Archive for the ‘Game Design’ Category
Surely we must hang together, or we will surely hang separately. Then again, perhaps that’s what some want… We’re having a deeper look at team play today. You can see a previous Game Mechanic article on team play here.
Full Co-op: Cooperative games have come some distance since since my previous article. Forbidden Island, Ghost Stories, Flash Point; the list goes on. One thing the games just listed have in common is a general formula of Action Point-based turns with a phase of the board beating on you between turns. Nothing wrong with that formula; it works *really* well. It keeps tension high the entire game. But perhaps there are other ways to do it…
- Wreck It All – Have the board completely wreck your trash before you even begin. It’s then up to the players to rebuild as best they can within some kind of time constraint. Essentially, this is the game taking most or all of its ‘bad’ actions all at once. One potential drawback to this is a loss of tension as players start doing well and undoing the damage. However, what if you combined Wreck It All with Pivot Point below, with the pivots being timers running out or things being fixed?
- Pivot Point – Players have breathing room of a set number of turns or until some key event occurs to get their acts together before something terrible happens and the game bares its fangs. Betrayal at House on the Hill does this with its Traitor mechanic, actually; players scramble to gain as much stuff as possible before the Haunt begins and the board, under control of a Traitor player, tries to kill them.
Hidden Role: This is another form of team play that has seen serious burgeoning: Battlestar Galactica, Resistance, and Panic Station are all good examples of this mechanic. Players are dealt ‘role’ or ‘loyalty’ cards that dictate which team she is on and possibly what her goals are to win. Games of this nature tend to focus on the tension of not knowing who is on your team; can you trust your neighbor with that really good equipment card, or will he just turn around and use it on you?
A possible twist on this is multiple roles per player. In a Goal Completion style game, each role has objectives for the player that grant (or take away) VP and bonuses for doing them. However, what if objectives on two role cards are at cross-purposes and can actually result in the player *losing* points for following the wrong objectives? This could cause some cognitive suffering for your players.
Coopertition: Coopertition, or working together while still trying to be the overall winner, has also seen some implementation; Castle Panic and the Renegade role from Bang! come to mind. Perhaps it’s a business game where only one player gets to be CEO at the end, but if players don’t work together, the company will have to shutter its doors.
Be mindful, though: if there is the possibility the players can lose if they don’t work together while pursuing a personal win, you may end up with a lagging player throwing the game to spite everyone else. I’ve had prototypes have this issue, and it ain’t pretty to watch.
That’s all for now, everybody. Now if you’ll excuse me, this loyalty card says I need to go stir up some revolution… I hear it’s a good thing to have every now and then.
Keep on designing, yo!
Io, fellow designers. Lets shuffle up some possibilities with deck building.
-Here ya go!: Have your players build each other’s decks. However, building your opponent’s deck should be more than just throwing trash together so you can stomp them. That’d be too easy. Add a couple of twists:
- Cards in play generate resources for your opponents, with better resource generation tied to stronger cards. You may want 5 gold on your turn, but it’ll cost ya giving your opponent a good card.
- Cards with sub-par effects generate lots of resource. Give your opponent starting resources, or better late-game cards? Mmmm…. cognitive suffering.
-Working together: Players build a communal deck to play from. This could be used in a co-op game, with players pitching in for the greater good while weeding out chaff for other players. Or, you could have it be competitive. However, to avoid the free rider problem, cards could be drawn face-up onto the table as the set of resources and actions available for everyone at once.
-Tertiary Deck building: Deck building doesn’t necessarily have to be the main mechanic, either. Take Starcraft, for example. Players build a combat deck and draw from it each combat. You may have an Ultralisk bearing down on me, but do you have the card to utilize it properly? Perhaps players are building a resource deck in a game with multiple ingredients. Or, a riff on worker placement: I build a deck of how many and what kind of workers I get to place each round, with the cards drawn representing contracts with the workers.
Now that I’ve built the article, lets see what I draw. …Nothing but Victory Points?! BLAST!
Keep on designing, yo!
