Dexterity Games

So lately I’ve been taking a break from serious gaming and trying out some new things, among them is a gem called Cube Quest. This is a game in which, broadly speaking, you roll dice in an attempt to eliminate your opponents pieces. I say “broadly speaking” because by “roll” I mean “flick across the table at your opponents dice army” and by “eliminate” I mean “wildly scatter from the table causing them to become lost in a sea of unsorted game parts”.

cubes

Pew pew!

Playing it has made me consider how a lot of typical aspects of game design do or do not apply to the design of dexterity based games. Specifically I’m concerned with the dexterity based element, an involved game that uses dexterity for the resolution of a particular mechanic is really just using a specialised type of semi-randomiser and is designed traditionally, but a primarily dexterity based game needs some additional considerations.

Accessibility is a problem that needs to be approached differently for a dexterity based game. With traditional game design if using a particular mechanic well is beyond the grasp of a beginner this is a surmountable flaw, as two new players can still enjoy playing against each other and will eventually develop the mastery if they enjoy the game enough to keep at it. However if a dexterity based game requires an action that is entirely beyond the skill of the players the game may not be playable at all, for instance  a mechanic based on how long a player could juggle several of the components would fail entirely if the players did not know how to juggle. For this reason most dexterity based games need to be based on very simple skills that every person possesses, but then must find ways to increase the difficulty. For instance having the cubes far apart, making it desirable for them to land a certain way up, making the position your cube winds up in after striking the target important and so on.

Come to mention it, In a Bind that I discussed a couple of weeks ago does this in a much more direct way. The instructions are simple to the level of “Put your hand on your elbow”, but increase in difficulty simply by virtue of the number of them that there are.

bindcards1

The nature of luck in dexterity games changes too. I’ve written before about the way in which people perceive probability, but adding a dexterity element changes this. Taking a physical action and getting immediate feedback on what the result of this action is makes feelings of agency very accessible. Rolling a 1 never feels like it was in your control, you could not meaningfully have done anything differently to avoid rolling a 1. However failing a dexterity challenge almost always gives some idea about how you could have done it differently, even if it’s just “I should have aimed a little to the left”. It makes it easier for players to feel responsible for the outcomes of their actions, which can be both a blessing and a curse to a designer.

To a large extent players will judge a game based on how it makes them feel to play it. In a dexterity game producing a positive feeling here seems like it should hinge principally on making successful player actions generate results that are more positive than unsuccessful actions generate results that are more negative. Essentially you want the thought “If I can just get this right it’ll be amazing…” to come up more than “I best not fuck this up or I’ll lose…” though both at once can be spectacular.

The nature of this sort of effect can change with the skill or experience of the players. In some games a new player will be frustrated by seeing their opponent put them into a difficult position rather than take an action to improve their own standing, but a more experienced player will take it in their stride. I sometimes wonder if this is due to the experienced player recognising it as a consequence (further removed) of their previous actions rather than something their opponent did to them that they had no control over.

snookered

Having not created and playtested one myself I’m not sure how it works out, but my instinct is that the error rate that players have would make the design more challenging. If I’m working on a game I can usually get an idea for how well a player will deal with a particular situation based on their level of experience and talent, to the point of being able to make statements like “About 30% of new players will make the wrong move in this situation.” That’s something I find useful in balancing the various options that a game offers.

It feels like this would be harder with dexterity based games since the variability between players starting skills would be more dramatic and the rate at which experience with a particular task improves performance would be much higher. Possibly occurring significantly within the scope of one game.

I’ve already written about the merits of handicapping systems in terms of letting players of different skill levels compete, I think I’d be more inclined to include such a system in dexterity games than in other genres. Perhaps there’s a reason that such things are more common between sportsmen than board gamers in the first place.

In any event, I do have a dexterity game on the drawing board at the moment, so I’m sure I’ll get a chance to wrestle with these issues at some point in the future. Remember this post, so that when Heist is underway we can all look back on it and laugh 😉

5 thoughts on “Dexterity Games

  1. Great article on dex games Greg. I think you have good instincts here. And I hope I can offer some insights because I’ve designed a dex game called Monstrous (see http://www.secretbasegames.com) which will be crowdfunding soon.

