Post by: Grant Rodiek
Designers often discuss favorite mechanisms, games that inspire, and things they like, but we often skirt the issue of things we don’t like. There’s good reasons for this, in that you don’t necessarily want to criticize one’s peers, or be a Negative Niles. However, I think, if positioned properly, this might lead to an interesting discussion. Or, at least an interesting statement of perspectives.
Therefore, I seek to discuss mechanisms that perturb. These are mechanisms or activities in game that tend to grate against my enjoyment and appeal to me less as a designer. Note that every single one of these has an exception, a champion of doing it properly. The point of this article is not to say “this is always bad,” but more for me to note things I care for less.
You’ll find I ask questions throughout. Feel free to respond in the comments!
Interrupt Cards, and/or Out of Turn Play: This is a mechanism I find is almost always done poorly and it drives me insane. Introducing decisions outside of a player’s turn almost always increases complexity and requires additional explanations for a variety of conditions. Note that I’m discussing turn-based games. If a game isn’t turn based, then out of turn play is fine.
The most notorious offender is the legendary “stack” of Magic, where one must gauge the priority of interrupts and instants and monster attacks. But, many light games, especially take-thats, introduce this and I feel it adds unnecessary complexity.
Netrunner, a favorite, introduces out of turn play/decisions in the form of runs on the server. Players need to decide what servers to rez (i.e. activate) and such. But, by and large, you know that when you’re taking actions, it’s your turn.
Interrupts are generally just awful, for the simple reason they invalidate a turn. It feels lousy to the recipient and often cheap. In my head, it always feels like:
“I want to do this.”
I think it’s very important that players get to make a decision or do something interesting on every turn. Passing, without strategy, having interrupts, or having to weave through layers of what can/can’t happen due to interrupts really hinder this.
What’s your favorite game with out of turn play? What’s your favorite time to interrupt?
Worker Placement without Blocking: For me, the number one best part of worker placement is the tension of spaces being blocked and your opportunity being denied. There is the delicious choice of taking something before its time, or holding out to see if you can claim your first, second, AND third choice.
I feel that worker placement without blocking is like beer without alcohol. It’s lite sour cream. It’s a wolf without teeth. It’s another metaphor.
An exception that comes to mind is the Raider station in Alien Frontiers. It’s intuitive (have a higher straight), expensive (3 dice), contextual (you want something to steal), and not super common (requires a 3 dice straight). That, to me, is the right balance. But, making it a constant element? Not for me.
Another, is that some buildings in Lords of Waterdeep allow two placements. That, being less common and shared, also works.
Which game has done this mechanic well to refute my claims? What’s your favorite worker placement?
The Mimic: Choose any card to copy: This is a minor grievance, but it came to mind and I’ll list it. I don’t enjoy cards that put the burden on me, the player, to pick what it’s replacing. It’s a wild card that is far too broad. “This card can be anything, just name it.” Uhhhhhh? It puts too much on the player and should really be a smaller decision space.
Don’t put this on the player. Constrain their choices or remove the card.
Complex Line of Sight and Range: This is an area that I think every new war game can innovate, simplify, and improve upon their forefathers’ contributions. We were playing Level 7: Omega Protocol last year, which uses a square tile system. Its line of site rules were terrible! You could count towards a target vertically, or horizontally, or you could have diagonal, but never multiple diagonals in a row. They also added very confusing rules for cover. We put this game away in favor of Imperial Assault. Their line of site rules are far superior. One corner of the firing unit’s square must be able to reach two corners of the defending unit’s square. This is great, as it’s simple AND allows for players to fire around corners, yet be protected in return.
This airing of grievances also includes overly complex range solutions. Counting around squares constantly is so tedious! Think about it seriously for a moment. If you’re making a game about relatively modern weapons, range is often not an issue within the area of engagement. Accuracy, whether they hit or not, is. Where they hit is also interesting. You can do this with dice rolls to resolve hits that also abstract damage and chit pulls that identify where things are damaged.
Keep this simple and focus on the best part of the experience: maneuvering your units and bringing your firepower to bear. Not counting tile after tile.
What’s the best example of line of sight and range you’ve seen?
Trading, because sure? I’ve played a handful of games lately that involve trading and negotiation because it’s technically something you can do. But, it’s clear these elements were layered on, not core to the experience. I feel trading needs to be fully integrated by giving players a reason to trade. Trading often benefits both parties and helps balance issues of scarcity. Catan’s trading balances out the cruel nature of the dice. Bohnanza’s trading is forced by the queue of cards that must be played. China Town gives you random stuff that may be worthless to you, but incredibly valuable to someone else.
Having resources alone isn’t sufficient to allow for trading. If you desire a trading floor and social engagement, be sure to institute limits on supply, scarcity, and incentives for players to do so.
What’s your favorite reason to trade in a game?
Variable Ending: This has been a pet peeve since I was introduced to Munchkin and Catan. I think Munchkin would be quite fine as a 30 minute game. But, it never seems to end. Similarly, I want to play about an hour’s worth of Catan. Unfortunately, that never seems to be the case.