In terms of broad concepts, scoring is in every game. The end scoring in Coloretto, unit generation in Risk… the list can go on. What makes each game’s scoring different? And not just in what is scored; of course you get points for settlements and cities in Settlers of Catan and hexes captured in Memoir ’44. One of the key differences (and the one we’ll be investigating today) is the timing of said scoring. Are points score instantly? Do you need to wait for the right time to cash in? It doesn’t even have to be the final score you’re aiming for; hitting your opponent in a fighting game reduces his ‘Life Score’, bringing you closer to winning that particular match. Lets have a look at the effects of scoring timing.
-Instant Gratification. Players are rewarded instantly for their actions. Whether it be reducing your opponent’s hit point total or scoring a goal in a sports game, this is about as straightforward as it gets. This form of scoring is typically combined with other scoring techniques to create different strategies. Ticket to Ride is an excellent example of this. A player is instantly rewarded points for placing trains on a route, but said route may or may not contribute to their destination cards (which tend to offer big point swings in the endgame). In a combat game, each hit brings one player closer to winning and the victim closer to defeat; even if defeat is just losing a unit in a particular instance. Even within the same way to perform scoring, the effect can be dramatically different.
-Save It Up. Players save scorable resources until a time that it is most beneficial to them to cash in. This scoring technique is all about timing and predicting what will (or won’t) be valuable later in the game. This is often used in commodities/stock trade games. You may have say, 30 shares of stock X, but you won’t score anything good at $1 per share as compared to say, $9 per share. The Motley Fool’s Buy Low, Sell High is essentially this with the added spin that each share sold actually decreases further profits due to there being more supply available. This creates a good tension if the commodities fluctuate a bit and increases if the scoring is based upon other players’ choices (much as in Buy Low, Sell High).
-Endgame Scoring. Different ways of doing endgame scoring itself has been previously covered here; this is going to deal more with the effect it has on play. Endgame scoing creates more tense play in making the game uncertain until the very end. Perhaps that player in third place has a bunch of Resource X she has been saving all game to cash in for big points. Maybe the leader didn’t account for final scoring and overextended, causing him to come in a close second. If it creates tension and uncertainty in the final outcome of a game, end game scoring is being used correctly.
Well folks, I’ve written enough. It’s time to turn it in for final scoring.
Keep on designing, yo!
Time to duke it out! Combat is another staple of many games. From the dice fest that is Risk to the calculated move/countermove of chess, combat takes many different forms in gaming. Lets throw down some ways combat can be done…
-Dice. Combat is determined by opponents rolling dice. There are many, MANY iterations of this one alone, some of which I covered in my very first article. Another way dice are used in combat is by placing symbols on combat dice that have different effects/results. This approach has been popular lately, appearing in titles ranging from Doom to Memoir ’44. The gist is this: the dice you roll have different symbols on each face. Different symbols have different effects on combat, from hitting the opposing force to forcing you to discard an ammo token. God Dice takes this and turns it on its ear a bit; the symbols on the dice are used to match up different combinations on your character to determine what attack you use that round.
-Cards. Players use cards with numerical values to determine combat results. This is another common one. Typically, each player plays a card and the high card wins the battle (or adds the card’s value to the unit’s base combat value). Cosmic Encounter is probably one of the best representations of this. Essentially, a player attacks an opposing planet with 1-4 ships and both attacker and defender play cards from their hand and add it to the number of attacking (or defending) units with high number winning outright. But what if the cards represented ammunition? Take a wild west style game where each player had a gun with different ‘stats’; ammo, firepower, accuracy, range, etc. Each player also has a ‘bullet deck’ that she can draw from to load into her gun. Each card in the bullet deck would have an shot strength, accuracy modifier and so forth. Players would either ‘load’ their gun with as many cards equal to her gun’s ammo limit, creating an ‘ammo deck’ and shuffles them up. Each time they fire, the top card of their ammo deck is flipped over to determine how good the shot is. Once the ammo deck is empty, that player must reload by taking extra time/actions/etc.
