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 Story

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?

Action Items

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.

Thoughts?

Comments

Folding actually doesn't reward any Coins anymore. In any case. When players purchase points to other players, it removes the need for that.

You aren't the first to mention Love Letter! I actually have a follow up post that talks about this more with examples from other games.

Some players do like to play to play (and mess with their friends) as opposed to just playing to win, and I think that's okay, if somewhat jerky. In war games, players might prefer to hold onto a certain territory or just be aggressive, and while I might not like to play with those people, they definitely exist. Was one of your mechanics when you get to X coins, you must do Y?
"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." I think the last two sentences are the most relevant, it's one thing to tell people not to do something, it's something else entirely to give them feedback through the game mechanics that show them doing a thing is bad.

Sure. I think a game like Chaos in the Old World has mechanics built around trolling. You can do spells and toy with each other. There, it's the game and it's funny.

But, in other games -- it's just a bit childish, right? I have absolutely been trying to make sure the mechanics dictate: this is good behavior, this is not useful behavior. Amusingly, as a result of testing this weekend, other changes that are being implemented may invalidate the initial concern (but not the discussion around the article).

My rule of thumb tends to be that almost no game functions if your players aren't motivated by winning. At the same time, examine for degenerate strategies, and try to minimize kingmaking (where it's clear you actually can't win) as much as absolutely possible.

Really elegantly stated. My next test will be: first two players who win a pot, don't buy Points. See if the weak economy benefits them unfairly.

My prediction: Spells and careful spending and the inherent luck of the game will offset them. Eventually, as other players have points, they'll be forced to buy points to still win.

If they don't? Well, as you say, no game functions if they aren't motivated by winning.

This was a fascinating post. The impact that actual human players has a huge impact on games, doesn't it?

I agree with Dave that the game should motivate players to win (presumably through the game mechanisms). However, as you pointed out, people will do awful things to win, or sometimes they will simply do awful things because the game lets them do those things.

In the case of Wozzle, I don't know the game, but it sounds like having coins in stock isn't a bad thing, and it can be a good thing. So if one player decides that he wants to stockpile coins (regardless of his true intention), he could do so because he thinks it's a good strategy.

The question is, does it ruin the game for other players if one player stockpiles coins? If not--if everyone else can continue to play with the correct strategy of getting points to win--then you don't have anything to worry about. Is scarcity of coins an issue? I mean, in any resource collection game, a player could feasibly just focus on one resource and gather it without doing anything else. As long as you have a rule in place saying that resource/coin tokens can't run out (use multiplier cards), then you're fine.

In terms of the broader picture of incorporating anti-jerk safeguards in games, I encountered an interesting situation while designing Viticulture. In Viticulture, there are some worker-placement action spaces that have a bonus on them. Thus if you're the first to choose an action, you'll almost always choose the bonus action space. However, there are some bonuses that can only be used in certain situations. For example, the "Play 1 Summer Visitor" action has one action space with the bonus of playing another summer visitor. I didn't want players to choose that action space if they couldn't actually use it.

So I created a "Friendly" rule that said that you could only choose a bonus action space if you actually take the bonus, unless it was the last action space remaining on that action.

The first-edition of the game shipped with that rule in place. And it's an okay rule. It prevents someone from being a jerk--even a very minor jerk, as it's perfectly reasonable in a worker-placement game to take something that someone else wants and not use it.

The problem, I encountered, was the solution. The rule is clunky and confusing--players always stumble over it, and it becomes one more thing to remember in a game with a 12-page rulebook.

So after many plays with and without the friendly rule, I decided to change it to a friendly variant for the second edition. I've taught Viticulture a number of times since, and that little change makes the game much easier to teach.

I offer that as an example as a case where adding little rules and exceptions to the rules to make the game less jerky, it can actually make the game unnecessarily confusing for the masses.

Your friendly rule wasn't a problem for us in Viticulture, but I also consider us advanced players. I can definitely see that being sidelined as a variant for simplification.

Wozzle is derived from Texas Hold 'Em. Win the hand? Get the pot of coins. Originally, most coins won the game. I swapped that to correct a runaway leader issue in an elegant way where coins now buy points. Points win. It isn't a problem of finite supply, but that this mechanic exists both as a way to reduce a chip leader's coins AND bolster other players' coins. It doesn't really help them win, hoarding. It's mostly that they are being a jerk.

I have 2 mechanics I removed because they are no longer necessary. I can bring them back if too many people are jerks -- they are solutions to an old problem that no longer exists, but they also happen to solve this one. I'd just rather keep the game simple and elegant.

There's a really simple test I can run this week to stress test my theory. It'll reveal a lot.

Minimizing abuse is a very important design goal as degenerate strategies will get your game left on the shelf. Computer games tend to be much worse at this than board games.

I think it also is a good indicator that your rules need work. If there is one abusive strategy, there are probably more.

There is an important difference between edge case actions that are annoying and abusive strong strategies.

For your game, would a finite sized "vault" work? Too many coins and you just lose them.

The vault idea is interesting. But, if someone's goal is to ruin the game, not win, it actually gives them another tool to do it.

This is a really interesting experience to read about, I admit having just messed a bit with game design in the past and having only started really working towards the goal of making and self publishing a game it's something I had never thought about before, so this was a great read for me.

The tough thing for me is I have been in games that have allowed someone who is losing to tank the game so no one can enjoy it. That is something I know has to be avoided in a game design because if people can do it someone will. It's a sad thing but a true thing.

And it also applies to your situation. The idea that doing so could make you WIN is definitely an issue. You said you'd test to see if it's a problem which is the obviously great choice, but I also have to say how I liked the simple touch of if what you would do if it couldn't make people win, but it would just ruin the game for others. It reminds me of what Love Letter did in it's rules:

"Honesty

A player could cheat when chosen
with the Guard, or fail to discard
the Countess when that player has
the King or Prince in hand. We
suggest that you don’t play with
knaves who cheat at fun, light games."

Addressing the problem and doing it in a nice humorous way. I'm storing this good idea away for a rainy day in case I need it as it's better then adding a complex rule to the rule book.

Thanks again for the good read here, after stumbling across this here I know I'll be reading through your other entries now as this was so insightful!

Great writeup, and adds some more perspective to your replies to my earlier comments on this game. I think you've nicely separated degenerate behavious into two types: times when not playing ruins the game (a personnel problem, and a lot harder to remedy) and times when not playing can reap rewards (a la the always folding strategy). Fun food for thought.