The Agony of the Big-Box Game

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

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

Promises and Deliveries

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

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

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

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

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

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

Problems and Solutions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

Retheming Incan Gold and Caylus

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

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

The Process

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

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

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

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

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

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

Example 1: Incan Gold

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Example 2: Caylus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

Trivial Pursuits

A few months ago, I purchased the game Half Truth to play with my family. The game was designed by Richard Garfield, best known for Magic: The Gathering, alongside Jeopardy! Greatest of All Time winner Ken Jennings. I enjoyed it a lot, with my only complaint being about a scoring system that was a little too complex for the mass market.

Then, a week or two ago, I discovered the TV show The Chase while I was looking for something to watch on Netflix. In The Chase, a team of three players attempts to out-trivia a trivia master and absolute unit nicknamed The Beast. While there were several varying rounds, I found myself excited, nervous, and energized throughout the entire episode – great for TV viewing, not so much when you’re trying to go to sleep. Incidentally, a revival of The Chase has been confirmed by ABC, featuring the aforementioned Ken Jennings alongside the other Jeopardy! GOAT contestants.

Both games are primarily trivia games, but possess significant press-your-luck elements as well. However, despite the narrow category in which both reside, I was struck by how they are very different from each other. Observing these games alongside each other provides us with a valuable lesson about understanding what you want your players to get out of a game.

Difficulty

Half Truth is designed to be played by everyone from preteens to grandparents, while the competitors in The Chase are all hardcore trivia junkies. So obviously, Half Truth questions should be easy and Chase questions should be difficult, right? Wrong! Half Truth is much more difficult. The secret to this seemingly odd discrepancy lies in the goals of each game.

Half Truth is a conventional game, and like all games, its goal is to challenge the player. However, there’s a fine line between “challenge” and “frustrate”, especially for trivia games where usually someone knows the answer or they don’t. Trivial Pursuit, for instance, often gets bogged down because people don’t know enough exact answers to get the right pie wedges.

Modern trivia games frequently have questions that are so difficult, they don’t expect players to get it exactly, but have rewards for approximately right answers. The widely acclaimed Wits and Wagers plays a sort of Price is Right game, where players have to bet on which of the whole table’s guesses to an answer is closest to the target number without going over. Terra and its sequel America use a map and hand out points to people who get within a certain number of spaces of the right answer.

In Half Truth‘s case, each question has six possible answers and three of them are right. Not only that, you only need to make one guess. This means that if you’re completely stumped, you can just flip a coin and you’ll probably get it right! Hooray!

…So where’s the challenge? Note that in the previous paragraph, I said you only “need to” make one guess, not that you “can” make one guess. If you feel confident enough, you can make two or three guesses. If any of them are wrong, you earn no points, but you can earn significantly more if you go above one guess. This creates a fascinating metagame angle, where you’re not only testing your knowledge, but your knowledge of your knowledge. Do you really know enough about movies, or geography, or weird European holidays, to go all in and get those extra points?

The key difference between Half Truth and The Chase is that while Half Truth challenges you to understand your own knowledge, The Chase challenges you to surpass other people’s – particularly

Vicarious Competition

The Chase, being a game show, is different from a board game because it doesn’t care at all what the people playing the game on the show feel or want – the real players are the audience at home. More specifically, The Chase wants the audience to get most of the questions so they can play along themselves.

The Chase is set up so a home audience can guess with precision how well they would do if they were in a competitor’s shoes. The gameplay is segmented into various sections, including a multiple-choice section and several “quick-fire” sections where the competitor answers questions as fast as possible. Importantly, all of these have an easy-to-follow score associated with them, so it’s easy to gauge how well you would have done if you had gotten the same questions.

This difference in design goals extends to the press-your-luck section of The Chase, as well. Each competitor earns money through quickfire questions, then The Beast offers them two different sums of money in a Deal or No Deal – style negotiation. This may seem like an afterthought in the grand scheme of the game, but it’s a great opportunity for the audience to make their own choice based on the values given. When the competitor breezes through when they could have won more money, or gets eliminated when being conservative could have pushed them towards the end, the people watching say to themselves, a bit smugly, “I wouldn’t have done that.”

The co-op nature of the show, and the presence of someone who’s an even better trivia master than all of the people who volunteered to compete, also help the audience feel smart. In the final round, The Beast has to answer many rapid-fire questions in a row, and given that he’s still human and fallible, he generally gets four to six wrong each time. If you can beat the person who gets paid to not let trivia enthusiasts win prize money, you can feel exceptional about your own trivia skills.

Returning to my previous section, this is why the questions are easy in The Chase. If they were very difficult, it would be an unapproachable competition between nerds who know more than you, but by making most of them something that most people could get, the show producers help stimulate this sense of vicarious competition.

Goals

So which of these is better? Neither. Both of them understood what their goals were and fulfilled them about equally well.