-Capture. Players determine combat results by moving two pieces onto the same space. This one is probably among the simplest of all, with the attacker often being the automatic winner; chess utilizes this. Stratego turns it around a bit by giving each piece a ‘combat ranking’, with higher ranked pieces automatically beating lower ranked pieces and the attacker winning a tie. You could turn this into a ‘siege’ style mechanic by having capture still work this way, but requiring multiple units to capture a space/opposing unit. Take a fantasy siege game where units represent armies, siegecraft and supply trains; each unit also has a ‘combat rank’ as in Stratego. Players are trying to capture X cities from opponents by placing say, between three and five of their units in said opposing cities. If armies encounter each other outside of cities, a battle ensues much like Stratego, but where combat rank can be altered by card play. That sounds kind of fun…
Those took the fight out of me; I surrender.
Keep on designing, yo!
Tile laying is one of those core mechanics like trade or card drafting. Surely all possibilities have been laid out, right? In terms of area control or a modular board, much has already been explored in this mechanic. Place a tile, maybe place a dood on it to exert influence on it. Said influence contributes to scoring of that feature at a later point (such as a road being closed off at both ends, as in Carcassonne.) I’m going to line up a couple of possibilities you may not have thought of…
-Combat. Players could all be contributing tiles to a communal ‘combat board’ much like the tiles are laid out in Carcassonne, with the features increased/completed granting a bonus to attack or defense (or even a special ability trigger). The trick for players in this iteration is every tile you place gives other players the opportunity to build off of your placement for more powerful attacks… I loves me some cognitive suffering. Take a wild west style game where tiles laid out could result in increased accuracy (lining up bullseyes), more shots (lining up ricochet paths from tile to tile) and so forth. Or players could place tiles onto their own personal ‘combat board’, allowing for massive firepower all over the place.
-Movement. More for a race or pick up and deliver type of game, tiles would have features that would allow movement, turns, jumps, etc. Take a robot programming game where the tiles look like a stylized circuit board. In order to move each turn, players must add a tile to the communal Movement Circuit. Lining up ‘Speed’ wires from tile to tile would make you move one space per tile with said wires on it. Add in obstacles that may damage (or worse) your robot, and this can become a risky proposition to keep a particular wire live. Perhaps you want to turn instead. Line up a couple of ‘Turn’ transistors and you’re set. Now if only everyone didn’t keep changing the circuit…
I’d place a few more ideas out, but I just can’t line up those edges… DAMN!
Keep on designing, yo!
Games have a rhythm. Dealing of cards, moving of pieces, bargaining… the list goes on as to what beats out the cadence of a particular title. Choices in design greatly affect this basic cadence. If you want a frenetic, fast moving game, you don’t have the players reference 17 different charts to determine outcomes of an action. Lets see some of the things that vary the pace of a game. Also, please note that these do not account for Analysis Paralysis, or when a player is overwhelmed by the decisions available to him and ends up taking longer than the average player.
-Number of actions per turn. As recently mentioned, the number of actions a player may take during her turn greatly impacts the flow of the game; with fewer actions typically increasing the pacing of a title. Increasing the number of actions while reducing the possible options for each action is another way to keep the flow of a game faster. There are exceptions to this due to other factors: combat typically slows down a game (Warhammer 40k has only a few orders for each unit type, but resolving said actions short of moving involves several extra steps) as does a sheer number of choices (as in Go or Chess each turn). Which leads us to…
-Number of options per turn. Similar to the previous point, the number of choices available to a player can be overwhelming in some instances; Agricola and Tikal are both good examples of the sheer plethora of choice that can make for a slower paced game, with Agricola having the added weight of resources to allocate optimally. Chess and Go can also be very long as it is expected for each player to take a reasonable amount of time to weigh every move. It should also be noted that reducing options available doesn’t necessarily increase the pace of a game. If each option triggered a different type of phase (production, combat, trade, etc), the flow would be more based upon the phase complexity of your chosen option…
-Turn phase structure. More complex turns tend to lead to slower cadence games (or games with streaks of ‘quick play’ amongst slower moves). If a turn has 8 phases in a particular title, odds are decent that there is a LOT going on for players to keep track of in the game. Twilight Imperium is a good example of a complex turn structure. Each player takes turns taking various actions (with each action having several steps) until everyone passes, then players perform upkeep on their systems, planets, ships and so forth. The complexity of the turn structure is necessitated by how much is going on in a typical game of TI 3, though. Compare that to say, Revolution. Players place their bids, then each potential bid on the bid board gets resolved. While being a 45 minute game, it has a good cadence to it thanks to simultaneous action choice in the bidding and the quick resolution of each bid.
