Stacking Your Decks

The concept of the deck of cards has benefitted tabletop gaming since before the invention of the printing press. Every game that has a deck of cards employs it differently; sometimes it’s the whole game in a tiny package and sometimes it’s only a minor part of an enormous set of components. Usually, when people create a deck of cards, they only think about how it contributes to its goals; however, there’s also an aesthetic and emotional sense to each deck of cards, in particularly how the cards differ from each other and how they’re distributed within the deck. This article aims to codify some of the most common types of deck construction and find the best place to use them.

Uniform Deck

Description: A uniform deck is made up of cards that all behave the same way. They’ll be different values or suits, and the way they combine might be interesting or unique, but there isn’t any particular card that has special exceptions to how it works.

Examples: A standard pack of playing cards, minus the joker, is the quintessential uniform deck, and has been the center of hundreds of games ranging from contract bridge to 52-card pickup. Trivia and impress-the-judge party games generally have uniform decks too, since they don’t want people to have to learn new rules on the fly.

Character“Hobby” board games with a uniform deck usually hide the complexity of their rules in the rulebook instead of on the cards, and instead dedicate a lot of fancy art or graphic design to the empty space provided. They’re good for lighter games that don’t have that many rules to remember, and in particular genres like trick-taking that rely on the elegance of the components.

As part of a larger game, uniform decks are useful as random number generators that don’t feel as arbitrary as dice (even though they totally are). You can also mess with the distribution of high or low numbers in order to change the character and frequency of what appears, making them more useful for fine-tuning.

Uniform decks aren’t as useful in thematic/experiential games because they necessarily possess a level of abstraction, given how homogenous all of the effects are. It’s better for this kind of game to make a set of cards with as many exceptions and impactful moments as possible.

Uniform Deck With Exceptions

Description: This type of deck is similar to the uniform deck, except a few cards play by different rules. Sometimes these cards are “wild” and can take the place of any other card in the deck; sometimes they’re “whammies”  that make things harder for the person who draws them. Either way, these cards break up both the monotony of the other existing cards and the elegance of having everything work the same way with no exceptions. There can be one or two exceptions to a whole deck, or they can make up to 40 or 50% of a deck that’s otherwise uniform.

Examples: The joker in a pack of playing cards, though there aren’t a lot of modern games that really use it. Cosmic Encounter‘s Destiny deck, which chooses who you’re attacking on your turn, is mostly the other player colors, but there’s also a Wild and several cards that target players who are ahead. The bluffing game Spicy requires players to call out bluffs by either suit or number; hidden in the deck are a card that’s valid for all numbers but false for all suits, and another one that does the opposite. Condottiere is mostly soldier cards of varying numbers, but there’s also powerful cards like the Drummer, which doubles your soldiers’ value, and the Heroine, who’s incredibly strong and can’t be affected by other cards.

Character: Having exceptions in a uniform deck ruins the uniform’s deck sense of “fairness”, whether that fairness was true or not. As such, a uniform deck with exceptions is best used for a lighter game where fairness at all times is less important than making lasting memories of played, or for a game that plays so many hands that whether one is fair or not doesn’t matter that much.

The number of exceptions is also important. Having one or two cards out of a 50-card deck work differently will make them feel surprising and exceptional; having fifteen out of a 50-card deck work differently will make it likely that you’ll see them multiple times per round, so it’s better to not make them too powerful or game-warping.

Unique Cards With Duplicates

Description: In this variety of deck, each card has its own method of affecting the rules or benefitting the player in some way. However, these cards come in multiples, so there might be 3 copies of Card A, 4 of Card B, and 2 of Card C in the deck. There may also be a few “categories” of cards that work similarly to each other, but differently from

Examples: Drafting games like 7 Wonders and Elysium often use this composition so players aren’t as paralyzed by having a whole series of new options every round. Elysium, in particular, has sets of cards that work exactly the same for each of the “families” that get shuffled together into one deck – so one card might give you money for collecting Zeus cards, another for collecting Athena cards, and so on.

This sort of deck is also used when representing a “character” of sorts, where you want them to have a distinct feel from the other characters while still remaining consistent to play. Every deck in Sentinels of the Multiverse is “unique cards with duplicates” for this reason. Also, if you’re drawing rewards from a deck mid-game, it will often use this construction so you have some idea of what you’re going to receive, like in Catan.

Character: This is the type of deck I see go wrong most often, because it can promise a sense of discovery and excitement and then betray it. If you’re only seeing part of this type of deck at a time, you might expect that many more different cards exist within the deck, not realizing that the handful of cards visible to you are a fair portion of what you’ll end up seeing for the whole game.

The trick here is to recognize when the balance between uniqueness and consistency is precarious enough to justify this type of deck, and go with one of the other types of decks depending on your needs except in this more narrow circumstance.

All Unique Cards

Description: As it sounds – all of the cards in the deck are unique, with their own effects and abilities.

Examples: Games with all unique cards are often very proud of them, and the entire game revolves around finding the best way to use one of the wacky cards you were just dealt. Glory to Rome and related games like Innovation and Import/Export are perhaps the purest examples, with each card being able to break the game in its own way. For a higher-profile example, Terraforming Mars and Wingspan both have decks of totally unique cards, though Wingspan has more cards with similar effects.

Character: A deck of all unique cards has a few caveats: They’re much harder to balance and design than decks where you can use multiples, and high-level strategy may end up being reliant on players knowing which cards are good and trying to fish for them. That said, depending on the game a set of all unique cards has the potential to be much more emotionally impactful than the alternatives, and is especially useful for “thematic” games where you want something different to happen not just every game, but every round or turn.

Conclusion: The World Beyond

These broad categories merely scratch the surface of how you can use deck distribution as a form of expression. It doesn’t cover games where the players develop the deck, nor the more esoteric uses of a stack of cards.

What is interesting is that these distributions of cards often have their own character that is different from the context of the game that appears around it. I’ve certainly played games that use one style of deck that perhaps should have been another – deciding what sort of deck best fits the needs of your game could be a large, and surprisingly easy, step towards greatness.

Incentives!!! On Ice

Richard Garfield wrote an article in The Kobold Guide to Game Design advising game designers to play as many different games as they can – not even board games, but video games, traditional games like tag, and even sports, as well as watching things like game shows and analyzing them as well. I’ve always found this advice to be spot-on, and try to branch out my game investigations where I can day to day. Because of this habit, I discovered a very interesting lesson about incentives and design intent from an unlikely source: Figure skating.

Super Spin Fighter 4

Figure skating is both a sport and performance art, combining athleticism that earns it several Olympic events with the aesthetic senses of dance media like ballet. This earns it a dedicated crowd of people who may bounce off other sports or arts, but also makes it impossible to come up with a system of judging that everyone can agree on. It essentially boils down to a debate within the skating community – should skating be judged as a sport, or as an art?

Earlier figure skating judging tried to combine the two, with judges giving a score between 0 and 6 for each category of presentation and technical skill. However, a corruption scandal at the 2002 Winter Olympics led to the adoption of the current standard used in skating competitions around the world, the ISU judging system. The ISU is a more objective scale that assigns a set value to each element (jumps, spins, etc.), then adjusts those points based on the element’s execution. There’s still points awarded for aesthetics, but it’s much more of a subordinate to execution.

The ISU scoring system was almost certainly a net positive when it comes to maintaining a competitive skating environment free of judging bias. However, this created an unintended side effect that affected how competitive people approached figure skating as a whole. Now that the majority of points were earned by execution of difficult elements, skating routines moved from a cohesive whole to more of a vehicle designed to cram in as many difficult elements as possible.

The flagship for this change is the “quad”, or a jump that requires that the skater rotate four times in midair before touching back to the rink. Suddenly, whether your routine did well or not depended in great part on whether you could hit the maximum number of quads in your routine, and less on whether those quads made aesthetic sense. As such, figure skating post-ISU scoring is now a race to the most difficult and elaborate moves, including more and more quads of various kinds. (And thus, figure skating is now a 4x game.)

Was the “quad revolution” worth the greater measure of objectivity earned by ISU? Was it also due in part to a gradually increasing athleticism on the part of people as a whole as coaching and training methods became more refined? These are questions better answered people who are more familiar with skating. What interests me is how the quad revolution was a perfect example of the core of all game design, tabletop and otherwise – incentives.

