A Perfectly Normal House! Design Diary

The inspiration for my new game, A Perfectly Normal House!, came on the Monday before Halloween, when I was alerted to a buck-wild 3D real estate walkthrough that was making the rounds across the more online parts of Twitter. What struck me is that it was scary, not because it put together a horrifying narrative, but precisely because of the opposite – it was the surreal nature of the house from the eBay DVD warehouse adjoining a baptismal font to the bizarre architectural layout. I’m very fond of liminal spaces and areas that feel like they don’t belong without being overtly supernatural, so I knew I wanted to create a game that captured the experience of exploring this house.

Then I realized, hey, Halloween’s coming up! Since this is a horror game, I should release it on Halloween! This sound line of thinking had one flaw: I had to make an entire game, start to finish, in 5 days. Not being the kind of person who usually does things like game jams, this was a way tighter deadline than anything else I had made before. This is the story behind the 5 days it took to build A Perfectly Normal House!

Tuesday: Brainstorming

When creating a top-down design – that is, a design inspired from a genre or real-life concept – the main goal is to capture the “feel” of something, whether it’s Camp Grizzly‘s tribute to sleepaway camp slasher films or Twilight Struggle‘s recreation of the Cold War. In this case, what I wanted to capture was the sense of shock and dread you discovered when looking at the rooms of this house that shouldn’t exist.

My first pass on APNH! was pretty close to the final version, where you randomly generate rooms with things that could make you lose composure points. I used “composure” instead of the more popular “sanity” because the concept of “losing sanity” is harmful to a lot of people, and everyone has times where they’ve lost their composure, so it was a more relatable experience. Originally, I had a press-your-luck element, where you could leave the house at any time and calculate its value based on the rooms you discovered. I didn’t even need to playtest this without realizing the issue: The player was incentivized to not experience the weirdest parts of the game, which was where all the enjoyment was.

The solution I came up with in the time I had was to make the game fully deterministic, and have the player’s only function to be rolling for room contents and arranging them as they see fit. This flies against common game design knowledge, but I ultimately went with it because APNH! is an experiential game, and the golden rule of good experiential design is “create the right experience.” This way, I could force the player to get really weird and use Composure as a timer to make sure it wouldn’t go on so long it would become boring.

So if the game’s deterministic, what’s the value in requiring the player to go through it at all? I could, with some aid or research, create a weird real estate generator that you could just load all at once. While there were time constraints here, I felt that wouldn’t give the same effect because the one-by-one production of each item in the room created a building sense of…”dread” isn’t the right word, but maybe “bafflement” – that you can’t get with an all-at-once approach.

Wednesday: Creating Lists

I used to think I was good at math until I made a bunch of dice result tables for A Perfectly Normal House!. It turns out that, when I want a result to occur about 5 percent of the time, and it starts from 05, I am very likely to commit a fencepost error and make it go from 05-10. I wish there were an automated tool I could use for something like this – there’s a table generator online but it doesn’t let you input ranges, unfortunately,

Beyond my inability to count, the biggest challenge was just coming up with enough stuff to fill out the tables. Much like party games, which I cover in The Arty of Party, the bulk of the design work on APNH! was finding lots and lots of items that fit the spirit of the story I wanted players to tell through the game. As mentioned, I didn’t want to get overtly supernatural, but I had a few other limits too. I didn’t want to get overtly scatological or sexual, both because that would be too easy and because I want Phantom Knight Games to mostly stick to a PG rating.

I also didn’t want to do anything that crossed the line from “creepy” to “scary” – no dismembered body parts or murder evidence or things like that – because that would turn the narrative into “the pieces of some slasher movie monster slowly come together as you explore the house.” I didn’t want a narrative at all, to be frank – I wanted the game to reflect the absurdities of a house that’s been lived in a little too much. There shouldn’t be any form of plot or progression, only weirdness upon weirdness until your player-avatar can’t take it anymore.

My listmaking was mostly arbitrary, but I went into it with targets for how often you should lose Composure in a given room. I absolutely didn’t want the game to end at the first cuil (level of weirdness, of which there are three), and preferably not the second either. I ultimately settled on having about 15% of the objects at cuil 1 making the player lose composure, followed by 30% at cuil 2 and 50% at cuil 3, when all hell breaks loose.

Thursday: Playtesting

I normally prefer to playtest more than twice, but I was on a very tight schedule, so twice it would have to be. The first playtest was with an online D&D group made up of some of my college friends, and took place over Google Drawings. One of the members of this group was my friend Christopher, who took it upon himself to reorganize the Google Sheet where I had my list of objects, as well as calculate the average amount of Composure loss per cuil. He did such a service to the game that I gave him a Special Thanks credit. In any event, the playtest went very smoothly and ended with the hapless realtor discovering a room filled with unloaded submachine guns. My main takeaway from here was the starting Composure for the player should be much higher than I already had it, and I settled on 20. I also made it a bit more likely to roll bathrooms and kitchens.

The second playtest was with my dad. I tried to be more hands-off, since this would be my only chance at something approaching a “blind” playtest, and we used pencil and paper this time. I came very close to having to explain what an anime hug pillow is to my dad. THESE ARE THE SACRIFICES I MAKE FOR MY ART. Anyway, the playtest worked great, and had a weird number of bathrooms considering he didn’t roll up that many kitchens. Satisfied, I started on the final part of my project: Laying it out in InDesign.

Friday: Creating the PDF

This was mostly boring behind-the-scenes work, so I’ll spare you the details. InDesign’s ability to carry over text across multiple boxes proved invaluable, as I was constantly tweaking the font size and whatnot. Getting everything to fit on one page with no weird hanging boxes onto the next page was a real challenge, but I was eventually able to get all the content looking at least fairly nice.

I did end up with some white space in cuil 2, so I included a coupon for pizza and a poetry corner. Want to see them? Get a copy of A Perfectly Normal House! and see for yourself!