-Level of player interaction. Similarly, longer games with high player interaction can feel like they have a good flow. Both a good and bad example at once is Diplomacy. In Diplomacy, players negotiate with each other in timed rounds before turning in written orders for how their units move. The negotiations with the other players are key to a player’s survival or being taken down. We will look at Austria and Italy in the early game, respectively. At the beginning of the game, Austria typically feels as though there isn’t enough time. She must speak with Turkey, Russia, Germany and Italy (as all four of them are on Austria’s doorstep) while trying to come out on top. Italy, however, has Austria to deal with, and possibly Germany in a stab at Austria. Until the midgame, Austria and Italy remain this way; one overtaxed by the time limit (and feeling a frenetic play), the other underwhelmed by the interaction that everyone else (except Italy) is receiving.
There are a variety of ways to affect the cadence of your title. Just be sure the cadence you choose for your game keeps your players marching on with the flow of the game.
Keep on designing, yo!
And another one gone, and another one gone… ANOTHER ONE BITES THE DUST!! Player elimination, while not for every game, adds a level of tension and danger when it can be implemented. Often, you are eliminated when you run out of resources (Monopoly) or out of units (Risk). That may be great most of the time, but surely we can eliminate them as possibilities while looking at these options…
-Poison. A player with the most of a given resource ‘Bad To Have’ at the end of the game is eliminated before final scoring. This is a fun one that is used to good effect by Cleopatra and the Society of Architects. Players are trying to help build a temple. Some goods are less expensive, but are considered ‘corrupt’; using them forces you to take corruption tokens. At the end, most corrupt player is fed to the Crocodile God. Like in Cleopatra, it is best if the ‘Poison’ resource is kept hidden to add to the level of uncertainty at the end of the game. You could even take it further by having each corruption counter have a different value…
-Only Faster Than You. At set intervals, the player with least of ‘X’ is eliminated. More for shorter games (or rounds with players returning to play next round), this form of elimination encourages frenetic play of attempting to attain what is needed to not be eliminated. Musical chairs is a good example of this. Players scramble to find a seat at given intervals with players unable to being eliminated. Take a survival style game where you are periodically being chased by a bear. At the end of each chase, the player in last place gets eaten. Rounds would consist of frantic gathering of food for energy (to help you run faster) and setting up traps for your opponents (to trip them up). Combine with random round length and you have a good recipe for nervous breakdown… that is what we want for our players, right?
-Tall Nail Gets Hammered. The first player to accomplish ‘X’ is eliminated. Similar to Poison above, the elimination actually happens during play instead. Take a court intrigue game where players are positioning themselves to inherit the throne once he is assassinated. In order to position oneself, a player must gain favor (or be given favor by other players) of various chancellors and such. If one player ends up with favor from most or all of the chancellors, the king gets suspicious and has the player executed for his treachery. Ooh! What if instead, it was EACH player that has X occur? For the example above, that would be even better. You could frame ALL of your rivals instead of just one… Struggle of Empires also has this as an endgame elimination possibility. If your country ends up with too much unrest, the people revolt and dethrone you (and this could happen to multiple players…).
Well, I’ve eliminated the other options already, so it’s time to eliminate this article.
Keep on designing, yo!
Downtime, or the time between turns, in games is often acceptable, provided it isn’t too long. It can get out of control, though; Tikal is probably the most egregious offender. While an excellent game, you can often take a nap between turns as other players optimize their moves. The ideal ways to minimize this are to have a little something for everyone to do on every turn or streamlining the rules. Lets have a look at a few ways to minimize downtime, shall we?
-Trade. If the game allows for it, trade is a good way to allow players to do something when it isn’t their turn. It encourages players to pay attention to what the active player is doing so that they can offer up an optimal trade.
-Turn Structure. Remove extraneous and repetitive steps from the turn structure. As an example, if players are required to count how many areas they control every phase (and there is notable change between each count), your game is gonna bog down due simply to counting. Either do a control assessment once each round or have a ‘leader board’ that tracks it for everyone (although this can still potentially cause issues due to fiddlyness). Or, if players have LOTS of action points each round to the point of causing excessive cognitive suffering, reduce the amount of action points (and corresponding costs) and see what happens…
-Simultaneous Action Selection. Players select their key actions to perform at the same time as the other players. While players will still need to wait for everyone to choose their action(s) and perform it, choosing what to do all at the same time reduces the AP factor a bit.
