The Pest-sistence of Memory

While it’s entirely possible that what makes a game fun is 100% subjective, I’ve noticed that some things are almost universally regarded as “fun” or “good design”, and some are almost always considered “bad” or “unfun”. Having to do math beyond simple arithmetic is in the latter category, for instance; another is memorizing things, a topic that game critic Erik Twice wrote about previously. However, Erik mostly covered the “what” and not the “why” or “how” of memorization. In this article, I’ll be theorizing on why memorizing stuff generally isn’t fun and offering advice on how to make the high-level play of your game less dependent on memorization.

The Problem With Memorizing Stuff

The concept of memory being an appealing gameplay mechanic is largely a thing of the past. For example, Whist, a predecessor of contract bridge which put emphasis on being able to remember which cards have been played by which players, operated under the idea that these games were a tool for sophisticates to measure their superior intellects against each other. The only modern mainstream board games that make memorization an intentional core mechanic are Memory, which mainly appeals to very young children, and the Simon/Bop It! family of toys, which are 75% fun because of their flashing lights and funny noises.

Modern strategy games only require the player to memorize things as an unintentional part of learning the higher-level strategies. Scrabble is the classic example: A casual player can do fairly well at Scrabble by improvising with their preëxisting vocabulary, but high levels of play demand that the player memorize all of the high-value words in the dictionary so they can maximize their score.

There are a number of reasons that memory is a less fun skill to employ than things like bluffing, prediction, and planning in advance. The first is that memorization is a fairly basic concept that doesn’t challenge the more sophisticated powers of thought that even simple strategy games try to engender in players. You use whichever method you want to commit a card/quantity/etc. to memory; then you see if you did it or not. Compared to things like bluffing, which requires knowledge of your psychology, your opponents’ psychology, the risk and reward of various strategies, and so on, memorization asks you to employ a basic mental concept common to most sophisticated animals. However, despite its simplicity, memorization requires a lot of effort if there’s enough variables to be considered, so it’s taxing without being rewarding.

The second is that getting penalized because you didn’t memorize things correctly feels like an act of cruelty on the part of the game. When all of the information was available at some point, it then feels arbitrary that you aren’t allowed to reference it, especially if this lack of knowledge could lead to substantially different strategy decisions. This isn’t objectively true, as I’ll explain in more detail later in this article, but it certainly doesn’t feel good when the game essentially makes you lose for no reason.

The third is that, paradoxically, losing because you didn’t memorize something always feels like a blunder. You weren’t outsmarted by an opponent; you didn’t make a risky decision that failed to pay off; you didn’t even misunderstand the subtler interactions of the game. If you weren’t able to remember game information in an adequate way, the only explanation is that you, personally, failed, with no excuses or ways to improve beyond hoping you’ll remember better next time. Frustration – the least acceptable emotion in gaming – is born from a combination of rage and helplessness, and loss due to misremembering things produces both in great supply.

The final, and perhaps most important, factor is that discovery and surprise are important to a game being fun, and memorizing the game’s components and strategy does literally the opposite, siphoning a sense of anticipation away from the game even as you become better at it. People will only stay with a game if they think it has something more to offer them if they play it again. (That’s also why I believe that any game with asymmetric powers should have at least one and a half times more powers than the maximum player count.)

Multiple factors affect how important memorization becomes at high levels of play. The three most important are open information that becomes hidden, consistent and complex strategies, and all of a game’s components being guaranteed to appear every game (which is a mouthful, so let’s call it “Completeness”).

Open-Then-Hidden Information

Most games that restrict previously-open information don’t do it to challenge the players, and they don’t do it by mistake, either. They do it because having too much complex information available at once can be paralyzing, especially for new players or moderately experienced players who suffer from analysis paralysis. Many of these games are aimed at casual audiences. That said, even if we’re primarily designing for casual audiences, we can try to do better to make the game fun for people of all skill levels and seriousness.

An effective rule of thumb is that if components can be counted, high-level play will demand that they must be counted. In For $ale, players bid on house cards of differing values and then use those house cards to bid on cards of various values. Each player starts with the same amount of money at the beginning, but are encouraged to keep their remaining cash a secret. Because all of this information is public, you could therefore, with either a keen memory or a pad of paper, know which player has which houses, which houses haven’t been played yet, and how much money everyone has left. This is crucial information to victory, so if one player decides to do this, the others will be obligated to do so to be competitive.

In some cases, there are good reasons to not have all this information available, as having too much at hand can be paralyzing, especially for new players. Returning to our example of For $ale, if every players’ house cards were face-up and visible on the table, players would have so much information to process at once, the game would get bogged down with their thinking.