Saturday and Beyond

On Saturday, I successfully launched A Perfectly Normal House! on itch.io, and got more downloads than I expected for a company as tiny as mine.

On the whole, I think working on APNH! within the deadline I gave myself was a good idea. I haven’t been able to get a lot of work done on my games since quarantine began because it makes playtesting much more cumbersome, so it was nice to be able to shake the rust off and remind myself that I can use my skills to make people happy. Once things go back to normal, I don’t expect I’ll be making a lot more small projects like this, but if the circumstances arise I might do so.

I’ll close this design diary with one more exhortation to get the game – it’s free, and if you’re the kind of person who likes looking at a space and wondering “what the hell?”, you’ll have a great time. Good luck, and happy house hunting!

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.

Dare to be Stupid

I’ve written before about the difference between strategic and experiential games – that is, games that are meant to challenge players intellectually versus games that are trying to generate an emotional experience. While I separated them into a binary for the sake of writing about it, every game has some ratio of strategy to experience to them, and part of game design is deciding where to stake that ratio.

One of the most difficult parts of balancing strategic and experiential value is that sometimes, the best thing for you to do is to make the game less smart – that is, replacing difficult decision-making with something out of the players’ control. This may sound counterintuitive, but sometimes it’s what’s needed to make your game a more complete and enjoyable experience.

Destroying Your Brain Cells

There’s two questions that have to be answered here: How do you make your game dumber, and when do you do it?

“How” can be defined with something approaching empiricism. You simply have to look at the areas of your game that exist on a binary between “experiential” and “strategic”. Some examples are:

  • Hidden information: Having more complete information is more strategic, because you have a better idea of what the game state looks like. Having more hidden information is more experiential because of the exciting “moment of truth”.
  • Randomness: Having no randomness, or “input randomness” where you determine random effects before making choices, are strategically beneficial because the players have more information before making a decision. However, having more “output randomness”, where you don’t know what will happen to some extent when you take an action, means that victory or defeat can hinge on an unexpected outcome, making these moments more impactful than games where things go mostly according to plan.
  • Asymmetry: I’ve mentioned this multiple times at this point, but while asymmetric powers make it more likely that a game will be reduced to who or what you selected before it began, it also creates sides that players can identify with and remember.

“When” largely depends on your design. I share Robert Ebert’s opinion on craft in that a well-made work does the best job of expressing its vision, rather than adhering to a set standard of “good design”. Thus, it’s your judgment call as a designer for when this kind of sacrifice is necessary. What audience is your game aimed toward? What kind of holistic experience do you want to create? Do you have so much strategy it can get paralyzing? These are all useful questions to ask yourself.

The next section is a case study of a game I think took a stuffy genre and made it stupid in the best way.

Camelot: A Silly Place

Tournament at Camelot belongs to the trick-taking genre, which has its roots in classic games like bridge and hearts. The genre has a lot of stiff competition, including the two-player The Fox in the Forest, the co-op The Crew, and Nyet!, a game I’m very fond of and wrote about at length previously. However, Tournament at Camelot has done more to innovate trick-taking than any other game before it, because it’s the world’s first trick-taking game that’s stupid.

Even compared to other strategy games, trick-taking focuses a lot on the ability to analyze what cards have already been played. Classic trick-taking games use a full deck of playing cards divided evenly among four players, and a large component of the strategy involves memorizing what has been played, knowing what remains in your opponents’ hands, and formulating a strategy around this information. The core of trick-taking, essentially, is using perfect information to develop short-term tactics.

Tournament at Camelot throws all this out the window, and arguably for its benefit. You only see about half of the deck, so you have no idea what your opponents could have, and wild suits and “merlin” cards make it impossible to actually decipher your opponents’ hands fully. To add to the chaos, the game belches a half-dozen Godsend cards onto the battlefield after the first rounds, which do things ranging from making a player play with their hand revealed to stealing someone’s character power. It is a horrendous, hilarious mess, less of a calculated battle of wits and more four knights punching each other bare-handed in a pit full of mud. Whereas other trick-taking games require you to be cold and calculating, this one allows you to get in a good laugh about how ridiculous the whole situation has become. It’s a warm, funny, human game.

Not every game should go to the lengths Tournament at Camelot did, but its decision to carve out a niche in its stolid genre by being goofy and unpredictable was an extremely good one. 

Escape From the Castillo

You might think that sacrificing strategy for excitement is limited only to lighter games, or to things like area control games with lots of minis where the experience of getting into a slugfest with your opponents is more important than something tense and balanced. However, things aren’t that clean, and many games we think of as classic Euro or strategy games have embraced stupidity to at least a small extent.

El Grande is one of the best examples. In El Grande, you can choose to place your caballeros (cubes, used to determine area majorities) into the Castillo, an opaque tower that hides the caballeros from view. At the end of every three rounds, all of the cubes in the Castillo are revealed and routed onto the board via simultaneous selection.

The fact that the cubes in the Castillo can’t be seen, despite players having to announce how many they’re putting into it at all times, is a strict negative in terms of strategy. Making players memorize every minor action in order to gain a strategic advantage is unfun and rewards rote thinking over innovative strategy. By removing the Castillo and exiling the caballeros to Strategy Island, where you can clearly see how many caballeros everyone has, it means that the players can make more informed decisions about where to put them during the scoring round.

But removing the Castillo would also destroy one of the most important moments of the game: The theatre of revealing the caballeros inside and determining who has a majority. Aside from the hardcore strategy game enthusiasts, most players of El Grande will only semi-remember additions to the Castillo, so sometimes people will under- or overestimate how many caballeros are actually hidden in there. This means that the scoring rounds, which can otherwise be bookkeeping for an outcome everyone saw coming, gain an emotional element as eight caballeros suddenly storm out of the tower to charge into the Basque Territories you thought you had total control over.

