In Defense of the Meta

Keith Burgun is a game designer, and like most game designers, he has some very strong opinions. One of his most famous articles discusses asymmetric gameplay, especially gameplay where the asymmetric powers are chosen before the beginning of the game (like choosing a character in Street Fighter). More specifically, he intensely dislikes these systems, claiming that an asymmetric game can never be truly balanced and that it limits strategic options on the part of the players.

I read this article a couple of years ago and I tried extremely hard to disagree with it. If you’re reading this, you most likely know me from my work on Magic: The Gathering (or you’re a personal friend who saw me share this on Facebook, thank you!), and Cosmic Encounter is my favorite game, so obviously I’m fond of asymmetry. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that he was right to an extent. Asymmetry, and the concept of a “metagame” where you pick a character or build a deck before beginning your games, bring very little to the table strategically and can often make games that are supposed to have high stakes feel flat.

But that doesn’t mean that asymmetry is useless – in fact, outside of the realm of strategy it serves many valuable purposes.

Onboarding

A common response to Burgun’s article is that using asymmetric player powers makes an easier learning experience because it sections off game elements so new players only have to master part of it to play competently; for example, in fighting games, a player can choose to practice a single character over and over again instead of learning the ins and outs of the whole roster. Burgun’s response to this argument is that achieving true understanding of the game system requires players to know what all the characters can do in detail anyway. Though this counterargument is sound, it doesn’t take into account the amount of information a player needs to retain at the same time, which asymmetry can significantly alleviate.

Even in games with low asymmetry like Chess, the sheer number of possible moves is so high that players beyond absolute beginners parcel them into typical opening, midgame, and endgame tactics. High-level gameplay becomes less about making the right decision at the right time and more about memorizing as many possible “decisions” as you can, upon which the “right decision” will frequently be obvious depending on player skill. 

What asymmetry provides in games is the ability to only have to concentrate on a tenth or a twentieth of all of the possible moves, which, in a system with an already large enough degree of complexity, could already pose a substantial cognitive load to the average player. We’ve seen that games where all moves are available to players in every game have a high skill ceiling, but they also have a high skill floor. Not every game is going to want that, whether for commercial viability or for the sake of a more casual play community.

Relatability

People wear shirts with their favorite Magic color, favorite Street Fighter character, or favorite Pokémon…uh, pokémon. Despite Go being a game with more strategic depth than any of the three, nobody wears shirts with their favorite Go opening move.

This is because of a combination of two things: First, separating game elements into discrete packages, especially ones represented by a character or faction, allows players to pick a side they like. Second, people LOVE picking sides. I don’t know whether tribalism is something baked into human psychology or if it’s the product of a competitive society, but if you give players the option to decide between multiple distinct factions, they eat it up. I’m pretty sure a huge part of the appeal of the Harry Potter franchise is the Sorting Hat.

Games are frequently more appealing, more impactful, and better able to retain players for longer when the player can fold an element of the game into their identity. Discrete asymmetric elements, either in the form of a defined style of play or in a character or faction with a personality and visual aesthetic, go a long way into a game appealing to the heart as much as it appeals to the head.

Experiential Vigor

A while ago I wrote a post separating games into “strategic” games and “experiential” games. Strategic games are evaluated among the lines that you most commonly hear from reviewers: Is this challenging? Does it offer a lot of different lines of strategy? Can you play it repeatedly without finding a “best” strategy that makes it boring?

Experiential games, on the other hand, are judged based on whether they produced an experienceBetrayal at House on the Hillis the game I most frequently use as an example of a successful experiential game that’s fairly poor on a strategic axis: It doesn’t matter if the game is mostly about luck if it creates an engaging story about a motley crew trying to uncover the terrible secret about the house on the hill. Asymmetric character stats help with this, making the elderly professor feel like an elderly professor and the dimwitted track star feel like a dimwitted track star.

Asymmetry is very useful for experiential games because it defines a “side” or “character” in a clean way that prevents confusion. If you have every option in the game available to you at all times, it’s more likely you’ll make inconsistent choices in the name of strategy that muddy the narrative. That said, there are ways that a “side” can be developed by choices supporting like choices – for example, in Terraforming Mars, if you build projects that give you titanium, you’ll probably want to spend it on more projects that want titanium, cementing you as the “titanium strategy” for the rest of the game. But start-of-game asymmetry is a seamless way to make the player feel like they had a real identity for the entire play experience. 

Conclusion

If super-deep gameplay with a huge number of options was all it took to make a successful game, we’d all be in a room playing Tigris & Euphratesover and over again until the end of time. Games have more to offer than being able to scratch your chin and go “ah, good move,” and asymmetry is a very useful way for your game to reach these alternate goals. But be careful that you don’t create a system that’s so hard to balance, the whole thing falls flat, and consider other options than just “deal each player a power at the start of the game.” Don’t take anything for granted and discover what works best for your game!

The Tyranny of Numbers

A few months ago, I read an excellent article by Kim Foale about how victory points are often uselessly abstract within the narrative of a game, sometimes promoting a colonialist viewpoint by unconditionally rewarding morally fraught actions. I enjoyed the article, but it also made me think about the use of numbers in general – not just victory points – in tabletop games. The medium of sophisticated hobby games is still in its infancy, and one of the most telling signs is its limited vocabulary. As 3D animation could once do no more than move a few spheres and cubes, board games today are only capable of conveying systems if they can do it quantitatively. 