-Streamline Combat. Make combat as swift and simple as possible. This is one of the most common sources of excessive downtime. Unless you’re designing the next ASL, your combat system should resolve quickly while still giving players some strategy to their moves. Modified die rolls, card play, rock-paper-scissor unit types; the list goes on as to what can be implemented.
Now if only downtime were as easy to get rid of in real life…
Keep on designing, yo!
Time for another design experiment. Lets throw another game out of whack this week as another warm up. Power Grid needs power stations, right? Out they go. What happens to the game? Is it still feasible? What else would need to change?
Here’s an example while keeping the ‘Power Grid’ theme…
-To stay ‘Power Grid’, the game would need a way to compensate for the power stations’ loss…
- They are what generate your income each turn, and allow you to increase said income.
- The power stations transition the game into ‘Phase 2′ and are the end game condition.
- A level of depth is lost to not needing to plan out your ‘route’ any more.
If it were to stay ‘Power Grid’, it would more be ‘Power Grid Light’. Make the board smaller, remove the connections, and have a numbered ‘Demand’ track for each city that is kept in the game. Each turn, players generate power one plant per player at a time and chooses a city to provide the power to. Then, slide the corresponding ‘Demand Track’ marker as many spaces as power was generated for that city. Once a city’s demand has been met, no further player may provide power to that city. Further, players get paid piecemeal for each power plant individually, as some power may end up being wasted on ‘oversatisfying’ a city’s Demand Track.
So what can you chappies come up with? Something positively electrifying, no doubt.
Keep on designing, yo!
An underutilized concept in board games is telling a story. Sure, in a sense, many games tell a story. But not in the same sense of a movie or a book. Movies, books, even video games, can portray stories of astonishing depth and complexity leaving the viewer with a sense of loss, wonder or even a need for introspection.
It is a problem with the medium itself. A board game is a competition where specific rules must be followed in order to play. A game may be dripping with theme, but necessarily more attention is given to the play of the game by its players. While not every game needs to have emotional impact, it could take a good game and make it a great game. More significantly, a game often needs to have a winner (and a clear ending). Other mediums can leave story elements unresolved intentionally to provoke emotion. What if we were to sneak storytelling into the play itself? Here are a few specific examples of what I mean…
-Moral Ambiguity. Take a post-apocalyptic game where every player is a survivor in a small encampment. There are other ‘NPC’ characters that offer abilities, VP if they survive, etc. represented by cards, as well. Over the course of the game, food and other supplies would be divvied out to NPC and player alike (with supplies given to NPCs simply ‘returned to the bank’). If any loses too much health (or doesn’t eat enough), they die. Basic enough premise, yes? Curveball: some of the characters are worth a fair # of VP but have less ability in terms of special skill or are fairly frail (a child, elderly person, etc.). What kind of choices would players make as to who to save or give supplies to? Purely from a rules system perspective, some options will be better than others; keep the special skilled characters alive and so forth. What about from a gameplay perspective? In a situation like this, a child is a liability; they frighten easily, are very dependant upon others, the list goes on. But it’s a child. It’s human instinct to protect them. This kind of trick should not be mistaken for sensationalist design (although it could indeed be used that way). The point of this approach is to make people make difficult decisions and deal with the consequences. What would you do in a similar situation?
-Episodic Content. Have the game itself tell a story over several titles. Each game could play as a stand-alone game (or be an add-on) of the original title, with each subsequent release bringing the story proper closer to the final curtain. This approach would also allow for ‘campaign’ play, with the results of playing a previous title affecting starting conditions of the next installment in addition to stand-alone play. The trick would be to incorporate the story into the mechanics of the game to make each one feel satisfying to play on its own, but leave the players wanting the rest of the story.
This the ending, the ending of the po-ost. The ending.
Keep on designing, yo!
Special thanks to Mike Purcell and Chris Rock for their insights regarding this particular article.