If Half Truth were played as a game show, it might have some appeal, but the questions are such stumpers even the contestants would admit that they’re guessing most of the time. The Chase can’t be played at home at all, because so much of it hinges on The Beast’s knowledge and charisma. But these are just the obvious features.

Let’s consider the active playtime of both games, for example. The Chase makes each contestant go through their own round with The Beast before the team version – this pads out the show to a full hour of airtime, but also gives the contestants more time to sweat in a one-on-one contest. This is a great idea for a TV show, where the audience isn’t playing at all, but in a tabletop game, only one player getting to play for an extensive time period is an ill-advised design decision. Half Truth has all players answering questions at the same time, a fairly standard party game setup that works well for its purposes.

The character of the press-your-luck element for each game is different as well. Gambling for more points is the core of Half Truth, with the game designed to tempt you to bet big every round. You’re also playing for fake board game points (and maybe your dignity as a trivia master), so you don’t feel bad biting off more than you can chew on occasion. You have many opportunities to try, so failing one isn’t that big a deal.

Meanwhile, The Chase‘s press-your-luck element has much higher stakes, because the contestant has to choose to undergo an easier/harder trivia gauntlet for less/more money, with elimination on the line should they fail. Unlike a traditional game, were winning by 1 point or 50 points is irrelevant, exiting The Chase with $30,000 versus $80,000 matters a lot. There’s only three points where contestants actually have to press their luck, but this rarity just makes the pressure and tension of the decision more palpable.

I could give a few more examples, but in summary, Half Truth excels at being a trivia board game, and The Chase excels at being a trivia game show. Both of them excel in this way because they knew what they were going for and constructed everything, from the format of the game to the questions themselves and even the tone, to meet these goals.

Conclusion

When you’re designing a game, it’s easy to get caught up in the trappings or in small tweaks and forget what your goal was when you started making it. However, having a desired goal or emotional reaction in mind and designing in pursuit of it makes for a much more focused game that forgoes the design clichés that don’t benefit it. I hope that by showing the different tacks that these two excellent quiz games took with their own goals in mind, you can use this as inspiration for your own thought process.

And Now…A Post About Starcraft (Sort Of)

A while ago, I discovered the blog Illiteracy Has Downsides via a link tweeted by pro Magic player Matt Sperling. Despite being about a type of game  I never play and possess only passing familiarity with (real-time strategy games, primarily Starcraft II), I found a lot of their work to be clearly written and extraordinarily insightful. If you’re a game designer of any type or genre, you’ll find some of IHD’s writing useful.

One article in particular I wanted to focus on is entitled “Why Starcraft II Feels Difficult To Play”. The article primarily discusses the real and perceived skill floor to Starcraft II, but in a tangent, brings up a term called “power mechanics” that shone a light on a key difference between video games and tabletop games: Their learning curves. This article goes into how “power mechanics” smooth out the curve to video games in a way that tabletop games often have difficulty with.

Protoss: Too Smart For Their Own Good

The IHD article defines power mechanics like this:

Let’s compare Zerg and Protoss. Zerg has lots of simple, high priority tasks – injects, spreading creep, moving overlords around, and maintaining constant production. I call the most important of these “power mechanics” – basic tasks that need to be exercised constantly and deliver a measurable, substantial boost to the player each time they’re employed. Injects and spreading creep are examples of what I’d consider “power mechanics”.

Protoss doesn’t have very many power mechanics – things players can do constantly to put themselves in a better position. The game’s design instead calls for the average Protoss player to focus on more complex tasks, such as careful placement of structures, appropriate game sense and scouting of the opponent’s composition, ensuring a unit is on hold position within their simcity, etc.

Note that “mechanics” in real-time strategy games refer to game components that rely on the player’s dexterity and execution.

To broaden this definition, a power mechanic could be any system in a competitive game that relies on mechanical execution, can be improved through practice, but that doesn’t rely on high-level strategic thinking. In fighting games, a power mechanic might be executing a combo; in MOBAs, it might be managing the flow of creeps into your lane.

The main benefit of power mechanics in video games is it gives the player something to improve that produces consistent, visible results. If I practice combos in a fighting game for a week, at the end of that week I will most likely be able to execute that combo better and feel happy about my improvement. Improving my overall strategy and ability to read my opponent is something that is much more difficult and subtler to improve, so a game with no power mechanics is one with a very steep learning curve.

As opposed to video games, where almost all have at least some kind of power mechanic as part of their gameplay, board games essentially have none. This has a lot to do with the real-time nature of most competitive video games; it’s easier to make mechanical execution challenging when you can control the necessary timing of the motion using a computer mediator. Board games are also more accessibility-concerned in that a player not being able to properly manipulate components is seen as unacceptable on the part of the game rather than a sign of the player needing to get good.