Quadruple Lutzing Through Hoops

Playing a game is the same as giving the designer permission to determine your behavior. What we do, think, and feel while playing a game are drawn from this social contract made with the game. However, designers have to use certain techniques to draw out these behaviors in the ways they want, and the best way to do that is to use incentives – a series of carrots and sticks that force players to make interesting, exciting, and challenging decisions.

There are many ways to incentivize player behavior. If a player wants to “win” a game, then any action that draws them closer to a win state than their opponents is incentivized, whether that’s lying in Werewolf, having kids in Agricola, or picking a funny card in Apples to Apples. Incentives are almost universal, even the unwritten ones – pretty much everyone who’s played a game of Codenames has given mocking suggestions to the opposing team when they’re in the weeds, because they’re incentivized to do so by the downtime and high tension on the other side.

 What’s always interested me is that, barring extreme acts of willpower from jokers who do things like build the longest road in Catan and no towns or cities, players will chase an incentive to win subconsciously, no matter how boring or miserable it is to do so. Thus, our responsibility as designers is to make sure that we’re incentivizing the things that let the players have the most fun.

The reason games go through so much playtesting is that incentivizing the right decisions for our games is nuanced and complicated. I played a Bang!-style hidden role game at a playtesting night a few years ago that was mostly performed in dead silence as we tried to figure out which roles the other players were. The designer, clearly a bit distressed, informed us that we should be talking in order to deceive the other players or suss out who was an opponent. The problem was that, based on the current rules of the game, the best thing for us to do to win the game was to quietly work towards our win conditions and not give away any information at all – if we were supposed to talk and argue, there should have been a good reason to. It wasn’t something that could have been found out by creating the rough draft and thinking about it, as human behavior in these scenarios is consistent but unpredictable.

Figure skating judging, both before and after, are examples of contests with flawed win incentives. The old 6.0 system incentivized judges to give higher scores to their home country and lower scores to opponents, as they had the freedom to do so within the rules and doing so was the best way for their country to win. (The only reason this didn’t turn into a leveling war and a race to nul points for every country was because there was a subjective limit to how much of this the audience, IOC, etc. would accept.) Under the ISU system, judges no longer had much room to do this, but skaters now had a clear incentive to adhere to an objective set of rules and maximize points as much as possible. 

Planning Your Program

At this point, we’ve broadly covered the why and how of incentives, though of course there’s so many fine details that you could fill multiple books with them. What we haven’t yet covered is the what – what do you actually want your game to incentivize? In here, too, figure skating proves deeply illuminating.

As I mentioned previously, figure skating straddles the fence between “art” and “sport”. When coming up with a system of judging, or in other words the incentives you give to skaters and coaches, how do you want to treat the practice of skating? Because skating is in the Olympics and many of the other major competitions follow in its footsteps, the broader organizers of the skating world firmly pointed the needle towards “sport”. However, while that may have been the best decision for their circumstances, it had its consequences and was not perhaps the ideal choice for skating enthusiasts or the medium as a whole.

When creating a game, you want to think about what actions, reactions, and emotions you want the game to generate and then build a system of incentives and punishments that push players towards those goals. Sometimes it’s very easy and almost subconscious to choose your design intent, particularly when working in an established media – the intellectual coziness of trick-taking games, the adrenaline rush of social deduction games, and the joy and despair of co-op games. Other times, you’re trying to mirror the emotional experiences of an external source, whether that’s the harrowing nature of the Underground Railroad or a schlocky B-horror film.

Sometimes your game, like skating, will have multiple emotional reactions it’s trying to draw from players and you need to design incentives that strike a balance. MMORPGs like World of Warcraft are essentially two things at once – a video game designed to challenge players and encourage them to continue playing in order to maintain their position on the “content treadmill”, and a virtual community that offers numerous opportunities for socialization and customization. For games like this, what looks like contradictory incentives – extremely high-end raids that require countless hours to succeed at alongside “minigames” like gardening and fishing – are trying to accomplish both goals at the same time.

When iterating your game, whether it’s broad mechanical changes or tweaking numbers, first ask yourself, “Why did I design this game? What did I want players to get out of it?” Then iterate your game so that it grows closer to that intent and not something else. It’s easy to be led astray by preëxisting games or criticism of games that aren’t like yours and to do things like make a game with wacky asymmetrical factions homogenous and boring in the name of “greater balance”, or make a party game too complex in an attempt to stand out from genre competitors; having a conscious sense of what you want your game to be, and what it could be but you don’t want it to, will keep your design journey more focused.

Kiss and Cry

Many people design games at the brain-stem level without really thinking about why they’re doing what they’re doing. God knows I do. However, tabletop game design is a profession that forever rewards you for doing the hard work of overthinking every tiny detail, and no detail is more consequential to forget than “Why was I making this in the first place?”

These questions are so obvious that they are often easy to forget. I’m grateful that the quad revolution, and skating and general, helped me wake up and consciously think about it.

Making an Impressive Impress-the-Judge Game

The impress-the-judge game is one of the pillars of party gaming, a valuable social lubricant for parties of nerds and non-nerds alike since the early 2000s. However, more serious designers have largely turned up their noses toward the genre; this is in no small part due to 500-pound gorilla Cards Against Humanity forcing out competitors and earning the genre the undeserving reputation of being filled with offensive “punch-down” humor. This is a huge waste, as a well-designed impress-the-judge game can bring together new players and be a great time for longtime friends alike. I like to consider myself a scholar of the subgenre, and in this article I would like to go in depth on how to make a great impress-the-judge game.

(Before I begin the article in earnest, I’ll define the impress-the-judge genre for those not super aware of game design topics. The basic concept of the impress-the-judge game is that one player each round is the “judge”, who sets forth a prompt, and each other player has to come up with a funny answer that the judge will pick. Usually, both prompts and answers are premade cards, but several excellent games have gone with other options.)

Blind Judgment

As I mentioned in my previous article on the subject, all party games are comedy Legos, designed to help tables of people find common ground through laughter. This can range from complete strangers at a convention to families who have known each other for ages – no amount of familiarity or inherent comedy skill can’t be enhanced by a good party game. Some kinds of party games are better suited to some groups than others; games that rely on your knowledge of other people, like Wavelength and Hive Mind, are better for people who mostly know each other beforehand, while trivia games like Wits and Wagers are good icebreakers for strangers but don’t add as much to preëstablished groups.

Impress-the-judge are one of the most group-agnostic types of party games. All of the humor is contained on the cards and only requires a modicum of effort for players to rehydrate, which means that no matter how poor a group is at making jokes naturally, it should be easy for them to regularly get a laugh out of everyone most of the time. This also means that the impress-the-judge game is the most reliant party game genre on the designer’s sense of humor and ability to write funny cards.

All impress-the-judge games strike a balance between rewarding writing skills (picking the best card) and acting skills (being able to sell the judge on the game you made). Apples to Apples and Cards Against Humanity are 100% reliant on writing skills, with anonymous submission systems that heavily disincentivize players from promoting their own answer. This has its upsides – the surprise when the shyest member of your group has a slam-dunk answer – and downsides – the despair of having your great card tossed aside because the judge didn’t get the reference and you couldn’t explain it.

Other games rely more on acting skill, though none fully reward acting skill without writing skill, as that is short-form improv and not a board game. Snake Oil is probably the widest-spread of these, though Shut Up & Sit Down darling Funemployed ventures even further into the acting side of the genre, as you have to use every card in your hand, so the ability to select the best one for the situation is taken away from you.

Your first decision when making an impress-the-judge game is where on this spectrum you want your game to fall. Your next decision is how, and if, you want to fix a few of the genre’s glaring problems.

The Three Sinkholes of Impress-the-Judge Games

The impress-the-judge game doesn’t have “pillars” of good game design holding it up; instead, it’s an excellent and time-tested gameplay base with a few large but patchable flaws. Deciding whether to fix these sinkholes at the risk of adding poisonous complexity to your game will inform much of your design work.

Downtime

The enemy of all party games is downtime. You want your players to be engaged with, or at least entertained by, the game at all times, and unfortunately, the base impress-the-judge game has two areas that frequently produce downtime for most players.

