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.
Kingmaking is typically associated with a player that has little chance of winning arbitrarily helping a player in contention for the lead win. Lets expand that definition a bit today. What if kingmaker were a situation where an advantage must be given to an opponent in some form? This could open up possibilities like these…
-I Knight Thee. A player must choose an opponent to give a special ability to. This could create fun tensions where players must weigh whom to favor benefits with. Should I give this combat bonus to the player running a commerce strategy? Then his transports will have better defense if I raid them. Certainly not to the military player; she already has major firepower… GAAH! While more suited for a game with a large variety of things going on such as Twilight Imperium 3 (and TI3 does have small bits of this particular mechanic), it could easily be adapted to more Euro-stylings. Perhaps the benefit is free resources when mining. Or reduced cost in building widgets. The list goes on… and so does your players’ pain (which is the reason to include something like this).
-One For You, One For Me. Resources gathered are split between two (or more) players of the gathering player’s choice. The split need not be even, either. Take a Mafia-style game where players can extort money from businesses with ‘Protection Insurance’. When doing so, the collecting player must ‘pay tribute’ to another player’s Don as a show of respect. Which player should you give it to? The player lagging behind? Every other player doing this will bring said lagging player back into the lead… A player you’re neck in neck with? Mmmm…. Cognitive suffering. For a spin on this, a player collecting the Insurance money could only choose from players to give to who have goons patrolling the area. Sure, you could knock over the bank, but if the only player patrolling the area is the leader, that may not be the best choice…
-Free Rides. An action taken applies to the player that takes it and at least one other player. This would be more for games of worker placement or simultaneous action. Race For The Galaxy actually implements a form of this in its action selection. While other players may not get the bonus you do for choosing to Settle, they do still get to play Planets whether they chose to Settle or not. Or spin it a bit. Each turn, a player takes multiple actions and chooses one player to perform one action. This could simulate real time in a neat way. Take a multiplayer military game. On each player’s turn, she does her maneuvers, attacks and so forth. She must also choose someone else who gets to do one of those things during her turn.
Thas all I has fer ya today. I dub thee, Lord (or Lady) Designsalot.
Keep on designing, yo!
Trading is typically resource for resource… ore for wheat, ore for energy, ore for rowing power and so forth. Lets have a look at what kind of play trading other things as well may have…
-Board Position. Players exchange positions on the game board. This kind of trade would need a game where board position importance changes for each player as the game progresses. Perhaps it’s a fast food chain game where players exchange positions of their restaurants to maximize the desire for their type of food in different areas of town at different points in the game. Or you could offer board position in addition to resources. A claimjumping game where deeds to different gold mines are constantly changing hands could create some interesting play…
-Turn Order. Players may exchange when their turn takes place. In a game where going before another player is important later in the game, this could create some heated trades. In a stock market game, perhaps the order in which shares are bought and sold over the course of a round. You’d want to go earlier if you saw the price for what you want to buy is low, or later to give it a chance to go up. Bear in mind this would be combined with standard resource trading; you need to give ‘em reason to trade their turn order away…
I traded my time with the computer for this article. Fair traid, I’d say…
Keep on designing, yo!