While many people, myself included, enjoy not having to repeatedly practice mechanical execution to get better at a game, it does have the downside of making improvement more difficult and less rewarding. This is a bit abstract, so let’s compare a board game and a video game to demonstrate the difference.

Doing Reps in the Lab With Reiner Knizia

The board game is Modern Art, which I chose because it’s relatively freeform, and the actual strategy has to be puzzled out over repeated plays. For those who haven’t played, it’s about buying and selling art whose value changes depending on how many cards from a particular artist have been played in the round.

The video game is Street Fighter V, both because I’ve been watching a lot of Street Fighter tournaments lately and because I used to try to be good at fighting games, so I feel more qualified to discuss the genre than MOBAs or shooter games.

The improvement process in Modern Art primarily consists of learning lessons and applying them to new situations. You’re trying to get as much money as possible and deny your opponents as much money as possible, so many of these lessons have to do with predicting profit margins on different paintings. “Paintings max out at $30 each in the first round, so bidding $31 is guaranteed to lose me money” is a lesson most players learn halfway through their first game; “Try not to end the round” and “there’s 13 paintings on average for each artist in the whole game, so if 10 have shown up in the first three rounds, they can’t come in first in the fourth” might take longer. Regardless, you advance in your level of Modern Art success by learning these big lessons.

Street Fighter V has lessons as well. The broad strategy for most characters is to force your opponent into a corner and hit them with combos until you win. You learn a “neutral” game, a corner game, and ways to escape a bad situation for whichever character you like. However, half of the challenge of Street Fighter is successfully executing these strategies. It’s not just enough to have a theory of how to pressure Urien with Cammy, once you’re put into that situation you have to actually hit buttons with the right timing, complete your combo, and maximize the damage you can get out of it. 

Training your execution is fundamentally different from learning strategy. You can go into training mode and execute your combos over and over again until you start getting them right consistently, then harvest the fruits of your labor as you get these higher-damage combos against other players. While it requires more rote practice than learning strategy, you’re also rewarded quickly and frequently as your combos become more consistently reliable.

To summarize, if you look at a theoretical graph of player improvement for Modern Art, there’s a lot of sharp increases followed by plateaus where your skill remains functionally the same, while Street Fighter‘s graph is a lot smoother of an incline.

Who Cares?

So what can we, as tabletop game designers, learn from looking at power mechanics?

The first lesson is that learning is best digested a little bit at a time. Much of what I’ve written about was achieving mastery, not competence, but even learning the basics of a complex game can be better handled by rewarding the players continually and quickly. For example, Magic Maze is in the unenviable position of having a lot of content and not allowing communication between players, and it handles this by doling out the rules one at a time throughout 15 or so short tutorial games. Most importantly, all of the tutorial games feel fun to play and satisfying to complete, meaning that even as you’re not playing with everything in the game, you’re still having a good time.

The second is to balance rewarding players for discovering new tactical alleys in your game with not punishing people too much for not getting it yet. Of course the person who understands the game better should win, theoretically, but there’s a difference between “I lost but I think I did alright” with “I got absolutely clobbered and I don’t even know what happened.” Variance can help here in a way that’s inappropriate in video games, both to make people at a higher level of strategy have to improvise and to give the less skilled player a chance at victory. Since the learning curve is more punishing for tabletop games in general, make the gameplay less so.

The third is to regularly create satisfying moments in your game that makes your players feel rewarded. Although we can’t replicate the feeling of perfectly executing a power mechanic fully, we can help reach some kind of game journey that doesn’t make the player feel like every decision is fraught with stress. With the exception of extremely tight games like Agricola, it can be helpful to have moments to “breathe” where players collect resources, rally their troops, and so on, so people don’t feel like the game is too oppressive.

Conclusion

The more I critically examine the designs of games that aren’t in a box on my shelf, the more I learn about their differences. Reality TV shows have to make the audience have fun, but not the players. Subjectively judged contests like ice skating need to reward variety and creativity in addition to mechanical execution. And video games can reward players for well-practiced rote behavior in a way that’s impossible in most tabletop games. These contrasts help illustrate the strengths and weaknesses of my chosen medium and allow me to understand how to make the best of both.

Impactful Asymmetry

Asymmetric powers are a tried-and-true method to spice up a tabletop game design. I’ve already written about asymmetry in general in a previous article; the short of it is though I don’t think player powers make a game more “strategic”, they have many advantages that allow players to have more fun playing the game.

However, not every power is created equal. Even when compared to other powers within the same game, some powers are more exciting, memorable, and interesting. In short, they’re more impactful. In this article, I’ll be using four case studies from various games well known for their player powers to examine what makes an especially impactful power stand out, and how you can apply this to your game designs.

