Under the Hood of Downforce

The phantom exterior like fish eggs interior like suicide wrist-red. I could exercise you, this could be your phys-ed. Cheat on your man homie AAGH I tried to drive through the narrow space that can only fit one car man! Can’t make it. Can’t make it. Car’s stuck! Outta my way son! CAR STUCK! CAR STUCK! …PLEASE!! I BEG YOU!!!

WE’RE IN 5TH AND 6TH! YOU’RE A G-G-GENUINE CAR RACER!!!!!


A few years ago, I received a deep discount at a game store as a door prize for attending a Magic prerelease. I looked all around the store for the game I wanted to buy, and settled on two options: Western Legends and the Restoration Games edition of Downforce (also known as Top Race and by many other names.)

I went with Downforce because it was cheaper, but this off-the-cuff decision introduced into my life a cornerstone of my gaming experience from then on. Every group I’ve introduced Downforce to, ranging from professional game designers to my parents, has loved it so much they’ve shown significant interest in playing it again. When I bring it to a game night, it almost always ends up hitting the table at some pont. (I’m starting to worry about running out of scoring sheets.)

So what made Downforce so appealing to such a wide range of people, and why does it have so much sticking power? Let’s look at some answers.

Offensive Driving

I’ve wondered for a long time what the line is between “interaction” and “being mean”. Being able to interfere with your opponents is great and adds to the social atmosphere of tabletop games; “being mean to” or “picking on” your opponents leads to hurt feelings and the game being wrapped up in an atmosphere where it feels like someone could get stabbed at any moment. My theory is that there are a few factors that make being mean more acceptable, and Downforce meets enough of them that it toes the line very effectively. (I may do a full writeup on this topic sometime in the future.)

Before we get into details, I’ll clarify the main mechanic that allows players to screw each other over in Downforce. Car movement is decided by playing a card from your hand; each card has a list of colors and a number of spaces that color of car must move. This may sound like you don’t have much control over car movement, but the twist is that cars can’t move past occupied spaces. Thus, you can do things like zoom into a narrow lane first and then park it so opponents have to move you, or throw away high-value cards for colors you don’t own when that car’s stuck in traffic.

The first reason this works is that these strategies are frequently the genuine best thing you can do. If I go out of my way to drag down another player, and that doesn’t do anything to advance my own position (in a game with more than 2 players), it feels a lot more petty and personal than if my dragging down another player benefitted me. In Downforce, you won’t stop another car from moving unless either that card also moved your own cars or you’re completely out of options, which lightens the sting a lot more.

The second reason is that, while mean, these actions don’t remove your opponents’ progress or access to abilities – it just places more obstacles in front of them. Games are about solving problems in the first place, so having more problems is much less of an issue than having less of the ability to solve them. If you could rip a card out of an opponent’s hand, it would be problematic, but you were never going to use a card that was good for them in the first place unless you were betting on them in the first place.

The third, and possibly most important, reason is that blocking your opponents’ cars is just funny. There’s a lot of comedy value in a high-stakes race for millions of dollars devolving into a traffic jam with the person in front crossing the arms and waiting passive-aggressively for someone else to push them out of the 1-width lane. The “Aloha Sands” bonus track in the excellent expansion Wild Ride has a bottleneck right at the start of the game in order to reach Clownforce at maximum speed.

Muddled Winners

Racing games as a genre frequently suffer from the issue of the winner and losers being too clear. If one player has a far enough lead, the rest of the game essentially becomes irrelevant as only the person in first place really matters. People might feel they have no chance of winning and/or be guaranteed to win as early as halfway through the game and mentally check out. Other games like Flamme Rouge make movement inconsistent and often penalize people for shooting ahead, but if someone gains a large enough lead these catch-up mechanisms don’t do enough.

Downforce neatly solves this problem by making the win condition not 100% reliant on who finishes first. There’s two other very important factors as well: Whoever bid the least during the auction segment at the beginning of the game, and whoever was able to bet on the winners.

The betting in particular is critically important because it actively penalizes someone who’s able to skyrocket into the lead early in the game. Betting on the right car early in the game pays much more, so being able to dramatically move forward from the back of the pack – or moving an opponent’s car forward from the back when you’re not going to win anyway – is a much more insidious strategy than simply “doing well”.