The first is in the answer selection process. Generally, each player has as much time as they want to select or create a funny answer. This means that, with the exception of the slowest player in your group, all the other players are going to spend a lot of this phase waiting around for something different to happen. There aren’t any jokes or funny moments here, as everyone wants to keep their answers a secret so as to spoil the surprise (and win the round).

The most common solution to having too much downtime here is to incentivize players to work quickly. In Stinker, there is no preset judge, with the judge instead being the player who fails to assemble an answer before everyone else. This makes players work much more quickly, and also increases the general quality of each answer because the player having the most trouble with a good answer becomes the judge by default. I took a different tack when designing Stand Back, Citizen!. Each answer in SBC! is comprised of two different types of cards, with all of the cards of one of these types dealt face-up into the table; when the round starts, you have to pick a good card from the center and create an answer before an opponent can snatch it from you. Under this system, there will still be one player left trying to figure out what card to play, but their squirming as they’re faced with a single subpar option makes the time a source of comedy instead of frustration.

The second likely area for downtime is during judging. This is much more of an issue for games with an anonymous judging system, as arguing in favor of your answer, or against an opponent’s answer, or even for an opponent’s answer if you know you don’t have a chance but really liked Uncle Jeff’s pitch, is great fun and takes a lot of the dreariness out of the process. The game that came the closest to solving this is the Quiplash series, which inverts the process by having only two answers for each prompt and making all of the other players judges. This was helped in part by its status as a digital game, but I could see this method working for tabletop games as well.

Judge Bias

Because impress-the-judge games rely on the subjective judgments of the other players, there is naturally an issue of a judge picking a particular answer either because it appeals to them specifically or because they’re biased towards one of the players at the table (for example, because they are dating). The early anonymous judging games were anonymous because of this second issue; I would argue that this is somewhat overblown and more of a problem with the gaming group than with the design of the game itself. It is true, however, that losing because someone else played a card that matched the judge’s hobbies or interests is one of the worst feelings in impress-the-judge games.

There haven’t been a whole lot of advances in this area, in part because judge bias is one of the flaws that players are most likely to accept as built in to the genre as a whole; if you wanted your contribution to not be measured subjectively, you could play one of thousands of strategy games, or even a more objective party game like CodenamesStinker, perhaps unintentionally, went some way towards solving this by randomizing the judge after people lock in their answers; this might be a place where further advancement could be found.

The Novelty Wearing Off

Party games are second only to legacy games in their reliance on novelty. After all, comedy is based out of the unexpected, so if you’ve seen one funny answer already it’s not going to be nearly as impactful the next time. When you have a set of cards with all the jokes pre-written on them, the novelty will wear out sooner rather than later.

The easiest way to solve this is to vary up the “answer” components so players can write either anything (as in Quiplash or Say Anything, where players can even draw) or almost anything (as in Stinker, which uses letter tiles). However, this stumbles into a secondary trap, which Roger van Oech described in his book A Whack on the Side of the Head. Without some way of forcing them to create new answers, players are most likely to stick to the first things they can think of, which inevitably become relatively conservative answers that everyone’s heard before. So if you’re making an impress-the-judge game with totally open answers, you have to focus on creating lots and lots of excellent prompts.

If you’re using cards, consider using a combination of cards to massively increase the permutations that players can achieve. All of the answer cards in Snake Oil are a single word, and players combine two of them to create a product to pitch to the judge; because they’re built to change depending on the other word you pair them with, this creates a much larger variety of responses than could be generated through single cards. I used a similar method when creating Stand Back, Citizen!, though that uses an asymmetrical combination of fill-in-the-blank “power” templates and silly nouns – there’s half as many permutations, but they’re more directed and more likely to be a bullseye than cards that can be put in either order.

Order in the Court

Besides the actual prompts and answers, you should also think about the less glamorous nuts and bolts of your game; in particular, thinking about the scoring system and end condition.

You might think that because impress-the-judge games are party games for casual audiences, that whatever scoring system you create doesn’t matter because people aren’t going to pay attention to them. While it is true that party games are more about the journey than the destination, your scoring system is your best way to incentivize your players into being funny and shouldn’t be discarded offhand. Stinker is one of the best examples here: If your answer gets chosen, you get one point for every letter tile you used in it, so you’re encouraged to make longer and more elaborate answers (balanced with not becoming the judge because you spent too long moving tiles around).

A scoring system more complex than “judge picks the winner” can also introduce new skills to the game. In Say Anything, you get points if the judge picks your answer as usual, but you can also earn points by guessing which answer the judge is going to pick. This turns Say Anything into a hybrid of the impress-the-judge game and the venerable “know your friends” subgenre and helps it stand out.

The end of the game is also very important, because it’s critical that a party game not overstay its welcome. Apples to Apples had a huge issue with this, because the game ended when one player won a certain number of times – not only is this obviously problematic with a large player count, it meant that the game could drag on forever as everyone collected N-1 green apple cards, or end swiftly as some cut-up got all of them in a row. Cards Against Humanity has no end condition at all, which will frequently mean it goes on too long, but I suppose was insightful into how party games usually just sort of end anticlimactically in most of the situations in which they’re played.

I generally like going until everyone’s been the judge once. It means that the game is often too short at 4 or 5 players, but it’s better to undershoot the ideal playtime than overshoot, as it’s psychologically easier to just start a second round than cancel a too-long game in progress. It also gives everyone a chance to judge and many chances to create answers. If your game has more mechanical trappings and is expected to go a little longer, like Say Anything, going around the table twice can also make sense. Go with what works for your game and your players.

Conclusion

The actual biggest flaw with impress-the-judge games is that they’re tough to publish after both the wild success of Cards Against Humanity and the deluge of terrible imitators in the early 2010s. However, only sticking to games that are easy to publish means you’re constantly playing catchup with whatever trend is rocking BGG (or, more realistically, rocked BGG two years ago). At worst, designing a good impress-the-judge game means you’ll make your friend group very happy; at best, you can make thousands of people all over the world very happy. As long as your game deserves to exist and advances the medium, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with trying to compete in a saturated category.

Balance, On Average

When you think about game balance, you probably think about making all possible player options be as equitable as possible; about maintaining a fragile balance between each player’s starting position so everyone has an equal chance of winning every game. But what if I were to tell you that there was a different way to balance your games? What if that way combined a sense of fair play with all the excitement, desffpair, and storytelling opportunities that came with unequal positions? Well, good news! I’m not speaking hypothetically. Welcome to an article about making your game balanced…on average.

Dr. Ro-Galt-Nik’s Mean Bean Machine

When I was a kid, my parents would regularly take me to see the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. During one of my visits, I stumbled across a giant version of this thing, which was one of the coolest things I had ever seen:

This Galton Board, also known as a “bean machine”, is a neat visual representation of the natural law of regression toward the mean. Even if you have a function with a wide range of outcomes, if you run that function often enough, it will eventually deliver the distribution of results you expect, with a hill centered on the mathematical mean outcome. To use plainer language, everything will even out as expected, provided you try enough times.

What this means for us as game designers is that there is another option besides trying to make each player’s starting position equal every time: We can also have a wide variety of unequal starting positions and redistribute these starting positions so many times it regresses toward the mean.

I’m Pretty Sure The Genius Did This Once

That last section was pretty abstract, so to make it more practical, I’ll use an example. Let’s look at a game that’s very much in need of redesigning: I’ll call it “Small War”.

Small War is played between two players using part of a standard pack of playing cards: The 2 through 10 of hearts and the 2 through 10 of clubs. These cards are shuffled together and then dealt evenly to both players. Then, each player selects a card and puts it face-down. Once they’ve both chosen a card, they turn them face-up; the player who played the higher card “captures” the other card and forms a pair. Whoever has the most pairs at the end of the game wins.

So obviously, Small War has some problems. The most obvious one is that, because the cards are randomly distributed across both players, it can create a heavily imbalanced scenario where one player might have both 2s, 3s, and 4s and the other has both 8s, 9s, and 10s. How can we fix this so every game of Small War is equitable to both players?

A conventionally balanced version of Small War would simply distribute one copy of each card, 2-10, to each player every game. This turns the game from one based on luck to a tense mindgame where each player tries to figure out when their opponent is going to try to pass their small cards through or try to win the round with a big card. This is cool and everything, but the meta would crystallize quickly after a few rounds and the game would become stale for all but the most hardcore players.

