aware of the scope of things that I don’t know. There are many more games and many more artists out there and I would therefore predict untold vistas of things I don’t know! If you’re an artist reading this I’d love to hear your thoughts, both on the subject in general and in what you personally find to be a really useful brief.

The Paradox of Catch Up Mechanics

Playing Power Grid the other day I thought “I could build an extra house, but I don’t want to, because then I’ll buy resources later and that’ll cost more money than the extra house would earn”. There’s a mechanic that penalises the player who’s ahead so good play becomes – in part – about fooling the mechanic so that the game thinks someone else is in the lead.

Fooling the Game is Good Play

There are a lot of games with catch up mechanics where a bonus is offered to a player who’s losing or a penalty is applied to one who is ahead. Playing these games well often involves manipulating the metric that the game uses to determine who’s winning so that it does a poor job at detecting your progress.

This is true even of “soft” catch up mechanics that have no formal implementation. When Munchkin was popular with groups I played with people very quickly realised that the first player to level nine almost never won. There’s no formal catch up mechanic but players are obliged to draw cards of the form “Play when another player tries to do something, it goes horribly, sucks to be them.” so inevitably the first person to nearly win would face a slew of these. The single skill most consistently correlated with winning was an ability to fool other players into believing that you expended all of your ‘screw you’ cards on the last player’s near victory so that they squander theirs on the current player, you can stop them and there’s nobody left with resources to oppose your final fight.

Whether you’re fooling people or systems, convincing them you’re behind improves your chances.

The Paradox of Catch Up Mechanics

A catch up mechanic needs to determine which players are winning and losing to be effective.

Who will benefit from the catch up mechanic is a factor in determining which players are winning and losing.

I’m convinced that a truly accurate catch up mechanic would find itself in a paradox really quickly. I can see it being of the form “Jeff has the least stuff so we’ll let him buy the cheap resources but if Jeff gets the cheap resources their value exceeds that of the difference between how much stuff he and Sally have. So really Sally is losing so we’ll let her buy the cheap resources, but if Jeff doesn’t get the cheap resources…”

So What’s the Point?

Honestly, I don’t know. We’re all going to die in the end anyway.

But in terms of catch up mechanics they might not achieve “Find weakest player, help them catch up” but they’re still doing something valuable.

If a winning player determines that their best move is to use their advantageous position to break some of their things or trade away useful resources inefficiently in order to get the catch up mechanic bonus – they are still breaking some of their things or trading away useful resources inefficiently.

Consider the following:

We’re playing a game and I’m winning.

I have 8 points and the option to add or subtract 2 from my score

You have 7 points and have used up all of your options for this turn

At the end of the turn whoever has the least points gets a 3 point bonus

If I add to my score I go up to 10 and you get the bonus, also hitting 10 – we’re tied!

If I subtract from my score then I go to 6 but then claim the bonus shooting up to 9, while you’re still on 7 – I’m two points ahead!

So in the surface because I’m winning and have more effective options I can manipulate the catch up mechanic so it benefits me and not you. Leaving me 2 points ahead by abusing a mechanic that was supposed to help you.

Digging a little deeper however, consider what happens if we delete the catch up mechanic: In that instance I add 2 to my score and am leading 10-7 – I’m three points ahead!

So despite the fact that I got the bonus from the catch up mechanic and it didn’t change your score one iota, the mere fact that it existed meant that I’m leading by 2 points rather than 3. Just be encouraging me to make the otherwise suboptimal move of subtracting two from my score.

Catch Up Mechanics as Incentives

The problem that I’d identified was not in catch up mechanics themselves but in how I’ve been conceptualising them.

“A catch up mechanic is a mechanic that identifies the losing player and gives them a boost allowing them to catch up” was the wrong way to think about them.

“A catch up mechanic is an incentive for a leader to make moves that would otherwise be suboptimal to allow others to catch up” seems a better way to conceptualise it.

