Keeping Your Game Focused (also, horrible puns)

I’m a big fan of ketchup.

I was raised by a Midwesterner and, for much of my childhood, ketchup was the only condiment I’d accept anywhere. Even to this day, when I go to gourmet burger establishments, I’ll dump a bunch of ketchup on everything after my carefully constructed order arrives.

This is a shocking opinion, but I’m also a big fan of ice cream. It’s delicious! Cookies and cream is my favorite flavor.

So given that I love ketchup, and that I love ice cream, obviously putting ketchup on my ice cream is a great idea, right?

Today’s article is about avoiding the design equivalent of putting ketchup on your ice cream.

One Game, 31 Flavors

It’s pretty easy to tell, during playtesting, that your game is bad. People get bored or frustrated, individual mechanisms are overpowered or useless, the game lasts for longer than it should. That’s because these are things that give you immediate feedback, the equivalent of a big siren going off.

When your game isn’t necessarily bad, but unfocused, it becomes a lot trickier to detect. The individual mechanics of your game might be excellent by themselves, but combined they create a confusing mess. This isn’t something that you can detect by examining final scores, and some players may even give you confusing feedback – depending on the person, they might not mind something unfocused if they had a fun time playing it.

The best example I can think of is TIME Stories, which combines an intriguing premise – co-op mystery solving as you play through the same story repeatedly in an attempt to unravel more of it – with dice-rolling mechanics. The thrill of advancing your group game by game conflicts with the issue that you can easily lose the game, even though you did everything right, through a series of poor dice rolls. In a different game, the dice-rolling would be acceptable, or even fun, but here the unfocused mechanics make the game less satisfying.

Games can also be thematically incoherent. The game El Grande was originally Troy-themed, with a big Trojan Horse that players could drop their cubes into to hide how many they’re going to puke onto the board at the end of the round. But during production, the publishers changed the name to the political conquest of Spain, with the incredibly thematic Horse changed to a generic “castillo”. El Grande is still one of the best territory control games ever made, but if it had stuck to its original theme the impact would have been dramatically improved.

Ketchup Mechanics

The best solution to focusing your game is to have a clear statement in your head of what you want the game to be. However, the problem is that humans aren’t computers, and we design as much on instinct as we do by writing down several paragraphs in a design document. Your “statement”, might be fuzzy daydreams about some players laughing and having a great time, or a looping gif (pronounced gife) of a character in your game doing something dramatic. In this way, it’s hard to keep a game focused when you don’t even know what to focus on.

There’s two ways to approach this, depending on how you’re constructing your game: “top-down” or “bottom-up”, to borrow terms from Magic design.

“Bottom-up” designs are created when the designer thinks of one or two interesting mechanics they’d like to explore. In this way, you develop these games by weaving supplementary mechanics and theme around your core concepts in a way that creates a complex, challenging design. The issue arrives when the supplementary mechanics are lifted from more popular genres – for instance, creating an interesting way of placing tiles on a board but deciding that the way to acquire them is through simple drafting because you can’t think of anything better.

The best way to keep your bottom-up game focused is to think about what the core mechanic wants. For instance, in our theoretical tile-laying game above, how would it be a challenge for you to get the arrangement that you want? What would generate a feeling of satisfaction when you arrange your tiles in just the right way to shoot past your opponents? What mirrors the core mechanic in a satisfying way? Once you’ve answered these questions, the focus of your game becomes clearer.

Ice Theme

“Top-down” designs are based primarily on theme. My Happy Daggers, for instance, was made as a way to capture the feel of melodramatic swordfights as you might see in The Three Musketeers or Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Hamlet. This makes focusing with your mechanics simultaneously easier and harder: You have a clearer statement of what you’d like to design, but because you’re starting from scratch mechanically it’s a lot easier to drift away from where you started.

The most important part of designing a top-down game is its “feel”: That is, making players feel the same when playing your game as they do while watching a movie or reading a book of the same genre. Mark Rosewater, Magic head designer, talked about this approach when designing for Innistrad, the game’s gothic horror/movie monster expansion. The primary feeling you get from a good horror movie isn’t necessarily shock, but dread – the creeping feeling that something’s wrong right before the skeleton pops out or whatever. So the mechanics of Innistrad were aimed at generating the same feelings: Humans which could turn into werewolves on the next turn, any creature’s death triggering a powerful “morbid” effect, spells which could return from the graveyard when you least want it. Innistrad is considered by many to be one of the best Magic sets ever made, which speaks to the power of this approach.

Heinzight is 20/20

Your game will be much better when everything – every tiny mechanic and every scrap of design – is all precisely focused on a core experience. By keeping this in mind while playtesting, the process will probably be more painful – you’ll have to throw out otherwise good concepts because they don’t jazz with the other things you’re doing – but will result in a clearer, more fun, and more impactful game for your players.