The Voyages of Marco Polo: Raschid ad-Din Sinan and Kublai Khan

Three cards from "Voyages of Marco Polo"

Player powers either break preëxisting rules of the game or give you bonuses for certain game actions. The game The Voyages of Marco Polo is a masterclass in how to make exciting powers in the former category.

To explain how cool these powers are, here’s a very brief description of the game: Players are various historical figures recreating Marco Polo’s journey to Beijing. Each round, players roll five dice and then place them on the board in typical worker-placement fashion. The higher the value on your placed die, the stronger the action. One of the major actions is spending camels and other resources to make your player figure travel across the board, unlocking new powers by visiting cities. Beijing, the final city on the map, is worth a lot of points and unlocks three new actions.

Many of the eight player powers are what you’d expect from a Eurogame. Some give you extra resources, and others make some actions cheaper. Marco Polo and his dad, who share a character card for some reason, get two player figures. However, two powers in particular demolish our conceptions on how the game works on a fundamental level.

Let’s start with Raschid. As Marco Polo is a dice-placement game, the core of the game is improvising your moves based on the outcome of your dice rolls each round. Fitting the random – sometimes poor – results of the rolls with your game plan is a critical skill. Unless you’re Raschid, in which case you can just set your dice to whatever result you want. Imagine explaining the premise of the game, going into how critical it is that you figure out where to put your highest dice rolls, and then you hand a new player Raschid and tell them to forget all of that and set all their dice to 6 immediately!

While Raschid annihilates the concept of the core gameplay, Kublai Khan annihilates the core goal. While everyone else has to invest significant resources in making the painstaking trek to Beijing, he gets to start there! That’s right, all of those points and powers are just yours for the taking at the beginning of the game, and you get to quickly move in on the powerful cities on the right side of the board while everyone else is puttering around in the West. It’s a very simple power, and not even considered good by competitive players, but one that sounds amazing on paper.

Marco Polo teaches us two things: Break the basic rules of your game and make the powers sound strong (even if they aren’t). It’s not enough to break incidental rules, like the “no-duplicates” rule in 7 Wonders – the most impactful powers take something that players would consider a cornerstone of how the game operates and change it completely. Impactful powers also possess a kind of gravitas that makes them feel powerful, even if other powers that gain incidental resources are technically stronger in gameplay. A good goal to aim for is to make every power feel busted in half, but busted in ways that feel balanced against each other.

BattleCON: Thessala Three

BattleCON: Fate of Indines has 10 playable characters. Three of them are incredibly complicated to play, so that leaves seven that are appropriate for new players. Even given seven options, when I introduced Fate to a friend and asked them to choose a character, they went with Thessala Three over half the time. There could be several reasons for this, but I’m guessing the major one is she was the only character in the box to get an entire board all to herself.

Even in a game known for its huge number of characters with bizarre abilities, Thessala stands out by having such a prominent component that only she can use. From the moment you open the box and see this, you start getting curious about why only Thessala gets this “evolution board” and how it works. Compared to most of the other characters who only get special tokens at best, this feels like much more of a draw and is more likely to stick with you.

Thessala teaches us that unique components can go a long way. While having special components for every player power could get cost-prohibitive quickly, including large, flashy pieces that only one character gets access to creates a sense of intrigue that may even outclasses powers that have a larger effect on the game. Leder Games’ suite of fully asymmetric games, like Root, are excellent examples of games that use this principle to the fullest, only having enough unique factions for 4 or 5 players but each one having a long series of special powers and player boards.

7 Wonders: Cupertino

Games generally have a “mechanical palette” that comprises all the mechanics we could expect to see within its genre. We might expect the players to have to know trivia for party and trivia games, but if we were playing a wargame or engine-building Euro and we were suddenly asked about who’s buried in Grant’s tomb it throws us wildly off. Generally, to meet audience expectations for your game, it’s good to stay within your broad mechanical palette.

But what if a player power purposefully was to purposefully stray from its genre’s mechanical palette?

The Cupertino Wonder was originally released for 7 Wonders‘ companion app for the iPad. Though it looks innocuous, it has a very weird twist: The actual power changes depending on whether Apple stock is going up or down. While the other wonders in the game make for interesting, varied playstyles that put importance on different cards, this is the only one you could tell about to your friends and have them be genuinely interested.

Palette breaks usually involve including some kind of social element in a game that’s otherwise dedicated to strategy. In this sense, it isn’t appropriate for every game – it often creates a silly tone, so you have to use it for a game that doesn’t have a super serious aesthetic. It may also be better used for promotional or one-off components that players can choose or not choose to include. Many of Agricola: The Goodies‘ extra decks are silly and palette-breaking, but the expansion is generally aimed towards people who already know they like Agricola and want to spice it up a little.

Cosmic Encounter: Angler

Cosmic has so many different alien powers that I heavily considered just using four Cosmic aliens for this article, but I felt like a breadth of games would be more informative. So in a heroic attempt to not make this article just me gushing about Cosmic for 2000 words again, I restrained myself to talking about a single alien. That alien is the Angler.