The auction segment, on the other hand, adds a lot of comedy value through the schadenfreude of watching your opponent lose despite placing 1st and 2nd because they spent 12 million dollars on their stupid cars. Come to think of it, hubris is a big component of what makes Downforce fun in general.

My point is that Downforce is a success among casual groups especially because no matter how far ahead someone is in the race itself, the winner can be surprising. It also means that if you aren’t the best at perfectly sequencing your cards to gain maximum value from them, you can still win if you didn’t overspend during the auction or have an eye for who you think is going to win in the end, rewarding different types of thinking. There’s also enough variance in the game that skill isn’t the sole determinant of who wins.

Goldilocks Powers

I do a lot of thinking about asymmetric player powers, because while they make a game less balanced and strategic, they also make it more impactful and fun, and it’s interesting to strike that balance when designing a game. One of the most important parts about designing these powers is deciding how hard you want them to break the rules. In some games, asymmetric powers are nothing more than slightly different starting positions, while in others, like Root, each player is essentially playing by their own set of rules.

Downforce‘s powers are somewhere in the middle. They aren’t strong enough that you would change your entire bidding or racing strategy depending on what you get, but they provide you with enough of an advantage that you’ll pay attention to which one you want and feel like your power is accomplishing something for you

More importantly, these powers are unique and have character. Activating a power feels good, but each one feels good in a different way. The power that lets you always move your own cars might not be useful, but reaching in to move your cars on your opponents’ turns is deeply satisfying and you occasionally get yourself out of a jam. On the other side of the spectrum, being able to move extra spaces every so often is a consistent and slight advantage that enfranchised board gamers love. You usually don’t go out of your way for a power, but if you end up with multiple cars (something inevitable in a game with less than 6 players), you’ll usually choose the one you like the most, meaning that players will often play Downforce using a power that they personally find satisfying.

Conclusion: The Checkered Flag

Downforce appeals to a lot of groups because it’s capable of being whatever those groups want it to be. It’s interactive but not too mean; strategic but not cruelly logical; unique but not confusing for newcomers. Added to the game’s generous player count and short (usually around 30 to 45 minute) playtime, this makes Downforce an adaptable game that hits the table constantly and is a near-essential part of any hobbyist’s collection.


Yo, I’m betting on this guy to win.

Making an Impressive Impress-the-Judge Game

The impress-the-judge game is one of the pillars of party gaming, a valuable social lubricant for parties of nerds and non-nerds alike since the early 2000s. However, more serious designers have largely turned up their noses toward the genre; this is in no small part due to 500-pound gorilla Cards Against Humanity forcing out competitors and earning the genre the undeserving reputation of being filled with offensive “punch-down” humor. This is a huge waste, as a well-designed impress-the-judge game can bring together new players and be a great time for longtime friends alike. I like to consider myself a scholar of the subgenre, and in this article I would like to go in depth on how to make a great impress-the-judge game.

(Before I begin the article in earnest, I’ll define the impress-the-judge genre for those not super aware of game design topics. The basic concept of the impress-the-judge game is that one player each round is the “judge”, who sets forth a prompt, and each other player has to come up with a funny answer that the judge will pick. Usually, both prompts and answers are premade cards, but several excellent games have gone with other options.)

Blind Judgment

As I mentioned in my previous article on the subject, all party games are comedy Legos, designed to help tables of people find common ground through laughter. This can range from complete strangers at a convention to families who have known each other for ages – no amount of familiarity or inherent comedy skill can’t be enhanced by a good party game. Some kinds of party games are better suited to some groups than others; games that rely on your knowledge of other people, like Wavelength and Hive Mind, are better for people who mostly know each other beforehand, while trivia games like Wits and Wagers are good icebreakers for strangers but don’t add as much to preëstablished groups.

Impress-the-judge are one of the most group-agnostic types of party games. All of the humor is contained on the cards and only requires a modicum of effort for players to rehydrate, which means that no matter how poor a group is at making jokes naturally, it should be easy for them to regularly get a laugh out of everyone most of the time. This also means that the impress-the-judge game is the most reliant party game genre on the designer’s sense of humor and ability to write funny cards.