This article went on forever, so as a reward for sticking with the whole thing here’s a picture of Pikachu with a bottle of ketchup. See you in two weeks!

Elven Space Farmers of Ancient Rome

Board games have an issue with theme.

Though exceptions exist, Zach Gage’s bizarre Guts of Glory springing to mind immediately, the majority of board games have similar themes. There are hundreds of (mostly) American board games with extremely similar European fantasy themes, soft sci-fi with aliens, and the ever-present zombies. On the other side of the Atlantic, Europe brims with games about farming and being a Roman with a bunch of bricks and spare time. Even stranger, people don’t really seem to tire of these themes, with the exception of zombies, which have worn out their welcome even among a fairly tolerant audience of geeks.

Instead of complaining, or boasting about how my games are different (so far, their themes are “trains”, “superheroes”, and “Elizabethan England”), I wanted to analyze some of gaming’s most common themes and see why they remain enduringly popular.

Die, Skeletons, Die!

Most of the popular American board game themes involve violence of some sort. In fantasy, this is the classic adventuring party of the fighter, the mage, the cleric, and the rogue running into a dungeon and killing goblins, orcs, and skeletons. Sci-fi games take a grander scale, with gigantic spaceships firing lasers at one another. Zombies, superheroes, mafia – all of these themes require the frequent use of violence.

This is not necessarily because the average American gamer is bloodthirsty, but instead plays into a power fantasy. The ability to inflict violence is developed from significant physical skill, something that the majority of gamers, because gaming is a more mental hobby, either don’t or can’t develop. Violence in games translates mental power, which is often subtle and unsatisfying, into physical might.

Pro Farmer 2000 XP

Let’s turn our attention to the peaceful Euro. The running gag about these games is that they are almost invariably about farming, and indeed, the vast majority of them have very pastoral, almost boring themes: The hard-working farmer, the Roman architect, the peaceful village. How do people find the necessary stakes in these themes?

My hypothesis: Scale.

Eurogames give the players the reins over a domain of any size from a family (Village, Agricola) to a village (Catan) to an entire civilization (7 Wonders, Stone Age). Even games where players represent one person, like Last Will, typically has them in positions where they are capable of colossal things. Generally, time is compressed so that a single turn could be representative of weeks, months, or even years in extreme cases; civilizations are built and destroyed over forty-five minutes.

This is a power fantasy of a different sort, one where players aren’t supernaturally powerful but where they can construct something grand. Day-to-day, the average person doesn’t get to design a city, or build a house, or guide a civilization – the biggest decision they get to make is what to have for dinner. Classic Euro themes forego violence but retain the players’ subconscious wish to be something greater than they are.

Stereotypes And The Tautological Argument

It could also be said that these themes are popular because they are popular. One of the most insightful articles in designing theme for board games is Bruno Faidutti’s Postcolonial Catan, an essay that mostly discusses exoticism and stereotypes in board games, explaining their prevalence in tabletop games with this astoundingly profound sentence:

“The game designer, like the painter, cannot enliven his work by complex and subtle storytelling, and must do it only by winks and nods – a camel here, a helmet there. As a result, he makes heavy use of orientalist, ‘medievalist’ or ‘antiquist’ clichés.”

A board game has very little real estate it can use to convey its world. This faces the designer (and illustrator, and graphic designer, if these are three different people) with a dilemma: Do we stick with something familiar, allowing players some insight into how our mechanics work, or do we do something strange at higher risk? Given that theme is not a strong concern for many designers, and most people would prefer to see their game succeed, it isn’t difficult to see that they would immediately jump to something popular.

Conclusion

I don’t know if identifying the reasons board games have fairly homogenous themes will lead to more diversity; some themes just lend themselves better to games than others. However, I feel that theme is a part of games that isn’t talked about as often as mechanics or economics, and one that, if paid attention to more, could result in much wider audiences.

Game Analysis: Fibbage and Quiplash

Up until last year, I didn’t really pay much attention to the You Don’t Know Jack series of video games. The trivia questions were cleverly written about 60% of the time, but the 90’s Kool Attitude tone of the jokes got old quickly. However, in 2015, The Jackbox Party Pack and its sequel, Jackbox Party Pack 2, were released. Along with that year’s version of YDKJ, the game bundles included two games – Fibbage and Quiplash – that I believe are some of the best party games ever designed.

As many of you know, I am currently late in the design phase of Stand Back, Citizen!, my superheroic party pitch game. There aren’t a lot of resources for this type of game, despite its popularity, so I wanted to delve into why Quiplash and Fibbage are so fun and have so much repeat value. Other designers can use the tools they created in their own games, even if not all of them translate well from the video game format.