Consistent Strategy

As your players play your game repeatedly, common tactics and strategies will start to emerge. This is a natural and wonderful part of the game-playing process. However, if strategies within your game are both consistently strong and relatively nuanced and complex, it means that players interested in advancing in skill will have to memorize these strategies. Chess is the perennial example – many people, including myself, have been turned off from chess from the nightmarish vision of having to spend our precious free time memorizing openings.

These strategies become more problematic if they take longer to execute or have little room for deviance. The “Uxmal Gambit” in Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar is a gamelong strategy that first involves placing your workers in two specific locations on the board to acquire the maximum amount of workers as quickly as possible, then following a series of tasks that enables you to build many high point value buildings. However, if you don’t remember the strategy offhand, you’ll probably lose after creating many more workers than you can effectively feed. The designers, wise as they are, made the expansion create much more varied random openings that lessened the Uxmal Gambit’s strength in most cases.

Note that a strategy is different from a heuristic – a rule that applies in enough circumstances that you can usually take it for granted. Most heuristics are easily digestible and helpful for players. If your players can establish these heuristics without having to adhere to a lengthy set of guidelines for play, it means your strategy game is likely on the right track.

Completeness

If every component in your game is guaranteed to appear in every game, then it’s good strategy to memorize all of the components so you know which ones haven’t appeared yet.

This becomes more of an issue when there are many different components. The opening hands in 7 Wonders are always comprised of the same cards, depending on the player count. (That is, a four-player game will always have the same set of cards, and a five-player game will have an additional set of cards, etc.) Because you can be sure that every card from the list will appear in the game, good strategy now consists of remembering the card distribution and cost for all three rounds so you can tell when you’re being cut off or not. Furthermore, you have to remember the exact cards that were in each hand as it was being passed to you so you can try to predict what you’ll be handed when it comes back to you.

Fortunately, avoiding the completeness issue is relatively simple – even knocking out one or two components can be useful depending on the complexity of your game. Both Love Letter and New York Slice, which place importance on a certain class of card/pizza slice running out, remove one card and three slices respectively at the start of the game, making exact calculation of all the components you’ve seen so far not so effective that it’s worth the trouble.

Conclusion

It’s hard to design for higher-level play because playing with the same group over and over (in other words, the only way to experience higher-level play) isn’t as important as making sure your game is good across a large variety of players. But in order for your game to be truly good, it has to maintain a sense of fun and discovery, as well as make more thoughtful play more of a joy than a slog. Memorization is an enemy to both of those, and should be reduced as much as possible unless you have an extremely good reason otherwise.

 

Discovering Your Game Design Biases

Many design disciplines have a history of neutrality and universality. Typography, industrial design, and so on value the designer being able to put aside their own biases and create things that communicate a similar message to as many people as possible. This is noble, especially for things like signage that really do need this sense of universality, but it can also be stifling to always put the needs of your audience ahead of what you want to create. Luckily, as low-budget tabletop game designers, we can fully give in to our preferences, and indeed, the games we produce that appeal to us will often be more fun and higher quality than those that don’t.

Discovering your game design biases will help you grow as a designer, whether that means sticking to your wheelhouse and refining your skills to make what you want or actively fighting against what you’re used to to leave your comfort zone and grow in a more well-rounded way. Here’s a few tools that you can use to gauge them.

What Do You Respect?

Everyone has games that they love, but most people don’t really put that much thought into the reasons why they like those games. After all, working too hard to define an undefinable feeling often feels like a pointless exercise, and at worst it can sap some of the delight away from the game. (It’s why explaining a joke ruins the joke.) That said, it’s an excellent first step towards discovering your game design biases, especially if you’re early in your game design journey and haven’t worked on that many projects.

There’s a couple of ways to figure out your biases in game preference. Pick whichever of these seems the most appealing to you.

  • Make a top 10 list of your favorite board games. See if you can find things most or all of those games have in common. Play time? Player count? How complex or simple they are? How serious or silly the tone is? Are there particular emotional states common to these games that you might not feel in more mainstream games?
  •  Pretend you have to convince a skeptic to get into board games by describing one game to them. Which game would you choose to talk about? What in particular would you describe about the game?
  • Think about the best times you’ve ever had playing games with your friends. This doesn’t even have to be about games you like normally – perhaps the group you were with, or the atmosphere might have contributed. But what about the game triggered such fondness in you? Why does this playthrough stick out in your mind more than any of the numerous others you might have played up until that point.

What Kind of Games Do You Design?