However, there is another way: Keep the gameplay exactly the same but make the game best out of 9 rounds (1 round being what we’d call a “game” in the original). Individual rounds might be extremely unfair, but there’s so many rounds that there’s a good chance of both players’ luck of the draw cancelling out each others’ over time.  Plus, this wider range of opening hand adds more variety, prevents the game from boiling down to set opening and closing strategies, and creates amazing stories where you get dealt an awful hand but manage to overcome your opponent afterwards.

This second case is what Balance On Average (BOA) design is all about.

Defining The BOA

BOA games have a few key features.

  • A BOA game is made up of a number of individual rounds, ending after a set number or when a player reaches a particular score.
  • Each round begins with players being given a random assortment of components to make do with. The distribution of components is random and each player’s respective strength can be unequal, sometimes brutally so.
  • The results of each individual round don’t have anything to do with the rounds after it, except in a “metagame” sense where you might adjust your play based on your score or the amount of time left in the game.

You might be wondering, why even make a game like this? Well, compared to a conventionally balanced game, BOA games have a number of benefits.

  • Compared to a regular game, where being put in a bad position early in the game will make you lag behind for 90 minutes, a BOA game can get away with being pointlessly cruel to players because the round will be over in 5 minutes anyway. In fact, cruelty often engenders a desire to play again later and to laugh about it after the fact.
  • There’s a wider variety of game states in a BOA game. In a conventionally balanced game, the designer (and developer sometimes) works hard to ensure that every player starts the round at around a 5/10 and maintains that for most of the game. BOA games can deal out gamestates ranging from a 0 to a 12, greatly increasing the number of possibilities.
  • BOA games can be deeply emotionally impactful. Getting a strong hand and doing well is more likely to stick in your memory if you’ve dealt with medium-to-weak hands for the last 5 rounds; getting a come-from-behind victory is more meaningful if you were actually behind the other players in a way beyond “number of games played”.

The BOA In Action

The majority of BOA games are traditional games hailing from long before the advent of the modern “designer game”. The one Americans are probably the most familiar with is poker. You might have a terrible hand in one round and a godly hand in the next, but besides the metagame of playing more or less aggressively depending on how many chips you have compared to your opponents, the outcome of one round doesn’t affect the performance of your hand in the next.

Other card or card-equivalent games that make use of BOA include bridge, rummy, and mahjong. Much of the strategy of any of these games involves not only capitalizing on good rounds, but knowing when your starting hand is good compared to the other player or team’s and throwing away your hand as safely as possible if you you can’t catch up. For games with an easier learning curve, Uno is the textbook definition of BOA (as the distribution of wilds and special cards like draw 2s unevenly weighs starting hands), though presumably many groups only play one game at a time.

The majority of designer games that use BOA balancing are trick-taking games, likely because trick-taking card games have more fidelity to the classics of the genre than most other kinds of game. Some, like The Bottle Imp, adhere strictly to keeping rounds separate and tallying up scores on a piece of paper; others allow you to mitigate a bad hand (Nyet!) or give players a way to catch up after a nasty round (Tournament at Camelot). You could also charitably describe impress-the-judge games like Stand Back, Citizen! as BOA, since the suitability of your hand to the prompt will change each round.

Some games that look like BOA games but aren’t include “dude smasher” games like MagicHearthstone, and Netrunner (as you usually play three rounds max against a single opponent); drafting games like Bunny Kingdom or 7 Wonders (as your actions in earlier rounds dictate what you do in later ones); and fast social deduction games like One Night Ultimate Werewolf (as you’re not playing multiple rounds in one game – you’re playing multiple very short games).

One of the most interesting interpretations of BOA design is CondottiereCondottiere is a sort of hybrid between BOA and conventional design because “getting a new hand” and “starting a new round” isn’t a 1:1 ratio: Players draw new hands once all but one player are out of cards. This means that players with bad hands can force balance on average by increasing the number of hands per game, while a player with a great hand might be tempted to string their hand across multiple rounds while flirting with the disaster of throwing away most of their good cards. I still haven’t seen this mechanic anywhere else meaningful, and it remains a great source of inspiration for me.

BOA Constrictions

Despite the several advantages of BOA design, games of that nature have a tiny foothold in the tabletop game industry as a whole, for reasons both meaningful and coincidental.

Part of the reason for the modern unpopularity of BOA design might be due to the meteoric rise of video games right around when the properties of a “well-designed” board game were starting to become mainstream around designers. It stood to reason that a balanced board game should resemble a balanced video game, with players selecting an asymmetric faction, strategy, or character near the beginning of the game and having a roughly even chance of winning with it at equal player skills. 

Another, perhaps more legitimate reason is that it’s hard to build a sense of momentum in a BOA game because each round is specifically detached from the next. You can have excitement and progress within a round, but compared to an Agricola or Dominion where a player’s engine and strategy slowly builds up to a splashy finish, BOA games frequently feel more “even”, with emotional impact primarily arising from unusual situations that may not always occur every game.

BOA games also have many more restrictions than conventional games. As discussed, BOA games have to have a long series of short rounds, each of which randomly redistributes starting positions. There’s only so many ways you can achieve this, and many of the good ones have been covered by conventional games. There are additional UX concerns with this system, as you need the redistribution itself to be relatively quick and painless (like shuffling and dealing out a deck of cards, as is common) and the scorekeeping to be something more modern than someone having to grab a pencil and sheet of paper. That said, I believe that BOA games are so overlooked by modern tabletop designers that their true potential remains unexplored – maybe there’s some mechanic hiding in the BOA space waiting to revolutionize the industry.

Conclusion

All game designers can fall victim to a kind of design myopia, where we grow so used to the evaluations and demands of our particular slice of the community that we forget that there are many ways to make a fun, dynamic game, some less mainstream than others. Looking at BOA games has been extremely helpful for me in this regard, and I hope to one day find even more interesting methods of balancing a game and keeping its players happy.

Board Games and the Attention Economy

The “attention economy” is a sociological and economic term that has gained increasing relevance as users gain near-constant access to media channels via smartphones. Herbert A. Simon summarized the concept as “…a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.” To be more succint, attention is a finite resource and each call for a person’s attention drains some of it.

The attention economy is also a valuable metric to keep in mind when designing tabletop games (though I’m migrating the term a bit from its original meaning). In fact, I would argue that one of the most important indicators of a game’s complexity is its attention strain, which we can define using several objective factors.

Factor 1: How Much?

The first, and most obvious, factor in a game’s attention strain is how many components there are. However, this isn’t just total number of components – it’s the total number of components the player needs to pay attention to in order to play the game.

The distinction here is most noticeable in tableau-building games like Roll for the GalaxyRoll has a fairly large number of distinct components: Each player has a sizable tableau with up to six or seven different powers, an action strip to which they assign dice, and a pool of dice, in addition to the victory point chips and round information markers in the center of the table. However, despite this staggering amount of components, Roll is still a medium-weight game because each player only really needs to pay attention to about 20% of them. Because you can’t interact with your opponent’s tableau, you only really need to know your own components in detail most of the time.

Components that entry-level or intermediate players don’t have to pay attention to may deserve attention from advanced players, and that’s okay – advanced players will have a better range of attention for your game anyway because they’ve internalized the basic principles. Returning to Roll, a player of average skill might not pay attention to things like their opponents’ dice colors or the distribution of tiles of a certain type, and it’s not necessary for them to do so to win against people of their skill level, but that opportunity exists ready for a highly skilled player to exploit.

Factor 2: How Often?

Even if a component deserves attention, it doesn’t necessarily deserve your foremost attention all the time. Some parts of a game are only important during certain times, and at other times they can be safely ignored at no strategic cost to the player.

In many games, you can’t take every kind of action every turn, so the features you have to pay attention to are limited by whether they actually matter to you in the immediate moment. Great Western Trail has a number of disparate features, including a “job board” where players can hire cowboys and such; a cattle market where players can buy better cows for their deck; a train track running around the board with stations that grant special abilities; and the board itself, which has a number of hazardous areas that can drain money from players. However, actions are limited to the “buildings” that your cowbeeple can reach within three steps. Unless you’re planning ahead for a future purchase, you only have to care about the parts of the game that you can actually get to in the present moment, and you don’t have to balance every component at once.