Fibbage

On its face, Fibbage is very close to the classic board game Balderdash. A factoid is put up on screen with critical information missing, i.e. “The death metal band Hatebeak’s front man is ________”. Each player then creates a fake but plausible-sounding answer that will hopefully get the other players to guess it instead of the real one*. You get points for other players guessing your answer, as well as if you guess the correct answer yourself.

This is already a pretty decent formula. However, the designers included one of the most brilliant mechanics I’ve ever seen in party games: The thumbs-up. After guessing an answer, players may then select any or all of the answers to give a thumbs-up to, indicating that they thought it was clever or funny. At the end of the game, the players whose answers got the most thumbs-up gets the prestigious “Thumbs Cup”, even if they’re in dead last.

Instead of trying to convince its audience that it should be taken seriously, Fibbage instead rewards people who want to goof off and make hilariously bad answers. Players are effectively split into two camps: Try-hards who put in realistic answers that people will guess, and goof-offs who answer “The original name of Kool-Aid” with “It’s Fruit Sugar! With The Glass Intruder” in an attempt to get thumbs. People bad at making jokes will be happy trying to earn points, while people bad at coming up with good fake answers will be happy watching the other players’ reactions to the latest monstrosity they created.

For the record, I am firmly in Camp Goof-Off; the Kool-Aid answer is mine and I included it because I have a huge ego when it comes to joke writing.

Quiplash

In Quiplash, players receive two prompts and write a funny answer for each one. Each prompt is put on screen one at a time (two players compete per prompt) and the rest of the players vote on which one they liked the most. Points are earned for each person who liked your response, plus a bonus if everyone votes for your response, also called “Quiplashing”.

This formula sneakily addresses one of the biggest issues with Apples to Apples-style pitch games: The massive amount of player downtime. I will be getting more into this topic when I talk about designing Stand Back, Citizen!, but the flow of most games like this work as follows:

  1. A prompt is revealed, players select a card.
  2. The judge reveals all the cards and reads them out loud.
  3. The judge selects the best card and awards that player the prompt.

The problem is that the longest amount of time in the game is spent on a phase in which only one player has the power to do anything besides argue pointlessly about how their submission was the best. However, in Quiplash, all but two of the players act as the judge every round, creating a lot less average downtime for each individual player. The rounds are also timed, which helps prevent the problem of the slowest player taking five to ten times longer than the others when deciding on an answer to a prompt.

Unlike Fibbage, which tries to appeal to audiences with multiple tastes, Quiplash is strictly oriented towards people who like to write jokes. Because the prompts are write-in, people who aren’t good at coming up with funny things under pressure might feel alienated, but this is made up for by the escape hatch of writing an in-joke about your friend group.

Conclusion

A good party game is difficult to differentiate from the pack, partially because the review resources aren’t as meticulous as those for hobby games and partially because there isn’t a lot out there saying what makes a good party game. I will be writing another column or two on the subject in the coming months, and I hope it proves useful in buying – and making – social games.

* ”A parrot.”

“Designer” Spotlight: Noboyuki Fukumoto

In case that you didn’t already think I was a cool jock, I read a lot of manga. One of my favorite manga artists is Noboyuki Fukumoto, who commonly writes series about human psychology and people at the bottom of society. Another thing almost all of his series have in common is gambling – mostly mahjong (Akagi and Ten are entirely about riichi mahjong), but he also invents several original games.

Fukumoto’s gambles are designed mostly to create something exciting for a reader, and not necessarily something that would be fun to play in real life, but I wanted to examine these systems under the eye of a designer and see what lessons could be drawn from them. In this article, I’m going to look at some of Fukumoto’s most interesting games and how they work.

One Poker (Kaiji)

Kaiji, running since the mid-90s, is a series about an unlucky loser who is forced into numerous underground gambles by the corrupt Teiai Group. One Poker is Kaiji’s most recent gamble and the one with the most enticing real-life gameplay.

Game summary: One Poker is a poker game played with one-card hands. Each player is dealt two cards and must announce whether the cards are “up” (eight or higher, aces high) or “down” (seven or lower). They then secretly play one of their two cards and raise, call, and/or fold as in normal poker. Higher cards beat lower cards, with one exception: A two beats an ace. Ties result in no money changing hands. After each round, players are dealt one new card and the next round begins.

I originally didn’t understand the brilliance of One Poker until I realized that you keep the card you didn’t use for the next round. This creates a level of strategy that regular poker doesn’t possess: The ability to bluff with a lower card so you can save your high one for future rounds. Of course, if you think too much about saving your high cards, your opponent can quickly crush you with powerful raises.