This way of looking at them leads to some differences in how they’re designed. It seems naïve to go “We’ll assume our players play the same way as if the mechanic didn’t exist and offer people who are behind a leg up” when players are generally pretty good at games and taking advantage of the rules in order to win.

Instead respecting the players capabilities and going “Everyone will try to use the mechanic, including the current leader, who may even have a greater ability to access it if their position has given them more options. The goal is to make sure that when the leader is encouraged to use it the price of doing so is smaller than the reward, but the net effect is that they can’t be a runaway leader because they’re still paying those prices.”

A Good Catch Up Mechanic

Viewed through this lens a good catch up mechanic has these traits:

Stratified: If there are multiple players having the mechanic be effective at each step means careful thought needs to go into when to use it and when to pull ahead. If there’s no advantage in dropping from 1st to 2nd place it won’t work because the boost won’t be big enough to justify dropping 1st to 5th

Positive: If a catch up mechanic is adding to a players progress then each round everyone will progress, even if some players are deliberately losing progress to access the mechanic they wouldn’t bother if the boost didn’t outweigh the loss. A negative catch up mechanic risks creating a game that will never end if the penalty for being ahead is high enough then someone who deliberately backs off and someone who gets hit by it are both behind their starting point and the game may never end.

Manipulable: Players should be able to manipulate the thing that the catch up mechanic is assessing in a timely fashion. If the leader can’t deliberately lose some resources to access it then either it doesn’t propel people past the leader or it was inevitable that someone will be propelled past the leader. In which case they were only ahead on some metric that failed to capture winning since their being surpassed was inevitable.

Costly to Manipulate: There’s no sense in offering a catch up mechanic to whoever has the least cash if players can buy gold, get the mechanic and sell their gold to have the same amount of cash in the very next turn. To work there needs to be some friction in how the mechanic is accessed.

Incidentally you might notice these are all attributes shared by the mechanics of Power Grid and are weak to completely absent for Mario Karts Blue Shells. So I feel like they work for at least those two examples 😉


This week I’ve been testing Genesis and there’s a broad agreement between playtest groups that the most troublesome thing in the game at the moment is if someone decides to be a god of madness. This domain grants the power “This power targets the world, for the rest of the turn any champion with a power that targets one or more champions instead targets only itself.”


It’s a problem because it’s a power that modifies other powers, a metapower, which have two important features:

1) Players get excited about them, they offer a lot of flexibility adding a relatively large number of things someone can do in the game for a relatively small complexity cost. Generally they’re some of the powers that get the most positive feedback.
2) They’re a massive pain in the arse to design because they impact the design of every other power.

The fact that madness exists obliges me to look at every other power and go “What does this power do under the influence of madness? Is it obvious? Is it balanced? Is it interesting?” which is a lot of work for one domain.

It goes beyond individual cards too and into combinations of cards. For instance if there’s nothing in play that can remove a madness wielding champion without directly targeting it then everyone will target themselves constantly all game. This leads to degenerate games where the madness domain might as well read “Stop playing now, the game is won by whoever has the most targetting powers that give bonuses and the fewest that give penalties.”

Metapower Combos

Astute readers may have noticed the construction of the madness power is something that’s necessitated by the existence of powers like it. Having some of the odder powers read “This power targets the world, this rule applies for a turn” means that metapowers that mess with things that target champions exclude them – meaning you don’t get combos of metapowers on metapowers.

Consider a situation like this:

Power1 targets everyone and makes them target themselves.
Power2 targets each players highest level character and makes them target everyone on their own side.
Power3 targets everyone and cancels their powers, making them have no effect.

What the hell happens? Does power 3 make everything have no effect so the other two don’t matter? Or does power 1 mean that power 3 is only making itself have no effect (which means it doesn’t which means it does)? Or does power 2 mean power 1 only applies to its controllers stuff? If that’s true does that mean it then targets only itself so it retroactively doesn’t apply to the rest of its controllers stuff?

You can do metapowers that affect each other, but you either need a rigid framework that makes the ways they influence each other relatively uninteresting or to manage them carefully which creates exponentially more problems the more of them you have.