Math Geeks

Most of the designers that brought tabletop games into today’s renaissance had a mathematical background, most famously Dr. Reiner Knizia. Some early hobby games are explicitly throwbacks to famous mathematical problems; for example, 1998 Spiel des Jahres winner Elfenland is a gussied-up version of the traveling salesman problem.

This is all well and good, because a mathematical background gives a designer a lot of ways to make games tense, balanced, and engaging. But as theme and aesthetic gradually became more important as the board game hobby picked up in the early 2010s, holes started to appear in the seemingly impenetrable mathematical landscape of design. 

The Head And The Heart

Board games are very good at representing systems and relationships that can be easily measured. Many of the themes and mechanics of the best board games are essentially economic in measure, and track things that can be quantified. In Concordia, everything important has concrete numbers – the geographic borders of each region, the quantities of grain and cloth in the player’s possession, the amount of money required to install a trading post in Londinium. 

However, when it comes to determining the unquantifiable, board games often stumble. How can you use a pile of cardboard to measure a concept like “beauty” that each player may view differently, or a complex philosophical idea like “happiness”? Games usually either do the best they can with the tools they have (so you get games like The Pursuit of Happinesswhere “long-term happiness” is a numerical, objective thing that works the same for all people) or try to convert these concepts into something that can be measured (like Modern Art’s artist popularity). Neither really captures the concepts the theme tries to encompass.

These problems are not inherent ones to tabletop games; they exist because designers as a community haven’t yet found ways to metaphorically convey these thorny concepts to the players. In much the same way, video games are just now beginning to figure out how to tell stories that don’t look similar to movies, and Internet media is slowly exploring the space available to it with works like Jon Bois’ 17776.

Measuring the Unmeasurable

Just because unquantifiable systems in board games are rare and in their infancy doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. Let’s look at a few of them.

The most common qualitative system in board games is the impress-the-judge system popularized by Apples to ApplesCards Against Humanity, and Stand Back, Citizen!. You can’t objectively measure “humor” or “suitability” for fuzzy concepts such as words, so a player is chosen to arbitrate with the understanding that their judgment will be biased. This is pretty narrow design space to explore, and many of the innovations within the genre are more based on how you construct your answers instead of who decides the victor. A few games have tried getting most of the table to vote, like Quiplash and The Champion of the Wild, but having all players simultaneously perform a fiddly action that often requires point markers is cumbersome without digital intervention. 

One of the most interesting forms of non-number based mechanical resolution is the simple horror RPG Dread, where all skills are measured via Jenga tower. Whenever you want to do something that’s not assured, simply pull and place a brick from the tower – if it falls, your character is eliminated, whether they got torn apart by werewolves or realized they had to go teach a class. This is a way of expressing a feeling in a way that is neither numerical or based on player opinion, and it does a great job of conveying the tension of a horror movie – you know something awful is going to happen but you don’t know exactly when. 

For a less thematic and more strategic example, Treasure Island elevates the math conversation from arithmetic to geometry. The win condition of the game is delightfully simple – draw a circle around your miniature, and if you nail the exact location of the treasure, you’ve outwitted Long John Silver! By mostly eschewing numbers and relying more on physical locations and shapes, Treasure Island possesses a rare viscerality and impact that makes a huge impression on first-time players.

Conclusion

In order for tabletop games to take their next step artistically, they need to explore the mechanical and thematic options available in a craft format where not everything has to be determined numerically. I am certainly not going to swear off numbers completely – they’re too valuable to cut away just because I want to be a contrarian – but as I continue my design career I will be keeping an eye out for ways for people to win that don’t necessarily involve accounting. 

Scaling Food Chain

About a year and a half ago I became acquainted with Korean reality television show The Genius, which quickly became my favorite TV show of all time. I had already enjoyed elimination-based shows like The Amazing Race (which I’ve written about before) as a guilty pleasure, but The Genius cut out all the unnecessary gristle – the drama, the discomfort, the weirdly personal grudges – and replaced them with juicy strategy.

The games on each episode varied in quality, some of them trivially solvable and some of them incredibly deep. (One of them was literally just the game No Thanks). My favorite of them all was a social deduction game called “Food Chain,” where players draw the roles of different animals, each with their own powers, habitats, and win conditions, and do their best to make it to the end of the game without dying.

I’ve wanted to run Food Chain myself, but getting exactly 13 people to play it would be prohibitive. So why not scale it down?

Well, “why not” is because Food Chain’s interlocking roles make it almost impossible to scale it down without unbalancing it. This article explores this issue in depth.

If you aren’t familiar with Food Chain, I’ve prepared a companion article that goes over the rules. You may want to keep it open in a separate window.

The Problem

Much like a real ecosystem, if you remove one species from the ecosystem of Food Chain, the whole thing collapses. Some of the roles, like the Crow, seem extraneous to the main puzzle of predators and prey each trying to survive, but secretly represent key resources to other roles. Here’s some of the issues lurking beneath the surface of Food Chain that make it so hard to rescale:

  • For predator roles like the Lion, player count is a resource. If there are fewer players, it will be less likely for a predator to be able to meet their feeding requirements, so life will be significantly harder for them.
  • The Sky represents an asymmetric benefit on behalf of the Eagle and similar bird roles. If a bird is removed, it makes life significantly harder for the Eagle, who now has to leave the Sky more often and dodge the Lion and Crocodile.
  • Every role cares about every other role, both for predator/prey reasons and for more nuanced ones like habitat or opposing victory conditions.

The Approaches

Here’s some approaches to scaling Food Chain down to a manageable 8 or 9 players, in roughly the order I thought of them.