Restricted Rock-Paper-Scissors (Kaiji)

Restricted RPS is the first game played on Kaiji, and although it’s not incredibly viable except at conventions, the strategy and politics are fascinating and definitely have applications at a smaller level.

Game summary: Restricted Rock-Paper-Scissors is played using several hundred people in a large room. Each player is given three stars and fifteen cards, five each with “rock”, “paper”, and “scissors”. Over five hours, players bet stars against each other on the results of rock-paper-scissors games played using the cards. Once a card is used, it’s discarded. Once a player has five stars, they win. Players may also borrow money from the house that they can use as they wish.

Over the course of this arc, a lot of fascinating strategies develop. Several people attempt to hoard all the cards of one type so they can control subsequent games; others create blocs of people who have run out of cards, but still have stars. It’s a brilliant lesson in how to create something intricate with simple rules. Giving players tools to win games through lateral thinking is something that separates great games from good ones, and is something to keep in mind.

Counterfeit Game (Gin to Kin)

This game has tormented me for a long time. I know there’s a brilliant concept hiding here, but multiple attempts at capturing the mechanic have ended in failure…so far.

Game summary: The Counterfeit Game is a game played with three Cezanne paintings: One the real deal, one a convincing counterfeit, and one an amateurish hack job. The room is dimly lit, so it is difficult to tell which painting is which; adding to the difficulty, one of the paintings is covered with a cloth. The challenger (in the comic, a greedy art dealer) must decide which painting is the real one. They start a far distance away but can pay additional money to walk closer to the paintings.

There are two interesting gameplay concepts here: Paying for information and a choice between three options, the third of which is concealed. The former is something I see on a lot of game shows (Who Wants To Be A Millionaire’s lifelines, for example) but hasn’t found a lot of fertile ground in board games. This might be because it’s hard to balance in a game reliant on information.

Even more surprising is that, to the extent of my knowledge, no game has used “three choices, one concealed” as a mechanic before, assuming the concealed choice is given by another player and isn’t merely luck of the draw. Allowing players to weight their opponent’s choices is fascinating, and dividing it like this creates a very interesting tension.

Conclusion

One of my major design philosophies comes from Richard Garfield, the creator of Magic: The Gathering. He wrote a piece in the excellent Kobold Guide to Game Design calling for all aspiring designers to observe as many games as they could: Not just tabletop games or TCGs, but sports, video games, and reality TV. Games in fiction, especially fiction as focused on psychology as Fukumoto’s work, are also a rich mine: Separating what can be used in the real world from it is one of the responsibilities of the designer.

That’s Numberzwang!

Chess has a term called Zugzwang. German for “compulsion to move”, it refers to a game state where someone is in trouble because they have to move a piece every turn. If they could pass and leave a strong board formation, things would be peachy, but no: Zugzwang.

This is a very interesting philosophy to apply to tabletop games in general, and I’d like to explore two games in particular that use zugzwang as a major source of conflict: Condottiere and Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar.

Condottiere

In Condottiere, players lead armies of Italian mercenaries fighting over the country’s city-states. Each player has a hand of mercenaries of varying strength, as well as other cards with special effects. The game takes place over a series of battles, where players play cards from their hand to earn the most points. You win by either conquering most of Italy or by controlling a contiguous line of city-states, meaning that some battles are going to be more important than others to you.

There are two rules here that are very important to our discussion:

  1. You don’t draw cards between battles unless all but one player has an empty hand.
  2. On your turn, you have to either play a card or pass. If you pass, you can’t play cards for the rest of the battle.

This means that maintaining a secure lead in a battle means continually playing your powerful cards – cards that you might have wanted to save for later. If you pass, you’ll save some of your mercenaries, but your opponents will be able to surge in with cards to which you can no longer respond. This momentum – being forced to continually play cards if you want to stay in the battle – is zugzwang in action.

This creates some very interesting strategic and mechanical situations. Players will often be forced into tough choices where they either must overcommit to maintain a secure lead or take a gamble on passing. This also means that “worthless” cards with low point values have their own benefits – by throwing them away, you can force your opponents to show what they’ve got.

Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar

Speaking of revolving!

Tzolk’in is a firm believer in zugzwang as well, but uses it in a different framework. Condottiere is luck-based, with significant hidden information and bluffing components, while Tzolk’in is a grindy worker-placement Euro with perfect information that requires a lot of forethought.

Though there are a lot of spaces and fiddly rules, the available actions in Tzolk’in are about as simple as it can get: Either place workers into the collection of plastic gears on the board, or take them off. Placing workers costs corn, the currency of the game, while removing workers gives you the effect of whatever space they’re currently on. Each turn, the gears rotate, moving placed workers to spaces with more powerful effects. You must place or remove workers, and you cannot pass.

