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. 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.

Thrown To The Lions: Is Accessibility Everything?

This post was inspired by the game Glory to Rome, in particular its Colosseum card.

When you play the Colosseum, you can steal some of your opponents’ “patrons” and throw them to the lions for points. It’s a crushing play and one that will frequently win the game for the player who builds it. In fact, in a game defined by broken interactions between various cards, it may be a little too strong.

There is a mode of playing GTR that doesn’t include the Colosseum, and that’s generally nicer on new players, but veterans claim that playing “playing around” the Colosseum, by ending the game before someone can build it or by protecting yourself in various other subtle ways, is possible, and that the “advanced” version of GTR is better enough than the “easy” version that you might as well just start with it.

For a long time, I disagreed with strategy notions like these, thinking that all games should at least try to focus on accessibility and that complexity was a price paid for better gameplay. But it occurred to me that this is only true in a framework defined by numbers – sales number, or copies sold – and that the true estimate of a game’s quality is much more nuanced.

Spells For Beginners

Ironically, despite Magic: the Gathering being difficult to learn and the community being filled with hardcore gamers who love as much complexity as possible, the design team’s focus on accessibility straitjacketed my thinking from before I even knew I wanted to play board games.

Magic is designed at a large scale, which makes sense, because the playtesting for a trading card game is incredibly rigorous. most smaller companies (with the exception of Level 99, which has a huge network) can’t handle playtesting at a rate that would balance the game even slightly. This means that for a trading card game to remain a high-quality experience, it needs to constantly acquire enough new players to justify its operating expenses.

In order to acquire these players, Magic designers focus very heavily on the game being easy to pick up and play. A lot of the design team’s focus is on making the game relatively easy to parse; the New World Order design paradigm was one of the most important steps forward for the game. Comprehension is one of the most important metrics for evaluating a set of cards, even for products that are more aimed toward enfranchised audiences.

I think in terms of Magic design, all these things are good; however, I assumed that “accessibility is king” applied universally to all games, an assumption that might not be correct. Magic is in a situation where sales or community size really are good measures of success, because without large numbers of both the game would cease to exist. But that’s certainly not true for many publishers, let alone many games.

Going Dutch

Is “lots of people play it once” the end goal of a game design? Hell, is “it sells good” the end goal of a game design?

There’s plenty of reasons someone would pick a worse designed game to buy over a better designed one. Maybe the cover art is more appealing, or the theme is something they relate to; maybe their regular game group is 15 people large and they can only play roll-and-write games. Similarly, games might be inaccessible or turn off people glancing at it, but could be defined as “great” by many metrics. Princes of Florence is challenging for new players and has unreadable graphic design, but still comfortably resides just outside the BGG top 100.

There’s plenty of games that specifically aim for a niche audience and don’t care if there aren’t a lot of new blood. The venerable 18XX genre is one of these, as are war simulation games. (Twilight Struggle managed to find crossover success.) War game publisher Hollandspiele specifically decided not to balance strategies for first-time players, preferring instead to focus on a game with strategic depth after weeks of playing. In doing so, they found a small base of profoundly dedicated wargamers. Their article on the subject was enlightening and helped me codify this post. (The Thoughtful Gamer goes into more depth in a different post, which is also good reading.)

The goal of a game should be to be best it can be. For some games, like the aforementioned trading card games, “best” means that it has a large enough community to maintain organized play and develop strategies through the metagame. But for many others, “best” might mean that it has enough replay value to still be engaging for years and years of repeated play. If, for one of these second types of games, replay value comes at the cost of a steep barrier to entry, it’s worth it.

What We Owe to Each Other

To whom exactly do we “owe” our designs? Is it people playing the game for the first time, who might need convincing to give it a second shot? Or is it the people who are going to stick with your game through dozens of plays who want complexity, emergent strategy, and something they can really sink their teeth into?

It’s all well and good to shrug your shoulders and say “all of them,” or “strike a balance,” but in a lot of cases you have to pick one or the other. This is most common with “newbie crusher” strategies, like the Colosseum from the beginning of this article, which can be difficult for new players to overcome but can be countered or outpaced by veterans. What if a “newbie crusher” strategy is good for the game otherwise?

Also troubling is limits on component count and complexity. The more individual cards/powers are available in the game, the more replay value you’ll have, as more interesting strategies can be built. But by adding more components, you’re also setting the expectation that a decent player of your game should know what all of them do, along with their strengths and weaknesses. It’s pretty easy for someone to grasp the “good cards” in Love Letter because there’s only eight of them; for Terraforming Mars it might be a lot tougher. But on the other side of the coin, there’s a lot more combinatorics in Terraforming Mars that make the game so good for repeated plays.

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to what makes your game good, but it should be defined by your game and your ideals, not necessarily by business terms. Capitalism’s constraints on “good” being a quantifiable value that can be defined by sales or community isn’t the only way to look at it, and that board games have masterpieces that can be only appreciated by a few people, just like with movies or music. Accessibility is, primarily, a means to achieving this conventional definition of success, and not a de facto measurement of quality.

Conclusion

Regrettably, there’s no such thing as a perfect game. My favorite game, Cosmic Encounter, is loathed by other players for its randomness and imbalance, while I certainly have games I like significantly less than their objective valuation (like Caverna, which I bounced off of). But the only way to truly know whether your game is inching closer to perfection is to set your own standards and not simply accept the easy answers put forward in front of you.

