Apples and Oranges: Joyous Asymmetry

download

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Last week at game night I was able to enjoy a second game of Rex: Final Days of an Empire, Fantasy Flight Game’s revision of the classic Dune. Once again, I was blown away by the beautiful level of asymmetry, player interaction, the amount of tension, and how often people smile because of their player bonuses.

BvDyseaCYAAmPS6

Asymmetry is one of my favorite elements in a game. It gives you something new to enjoy every game, something special and unique that only you have, and forces you to learn not only how to play to your strengths, but exploit your opponents’ weaknesses.

Many of my favorite games are asymmetrical and the new design I’m working on now is also significantly asymmetrical. This led me to ask: what are the different types of asymmetry available to a designer and what are the implications of such types? I conducted this exercise when thinking about scenario and campaign design, as well as faction design, and I found it very useful for my efforts. It’s a good thought exercise.

This is a bit of an academic or philosophical post, so use that as you will.

Let’s Explore the Different Types of Asymmetry! It is important to note that a game doesn’t have to be, and often won’t be, just one of these. These are very loose, high level categories. Think of this as a Venn Diagram.

Chess_board_opening_staunton

Symmetrical Design: It makes sense, to me, to discuss the clear exception first, which is symmetrical design. To me, a symmetrical design is one in which both players have equal opportunities, the same choices, and an identical set of rules which they must follow. Naturally, these games evolve so that options differ, but both players began with equal footing.

In chess, both players begin with equal units, and all units act identically. In Dominion, all players begin with an identical starting hand of cards and have identical options of cards to obtain. Naturally, the games evolve immediately as choices are made.

Examples include Chess, Monopoly, Stratego, Star Realms, Dominion

Poker-Tips

Light Asymmetry: I define Light Asymmetry as players having identical rules to follow and equal opportunities, but their initial options are varied slightly to differ their paths or provide variation.

You may see this as splitting hairs, but in every hand of Texas Hold ‘Em, every player has a different hand to act against. In trick taking games, players are dealt out hands at random, which are the players’ options for the trick. Or, in euros like Alien Frontiers, players are given varying initial resources, but also unique Alien Tech cards at the beginning. You can also look at a game like Ascending Empires, where the probability of the planets in your sector tend to guide your technology path in a subtle way.

To break it down simply, this can come about from the hand you’ve been dealt, starting resources, a simple character card (like in the DC Deckbuilder).

Examples include: Poker, trick taking games like Chronicle, Ascending Empires, or Legacy: The Testament of Duke de Crecy.

pic923048_md

Content-Based Asymmetry: I define Content-Based Asymmetry as giving all players a symmetrical foundation of rules and mechanics, layered with asymmetrical content, like cards, that tweak the core rules to create a set of advantages and disadvantages.

Content-Based Asymmetry is driven largely by manipulating the tuning variables. This means it’s VERY important that you fully consider the variables your core rule set has to offer. A good example of Content-Based Asymmetry is Summoner Wars. Every player in the game follows the same phases of play. However, each player has a unique army, represented by a deck of cards, filled with a unique Summoner, 3 Champions, and 20 (is that right?) Commons. To further illustrate these variables, let me illustrate the tools the designer has to create asymmetrical content.

  • Move Properties: This includes the number of spaces, moving diagonally (it’s typically just orthogonal), moving in just a single direction, moving through other characters, moving through walls.
  • Spawning: This includes spawning next to enemy walls, certain characters or types, being removed from the board to reappear, or summoning on top of an existing character (ex: The Filth).
  • Attack Properties: Hitting on a different dice value, being able to roll extra dice in some circumstances, gaining or losing hits in some circumstances, gaining re-rolls, gaining bonuses for using Melee versus Range, being able to shoot through other characters, damage multiple characters with one shot (straight line, orthogonal), or shoot through walls.
  • Magic Properties: Discard for extra magic, summon freely in certain circumstances, provide extra or negative magic for the one who destroys it.

As you can see, with just a few high level variables, you can squeeze and extensive amount of content variation out of a game. Content-Based Asymmetry is one of the more accessible forms of asymmetry as players don’t have to re-learn the rules between experiences. These are also highly expandable and provide incredible replayability due to all the combinations in your play experience.

You don’t have to go as far as unique decks and armies. Games like 1812: Invasion of Canada and 1775: Rebellion fully convey the sense of factions and asymmetric play purely by manipulating dice probabilities.

Examples include: Summoner Wars, Theseus: The Dark Orbit, Twilight Struggle, Magic: The Gathering, Tash-Kalar: Arena of Legends, Neuroshima Hex, 7 Wonders, and X-Wing Miniatures Game.

pic1324609_md

Rules-Based Asymmetry: I define rules based asymmetry as giving players unique strengths and weakness primarily through modifications of core rules and mechanics. This is more difficult to pull off, especially due to balance concerns. Furthermore, it’s a challenge to not go hog wild and create a game that is incredibly difficult to learn and play. Just because you CAN create new rules, doesn’t mean you should.

A favorite game of mine to demonstrate this is Dune, which has a new version called Rex: Final Days of an Empire. This game takes advantage of content-based asymmetry, altering some of the tuning values, but it also gives players entirely new rules, immunity, and so forth to make every players’ experience entirely different.

pic1246187_md

The other poster child for this type of asymmetry, which is one of the best selling games around right now, is Netrunner. In this game, the Runner adheres to one set of rules, whereas the Corp player adheres to another. Their decks have different types of cards, their phases are different, they have alternate victory paths, and different deckbuilding requirements. Netrunner’s learning curve is understandably steep, but the pay off in depth is just monstrous. This is demonstrated by its sales!

Although I could make an argument for it belonging to content (and really, who cares?), I think Cosmic Encounter would belong in the Rules-Based asymmetry category. The shifts are so big and distinct that I think it is more appropriate here.

Examples include: Dune/Rex, Netrunner, Cosmic Encounter, The Ares Project.

pic1548791_md

Two Games in One: This may not be asymmetry as much as it is mechanical fusion, but I feel it bears mentioning in this article. Some games are so asymmetrical that different players are playing different games. In Ladies and Gentlemen, one partner in the team is playing a light chit-pulling real-time game. The other partner is playing a set collection drafting game.

Whereas rule-based asymmetry alters mechanics to varying degrees, cases like this create two entirely different sets that somehow talk to each other, but are distant cousins, at best, instead of siblings. For example, in Netrunner, the Corp and Runners are still clearly members of the same family. They just hate each other.

Conclusion: Later this week I may discuss how I’m going to mix some of these elements for my personal design. Or, go off in another direction. Hopefully this was interesting and useful to your efforts. Share any comments below!

Simple, Clean, and Fast

graphic-designPost by: Grant Rodiek

A common sentiment I read over and over is for designers to “make ugly prototypes!” This seems to be a rallying cry and I’d like to quietly (mostly due to my low readership) stand up and offer a counterpoint. I realize I’m splitting hairs, which is petty, but it’s an important distinction. I don’t think you should make ugly prototypes for a second longer than necessary. Instead, I think this should be our rallying cry as designers:

Make your prototypes aesthetically functional, simple, and easy to iterate upon. Do not make ugly prototypes.

There’s a flow to this, though, and ugly does have its place; the starting point. Here are the general steps in your prototype’s visual life.