I didn’t realize that I had game design biases at all until I overheard a friend who ran a monthly prototype night mention to someone else that he had never seen a prototype of mine that took over half an hour to play. It so happened that, unconsciously, I ended up creating short, relatively rules-light games over anything else.

It can help your process to define what your “regular” kind of game is. Look back over all of your previous prototypes and perhaps subject them to the same exercises you did in the above section.Perhaps talk to someone you work with a lot on games – a favorite playtester or similar – and see what they have to say about your games. It can be surprisingly hard to figure out your preferences and design biases when you’re on the inside looking out.

It’s also possible that you might have a fairly broad range to what you design. Some designers, like Vlaada Chvátil, seem to bounce from ultra-heavy strategy games to party games with relative ease, while others, like Uwe Rosenberg, find a niche and settle within it. If you feel like you’re stuck in a rut, identifying that rut is the first step towards climbing out of it. Perhaps consider making a game longer or shorter than you normally do, or with sillier or more serious mechanics.

What’s Your General Philosophy of Games?

Game design has a lot of big questions that don’t have one objectively correct answer. These include things like:

  • What is a game? What makes it different from an activity, contest, or sport, or are those things subsets of games?
  • What makes a game, or anything else, fun? Is there one answer to what fun is, multiple answers, or none at all?
  • What emotions should a game generate? Excitement? Anger? Patient thought? Perhaps a combination of these, or all of them?

Sitting down and asking yourself these questions, possibly with examples of games that meet or don’t meet these criteria, is an excellent way to figure out your philosophy of game design.

What Else Do You Like?

Fantasy authors who only draw from other fantasy novels, directors who only draw from movies, and game designers who only draw from other games almost inevitably end up one step beyond mediocrity, because they don’t add more to the medium. The only way any creative field escapes stagnation is through people who are able to unite it with their other interests and passions.Thinking about your other interests and how they influence your games, both thematically and mechanically, is a great way to understand your game design biases.

To use myself as an example, I am personally heavily influenced by schlock and camp of all kinds. Happy Daggers is based off of the unrealistic but flashy swordfights you might see in classic swashbuckling movies, while my prototype The Monster Dimension is themed after low-budget, poorly acted monster movies. Your interests don’t even need to line up well with the medium – my very boring and mundane passion for hotels and convention spaces inspired my other prototype, Con Season.

Even other kinds of game can inform your design process. David Sirlin was a former professional Street Fighter player, and his tabletop work all relates to fighting games or related media like Puzzle Fighter – not just in its mechanical trappings, but also in the heavy emphasis placed on reading the opponent and asymmetric player powers. “Game” can also refer to things like bridge and other traditional games, sports (played, coached, or spectated), and even game shows and reality competition shows.

Conclusion

Knowing your game design biases has two broad benefits. The first is as I’ve mentioned previously – it gives you a sense of how you design, so you can refine it and/or try to break free of it for something you find more creative.

The second is that being “the X designer” can give you courage and strength, particularly if you’re a new designer. For the first year or so of my design work, I felt very unsure about what I was designing and if I was actually making something worthwhile. After defining myself as someone who makes shorter games with strong stories and emotional impact, I feel like I’m a legitimate member of the design community with something meaningful to say. If you struggle with the same issues, I greatly recommend this process.

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.

A Perfectly Normal House! Design Diary

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

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

Tuesday: Brainstorming

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

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

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

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

Wednesday: Creating Lists

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

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

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

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

Thursday: Playtesting

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

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

Friday: Creating the PDF

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

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

Saturday and Beyond

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

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

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

And Now…A Post About Starcraft (Sort Of)

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

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

Protoss: Too Smart For Their Own Good

The IHD article defines power mechanics like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doing Reps in the Lab With Reiner Knizia

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who Cares?

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

Dare to be Stupid

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

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

Destroying Your Brain Cells

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

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

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

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

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

Camelot: A Silly Place

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

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

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

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

Escape From the Castillo

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

Impactful Asymmetry

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

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

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

Three cards from "Voyages of Marco Polo"

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

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

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

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

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

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

BattleCON: Thessala Three

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

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

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

7 Wonders: Cupertino

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

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

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

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

Cosmic Encounter: Angler

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything Irrational

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

The “Pirate Game” Game

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

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

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

The highest-profile published game that uses this mechanic is Goodcritters, but I’ve seen numerous prototypes at playtest events that used this mechanic, and I’ve probably taken a crack at it once or twice myself. It’s a very appealing game on its face because it combines things that make for great gameplay – greed, group psychology, and shocking moments where the vote goes completely opposite how everyone expected. But in reality, the Pirate Game 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.

Edit: Jay Treat replied to this article with some interesting points.

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.