Scoring in most Euros is mostly bookkeeping, but by removing the element of strategy that having visible caballeros would have created, El Grande manages to make it one of the most exciting parts of the game.

Conclusion

Sometimes, the best version of your game is one that defies the easy definitions of a “good game”. Being able to sacrifice what people think are good features of other games in service of your vision is difficult – possibly one of the most difficult things to do in game design – but if done with good judgment and clear vision, can be the difference between an okay but forgettable game and an instant classic that wins people over. When the time comes, will you dare to be stupid? 

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.

The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything Irrational

The salt air stung my eyes as I awoke, tied to the mast of an anachronistic sailing vessel. Five pirates, with about 7 eyes and 8 legs between them, stared back at me. “Please don’t kill me,” I begged them. “Haven’t I praised Libertalia enough?”

“Yarr,” the oldest one said in a perfect West Country accent. “We need your skills, matey. You see, we had a dilemma with a chest full of gold, and thought it would be interesting to turn it into a board game, but our initial playtesting didn’t turn out well and we threw it into Davy Jones’ locker out of frustration. Fix it, or walk the plank!”

“I’ll help you, then,” I said. “What was the dilemma?”

“Well, there be a chest with 100 pieces of eight, and all of us be rational pirates who operate by the pirate’s code…” My blood froze. It was going to take all of my wits to escape this situation.


Tabletop game design stands with one leg in the bucket of psychology and one leg in the bucket of math. Many big-name game designers, like Reiner Knizia, Richard Garfield, and, weirdly, John Nash, all have substantial experience in mathematical fields.

It then stands to reason that a lot of games, especially older games and European-style ones, are based off math problems and logic puzzles. Most notable is the traveling salesman problem, which sparked the venerable “Pick Up and Deliver” genre and encompasses games like Spiel des Jahres winner Elfenland.

However, not every logic puzzle is as easy to adapt to the tabletop environment as the traveling salesman problem. This article talks about the famous pirate game, why board game versions of it have run into issues, and how to fix them.

The “Pirate Game” Game

To break down this logic puzzle as a game, it roughly goes like this:

  • One player is the “chooser” each round – this role usually rotates.
  • A number of random rewards are drawn from a deck or similar; the chooser distributes these rewards among the other players.
  • The other players then vote on whether they like how the chooser distributed the rewards; a majority of “yes” votes confirms the treasure distribution, while a majority of “no” votes does various things including eliminating the chooser, electing a new chooser, and so on.

That’s the base, but of course any game is going to embellish it with various other mechanics to add complexity.

The highest-profile published game that uses this mechanic is Goodcritters, but I’ve seen numerous prototypes at playtest events that used this mechanic, and I’ve probably taken a crack at it once or twice myself. It’s a very appealing game on its face because it combines things that make for great gameplay – greed, group psychology, and shocking moments where the vote goes completely opposite how everyone expected. But in reality, the 5 Pirates Problem has a lot of issues that make it not that fun to play.

The Problem With The “Pirate Game” Game

  • Over 50 percent of gameplay is just one person choosing stuff with no input from other players. You know when you’re playing Apples to Apples and the judge takes forever? It’s incredibly frustrating, especially because you know that speaking up with your own opinion will actively prevent your answer from getting chosen. Conversely:
  • Being the chooser feels really bad. When you’re the chooser, you often feel like you don’t have any good options. Either you try to benefit yourself, and the other players instantly vote to disapprove your division, or you don’t benefit yourself whatsoever, don’t advance your victory plans, and even then there’s a chance the other players will vote no just because.
  • The distribution ends up being roughly the same every time. In order to ensure that nobody votes against the distribution, the chooser is often forced to divide everything up as evenly as possible. While some games can make this difficult or impossible, it doesn’t produce the variety of game states that make a game interesting to play repeatedly.
  • People aren’t rational. The 5 Pirates Problem assumes that all of the pirates involved in the transaction are perfectly rational and make decisions that result in the optimum benefit for them. However, no human is truly rational. Even when presented with the theoretical best option for them, people will often vote against the chooser for emotional reasons or even arbitrarily. Besides, even if people were rational, it wouldn’t be an interesting game as there would only be one obvious answer to each distribution round.
  • A lot of point-scoring mechanics get constrained. There aren’t a lot of interesting point-scoring mechanics that you can use when someone arbitrarily decides who gets what kind of loot. Set collection doesn’t really work because nobody would let people have a meaningful number of set items, negative effects will unanimously get voted against, etc.

The Solution to the Problem With The “Pirate Game” Game

This section has some proposed solutions to the problems outlined above. I don’t think that these are necessarily guaranteed solutions, but they’re ways of exploring the premise and producing a game that’s fun and still recognizably based on the logic puzzle.

  • Too much downtime: The two issues associated with this concept are “one player acts at a time” and “that player has too many choices, so it takes a while.” The first issue could be resolved with simultaneous choosing, or with voting happening one-by-one instead of all at once after everything has been distributed. For the second issue, the game New York Slice (a member of the adjacent I-split-you-choose family of games) neatly solves this by making the “treasure” a pizza that can’t be moved or rearranged – only split differently. This significantly collapses the potential decisions into a few that, while still tough, are much quicker to puzzle through.
  • Being the chooser feels bad: There has to be some way to reward the chooser that can be affected by a smart distribution, but that doesn’t feel “greedy” on the part of the chooser. Alternatively, some sort of hidden information element might make it easier for the chooser to feel like they can get away with something.
  • The distribution is roughly the same: The only way to get your players to take risky or uncomfortable actions is to make them. In the case of the pirate game, equal distribution is the “safe” tactic, so you have to disable the chooser from doing so, at least easily. “Parceling” treasures or otherwise making distribution less granular is a good start here.
  • People Aren’t Rational: No matter how much you try to force people to be rational, or to reward rationality, people just will not be rational. Instead, reward your players for identifying exactly how their competitors will be irrational, or at least make the consequences for irrationality funny and memorable.
  • Constrained Scoring Mechanics: If a scoring mechanic rewards players for meeting some condition, and the chooser has total control over how rewards are distributed, that condition will basically never be met. It’s better to either leave an element of hidden information or randomness, so these conditions can be better achieved unknowingly, or force them to happen through some other system. (For example, if the chooser has to impress one specific player, they may choose to do that by eg. grouping set-scoring rewards together.)