  1. Create a quick and dirty prototype. Suggested format: blank index cards and pencil writing. You need these when you’re sure of nothing, when the game is so bad you’ll be erasing stuff mid-test to fix it.
  2. Quick and less-dirty prototype. Throw away the smudged marked cards from your last few tests. Use nicer hand writing and give it a little more love.
  3. Functional and Simple prototype. It’s time to give your testers something a little bit better. Printed, plain white cards with easy to read numbers and simple iconography. I think this is where you should spend the majority of your development.
  4. High-End Prototype. I let myself do these if I really love the game or I have a moment of weakness, or I’m going to GenCon to pitch. I’ve done this for YorkFarmageddon, and a couple of prototypes I shouldn’t have. Many people go to TheGameCrafter.com far too quickly to print out your prototype. DON’T. You’ll be rendering them useless far too quickly if you leave step 3 too soon.

Perhaps the distinction between number 3 and number 4 is why people stress the “keep it ugly!” so much. But, for the sake of this post, I think you should spend most of your time in step 3 and I don’t think it should be ugly.

I can only speak from my own experience, and what I say is merely my opinion. Remember, everyone’s got one. But, the moment in development to begin taking your presentation more seriously comes more quickly than people think. It’s very easy to say the publisher will handle the art, the publisher will handle the graphic design, the publisher will handle the rules. But, I’d argue thinking about the full experience of your design will not only enrich your prototype, but better your chances of finding that publisher.

Constantly seek to broaden your designer skill set! You’ll be amazed at how it improves the rest of your abilities. It may seem unrelated, but all of this helps you craft better experiences and games. Stop saying “make it ugly!” and think about how you can make sharper games from head to toe.

Rough

I’m only able to test with chicken scratch on index cards for so long before I exhaust my testers’ patience and hit my own quality bar. For one, a lot of time is wasted reading my handwriting and I’ve found people tend to give a game with handwriting a less-than-fair shake when evaluating it. People tend to treat the game like a joke, and to a degree, it is.

Playtesting is a gift and a favor. Every time. Remember that! Do your best to remove all notions that what your testers are doing is not worth their time.

Flip

You don’t need to spend weeks perfecting your layout. You don’t need to be an artist. You can use the Drawing program on Google Drive, free, to quickly create something. This lets you experiment with space and card usability. Use simple, clear typefaces, and get a feel for how much room you have. You can also use Inkscape. Or GIMP. Both are free! I just found another called Pixlr using a Google search.

Sample

If you’re worried about your tuning values, and you should be, leave those spaces blank and write them in with a pencil. This saves paper, time cutting, and allows you to quickly try new things while still presenting something that isn’t distracting.

Bomber_Hogs_Front

You can use Game-Icons.net and The Noun Project to quickly obtain clean iconography to test your system. I’ve tried hand-drawn icons and it’s a waste of everyone’s time.

unnamed

When you’re testing your prototype, the most important thing is to get feedback on the game and the actual experience. The closest you can reasonably get to a quality prototype, the better the feedback. Not everyone has vision or the ability to imagine something better. Sometimes they need a leg up. This isn’t their fault, but it’s an opportunity for us as designers to create something simple, functional, and easy to use.

Some good steady rules for building quick prototypes:

  • Add a stroke/border to your cards to make them easy to cut.
  • Get a paper cutter and some sleeves. You can buy a bunch cheaply on Amazon.
  • Use a simple typeface that’s easy to read.
  • Use 12 or 14 point font size. Challenge yourself to create text as large as possible. Like having a 140 limit restriction in Twitter, you’ll find it forces you to get creative and razor sharp with your text.
  • Remember to leave space for illustrations. In most cases, people will want art there.
  • If you think colors and icons will be a part of the game, begin testing with them as soon as possible. Get some colored pencils for the dirty phase, but upgrade to some free, open-sourced icons quickly.
  • Remember how people hold and fan a hand of cards. Put important info in the top left corner, not the top right corner.
  • Use white backgrounds to save on ink.
  • Leave room to write in number variables by hand. Use an eraser to update on the fly.
  • Take advantage of blank labels. You can type on them, print them, then label them on an existing card when you need to make more significant text changes. You should see the scrapbook that were my Farmageddon cards.
  • A good rule, for me, is to try to mimic the Google home page. It’s not flashy, fun, or sexy. But, I can easily identify things and go about my day.

Google

Go forth, broaden your skillset, and make your prototypes aesthetically functional, simple, and easy to iterate upon. Happy designing.

Interview with Cardboard Edison

7f760d1362c0f1a84a0dff381b885571_large

I’ve been friends with AJ Porfirio, the guy behind Van Ryder Games, for a few years now. He’s one of my longest running friends in the board game space and also my perennial GenCon roommate. I was delighted when he picked up Tessen by Cardboard Edison for publication. Cardboard Edison is a husband and wife design duo who are fantastic champions of the board game design community. 

I knew I had to interview them for their latest Kickstarter, Tessen

HG: Introduce yourselves — who are you?

Suzanne: Cardboard Edison is made up of myself and my husband, Chris. We have a four-year-old daughter who is a budding game designer and very eager to help us with anything game-related. We live in Hopatcong, N.J., and love traveling to gaming conventions all across the country.

Chris: We also run a blog for board game designers like us at www.cardboardedison.com. We gather design tips and resources from around the web and share them in one place to make them easy to find.

AJ: I’m A.J. the mean old publisher! Just kidding… about the mean part, the old part is debatable, but I, Van Ryder Games, am most certainly the publisher of Tessen! I couldn’t be happier about that!

HG: Tell us what Tessen is at a high level. What is the essential info?

Chris: Tessen is our first game design to find a publisher. It’s a two-player real-time card game set in feudal Japan. Players control rival clans and attempt to collect sets of mystical animals to prove their supremacy. It’s a super-fast game that’s portable and plays in about 15 minutes.

HG: What made you think of a real time game? What was your inspiration?

Chris: The game that became Tessen originally was going to be a sequel to a completely different game we were designing. The real-time aspect was a change from the first game, so we saw it as a way to broaden the thematic world of the games while offering a different experience for players. But, we realized the first game wasn’t coming together and the follow-up game had some promise, so we decided to focus on the new game instead.

HG: Are you big fans of Japanese culture/art and such? What were some of your thematic inspirations?

Suzanne: We admire Japanese culture, but the idea for Tessen’s theme didn’t come until we ditched the original theme, which was about Christmas elves. We did some research to find examples of things that could be used for both attacking and defending (a key dynamic in the game) and we discovered the Japanese war fan, or the Tessen. The animals in the game were originally going to be resources such as rice and grain, but we couldn’t find good artwork for the prototype. We found some great historic paintings of animals, so we decided to use animals as the “resources.”

AJ: I myself am fascinated by the Japanese culture, and it immediately drew me into the game when I first saw it. As I usually do, when I first played, I expounded the theme to be so much more than collecting sets of animals. I envisioned an epic struggle between two clans where everything was on the line. It worked really well.

HG: Did you look to other real time games? What were your inspirations?

Chris: I grew up playing real-time card games like Speed/Spit, and I wanted us to design a game that had the excitement of those games but also offered interesting strategic decisions to the players. In Tessen, you have to do more than recognize the available plays, you have to make snap decisions and figure out what’s the best move on the fly. People who have played Tessen have said it reminds them of games like Dutch Blitz, Jab and Brawl.