Now, the Angler doesn’t do anything I mentioned the previous three case studies. It doesn’t break any rules, instead being a power that lets you steal cards from your opponents; it seems useful, but not particularly strong, let alone broken; it doesn’t have any special components whatsoever; and the ability falls well within the game’s mechanical palette. So why did I choose it?

I chose it because, while all the other aliens are playing Cosmic Encounter, it’s – literally – playing Go Fish.

The Angler shows us how we can make use of resonance. In this context, “resonance” refers to building off the audience’s preëxisting conceptions. There’s broadly two kinds of this. Cultural resonance builds off (typically pop) cultural artifacts. We already know that zombies are hard to kill and slowly, mindlessly move towards the nearest living creatures, so if we have a zombie character or enemy that acts like that we can point at it and say, “that’s a zombie!”

The other kind of resonance, and what the Angler uses, is mechanical resonance. Mechanical resonance makes use of a genre or mechanic that players are familiar with from other games, but in a different context. A good example is how Great Western Trail used the deckbuilding mechanics popularized by games like Dominion. Though the context for the deckbuilding mechanic is very different, players are familiar enough with it that it isn’t as much of a cognitive load on them.

Besides making it easier for players to access a game, mechanical resonance is very useful to creating impactful player powers, as evidenced by the Angler above. If you introduce a familiar mechanic as an asymmetrical player power, you’re igniting the neurons of your players who know the mechanic from other contexts and can tie it to their previous memories. In this way, you’re getting a lot of impact out of your game but the genre heavy hitters are doing most of the work!

Conclusion

If your game is a good fit for asymmetrical powers, following some or all of the guidelines above are helpful ways to see if your player roles are more than just balanced – that they’re memorable enough that your players will grow attached to them. By no means is this an exhaustive list, nor is every technique appropriate for every game, but I hope it’s at least a pillar around which you can build a system of evaluating your asymmetric powers.

A Tale of Two Monopolies

Monopoly is one of the fundamental pillars of American board gaming. It’s what every non-hobbyist thinks about when they’re asked to name a board game, and its enduring popularity (along with the difficulty of copyrighting a board game) has inspired a slew of imitators. But why is this?

Furthermore, while there are many games that rival Monopoly in popularity, such as Scrabble or Clue, none of them have as esoteric a rule set. Monopoly has many rules that the average player gets wrong: Most casual players don’t auction off properties they don’t buy, collect a bunch of money when landing on Free Parking, and may buy hotels and houses without a monopoly. Why, if the game is so complex that people routinely get the rules wrong, does it remain so popular among groups that otherwise don’t play many board games?

In this article, I will argue that there are actually two kinds of Monopoly: the Monopoly as described in the physical rulebook and a kind of folk-Monopoly devised by families after a century of repeated play. By looking at the differences between these, we can not only answer these questions but find insight into how people interact with tabletop games as a whole.

It Was The Simplest of Games, It Was The Most Complex of Games

Here are the rules to “Monopoly-R” (R for Rulebook). It’s in here to illustrate the difference between the two games, because you probably know how to play Monopoly.

In Monopoly-R, players travel around the board, purchasing properties. When a player lands on an unclaimed property, they can purchase it or auction it off to the other players. Players can trade properties. When a player has a “Monopoly” of properties of the same color, they can build houses and hotels to increase their value. When a player lands on another player’s property, they pay that player in rent; the game ends when all players but one are bankrupt.

In contrast, here are the rules to “Monopoly-F” (F for paying respects Folk).

In Monopoly-F, players travel around the board, purchasing properties and building houses and hotels on them. Players can trade properties. When a player lands on another player’s property, they pay that player in rent. The game ends when everyone’s bored and wants to do something else.

Critics complain that the house rules in Monopoly-F make the game last forever, which is true if you’re playing to an actual conclusion. But I would wager that most games of Monopoly-F don’t “end” in a conventional sense, as it’s more of a social activity/parlor game than a traditional orthogame. Tag lasts forever too, but nobody complains about that.

It Is A Far, Far Better Game To Design…

So how is this important to us as designers? To find that out, let’s look at where the two Monopolies diverge.

All of the rules omitted from Monopoly-R happen to be rules that can’t be easily confirmed from looking at the board and cards. Only the rulebook says you have to auction properties off if you don’t buy them, for example, and since the game functions just fine without that rule, most people end up ignoring it for the much simpler system of “leave the property alone until someone else lands on it.”

As it turns out, this is a common thing that happens even in games targeted towards more enfranchised audiences. The issue is usually a rule that has no prompting from any of the components and no logical progression from any other rules. My game Happy Daggers requires players to move a marker up on the Dramatic Tension track at the end of every turn; a lot of time was spent crafting ways to remind players to do so instead of just moving on to the next turn and ignoring the track.