Trim extraneous roles

As mentioned, some of the roles just sort of…exist on the fringes. The Crow doesn’t really have much to do with the game, the Mouse and Plover are “nice to haves” instead of “have to haves”, and the Chameleon’s only purpose, on its face, is to mix things up a bit.

But as soon as I thought about a Food Chain without these roles, I realized: there are no extraneous roles! Cutting the Plover would make life significantly harder for both the Crocodile and the Eagle (who can eat the Plover if it goes to the Sky), removing the Chameleon would make it trivial for predators to avoid the Snake, and removing any prey animal makes the Four Stooges (otter/deer/rabbit/mallard) more likely to die, making starvation at the end of the round due to indestructible prey animals exponentially more of a concern.

Remove predator/prey roles symmetrically

This approach focuses on maintaining the predator:prey ratio by taking out both roles at roughly the same rate. The current ratio is 4:9, so if I were to remove, say, the hyena, I’d also want to remove two prey, perhaps the chameleon and the crow. 

The issue with this is that every predator except the Lion also counts as prey to animals further up on the food chain, so if we remove the Eagle and some other roles, the Crocodile and Lion are significantly more disadvantaged than the prey animals, who know have fewer adversaries and a higher chance to make them starve to death. 

Remove prey and make predators less hongry

You can avoid some of the issues of the game becoming too difficult for predators if you change their win condition requirements while removing some of the extraneous prey animals like the Crow. For example, the Lion only has to eat 3 out of 4 rounds instead of every round.

While this is more likely to create a lower player count game with roughly the same balance than simply chopping away roles, the “knobs” that you have to adjust are pretty meager. You can change predators’ eating requirements, but getting a whole extra round where you don’t need to eat can make the game less stressful and therefore less fun on the whole, and there’s no granularity to this adjustment. (The game’s complex enough so that’s fine.)

Change the roles entirely

 What if the food pyramid was entirely different? Different roles would be used in different player counts, and maybe even different habitats. Instead of the current Lion-Mouse-Hyena triangle we have now, we could have a different apex predator with different needs, powers, and adversaries. We could also eliminate the Sky entirely, or make it so that animals can access it more easily (by jumping really high?). We could even change the number of rounds.

But at what point does this game stop being Food Chain and start being Food Chain 2? If the attack mechanic is the only thing that stays the same from player count to player count, Food Chain with 8 players and Food Chain with 13 are as much the same game as Clueand Parcheesi.

The Solution

Here is my galaxy brain solution to solving the scalability issues of Food Chain: Maybe there isn’t a perfect way. Does a game need to have the same balance and gameplay experience for every player count?

At some level, you want to know that when you bring a game to the table, you’re going to roughly know what you’re getting into. Some games, like Gloomhavenand Sentinels of the Multiverse, put a lot of effort into making the lowest player count feel as challenging as the highest player count.

But with others, you’re going to have a wildly different time depending on how many people you’re playing with. Libertaliaand 6 Nimmt!are tense mechanisms of risk and bluffing at 3-4 players and gradually become more of a lunatic circus where nothing matters as more people arrive to complicate things. Roll for the Galaxy at 2 players involves hard-reading your opponent’s plans and jamming your hand into them, while at 5 players it mostly involves doing your own thing and occasionally benefitting from your opponent choosing to develop technology.

And frankly, social deduction games are both the most likely to feel different at different counts and the most likely to have a huge range of player counts, topping off at 8-10 players. With some of these, it can become trivial for one side or the other to win – in A Fake Artist Goes to New York, for example, the fake artist is extremely likely to win at high player counts, but players still get a lot of fun out of the game’s base mechanic of one-stroke-at-a-time drawing.

Put Down That Controller And Go Outside And Go Back Inside And Pick Up That “Stand Back, Citizen!” Deck!

Why would you ever see a play? Movies are more affordable, have higher budgets, can be seen anywhere, and let you eat snacks in the theater. 

Most arguments for the productivity of seeing Our Town over Die Hard are based on intangibles – that visual metaphor is more possible in theatre, that you’re experiencing the magic with real actors in real time, that certain abstractions of time and character are available. How accurate this is, and how much weight it carries, depends on the individual, but these are the most common arguments. 

The competition between board games and video games has a similar dynamic. Video games are more portable than board games, and (depending on your buying habits) easier to purchase cheaply. They have animation and sound design, and the computer behind the game allows for complex calculations and radical mechanics that humans can’t do by hand. I’ve certainly heard arguments, with some validity to them, that any scoring-track based game would be better accomplished on a tablet. So in this, too, we must turn to intangibles*.

One of the most common intangible arguments for the benefit of board games over video games is that they create a more social atmosphere than sitting in front of a TV. I’ve found that to be true myself, but I didn’t want to state a claim without exploring why. In this article, I will detail a few reasons why I believe board games are often more social than video games.

*For a designer, board games have many concrete advantages. For example, it is much cheaper to produce a board game, and you don’t have to know how to code, animate, or compose music. But this is about players.

I Demand Your Attention!

The first reason is more a quirk of design than something inherent to the two media: The vast majority of multiplayer video games are played in real time, while the vast majority of board games are turn-based or otherwise broken up by pauses.

In a real-time game, your attention is inevitably drawn to the game instead of the people playing it. You can’t afford to not think about the game for too long, so while there may be some conversation, much of your mental effort goes to winning the game. 

When astonishing moments happen in a real-time game, you don’t get a chance to celebrate it. If you’re playing, say, Street Fighter, and you parry your opponent’s entire Chun-Li super, the game is still going aftewards unless that cool moove instantly ended the match. Not even “ended the game”; unless you can take a break to appreciate what a good move you just did, Street Fighter’s merciless announcer will make you go on to round 2.