To illustrate the challenge this gives, imagine you have three workers, the amount you get at the beginning of the game. You place all three of them on gears. Now, what happens on your next turn? Even though you wanted to wait for your workers to reach a stronger space, you have to take one of them off for something weaker. Because you have to do something, because you can’t pass, you now have some significant sacrifices to make.

When doing something on your turn, you have to think about the options that you’re providing yourself on the next turn. With no workers to remove, you’re costing yourself corn by placing them; with no workers to place, you have to make a decision about what track you want to temporarily give up. It’s a brain-melting puzzle and one that only gets harder as your and your opponents attempt more ambitious strategies over the course of the game.

Concluzwang

Mandatory actions as a driving force mean that everyone has to make a decision on their turn, even if they’re choosing between a bad result and a terrible one. This leads to a stronger sense of engagement with the game as opposed to games where not taking any significant actions might be the best strategy. When applied correctly, zugzwang can be one of the most compelling mechanics possible in tabletop games.

Learn About Trading Card Games!

Note: I tried my best to make sure that you can read this article without knowing much about TCGs. If you have some idea of what “creatures”, “lands”, and “the graveyard” mean, you should be fine.

Though I only started getting into tabletop games in earnest in the past few years, Magic: the Gathering has been a passion of mine for almost half my life. From my early years in high school making complete garbage 115-card casual decks to my vain attempt at a Grand Prix last year, Magic has been a presence in my life – sometimes weaker, sometimes stronger, but always there.

I also hang out with a lot of anime fans, so I’ve gained some familiarity with other modern TCGs like Yu-Gi-Oh and Cardfight!! Vanguard. The strategy can be pretty dense if you don’t play yourself, but most of these games have a handy companion show to teach you the basics and help you understand what’s going on at the higher levels.

TCGs boast a huge amount of strategic depth and are wildly popular – Yu-Gi-Oh has sold tens of billions of cards around the world. So why don’t game designers talk about them as much as they do standalone board games?

Okay, that rhetorical question is a little “gotcha”-y. It makes sense why tabletop designers don’t talk about them, because there’s no point in designing them. TCGs require an audience that will continually pay you for more cards, tournament structure, prize support, and a gigantic budget. I would be surprised if anyone who doesn’t have big brand backing has released a surviving TCG in the last ten years.

(There’s also the question of whether Living Card Games like Netrunner are viable for the indie designer, to which I answer: It’s tricky, but doable.)

But just because designing a TCG is a bad idea doesn’t mean that using TCG design in your tabletop game is bad. TCGs have to be designed and balanced in peculiar ways, and if we look at it the right way we can learn a lot of lessons for any game.

What Gets Played

If you pour water into a container, it expands to fill the space; similarly, if you pour players into a game, they’ll unconsciously try the best strategy to win. Anyone who’s run a playtest can tell you stories of players who destroyed their entire prototype because they refused to play “properly” and instead took the optimal path. Most games, especially Euro-style cube pushers, constrain this by rigidly defining a few imperfect strategies through which players can win.

However, TCGs as a genre promise an immense amount of freedom for players to construct whatever strategy they want. This creates the risk of some of these strategies being too powerful or uninteractive to be fun to play against, but also provides room for creative and bizarre victories. These decks are crafted using different thinking than how designers look at a game, and as such can be valuable sources of inspiration for standalone tabletop games.

Let’s look at Magic for some examples. Basic Magic strategy, as the designers themselves describe to beginners, is something like this:

  1. Play lands to create mana, your main resource.
  2. Use this mana to cast spells.
  3. If you reduce your opponent to 0 life, you win.

Now let’s look at some ways players have, at a competitive level, blown these assumptions out of the water. In italics next to these are potential design questions you could draw from them.

  1. “I don’t need lands at all! I’ll dump a bunch of cards into the graveyard and get powerful effects that way!”  Deck size as a resource! This has use in several games, but I could especially see it in deckbuilding games where a player’s deck size naturally increases over the course of the game.
  1. “I don’t need spells at all! I’ll just play two specific lands that create a monster that can win the game in one turn!” How heart-set are you on players using every mechanic in your game to win? Should your game encourage super-specialization (7 Wonders) or super-generalization (Agricola)?
  1. “I don’t need to damage my opponent at all! If I can stop them from playing anything relevant for the entire game, they will lose by drawing from an empty deck!”  At what point does turtling become an unstoppable strategy? Is there a way to create extreme defense as a strategy in my game while still making it interactive?

None of these strategies were intentionally created by the designers, but they display a breadth of mechanical insights to those willing to put in the effort and study them.