HG: I must note, me and a co-worker, for a while, settled disputes using Tessen as the arbiter. Have you found yourself doing anything like this? It’s so fast!

Suzanne: No, but that is an awesome idea! I’m going to start suggesting it everywhere I can!

AJ: This would be awesome to go along with another idea from Paul of The Cardboard Jungle podcast. He told me that they will leave Tessen setup on the table ready to go, and at any moment someone can shout “Tessen!” and the run to the table and immediately spring into a match! Now think, next time you are in an argument just shout “Tessen!” and run over to the game to solve your problem and determine who wins the argument! It is very much in line with the story in Tessen.

HG: Who is the best Tessen player in your travels? Who is the one to beat?

Chris: Well, I thought I was pretty good until I played you at Gen Con, Grant. I think all those matches with real-world stakes on the line served you well! As for other players, a couple of days into Gen Con, we met these guys who were, hands down, the fastest Tessen players we’ve ever seen. Right after the rules explanation, bam!–they were into the game and flying faster than even experienced players. Their match was the best I’ve ever seen. In the final round, they tied on how many animal cards they saved, and the tiebreaker was the difference between a single card being drawn, so less than one second. The game literally could not have been any closer!

AJ: Yeah those guys WERE fast! But in fairness, they were bending the rules a little bit…

I’ve found that video gamers are particularly good at Tessen. They have really good reflexes and sharp reaction times that really serve them well in the game.

HG: What are some of your favorite games right now?

Suzanne: Gravwell, For Sale, and Jaipur.

Chris: Darn, stole my answers! What she said.

AJ: I can’t believe I am going to answer with a Euro, but Bruges by Feld is really enjoyable. Story War is a nice spin on Apples to Apples we had a blast with at Gencon. Sky Whale!

HG: Sky Whale, indeed! Where did you get the idea for Cardboard Edison?

Chris: When we started designing games a couple of years ago, we began researching the industry. There’s a lot to learn about: prototyping, playtesting, pitching, design theory and so on. As we met and talked with other designers, we realized they were doing a lot of the same research as us, and we figured it might help other people if we shared the helpful stuff we found. So we created the Cardboard Edison blog to put all those useful links in one place.

HG: You have a party game in the works as well, right? Can you tell me about it?

Suzanne: Sure! We have a game called Skewphemisms. It’s a word party game based on alliterative phrases. It’s the first game idea we came up with, and it’s what got us into game design. We’re deep into the playtesting phase, and we’re looking for a publisher.

HG: What are some of your favorite party games?

Suzanne: I am a master of Scattergories unless Chris tells everyone to vote down my creative answers!

Chris: C’mon! “Happy fish” for “Things in the ocean” that start with H?!?

Suzanne: Are you telling me that there are no happy fish in the ocean?

Chris: Madness! Of course, Suzanne is always able to get a few other players to go along with the craziness, and I end up in last place.

Suzanne: :-D

AJ: Oh I think I have to side with Chris on this one… as for me Dixit has to be up there. And as crazy as it is, I have a lot of fun with Quelf, although that one can drag on a bit.

Anything else you want to add?

Suzanne: We would like to thank you, Grant, for taking the time to talk with us. It was great meeting you at Gen Con! We also would like to thank our publisher, A.J. We just love working with him! Please check out the Kickstarter for Tessen. It’s up now, and the campaign ends on Monday, Sept. 2.

AJ: Yes! There is just a week left and still several great stretch rewards to achieve. Check out the project today!

Tessen is only $12 shipped domestically in the US. As a long term tester, I assure you it’s well worth that. 

MLH: Testing and Iterating

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I’ve been writing quite a bit about Molly’s Last Hope lately because I’m working on it fervently. I have a tight deadline for the contest submission and I need to be cracking! Last night I was able to hold a really good test of the game with a friend/co-worker/professional graphics designer who has tested many of my games in the past. The test revealed quite a few things about the game, good and bad, that I’ll discuss now.

Before I get too far, here are the current rules to the game. Please note I’m still updating them per last night’s test and I haven’t updated the diagrams and examples to incorporate the new art that you can see in the image above.

The Pace of Battles: The biggest problem identified last night, as well as the easiest to address, was the pacing of the battles. Our first battle simply took too long and resulted in too many wasted turns due to misses. Firing on an enemy had a 50% chance of resulting in a hit if they weren’t in cover, but in cover it switches to a 33% chance and that was simply too low. I noticed that all of the terrain on the game provided defensive bonuses. The thing is, there is too much cover and defense slows the game down.

So, I switched my thinking to that of “the best defense is a good offense.” To speed up the game, cover now provides you with a tactical advantage: you may re-roll Action dice in hopes of getting better options. Towers give you a similar advantage in that you may re-roll a Miss in hopes of rolling a Hit.

I also found that one Action die per soldier was too slow. Sometimes you needed to race ahead with a soldier and shoot. Now, you can assign 2 Actions to a single soldier, but they cannot be the same Action.

Finally, I removed Flanking as it just didn’t work AND was too complex. I’ll find something better and simpler.

We incorporated these changes after the first battle and it greatly improved the game. I feel that battles are still missing something…special…but I’m going to let testing reveal what that thing is. Unless it comes to me in a moment of unforeseen clarity!

While discussing pace, the game took about 60 minutes plus a half hour of discussion and design. I’d like to get that down to 45 minutes, which I think is possible.

Battle Balance: The battles were balanced to be horribly in favor of the player with the most Units. This is good, as it means the player was making good strategic choices on the Planet Board with his cards. However, it also meant that battles were largely an exercise in probability. You knew who would win, it was just a matter of getting the hits.

In one case, my opponent made a few REALLY bad tactical errors where he attacked my clearly superior force with a hugely inferior force. He did this a few times! However, his thinking was soundly rooted in classic guerrilla tactics. He was willing to expend his few Units in hopes of killing some of mine. I want to allow such risks to be plausible.

Previously, players rolled 1 Action die for every 2 Soldiers. However, this means the player with 5 soldiers has 3 Actions versus the player with 2 soldiers having 1. Now, you always roll 3 dice. This gives you more variety, removes a fiddly rule (1 die per 2 soldiers), but still favors the player with more units. He has more flexibility and more folks to whom he can assign Actions.

Also, now that players always have 3 dice, I can incorporate more mechanics like rolling doubles and triples, which I believe is a simple and effective way to add something special to the battle.

Battle Map Complexity: Building the Battle Maps was, as I hoped, a quick and easy affair. We built every map in less than a minute and were ready to go. Other than a slight graphic design snafu it worked incredibly well. However, the alternate rules I added to the Battle Maps were a mixed bag. For one, all alternate victory conditions were wasted. They open up too many edge cases and were rarely actually factored into the battle.

My take away is to remove alternate win conditions AND simply make it such that they provide alternate rules and variations for the battle. These worked really well when they came into play.

Card Complexity: By and large my cards worked really well. I designed the game from the ground up to use a symbols only, text-free system. This was a fantastic constraint and has largely limited my cards to be simple and understandable. My friend had very few questions on what his cards meant. The questions he did have are easily tweaked.

However, I have 2 or 3 cards per faction that were just a bit fiddly and too difficult to use. By removing constraints like Orbit required for some of these, or varying the tuning slightly, I can greatly improve the flexibility of the system.