All impress-the-judge games strike a balance between rewarding writing skills (picking the best card) and acting skills (being able to sell the judge on the game you made). Apples to Apples and Cards Against Humanity are 100% reliant on writing skills, with anonymous submission systems that heavily disincentivize players from promoting their own answer. This has its upsides – the surprise when the shyest member of your group has a slam-dunk answer – and downsides – the despair of having your great card tossed aside because the judge didn’t get the reference and you couldn’t explain it.

Other games rely more on acting skill, though none fully reward acting skill without writing skill, as that is short-form improv and not a board game. Snake Oil is probably the widest-spread of these, though Shut Up & Sit Down darling Funemployed ventures even further into the acting side of the genre, as you have to use every card in your hand, so the ability to select the best one for the situation is taken away from you.

Your first decision when making an impress-the-judge game is where on this spectrum you want your game to fall. Your next decision is how, and if, you want to fix a few of the genre’s glaring problems.

The Three Sinkholes of Impress-the-Judge Games

The impress-the-judge game doesn’t have “pillars” of good game design holding it up; instead, it’s an excellent and time-tested gameplay base with a few large but patchable flaws. Deciding whether to fix these sinkholes at the risk of adding poisonous complexity to your game will inform much of your design work.

Downtime

The enemy of all party games is downtime. You want your players to be engaged with, or at least entertained by, the game at all times, and unfortunately, the base impress-the-judge game has two areas that frequently produce downtime for most players.

The first is in the answer selection process. Generally, each player has as much time as they want to select or create a funny answer. This means that, with the exception of the slowest player in your group, all the other players are going to spend a lot of this phase waiting around for something different to happen. There aren’t any jokes or funny moments here, as everyone wants to keep their answers a secret so as to spoil the surprise (and win the round).

The most common solution to having too much downtime here is to incentivize players to work quickly. In Stinker, there is no preset judge, with the judge instead being the player who fails to assemble an answer before everyone else. This makes players work much more quickly, and also increases the general quality of each answer because the player having the most trouble with a good answer becomes the judge by default. I took a different tack when designing Stand Back, Citizen!. Each answer in SBC! is comprised of two different types of cards, with all of the cards of one of these types dealt face-up into the table; when the round starts, you have to pick a good card from the center and create an answer before an opponent can snatch it from you. Under this system, there will still be one player left trying to figure out what card to play, but their squirming as they’re faced with a single subpar option makes the time a source of comedy instead of frustration.

The second likely area for downtime is during judging. This is much more of an issue for games with an anonymous judging system, as arguing in favor of your answer, or against an opponent’s answer, or even for an opponent’s answer if you know you don’t have a chance but really liked Uncle Jeff’s pitch, is great fun and takes a lot of the dreariness out of the process. The game that came the closest to solving this is the Quiplash series, which inverts the process by having only two answers for each prompt and making all of the other players judges. This was helped in part by its status as a digital game, but I could see this method working for tabletop games as well.

Judge Bias

Because impress-the-judge games rely on the subjective judgments of the other players, there is naturally an issue of a judge picking a particular answer either because it appeals to them specifically or because they’re biased towards one of the players at the table (for example, because they are dating). The early anonymous judging games were anonymous because of this second issue; I would argue that this is somewhat overblown and more of a problem with the gaming group than with the design of the game itself. It is true, however, that losing because someone else played a card that matched the judge’s hobbies or interests is one of the worst feelings in impress-the-judge games.

There haven’t been a whole lot of advances in this area, in part because judge bias is one of the flaws that players are most likely to accept as built in to the genre as a whole; if you wanted your contribution to not be measured subjectively, you could play one of thousands of strategy games, or even a more objective party game like CodenamesStinker, perhaps unintentionally, went some way towards solving this by randomizing the judge after people lock in their answers; this might be a place where further advancement could be found.

The Novelty Wearing Off

Party games are second only to legacy games in their reliance on novelty. After all, comedy is based out of the unexpected, so if you’ve seen one funny answer already it’s not going to be nearly as impactful the next time. When you have a set of cards with all the jokes pre-written on them, the novelty will wear out sooner rather than later.