These are just surface-level thoughts on all of these issues, but you can clearly see that how, though flawed, the pirate game can be changed into something better oriented towards the flow of tabletop gaming.

Avast!

Math and strategy are irrevocably linked, so it stands to reason that classic math problems might be inspirational to game designers. Not every classic math problem can be transferred 1:1 into a strategy framework – however, that doesn’t mean that there’s no value there.

I’m orienting this article as an example of how to take a non-mechanical influence and turn it into a good game. Vlaada Chvátil once noted that game designers aren’t movie directors, and neither are they logic puzzle writers, storybook authors, or anything else. There’s a gap between inspiration and execution, but it’s a gap that can almost always be bridged by good design.

Decolonizing Your Board Game Design

Colonialism in board games has been a frequently touched-upon topic. Many mainstream hobby games like Puerto Rico and Catan have colonialist themes in varying levels of subtlety, and part of the progress towards a more open and inclusive tabletop community is excising these themes from future designs.

While most discussions of colonialism in board games are thematic dissections of already existing games, noticing problematic elements in unpublished game designs and removing them before the game is complete is more productive and something I feel more qualified to discuss; this article will go into “decolonizing” your designs.

Defining Colonialism Mechanically

Colonialism is a multifaceted topic that’s far beyond my knowledge level to discuss in full. However, in tabletop game design it’s easier to narrow down a definition – colonialism, as a game concept, justifies the concept that players can take control of areas that weren’t there originally and plunder its resources; there either aren’t preexisting inhabitants of these areas or these inhabitants don’t “deserve” to have them.

Avoiding colonialism in your board games in terms of picking a theme can be easily summarized as “don’t make a board game about the Scramble for Africa.” What’s more difficult to notice is mechanics that can easily, almost accidentally, express colonialism as a philosophy, even in more sanitized settings like fantasy or science fiction. This article will primarily focus on common mechanical expressions of colonialism and ideas of how they might be altered.

(This article is not an exhaustive list list of potentially fraught possible mechanics, just the ones that immediately sprang to mind while I was planning this.)

Exploration and Development

The idea of exploring a new world and building a civilization on it is a well-trod concept in tabletop games, with Catan being the best known. Many of these games aren’t colonialist explicitly, which is sort of the problem. These games show players a pristine map, uninhabited until right now, with no ethical reason preventing you from doing as you like to it.

Unfortunately, we cannot truly separate the content of a game from the ethos of those playing it. Games like this sanitize the fraught idea of settling and developing upon land that wasn’t originally yours; they create an environment that’s uncomfortable for people whose lives are more strongly affected by the world legacy of colonialism.

The good news is that board games are inherently an abstract medium, which makes it possible to find lots of ways to retheme a game about exploration and development that aren’t colonialist. Blackout: Hong Kong is a great example – it’s a territory control game, but it’s about providing electricity and emergency services to a region instead of carving it up for the players’ control. Far from displacing the inhabitants of Hong Kong, you’re aiding them. Terraforming Mars is another, as unlike a fictional world where it’s suspicious that these lands have remained pristine and unclaimed until the players showed up, we know for sure that Mars is uninhabited.

NPCs

The primary ethos of colonialism is that the colonizing people is superior to the colonized, whether it’s because of divine benediction, superior technology, or some other means. In the real world, we can easily tell that these distinctions are false and harmful. However, in the world of tabletop games, there really is a “divine benediction” that separates some groups from others: Whether that group is controlled by a player.

Think about the average role-playing game. There are many, many stories about the party of PCs massacring whole towns of NPCs; however, once the PCs start attacking each other, that’s a clear sign that the party is out of control. The NPCs’ lives are worth less than the PCs’ because they aren’t controlled by a player.

This isn’t to say that all NPCs are colonialist, because that would be wildly overreaching. However, when used in conjunction with themes of conquest and control, they can add to the problem. The game Small World is a good example, especially because it casts the players in the role of literal gods. The original inhabitants of the board, who don’t have the blessing of being controlled by players, are “Lost Tribes” whose job is to serve as a minor speed bump to the players and their “blessed” races. It’s similar to the Civilization game franchise and its “barbarians,” whom you can kill with no political repercussions.

Whether NPC-controlled factions are representations of colonialism in your game, and how to solve these problems, are dependent on the design. In the case of Small World, for example, you could reskin the Lost Tribes to be controlled by different players. That way, removing a Lost Tribe from the board carries at least a small amount of weight with one of the players, instead of being completely forgettable. It’s not a huge improvement, but it’s a start.

Making Your Players Do Bad Things To Win In The Hopes They’ll Feel Bad About It

Some games, both video and tabletop, are based on the well-intentioned but misguided concept of rewarding players for doing explicitly awful things, with the intent of making them realize that their seemingly innocuous actions in other games have a cost attached. Spec Ops: The Line is an archetypal video game example, and the most explicit version of this in board games is the literally named Colonialism.

The issue with this is that you can’t assume your players’ emotional or intellectual reactions to your game are what you intend. If you leave any ambiguity towards whether you condone or condemn an action, you’re allowing the possibility that people will treat committing atrocities as a necessary cost, or worse, as acceptable by your standards. (Games like Brenda Romero’s Train are an exception because as far as I know they are played under direct supervision of the designer.)

The aforementioned Colonialism is a good example of how these things can go wrong. Despite its very obvious condemnation of colonialism (the cover has a ball and chain on it, for heaven’s sakes) and its attempt to make explicit the extermination of colonized peoples in its gameplay, the gameplay itself is a fairly standard resource management game. The player doesn’t feel bad about committing these actions because they’re both incentivized and obligated to do so.

