Designing for Alchemy

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I am very much a combo driven designer and frankly, and probably not surprisingly, it’s something that I love as a player. I often say I design the games I want to play, which is why you see action cards and multi-use cards in almost everything I make. For my current design, I realized that one of the coolest byproducts of the mechanisms I’ve put together is the sheer number of combinations that can come about as a result of player decisions. I wanted to write about crafting combination rich games, or building a sandbox primed for player designed alchemy.

Doing this isn’t just a great recipe for fun, but is also a phenomenal way to gain extra mileage out of every component and infuse your design with high replay value. If a choice is the same regardless of context, it may grow old. But, if a choice can be melded to an element of the game’s current state for unexpected gold, well, you can make choices in your design to better pluck that fruit.

I think it’s key to note I’m not just talking about a game like Magic the Gathering or Netrunner, CCGs which give players massive toolboxes to craft interesting decks. While deckbuilding is great, it isn’t something every game can or should support and I want to make this more relevant for players crafting euros, war games, and other such titles.

The first ingredient for your delicious alchemical stew are (semi-)permanent game states. If we’re just looking at a CCG, players know the cards in their decks. They know their ideal state, if the pairing emerges. That’s predictable, at least to one player. For your design, you should have 2-3 (if possible) (semi-)permanent elements that can be manipulated.

Let’s think of some examples of semi-permanent states. Note that some of these are actually permanent.

  • A region in a war game. Units and structures can be added and removed to it. In Twilight Struggle, this could be Italy.
  • A placement location in a worker placement game. Workers can be added to it. In Agricola, this is where you go to get 1 Stone.
  • A player-built entity. In Netrunner, this could be a remote server built by the Corporation, containing an Asset and Upgrade(s), or an Agenda and Upgrade(s). Protected by Ice (i.e. Firewalls). In a block war game, like Wizard Kings, this can be an army group. You know there are 4 blocks, but you don’t know if they are Archers or Dragons or all Infantry. In Imperial Settlers, players are all building their civilization with structures.
  • A pattern of meaning, particularly in an abstract. In Tash-Kalar, these patterns mean that cards can summon creatures. In Chess, you can protect one’s King, or create an assault group.
  • Event cards with effects. In Robinson, you have an Event card that emerges every round, then joins previous Event cards that weren’t resolved. You also have things like penalties to affect the difficulty of your next construction adventure.
  • In many co-op games,  you have a non-player hostile threat. In Pandemic, these are the infection cubes. In Legends of Andor, these are the monsters. They have very binary functionality, but they provide threat and pressure.

Essentially, you need something that can be modified. This something needs to have presence in the game for an extended period of time.

The second ingredient is a way to make a lasting modification. This must be player driven and it must alter a state (like the one above) for longer than the immediate present. This means that placing a worker on a spot in Agricola doesn’t count. Yes, I’m preventing others from going there, but as soon as the round ends, it’s available again and will be the same as it’s always been. Continuing this point, when the new placement slot is flipped over in Agricola, that also doesn’t count. It isn’t player driven.

However, the cards a player has in Agricola do count. Why? They are player driven, they are an optional play, they affect the game permanently, and they alter the state of things on the board. These, more than anything, may be the special sauce in Agricola. The tiles fill this role in Caverna. These are what make every game different and give every player a way to be unique, clever, and emergent.

Imperial Assault does this lately with character progression. Yes, I see you rolling your eyes. This is an RPG standard, and Descent 1st and 2nd Editions did it prior, but this is the recent one, and one I’ve played. The semi-permanent state is a player’s character (Rebel) or army list (Imperial). The lasting modification are new gear and abilities that the player chooses to apply.

One more example. I played Memoir ’44 this weekend and was reminded of how great a game it is. One subtle way of manipulating the board is by taking key terrain and denying it to your opponent. For example, I desperately needed my tanks to get past a village, which had them pinned down. However, this isn’t a lasting modification. A single retreat flag can push his infantry from the village.

This situation became far worse when an opponent played the Dig In card, which let him place sand bags. These allowed him to ignore retreat flags and forced me to discard additional dice when attacking. Oof!

This dig in card is similar to my favorite part of Combat Commander: Europe. The entire game is more or less ways to manipulate states, though not all are player driven. Players may pop smoke grenades, reveal planted mines, or choose where to use a hero destined to be honored posthumously.

The third and final ingredientat least for this introductory post, are multiple ways to go about this process. Player agency is key for this being a really rich, enjoyable part of your game. Merely having things to affect, and letting players affect them, is not sufficient. It’ll get you far, but it won’t be as sticky as is ideal. Sometimes, sticky is good.

Libertalia is one of my favorite games that demonstrates this point well. At the start of each round, every player is dealt the same 9 cards from a deck of 30. Note: My numbers might be off, but it’s approximately that. However, not every player must play the same cards at the same time. Furthermore, cards carry over into the next round. The patient player might play the Governor’s Daughter in the final round when the other players used her in the first. The Mutineer may reveal himself at the worst possible time for your personal plans.

In Libertalia, every player has the same decision space, but great freedom in how they use it.

Evolution, the recent strategy game from North Star Games, is packed with multiple ways to solve every problem. There are multiple ways to defend yourself, including chucking cards to increase population and size, starving other creatures by sandbagging the food supply, or creating a synergy ecosystem of defensive traits. Every card has value and multiple uses. Due to the state of your opponents’ ecosystem and the needs of your creatures, how you use those cards will change every turn of every game.

CCGs are obvious, so I won’t belabor that point. One of the reasons they are so intoxicating to players is that there is a massive card pool with which to solve problems. I cannot get enough of Netrunner after almost 50 plays. I have so much agency and space as a player to do cool things. Intoxicating is the best word to describe it.

Finally, when discussing multiple use, it would be a shame to not mention Carl Chudyk, designer of the brilliant Innovation, Glory to Rome, and Impulse (which I haven’t played, but have read the rules). Innovation is a masterwork, as far as I’m concerned, and one of the reasons for this post. Every card has multiple uses. Which cards come out, when, how they are scored, when and how they are used, makes every game a new tableau of possibilities. It’s just incredible. There are so many things to manipulate, so many decisions and player can make to affect these states, and multiple ways each can be done.

Let’s end this. Whether you’re making a war game, a bizarre card game, a CCG, or even a euro, design for alchemy. Give your players a rich source of player agency by letting them put their stamp on the game world and change things according to their desires. You don’t need to be a sandbox RPG or trashy dice roller to do this.

  1. Create several semi-permanent states.
  2. Allow these states to be manipulated in a long-term fashion, ideally by the players.
  3. Allow multiple ways to manipulate things to create additional variety.

What are some of your favorite games that do these things? Which examples did I muck up? Which should also be included? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

2 thoughts on “Designing for Alchemy

  1. Grant, I’ve left a tab open with this article the last three days. It’s been a reminder as I rapidly drop a game into prototype form, of the various semi-permanent states that (can and should) form in games.

    Thanks for that.

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