I prefer games have a set time period, such as a deck running out, a finite number of rounds, or when a nigh guaranteed event will occur. I’m also quite fine with games where the precise ending isn’t guaranteed, but the mechanisms force an escalation along that all but guarantee this will happen. City Hall does this very well. When X buildings are built, or a player reaches the end of the Approval Track, the last round is triggered. This seems to happen about the same time every game, making its length reliable.
As a player and designer, I appreciate knowing the space within which I have to work. I enjoy knowing about how much time I have and where we are in the story. Games with a fuzzy ending often turn into games that, for me, overstay their welcome.
What are your preferred methods of a game ending?
If the game ends with no winner, Bob wins: This irks me because it feels like the Sword of Damocles is hanging over my head. It also feels like someone’s getting an easy win. Now, that’s perception — it may not be a fair balance concern. In Rex, one of my favorite games, the Fremen (I can’t remember their Rex name) win if someone doesn’t win by the end of the game. This, paired with their ability, basically allows them to hang back and camp. Discworld: Ankh-Morpork also has a role where if the game ends without a winner, he wins. This allows him to just trash things and run amok for an hour.
With my factions, I prefer clear benefits and clear downsides. I love flexibility to interpret those within the system to allow for variability in the experience. I feel like defining a de facto winner prescribes a path that is simply best for one of the factions. It boxes them in and I don’t think that’s nearly as fun. I don’t play the Fremen, because I don’t want my path locked into prophecy.
Do you know of a case where this mechanism works?
Losing earned points: This just feels nasty. A big part of design is identifying experiences that feel lousy to the player and removing them or replacing them with something that delivers a similar experience without the same vibe. If I’ve scored points, I hate losing them. It feels dirty. I especially dislike losing them and giving them to someone else. Many take-that games do this and I feel it’s one of the reasons they are so heavily despised.
A way to do this in a more kind way is to remove resources from a player to hinder their ability to score more points. You can also penalize a player for using certain actions, or making them cost-prohibitive. Again, you’re slowing them, which slows their rate of point gain.
This is mostly about perception and shifting a penalty from points, which are sacred, to things that are less special. Lords of Waterdeep’s mandatory quest cards are hated by some, but I think are a fairly clever solution. In City Hall, especially as the game progresses, players need to spend major Influence in order to take actions. This limits their ability to take other actions for a few turns.
What are some of the best examples of penalties you can think of?
The Passive Overflow: A few games have really fallen out of favor for me for inflicting too many passive effects upon the table to track. I wave a chubby, perhaps too hairy finger at designers who do not carefully consider these. Having passive effects that only affect the owning player are okay. Having passive effects that affect everyone really need to be considered sparingly.
Seasons was a game I enjoyed, in theory, but grew to enjoy much less due to the constant upkeep and accounting of its passive effects. Every round, or every action, could affect multiple players in different ways. It slowed the game and made it difficult to make decisions — there were just too many factors. We also had some trouble with Shadowrun: Crossfire. Various Events and bad guys in play will inflict things at different times. We often forgot to check this, which then meant we were cheating or retroactively addressing things.
The core lesson is, remember that players can only track so many things. The more layers you add, the more difficult it is to keep track of everything and make decisions that properly consider the board state.
What are examples of games that use passive effects very well?
Comment below! Thanks for reading.
Good list. I think that complete blocking isn’t strictly necessary in worker placement, as long as there is that mechanism that makes you worry about taking it now or waiting. New Bedford has unblockable buildings, but there is always a bonus for taking it first, and many of the more powerful buildings can get blocked. Brew Crafters has the unblockable brewery actions, but that’s offset by the blockable market actions. I think there’s a lot of design space here for worker placement games, to make the order of placement (or removal) important.
I was hoping you would chime in as I thought New Bedford had such a mechanism. Thanks for doing so! And feel free to write more if you wanted to write a counter-article, on my site or yours. I’ll be sure to link it!
I agree on many of these.
The corollary to your worker placement point is when a game is so open, offering players so many options, that it effectively eliminates blocking. I’ve played several worker placement games in recent memory that were simply far too forgiving, making choices uninteresting.
I’m glad you mentioned Lords of Waterdeep, because I am a big fan I think that the expansion is also an example of good “points losing” – those corruption points with their “big score now, potentially big loss later” are (I think) a really great addition.
I also think that out-of-turn play *can* help when a game might otherwise leave players with nothing to really do between moves. I’m interested in the mechanic that Tiny Epic Galaxies is using, whereby other players can “piggyback” on the current players actions by energy points.
My kids (and, if I’m honest, me) really like Star Fluxx, and there’s always a fun scrabble when someone “wins” to see if we’ve got a “Surprise” card to somehow prevent the win.
Finally, I have a friend (not really a gamer as such) who loves to play Uno with a rule that allows you interrupt play if you can play the exact same card as another player has played. Pure anarchy ensues…..