The easiest way to solve this is to vary up the “answer” components so players can write either anything (as in Quiplash or Say Anything, where players can even draw) or almost anything (as in Stinker, which uses letter tiles). However, this stumbles into a secondary trap, which Roger van Oech described in his book A Whack on the Side of the Head. Without some way of forcing them to create new answers, players are most likely to stick to the first things they can think of, which inevitably become relatively conservative answers that everyone’s heard before. So if you’re making an impress-the-judge game with totally open answers, you have to focus on creating lots and lots of excellent prompts.

If you’re using cards, consider using a combination of cards to massively increase the permutations that players can achieve. All of the answer cards in Snake Oil are a single word, and players combine two of them to create a product to pitch to the judge; because they’re built to change depending on the other word you pair them with, this creates a much larger variety of responses than could be generated through single cards. I used a similar method when creating Stand Back, Citizen!, though that uses an asymmetrical combination of fill-in-the-blank “power” templates and silly nouns – there’s half as many permutations, but they’re more directed and more likely to be a bullseye than cards that can be put in either order.

Order in the Court

Besides the actual prompts and answers, you should also think about the less glamorous nuts and bolts of your game; in particular, thinking about the scoring system and end condition.

You might think that because impress-the-judge games are party games for casual audiences, that whatever scoring system you create doesn’t matter because people aren’t going to pay attention to them. While it is true that party games are more about the journey than the destination, your scoring system is your best way to incentivize your players into being funny and shouldn’t be discarded offhand. Stinker is one of the best examples here: If your answer gets chosen, you get one point for every letter tile you used in it, so you’re encouraged to make longer and more elaborate answers (balanced with not becoming the judge because you spent too long moving tiles around).

A scoring system more complex than “judge picks the winner” can also introduce new skills to the game. In Say Anything, you get points if the judge picks your answer as usual, but you can also earn points by guessing which answer the judge is going to pick. This turns Say Anything into a hybrid of the impress-the-judge game and the venerable “know your friends” subgenre and helps it stand out.

The end of the game is also very important, because it’s critical that a party game not overstay its welcome. Apples to Apples had a huge issue with this, because the game ended when one player won a certain number of times – not only is this obviously problematic with a large player count, it meant that the game could drag on forever as everyone collected N-1 green apple cards, or end swiftly as some cut-up got all of them in a row. Cards Against Humanity has no end condition at all, which will frequently mean it goes on too long, but I suppose was insightful into how party games usually just sort of end anticlimactically in most of the situations in which they’re played.

I generally like going until everyone’s been the judge once. It means that the game is often too short at 4 or 5 players, but it’s better to undershoot the ideal playtime than overshoot, as it’s psychologically easier to just start a second round than cancel a too-long game in progress. It also gives everyone a chance to judge and many chances to create answers. If your game has more mechanical trappings and is expected to go a little longer, like Say Anything, going around the table twice can also make sense. Go with what works for your game and your players.

Conclusion

The actual biggest flaw with impress-the-judge games is that they’re tough to publish after both the wild success of Cards Against Humanity and the deluge of terrible imitators in the early 2010s. However, only sticking to games that are easy to publish means you’re constantly playing catchup with whatever trend is rocking BGG (or, more realistically, rocked BGG two years ago). At worst, designing a good impress-the-judge game means you’ll make your friend group very happy; at best, you can make thousands of people all over the world very happy. As long as your game deserves to exist and advances the medium, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with trying to compete in a saturated category.

Balance, On Average

When you think about game balance, you probably think about making all possible player options be as equitable as possible; about maintaining a fragile balance between each player’s starting position so everyone has an equal chance of winning every game. But what if I were to tell you that there was a different way to balance your games? What if that way combined a sense of fair play with all the excitement, desffpair, and storytelling opportunities that came with unequal positions? Well, good news! I’m not speaking hypothetically. Welcome to an article about making your game balanced…on average.

Dr. Ro-Galt-Nik’s Mean Bean Machine

When I was a kid, my parents would regularly take me to see the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. During one of my visits, I stumbled across a giant version of this thing, which was one of the coolest things I had ever seen:

This Galton Board, also known as a “bean machine”, is a neat visual representation of the natural law of regression toward the mean. Even if you have a function with a wide range of outcomes, if you run that function often enough, it will eventually deliver the distribution of results you expect, with a hill centered on the mathematical mean outcome. To use plainer language, everything will even out as expected, provided you try enough times.