Because my work for Phantom Knight Games is in party games and in light thematic games, accessibility still remains a significant concern for me. But writing this article helped me realize that my definitions of quality aren’t universal and have a fairly commercial bent to them, and will help me recalibrate how I analyze games going forward. And one day, I hope to play the famously out of print Glory to Rome so I can judge the Colosseum strategy for myself.

Nonsense Potential

Anyone who’s played tabletop games for any amount of time has encountered one of the most delightful feelings in the hobby: Laughing, putting your head in your hands, and saying, “this game is ridiculous”. Having a game careen into the territory of the absurd is amazing and is one of the most common features that make me want to replay (or buy) a game. So as designers, how can we make ridiculous games more often? Can we intentionally create a, to mince a swear, clown fiesta with some regularity?

To help reach this goal, I would like to introduce a term called nonsense potential.

What Is Nonsense?

In game terms, I have most frequently seen “nonsense” used in Magic, usually referring to decks or cards that win in slow, elaborate, usually ineffective ways. Thinking about the use here, and thinking about the standalone games I’ve played that have generated similar feelings, my best definition of nonsense is:

When a game enters a highly unusual, unexpected, or funny state.

So nonsense potential is the ability of a game, on average, to generate these game states.

Just by having a vague definition of what nonsense is, our goal changes from an impossible task to capture an indescribable state of mind to something that’s difficult but can be achieved. 

Getting Up To No Good

There’s many ways to increase a game’s nonsense potential.

Being able to use components in unexpected ways is an important generator of nonsense. Of the numerous impress-the-judge games I’ve played, Stinkerhas the highest nonsense potential because it allows you to use its provided letter tiles however you like. You can misspell words; flip an E tile 90 degrees to become an M; even, if the group allows you, use multiple letters. Here’s a spectacular example:

The question was “where do babies come from?”

Stinkeralso awards more points to people who use more tiles, meaning it encourages players to be less conservative and try to find weird ways to use them. Nonsense being at least a semi-viable strategy, or arising from people trying to play the game to win, is also important because it doesn’t draw competitive players in multiple directions.

Coming from a different angle, strategies that strongly deviate from the rest of the game can generate NP. Most of the time, in Trains, you want to link your rail system to as many high-value cities as possible, with the rest of the board mostly serving as an obstacle. However, Trains: Rising Sun features the Mining Train, which generates money for every mountain space you’re on. Suddenly, three players are playing a normal game of Trainsand the fourth has covered the mountainside with cubes. 

Randomness, of course, helps create nonsense, but has to be a specific type. It’s okay if there aren’t a lot of random components in a game, but those components that do exist need to have a huge variety of outcomes. It’s the difference between random draw in Azul creating stations with different colors of tiles and the event deck in Arkham Horrorsometimes being a cult encounter and other times containing a beleaguered librarian.

Example Time, Baby

I don’t want to use a very strong scale for nonsense potential (NP) because this is related to humor in games and explaining humor kills it. But having a vague sense of which games really succeed in this way is useful when monitoring your own games, so I’m sorting games into low-NP, medium-NP, and high-NP.

Low-NP games keep strategy within a confined range, with not much room for unusual game states. Terraforming Marshas a wide variety of available strategies, but because every card and action contributes to the overall game plan of either terraforming Mars or generating VP, things can’t get particularly weird.

Medium-NP games have a core game state that actual play often resembles in some distorted way. Castles of Mad King Ludwignever strays away from “purchase the room that gives you the most value and price gouge your opponents just enough,” but situations arise fairly often where one person keeps building corridors endlessly or creates a single long chain of rooms.

High-NP games frequently end up in game states where everyone’s confused how it got there in the first place. While not the best High-NP game, Fluxxis probably the purest example, with the endgame frequently devolving into players drawing 7 cards, discarding 3, and stealing the winning Keeper from their neighbor’s hand.

Impactful Nonsense

Impactis a broad term that covers a lot of different components of a successful game, but you could say it applies to anything that makes a game memorable and exciting. Obviously, the higher a game’s nonsense potential, the more memorable the game will be.

This is most visible over multiple plays of a game. The highest-impact games are not only ones where you remember the game, but each individual play of the game stands out as unique to you. This is most common with games where the players or scenarios differ each game, but that’s not a 1:1 link; Pandemichas different player roles but doesn’t have a huge amount of nonsense potential. Additionally, having too much variety can actually be detrimental: The high-NP Tournament at Camelothas dozens of Godsend cards, but because 6 or 7 of them can be in play at a time, it makes all of them less memorable. 

 Having story-based elements can be very useful in this respect: Tales of the Arabian Nights’ mix-and-match Arabian Nights story elements make it a high-NP, high-impact game. When pitching this game, I regularly tell people about a single game where a player was exiled to Europe, met an angry djinn who broke his arms and legs, and crawled back to Baghdad…and won. This is partially a great story because there are lots of things that can happen in TOTAN that create these situations, but because they’re also couched in a narrative beyond “Kevin had his speed reduced to 1 but was able to gain enough Destiny Points at the end of the game.”

Conclusion

All of my favorite games have a very high nonsense potential, and I think it’s one of the best things a game can have. More than just offering an intellectual challenge (though that’s important too), games should be personalizable and generate conversation, even after the box is put away. NP is one of the best ways to achieve this. Despite it making the game sometimes look strange or even untested, the benefits of nonsense vastly outweighs the benefits.