You can also call attention to different components through a scoring system. In Cartographers, your scoring conditions are 2 out of 4 conditions that rotate every round; something you might need to pay careful attention to at the start of the game will become irrelevant, replaced by a new scoring condition. Besides ensuring that players aren’t pulled in too many directions at once, a system like this also keeps each round fresh and interesting, preventing a snowball effect of one player’s early lead compounding.

One of the big issues of trying to make components that only require players’ attention some of the time is that having a component only matter once in a while, or even worse, once every few games, is going to be more taxing on your players than if you had to pay attention to that component all the time.

Factor 3: Where?

The spatial placement and grouping of components can often make it easier for players to concentrate on a number of otherwise unrelated actions. This plays off the psychological principle of chunking, where humans can more easily process large amounts of information when they’re organized into discrete groups. (Think about how phone numbers are easier to remember because the 10 numbers are broken into three segments.)

In Cosmic Encounter, gaining 5 colonies on other players’ planets will let you win the game. This can frequently be difficult to track, especially with a full player count of 5+ players and with ships of multiple colors hanging out on different planets. The Fantasy Flight edition includes a tracker that lets you keep track of everyone’s foreign colonies at once, which is a baseline move for a game like this, but in a stroke of brilliance, attached the tracker to the Warp component. The Warp, beyond storing everyone’s “dead” ships, is also the focus of numerous mandatory phases during the game: Notably, at the beginning of everyone’s turn, they retrieve a ship from the Warp, thus allowing their eye to drift over the foreign colony tracker. In this way, remembering to check the win condition is chunked into normal game actions, making Cosmic‘s total cognitive load easier. (Something very valuable when you’re playing with the more complex aliens.)

There is one point of caution here: The more you dictate where all the components are located relative to each other, the more you’re dictating where everything in the game is set up. This can be an issue for people with smaller tables if your components are a weird shape that won’t fit the available space. Try not to combine too many features into a large component and keep things “free-floating” as much as you can.

Factor 4: When?

This article was inspired by the deckbuilding games Dominion and Trains. Both games have expansions with “attack” cards that affect the other players in some way, something removed from the extreme multiplayer solitaire feel common to their genre. However, despite increased interaction generally being considered a good thing, these attack cards frequently detract from the game experience because they break the unspoken promise that you don’t have to pay attention during turns that aren’t yours.

While up until now my discussion of the board game attention economy has been spatial (referring to concrete objects and their placement), when a player has to pay attention is also important. In some games, typically party games, players have to be “on” and engaged all the time. Meanwhile, in many Euros, what the other players do on their turns doesn’t require your attention until it’s your turn again. Having to be always on, especially when you’re regularly making complex strategic decisions, can often be more draining than when you have time to take a break and think about your next move sometime in the future.

Just because it’s good to let players take a break from concentrating on the present game state sometimes doesn’t mean you need to strike interactivity from the game entirely; you just need to make sure that interactive actions that affect players outside of their turns are one-sided. Two attack cards in Dominion are the Witch, which dumps a negative VP card into your opponents’ discard piles, and the Rabble, which makes each opponent do the work of discarding certain cards from the top of their decks. The Witch is much more successful in Dominion‘s context because you can mess with other players without yanking their attention away from their personal hand of cards, as the Rabble does.

This is something that’s typically determined by your genre of game. If you’re designing a game that has even partial family members in a genre, try playing those and see when you actually have to pay attention to the game. This will inform your players’ expectations going into the game, and meeting them will help prevent needless friction.

Factor 5: Wait, This is the Conclusion

Game design is about establishing a “magic circle”: Inside the circle, you want to challenge your players and deprive them of the means to achieve their goals, while outside it, you want to support your players in their gameplay experience and prevent friction in the same way other designers do. Unless you’re designing a game specifically intended to test your players’ attention span and memory, paying attention to when your players expect to concentrate and not interfering in that space will help maintain the magic circle’s integrity.

Losing Is Fun

It’s fairly easy to enjoy a game, even a bad one, if you’re winning really hard. Even in situations where your lead was determined by luck and it’s so unstoppable that you can do literally anything and coast to victory, there is something satisfying about smugly wishing the other players a good game at the end.

Conversely, many games, even good ones, can be unfun if you’re losing. This is especially true for Euro-style games that bill themselves as luck-free strategy contests – this copy implies that this kind of game is a contest that can accurately measure each player’s relative intelligence, so if you’re losing very badly in a Euro-style game, even an otherwise acclaimed one, you feel like the game is telling you that you’re stupid.

When designing a game where strategy is an important component, as much as we have to make a winning strategy also the most fun thing players can pursue, we also have to ensure that players have a good time even while they’re losing. This article explores a few methods that can help this pursuit.

Allow Players to Reach Smaller Goals

The vast majority of games have a final goal that, when reached, wins the game for the player or players who reach it. However, many games also have lesser goals whose achievement helps pave the road for the final goal. This can range from the minor, like assembling a set of all three science symbols in 7 Wonders, to the major, like conquering a continent in Risk.

The trick is that these sub-goals are often as satisfying to complete as the major goal of the game. If a player loses, but they have these goals to point to as a quantifiable achievement, they feel like they were able to accomplish enough that playing the game had worth. So by including sub-goals or concrete steps toward victory, you can help players feel that they were able to prove themselves to a lesser extent.

The best part of using sub-goals to help losing players enjoy themselves is that it isn’t hard to knit them into your game in the first place. Sub-goals crop up naturally in most strategy game designs because it provides an exponentially ramping complexity and power that tends to be satisfying. So adding goals that give all players a sense of accomplishment is more about intention that actively going out of your way to include something in your game that doesn’t work there.

Muddle Scores

One of the big changes Small World implemented compared to its predecessor, Vinci, was replacing Vinci‘s double-sided victory point coins with single-sided ones that could be hidden from the other players once acquired. Part of the reason for doing this is that both games are territory control games, and keeping scores hidden stopped the table from picking on whoever was in the lead. But it also exemplified a method to keep losing players engaged: Muddling the scores enough that you don’t know exactly who’s winning.

Most of your players aren’t stupid, and have some general sense of how well they’re doing based on the game state. However, many players falling behind will willfully deceive themselves if the scores are muddled – if they don’t know for sure that they’re hopeless to win, then they’re willing to believe that their actions still have some use.

You don’t necessarily need to keep scores “hidden” in the traditional sense either: Another valid concept is to have one major strategy score points incrementally while another scores in the late- or endgame. Returning to 7 Wonders, players going for science and civic strategies will gradually accumulate a lot of point-scoring cards in front of them over the course of the game, but they’re not necessarily guaranteed victory despite this appearance of a massive lead – players who stockpile a lot of resources and gain military cards will suddenly catch up late in the game as cards that grant huge amounts of points to that strategy start to appear.

For games that end when a player reaches a certain amount of points, rather than after a certain number of rounds, including methods for a player to suddenly rocket ahead will help muddy how distant someone’s lead actually is. The soldier cards and longest road bonus in Catan allow a player to suddenly earn 3 or 4 points of the 10 they need to win in a single turn, meaning that another player with 6 points might think they’re competitive until the very last moment.

Wrap the Game Up Quickly After A Winner Becomes Clear

Some games create the unfortunate game state where the winner is obvious, but the players still have to play out a significant part of the game before they can wrap it up. This is particularly true in racing games – my only game of Camel Up ended with one camel rocketing far into the distance ahead of the others – but can be true in many other types of games, as well. Of course, making it so any player can win the game no matter how late it gets then eliminates the point of good strategy anywhere but before the very end of the game.

A better option is to wrap up the game right as the gap between players could become untenable. In a time-based game, that means cutting the game by maybe a round or two so people with a lead can’t reinforce that lead. (This is particularly true for engine-building games where your lead will build on itself most of the time.) In a score-based game, ensure that the winning score isn’t so high that a humongous lead isn’t even mathematically possible and then reinforce it by either not allowing a player to accelerate or letting them accelerate so quickly that you have only one or two “dead rounds” where the outcome is known.

If handled well, quickly wrapping up a game can make even the unthinkable plausible. One of the first things you learn as a game designer is that player elimination is about the worst thing you can include in a game, but the widely lauded Love Letter uses player elimination well by virtue of having extremely short rounds. Even though you have literally no chance of winning once you’re eliminated, it’ll only be a few turns before you can go back into the game.