What Gets Banned

TCGs, more than any other genre of game, encourage creative deckbuilding. So what does it mean when they have to step in and stop people from playing certain cards.

A ban is serious business – it’s effectively the designers admitting they screwed up and personally intervening, instead of passive-aggressively fixing problems through the next set release. They’re also messy and can invalidate decks into which people have sunk a lot of time and money. So if a design team bans a card, it means that it was so threatening to the welfare of the game as a whole that it was necessary to make some kind of sacrifice. From here, we can identify the difference between a strategy changing a game and ruining it, and apply these lessons to our own designs.

As an example, I want to bring up the banning of the Magic card “Second Sunrise”. It was the cornerstone of the “Eggs” deck, the strategy of which is too complicated for me to describe in this article but generally involved accruing tiny amounts of resources over and over again in a single turn before blowing out your opponent.

Eggs was a powerful deck, but it had counters and didn’t dominate the metagame like some of the more infamous decks of times past. No, the primary reason Eggs was dismantled was because it was powerful and boring.

Games would slow to a crawl when someone was playing an Eggs deck, especially someone inexperienced with the deck’s mind-meltingly complex workings. The deck also packed enough defense that opponents could frequently do nothing to stop an Eggs player’s 30-minute turn. Players started to leave the table during big tournaments because there was nothing else they could do.

From the standpoint of cold strategy, the Eggs ban was unnecessary in a reasonably diverse format. But the vast majority of games – and I hope your game is one of them – are designed so players can have fun. Knowing where to draw the line between “better game design” and “happy players” is a sacrifice every designer has to make eventually, and hopefully one that is made for the better health of the game.
How Things Get Fixed

Okay, now let’s get serious. Let’s talk about Yu-Gi-Oh.

Duel Monsters (the actual name of the game they play in Yu-Gi-Oh) was originally created as an off-brand Magic by manga artist Kazuki Takahashi. From the beginning, it was designed more to create situations in which the characters could snatch victory from the jaws of defeat than as a viable real-life card game. It was a natural decision to make a Duel Monsters you could play in real life as the manga became more popular.

Early Yu-Gi-Oh was, to be frank, a mess. One of the major rules when designing a TCG is to make sure to have some limitation on what cards you can put into a deck (like the color pie in Magic or the classes in Hearthstone) so players can’t just take the 50 best cards in the game and smash them together. Yu-Gi-Oh…didn’t have that, beyond a half-hearted “tribute” rule. And nothing in the rules could really justify introducing something like that, either. The worst offender cards were banned, of course, but no matter how low the power level was turned it didn’t stop this fundamental issue.

So the designers did something very clever: They started introducing more powerful cards. However, these cards had strict limitations in the form of deck archetypes. “Gem-Knight Fusion”, for example, is a strict upgrade to the standard “Polymerization”…provided your deck has nothing but Gem-Knights in it. These Gem-Knights, in turn, were powerful enough on their own that the restriction on Fusion meant very little.

It was a heavy-handed fix, but it did provide competitive Yu-Gi-Oh with the competitive diversity it needed to still be popular to this day. Japanese TCGs made later, notably Cardfight!! Vanguard, adopted the archetype system as part of their core designs, showing that not only did archetypes help fix Duel Monsters, they came up with a viable new way to approach the genre as a whole.

No game is without its issues, but with TCGs, we can publicly observe those issues being fixed (or made worse). Some of these fixes can be very clever, and having more ways to improve our games during playtesting in our toolbox can only be good. TCG designers frequently don’t have the time or resources to fix things the “right” way, and the practical solutions they invent when under pressure can be made to work for a lot of other games.

Conclusion

Artists and designers stagnate when they only look within their own community for inspiration, and I fear that’s what may be happening with tabletop games. Without observing our compatriots through the looking glass, tabletop games may become the equivalent of the hundreds of books about English professors considering affairs. Shake off the chains that restrict you to only one path and look around. Even if you aren’t interested in playing a certain genre of game, look at its history and strategy to learn from it.

But above all, what I want to stress is this: Any game that doesn’t have Outstanding Dog Marron in it is a pile of garbage.

Game Analysis: Cosmic Encounter

Cosmic Encounter is my favorite game of all time, and I’m having trouble understanding why.

With most excellent games, you can easily point to something incredible about their design – Codenames’ simplicity and replayability, the Legacy games’ storytelling – but Cosmic Encounter is built from a lot of components that simply shouldn’t work. There’s a heavy chance element, Mario Karting (everyone ganging up on the player in first THIS IS THE NEW TERM I CALL IT) and kingmaking are serious problems, and some of the species are way more powerful than others.

