Horrible Person Proofing
Update: I just want to note that my game, Wozzle, isn't broken. I didn't write this post to declare that to the world. I merely found a way for people who play games for the sake of trolling to troll my game and that, to me, seemed like an interesting topic for a larger discussion. And now, the post.
I recently made a big change to Wozzle that addresses a core issue with its economy. The change has worked really well, but it opens up a very tiny loop hole that can lead to a lame experience. I've discussed it a bit with Chevee Dodd, solid, well-hatted pal, and we came up with a bunch of solutions. But, are they needed?
The question is, should I introduce a complex rule to patch over awful, degenerate behavior that won't help win the game? Basically, do I need to horrible person proof my game?
A few years ago when I was pitching Farmageddon, one publisher brought up a point that I'd never heard after a lot of testing and blind feedback. His concern was that there was no rule to force players to plant. Therefore, if nobody plants, the game stalls and nothing happens. It breaks the game.
Now, you cannot earn points in Farmageddon without planting. You have to harvest crops to earn points. The objective is to earn points to win. Therefore, if you aren't planting, you can't win.
Secondly, there was at the time, and still is, a rule that forces you to fertilize. This is a subtle way to force players to take risk and keep planting. Because you must fertilize, even someone else's, you might as well plant your own crop and fertilize it.
But, neither of these forced players to plant in the first place. I wanted to get published, so I began thinking about solutions to address the concern. The problem was, there weren't any easy solutions. The rule had to be conditional. There are limited fields and if I say "You must plant each turn," but if you can't get a field (for whatever reason), then you can't satisfy that rule. There's one exception. What if it's the end of the game and you don't have crops in your hand to plant? And, do I do away with the Fertilizer rule?
Ultimately, I asked: Is this such a problem that we need to add a very complicated rule this game? And keep in mind, Farmageddon's target audience is not one that enjoys heaping complexity. I ended up not working with this publisher for a few reasons, but I never did add a rule to force planting and to my knowledge, it hasn't come up. It turns out the 3,000+ people who bought it so far are pretty reasonable people.
The Wozzle Concern
Wozzle had a problem when Coins determined the winner. Coins are won in pots, much like poker. This created a huge disparity, especially in games with more players. Players who won early pots would have a massive coin advantage and I had to create a few catch up mechanics to keep others in the game.
Instead of fighting against this, I worked out a solution with one of my testers, Joshua Buergel. Points determine the winner. After each hand, the winner of the hand may purchase Points (and only at this time). The cost is 1 coin paid to each other player and 1 coin to the bank. This reduces the chip leader's stash and increases everyone else's.
This change has been incredibly successful. It's elegant and it has even removed the need for my 2 catch up mechanics (Cash Out, Purge) which are now removed from the game.
There's a problem, though. Somewhat.
The winner, if they want, could buy no Points. They could sit on a pile of coins and hinder other players' ability to play. Coins are spent to activate spells (abilities). But, if you have even 4 coins, you can do quite a bit in the game. Having more than 10 really doesn't provide you much advantage. There isn't a betting phase where you can bully/force others out of the pot. Really, having 10+ coins just means you can spend recklessly.
But, if someone wanted to, they could slowly choke the economy. At least for a hand or so until someone else inevitably wins (it is poker-ish, after all). The counter to this is having a superior hand, which is possible without spending money. Or, simply folding. Or, managing your Coins better, which is a good strategy regardless.
But, if everyone is just folding, players will devolve into a stare-off while the jerk sits on his non-game winning pile of Coins. You can't take it with you in life OR Wozzle.
So, do I begin to introduce rules? Do I force players to buy points? If so, how many? 1 Point? A minimum of 2 (but if able)? The thing is, the incentive to not buy points is to be a jerk. The incentive isn't victory. The incentive is trolling.
If someone wants to in Pandemic, they could spend their entire turn going back and forth between two adjacent locations. Should Pandemic have a rule that says: "Hey man, you really shouldn't be a jerk. You should play efficiently." How do you quantify that? At what point, how many rules should you introduce to solve for horrible, nasty people?
I'm at a point where I'm more and more happy with the mechanics of Wozzle and its Spell content. The rules are a trim 3 pages, it's testing well locally and in blind testing, and it offers a nice bit of game for a very light component set. That means I'm focused primarily on balance and really eeking out the fun. I can be in this phase for a long time.
As I test and review feedback, I'll be working to find out a.) how many people abuse this potential loophole and b.) whether those people actually win. If it becomes a winning strategy (which I don't believe it is)? It's a problem. If it's not, and it just leads to unhappy people, then I believe the action is to add a note in the rules and warn against being a turd. The rules for Once Upon a Time do this, and I think they do so well.
If your game encourages degenerate behavior, or behavior you don't want, with victory and rewards, you need to address it. People will do awful things if it lets them win. You need to remove those cases.
If your game allows for degenerate behavior in a way most reasonable people identify quickly, but it doesn't provide an incentive to do so, make sure your rules clarify that the behavior is in fact, not useful. And, make sure your mechanics enforce this over and over. Your mechanics should drive towards what players should be doing.
All games, to some degree, allow for degenerate behavior. I have a friend who literally ruins every game we play because he solely targets me. He turned Shogun into an incredibly aggressive war game and boy does he make Tammany Hall difficult. When we played Mice and Mystics, he stood in the corner with Filch and did his own thing. Do I fault the designers of these games for his antics? No. Do I think they need to complicate their rule sets to fix him? No.
Be careful to wave off concerns like these. Investigate them, test against them, and verify your solutions work. But, don't put the burden of humanity's jerks on the shoulders of your game. If your game encourages the right things, that's what you'll get.