Conclusion

As much as more serious game designers hate to admit, whether we won or lost a game still influences how we feel about it regardless of its objective design qualities. This is even more true for players, who don’t have (nor are they expected to have) the level of detachment that benefits designers. You can’t make a competitive game with no losers, but endeavoring to make the sting of losing as gentle as possible makes your game much more likely to have repeat players.

The Agony of the Big-Box Game

Jeremy Commandeur, a Bay Area game designer to whom I owe a great deal, once theorized that tabletop games would eventually split into two paths: Extremely simple and fast “casual games” and massive, big-box games that cost hundreds of dollars and are filled with miniatures for consumers to paint. (I personally found this distressing, as all my favorite games are about 90 minutes long.) While this split hasn’t yet happened, and may never happen, it is true that since the advent of Kickstarter and the high profile successes of games like Kingdom Death: Monster and Gloomhaven, the big-box miniatures game has gained an increasing market share in the tabletop games space.

However, while the popularity of these games may have gone up, many of them are plagued by severe issues that makes one question why it’s worth spending 10 times the price of an Agricola or Cosmic Encounter on them. In this article, I will be exploring the overarching issues from which many of these games suffer and theorizing ideas on how the “genre” can be streamlined and improved.

Promises and Deliveries

All games quietly promise something to their audience. Most Euro-style strategy games promise a fairly arbitrated battle of wits, unbound from confounding variables like “luck” or “politics”. Party games promise routine laughter and bonding as a group. Reality competition shows promise a fair, entertaining battle to the audience, who are the real target user. So what do big-box minis game promise?

It’s very easy if you think about it. Big-box minis games promise a) big cool miniatures and b) the ability to smash those big cool miniatures together in a fun way. If these games lived up to these promises, I don’t think there would be any real complaints about it; unfortunately, many of them don’t.

How, exactly, these games fail to live up to their promises depends on their genre. There’s two overarching genres of big-box minis game; the co-op campaign game, with games like Kingdom DeathBatman: Gotham City Chronicles, and Tainted Grail, and the competitive territory control game, with games like Rising Sun, Cthulhu Warsand Blood Rage.

Territory control games have a better track record with letting players regularly play with the big chunky minis, partially because it’s expected that every mini should be able to see play before the end of the game. Cthulhu Wars in particular makes it a relatively common part of the game to get your faction’s massive Lovecraftian monster on the board. The most common issue to befall these is that when it’s not strategically beneficial to use your big minis, you won’t, and in some games it’s hardly ever a good idea to use them. So far from the feeling of triumph that you want players to have when they finally plonk that enormous dragon mini onto the board, you have them feeling kind of guilty that they summoned that dragon when they could have done something better.

Meanwhile, campaign games have a much larger issue – the fact that the majority of players who start a campaign of your game are highly unlikely to make it to the end, where they can bust out the really cool minis. In fact, many people give up on campaign games like this because progression is so slow, and each individual session so long, that they don’t feel like they get the play experience with the huge scary “boss” miniatures that they were promised.

Both genres also have an issue with rules bloat. Whether it’s because of genre conventions or the feeling that players should “get their money’s worth” for dropping $450 on your game through Kickstarter, big-box minis games have large onboarding times that make it more daunting to bring them to the table. This exacerbates the issue of co-op games taking longer to break out the good stuff because you now also have to find other players who will agree to sit through 90 minutes of rules explanations.

Problems and Solutions

So now that we’ve defined the goals and problems, we can develop solutions that might lead to a big-box minis game that meets the genre’s unspoken promises more effectively.

Problem: Area control minis games may unintentionally discourage the use of minis through gameplay.

Solution: You could try to bias the game towards the huge minis, but there’s no guarantee that your ideas will hold up to testing by hundreds or thousands of gaming groups. Additionally, players who like swarm tactics or similar might be put off by how much you’re pushing a single strategy. The better solution is to make the huge, fun minis a mandatory part of gameplay, or else so ubiquitous that it’s essentially required. This follows the philosophy that the only way to ensure players have fun is to make them.

Problem: Most campaigns of co-op minis games don’t last long enough for players to get to the coolest minis.

Solution: The issue isn’t necessarily the campaign style of gameplay. Removing campaigns from co-op games in this genre would remove something fundamental that players love in the same way that removing the complexity of a MOBA game would make many MOBA players lose interest. The fundamental issue is that in many of these games, you have to fight all of the enemy miniatures in roughly weakest-to-strongest order. Naturally, the coolest minis are also the strongest, so the odds of you actually seeing them are lower.

A good possible solution comes from “roguelite” games like Hades or Rogue Legacy. In these games, you play through the entire game at once, empowering your character when you die; the game itself becomes harder as you become more capable. Translating that to a big-box minis game, whereas a traditional campaign might have you fight Boss 1, then Boss 2, then Boss 3, and so on, a campaign styled after roguelite games might have you fight Bosses 1, 5, and 8 at first, then in the next session fight Bosses 2, 6, and 9. That way, you’ll still have the gradual rollout of content that campaign games provide while still allowing players to bring out the big cool minis on session 1.

Problem: Many big-box minis games suffer from rules bloat.

Solution: We can maintain a certain level of complexity that games with high price tags command while reducing onboarding friction by having simple base rules with increasingly complex powers. While not perfect about this, Gloomhaven does a good job for its circumstances – the first six unlocked character classes are simpler than the others, giving players a chance to get a handle on how the game works in general before they have to manage mechanics for a specific character. The missions with weird additional rules are also, for the most part, added after players play a number of “conventional” missions so both setup and runthrough are faster.

Conclusion

I have no real intentions of making a big-box minis game of my own because I feel my talents as a game designer lie elsewhere. That said, exposing myself to, and writing about, games that lie in genres I generally don’t play can only benefit me as a designer because the lessons I learn can be brought along to any future design. When I go into my next project, understanding the unspoken promises my game creates and trying to deliver on them will be on the forefront of my mind.

The Pest-sistence of Memory

While it’s entirely possible that what makes a game fun is 100% subjective, I’ve noticed that some things are almost universally regarded as “fun” or “good design”, and some are almost always considered “bad” or “unfun”. Having to do math beyond simple arithmetic is in the latter category, for instance; another is memorizing things, a topic that game critic Erik Twice wrote about previously. However, Erik mostly covered the “what” and not the “why” or “how” of memorization. In this article, I’ll be theorizing on why memorizing stuff generally isn’t fun and offering advice on how to make the high-level play of your game less dependent on memorization.

The Problem With Memorizing Stuff

The concept of memory being an appealing gameplay mechanic is largely a thing of the past. For example, Whist, a predecessor of contract bridge which put emphasis on being able to remember which cards have been played by which players, operated under the idea that these games were a tool for sophisticates to measure their superior intellects against each other. The only modern mainstream board games that make memorization an intentional core mechanic are Memory, which mainly appeals to very young children, and the Simon/Bop It! family of toys, which are 75% fun because of their flashing lights and funny noises.

Modern strategy games only require the player to memorize things as an unintentional part of learning the higher-level strategies. Scrabble is the classic example: A casual player can do fairly well at Scrabble by improvising with their preëxisting vocabulary, but high levels of play demand that the player memorize all of the high-value words in the dictionary so they can maximize their score.

There are a number of reasons that memory is a less fun skill to employ than things like bluffing, prediction, and planning in advance. The first is that memorization is a fairly basic concept that doesn’t challenge the more sophisticated powers of thought that even simple strategy games try to engender in players. You use whichever method you want to commit a card/quantity/etc. to memory; then you see if you did it or not. Compared to things like bluffing, which requires knowledge of your psychology, your opponents’ psychology, the risk and reward of various strategies, and so on, memorization asks you to employ a basic mental concept common to most sophisticated animals. However, despite its simplicity, memorization requires a lot of effort if there’s enough variables to be considered, so it’s taxing without being rewarding.

The second is that getting penalized because you didn’t memorize things correctly feels like an act of cruelty on the part of the game. When all of the information was available at some point, it then feels arbitrary that you aren’t allowed to reference it, especially if this lack of knowledge could lead to substantially different strategy decisions. This isn’t objectively true, as I’ll explain in more detail later in this article, but it certainly doesn’t feel good when the game essentially makes you lose for no reason.