What this means for us as game designers is that there is another option besides trying to make each player’s starting position equal every time: We can also have a wide variety of unequal starting positions and redistribute these starting positions so many times it regresses toward the mean.

I’m Pretty Sure The Genius Did This Once

That last section was pretty abstract, so to make it more practical, I’ll use an example. Let’s look at a game that’s very much in need of redesigning: I’ll call it “Small War”.

Small War is played between two players using part of a standard pack of playing cards: The 2 through 10 of hearts and the 2 through 10 of clubs. These cards are shuffled together and then dealt evenly to both players. Then, each player selects a card and puts it face-down. Once they’ve both chosen a card, they turn them face-up; the player who played the higher card “captures” the other card and forms a pair. Whoever has the most pairs at the end of the game wins.

So obviously, Small War has some problems. The most obvious one is that, because the cards are randomly distributed across both players, it can create a heavily imbalanced scenario where one player might have both 2s, 3s, and 4s and the other has both 8s, 9s, and 10s. How can we fix this so every game of Small War is equitable to both players?

A conventionally balanced version of Small War would simply distribute one copy of each card, 2-10, to each player every game. This turns the game from one based on luck to a tense mindgame where each player tries to figure out when their opponent is going to try to pass their small cards through or try to win the round with a big card. This is cool and everything, but the meta would crystallize quickly after a few rounds and the game would become stale for all but the most hardcore players.

However, there is another way: Keep the gameplay exactly the same but make the game best out of 9 rounds (1 round being what we’d call a “game” in the original). Individual rounds might be extremely unfair, but there’s so many rounds that there’s a good chance of both players’ luck of the draw cancelling out each others’ over time.  Plus, this wider range of opening hand adds more variety, prevents the game from boiling down to set opening and closing strategies, and creates amazing stories where you get dealt an awful hand but manage to overcome your opponent afterwards.

This second case is what Balance On Average (BOA) design is all about.

Defining The BOA

BOA games have a few key features.

  • A BOA game is made up of a number of individual rounds, ending after a set number or when a player reaches a particular score.
  • Each round begins with players being given a random assortment of components to make do with. The distribution of components is random and each player’s respective strength can be unequal, sometimes brutally so.
  • The results of each individual round don’t have anything to do with the rounds after it, except in a “metagame” sense where you might adjust your play based on your score or the amount of time left in the game.

You might be wondering, why even make a game like this? Well, compared to a conventionally balanced game, BOA games have a number of benefits.

  • Compared to a regular game, where being put in a bad position early in the game will make you lag behind for 90 minutes, a BOA game can get away with being pointlessly cruel to players because the round will be over in 5 minutes anyway. In fact, cruelty often engenders a desire to play again later and to laugh about it after the fact.
  • There’s a wider variety of game states in a BOA game. In a conventionally balanced game, the designer (and developer sometimes) works hard to ensure that every player starts the round at around a 5/10 and maintains that for most of the game. BOA games can deal out gamestates ranging from a 0 to a 12, greatly increasing the number of possibilities.
  • BOA games can be deeply emotionally impactful. Getting a strong hand and doing well is more likely to stick in your memory if you’ve dealt with medium-to-weak hands for the last 5 rounds; getting a come-from-behind victory is more meaningful if you were actually behind the other players in a way beyond “number of games played”.

The BOA In Action

The majority of BOA games are traditional games hailing from long before the advent of the modern “designer game”. The one Americans are probably the most familiar with is poker. You might have a terrible hand in one round and a godly hand in the next, but besides the metagame of playing more or less aggressively depending on how many chips you have compared to your opponents, the outcome of one round doesn’t affect the performance of your hand in the next.

Other card or card-equivalent games that make use of BOA include bridge, rummy, and mahjong. Much of the strategy of any of these games involves not only capitalizing on good rounds, but knowing when your starting hand is good compared to the other player or team’s and throwing away your hand as safely as possible if you you can’t catch up. For games with an easier learning curve, Uno is the textbook definition of BOA (as the distribution of wilds and special cards like draw 2s unevenly weighs starting hands), though presumably many groups only play one game at a time.