While we’re on the topic of cards, I need to slightly reduce the number of reinforcements that the Confederation can dispatch in a single play. They were a bit too powerful, but not too much so. Just a smidge.

Discard Overpower: Some cards can force an opponent to discard cards, which both screws up his turns (the cards are discarded at random) AND hastens the end of the game. The game ends when a player is unable to play a card. Previously, a player could discard one card per battle to change a miss to a hit. This was a bad mechanic for a few reasons:

  • It didn’t fit in. Players were focused on the dice and their soldiers and often forgot they could use a card.
  • It’s too powerful. Guaranteeing a hit? Wowza.
  • It’s doubly too powerful. Guaranteeing a hit AND hastening the game end? Yikes!

I removed this and will find something neat to modify battles elsewhere. It just won’t be here.

The submission date for the game, March 1st, is rapidly approaching. I’m really happy with how far Molly’s Last Hope has come so quickly. Though perhaps it hasn’t been that quick at all? I wrote about the game first at the start of December. In November I shared some of the early ideas. So, I suppose one could argue (me being that one) that months of good thought and a simple idea have pushed the actual execution phase forward very quickly? I hope that’s the case.

I hope to get this into the PPP very soon. Also, in case you missed it, I added a page for Molly’s Last Hope.

Thoughts?

Balance Testing

I wrote a post earlier on Faction Design. This new post is similar, but not quite the same. I’ve also written about Testing your game.

Post by: Grant Rodiek

The development of Empire has been such a fruitful experience, both in that I feel I’ve made my second good game (Farmageddon being the first) and that I’ve learned an absurd amount, especially about designing more complicated games. I honestly believe I test games well — I take in feedback, I know what questions to ask, and I know what to look for in a test. But, thanks to Empire, I’m now learning a great deal about testing for balance.

I have some quick tips for things to consider when testing for balance. These tips are especially important when dealing with a game with asymmetrical properties. In my case, asymmetrical Army factions, each with unique capabilities.

Take notes throughout, but act upon the final result. The ideal test environment is one in which you, the designer, are merely an observer. This lets you watch human expressions and listen for deeper meaning into the commentary. You should be taking notes the entire time. For the sake of balance testing, you should note people’s favorite abilities. You should note the ones that cause the most excitement and “holy crap!” type exclamations.

For Empire, Encirclement (Royal Brigade Offensive Tactic) and Bombardment (Imperial Army Offensive Tactic) always cause the “holy crap!” Form Up (Yorkan Staff Order) and False Orders (Republik Militia Staff Order) cause “oh noes!” from the victims and observers. However, the player executing the tactic is grinning like a jackal.

Over time, however, I notice that some Tactics are used more often than I’d like. Tactics and abilities seem to be overpowered and unfair. People start to whine and complain. My notes start to get more dramatic.

  • Cut this ability in half.
  • Reduce reinforcements by 3
  • Make this only do this one thing instead of 2

But, then the game ends and I examine the final score. The player who seemed to have the runaway ability only won by 2 against 2 of the 3 opponents. Heck, the first and last player only had a spread of 6 points. Clearly, my big, dramatic fears were unfounded. Plus, this “runaway faction” was third place in the previous game. My solution? Slightly tweak the ability to use the Tactic to make it slightly more difficult.

You need to get the full story and fully examine the facts before you dramatically re-tune something. If you change course mid-game you will deny yourself some really useful data. Take notes throughout, don’t decide until the end of the test. Measure twice, cut once.

If you’re curious, here are the two tiny changes I’m making to Empire as a result of this week’s tests.

  • Form Up Staff Order now requires a Fog + Cavalry card to activate. Previously, it was Fog + any card.
  • Double Time Staff Order now states: Take two Mobilize Actions. You can Mobilize into a battle territory. (Bold text is the change.)

Good balance isn’t just fairness, but an approximately equal set of choices. One thing you need to adjust for is imbalance. If Faction A has a 10 magnitude ability and Faction B has a 6 magnitude ability, you need to bring those into approximate parity with each other. However, once you move past this, you need to make sure that players see value in all of their options. You need to ensure that different options are useful in every game so that dominant strategies or repetitive choices foul the experience.

In Empire, every player has 4 unique abilities (Offensive Tactics, Defensive Tactics, Staff Orders) and one Army specific attribute. My intent was not just that these are options and privileges, but dictates to how you should play. For example, the Cave Goblins in Summoner Wars are flimsy but numerous. You should augment your strategy accordingly. In Empire, if you are turtling with the Yorkans, you’re playing incorrectly.

So, the task for me is to make sure that players feel they have good options with which to execute a winning strategy. Furthermore, they need to feel that they have multiple good options in a variety of situations. If you see a player using Ability C over and over again instead of Abilities A, B, and D, you should ask a few questions:

  • Is Ability C too powerful?
  • Are abilities A, B, and D under powered?
  • Are the abilities explained (rules text) in a way that makes them appear less valuable?
  • If I were to list a strategy example, would that make it more enticing?
  • Could this be an art thing? I.e. giant laser looks WAY more fun than radar dish?

Most importantly, you should ask the tester! “Hey, why are you only using Ability C?” Perception is everything in a game. Make sure your game is presented such that a player’s perception is that he has a full toolbox full of awesome choices.

Always keep your design goals in mind. This is a fundamental rule that I consider sacred. This is important for design, testing, balance testing, pitching to publishers. Always keep your goals in mind. You should balance your game such that is balanced and fair, but ONLY if that’s your intent. If you want the game to be subtle, don’t throw in the gigantic mega-bomb. If you want lots of combos, don’t make your turn structure rigid. When balancing your game, always check your new changes against your philosophical approach to the game.

Test with the same data before making changes. Even if something appears REALLY broken, you need to test the same game with NO changes many times before making changes. This is the scientific method and it’s crucial. GenCon was incredibly useful because I tested the same version of Empire 12 times over 4 days. Had I been home I would have been tempted to change it every time. But, being away from a computer and my prototype materials I had to run with it. What did I learn?

Well, I knew precisely what needed to change. I also knew that the game was mostly balanced. I had scores from 12 games with 40 or so players. The evidence was clear.

When you’re testing a game for its mechanics, you can change the game fairly frequently. Why? Well, broken is broken. When you’re testing balance, you need to factor in things like:

  • Player skill
  • Player familiarity with the game
  • Player familiarity with the faction
  • Player personality (aggressive versus passive versus erratic versus etc)

On Monday, I was worried the Militia was too powerful. On Tuesday, they took last place. On Monday, the player who played the Militia had played them 4 times previously. He knew them like an old friend. On Tuesday, I had 4 entirely new players play every faction. Is the Militia perfectly balanced? I don’t know, but I know they aren’t wildly imbalanced.

In an ideal world, I would have 4 equally skilled players playing the game 5 times with the same factions. That can’t always happen, but I can try to steer my test sessions towards that.

Balance testing cannot truly begin until the mechanics are completed. Some may disagree with me here, but this has been my experience with both Farmageddon and Empire. Early Farmageddon had problems with 2 player rules, how many cards people could play, how much Fertilizer to use, etc. But, once those elements were finalized I spent months and months just revising the Action cards.

