Designing for The Deep Dive

Post by: Grant Rodiek

The Cult of the New is given a lot of attention by our hobby. This cult refers to board game hobbyists who play a game once or twice then quickly move on like nomadic savages to the next shiny object. In the past few years I've been a frenzied buyer of board games. There's so much I haven't played or seen, so it's difficult not to walk into the store, or boot up Amazon, and go "oooo" followed by "here's my money."

In 2014 I tried to slow my purchase of new titles to focus on expansions, playing my existing games more, and only branching into new titles if I really wanted them. This has been a GREAT experiment so far and very rewarding. The thing is, despite the noise created by countless Kickstarters, Gen Con releases, Essen Pre-Orders, most consumers behave just like me.

You see this in the video game space as well. Any hobby, really. The very small, intense, and vocal niche appear to be these rich kids who enter the FLGS and buy everything every visit. In reality, the overwhelming majority of users buy games a few times per year. They play their favorites and they dig deeply into the new titles they do receive. That is, unless those titles aren't very good or they don't have legs.

As a designer and publisher you can absolutely take on current trends and create games that are great for fewer than 5 plays. But, to truly grow the hobby, satisfy most of our consumers, and make a game for the ages, I think you need to craft a game that works for 20+ plays.

That sounds simple as a philosophy, but how does one go about that? Well, let's try to answer the question. In this post I'm going to call out methods I believe will aid someone in crafting a game that is great on play 20. You don't need all of these qualities, but incorporating multiple will help you on your long term favorite quest.

High Variability: This doesn't necessarily mean randomness, though that can help. It also doesn't necessarily mean luck, though that can also help. Many CCGs benefit heavily from those two qualities! What this means is that the game changes from play to play and the interlocking mechanics will vary your play. Now, the variability should be significant.

Risk, for example, has a high variability of luck and combat outcomes. It also has high variability of starting locations. But, after many games of Risk, I'd argue those two things don't really change the game much. Risk tends to play out in a very similar manner every game.

Therefore, what are some GOOD examples of true variability? Here's a few:

  • Dominion: The 10 Kingdom cards you choose every game dramatically change the strategy one can/should pursue.
  • Race for the Galaxy: The cards you draw determine everything. If you want military, but get something else, you need to react, and do so quickly, to thrive. There are so many unique cards that no two games are exactly alike.
  • 7 Wonders: The wonder boards greatly alter your decisions.
  • Robinson Crusoe: The 5 Inventions, 2 Party items, main event deck, and Adventure events dramatically change every experience.

When considering true variability, ask yourself:

  1. Will this change my players' decisions?
  2. Will outcomes for similar paths differ?
  3. Will this variability cause new strategies/tactics to emerge?

If you have more Yesses than Nos (are those words?) you're on the right path.

More Players: Man is the greatest foe. As a species, we are wily, creative, full of personality, unpredictable, and stubborn. This makes human opponents far more compelling than besting a system of point scoring. Speaking generally, the more human opponents, and therefore extreme variation, you can support with your design, the longer its legs.

One killer example is the game Werewolf or the countless cousins in its well-furred family. I'm speaking of The Resistance, One Night Werewolf, und so weit. These games are painfully simple but offer immense variety based on who is playing, the moods, the roles, and whatever wild idea people have to act upon.

Think about an auction game as simple as say, Modern Art. Or, Princes of Florence. A 3 player game varies dramatically from a 5 player game as it's more difficult to gauge the value, strategies, and machinations of so many opponents. Your play between the two extremes will differ, as will your enjoyment, and your ability to play longer.

I love two player games. It is probably my favorite player number for a game. However, I'd argue that in many cases, more players lead to a longer lifespan for a game.

Design an Expandable Core: This is both a business and a design note, but expansions are wonderful for extending the life of a game. Now, I don't think this is true for all. I think expansions for games like Netrunner or Summoner Wars lend themselves better than expansions for 7 Wonders. Perhaps I'm picking on 7 Wonders specifically, but I feel that, other than the Wonders Pack, those expansions aren't crucial. But, for Summoner Wars or Netrunner, playing only the base sets would leave me sad and shivering. Slowly rocking myself in my cave.

The best expansions truly shake up how the game is played while preserving the core. Factions are outstanding for this, as they can snap in and out of a core game without requiring the player to learn (too much) more. Scenario-based expansions are also excellent. Players need a slow, steady drip of content that may only suffice for a play or two. Great examples are Memoir '44 and Combat Commander. You could play these games for years with the sheer breadth of content provided.

Design a game that can live for years based on additional design work. Give people a reason to return to the store and return to your world. Give them new sites and new stories.

Multiple Divergent Strategies: Put simply, give players multiple ways to seek victory. There should be several truly different strategies that, paired with variability, mean a player can seek to win and master the game in new ways.

For 7 Wonders, you can seek out points via Military, Science, Victory Buildings, with certain cards Economy, or via Guilds at the end. Each of these requires you build a different foundation that also must pair nicely with your Wonder to truly gain efficiency.

In Dune/Rex you can seek the solo victory, team victory, or use a faction-based objective to clinch the game at the end. Each of these require you act in different ways and maneuver your forces accordingly.