Pace of Play

This theory doesn’t fully hold up under scrutiny, because there are board games in real time (Magic Maze) and turn-based multiplayer video games (Pokémon). The underlying mechanism that makes video games less accomodating to social interaction is a bit subtler: The pace of a tabletop game is determined by the group as a whole, while the pace of a video game is determined by the program.

As an example, let’s take the game Quiplash, an impress-the-judge game played on phones. Quiplash is a very well-constructed game, and its questions are more consistently funny than any other of the numerous party games I’ve tried. However, the results of these funny questions don’t necessarily generate as much impact from the players as they could, because even if an answer is so funny the whole room is laughing for a minute straight, the game skips merrily onward to the next question, cutting off the reaction that the previous one might have deserved.

When an exciting or funny moment happens in a game where progress is determined manually, the players can stop for as long as they want until they mutually feel it’s time to move on. When progress is determined by a computer arbiter, it can diminish a moment of excitement that might have been developing for most of the game. 

Communication

For the third reason, we can look at the exception that proves the rule: Video games that are successful in engendering communication among a group of players. The best example is the infamous co-op game Overcooked. In Overcooked, players are chefs attempting to fill a rapid series of food orders by chopping ingredients, assembling meals, and washing dishes; levels include gimmicks such as cooking on two moving trucks, in a haunted castle, or in the hot lava level that is legally obligated to appear in every video game.

The secret of Overcooked’s success as a social game is that it is impossible to win without in-person communication. Orders fill up fast enough that the only way to keep up is for players to work together to expedite the cooking, serving, and dishwashing process, and the only way for everyone to coordinate effectively enough is to talk. 

Normally, the demands of video games outweigh the ability of players to talk to each other, but because role division is such a critical part of Overcooked, the rapid pace of play actually encourages the players to interact. And this is the main difference between it and many other games, even party games: Talking to other people is part of the flow of play, whereas in many other cases it’s a distraction from winning.

In board games, interacting with other players is a distraction, but unless they’re deep in thought and you interrupted them, distractions are forgiveable. It’s mostly when arbitrated by a computer that taking your mind off the game for even a short period of time can lead to big problems.

Conclusion

Despite the ubiquity of digital games, board games have experienced a renaissance over the last decade, growing significantly both in number of hobbyists and in the number of quality games. There must be a reason for this, even if that reason is an intangible, and this post was my way of trying to puzzle out reasons people choose to manually adjust VP totals instead of letting the Nintendo box do it for them.

Guardrail Safety With Professor Geist

Since the 1940s, the humble guardrail has protected drivers all over the world from themselves and each other. This critical piece of highway infrastructure helps prevent deadly head-on crashes, and comes in a variety of styles depending on the needs of your transport system. For the rest of this article, I will go into detail on the history and uses of guardrails.

Just kidding. But did you know that games have guardrails too, and they’re just as important? Only instead of preventing you from dying in a fiery car crash, they prevent you from being frustrated for 90 minutes.

The Perils of Leonardo da Vinci’s Advertising Budget

The game that inspired me to write this article, ironically, is one that has a significant lack of guardrails: The Princes of Florence.

Princes of Florence is an auction game with some tile-laying elements. Players bid on various buildings, landscape features, and clowns to get better work from the artists in their colony, which they can then sell for more money. What’s significant about the game, however, is that when you sell a work, you can choose any ratio of victory points and cash that you want, and that this is by far the most common way to get VP.

So although this means there are a lot of ways to play the game, it’s also very easy to shoot yourself in the foot. If you don’t grant yourself enough money after selling a work, you won’t be able to catch up with the other players or the slowly increasing point minimum for works. If you aren’t VP-greedy enough, you will never be able to catch up to your opponent. The fact that this game was made in 2000, when games were significantly less user-friendly, is apparent in the lack of mechanics that constrain players’ choices in favor of dangerous liberty.

The Goal of Guardrails

A game’s “guardrails” are its mechanics that allow players to remain in the game with the ability to take meaningful actions until the end. What this actually means depends on the type of game.

An example of a game with good guardrails: In Concordia, a slow start can price you out from building trading houses. Fortunately, the Prefect card (which allows you to get any good available on the board) and Mercator card (which lets you exchange money for goods and vice versa) mean you’re never in a position where it’s impossible for you to participate in the game’s economy. Concordia especially demonstrates the nuance of a good guardrail mechanic, because the Prefect card rewards players who built all over the board while allowing someone who needs two cloth to get back into the game their out.

Strategy games construct their guardrails in many different ways. Here’s just a few of them:

  • Tzolk’in: You need corn (currency) to place workers. If you don’t have enough corn on your turn, you can lose VP to beg for enough corn to continue. This normally accrues a penalty, but if you’ve gotten into such a bad situation that you can literally take no moves without begging for corn, the gods (and designer) take pity on you and you can get the corn for free.
  • Galaxy Trucker: The “Ship Insurance” mechanic caps the amount of credits you lose at the end of a round for your ship’s components getting blown up.
  • Ra: You always have four opportunities to win auctions each round. Having no high-numbered Sun tiles means you’re less likely to win large pots, not that you can’t belly up to the table.

Some very common guardrails are making actions more valuable in later rounds (Modern Art) and keeping rounds entirely separate so that an early mistake isn’t a disaster (Libertalia and the aforementioned Galaxy Trucker). 