I began designing my war game in January (it was called General Staff back then). I’ve been testing the prototype since April. It has taken pretty much all of those 5 months (about 30 tests) to bring the mechanics within 90% of what I think are final. Now, a future publisher (fingers crossed!) may disagree and we’ll cross that bridge, but I think the mechanics are mostly finished. Without an incredibly firm foundation, you cannot properly evaluate the balance of your game. It’s practically impossible.

Why? Faction balance requires you evaluate the abilities for all player scaling, different player personalities, different starting positions and spatial relationships, and more. If you’re trying to evaluate balance, which is a tiny, subtle thing, you need NOTHING else to be shifting. Otherwise, how you can really know if the ability is imbalanced? Was it the imbalance? Or was it imbalanced because the mechanic upon which it was built was poor?

This post went on a bit long for a Friday afternoon. Was this useful? Any interesting tidbits? Any advice of your own to share?

Disorderly Conduct Part 2

In case you missed part 1, you can read it here. A friend and design peer suggested I write a part 2 that covers the impact on simultaneous turn taking and private versus public information. Here it is!

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Simultaneous turn taking is not to be taken lightly. I have only briefly dabbled with it early in the development of Empire. The idea was bad and only partially simultaneous. Players would decide what to do at the same time, but the execution would be sequential. Nevertheless, I feel I’m up to the task of providing some quick analysis and suggestions.

Simultaneous turn taking is the optimal place for perfect pacing. Wonders is a 7 player game that plays in a blistering half hour. It almost takes longer to setup the game or tally the score! Simultaneous gameplay also flips the traditional notion of reaction versus dictating terms to other players. Let me elaborate.

Typically, the first player can either claim a scarce resource, which denies it from others, or take an action to which other players must respond. Players with initiative can therefore dictate terms to others. However, players who go last have the opportunity to react. They may get resources at a lower cost, take the road less traveled, or take advantage of a flank. This is a key element of Empire and other war games like 1812: The Invasion of Canada. With simultaneous turns, you lose this element, but at the same time you force players to take an educated step in the dark. What do YOU want? What does your opponent want? How can you stop them?

Ca$h ‘n Gun$ is a game full of simultaneous choices. So is The Resistance. The simultaneous actions in this game provide great tension and enjoyment. Holy crap you’re going to shoot him? What! You didn’t vote for my mission? Whereas in Wonders your neighbors’ choices rarely raise an eyebrow, the sudden, jolting nature of the actions in other games can be thrilling.

With simultaneous actions, you want to be careful to not harry and rush some players. With group think, most people will make a choice and be ready to “go go go.” But, the group can only move as fast as its slowest or most analytical member. This means you run the risk of greatly frustrating the speedy players (who get bored and pull out smart phones) or the more thoughtful player (who is flustered and frustrated). There are ways to mitigate this!

Reducing the amount of text on a card greatly helps here. If players need to read a large amount of text, you then throw slow readers into the group of slower-minded players. A focus on icons or really simple functionality (like all 3 games mentioned above) greatly help here. Find a way to simplify actions during the game or break them into pieces. As you play 7 Wonders, the number of cards in your hand are reduced. The cards you can play are reduced. And your strategy is more focused. With Ca$h ‘n Gun$ you begin to notice who is in the lead, who is dead, and you have fewer bullets. 
Pros for Simultaneous Action
  • Best pacing possible!
  • It’s a thrill ride as the great reveal occurs!
  • Reduced AP potential — there is less information to which one can react.

Cons for Simultaneous Action

  • You lose react versus dictate gameplay.
  • Less information to make decisions.
  • Speedy players are impatient. Slower players are flustered.
  • There is a greater burden on the designer to simplify content and cards.

Private versus public information is something I should have considered for this discussion. Alas, my pal Eric was required to bring it to my attention. I love cards. They are easily my favorite game component. One of the primary reasons for this is that cards allow for private information.

There are a few things you may not have considered when deciding how to factor private versus public information into your design. When I tested Empire at GenCon this lesson was brought home to me. Players all have 3 pieces of information they must consider at all times:

  1. Their hand of cards. These are very simple, but a player still has 5 of them.
  2. The status on the board. Unit positions, fortresses, scoring, etc.
  3. Their options on their Reference boards. Cards are used for these.

I watched player after player frantically look at their cards, then the board, then cards, then reference boards, then cards, then cards, and so forth. It was exhausting for me and my players. Some of this can’t be avoided. Some of it, however, is greatly resolved by improving the presentation on a player’s reference board. Now, actions are broken into sections based on a phase. Players can look at their hand and the pertinent section of their reference board. This should greatly reduce the amount of eye strain and analysis paralysis.

To summarize: reduce the number of places a player must look. Try to focus the vast majority of your action into one place.

Another thing to consider is the social impact of private versus public information. Board games are special because they bring players together for true, honest socialization. The more private information you force players to consume, the more time players will  tend to be head down, reading card text. This is time not spent talking trash, drinking wine, and telling jokes.

Public information lends itself greatly to group think (in co-op games) and analysis paralysis in more competitive games. To solve the former, more and more co-op games give players private hands of cards lately (see: The Lord of the Rings: The Living Card Game) to prevent obnoxious group think. “This is my hand…it’s my choice.”

For the latter, there isn’t much you can do with certain personality types. One group of my testers for Empire at GenCon debated literally every decision of every player for every turn of every round. The game took them 2.5 hours! If you force players to roll dice (randomness) or flip a card (unpredictable element), they’ll move on at some point. After all, luck is luck.

One more comment on private information is that players love having a secret. It lets them feel special and devious. When a player’s turn comes around and he is able to reveal his trick, there’s an adrenaline rush for him. There’s also enjoyment and surprise from the others. Many will argue, however, that they hate surprises in games. Some people crave perfect or near perfect information. “No random!” they cry. I don’t agree with this school, but it’s key to note.

Pros for Private Information

  • Players love having a secret in their hands. Players love hearing a secret.
  • Reduces group think.

Pros for Public Information

  • Players focus on a common focal point.
  • Players have a greater opportunity to socialize as they look up from their cards.
  • Fewer surprises appeal to some players.

You should be wary of…

  • Spreading information to too many places. Eye and neck strain abounds.
  • Too much text on cards.

What are your thoughts? Did I miss anything? As always, please join the conversation (or write a guest column!).

Disorderly Conduct

Post by: Grant Rodiek

A fundamental question you must answer for your design is “what will a player do on his or her turn?” In most cases, players will have individual turns. Yes, there’s simultaneous play, like in Wonders, or there’s real time play, like in Paper Route, but generally most games have player turns.

There are typically three options to give a player on his or her turn:

  1. Give the player one Action. Ascending Empires does this beautifully.
  2. Give the player several Actions. These are done in a strict order. Dominion is a great example of this (Action, Buy, Clean).
  3. Give the player several Actions. These are done in any order. Alien FrontiersFarmageddon, and Empire belong here.

Let’s go through every option. There are good things and bad things about each. Here’s a bit of foreshadowing: I prefer option 3.

Give the player one Action: This is the cleanest of the three options. Essentially, you give the player a variety of choices, but they can only choose one. Ascending Empires is one of my favorite games and it does this perfectly.

You can build, move ships, research, recruit men, or mine. For many of these, you must meet the conditions before you can choose the Action, which further simplifies your decision. You could also argue Wonders does this as you select one card out of a fairly large hand.