Implementing Metapowers

Despite the caveats they are neat and offer advantages. Lets agree that we’re going to do them and get into how to implement them.

The main thing to shoot for is consistency of language. This is generally desirable anyway since it makes games easier to learn and rulebooks read more smoothly. For this sort of thing it really matters though. Consider the original wording for the power a player gained if they elected to play as a god of vengeance:

“When this power is in play and a champion dies then the champion with a power that killed them also dies.”

What happens if that power is madness’d? The wording makes it unclear. Consider some alternative wordings:

“This power targets the world. For the rest of this turn if a champion dies the champion with the power that killed them also dies.”
“This power targets all champions. If a target dies, the champion with the power that killed it also dies.”
“This power targets any champion that’s power has killed at least one other champion. The target dies.”

Standardising powers to always start “This power targets X” obliges the power to be worded in such a way that it’s clear. You can see what madness would do for either of these wordings. It opens the way for any number of metapowers of the form “modify target” (So long as there’s some system for how they interact with each other to avert paradoxes)

Astute readers, who get time in the spotlight for the second time this post, will have spotted the problem with all of the suggested vengeance wordings above. Namely that the champion of vengeance always kills itself – since if (say) Water kills Fire then Vengeance kills Water. In that case Vengeance has killed Water so Vengeance kills Vengeance. It needs an exception for itself, but I left that out of the example to keep us on topic 😉

Aside from standardising power wording to make sure that metapowers work consistently there are two other approaches to consider:

The first is to look at every 2 card combination of powers and do a mental “Is this okay? Is it clear what these do together? Does that combination break the game in some critical way?” check.

The second and most important is to do lots of playtesting. You will miss things or a thing will seem clear to you while being obtuse to your players. Always do everything you can that isn’t playtesting before squandering tester time on a thing you could’ve fixed yourself – but never skip playtesting. It’ll catch problems you wouldn’t have dreamed of.

What are We to Do About Madness?

I’ve said what I wanted to about game design in general, but it feels like a tease to discuss a topic on a game I’m working on without describing the resolution.

In reality there isn’t a resolution yet because I’ve written some new versions of the affected cards for the next playtest and that playtest will undoubtedly change things again.

The change I’m looking at is “This power targets each players champion(s) with the lowest level. If they have abilities that target champions they will target only themselves instead of their usual targets. If a champion with this power targets itself its ability is unaffected.”

The reasons for this are:
1) There are some standard forms for the game in there. Opening with explicit target information is standard. “Champion(s) with the lowest/highest level” is standard (and applies a general game rule of “In a tie the thing happens to everyone whose tied”)
2) It moves away from the “targets the world” construction which while hardened against some interactions also makes things less interesting. I’ll revert to targets the world if testing shows this generating more problems.
3) Modifying it only to hit low level champions deals with a lot of the complex interactions. You can’t have degenerate games as easily because someone can drop a high level champion and then a low level champion that targets and kills the madness champion. The most broken combos were madness + domains with high level champions balanced by giving opponents bonuses in some circumstances – these are harder to pull off if the madness card can’t target those high level champions. Low level champions also tend to have more interesting and powerful abilities so hitting everyone’s lowest level champion is likely to preserve the meddling troublemaking options that made people like the madness domain in the first place.

I’ve no idea if it’ll work, but we’ll see after the next playtest.

Incidentally I’m recruiting more testers for this game soon. I worry that my existing testers are too familiar with the game which distorts feedback. If you’re already on the 3DTotal mailing list you’ll get a message about it in a week or two. If you’d be interested in PnPing a version or trying it as a Tabletop Simulator mod drop me a comment or email to [email protected]

Mathematically Equivalent Rules

Why Change A Rule?

Genesis is at a point that it plays great with people who know how to play it and people have started actively requesting it at games nights (Always a good sign that a prototype is approaching being ready for publishing!) However I’m finding a noticeable proportion of new players are having a hard time with the game in places and sometimes it’s a downright unenjoyable experience.

Why Not Change A Rule?