Designing Guardrails

Guardrails have a lot in common with catchup mechanics, but the big difference is that a guardrail doesn’t care if you can’t win the game anymore: In the games mentioned above, you can easily put yourself in a situation where victory is wildly unlikely. A guardrail mostly cares that you can’t play the game anymore. In a sense, it’s more about preventing pseudo-player elimination.

If your game has any kind of economy, try to notice in playtests when players get locked into non-action. Is there a situation where a player has no equity that can be turned into resources somehow? In that case, consider adding an emergency action (like discarding cards for money in Terraforming Mars) that can allow someone to claw their way back into empire-building.

If you’re building a combat game, can someone never fight back against a vastly superior opponent, but at the same time be able to keep playing the game in a futile struggle? You may consider making the game more gentle, so this player still has a chance, or more brutal, so the game’s over more quickly. As a case study, Nexus Ops’ guardrail is that the method of gaining victory points is through individual achievements instead of board dominance, so whether you’ve conquered the board is only sometimes relevant to whether you’re able to win.

Essentially, assume your players will make the worst decisions available to them and see what situation that gets them in. Can they still laugh and have fun, or is it a frustrating grind? Try to skew your game more towards the former.

Conclusion

 This article was mostly written as a historical examination, as guardrails are so common in modern board games it’s the exceptions (Food Chain Magnate, for example) that are notable. However, situations involving guardrails or lack thereof appear frequently in early builds, and recognizing when you need to create a floor for how badly a player can do is an important step in the development process. If this article helps make those situations more visible, it’s a success.

The Most Beautiful Cards, Part 1

It’s the little things that make a difference.

The beauty of a game’s design can sometimes be condensed into something as small as a single card, a tiny packet of information that revolutionizes the way it – and games in general – are played.

In tribute to Mike Selinker’s blog The Most Beautiful Things, I am writing a series about the most beautiful cards in tabletop games. Here’s the first installment, with three cards that made an outsized difference in the games they represent.

Libertalia: Brute

The mechanic at the heart of Libertalia– that everyone gets the same randomized hand of pirates – is genius and elegant, and would stand alone as a brilliant design innovation no matter what pirate cards it ended up using. But without the Brute, Libertaliawould be a lot more easy to parse, and a lot more polite.

Most of the other player-versus-player interaction in Libertalia is various shades of passive-aggressive. The Beggar steals money from the person with the highest-ranked pirate, the Monkey dumps cursed Incan gold on the player to your left, Granny Wata cancels other Grannies Wata, etc. Not the Brute. When you play the Brute, you are actively choosing to punch another player in the face.

The best part about the Brute is that it’s a fairly low number in the booty-acquiring order and does nothing else of value. So you only play it when you really feel like saying “screw you” to whomever you suspect is going to be greedy and go for the treasure.

No, wait, the best part about the Brute is when multiple players play them at the same time and it looks like this:

Wait, wait, wait, the best part about the Brute is guessing when your opponents are playing theirs and playing a low card to counter it – or better yet, a Parrot so you can play the exact right card to get first pick of the treasure without getting punched overboard.

Hold on, the bestpart about the Brute is holding onto yours for two rounds, until everyone’s forgotten that there’s a Brute left in play, until you punch out the opponent’s Captain they were relying on to win the game and smugly help yourself to a 1-point barrel.

I could probably find more things that are the best about the Brute, they just never stop! A cracking good card.

Dead of Winter: Sparky the Stunt Dog

Dead of Winter is a grim co-op game about the last vestiges of humanity desperately clinging to life as they’re threatened by both the walking dead and the bitter cold. If Plaid Hat had thrown it out there without any levity to it, the experience would be so heavy and personal that only the hardiest players could stomach multiple plays. But varying the tone on the “crossroads” cards could backfire, creating goofy moments when they aren’t called for.

But what if all of the crossroads cards could be goofy in the right context? Here to the rescue is Sparky the Stunt Dog.

Sparky questions the unspoken assumption of crossroads cards: That they are all performed by humans. Sparky erects a barricade against the walking dead! Sparky researches the undead plague! Sparky plays some Johnny Cash on the guitar! Good dog, Sparky!!!

Through just one card, the tone of the game can dramatically shift. And the brilliant thing is, for those groups who want a consistent tone, it’s as easy as putting Sparky back in the box during setup.

Cosmic Encounter: Negotiate

Brute and Sparky are cards that elevate their respective games from “decent” to “great”, but the humble Negotiate card is what changed Cosmic Encounter from a run-of-the-mill space combat game into one of the most influential – and most impactful – games of all time.

The Negotiate card does several vital things. First, it increases the variance of each player’s hand strength in combat. This seems like a bad thing off the cuff, as more variance means more instances where player skill can’t affect the outcome of a round, but Cosmic’s strength is, as described by the box, that it’s a game of infinite possibilities. It’s the times when you have a grip of 5 Negotiates that make you appreciate the times you have three double-digit Attacks.

Second, it provides an element of player interaction that goes beyond “shoot each other with pew pew guns”. Cosmic’s emphasis on alliances, going so far as to allow multiple players to win the game at the same time, is enhanced by the ability to create mutually beneficial deals.

Finally, and most importantly, it creates gameplay that isn’t strictly fettered by rules. What players do or say during negotiations is pretty much anything goes – for example, you can claim you have an attack 40, offer to trade it, then grimace and decide against it when you really never had an attack 40 in the first place. 

Narrative Equity: The Direct-To-DVD Sequel

Note: Regular articles are still on hiatus. Depending on what happens in the coming months, I may or may not be able to continue it. That said, enjoy this article!