Even weirder, Cosmic doesn’t succeed in spite of these issues, it succeeds because of these issues. I feel like if precautions were put in to make the gameplay more “strategic” or “balanced”, you wouldn’t have Cosmic Encounter anymore, you’d have a watery Euro that you’d forget about five minutes after you left the table.

So let’s get right to the point: What makes Cosmic Encounter so good???

Note: The rest of this article assumes that you vaguely know how to play Cosmic Encounter. If you don’t, Fantasy Flight has a rulebook here, and also you should really play, it’s a fantastic game!!! Hit me up on Twitter and I’ll bring over my copy.

It’s Political

 Cosmic Encounter is a game of very short-term politics. Unlike Game of Thrones or Diplomacy, where your alliances are expected to last for at least three or four rounds, the political situation in Cosmic will shift every single turn, both through foreign colony numbers and through the whims of the Destiny deck. This makes backstabbing a lot less serious, and having the ally who helped you win last turn suddenly become your mortal enemy is something to laugh about. It’s memorable, but not painful.

In my opinion, the smartest game design decision in Cosmic is the idea that multiple players can win at the same time. Games with heavy player interaction and the ability to see that one player is about to win frequently end up with everyone else piling on the player in first place. Munchkin uses single-player victories in a political game similar to Cosmic, but since everyone has a reason to take down someone at level 9, the game slows to a crawl.

Because of the way alliances work, instead of “all against one”, games can quickly turn into “The We’re About To Win Empire against the We Only Have Two Colonies Rebellion”, which then continue to shift as the scrappy underdogs crawl up and destroy their opponent’s foreign colonies. Of course, if someone feels like they’re up for it, they can easily refuse to ally and go for an “all against one” solo victory, but that’s by choice and not necessity. Every game ends differently, depending on the alien species and setup. Which brings us to…

It’s Different Every Game

The thing people most often mention when they talk about Cosmic is its dozens of alien species, each of which has an interesting power that busts the loose framework of the game in two. I love these, and I could go on forever talking about my favorite powers (Human, Leviathan, Pentaform, Lunatic, Claw, etc.), but Cosmic’s variability goes beyond whatever 4-6 aliens have a galactic slap fight. Variability is built into the system at a level that goes far beyond modern designs.

Because the game’s end isn’t something inevitable, it could take a long time for anyone to clinch victory, or someone could rocket ahead two or three colonies on their turn in a come-from-behind win. Card variety and hand sizes make it so even if two aliens have an ally-free encounter three times, each match will end differently. And of course, not only are the alien powers themselves game-changing, but so is the way they interact with each other. A Healer (stops ships from dying) in a game with a Zombie (can’t die) and Fungus (absorbs dead ships) will operate very differently than one in a game with a Masochist (desperately wants all their ships to die).

This, of course, means that some games aren’t going to be fun: They’ll be ponderously slow grindfests, or a couple of players will utterly crush everyone else. It isn’t ideal, but if I were given the choice between a game where, if I played 10 times, I would kind of enjoy all 10 games, and a game where 5 times are good, 3 are terrible, and 2 are pulse-poundingly amazing, I’d pick that latter every time.

It’s Really, Really Social

I think what truly makes Cosmic Encounter my favorite game is that everyone gets to participate constantly. Other games – Race For The Galaxy for example – have also experimented with simultaenous play and low downtime, but in Cosmic, everyone means something to each other, no matter how few cards or colonies they have. Even someone barely participating in an encounter can change its course through their alien power or a well-timed Artifact.

I play a lot of games, but Cosmic is one of the few where, even when it isn’t their turn, every player is engaged and talking. If we simplify and say that the point of board games is to give people a combined social experience, it’s hard to come up with any game that better accomplishes this goal.

Conclusion

Lately, I’ve become convinced that the games I need to design aren’t “elegant” or “strategic”, but truly unique experiences on their own. When someone gets up from this kind of game, they don’t quietly shuffle the experience into their mental file drawer – it sticks with them. It makes them smile for the rest of the day.

Cosmic Encounter is something unique and amazing. After a game, I don’t say to myself “I played a board game”; I say “I played a game of Cosmic Encounter”. The aliens and their interactions will remain with me for a long time. More than anything, it’s this kind of experience I want to create and this kind of game that will inform my design.

 

Me Design Board Game, Use Words Good

Anyone who’s played a good Eurogame with a badly translated manual knows that solid writing is a small but crucial part of a tabletop game. Most discussion on the topic is about clear and concise rules explanations; this is fair enough, as communication of complex game topics is difficult and very important. But I wanted to delve a little more into language as a thematic and illustrative tool. Using interesting and descriptive vocabulary in your game is a great way to make it more memorable, and even a way to help your players understand how your game operates.