The third is that, paradoxically, losing because you didn’t memorize something always feels like a blunder. You weren’t outsmarted by an opponent; you didn’t make a risky decision that failed to pay off; you didn’t even misunderstand the subtler interactions of the game. If you weren’t able to remember game information in an adequate way, the only explanation is that you, personally, failed, with no excuses or ways to improve beyond hoping you’ll remember better next time. Frustration – the least acceptable emotion in gaming – is born from a combination of rage and helplessness, and loss due to misremembering things produces both in great supply.

The final, and perhaps most important, factor is that discovery and surprise are important to a game being fun, and memorizing the game’s components and strategy does literally the opposite, siphoning a sense of anticipation away from the game even as you become better at it. People will only stay with a game if they think it has something more to offer them if they play it again. (That’s also why I believe that any game with asymmetric powers should have at least one and a half times more powers than the maximum player count.)

Multiple factors affect how important memorization becomes at high levels of play. The three most important are open information that becomes hidden, consistent and complex strategies, and all of a game’s components being guaranteed to appear every game (which is a mouthful, so let’s call it “Completeness”).

Open-Then-Hidden Information

Most games that restrict previously-open information don’t do it to challenge the players, and they don’t do it by mistake, either. They do it because having too much complex information available at once can be paralyzing, especially for new players or moderately experienced players who suffer from analysis paralysis. Many of these games are aimed at casual audiences. That said, even if we’re primarily designing for casual audiences, we can try to do better to make the game fun for people of all skill levels and seriousness.

An effective rule of thumb is that if components can be counted, high-level play will demand that they must be counted. In For $ale, players bid on house cards of differing values and then use those house cards to bid on cards of various values. Each player starts with the same amount of money at the beginning, but are encouraged to keep their remaining cash a secret. Because all of this information is public, you could therefore, with either a keen memory or a pad of paper, know which player has which houses, which houses haven’t been played yet, and how much money everyone has left. This is crucial information to victory, so if one player decides to do this, the others will be obligated to do so to be competitive.

In some cases, there are good reasons to not have all this information available, as having too much at hand can be paralyzing, especially for new players. Returning to our example of For $ale, if every players’ house cards were face-up and visible on the table, players would have so much information to process at once, the game would get bogged down with their thinking.

Consistent Strategy

As your players play your game repeatedly, common tactics and strategies will start to emerge. This is a natural and wonderful part of the game-playing process. However, if strategies within your game are both consistently strong and relatively nuanced and complex, it means that players interested in advancing in skill will have to memorize these strategies. Chess is the perennial example – many people, including myself, have been turned off from chess from the nightmarish vision of having to spend our precious free time memorizing openings.

These strategies become more problematic if they take longer to execute or have little room for deviance. The “Uxmal Gambit” in Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar is a gamelong strategy that first involves placing your workers in two specific locations on the board to acquire the maximum amount of workers as quickly as possible, then following a series of tasks that enables you to build many high point value buildings. However, if you don’t remember the strategy offhand, you’ll probably lose after creating many more workers than you can effectively feed. The designers, wise as they are, made the expansion create much more varied random openings that lessened the Uxmal Gambit’s strength in most cases.

Note that a strategy is different from a heuristic – a rule that applies in enough circumstances that you can usually take it for granted. Most heuristics are easily digestible and helpful for players. If your players can establish these heuristics without having to adhere to a lengthy set of guidelines for play, it means your strategy game is likely on the right track.

Completeness

If every component in your game is guaranteed to appear in every game, then it’s good strategy to memorize all of the components so you know which ones haven’t appeared yet.

This becomes more of an issue when there are many different components. The opening hands in 7 Wonders are always comprised of the same cards, depending on the player count. (That is, a four-player game will always have the same set of cards, and a five-player game will have an additional set of cards, etc.) Because you can be sure that every card from the list will appear in the game, good strategy now consists of remembering the card distribution and cost for all three rounds so you can tell when you’re being cut off or not. Furthermore, you have to remember the exact cards that were in each hand as it was being passed to you so you can try to predict what you’ll be handed when it comes back to you.

Fortunately, avoiding the completeness issue is relatively simple – even knocking out one or two components can be useful depending on the complexity of your game. Both Love Letter and New York Slice, which place importance on a certain class of card/pizza slice running out, remove one card and three slices respectively at the start of the game, making exact calculation of all the components you’ve seen so far not so effective that it’s worth the trouble.

Conclusion

It’s hard to design for higher-level play because playing with the same group over and over (in other words, the only way to experience higher-level play) isn’t as important as making sure your game is good across a large variety of players. But in order for your game to be truly good, it has to maintain a sense of fun and discovery, as well as make more thoughtful play more of a joy than a slog. Memorization is an enemy to both of those, and should be reduced as much as possible unless you have an extremely good reason otherwise.

 

Discovering Your Game Design Biases

Many design disciplines have a history of neutrality and universality. Typography, industrial design, and so on value the designer being able to put aside their own biases and create things that communicate a similar message to as many people as possible. This is noble, especially for things like signage that really do need this sense of universality, but it can also be stifling to always put the needs of your audience ahead of what you want to create. Luckily, as low-budget tabletop game designers, we can fully give in to our preferences, and indeed, the games we produce that appeal to us will often be more fun and higher quality than those that don’t.

Discovering your game design biases will help you grow as a designer, whether that means sticking to your wheelhouse and refining your skills to make what you want or actively fighting against what you’re used to to leave your comfort zone and grow in a more well-rounded way. Here’s a few tools that you can use to gauge them.

What Do You Respect?

Everyone has games that they love, but most people don’t really put that much thought into the reasons why they like those games. After all, working too hard to define an undefinable feeling often feels like a pointless exercise, and at worst it can sap some of the delight away from the game. (It’s why explaining a joke ruins the joke.) That said, it’s an excellent first step towards discovering your game design biases, especially if you’re early in your game design journey and haven’t worked on that many projects.

There’s a couple of ways to figure out your biases in game preference. Pick whichever of these seems the most appealing to you.

  • Make a top 10 list of your favorite board games. See if you can find things most or all of those games have in common. Play time? Player count? How complex or simple they are? How serious or silly the tone is? Are there particular emotional states common to these games that you might not feel in more mainstream games?
  •  Pretend you have to convince a skeptic to get into board games by describing one game to them. Which game would you choose to talk about? What in particular would you describe about the game?
  • Think about the best times you’ve ever had playing games with your friends. This doesn’t even have to be about games you like normally – perhaps the group you were with, or the atmosphere might have contributed. But what about the game triggered such fondness in you? Why does this playthrough stick out in your mind more than any of the numerous others you might have played up until that point.

What Kind of Games Do You Design?

I didn’t realize that I had game design biases at all until I overheard a friend who ran a monthly prototype night mention to someone else that he had never seen a prototype of mine that took over half an hour to play. It so happened that, unconsciously, I ended up creating short, relatively rules-light games over anything else.

It can help your process to define what your “regular” kind of game is. Look back over all of your previous prototypes and perhaps subject them to the same exercises you did in the above section.Perhaps talk to someone you work with a lot on games – a favorite playtester or similar – and see what they have to say about your games. It can be surprisingly hard to figure out your preferences and design biases when you’re on the inside looking out.

It’s also possible that you might have a fairly broad range to what you design. Some designers, like Vlaada Chvátil, seem to bounce from ultra-heavy strategy games to party games with relative ease, while others, like Uwe Rosenberg, find a niche and settle within it. If you feel like you’re stuck in a rut, identifying that rut is the first step towards climbing out of it. Perhaps consider making a game longer or shorter than you normally do, or with sillier or more serious mechanics.

What’s Your General Philosophy of Games?

Game design has a lot of big questions that don’t have one objectively correct answer. These include things like:

  • What is a game? What makes it different from an activity, contest, or sport, or are those things subsets of games?
  • What makes a game, or anything else, fun? Is there one answer to what fun is, multiple answers, or none at all?
  • What emotions should a game generate? Excitement? Anger? Patient thought? Perhaps a combination of these, or all of them?

Sitting down and asking yourself these questions, possibly with examples of games that meet or don’t meet these criteria, is an excellent way to figure out your philosophy of game design.