Last week, Magic: The Gathering head designer Mark Rosewater wrote about a generic game design tool he termed “narrative equity” in his weekly column. I found the topic immensely interesting, both because it aligns to a great degree with my thoughts on impact and because it codifies an aspect of design that people mostly attempted to add through instinct.

I wanted to use this article as a commentary on the methods Rosewater suggests to generate narrative equity–primarily through the lens of designing for standalone games–and discuss a few additional points that weren’t brought up in the article.

Note: You should probably read Rosewater’s article before mine.

  1. Create components with enough flexibility that players can use them in unintended ways

This is essentially “providing players with tools for lateral thinking,” which is a significant part of building impact at a mechanical level as well. The ability to take a component and reuse it in a way that’s uniquely yours makes for a positive, memorable experience.

Surprisingly, a game doesn’t need to be complex to be flexible. Hanabiis a very restrained game where the only method of communication is to indicate which cards in a player’s hand are a certain number or a certain color. However, you can use this to communicate a great number of things, like “you can safely discard these cards,” “play this next,” “wait on playing these but don’t discard them,” and “for the love of God, don’t do that thing I know you were thinking of doing”.

As you might be able to figure out from this, a “component” could just as easily be a game rule or mode of setup, and doesn’t necessarily have to be limited to physical objects.

  1. Create open-ended components that can be mixed and matched in unforeseen ways

This is a common feature of trading card games, of course, but they’re also present in the ever-popular “impress the judge” genre. As I mentioned in The Arty of Party, party games are primarily tools for comedy, and comedy is built out of people doing the unexpected. When building Stand Back, Citizen!, I made sure that all of the nouns, powers, and crises generated funny results when used together so players would create new superpowers every time they played.

  1. Design unbounded challenges that allow the ability to create memorable moments

This is something that is much easier to achieve within the boundaries of Magic’s ruleset than in a standalone game. Magic is a fairly interactive game, and its mana system gates players from doing anything too ridiculous until their opponent is able to answer it. Thus, while ridiculous things like the Chameleon Colossus example Rosewater mentions in the article occur every so often, it doesn’t happen enough that a player who knows the trick could style on newer players every time.

The other benefit of Magic’s system is that when something absurd happens, the game usually ends quickly. Make a 5000/5000 creature? You win. Deal a trillion damage? You win. Draw your entire deck? Okay, you might lose that one. Even in a circumstance where meeting an unbounded challenge doesn’t result in your victory (like gaining an absurd amount of life), your opponent feels like they can concede. Under a different system, you might go off when the game’s half over, and everyone has to feel like you have an unreachable advantage.

Besides these issues, many systems are just too numerically fragile to justify the existence of cool unbounded challenges. But I’m not a math guy so I’ll leave it at that.

  1. Create near-impossible challenges that can become a badge of honor

This is easier to accomplish in some games than others. Many co-op games offer very challenging difficulty levels that provide these “bragging rights” challenges by themselves. While it has the problem that everyone on the table has to be on board to attempt the challenge, it also means that everyone is invested in it and will rejoice should they succeed.

  1. Create alternate ways to win

“Shooting the moon” is a tried-and-true design tool that can be incredibly fun if implemented correctly. Some players, when they see an opportunity to score big if they jump through enough hoops, will beeline in on it and won’t regret trying even if it fails. That said, the boundary of difficulty has to be balanced carefully: If it’s too near-impossible, players will mostly ignore it, but if it’s too easy, it won’t be narratively engaging.

One of my favorite uses of the high-risk, high-reward strategy is the map booty tile in Libertalia. One or two maps do nothing, but three together are worth a whopping 12 points. Collecting map tiles means you’ll often forgo goods and jewels, which are worth less but are far safer, and if in the chaos of the game you can’t get all three, it’ll cost you dearly. In a group of 5 players, three map tiles are acquired  about once or twice per game, but the effort required is so huge it’s still massively exciting if you can pull it off.

In the right game, effects that outright say “you win the game” (or lose, or tie) are a great method of generating narrative equity. Nothing quite makes one’s eyes bug out of their head as seeing those four beautiful words out of nowhere. Sentinels of the Multiverse uses this sparingly, but when it does, it uses it flavorfully (A self-destruct sequence, a helicopter rotor for a flying fortress that causes everyone to fall to their deaths, a Bat-Mite-esque imp villain) and sets up the possibility for great stories.

  1. Allow players opportunities to interact with other people where the outcome is based on the interaction

This is a great idea, and a keystone of some of the best psychology-based games like CodenamesDixit, and Chinatown. One of the keys that Rosewater doesn’t mention, however, is that the same opportunities should have different outcomes. One of the big selling points of Cosmic Encounter is that players can negotiate with each other in a relatively freeform structure, and penalties for not coming up with a deal require them to actually interact. However, among less experienced players, trades end up being the same thing almost every time: A colony for a colony or, when that doesn’t work, meaningless cards for meaningless cards.

If you have a player interaction component in your game, but it’s very obvious what the right and wrong decisions are, players aren’t going to feel like they have the ability to think laterally to exploit a situation that would otherwise be a good opportunity for narrative equity.

  1. Give players the ability to customize, allowing them opportunities for creativity

Obviously, a standalone game can’t hope to achieve the level of customizability Magic and other trading card games boast. But there are ways to make players feel like the choices they make and the experiences they go through are uniquely theirs.

In games with asymmetric player powers, my rule of thumb is that there should be at least one and a half times more powers than the maximum player count. (Thus, in a 4-player game there should be 6 powers.) This way, assuming players get to choose their roles and they aren’t assigned to them, you can feel like your abilities were what you wanted and not what was left to you.