Exploring difficult themes in games is possible, but it has to treat bad things as unambiguously bad to ensure that portions of the audience don’t draw the wrong message from it. Freedom: The Underground Railroad and Spirit Island are good examples with varying tones. It’s unfortunate, but board games are not a great tool for nuanced exploration of social injustice, so you have to be careful with your expectations.

Conclusion

This article isn’t a unilateral condemnation of any of the mechanics above (except perhaps guilt-based gameplay); it’s merely a request for designers using these mechanics to consider if they’re subtly promoting philosophies that you don’t want to promote, and if so, that you change them. Board games aren’t necessarily the most efficient political medium, but addressing the politics of board games in a more inclusive way is the best way to open up tabletop gaming and ensure its longevity.


The Illusion of Control, Part 2: Chrom Fireemblem Is A Dirty Cheater

Welcome back to my 2-part article series about various methods to disguise the variance in your game to give your players an illusion of control.

There’s a very understandable revulsion to “being manipulated” that makes this subject a little strange to write about. After all, we can’t pop open the news without finding another grim headline about how our personalities and behaviors are largely the product of market forces that have been influencing us since we were children. The idea that a game, which we often play to reclaim a sense of control, is also “cheating” in a sense, can feel slimy and disheartening.

The key is that a well-designed game engages in manipulative behavior purely for the player’s benefit. A “fair” experience that doesn’t lie to or manipulate the player can often feel stark or brutally economical. This is especially true in video games, where nearly every game cheats, usually in the player’s favor, in order to better fit the model provided by human cognitive bias. The random number generator used by the Fire Emblem franchise is a nice, simple example: By using the mean of two RNG numbers to determine hit chances, it makes a 75% chance to hit “feel” more like how we think a 75% chance to hit should feel.

Just like how media is a safe way for audiences to experience emotions like fear and distrust that would be dangerous in the real world, it’s also a good space for creators to try psychological tricks that would be unethical outside of the game context. Of course, this applies only to techniques used within the “magic circle” of the game environment; manipulating your players into, for example, constantly paying for microtransactions in a mobile game falls back under the umbrella of questionable ethics.

Anyway, let’s look at some more techniques that I didn’t cover last time.

Chess: Disguise Variance Through Many Non-Variant Moves

Despite being a big-brain game for smart people and bad guys in action movies, chess and games like it have a fair amount of variance. They must have, because otherwise every single chess game between the same two high-skill players would turn out the same. However, chess has no “luck” per se beyond determining which player goes first; players are in total control of every piece at all time.

The trick is that players create variance through minute decisions that eventually compound into unknown game states. The average game of chess between high-level players is about 40 moves long; if you consider, for example, how moving a bishop two squares or three squares completely changes what pieces it threatens, you can see how each small move eventually creates a relatively novel gamespace. “Perfect information” Hobby games like Terra Mystica that use this form of variance go even further, with hundreds of individual decisions adding up to a game state that’s different even with identical setups, character selections, and players.

In a way, this method of creating variance isn’t an “illusion” of control – it is control. But it falls under the banner of this article series because it sneakily adds variance into a state where everyone involved is being perfectly rational. Instead of dice or a deck of cards, these games use the human mind as the ultimate random number generator.

Ra: Trick Players Into Logical Fallacies Through Weak Evidence

Humans are subject to several common cognitive biases. Many, many articles have been written about them, partially because they’re fun to write and partially because trying to rid yourself of them is a good step on the road to self-improvement.

But as game designers, we’re not out to force our players to change how they think; it’s better to go along with human nature, which includes human cognitive biases, and provide a game environment that works the way it “should.”

As an example, let’s look at the classic Reiner Knizia auction game Ra. In Ra, players draw tiles out of a bag and place them up for auction. Any tile taken out of the bag never goes back in; it’s either discarded at the end of the round or kept in a player’s tableau for end-game scoring.

This allows players to predict the outcome of future rounds based on previous rounds; for example, if you haven’t seen a lot of flood tiles, you might be more bullish on Nile tiles (which need flood tiles to score). If a lot of Ra tiles, which immediately start the auction, are drawn, you can be greedier and draw more tiles in hopes that you can bid on a better lot. These tiny edges might add up to an eventual win at the end of the game!

There is one problem, however: Everything in the last paragraph is a lie! There are so many tiles in the bag that the distribution isn’t substantially affected even if weird draws occur. To use the flood tile as an example: The bag has 180 tiles in total and 12 flood tiles. Let’s say you draw half (6) of them in the first round. If you drew 40 tiles total that round, in the first draw of the next round you’ll have a 6 in 140 chance to get a flood. That’s about 4 percent. The odds of drawing a flood tile as the first tile in the first round is 12 in 180, about 6 percent. So even though you drew half the flood tiles, the odds of getting more is changed only by an imperceptible amount that doesn’t really affect your strategy.

(Yes, I know I basically threw out a number of total tiles drawn at random, but 40 is my rough estimate for the number of tiles drawn in an average round. I’m more trying to illustrate my larger example.)

However, the odds have changed to a small degree, and enough of a degree to trick players into the gambler’s fallacy – even players who would normally know better. If you bid low on Nile tiles in a later round because you saw so many floods, you feel like you won because you knew there weren’t many left (ie. you weren’t due for one), even though the real reason was that the bag pulls worked the way you thought they’d work. Even better, if you do end up pulling more flood tiles, you can just blame the whims of fate for creating such a freak accident.

And you know what? This rules, because it works the way your mind wants it to work. Instead of fighting our brains’ incorrect perceptions all the time, we get to send them to Cognitive Bias Fantasy Camp, where we really were due for that flood tile. By using this method, games can have their cake and eat it too: We get variance, but we also get enough reason to believe that we can predict what happens next that we don’t feel like we lost because of luck.