In Netrunner the Corp player might pass Agendas quickly, faster than the Runner can grab them. Or, build a fortress of bluffing (or legitimate defenses) and pass just a few expensive Agends for the slower win. Or, like my friend prefers, they can fill their servers with traps and tags to kill the runner. Agendas be damned!

Multiple divergent strategies are great as they provide a unique experience, a new path of mastery, but also, they suit the different personalities (or moods) of your players.

Discovering Layers and Complexity: I know there's a push for elegance layered atop more elegance (though I believe that sentiment is inconsistent with the notion of elegance), but a little complexity goes a long way towards adding layers to an onion that takes years to grasp.

Now, I don't think these layers should be in the form of decreasing accessibility. They shouldn't hinder the ability to play or bring new players into the experience. However, these layers should increase the length of time it takes to master the game and perfect certain practices.

Let's look at Princes of Florence, for example. There is a layer about auction/bidding skill. There's a layer about building your efficiency to pull stuff off. There's a layer in regards to timing and when to pursue certain objectives. This is further enhanced by skillful scoring and seeking bonuses.

Factions and asymmetry are another great way to provide layers. This is both in terms of how to play yourself, or how to play against other factions. You need to play Dune/Rex six times before experience every faction. That doesn't include additional plays to be good at PLAYING those factions and additional plays to successfully hinder the others.

In Dice Duel you have layers about skillfully directing the ship to WHERE you want to go, not just moving it haphazardly. There are layers in Crystal use. The tractor beam can (and should) be completely ignored your first several games, but hoo boy does it change things once you know how to use it.

Layers and additional provide your players ways to experiment, new things to master, and new strategies to attempt. Every new layer encourages an additional play (or several).

Heart: This is difficult to quantify, but your game should have gobs of heart and soul. This comes down to the craftsmanship in the art and the components, for one. I love pulling out King of Tokyo based on its visuals and the fun pieces. Similarly, I know people get giddy busting out X-Wing (I love it), sorting through a new Netrunner Data Pack (yes!), or dumping Caverna on their kitchen table (not for me, but I get it).

It comes down to the sheer excitement of people getting it out. People know there will be clever play and great moments. They know the game is unique and loved by its creators. It wasn't an overnight passing through, but a labor of love. These feelings somehow seep into the experience.

Mice and Mystics, to me, embodies this well. All the well crafted pieces. The gobs of art that must have cost a fortune in time and money and skill. The book full of scenarios, narrative, and little well-rounded characters. Heart goes a long way and I think Mice and Mystics has it in spades.

What are games that YOU think has a lot of heart?

Tells Stories: Some games are great because of the stories enjoyed afterwards. Last night, my friend and I played a few games of Netrunner and almost had as much fun after the game as we did during it. Games like Dune/Rex are full of legendary, decisive moments that are remembered weeks or years later. Same with Resistance. Remember that time I convinced the Spy that I was this guy and he did a thing?

Last week I charged a friend's machine gun bunker with a lone, broken Russian squadron in Combat Commander. I played multiple ambush cards and won a lucky dice roll. The result would have surely won my bedraggled Russian the Order of Lenin (or whatever their highest honor was during the Great Patriotic War).

Stories are driven by things the players do, or decisions made by the players to resolve a situation of the game's devising. It's less interesting to hear about a card flip in Arkham Horror or Pandemic than to hear how the heroes did OR didn't resolve it. Failure is a great teacher and an even better story.

Games that tell stories will bring people back again and again. Remember, though, that your game should merely provide the foundation for the players to be the authors. If a story begins with "I did" instead of "The game did," well, it's one for the books.

What do you think? What qualities did I get right? Which ones did I get incorrectly? Chat me up in the comments below.

Comments

Great points. My two replayable types are the more than one strategy and the expansions for deck building. With so many good games coming out, you really have to have a great game for it to hit the table multiple times, even in a year!

You touched on a lot of great points here.

My gang gets replay joy out of multiple intersecting goal or game state changing mechanics. Evo has the board changes and the evolutionary traits.cyclades has gods + monsters, 7 wonders has the draft and you and your neighbours choices and board.

Hey Grant, some great points. A tricky one that hides behind all those things is feeling in control. You always want to feel like you've got a fair chance, and you would have won if not for those pesky kids / die rolls / card draw / poor decision. To reference a couple of mentioned games, I think Netrunner does this really well most of the time, until you play against someone who has a more refined deck than you and you get a little crushed (in the game and in spirit). Of course, not all games are played to win or dominate. Both Netrunner and X-Wing get a lot of plays before me because I think they've got a great mix of control and randomness, and they give you the ability to improve your game outside the game (if you so choose).

Grant, I agree with everything you say here. And yet one of the games that gets the most play in my house is Jaipur, which has almost none of these qualities. I think the reason is simply that my wife and I are well-matched, the game length is just right for cocktail hour, and it's just a good solid game. So perhaps those qualities could be described as "skill-responsive" (playing well helps winning but doesn't guarantee it), manageable game length, and ... well, being a good game in its own right. Not very helpful, I suppose, but you do get me thinking about what games come out to the table more often and why.