The majority of designer games that use BOA balancing are trick-taking games, likely because trick-taking card games have more fidelity to the classics of the genre than most other kinds of game. Some, like The Bottle Imp, adhere strictly to keeping rounds separate and tallying up scores on a piece of paper; others allow you to mitigate a bad hand (Nyet!) or give players a way to catch up after a nasty round (Tournament at Camelot). You could also charitably describe impress-the-judge games like Stand Back, Citizen! as BOA, since the suitability of your hand to the prompt will change each round.

Some games that look like BOA games but aren’t include “dude smasher” games like MagicHearthstone, and Netrunner (as you usually play three rounds max against a single opponent); drafting games like Bunny Kingdom or 7 Wonders (as your actions in earlier rounds dictate what you do in later ones); and fast social deduction games like One Night Ultimate Werewolf (as you’re not playing multiple rounds in one game – you’re playing multiple very short games).

One of the most interesting interpretations of BOA design is CondottiereCondottiere is a sort of hybrid between BOA and conventional design because “getting a new hand” and “starting a new round” isn’t a 1:1 ratio: Players draw new hands once all but one player are out of cards. This means that players with bad hands can force balance on average by increasing the number of hands per game, while a player with a great hand might be tempted to string their hand across multiple rounds while flirting with the disaster of throwing away most of their good cards. I still haven’t seen this mechanic anywhere else meaningful, and it remains a great source of inspiration for me.

BOA Constrictions

Despite the several advantages of BOA design, games of that nature have a tiny foothold in the tabletop game industry as a whole, for reasons both meaningful and coincidental.

Part of the reason for the modern unpopularity of BOA design might be due to the meteoric rise of video games right around when the properties of a “well-designed” board game were starting to become mainstream around designers. It stood to reason that a balanced board game should resemble a balanced video game, with players selecting an asymmetric faction, strategy, or character near the beginning of the game and having a roughly even chance of winning with it at equal player skills. 

Another, perhaps more legitimate reason is that it’s hard to build a sense of momentum in a BOA game because each round is specifically detached from the next. You can have excitement and progress within a round, but compared to an Agricola or Dominion where a player’s engine and strategy slowly builds up to a splashy finish, BOA games frequently feel more “even”, with emotional impact primarily arising from unusual situations that may not always occur every game.

BOA games also have many more restrictions than conventional games. As discussed, BOA games have to have a long series of short rounds, each of which randomly redistributes starting positions. There’s only so many ways you can achieve this, and many of the good ones have been covered by conventional games. There are additional UX concerns with this system, as you need the redistribution itself to be relatively quick and painless (like shuffling and dealing out a deck of cards, as is common) and the scorekeeping to be something more modern than someone having to grab a pencil and sheet of paper. That said, I believe that BOA games are so overlooked by modern tabletop designers that their true potential remains unexplored – maybe there’s some mechanic hiding in the BOA space waiting to revolutionize the industry.

Conclusion

All game designers can fall victim to a kind of design myopia, where we grow so used to the evaluations and demands of our particular slice of the community that we forget that there are many ways to make a fun, dynamic game, some less mainstream than others. Looking at BOA games has been extremely helpful for me in this regard, and I hope to one day find even more interesting methods of balancing a game and keeping its players happy.

The Agony of the Big-Box Game

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

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

Promises and Deliveries

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

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

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

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

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

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

Problems and Solutions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

Retheming Incan Gold and Caylus

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

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

The Process

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

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

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

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

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

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

Example 1: Incan Gold

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Example 2: Caylus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

Trivial Pursuits

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

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

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

Difficulty

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vicarious Competition

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

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

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

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

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

Goals

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

And Now…A Post About Starcraft (Sort Of)

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

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

Protoss: Too Smart For Their Own Good

The IHD article defines power mechanics like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doing Reps in the Lab With Reiner Knizia

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who Cares?

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

Impactful Asymmetry

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

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

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

Three cards from "Voyages of Marco Polo"

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

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

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

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

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

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

BattleCON: Thessala Three

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

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

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

7 Wonders: Cupertino

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

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

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

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

Cosmic Encounter: Angler

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

A Tale of Two Monopolies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It Is A Far, Far Better Game To Design…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion: I Need To Read More Classic Literature

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

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

Sentinels of the Multiverse: A Love Letter

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

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

A Heroic Legacy

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

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

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

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

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

Never Fear!

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

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

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

You’re The Real Hero

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Now, The Thrilling Conclusion

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

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