The common Free Parking house rule, where money lost is put in a central pool and whoever lands on Free Parking gets to keep it, is an interesting reverse of this: It explains a component that has no indication toward what it actually does. It’s unintuitive to assume that a space with a unique symbol and text is just “nothing”, so players came up with the best possible explanation for it.

The point of this is that Monopoly-F is an excellent road map towards designing games aimed toward a casual audience. By seeing which kind of rules are most frequently forgotten or misinterpreted, you can apply this to your own design and either get rid of fiddly rules that people won’t remember anyway or repackage them in a way that’s easier to remember.

I’m Going To Be Honest, I Haven’t Read A Tale Of Two Cities So I Ran Out Of Header Titles

Interestingly, there’s a different rule that, like the auction rule, has no indication it exists on any of the components, but remains mostly intact in Monopoly-F: Getting to take an extra turn if you roll doubles on the dice. This is because, compared to the bad judgments and hurt feelings of an auction among casual players, getting to roll dice and take more turns feels great.

The viscerality of a board game is important, especially for games aimed at more casual audiences. Peggy Hill was pretty close when she said that the best board game would be 100% spinning (visceral, tactile) and choosing (strategic). Monopoly-F, by excising the more complex and “talky” rules from Monopoly-R, focuses the game more around the fun, visceral parts of Monopoly: Rolling dice, moving your little pewter dog around the board, and grinning smugly as you present your card and get out of jail free.

(This isn’t to say that casual audiences are stupid, just that a fair amount of enfranchised players are willing to put up with worse components or tactility if the game’s fun. This is why Princes of Florence exists.)

Why Monopoly-F is more likely to have trading than auctioning is an interesting question; it could be that actions that give the players more autonomy are more fun than actions that take up a lot of mental processing power for not much gain. Definitely something to think about.

In any case, Monopoly-F‘s retention of the extra turns mechanic is an insight into what rules people love to interact with.

Conclusion: I Need To Read More Classic Literature

Feeling clever or intelligent is a fundamental building block of our self-worth. (I’m willing to believe it’s more of an American cultural thing, but I don’t know for sure.) This leads to a strong impulse to, when faced with something like Monopoly being wildly popular among casual board gamers, shrug and say “I guess everyone is stupid except for me.” This is insulting to other people and terrible for creative development.

When you see a phenomenon you don’t understand, don’t just throw up your hands and quit. Ask yourself, “Why is this?” and “What can I learn from this?” You’ll surprise yourself with how much you learn and how much you can apply to what you’re working on.

Sentinels of the Multiverse: A Love Letter

This is not a game analysis. Game analyses cover both the positive and the negative an an effort to create a more holistic view of the game, and I have zero interest in writing anything negative about Sentinels of the Multiverse. This isn’t to say that Sentinels doesn’t have flaws – it has some significant ones – but it is to say that this article will not be covering them.

With the exception of Magic, which I don’t really sort into the traditional board game category anyway, Sentinels pushed me further down the path of game design than every other game I’ve played combined. In this article, I’ll be discussing what makes Sentinels unique among its peers and what makes it one of my favorite games of all time.

A Heroic Legacy

One of the big draws of experiential games is resonance, the ability for the game to draw you into its world and make you feel like you’re a part of its story. Betrayal at House on the Hill, for example, uses its first half of the game to build a sense of dread, which makes it more resonant with the classic B-horror movies it emulates.

Moreso than its competitors in the genre, Sentinels feels like a game about superheroes. All of the playable heroes are similar to, but legally distinct from the Marvel and DC heroes we grew up knowing, and they play like them too. The Wraith, Sentinels‘ version of Batman, relies on gadgets to be effective, and has a lot of ways to draw exactly what she needs to solve a predicament. Meanwhile, Legacy, the Superman/Captain America equivalent, plays much more simply, with powers that punch enemies and use leadership skills to make his allies more effective.

The villain decks benefit from each villain card having two sides and its own conditions for changing from one side to the other. These frequently reinforce the comic book narrative of the game. The classic example is Baron Blade (a Doctor Doom/Lex Luthor equivalent), whose front side is the Baron concocting an evil scheme to slam the Moon into the Earth, and who, when defeated, flips his card over to reveal an angry Baron in a power suit. When running Sentinels for new players, I always start with Baron Blade, because revealing he’s back and out for revenge after the players think they’ve won is an incredible piece of theatre that has won over a substantial number of people.

The varying flip conditions also help differentiate the villains. Omnitron (Brainiac equivalent) flips back and forth every turn, while vengeful avatar of nature Akash’Bhuta flips according to the neutral Environment deck. This very simple action gives each villain their own personality while not adding too much complexity to what’s already a pretty complex game.