One Action has a few VERY strong arguments in its favor. Firstly, the pacing of a game with this structure is typically fantastic. Taking only one Action means you can’t have any combinations (two is required), which greatly simplifies the decision and reduces analysis paralysis. Games with one Action are also simpler and more straightforward. They ask “what one thing do you want to do most this turn?”

Games that use this can also be presented very easily. You can use a tableau that shows the five options (Ascending Empires, Glory to Rome). Or, like Wonders, you tell the player “Pick one card” and they can just look to the cards.

There are some downsides to this mechanic. If not properly tuned, a game where you take one action at a time can feel plodding and tedious. You need to make actions decisive and “big” enough that the player doesn’t feel like he’s trying to drain the Titanic with a bucket. The one action should feel like a step, not a baby’s crawl.

The other issue is that by having one Action, you remove the ability for combinations. Yes, this is a plus, but it’s also a minus (depending on your point of view). In my experience, combos, even simple combos, are one of the best ways to let a player feel clever. Combos give players that “ah ha!” moment and with one Action you’ll need to deliver that elsewhere.

Give the player several, strictly ordered Actions: This is arguably one of the most common ways to let a player take his or her turn, and for good reason. As a designer, you can present the player with several options and far more flexibility, yet still give the player a comfortable and rigid structure.

One of the first things I learned in design is that players want to be told what to do. They find it comforting. No, I’m not saying people are sheep. But, nothing is more overwhelming than being told “do all of these things however you want!” Gah! Instead, you’re saying “Do all of these things, but step by step.”

Dominion is an absurdly popular game. A big reason for this is how accessible the game is. Yes, learning 10 new cards every game isn’t easy. But, knowing that on every turn you’re going to play an Action, Buy a card, and clean up your hand eases things along. ABC. ABC. ABC.

Designers should be careful with the number of steps. Yes, you can (and should) have a reference card that walks you through the steps. However, I’ve played some very simple games that had 6 steps on every player turn and, even though the order was strict, it was overwhelming.

Multiple actions with a strict order give the player a broad turn, let the game move along quickly, and do so within order and with a reasonable pace. Analysis paralysis isn’t too bad because players know they must do step 1, step 2, and step 3. It’s a routine and people like a routine. But, the downside is that combos may be more rigid and you limit the option for player creativity.

If you have a complex game and you’re trying to figure out how to simplify it, try testing the prototype with a strictly ordered turn system.

Give the player several Actions with no order: Be warned! Use this only at your peril, for it is fraught with all sorts of nonsense you must resolve.

With this system, you give the player an array of options and tell them that they can not only do many of them (if not all), but they can do them in any order, and sometimes multiple times. This immediately sets you back:

  1. Your game is now more prone to analysis paralysis players.
  2. Your game is more overwhelming and less accessible.

You will need to understand and accept this. It also means that you’ll need to scale back your complexity elsewhere and reduce other opportunities for players to stall and over-analyze.

One of the hardest things for players to grasp with Farmageddon is that they can do things in any order. Every demo I have ever given is immediately broken up by a “how much can I plant?” or “When can I play Actions?” or “Can I plant again?” The game would be FAR simpler if I said this was the order:

  1. You must harvest if able.
  2. Plant (optional)
  3. Play Action card 1 (optional)
  4. Play Action card 2 (optional)
  5. Fertilize at least 1 time.

However, the game would be far less fun. Farmageddon isn’t a terribly deep game. It’s not a brain burner. But, over and over again I’ve seen the joy in people’s faces when they see they can plant, insure, and destroy a crop, then plant again to take up the field. Or, they can plant, steal a card, Bumper another crop, harvest, then not fertilize because they burned all their cards.

I made the choice that flexibility would vastly improve the game even at the expense of accessibility. It was a compromise I made and had to work for, but one I’ve never regretted.

A very similar game to Farmageddon is Gamewright’s The Big Fat Tomato Game. This game does many things like Farmageddon, but you must do everything in order. The game comes with reference cards to walk you through the 6 steps. It’s not a difficult or complex game, but my friends and I had to use the reference cards for the entire game. If I brought it out again, I’d still have to use the cards. Sometimes the confusion is just shifted to another place!

Order of operations allows for exciting combos and player creativity. If you have a game with cards, you’ll see players coming up with new combos that you hadn’t conceived. This has been the best part of developing Farmageddon and Empire for me. I personally love playing Alien Frontiers because every dice roll is a “holy crap look at all this cool stuff I can do!” moment.

Really, it all comes down to the game you’re trying to deliver. It is greatly determined by your target audience. If pace and simplicity are your priorities? Use One Action. If you need a bit more flexibility but want to hold players’ hands? Multiple structured Actions. If you want to enter the wild west and you’re ready to scale back elsewhere to let it happen? Give multiple action unstructured a chance.

Contribute to the discussion! Do you have other examples? Other pros and cons I failed to mention? Use the comments below.

Mechanically Sound #4: Eclipse Edition

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I recently had the opportunity to play Eclipse, the highly praised epic space opera game that currently resides as the #5 game of all time. Because of its high ranking and quick ascendancy, the game is somewhat controversial for some. There will always be naysayers. However, after only one play it’s clear to me that this game is very special.

Furthermore, the game is incredibly well designed. Nothing is out of place, nothing was confusing (for me, at least), and everything was richly thematic.  It seemed fitting and appropriate to dedicate a Mechanically Sound column to a few of the things I enjoyed most about Eclipse: Ship customization, battle, and the economy.

Ship Customization

Examine this player board. At the very top, from the left to the right, you have 4 ship types: fighter, cruiser, dreadnought, and space station. If you look closely, you’ll see a variety of squares with symbols on them.

Ships have a few variables:

  • Initiative: This determines who attacks first.
  • Movement: How far the ship can move with a move action.
  • Power: Weapon upgrades, engine upgrades, etc. require power. If your ship doesn’t have sufficient power to equip the part, you cannot do so. You can also upgrade a ship’s power supply.

On top of this basic framework, you can outfit a ship with improved guns that cause more damage with every hit, better engines for more  movement, shields to hinder an opponent’s hit chances, armor to increase life, computers to improve your hit chances, bombs to devastate planets, and my favorite, missiles, with which to launch a single, hopefully devastating broadside at the outset of every engagement. If you’ve read David Weber’s Honor Harrington series, the missiles in particular will be very exciting. I loved them.

This may sound complicated, but the presentation is excellent. You place the upgrade components (square pieces of punchboard) and place them on the ship. Ship numbers are limited by the number of components and typically you only have a handful out at a time. As a first time player, I had zero problems knowing what my ships could do and what upgrades were available for them. I was also able to keep tabs on my opponents’ fleets.

I think the biggest reason for this is that instead of going incredibly broad with ship types and a slew of variants, the designers went narrow and deep. Only 4 ship types, two of which have very simple component possibilities, and everything ultimately feeds into battle or movement.

Battle

I thought the battle system made a lot of sense and had a good dose of randomness and luck (it uses dice, after all), but still seems to reflect the upgrades and capabilities of the ship.

Ships attack in initiative order and players roll the number of dice indicated by upgrades. This usually means one or two per ship. Any 1s rolled are always misses. Any 6s rolled are always hits. Between these extremes is where modifications come in.

If you have a targeting computer for +2 hit chance, for example, you will hit on a 4 and up. If a 6 is a hit, then 4 + 2 (from the computer) means 6. That’s a 50/50 chance,which is much better than 1/6. However, let’s say your opponent has a shield, which gives you a -1 hit chance. Well, then you hit on a 5 and up. 1/3 is still far better than 1/6!

