Last weekend I met with a few friends to play games and for whatever reason we decided to play Wizards. It took us six hours to play and it has many of the rough edges that are typically smoothed over in modern game design. We had someone on the edge of victory who then lost all of their progress to a random encounter. We had someone get “Roll D6 take that many extra turns” while in the process of executing their five bonus turns which they’d acquired during a bonus turn. The game is roll and move for crying out loud!
Yet we had a tremendous time, which encourages me to write about game design choices that we’ve now abandoned and under what circumstances they could still have some life in them.
“Gain a turn / Miss a turn” Wizard’s frequently has players miss or gain turns and even escalated it to “Gain D6 turns” on occasion. It’s generally considered bad design not to let your players play the game. Miss a turn accomplishes this in the most direct fashion possible, but gain a turn often achieves approximately the same thing. In most games there’s no practical difference between missing a turn and having every other player take an extra one.
However in reality it is someones turn at any given moment, so there’s always a player who’s getting to engage with the game on that level. So the real danger isn’t so much stopping the game being played as providing even engagement between all players. It’s also a problem that’s related to other areas of a game – how bad is it for it to not be your turn? Well that depends upon whether you can do interesting things off turn, whether watching someone else play is engaging and how long their turn is likely to be.
In real terms it’s better to miss D6 turns that are 30 seconds each than it is to have the same number of turns, but in a game that causes an opponent to stop and think about what they’re doing for a few minutes. There’s no reason that a game couldn’t find a sensitive use for these sort of mechanics if it also manages to do a killer job of resolving downtime issues.
Roll X to continue On my first turn I got a random encounter that was “Stay here until you roll a five or six.” so my first few turns consisted of not rolling fives and sixes. This is the big bad brother of “miss a turn” because in addition to not doing anything of substance with your turns, you don’t know when it’s going to end. Each failed roll does nothing to increase the chances of a subsequent roll being successful, so at any given moment the odds are that next turn is going to suck. You can’t even go and make a cup of tea since the game is still obliging you to do something each turn.
Even in a post about finding the best in everything, it’s tough to see the good in this mechanic. What it does that’s different to simply “Miss X turns” is to create uncertainty and to create a long tailed distribution for the number of turns missed. It could come into its own if it were coupled with something that meant the moment of your reactivation was particularly salient for other players – to create interesting decisions along the lines of “I want to do X, but there’s a risk that if I do she’ll become unstuck this turn and then she’ll Y me right in the Z. Is it worth it?”
It could only work in a game that had addressed the other issues around how dull missing turns can be, but at least in principle the exact moment that a player gets free could be a great source of tension.
Roll to see if you roll Wizard’s sure loved it’s randomisers. Each turn in addition to your movement die, you roll an encounter die to see if you get a random encounter. If you do you roll to see which one you get. The most common result on that table is to draw a card from a deck.
A game exists as a series of meaningful choices, but choice ceases to exist if the outcome is essentially random. A game that uses a randomiser to see if you can use a randomiser to activate a third randomiser is surely reaching the point that your decisions cannot possibly have mattered!
The thing is that there are different types of randomness. Generally input randomness is desirable, something that essentially puts you in a position of “You are in a randomly generated situation, but your tools are predictable, how will you get out of this one?” rather than “You used your tools, let’s see what they did and whether you will succeed.”
There’s also an extent to which greater randomness is more predictable. A single random boon handed out to a player will give that player a large advantage, but several over the course of the game will wind up approximately evenly distributed over all of the players.
An otherwise crunchy game could get an interesting narrative element out of using a series of linked randomisers in order to generate the start state of a game, while presenting a serious skill challenge to players in terms of how they exploit the world generated through this method.
Side note During the writing of this article I found that my intuition regarding multiple randomisers isn’t as true as it’s always seemed to me. Given each player D6 bonus points provides an average advantage of 1.94, doing it each turn for ten turns provides an average advantage of 2.74. Intuitively I felt like applying an even randomiser in each direction would neutralise itself more effectively as the number of trails increases, but apparently not. Though you might view it as “A skilled player can get X more points per turn” so while a random factor every turn has a greater absolute shift, it’s less likely to change the outcome of the game (X – 1.94 will be lower than 10X – 2.74 for most plausible values for X).
Paper tracking In this age of death by a bajillion counters there’s something charming about a game that asks the player to go and find a pen. Obviously moving towards self contained games has been a good thing. It’s nice to open a box and know that you’re going to be able to play, rather than being flummoxed by a lack of some component or other that the designer assumed that you’d have.
On the other hand paper tracking is so fantastically flexible. Language can contain ideas of such power and complexity that they reshape our world. There are types of gameplay available to a game that is willing to assume that players can grab a pad and paper. It’s also good for tracking complex hidden information in a manner that would be extremely component expensive to do with cards.
Shameless Flavour Text “Eventually Man entered the islands, and was made welcome. But man was deaf to the peace and harmony of the Elven ways, and nurtured a viper in his breast that was new to the islands … the potential for Evil”
This sort of thing speaks for itself. It’s tremendously naff and maybe can only be enjoyed as a product of it’s time – but there’s a part of me that thinks that there’s a place for games to be utterly shamelessly themselves. There are a lot of games out there and there are worse reasons to stand out than melodrama.
Roll and move Here’s the big one, people say “roll and move” in a way that means “this is obviously a bad game of no quality”. It’s certainly a mechanic with serious disadvantages, a decent strategy can be completely undermined by poor rolls. A player can be bored to tears by taking dozens of turns to complete a meaningful journey because each step was so small. Movement is unpredictable which makes it impossible to plan ahead, reducing planning and engagement between turns. Roll and move is horrible.
Yet it’s something that can be mitigated. Choice helps a lot, Wizard’s suffers for it less than Talisman due to the hex grid allowing the player the choice of several places to go even on poor roles. Talisman suffers for it less than Monopoly because at least the choice of direction gives players some chance of going somewhere worthwhile. Monopoly … no I don’t think there’s anywhere lower to go.
The nature of available options also changes the impact of this mechanic. I’ve played a few worker placement games recently that have used dice as workers, limiting where they can go or what they do based on the roll. I’m not sure that’s much different to a hypothetical roll and move game in which there’s always somewhere interesting to go – even on a minimum roll – and other possible moves are just expanding your options.
It’s also something that’s been abandoned rather than developed, but there may be space to do more with the mechanic in ways that mitigate it’s problems. For instance a game in which players roll several turns of movement and then choose on which turn to use which roll – allowing a greater degree of planning ahead and mitigating bad luck both due to being able to plan for the bad rolls and the averaging effect of having several rolls to play with.
While it has a lot of inherent disadvantages to the aging system, there may be some life in it yet if explored in new ways.
A lot of what’s come before has been surpassed and may well have been stepping stones on our path towards enjoying better and better games – but it’s never good to dismiss something out of hand. Just as there’s still a bit of life in some of the older games, there’s still some life in their mechanics, just waiting for the right designer to come along and do something clever with them. Some of them have already started to be exploited in more recent games, but the untapped potential seems greater than what’s been managed so far.