Conclusion

As a designer, your responsibility is to make a game environment that’s fun for the player without being exploitative. Your responsibility isn’t to make a game environment where everything is as it seems. Just like how audiences accept that a stage magician is tricking them somehow, they’ll accept the same from your game, as long as you entertain them. I hope these tricks to disguising variance help you do so.

The One About Expansions

As of now, I have not been lucky enough to experience demand for a game that pushes me to create an expansion. However, I’ve certainly played many games with expansions, and the idea of releasing expansions for successful games is universal enough that I decided to put effort into thinking about what makes some expansions better than others.

Cognitive Load

Although I don’t know the exact statistics, I think it can be mostly assumed that most gaming groups are not the exact same group of people. Many are public meetups, clubs at universities or companies, or events at game stores; even with private groups, if they grow large enough, it’s unlikely that the exact same group of players will play a game more than once.

This means that a substantial percentage of people playing your expansion will have to be taught everything from scratch, which decreases the chances the game will make it to the table. In general, the more rules that have to be explained before a game begins, the less often that game will get played. If the game owner feels like the expansion makes it too cumbersome to explain repeatedly, the game is going to collect dust on their IKEA Kallax. (You could argue that since the owner has already bought the game, it doesn’t matter, but I’m assuming most game designers want people to enjoy their game, not just give them money.)

Thus, the goal for an expansion is to increase the possibilities of play while limiting cognitive load as much as possible. There are a number of ways to accomplish this, and I’ve detailed some of the common ones below.

Limit the number of components that show up at once

Some games have modular components that can be swapped in and out from game to game; expansions for these can just add more components without increasing the number players have to know at a time. As an example, Kingdom Builder‘s board is made of four interlocking mini-boards, each of which adds a special power to the game; the base game came with eight boards and expansions added more. Players only have to know the four powers on the boards they’re currently playing on, no matter how many expansions the game owner has.

It’s also helpful if the expansion includes components that are relatively simple for beginners to grasp but interesting enough for veterans to like. Sentinels of the Multiverse released a number of expansions with extra heroes, villains and environments. Heroes are rated by “complexity” on a scale from 1 to 3, indicating how much work they take to pilot. Greater Than Games was disciplined about including a number of heroes with complexity 1 in their expansions and not succumbing to “designer fatigue” and increasing complexity with each new release. (This is true for heroes; the villains and environments mostly got more complex in later expansions.)

Replace rules instead of adding new ones

An expansion can change the existing rules of a game instead of just adding new rules. This is more often the case for “patch” expansions that are designed to fix problems in the original game, but there’s no reason you can’t do it to limit complexity.

The RPG Monster of the Week introduced new actions in its Tome of Mysteries expansion themed around weird powers. The way these work is that during character generation, instead of the “use magic” action, you can choose a new weird power (just one) that’s appropriate for your character, ranging from telekinesis to receiving ghost whispers to just being preternaturally strong and swift. This limits the number of actions players have to remember, which makes it smoother for them to navigate the system and tell the story.

Work within your game’s vocabulary

Your cognitive load becomes heavier if you include components that are hard to parse with your game’s vocabulary, especially if they introduce new keywords that have to be memorized.

Small World‘s sequel, Small World Underground, was standalone and had to introduce a whole new set of races and special powers. However, the designer was careful to limit the complexity for these: Many of them are remixes of the original Small World‘s powers, and the rest used comfortable mechanics that Small World players could grok easily after seeing four or five other powers. This way, the components from both games could be mixed with reasonable success without increasing cognitive load.

Compare this successful to the game Smash Up. Smash Up was essentially designed out of the gate for expansions: New half-decks that could be mixed with the decks from the base game. However, it also tried to be a “gateway game” with simple text on the cards that was easy to parse for people who hadn’t played a lot of games. This meant that as expansions were released, they had to include difficult-to-understand phrasing like “choose a card that’s played on a minion” instead of employing keywords to make understanding the cards more manageable. It’s a tough balance, and I don’t fault the designer for choosing to make the base game as entry-level as possible, but it resulted in cards from later expansions having a higher cognitive load than they might have otherwise.

A Case For Odin

Let’s look at an expansion that succeeded tremendously – A Feast For Odin: The Norwegians.

The idea of an expansion for A Feast For Odin was tough to begin with. The base game is one of the heftiest Euro-style games ever made, with dozens of potential actions, special abilities, and side rules. Explaining the base game can take up to 30 minutes, and adding more content would just make teaching it harder. The Norwegians applied some of the principles described in this article in an incredibly intelligent way that resulted in lots more content for game owners and very little added cognitive load for new players.

  • The original Feast for Odin had four island boards that players could claim and fill with goods. Norwegians introduced an extra four, but advised that they be switched randomly one-for-one with the originals. This way, players still only have four boards to work into their strategies.
  • Norwegians also introduced a new action board, with fewer options (so it was actually easier to teach than the original), more balanced strategies, and an extra column that could be explained in a sentence or two.
  • With the addition of more irregularly-shaped “treasure” tiles, the treasure board from the original (which had individual spaces for each unique tile) couldn’t be used anymore; Norwegians split up these tiles into low-cost and high-cost tiles to make eyeballing which tile you want easier. (There was also a new action that only let you acquire tiles under a certain cost, and these tiles got their own board so you could tell at a glance what was available.)

Despite beginning with a daunting cognitive load already, The Norwegians managed to add a lot of interesting content to A Feast For Odin while only slightly increasing complexity. It’s a masterclass in expansion design and something to draw lessons from, no matter what kind of game you’re working on.

Conclusion

Even if you’re not in the business of designing expansions, playing games with expansions and thinking about their designs are great ways to understand the balance between content and complexity.

The next time you encounter an expansion, whether it’s for a game you’re very familiar with or one you’ve just been invited to play for the first time, think about what it adds and what it costs. Are you more likely to play the game with the expansion added, or less? Is the fun you’re having worth the length of the teaching period? Does the expansion material feel integrated or like a sideshow? You’ll be surprised at what insights you can glean.