Occasionally, a battle can have a seemingly endless number of back and forth re-rolls, especially if neither side retreats (the game gives you an incentive to fight the battle to the death, even if it’s your death). But, in most cases this system perfectly reflects the capabilities of one’s ships without slowing the game with cumbersome tallying.

I really want to see how this system varies and changes over multiple plays. Currently, I think it’s the bee’s knees.

The Economy

For the longest time with Empire Reborn I tried to craft some form of turn-order determining system that reflected a player’s current status on the map. Essentially, a player with many armies widely disbursed should be more cumbersome than a player with fewer armies tightly focused.

Ultimately, I scrapped this to streamline the game and focus on the battles. However, Eclipse, which is a much heftier game, solves this goal in a really cool fashion.

Look at the bottom portion of the board in the image just above. There are red disks and little red squares on three tracks (orange, pink, and brown). The tracks are:

  • Orange Track: Last number revealed is the amount of money (a currency for taking actions) you earn at the end of every round.
  • Pink Track: Last number revealed is the amount of science (a currency for researching technology) you earn at the end of every round.
  • Brown Track: Last number revealed is the amount of materials (a currency for building ships) you earn at the end of every round.

There are 5 actions you can take every turn (multiple times, any order). To indicate you took an action, you place the rightmost red disk into the action space. This reveals a negative number on the bottom track. The left most revealed number at the end of the round is the amount of money you must pay. So, the more actions you take, the more money you pay.

Now, examine this picture again:

Each hex tile is a system. The owner of the system places a colored disk to indicate ownership. This disk is removed from your track at the bottom, which means colonizing planets permanently increases the cost of taking actions. Similarly, systems have a varied number of orange, pink, and brown cube spaces. When you take control of the system (with a disk), you can place cubes onto the board. So, if I claim a system with an orange and a pink space, I remove those cubes from the track on my board. This means I’ll earn more money and more science every round. It also means some systems are better than others, or may be better or worse depending on your strategy.

If you want to build ships? Go for systems with brown (manufacturing) spaces. Need to up your economy for more actions? Find the orange.

Thematically, this is excellent. The larger my empire, the more costly it is to manage it. And, as I develop star systems, my economy, science, and manufacturing capabilities increase. These things are so tightly connected and intertwined. There is no fluff and it’s just excellent.

As you can tell, I’m a bit enamored of Eclipse. This is probably the closest thing you’ll ever see to a review on this site. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that other games use very similar systems, but I haven’t seen things quite like this in my experiences, so they were very new and very welcome to me.

Have you encountered any stellar mechanics lately? Do you have a love letter to write? Note it in the comments below!

The Gift of Independence

Post by: Grant Rodiek

In the past week or so I’ve written about why I design (the Release Valve) and things I love as an armchair publisher. I have just received a wonderful gift, which will hopefully change things for me.

I work for a very large electronic game company. Because it’s a game company and a creative company, there are rules I need to follow regarding my own personal projects. I must get approval and I must be very careful to not infringe upon IP rights and things of that nature. Separation of work and home, as it were.

As a creative entrepreneurial guy, there’s always the desire to do things on my own. What if I could do it better? Or, more simply, what if I could do it on my terms. A month or so ago I submitted a formal request to my company’s HR, legal, and studio leadership asking to let me form an LLC to develop, publish, and sell board games. This morning, I received the approval email!

In the last year, people announcing that they are a publisher is not new. In fact, it’s a really frequent occurrence. I’m throwing my hat in. My biggest inspirations are companies like Plaid Hat Games that have slowly but surely become a creator of great games.

I have a lot of work to do, but I thought I’d state a few things so you know what Hyperbole Games is, or I should say, will be.

Publishing will be a very busy hobby. I will still have a day job that will pay the bills and finance my ability to be a publisher. By doing this, I can move slowly, take the time to learn things, and not worry about losing my shirt if I fail. It would be fun to do this for a living, but that’s not practical for me.

As a result, I can take my time. Which is good, because I have so much to learn.

I will focus on publishing small, highly accessible card games. As a player and developer I’m very fond of cards and it’s key I do what I know. Cards are also relatively cheap to manufacture, have a lower price point, and as a component have many benefits in my opinion. My hope is to publish games that are clever, appealing to a wide audience, and aren’t just another take-that (says the Farmageddon designer….). I’d be perfectly happy with reviews that described Hyperbole Games as “great fillers,” “good gateway,” or “light strategy.”

For the foreseeable future, my goal is to self-finance things. As I noted, cards are relatively cheap to manufacture. I cannot finance a print run of Empire Reborn, but I could have self-financed Farmageddon. To be explicit, this means it is my plan and hope to not use Kickstarter.

Kickstarter solves two problems for new companies: funding for operations (primarily manufacturing) and marketing (to a degree). If I stick to products with simple components, I can self-finance. I’ve saved my money over the years and I’ve been fortunate to have a good job. As for marketing, well, I’ll just have to solve that problem through other means.

I’ve backed many Kickstarter projects and I was an integral part of the Farmageddon project. From these two perspectives I’ve grown wary of the site. Kickstarter has a unique ecosystem, rules, and expectations. To thrive, you must work within this ecosystem, or fail. It is an awesome site and I am super glad to have it. I’ll just solve my funding issues in a different way. Please please please do not read into this. If you have specific questions about this, email me. I’m not taking some stand or trying to make a splash.

If at some point I want to publish a bigger game, well, I may use Kickstarter. I’ll never say never!

My goal is to be a publisher of other designs. It is likely that my first game will be one of my own design. This is to reduce risk and simplify the process. Furthermore, if I make a mistake with manufacturing or botch the distribution setup, I don’t want a designer to be hung out to dry. I shouldn’t risk the success of their creation until I’m ready for it. But, long term, I aim to primarily publish the works of others. I am not sure I’m going to create the next Ticket to Ride, but I’m perfectly happy publishing the man or woman who does.

Which game will be first? I don’t know yet. It could be Poor Abby or Alchemy or something else entirely. It could be somebody else’s design! I have no time frame. My only requirement is that I publish something excellent that will pay for itself and allow me to continue. Simple, right?

So, what’s next? I need to form the LLC. I need to set aside finances for future projects. I need to continue learning about manufacturing (I’ve been taking notes for a year now) and begin building relationships for distribution. I’ll need to update my website to allow direct sales and I’ll need to figure out a warehousing/fulfillment solution. I’ll need to design and test a game. I’ll need to determine when and how to launch the product and build a marketing plan.

I also need to finish Livestocked and Loaded for 5th Street Games. I need to find a publisher for Empire Reborn. And I need to keep writing for my site.

I’m excited and thrilled that my employer gave me this gift. And I’m thankful to the design and publishing community for supporting me, answering my questions, and generally being excellent. Hopefully next year I can publish something that you all think is great.

Questions? Thoughts? Hate mail?

Hidden Depth

If you’ve been reading this blog, Jay Treat should need no introduction at this point. He’s my most frequent guest columnist and I’m quite glad for his help. Here’s another great column I’m sure you’ll enjoy!