There’s things I could write about the Environment decks as well, but this section is getting long as it is – the best thing it has going for it is adding an element of chaos into the game. I still remember hearing about the game where Baron Blade got his hit points reduced to 0 by a pack of velociraptors and (presumably) got dragged screaming into the jungle.

Never Fear!

When co-op games began gaining popularity in the hobby game sphere with the release of Pandemic, the dominant school of thought of co-op game design was that they should be extremely difficult, with players only being able to win a fraction of the time they played. The main justification for this is adding replay value to the game: Players are more likely to come back to a game if they lose and think they can get it right the next time. While I mostly agree with this logic, it’s a fine line to draw, and players are unlikely to come back to a game they lost because bad luck caused a bunch of stuff to happen that the players had no chance of solving.

Sentinels was one of the first prominent co-op board games to be relatively easy. Unless you’re playing against the hardest villains in the game, your party has an above 50 percent chance of being able to pull out a win. With some of the starter villains, like, again, Baron Blade, it’s actually kind of hard to lose.

This normally goes against my principles of challenging players, but Sentinels does something very clever: Even the easiest villains provide the players with an illusion of challenge. There’s enough going on and enough damage being handed out that even though the players aren’t always in a substantial amount of danger, if often feels like they are. If the narrative is strong, the players feel powerful (something I’m writing an article on in the near future), and there’s a reasonable amount of choices to make, a game doesn’t have to be a brain-burner to be engaging. It’s a lesson I took to heart when designing the similarly easy Tiny Trainwrecks.

You’re The Real Hero

I’ve heard Cosmic Encounter described as a “designers’ game” because of its popularity among game designers. I’d argue that the real “designers’ game” is Sentinels because it turns everyone who plays it into a game designer.

Sentinels inspires a significant amount of fan-made content. Whenever I’ve seen a hardcore Sentinels fan at a convention or game store, they usually have two or three homebrew heroes that they’ve made themselves. This applies to my copy too: My friend and Great Designer Search playtester Christopher, with whom I co-purchased most of the expansions, took it upon himself to tweak some of the weaker heroes. (He described the process as “the only time I’ve had a good reason to use Comic Sans.”)

There’s plenty of games that use similar standalone decks to Sentinels, like Smash Up and my favorite two-player game, BattleCON. So why does there seem to be so much more fan stuff with Sentinels? The answer is because of the simplicity of the core mechanics.

“Simplicity?” you may ask. “But I heard Sentinels is incredibly complicated!” While there is a lot to keep track of in the game, the actual base of the game is fairly simple: Deal damage, prevent damage, draw cards, destroy things. Everything’s written in plain language that even someone learning the game for the first time can understand immediately. This simplicity makes the balance between hero and villain decks easier to understand and to manipulate on your own.

Furthermore, unlike many other games with asymmetric powers, Sentinels decks are truly standalone. As a counterexample, Gloomhaven has many separate classes, but these classes can buy items and apply stickers that are universal across the classes. Thus, if you’re designing a fan-made Gloomhaven class, you have to keep all the items in the game in mind, as well as figure out the inscrutable logic about what powers can be modified with stickers and which can’t.

Compare that to Sentinels, where every deck is static and can’t be changed. Self-sufficient decks are much easier to tweak, as you don’t have to worry about a player finding a broken interaction with a large number of potential modifiers.

These things add up to a game where it’s incredibly easy to pop open the hood, see what makes all of the decks work, and use that theory to make decks for yourself. Sentinels is a game that not only inspires fan-made designs, it almost welcomes them.

And Now, The Thrilling Conclusion

My first serious tabletop game design was a Sentinels ripoff where the players co-piloted a Voltron-esque combining robot. Although the idea was discarded after I realized it was too large a project to take on for a beginner, the excitement that two years of Sentinels playing instilled in me became one of the keystones for much of my experiential, narrative-focused game design.

One of my favorite overheard definitions of a 10/10 game is “a game you love so much you’re willing to overlook it’s flaws.” Sentinels is that kind of game for me, and it’s so important to me I thought I’d write a game design article about it. Hope you enjoyed it!

Pat Lawlor: A Lesson In Impact

I visited Disneyland for the first time in 1998, when I was 6. I went on a few rides, but what I reallycared about was the Starcade, a massive two-story arcade plopped in the middle of Tomorrowland. Only one game from the Starcade remains in my memory, 20 years later: A pinball where you could shoot the ball into the vertical “backglass,” normally a static panel reserved for the score display, and challenge a bunch of mean motocross racers. 

What I didn’t know at the time is that this pinball, Banzai Run, was one of the earliest works of the celebrated Pat Lawlor. Lawlor is a pinball designer responsible for Addams Family, the best-selling pinball of all time, Twilight Zone, considered by enthusiasts to be the greatest pinball of all time, and numerous other tables that rewrote the course of the pastime’s history. Most interestingly to me, Lawlor’s pinballs all have high levels of impact, leaving a profound impression among even the most uninvolved or inexperienced. This article is an examination of the techniques Lawlor used to create impactful games in a medium that mainly colors within the lines.