Even in a game where the design doesn’t allow for asymmetric powers, simply having distinct player colors or factions can help. Epic Spell Wars has a fair number of different wizards in each of its three boxes; even though they have no gameplay effect, the wizard you choose helps cement the narrative and complement your individual style.

Narrative Equity And Theme

The theme of your game is also an important way of assuring that players have more opportunities to get stories out of it. Generally, the more mechanics you have to explain, the less interested your audience will be. (This is partially why it’s hard to tell a story about your RPG campaign in an interesting way, because a lot of what happens is couched behind dice rolls that interrupt the narrative.) So a game like chess, which nails the first four numbers on the list, has lower narrative equity because the meaning of what you’re doing is buried underneath layers of theory.

Thus, the games with the most narrative equity are ones where the theme is so seamlessly resonant with the gameplay that you barely have to mention what gameplay actions you took. If I told you a story about how I played a Betrayal at House on the Hill game where I played a jock that kicked an alien hypno-spaceship with his powerful legs until it exploded, I wouldn’t have to interject with what my dice pool was or how well I rolled for the story to make sense.

Conclusion: Narrative Equity And Impact

Reading Rosewater’s description of narrative equity made me realize how broad my definition of “impact” is. An impactful game doesn’t necessarily have to have the players come away from it with stories to tell; it just has to leave an impression in their minds. Thus, a game like Jenga, which proceeds in much the same way every game, is still impactful because of how much the idea of it remains with you when you leave the table.

Both impact and narrative equity have their uses, much like how a bread knife and a petit knife have their uses while cooking. Narrative equity has the benefit of being a significantly more focused term, which allows a designer to add it in a more concrete, methodical way. I hope that narrative equity makes its way into the general design vernacular – entwining the psychological and the mechanical is the best way for game design to move forward as a craft.

All Of My Great Designer Search 3 Essays

As most of you reading this know, I was accepted into the finals of Wizards of the Coast’s Great Designer Search. The first step towards doing that was writing some essays.

Today, I was informed that WotC will not be posting the essays on their website and that it was fine for me to share them, so here they are.

These won’t be particularly comprehensible unless you know how to play Magic, so I apologize. Feel free to ask me for meanings of stuff.

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How To Win Cutthroat Kitchen

Recently, I’ve been watching the Food Network game show Cutthroat Kitchen, a sinister variation of Chopped where contestants bid on sabotages to give the other players during cooking. However, I get frustrated when I see contestants, much better cooks than I am with the ability to change their plans on the fly, make horrible strategic decisions that lead to their self-destruction. I would like to analyze the strategy of Cutthroat Kitchen from a game design perspective and give you the tips and tricks on how to walk out of there with slightly more dignity than the other three.

Part 1: Threat Evaluation

In terms of game classification, Cutthroat Kitchen is a combined take-that/auction game. What’s interesting about it is that contestants bid for sabotages with the money they otherwise would take home. This makes the strategy different from a hobby game, where you don’t care by what margin you win, and even from poker, where you win by completely eliminating every other player. If you scrape through by the skin of your teeth in Cutthroat, you will see measurable losses.

So then, we actually have two goals here. The first and more important goal is that you win. The second, less important but still requiring thought, is that you win while retaining as much money as possible. This is where proper threat evaluation comes in.

In most games, you evaluate threats based on your opponent’s abilities; in Cutthroat, self-reflection on what would be the most difficult for you is more important, especially because cooking talent and experience are intangibles and not as easy for you to see in an opponent as, say, Risk armies. Thus, you need to know what would hurt you the most personally.

Speaking broadly, I would say that weird equipment is the easiest to work with, followed by physical restraints, time-wasters and then by crummy ingredients. It’s rare to see rounds where someone gets assigned weird equipment and isn’t able to work out some ingenious method to cook everything. (The tiny kitchen is an exception and must be avoided at all costs.) Restraints have the most variety in how nasty they are, but generally have workarounds. Time-wasters depend on the assignment and how well you’ve managed your time up until that point; correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe they generally appear mid-round and so you’ll have a good sense as to whether it would be okay or not. Bad ingredients will generally torpedo your entire game plan and are usually the scariest in an episode.

Part 2: Resource Management

How much money with which to bid depends on how late in the game it is, how many sabotages you’ve already been assigned, and how aggressive your opponents are with driving up bids. If you’re cheeky, it might be worth it to trick an opponent into wildly overbidding on something you’d be fine receiving so they can’t match you when it really gets tough. This is most important in the final round, when you know exactly how much your opponent is able to bid and can 100% claim a sabotage through careful play. (This is true for two-player Castles of Mad King Ludwig as well.)

Besides the quality of the sabotage itself, the round number is also worth thinking about. One mistake I see frequently is a contestant blowing all their money on a sabotage during the first round, with four contestants. Beyond the obvious issue of not having money for subsequent rounds, the first round has more contestants, which means more people to get assigned the sabotage and more people who could potentially cook something worse than you.

Part 3: Table (er, Kitchen) Politics

 Once you’ve figured out what hill you’re not willing to die on, you now have to pick a victim.

The best choice is someone who’s already been sabotaged this round. This seems like a terrible idea – it makes you seem like a huge jerk – but it’s the best strategy. Only one person gets eliminated each round, so dogpiling on one person will more often lead to someone other than you getting eliminated than spreading it out. Sabotaging someone who hasn’t been sabotaged yet to “level the playing field” is pure gambler’s fallacy.