Eat Your Vegetables

The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy. – Albert Camus

Games create a unique dynamic between the designer and the players. With most design, the designer and audience have aligned goals: For instance, with an app layout, the audience might want to use the app to easily access their bank information, while the UX designer in charge of the app wants the audience to use the app to easily access their bank information.

Game design is the only medium where the designer’s goals and the players’ goals are frequently at odds. Take Pandemic as an example: the goal of each player of Pandemic is to win the game by curing all four diseases, but the designer’s goal is to make it as difficult as possible for the players to cure the diseases while still having a chance. This split lies at the core of all game designs, no matter what medium or target audience.

In this article, I’ll go in depth into this precarious dynamic, how it can complicate the journey from “player” to “designer”, and why it’s critically important that you make your players eat their proverbial vegetables.

Game Design For (K)nitwits

A few years ago I purchased Matt Leacock’s party game Knit Wit. The game combined a simple, Scattergories-esque premise (write down things that fall under several categories and try not to write the same thing as someone else) with delightful sewing-themed accoutrements including string, tags, and wooden spools. It still remains one of the best-looking games of the past decade, and it was easy to teach and to scale up.

And yet, after a few plays I ended up stashing Knit Wit in my closet with a lot of other games that didn’t quite make it there for me. Why is that?

It’s because, though Knit Wit was a lot of things – engaging, simple, gorgeous, even funny – it wasn’t the one thing that every game needs to be, which is difficult.

In more depth, the basic premise of the game is to come up with a list of concepts that fall under one to four adjective “tags”: For example, I might have to describe something clear, bitter, and disappointing. There’s a Boggle-like scoring system where if two people come up with the same concept, neither earns points for it. The issue is that even with a large number of tags, it was fairly easy to use your imagination to come up with concepts that nobody else would guess – in our example, I put down a cucumber water-flavored popsicle. These don’t exist (I hope), so nobody else was able to think of it and I breezed through the round. Most games of Knit Wit ended with people winning by a small margin because almost everyone was able to come up with things that other players would never be able to guess, every time.

The game didn’t provide enough challenge, so it fell behind other, harder party games.

Danger Makes Me Feel Alive

Why do people play games? You could say as a social tool, but there’s plenty of other activities, like watching movies or going out to eat, that are just as suitable and require less investment on people to teach.

The primary reason people play games – of any variety – is to encounter challenges in a safe environment.

In real life, challenges are often hard to understand, disproportionate to our abilities to achieve them, sometimes wholly reliant on luck, and come with severe consequences if they aren’t resolved correctly. Games are different: We pick games that we believe we have the skills to attempt competently and it doesn’t matter how well or badly anyone did once the game is over. We can experience the tension of a tough situation without being in one for real.

Take soccer as an example. Soccer would be much easier if you could pick up the ball and drop-kick it into the goal, but the reason soccer’s popularity is so enduring is precisely that you can’t do that. By simply requiring the players to use their feet to maneuver the ball, soccer adds a level of difficulty to play that captures the hearts of players of all skill levels around the world.

A Sidenote on Difficulty and Complexity

People sometimes conflate difficulty and complexity in games, partially because complex games take more learning and are more difficult for first-timers. However, these things are different. All games should be difficult, but many games shouldn’t be complex.

As an example:

Build a desktop computer from scratch, using this guide. A very complex task, but not so difficult that someone can’t accomplish it.

Now eat the desktop computer. Much less complex, but much more difficult.

Because I Said So

The issue is that, although players unconsciously crave difficulty, at a conscious level they hate it. Challenges in a game are painful and hard, and they can make you frustrated and upset. We shy away from risks and try to pursue the path that will give us the victory with the most certainty, even if that’s boring. (I describe this more in depth in this post.)

Thus, it’s the game designer’s job to know better than the players and to make them eat their vegetables. How exactly to do this depends on the game:

  • Euro-style games place limitations on what you can do each turn, either through resources or by some kind of action rationing mechanism like worker placement.
  • Party games usually restrict information, either by limiting players to a certain subset of communication (impress-the-judge games, charades variants) or by making information unreliable (social deduction).
  • Co-op games like Pandemic use random elements as an antagonistic force against the players.

An important step to providing enjoyable difficulty is making the experience not feel like you’re limiting the players. If you hear a game described as “punishing” or “cruel”, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s harder to succeed in that game than others, but more often that the game doesn’t try to hide its challenges very well. It’s not surprising that the games that usually draw these labels are co-op games, which typically have the most “obvious” divisions between design and player goals.

A well-designed game in regards to difficulty makes a player feel like they achieved something, win or lose, but not feel stupid if they don’t live up to the challenge set by the game. There are dozens of techniques to accomplish this – I wrote about one, guardrails, in depth – and many ways to strike the balance between “boring” and “frustrating” that are unique from game to game. However, every good game, to a one, has to strike it in some way.

Conclusion

Some people, myself included, are afraid of making games too hard because we associate it with memories of ourselves struggling while playing other people’s games. This is the biggest difference in perspective between someone who just plays games and someone who wants to design them, and bridging it will come as more of a challenge to some people than others.

Politics & Poker

Territory control games like Risk or Game of Thrones and take-that games like Red Dragon Inn face a common issue. At various times in the game, especially right at the start, all the players are roughly equal, barring starting powers and whatnot. But the game encourages you to be mean to people, whether it be by invading their territory or playing a card on them. So what do you do when the decision of who to target is arbitrary?

(No actual poker discussion here; this article is named after a song from 1960 Tony Award-winning musical Fiorello! I didn’t expect you to get it, but if you didn’t want dense references to things that only eight people are familiar with, you wouldn’t read this blog!!!)