    Context:

    The design goals were to make a light, quick, and highly tactical dexterity game where theme and mechanics meshed well.

    Players are cranky Greek gods standing around a table of ancient Greece literally throwing monster cards down at Greek city tiles to send humans back into the temples in prayer, generating gods Faith (VPs).

    Monsters have powers usually triggered when they hit something, and locations have powers and score faith too. The powers are very thematic which really aids immersion and makes you feel like you are throwing representations of monsters, godlike.

    Things I discovered through design and development of this dex game:

    1. Short dex games are good. (mine ranges from 7 – 15 turns per player taken over 15 to 20 minutes.)
    2. Short turns are good. (Monstrous has a base turn of 1 throw which can sometimes be increased). I had to reduce the potential for multiple throws per turn to maintain player engagement.
    3. The feeling of success satisfaction is really high. Sometimes crazy high. I regularly see people fist pump when they land on target for a key tactical play. There is a more noticable physical reaction to the absolute excitement of hit / miss.
    4. Players blame themselves not the game if they fail. The downside here is that if they are bad at dexterity, the game may hold minimal engagement for them despite everything else.
    5. Like with many games, it’s good to have ways to encourage engagement outside of your turn. (Monstrous has some trap monsters who’s powers trigger first when they are hit, so you usually have an interest in play outside your turn.)
    6. Its good to have mental choices (eg Monster card power options) to layer over dexterous objectives. It creates a delicious combination and maintains the appeal to thinkers.
    7. I think the game will tend more tactics than strategy because the game state will be highly variable and unpredictable. This focuses the mind on what is the best opportunity right now.
    8. You want primarily instant and easy to measure rewards for success to mirror the sorta instantaneous hit / miss game play tempo (Monstrous has Faith that you collect at end of turn after resolving card effects.)
    9. I think its good for options to change but generally increase throughout the game (There tend to be less available primary targets, locations, later in a game of Monstrous, but more secondary targets, other monsters, as the game proceeds.)
    10. Experience at the type of dex is definitely key. The off hand handicap is possible.

    One final thing.

    Some gamers dislike or have no interest in dex games and look down on them as intellectually inferior. You can win some of them over, but not all. That’s life.

  2. Sounds like a neat game 🙂 If ya fancy sending me a copy while your campaign is live I’ll do a review thingy. In any event good luck to you!

    Some of your comments made me question whether dexterity games have to be light games. I can’t think of any serious counter examples currently on the market, but it seems to me that the traits of light games are often considered to be the traits of dexterity games and I don’t know if that *has* to be the case. I’m tempted to knock together a 2 hour deep strategy dexterity game and see if it can be made to work 😉

    Folks claim to dislike a lot of things, but only until they find something special that does it well. I can think of plenty of converts from the “I don’t like games with X” camps. Hell, Wizard’s Academy has done that to some people with respect to memory games.

    Hope all goes well 🙂

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  4. Thanks for the offer Greg. I will take you up on that most likely.

    Yeah you may be right about the preference for short time frame assumption I’ve made. But my gut tells me that will be more true when you have differing skill levels too.

    I’ve certainly found that while enticing public play testers at cons, my pitch of “Wanna be a god and lay some smackdown on humanity for 15 minutes?” seems to work pretty well.

    Rampage seems to have a very bitsy and time consuming setup which I’m not sure enamors it to many players.

    But the perfect minimum setup, 2 hour strategic dex game may well be busting to get out of you!

  5. Cool, I’ll look forward to it 🙂

    Oh, I’m sure it’s right for your game, your other design decisions will have been in support of it after all. I was just questioning whether it’s universally true.

    Short games do very well at conventions, I have trouble getting people to give longer games a go in that environment because there’s so much to see and do and a limited time to get around everything. I find the inverse to be true at local game meetups, people want to play big games that take up most of their evening and don’t have much patience for short ones (unless they’re waiting for friends or another group to finish).

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