The next best choice is someone who’s sabotaged you. Cutthroat Kitchen suffers from the problem of a lot of take-that games where firing the first shot is a bad move, as the other players will then deem you an acceptable target. The reverse of this is that if someone’s already given you a sabotage, sabotaging them back won’t draw aggro from the other contestants. It’s also great TV.

Barring either of those, sabotage whoever has the most money. If you get to the finals with someone with more money than you, you’re at a disadvantage; it’s better to sculpt the competition so you have the greatest odds possible of winning at the end, where you’re the only target remaining.

Conclusion: I Am Not A Pastry Chef

 As I mentioned in my previous article about The Amazing Race, it’s important to look everywhere you can for lessons about game design. I find reality competition shows incredibly interesting because they’re simple enough for a tired person who’s not really paying attention to follow along and create gameplay along axes that are impossible for home gaming to replicate. I will probably never make an exact recreation of Cutthroat in a box, but thinking about its strategy has lead to interesting takeaways that can be used in other – less culinary – applications.

PS. I haven’t watched as much as other people, so if you think I got something wrong here please let me know.

Nyet Another Game Analysis

About a year ago, I purchased the game Nyet! from my local game store. I was interested in creating a trick-taking game that used a lot of the team communication strategies from Bridge in a more simple way, and noticed Nyet! did something similar to what I was looking into. I played several games among different game groups and found it quite fun; one friend in particular, who had a history in semi-competitive Bridge, grew quite fond of it.

However, one major problem in the endgame raised some questions with me. What’s the problem? Can it be resolved in a way that keeps the spirit of the game intact? Is it even worth solving? Read on to find out.

Overview

Nyet! is a simple, cozy game reminiscent of two retired generals arguing over the composition of the perfect lunch. Rounds are divided into two phases, where the second phase is a conventional team trick-taking game. What sets the game apart is its unique first phase, where each player uses a central grid to determine the rules and value of the round. In this section, players decide how many points each trick is worth (including the delightful setting of having tricks be worth negative points), which suits are strong, rules about discarding cards, and even who gets to be on whose team. Players can only individually decide which rules won’t appear, eventually reaching something via process of elimination; thus, the name of the game being Nyet!.

This grid segment itself is quite brilliant, and only one small part of it leads to the issues in the endgame: The fact that players change teams every round. Thus, each round, players will accumulate the same number of points as the other players on their team, but at the end of the game they will have different scores and win or lose as individuals. This, in itself, is pretty reasonable.

Here’s what makes this a problem: The game ends after a set number of rounds. If you can’t see the issue, I’ll use an example:

It is the last round of a friendly game of Nyet!. Yelena has 67 points, Astrov has 66, Sonya has 56, and Uncle Vanya has 40. During the first phase, Yelena places herself and Astrov on one team, and Sonya and Uncle Vanya on the other team.

Despite having the second-highest score up to this point, Astrov is now mathematically eliminated from winning. No matter how well his team does, Yelena will have one more point than him at the end of the game. Uncle Vanya has also been eliminated because he has fewer points than his teammate Sonya. Sonya, despite being in third at the moment, is the only player who has a chance of beating Yelena because of the team composition.

In short, the team composition of the last round in Nyet! invalidates a lot of the rest of the game.

Solutions

Now that we know what the problem is, what solutions are available?

The obvious offender is the fact that the game ends after a certain number of rounds. There’s a number of ways you can change the endgame condition while still maintaining the game’s fuctional mechanics: The easiest would be to have the game end once a player or players reach a certain number of points.

This would improve the problem, but not fix it completely. If we’re still interested in determining a single winner through a game of Nyet!, say, by having the player with the highest score win after someone hits the threshold, the problem still exists that the lower-scoring players on a team are 100% shut out of winning.

Alternatively, instead of having a set end round, you could have it partially randomized. As an example, you could have one card marking the game end in a deck of blank ones; you then shuffle them and draw one each round after a predetermined number of rounds have passed. This solves the problem a little, but it’s still pretty clumsy and could drag the game to unfun lengths.

We could also weigh player position so that you gain more points by being on a team with a player with more points, but this would add an element of player politics that doesn’t mesh with the intent of the design. Players are supposed to form teams based on the percieved strength of each others’ hands more than what arbitrary benefit they gain from a previous round.

Perhaps The Best Solution

There’s one central problem with all of these proposed solutions, and one that would be surprisingly easy to fix within the context of the game. The problem: People know what everyone’s scores are, and therefore know when they’re bound to lose.

The solution, then? Hide everyone’s scores.

This technique has worked in more complicated games like Small World to prevent people from ganging up on the first place player. In Nyet!, scores are pretty complicated, and unless you really wanted to remember everyone’s totals, hidden scores would be fairly easy to achieve. This way, even if you are mathematically eliminated in the final round, you wouldn’t know, and you could continue to enjoy a pleasant final round.

You’ll notice that this doesn’t solve the strategy of the game in any way, especially if you’re playing with a group of people who love to count cards and whatnot. The thing is, this fix is not aimed at an unsuitable game; it’s aimed at an unsuitable play experience.

Conclusion

My experiment in trying to fix Nyet!’s endgame made me reflect on my own experiences finding imperfections in my work. Sometimes, when designing a game, you’ll find a problem that you can’t solve without uprooting something else that makes your game special. And sometimes, the best you can do is try to paste over the problem in a way that will bother your players the least.

We’d all like to be perfect designers who make seamless, elegant systems, but in the end, as long as the game is challenging and fun, it’s okay if it has some clunky elements. Some problems are beyond our ability to solve, but it’s important to do your best anyway.

Incidentally, if you can think of a better way to solve the problem, please let me know on social media or by e-mail or something.