Guest Column by: Jay Treat

Hello again, game design friends. Today I’d like to discuss hidden depth in games. All manner of games are purchased for the fun that they promise, but it’s the fun you can’t see until you play that keeps players coming back (and telling their friends). Some of the greatest games come in tiny boxes with short rules, yet offer heaping amounts of rewarding gameplay.

Let me tell you about a pair of very deep games you may not have heard of with very simple rules. So simple, I can teach both games in this post without breaking flow or going overly long.

Hanabi

Hanabi (by Antoine Bauza) is a cooperative card game with a deck made of five suits with ten cards each: three 1s, two 2s, 3s & 4s, and a single 5. Deal four cards to each player (five with fewer players). Here’s the gimmick: You don’t see your own hand. Players hold their cards facing everyone else so that their own cards are the only ones they don’t see.

On your turn, you must take one of three actions:

  • You can play a card to the table
  • Spend one of the team’s 8 starting clue tokens to give another player some information about her hand
  • Discard a card to buy back a spent clue token.

The goal is to build five fireworks displays by playing a 1 and then a 2, and a 3, a 4, and hopefully even the 5 in order for each suit.

It sounds easy, but the game is very tight. So much so, that the goal isn’t really to score 25 points by completing all five piles, just to score as high as you can. Hopefully higher than previous scores. It’s that difficult. 23 is a thoroughly impressive score. The trick is that there’s more information that needs to be given to play correctly than you’ll have the time to give.

When you tell a player about her hand, you can choose a suit or a rank and point out all the cards in her hand of that suit or rank. “This is your only red card.” “These are your 3s.” As such, the game requires some memory (which card in my hand was a non-red, non-blue 3 again?) and deduction (I can see the other 9 yellow cards between my partners’ hands, the display and the discard pile, so I know this yellow card in my hand must be the 5), but the real meat of the game is innuendo.

There’s no table talk allowed, obviously, so the ability to communicate more through your plays, and to intuit other players’ subtle hints is crucial to a successful game. “These are your 1s” means something completely different on the first turn of the game (you should play any/all of them) than it does halfway through (you can discard them …unless we’re still missing a suit). “This is your only 2” is a hint to go ahead and play it when there are four fireworks displays stuck on 1, even if you don’t yet know for a fact the suit doesn’t belong to that fifth stack.

You can misplay, by the way. If you misread a clue and played a blue 3 while the blue fireworks display is still at 1, the card is discarded (you don’t earn a clue token for it) and the team earns a strike. If you get three strikes, the game ends immediately in total failure. That’s bad and to be avoided, but sometimes it’s worth the risk to go for the gold when you have incomplete information on the theory that a third 17 is no better than a 0 and you’d rather have a chance at scoring 18 or better this game.

I haven’t been able to find a copy of Hanabi until I checked while writing this. Looks like the collector’s tin is available right now and I just heard a new edition is on its way.

Kakerlaken Poker

Kakerlaken Poker (by Jacques Zeimet) is a competitive card game of bluffing with a deck of 8 suits, each with 8 rankless cards (each card within a suit is functionally identical but sports different art, which was a classy move on the publisher’s part). You deal the deck out to start, and then on each player’s turn he chooses a card from his hand, plays it face-down in front of another player and names a suit: “It’s a Rat.” (The suits are various pests and insects like spiders and stinkbugs.)

The player can accept the card, declaring whether your assertion was true or not. She reveals the card and if she’s wrong, she keeps it. It goes face-up in front of her for the rest of the game. But if she’s right, it goes face-up in front of you. That’s a bad thing, because the game ends when one player gets four copies of a single pest. At which point that player loses and everyone else wins. Fun, right?

Here’s the twist: instead of accepting the card, she can look at it and then pass it along to another player, declaring its suit again. She can name the same suit you did or another. The player she passed it to now has all the same options she did. The card can continue to be passed until there’s only one player that hasn’t seen it, at which point he must accept it, declaring whether he believes it is the last suit named or not.

Like Hanabi, this game might sound way too simple to be interesting, but it’s not. It’s absolutely fascinating because there’s so much subtle communication, human interaction and good old bluffing happening. When you slide a card at me claiming it’s a fly, my initial response is entirely dependant on the known fly population. If you have three flies in front of you, I will suspect it is not a fly, because you would be taking a huge chance of losing the game if it is. If I have three flies, though, it becomes rather likely that it really is a fly, since accepting the card has a 50/50 chance of ending the game in everyone else’s favor. Unless I also have a few scorpions, in which case you may be counting on my heightened fly-aversion to trick me into gaining another deadly scorpion.

But wait, what if another player has a fly in front of her and no one else does? You probably don’t want me to accept one way or another. You want the card to make its way to Anna through me. I could pass the card along to her and try to get her to keep it …but why should I take the risk you didn’t? So I pass it to Bob, with the understanding that he should pass it to Anna. Maybe he will and maybe he won’t. This whole time, people are adding more information to the claim. Perhaps I looked at the card and said “it’s not a fly, but it eats them for breakfast: It’s a frog”, but Bob looked at and said “Don’t listen to him, Anne, it really is a fly!”

What if instead, I passed the card to Bob without looking at it (you can do that) and said “fly.” My claim isn’t based on an actual observation of the card, I’m just preserving your original statement. What does that mean? It could be that I don’t care, or perhaps I’m preventing myself from displaying a tell. Or maybe I’ve figured out some subtle play that you haven’t. Goodness knows that happens often enough in this game.

Cockroach Poker is also known as Eight Curses, where the suits are replaced with enchantments with the curse subtype from Magic: the Gathering’s Innistrad block. I can’t support playing a game without buying it from the publisher so that the designer is rewarded for his or her effort, but I will grant that Eight Curses is an entirely appropriate retheme.

What’s going on here?

Designers spend so much time crafting rules and interactions (cards, markers, rondels, turns, whoknowswhat). But, so often the real joy of a game is the rich human interaction that you could never fabricate yet falls into place naturally if you leave room for it. Most party games are powered entirely through the intricacies of social interaction. Werewolf and Celebrities are all about subtle communication. Even seemingly mindless games like Apples to Apples and Cards Against Humanity are fun purely because of the way they cause you to interact with the other players.

So what, don’t all games have this? I would argue that all good games have some hidden depth, whether it’s more social or mechanical. If a player can find a reason to take a move other than those spelled out in the rules or on the cards, she has discovered a nugget of hidden depth. If your game is chock full of such things, you’re offering your players more of the “ah-ha” moments that make them feel clever and enjoy your game.

Note that granting your players more freedom doesn’t usually help the way you might think. Players are often paralyzed when presented with too many choices. For example, I played a political simulation many years ago at Origins in which each player had some global political office and they set us loose for four hours to see what would happen. A few players leveraged their resources, wheeled and dealed, and caused some interesting results. However, the bulk of us just milled about with no clue what to do next. That was too much freedom.

It is when your choices as a player are limited that you are most challenged to play optimally, and it is because of those restrictions that you are forced to think outside the box, prompting you to discover clever solutions.

It’s quite apropos that these few thoughts only scratch the surface of how to add hidden depth to your game, and that I’m quite certain there’s much more to it that I simply haven’t uncovered yet. It’s that inkling that there’s more to discover yet that will keep me thinking about this subject and that’s the exact same motivation that keeps players coming back to games like Hanabi and Kakerlaken Poker.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this subject. Have you gleaned any insights about when a game or mechanic will have hidden depth, or won’t?