Post by: Grant Rodiek
I’m going to play FAST AND LOOSE with science for this past. I hope you’re ready for it. One of my favorite publishers, Uwe Eickert of Academy Games, frequently talks about the “Dopamine drip” in games. You can read about Dopamine exhaustively via Wikipedia here. One of the brain’s Dopmaine systems is related to reward driven behavior. Scientists believe it plays a part of our “seeking,” as in, we’ll do things in order to get the reward.
What makes a game rewarding? What are some rewarding things one can do in a game? What are things you the designer can insert into your design that’ll bring plays back for another go and deliver that satisfying brain tingle?
Using my own brain as a guide post, which I realize is questionable at best, I’m going to identify a few of the ways to get your Dopamine Drip installed. You’ll note that I don’t consider victory or scoring points to be good examples.
Surprise: Or, more specifically, the delivery of a surprise. You ever see someone give another person the perfect gift? Notice how the giver was almost, if not more, excited than the recipient? The same holds true for a game. If you’re in a battle and you execute the perfect unseen maneuver, you’ll get a surprise. The traitor mechanic in Dune/Rex is perfect.
One example of a simple recurring surprise is removing the box at the start of Cube Quest to see how your opponent setup his side of the board. Or, in a CCG, when an opponent plunks down an enormous card using a combo you never conceived. That’s one many of us have felt.
Drafting a card that affects many others is another great case. To continue on that last thought, drafting games and games with simultaneous play are outstanding for delivering constant and delightful surprise. Look at the popularity of Gravwell and Get Bit!, both of which are built around HIGHLY interactive simultaneous choices that lead to surprising outcomes for everyone at the table. That, potentially, is another key: everyone’s choice in those two games affects everyone else at the table. That’s a surprise in a big way.
You may not be making a drafting game, so let’s bubble this back up to a higher level. A great surprise must be something within the players’ control. It isn’t just a card flip off the top of a huge event deck. A great surprise effects most, if not everyone in the game. A great surprise should cause an audible reaction. Examples include “Nooooo!,” “Ah!,” and “You bastard!”
It’s a big impact “no vote,” a disastrous left turn, the ultimate betrayal, or the nuclear option on turn 2.
The Likely Outcome: This may seem counter to the previous statement, but I think the likely outcome can be a great additive for your game. One game that comes to mind is Summoner Wars. Your combatants hit on a 3+, which means each die has a 66% chance of delivering a wound to an opponent. However, you still frequently see a roll of five dice result in no hits, or 2 CRUCIAL dice landing both hits to seal the game. I’ve often said Summoner Wars has the perfect probability on its dice and I happily copied it for Sol Rising.
The British Regulars in Academy’s 1812 and 1775 games is another great example. They are the only faction without a Flee option on their die. They also have more Hit faces than the others. This means they won’t retreat and they will cause more casualties. But, sometimes they peter out (sorry readers named Peter) and don’t deliver the hot mortal broadside. Yet, they often do.
Star Realms, which is devilishly popular right now, is full of likely outcomes. The decks never get that big and the parameters of the cards are quite simple. Mid to late game you’re hoping to begin drawing a full hand of Blob ships to deliver that 20+ damage turn. You SHOULD get that. But, it might elude you. The small deck and quick pace of Star Realms make it a game where you’re constantly chasing that one perfect hand. It’s so close, it should turn up, and often, the player who receives it first will win.
Look to the cube tower in Shogun/Wallenstein. If you chuck a pile of cubes inside it, there’s a likely outcome. In fact, there’s a Ludology podcast on this somewhere in their catalog that I listened to recently where Geoff Engelstein studied the probability.
A final example are simply weighted dice rolls. Think about those tense moments playing D&D when your rogue steps forth to sneak past the guards. He has a big bonus to his stealth and should be able to knock it out. There’s satisfaction in that knowledge, and joy and surprise when it overwhelmingly succeeds (big surprise?) or dramatically fails. I think there’s joy in failure and I think the likely outcome is a great contribution. Never forget that Probability is a cruel mistress. Set her up to delight and disappoint you spectacularly.
Passive Interaction: My posts are often very example driven. I come up with a thesis and try to defend it. This one just came to me while looking at some of my games and thinking of moments that lead to sheer joy in the players at the table.
I think this is one of the reasons Euros are so popular. They are full of passive and often subtle interaction. Worker placement is essentially a series of passive aggressive prioritization of need and nitpicking. Oh, you took that from me last turn? Well, I’ll take this from you now. You can just see the JOY wash over their face.
In The Speicherstadt, one of my favorite games, you can just hear the smirk forming as someone places a worker down on a card you REALLY want to buy. Same with Spyrium. Or Modern Art in the open bid, or Rex/Dune on the bidding phase. I have a friend who ALWAYS bids something up just hoping we’ll eat the cost, which has led to some hilarious meta-play between us.
Fill your game with ways to let your players passively jab at their opponents. People want to compete and they want to best one another. They just don’t want to be mean, often. Fill your rules with all the ripostes of an aristocratic British social soiree and you’ll be in business.
Thoughts? Where am I off? Where am I close to the mark? What are some of your favorite examples of the Dopamine drip in games?