What Else Do You Like?

Fantasy authors who only draw from other fantasy novels, directors who only draw from movies, and game designers who only draw from other games almost inevitably end up one step beyond mediocrity, because they don’t add more to the medium. The only way any creative field escapes stagnation is through people who are able to unite it with their other interests and passions.Thinking about your other interests and how they influence your games, both thematically and mechanically, is a great way to understand your game design biases.

To use myself as an example, I am personally heavily influenced by schlock and camp of all kinds. Happy Daggers is based off of the unrealistic but flashy swordfights you might see in classic swashbuckling movies, while my prototype The Monster Dimension is themed after low-budget, poorly acted monster movies. Your interests don’t even need to line up well with the medium – my very boring and mundane passion for hotels and convention spaces inspired my other prototype, Con Season.

Even other kinds of game can inform your design process. David Sirlin was a former professional Street Fighter player, and his tabletop work all relates to fighting games or related media like Puzzle Fighter – not just in its mechanical trappings, but also in the heavy emphasis placed on reading the opponent and asymmetric player powers. “Game” can also refer to things like bridge and other traditional games, sports (played, coached, or spectated), and even game shows and reality competition shows.

Conclusion

Knowing your game design biases has two broad benefits. The first is as I’ve mentioned previously – it gives you a sense of how you design, so you can refine it and/or try to break free of it for something you find more creative.

The second is that being “the X designer” can give you courage and strength, particularly if you’re a new designer. For the first year or so of my design work, I felt very unsure about what I was designing and if I was actually making something worthwhile. After defining myself as someone who makes shorter games with strong stories and emotional impact, I feel like I’m a legitimate member of the design community with something meaningful to say. If you struggle with the same issues, I greatly recommend this process.

Retheming Incan Gold and Caylus

I’m a very strong believer in the importance of a fitting, unique theme for your tabletop game. While some of this is personal preference, I also think that having a good theme will make your game much more memorable and exciting. However, some “bottom-up” games, which are designed with mechanics first, are difficult to dress in a theme.

In order to better train my theming abilities, and because I can only think about so many of my own games at a time, I’ve started performing a thought exercise where I update the themes of preëxisting board games to something either more suitable, more unique, or both. It’s fun to do and is a useful way of thinking about games, so I thought I’d share it on this blog. This post will go through two examples: The games Incan Gold and Caylus.

The Process

My “retheming” exercise consists of asking the following questions, then finding a theme that matches the answers.

What is the core mechanic of this game? Most games, particularly “bottom-up” games, have a single mechanic or gameplay loop at its core. Examples include Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar‘s rotating wheels and Azul‘s tile grabbing rules.

Are there unique submechanics? Other mechanics in a game might be less prominent but distinctive enough that it’s worth building a theme around them. Libertalia giving every player the same hand of cards at the start of each round is one example.

What are some of the game’s overarching mechanical themes? In many board games, you end up taking several actions that all fit a general theme. This might be “economics”, where you buy, sell, and trade resources to the bank, “politics”, where you negotiate with other players to accomplish your goals, or “planning,” where you set up actions to pay off later in the game.

How serious or silly is the game? Some games are longer, more cerebral, and trickier than other games, and they usually want a more serious theme to match. Other games are faster and emotionally charged and often want sillier themes. I write more about the subject in this post.

Once I’ve answered these questions, I try to come up with a theme that doesn’t see a lot of space on shelves and that connects with the game’s mechanics in a satisfying way.

Example 1: Incan Gold

Why Choose Incan Gold? Incan Gold‘s theme is mostly appropriate for the mechanics, but it’s also really colonialist, considering it’s a game about robbing an indigenous temple in South America that doesn’t even dress itself up with an “archaeological dig” disguise. This can be done better.

Core Mechanic: Incan Gold is a press-your-luck game. Each turn, a card is turned over; these cards can have gems, hazards, or artifacts. Gems are split evenly among all remaining players, with the gems that can’t be split evenly being left on the card. There are five different kinds of hazards, with three cards of each in the deck; if two hazards turn up, the round abruptly ends and everyone left in the temple loses all gems they had collected up til that point. After a card is turned over, each player secretly decides to stay for another card or run away. If they run, they collect all the leftover gems from prior gem cards, but if more than one player runs away in the same turn, the leftover gems are also split evenly.

Unique Submechanics:  Artifact cards provide an incentive to leave the temple early. The first person to leave the temple alone grabs the artifact, which is worth a lot of points. However, if multiple people leave at once, the artifact stays out.

Overarching Themes: Risk: Is it worth staying in the round so I can get larger shares of gems after the other players run away, or should I leave before the second identical hazard card turns up? Mind-Reading: Do I bail and grab the artifact, or will someone else be doing that first? How risk-averse are my friends?

Seriousness: On the silly side, as press-your-luck games mostly are.

Analysis: Splitting gems evenly with the remaining players, but having to run away by yourself with an artifact, implies that the players are allies of convenience who would turn on each other in a heartbeat. Because you need two identical hazard cards, the first one of each type could be considered a “warning” of some sort instead of an actual representation of danger.

Therefore, Incan Gold is now a game about a gang of thieves breaking into a bank vault and grabbing as much as they can before running out. This helps promote the game’s hectic, stressful nature. Gems can be gold bars or stay gems, since gem components are pretty and fun to play with. Hazard cards can be cameras, lasers, guards, dogs, etc, and the first one of each type can be flavored as the lookout noticing it but nobody actually setting off the security system yet. Artifacts are big paintings that, obviously, cannot be split between people. (They can also have funny pictures on them.)

Example 2: Caylus

Why choose CaylusCaylus has a really cool core mechanic that could be the basis of an interesting theme, but the publisher went with a “medieval Europe” theme, which is the tabletop design equivalent of bunting.

Core Mechanic: The heart of Caylus‘ board is a long road with spaces on either side to put buildings. Players build along these roads and then place their workers onto the buildings to activate their abilities.

Notably, not every building will get activated every round. After players have placed their workers, each player then has the opportunity to bribe the “provost” pawn to move forwards or backwards. Only buildings the provost has moved to or pass actually activate on that turn.

Unique Submechanics: Weak buildings can later be renovated into residential buildings that earn passive money income. All players have the opportunity to contribute to a large castle by spending resource cubes, with players who contribute more and earlier getting further rewarded. “Royal favors” can be cashed in to advance on a track that gives progressively more rewards.

Overarching Themes: Selfishness vs Selflessness: Do I contribute to the group project of the castle or do I act selfishly and build buildings for myself? Do I bribe the provost to move forward to activate more of my own buildings, knowing that this will help other players as well?  Resource Management: I only get so much money and resource cubes at a time. Do I pass early and hold onto them, or spend them all at once?

Seriousness: This is a medium-heavy game that’s much more cerebral than it is emotionally stimulating. The theme should be somewhat serious.

Analysis: The road and corresponding Provost token make Caylus a unique worker placement game. This simulates a boom-and-bust economy – sometimes every building on the road is going to get activated, and sometimes only a few will. So an ideal theme for this game would be something centered on a notable road that’s had up and down times.

Naturally, the perfect choice is America’s historic Route 66, once a bustling transit center and now a niche tourist journey.

The buildings along the road can be production-focused, like farms, and then can be converted into residential buildings or tourist spaces that give passive monetary income to the players. Players can also contribute the resources they gain to a major city (the castle), with the dungeon, walls, and towers replaced by the inner city, suburbs, and exurbs perhaps. This helps create a separation between the lonely highway and the bustling cities it connects.

The provost, instead of representing an authority figure, more represents the economic status of Route 66 at the time. Perhaps it could be a bus or similar vehicle carrying people along the road, or perhaps more of an abstract “fortune” figure.

The resource cubes are likely the most difficult thing to convert to this theme, as the more modern you get, the less sense it makes to have individual units of “food” or “cloth”. Food still makes kind of sense, and stone can be replaced with steel, but I’d have to do a lot more thinking to come up with alternatives I’m satisfied with.

Conclusion

Many of my games are designed with a theme first, so I don’t often do this exercise for my own games. However, even if you’re just doing this to pass the time and have no intention of applying it to your designs, having a deeper understanding of the connection between theme and mechanic is a valuable exercise for any designer. I hope you’re able to get as much or more out of this than I did.