With many of these types of games, what you do is pick someone at random, and frankly, this sucks. Picking someone to target for no reason can feel mean, like you singled them out because you like them less as a person. But making it clear that you’re being arbitrary, by rolling a die or whatnot, can also be just as bad – though your opponent may care less, choosing at random removes what agency you had from this decision and turns your turn into a miniature bean machine.

While this issue is common, it certainly isn’t unsolved. There’s a number of games in both genres that implemented ways to balance targeting decisions between “random” and “obvious”. Let’s check some of them out!

Always Incentivize Decisions

Some games solve this issue by making decisions of who to target have meaningful incentives from the first turn and for the rest of the game. The trick is that the “right” decision can’t be too obvious – otherwise we end up in the opposite problem where choices are so obvious it’s boring.

The take-that game Epic Spell Wars (which I’ve written about in more detail) does this by giving the players benefit for matching cards from the same “school” of magic. Each card targets in a different way – some a specific player to your left or right, some the player with the most HP, and so on. But the benefit from casting a higher quality spell generally outweighs aiming your spells at a particular player. This also adds a chaotic feeling to the game, making spell resolution wilder and less strategic (a good thing in this case).

Some war/territory control games resolve this issue by making the players’ locations asymmetric. Diplomacy puts each player in control of a major power during World War I, forcing them to negotiate and betray each other in order to gain control of a majority of Europe. Because the map of the game is literally a map of Europe, with some players starting the game farther apart from others, decisions of who to target and coöperate with are thus influenced from the start of the game by your neighbors. A player controlling Turkey is going to more likely target its neighbors, Austria-Hungary and Russia, while it’s more likely to make alliances with the player controlling France in an effort to catch Austria-Hungary in a pincer attack. (Caveat: I’m terrible at Diplomacy and haven’t played in 10 years, so forgive me if I got the strategy wrong.)

Compare this to a game like Eclipse where each player has exactly two neighbors at an equal distance to each other. This symmetry makes the decision of which sector to expand into and which to broker a truce with largely arbitrary until players start developing different ship technology, meaning the political interplay stays static and largely uninteresting for most of the game. (That said, Eclipse primarily focuses on Master of Orion-style empire management and technology, so not being great at something it’s not trying to do isn’t the end of the world.)

Don’t Let Players Choose

The territory control game that does the best job of handling arbitrary targeting decisions is Cosmic Encounter. That’s right, fool, I’m praising Cosmic in another article and you’re going to have to read it!!

Cosmic‘s solution to the issues of players not knowing who to target cuts the Gordian knot by simply not letting players choose who to target. Instead, on each player’s turn, they draw a random color from the “destiny deck” and they have to deal with them, for better or for worse.

This accomplishes several things. First, it makes the politics in the game much more fluid. If red is targeting purple, even though they worked together in the previous round to gain colonies, their previous actions mean nothing now and they have to re-establish relations from scratch. This may not appeal to people who enjoy building coalitions long-term, but it keeps player dynamics fluid for the entire game.

Second, assigning random opponents takes the blame away from the players. Choosing a target frequently carries hurt feelings with it – if you chose to attack me instead of my opponent, and both of us offer functionally identical options, you’re essentially just picking on me. It’s much healthier to have a deck of cards to blame for

Third, the destiny deck allows matchups to be uneven. Some alien powers are much, much better than others in combat, so if people had their say they would just attack aliens who weren’t useful in combat. This would make it less fun for people assigned these powers as they would only be able to use them on their turn, while other people with diplomatic or resource-generating powers could see benefits throughout the whole game. This way, combat-power players get their time in the sun without requiring their opponents to make decisions vestedly not in their self-interest.

Other games use different systems to randomize targeting; for example, Tournament at Camelot uses the trick-taking genre as a randomness mechanism. Each trick results in the player who played the lowest weapon card taking the combined weapon cards played as damage. Since you can’t control what cards are in your opponents’ hands, the best you can do is make sure that player isn’t you.

Small World: Hard to Categorize

Days of Wonder’s classic territory control game Small World addresses this issue in an interesting way that doesn’t really fall in the previous two categories.

At the start of the game, and roughly 2 to 3 more times during the game, you select a new fantasy race and send it rampaging onto the board, conquering your opponents and “nameless” NPC tiles. You can choose to launch your attack from anywhere, so who do you pick on?

Small World does the opposite of many territory control games by not encouraging players to fight each other; instead, it incentivizes fighting as little as possible and requires fighting to happen due to the size of the board. Each space you occupy with your civilization earns you 1 point at the end of the game, and spaces containing your opponents’ civilization require significantly more forces to conquer. Thus, in order to maximize your points per turn, you’re encouraged to find empty space on the board and only attack if you have to.

You will have to. The game’s called Small World for a reason; after the first turn or two you’ll have to attack someone in order to expand. Fortunately, the game offers lots of things to balance besides just playing kingmaker and attacking whoever’s in the lead. There’s a large number of different race and class powers, some of which benefit the attacker or defender; additionally, players can send their faction into “decline,” allowing them to pick a new race/class combination while earning passive income. This makes timing just as important as player selection, as you may want to wait to attack your opponent if you think they’ll go into decline on their next turn.

This article isn’t a game analysis of Small World so I’ll leave it at that for there, but the point is that it spends a lot of its complexity budget (especially considering the publisher primarily aims at a casual audience) making “who to target” an interesting question with many different answers.

Conclusion

Every genre has baked-in flaws: For example, deckbuilding games often have very little player interaction, and social deduction games reward being loud and pushy. “Who to target” is one of the biggest issues with take-that and territory control games, but some of the most stellar games in the genre are able to take on this issue and partially fix it in an interesting way.

In a sense, a good game design lesson to learn from this is to not take anything for granted. It’s great to work on a game in a genre you’re passionate about, because you’ll have a better understanding of the game’s appeals to an enfranchised audience, but by questioning the flaws that seemingly come part and parcel with the genre’s strengths, you may be able to create a game that nobody’s seen before.