Defying Norms

When someone plays a pinball for the first time, they pretty much know what to expect: A small silver ball that you bat around with flippers to try to make it go up ramps and into holes. There’s a plunger, or sometimes a button or gun trigger, that you can use to shoot the ball into play, and some devious outlanes on either side of the table that make you lose your ball. Of every medium I’ve explored, pinball is by far the most resistant to innovation, and a table made in 2020 primarily differs from a table made in 1985 by how fancy the screen is.

Many of Lawlor’s pinballs tried, in varying degrees of intensity, to buck the trend of normal pinball tables. Banzai Run, as mentioned above, is one of the earlier examples; a few other pinballs like Cirqus Voltairemake use of the backglass, but none other to date has actually sent the ball up there. This wasn’t just a gimmick, either; the increased gravity of being on a fully vertical surface created a unique challenge unlike other tables. Funhousehas two plungers, one of which is used for bonus shots. Twilight Zoneplayed around with the material of the balls, introducing a white ceramic “Powerball” that was lighter and faster than the standard metal model.

However, Lawlor’s greatest departure was 1996’s Safecracker, which challenged the “X balls and you’re out” model that every other pinball uses to this day. Safecrackerinstead used a timed system, where your game ended after around 2 minutes of play. If you were able to break into the vault before the end of the time limit (which used an interesting board-game like system in the backglass), you received a special token that started a bonus round when inserted into the machine. While Safecracker wasn’t particularly well received, it certainly stands alone as one of the most challenging examples of a cookie-cutter medium.

Narrative Resonance

In Postcolonial Catan, an essay that was one of the most formative to my design philosophy, Bruno Faidutti explains that the recurrent orientalism in board game themes is in part due to the fact that board games have a limited thematic palette, so they have to stick to understandable clichés:

“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.”

Pinball is in much the same scenario, only with additional levels of abstraction. Board games are good at simulating certain scenarios, mostly economic ones, while all pinballs have to wrap the theme around gameplay that’s mostly the same from table to table. There’s a reason so many pinballs, especially recent ones, are about movies – the player can apply their preëxisting knowledge of Star Wars or Terminator 2 without the pinball having to try so hard.

One of Lawlor’s strengths is his ability to convey his source material in interesting, resonant ways. Many of his pinballs are based on natural disasters, and contain simulations of them: Earthquake-themed Earthshaker has a motor in it that shakes the table, and Whirlwindhas not only spinning discs on the playfield but a fan that blows wind into the player’s face. His underrated CSI pinball features a centrifuge that spins the ball around when shot into it, an interesting way of using pinball’s limited set of options to remind players of something that happens in every episode of CSI.

Lawlor’s highest achievement in resonance is the Caddyshack-esque No Good Gofers, which challenges the player to complete 9 holes of golf. The player earns more points the lower they score on each hole (completing certain tasks marks off strokes), and the key feature of the pinball is a “hole in one” placed high above the playfield that can only be reached by launching the pinball off a metal ramp that only lowers for a second or two. This action gives the player the feeling of driving the ball – especially as it’s likely to carom everywhere, including off a plastic golf cart nearby – and makes getting a hole in one immensely satisfying.

Easy to Explain

For the most impactful games, the factors that make them stand out in your memory are often very easy to explain to other people. To use a tabletop example, Betrayal at House on the Hillis more impactful than other games because it’s easy to describe what happened in your game to someone who doesn’t know how to play. Compare “I managed to escape the mansion right before it collapsed into Hell” versus “I was able to link my cotton plants to my harbors in order to have a big sell turn that increased my income to a level that I could build a shipyard.” 

Similarly, Pat Lawlor’s pinballs are impactful because it’s easy to explain their appeal. Some pinballs are prized by enthusiasts for their interesting geometry, promotion of flow, or tricky challenges, but the problem with this is that it’s very difficult for an outsider to “get it”. On the other hand, show someone Banzai Run’s backglass, or Road Show’s talking redneck construction workers (Road Showwas very popular at truck stops), or even how Addams Familyoccasionally makes the flippers do the show’s trademark “snap snap,” and they’ll immediately be interested.

Conclusion

I finally got to play Banzai Runagain earlier this year when I went to Free Gold Watch in San Francisco. (Once the coronavirus has run its course, I heavily recommend you go there too!)  I was about 20 years older, and a lot of my childish enthusiasm has turned into obsessive analysis. But my sense of sheer glee at seeing the plastic motocross racer pull my ball into the backglass to finish what I had started at the now-defunct Starcade took me back, and inspired me once again that all of my games in the future should try their hardest to make players feel the same way.