The game is working great. People are really enjoying it and it’s working smoothly and well. The balance is approaching where I want it. Games have emotional high points that I’m pleased to deliver. Feedback is generally good.

How Do We Change Something without Changing It?

We use a mathematically equivalent rule!

Let me give an example:

For most abilities timing doesn’t matter, they can go off more or less simultaneously. However for a few the order makes a difference so these each have a speed from 1-10. You resolve all speed 10 abilities, then speed 9, then speed 8 and so on.

A sticking point for the game was that some players would read the rules, but then treat speed 1 as the fastest and speed 10 as the slowest. When quizzed on how this happens a reason emerges: Players intuited that speed 1 goes 1st and 2 goes 2nd and so on.

So the mathematically equivalent rule in this situation is to simply multiply all speeds by 10. Now cards are speed 10, 20, 30 etc. The problem just disappears, while there’s a reason to intuit 1 is faster than 10, there’s no equivalent to believe 10 might be faster than 100.

Critically this doesn’t change how the game is resolved at all – the same abilities go in the same order under both sets of rules. There is no situation in which using one rule rather than the other changes the outcome (in terms of game state) – but using one rule rather than another changes the outcome (in terms of ability to grasp the rules first time) so it’s clearly a better choice.

I’m pretty sure I’m not the first designer to go through this specific process. In fact as a teenage player some years ago I always thought it was a bit silly that Robo Rally used speeds that were multiples of a hundred. It seemed pointless to busy up the cards with extra digits that were always predictably meaningless. But seeing the difference in how players react: Now I get it.

I wonder just how often designers worry at some problem, hit upon a solution and then realise they’ve seen that solution before but didn’t recognise it as a solution because the problem doesn’t exist in that game?

Another Problem

Presently Genesis abilities often choose targets based on their power and can sometimes modify their power. For instance an ability might be something like “All champions with a power of 5 or less gain +3 power”

Abilities always target based on a cards natural power – under no circumstances will they select a target based on its total modified value. So in the above example if a power 6 card was reduced to 5 by some other ability, it wouldn’t get a +3. The +3 is only for champions with 5 or less printed on the card.

This seemed like a fairly solid rule to me, certainly compared to previous iterations where some things cared about unmodified values and others cared about final values. “Always unmodified” didn’t strike me as difficult.

I dramatically underestimated how complex that’d be for players with different backgrounds. There are a lot of different ways in which people think and some portion of players just can’t grasp “always unmodified” as a rule.

But if we flip it over to abilities like “All champions with a level of 5 or less gain +3 in combat” it becomes easy. It’s exactly the same rule, but moving away from “modified power” and “unmodified power” to two values called different things makes it much easier to intuit.

Alright, but how do we apply this to design in general?

The commonality between situations helped by this sort of intervention is that they have the following traits:

1) The rule works really well for people who understand it.
2) A portion of players play the rule incorrectly.
3) These incorrect plays are due to intuiting a competing rule and the incorrect intuition is known.

From there the rule can be modified to remove the intuited rule as a valid interpretation without changing the thing that’s making it work well for a lot of players.

In the first example the intuition was “1 means 1st” so the modification is to get rid of 1.

In the second example the intuition was “If this alters power I can use it to get the right power to use this other thing that cares about power” so the modification is to stop using the word power to refer to what are essentially two different things.

Sometimes it’s better to embrace the intuition wholesale and actually change the rule to match whatever people intuit that it is. It was an option to change powers to say 1st, 2nd etc. if all powers were in play every turn I’d probably have done that – but in this case avoided it because the notion that 2nd goes 1st (because 1st isn’t in play) might prove equally unintuitive with players trying to execute one of the unmarked powers before it.

So if you’re working on a game, have a quick scan of your playtester feedback and see if you’ve got situations like that. It’s easy to dismiss “We got this rule wrong but then read it again and then it played fine” as something that worked itself out, but it’s perfectly possible to use it to improve the odds that more people will get it right first time.

After all, some players won’t give your game more than one chance 😉