Be Interesting

Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn is an interesting game with a gorgeous graphic design aesthetic. However, it also has incredibly vague language. You summon “Units” with “Battle Advantage” and place “Status Tokens” and “Exhaustion Tokens” on them: Not words that should really refer to the clash of sinister wizard Highlanders. It also uses “Discard” to refer both to cards being sent from your hand to the discard pile and to your units being ripped to bloody ribbons, which is sort of suboptimal if you’re trying to build impact. In all, it could really use a vocabulary touch-up.

Being colorful with your game’s vocabulary accomplishes several things at the same time: It makes your game stand out from a field of competitors, helps illustrate your theme, and can indicate how a particular component is supposed to work. As an example, let’s go over some of the ways people have described “turning a card sideways to show you’ve used it for the turn”, and how it supports that particular game:

  • “Tap”: This term is associated with Magic: The Gathering primarily because of A) Magic’s dominance of the cultural headspace and B) copyright. It’s not incredibly descriptive, but I do like that it lends a vague feeling of high fantasy to the game: You’re drawing power from something, whether it’s a land, creature, or artifact.
  • “Exhaust”: The World of Warcraft TCG uses this, among others. As prevalent as the term is, it’s not particularly descriptive and acts as the game design equivalent of bunting. WoW could have benefitted from changing the term to something from the game it’s based on, though I never played WoW so I don’t have suggestions. “Put On Cooldown”, perhaps?
  • “Kneel”: My gold standard for game vocabulary comes from Fantasy Flight’s Game of Thrones LCG. You can easily remember what it means after hearing it once and it perfectly encapsulates the tone of the series. The characters you control aren’t mindless beings you summon to work for you, they’re grudging subjects showing obeisance to your iron fist. It lends the game a lot of flavor and makes you feel like a badass for rotating a bunch of cardboard rectangles 90 degrees.
  • “Boot”: Doomtown Reloaded makes you “boot” your assorted cowpokes in order to do things. I have mixed feelings about this one: It’s creative and thematic, but “boot” as a verb doesn’t immediately make me think of using a resource like the previous three. That said, anyone who’s invested enough into your ghost cowboy card game to buy a copy is going to quickly get used to it.

You can also use weird terms to make a particular resource or component stand out to your players. If you sat down to Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar for the first time and I told you that the resources to collect in the game included wood, stone, gold, and CRYSTAL SKULLS, you’d immediately know which is the most valuable.

I’ve also used vocabulary just to add a touch of flavor to my games. In Happy Daggers, my Shakespearean swordfighting game, you select from a number of sword moves to use for each turn, like “Thrust”, “Dodge”, and “Parry”. One of the cards was originally called “Taunt”, but in the interest of theme, I changed it to “Bite Thumb” near the end of development. It made the flavor of the card a little more obscure, but all the players who understood the reference smiled.

But Not Too Interesting

Obviously, you can overdo things and flood your players with strange terms that are hard for them to remember. This can cause a great deal of confusion and slow down games.

My go-to example here is Elysium, an otherwise excellent game about drafting and assembling sets of cards of like color or value. However, in an attempt to inject flavor into an otherwise dry Euro, the designers inserted a huge number of Greek mythological terms in place of common mechanics. A set is a “legend”, and you don’t create one, you “write” one. You have a “Domain” and an “Elysium” zone (which, to be fair, is the title of the game) and there are special cards that belong to the cult of the Eleusis.

When playing Elysium, I found that all the players, myself included, would ignore the majority of these terms and just use whatever sprang to mind naturally (“Snake” for “Eleusis”, for instance). Where it became a problem is when it would use the official names of things on the cards themselves and I would find myself re-explaining concepts during the middle of gameplay. It didn’t completely ruin the gameplay, but it did feel a little unfair when someone didn’t understand an effect.

Players ignoring your fancy terms and using whatever they’re used to is an indicator that you need to change them. On the bright side, it’s a very obvious indicator that change is needed, which makes the problem a lot easier to solve. Another good way to tell that your vocabulary might not work is if you yourself keep forgetting all your terms. As much as it can pain you to change “Cyber-Neon Factory Manager” back to “meeple”, sometimes sacrifices have to be made.

Conclusion

Even though it may not seem like it in a field filled with gussied-up mathematical systems, good, memorable writing absolutely has its place in board games. By paying attention as carefully to the way you write your games as you do to what you write about, you can create a more wonderful experience.

Before I finish this column, by the way, I wanted to address something tangentially related: 90% of board game Kickstarters referring to their game as “fast-paced” and/or “frantic”. If your game is in real-time and leads to players accidentally punching each other, go ahead and use those terms! Otherwise, they’re verbal static occupying a screen desperate for space and they need to be replaced with something more descriptive. If you’ve gotten this far, don’t let bland language stop you from going all the way.