Your Variance is Showing

Quick Note: Last year I observed many of my blog posts were overly specific about my games. Many of my posts were very specific and assumed a great deal of previous knowledge on the reader's part. As a result, unless you'd read everything on the topic, a blog post would often feel like jumping in the middle of the season of Game of Thrones. Huh? What the heck is happening?

As a result, I've tried to broaden my topics and write about my games as examples for a broader subject, not THE subject. This means I need to wait until an idea hits that I can turn into a larger topic, but hopefully it's working for you readers.

Let's talk about variants. 

What is a variant? I shall define a variant loosely as a minor rule change that seeks to modify an experience without a significant variance in overall experience or components. That definition is already suspect as a.) I just made it up and b.) I used words like "minor" and "significant."

Typically, I'm actually against variants. If I've ever read one of your rule sets, you can attest to me leaving feedback to ditch the variant and focus. Variants to me often feel like half baked ideas. They feel like concepts that weren't good enough to officially add to the game, but were a pet of the designer and snuck into the final rules.

My general philosophy is that a game should have everything it needs: no more, no less. I'm hugely in favor of expansions, so I'm a big proponent of designing games with natural paths to expansion. Expansions are a good way to add additional content, new strategic layers, or even additional complexity that experienced players can appreciate. But, I feel like expansions come later in the life cycle once a game has matured and is needed by its loyal players.

Variants typically ship with the game, in the rules, and have a fuzzy vibe of official about them. Why is this here?

Variants feel like uncertain twists. Instead of draft 1 and pass, you draft 1, keep 1, and pass. Instead of winning the game with 15 points, you instead win when all of your cities are level 4. The thing is, when I see little twists like this, the first thing in my mind is "well, which is it?" I don't really want to feel like I'm beta testing a final game. I don't want to find the best way to play. My hope is that you, the designer/publisher/developers have already determined that for me. Tell me how to play. Don't give me a buffet here.

I approach variants much like I approach mods in PC gaming or house ruling -- I don't want to do it. I just want the right game, the perfect edition, and I will love it to death. Therefore, it may just be a matter of preference?

Should you vary? 

Variants are very appealing as a designer. They give you a community approved outlet to toss in a few things that you think may be better or just happen to personally prefer. But, approach them with caution. Game design is ridiculously difficult. The long-term development process of testing out every rule, every card, every variable, and every player number is very thorough and trying. You need to test your final rule set so many times to find every hole, imbalance, king making opportunity, and exploit. You need to test your final rule set to squeeze every ounce of fun into the game. Time you spend testing variants is time that detracts from making that single, perfect experience.

As learning designers, something I consider myself to be, we must challenge ourselves to create beautiful experiences. To do that, we must focus, refine, test, and be incredibly clever and creative. Use variants to test and find the right solution -- don't stick to the first one that seems to work. But, don't use variants as a crutch to be indecisive. Don't use variants as a way to pad your game content.

One of the best places to vary is for player numbers. It is often very difficult to make a game work with 2, 3, 4, and 5 players. Don't be afraid to add rules tweaks, within reason, to make the different numbers work better.

The Wozzle Variety

Now, to go against everything I just wrote, I'm going to talk about how I'm including variants in WozzleWozzle is my 2-5 player card game that takes some of the core elements of Texas Hold 'Em Poker and twists and refines them to become and entirely new game. I'm pretty proud of it and it has been testing quite well. You can watch my short video walk through of the game here.

The first variant for Wozzle came about when we began testing a card that every player started the game with. It gave them a one-time use power. The card is relatively simple and it was testing well, but it had a few problems that made me question it as a core aspect of the game:

  • By giving players a starting card, it added an additional thing to learn when playing.
  • It's an advanced card for players who really know the game.
  • It's a card that doesn't get played in every game. It can have a narrow use.

I removed it from some of my tests to streamline them and found that it wasn't hurting the experience with its absence. Then, I tested it with and spoke to my development partner -- it still had value. We decided to make it a variant. This then opened the door for additional variants that use this system of everyone begins the game with 1 card of the same type. We added a second one, specifically to make 5 player games more interesting. In a sense, it's like a minor expansion that adds just a few cards and light gameplay.

The game also needed some light modifications for both 2 player and 5 player. Due to the economy mechanics, the game absolutely needed a way to slightly tweak the 2 player game to work better. It's a minor twist and easy to learn. The 5 player tweak was trickier. With 5 players, it's easier for some players to get left behind and feel like they are out of the game. If everyone is winning, the game can also take a little bit longer. The solution was to add a minor way for players to win points, even when they don't win.

With 2 player, one blind playtester, the excellent Robin Lees, noted he missed a poker mechanic in Wozzle, especially in head to head games. We discussed it and ultimately came up with a solution that we're now testing. It adds a single card, which contains one minor rule that works within the game's framework. As of now I'm worried about the complexity it adds, so I'm tentatively treating it as an advanced variant. But who knows? It could make its way into the 2 player core rules.

The Lesson?

Really, there is no right way or wrong way. I think focus is important. I think you need to create the best, single, perfect rule set for your players. But, some games lend themselves better to micro expansions and variants to tweak complexity and provide different experiences. This works really well for Wozzle and in some ways makes it a bit of a sandbox for me in Wozzle. But, the idea of adding variants for YorkSol Rising, or even Farmageddon just doesn't seem appropriate.

What are some of your favorite variants? Which games do it right? Tell me in the comments below!

Comments

Been thinking about this since you posted it. How do you feel about games with difficulty variants? The Basic vs. Intermediate vs. Advanced Games?
I for one like the idea of variants, though I almost never play with them. I think because it's my natural inclination to tinker with and meddle with rules-as-written. I do think that a variant should represent a significant shift from the main rules, so that it's not a second-place also-ran case of the Designer waffling on the optimal execution of a small detail.

I think using Variants as a teaching method is a very strong idea. I think it is important though that you're only removing/adding layers, NOT changing rules. Essentially, learning Basic should not invalidate Advanced. I think of them as small circles within other circles, like Russian stacking dolls.

Conflict of Heroes does this very well. You read the first 8 pages of the rules, then play scenarios 1 and 2. Then you read the next few pages and replay 1 and 2 with cards. Then you learn about advanced infantry maneuvers, artillery, then tanks, then air support, and so forth.

Tash Kalar also does this well. On your first game you don't play with certain goals and you don't use legendary creatures.

We do this with Wozzle. Raise is an advanced Action that requires a little more thought to use. We think it's best left out for the first few games. Adding it will not invalidate previous learning, but will enrich the game.