Gimme Your Lunch Money

Being mean to other people is actually really good and cool.

Sorry, I meant in board games. I should have been more clear about that.

Being mean – significantly and intentionally setting back other players – has developed an unfair reputation as being a universally bad thing in board games. Games where you can destroy your opponents’ forces or set back their plans are usually corralled into the “take-that,” “thematic,” or “Ameritrash” corner as the grown-ups sophisticatedly block each others’ plans in Eurogames, where everything is so indirect it doesn’t feel like the players are competing at all.

This isn’t without reason, either. Being mean often makes people mad. Everyone has a limit to what they’re going to tolerate in a game, and if a game makes players angry, it’s usually failed in its goal of being a fun experience for everyone. But “being mean” and “making people angry” aren’t necessarily linked on a one-for-one basis. This article goes in depth about how to walk this fine line.

Before we get into the meat of it, note that this is a post about emotional responses to games, so I only have my own observations to go on. Your experience about what makes players angry could be very different, and in fact I’d love to hear your input on the matter via my Twitter.

Mean Girls

People generally don’t get upset when bad things happen to them in a game because they signed up for that game to have bad things happen to them. (For more about this topic, please read this article.) For example, you would only get upset about drawing bad tiles in Scrabble if you were already on tilt. However, once the bad things happening to them in the game start being caused by other players, it starts to generate bad feelings. Continuing with our Scrabble example, your opponent playing a high-scoring word onto a triple-word score space you had your eye on is much more infuriating than not drawing high-scoring letter tiles. 

So why is having something bad happen to you in a game worse because someone is doing it to you instead of the whims of fate/the game? It might be easy to write this off with a single, breezy answer, but I believe that there’s a number of factors that add up to this difference.

One is that a setback feels worse when it’s a conscious act of cruelty on the part of the opponent. If you don’t draw the right tiles, there’s no malicious intent behind it unless you believe in a weirdly petty higher power, but if your opponent invades your territory or makes you discard cards, they have chosen, of all actions and targets, to set you back specifically.

Another is that being mean is more tolerable when it directly benefits the bully’s strategy and isn’t just detracting from their victim’s. That’s because, when we play a game, our mindset becomes hyperfocused on winning the game, so actions someone takes towards achieving this goal are more excusable. Actions that only affect other people without helping you feel much more vindictive. This is one reason why the blue shell in Mario Kart is such a perpetual annoyance: Because you can only get the shell if you’re far behind, the only thing it’s going to do is drag back whoever’s currently in first, rather than help the user in any particular way.

Yet another is a sense of a power imbalance between players – it feels much worse to have a player in the lead bully a player behind them than vice-versa. In fact, this is why it’s hard to pick a target at the beginning of a game when everyone’s at roughly equal levels. The arbitrary nature of deciding who you go after is in itself an act of passive aggression. You can only feel justified in attacking someone if they’re clearly the biggest threat, either to you or to the game as a whole.

Regression to the Mean

There are a number of ways to dilute the feel-bad of being mean in a game while still giving players the opportunity.

The first is to simply force everyone to be mean to each other; if you have to attack someone, it feels much less personal than if you had the ability to advance your plan and chose to attack someone instead. Red Dragon Inn has a lot of take-that mechanics; at its core, you have to buy drinks for other players, bringing their inebriation levels closer and closer to eliminating them. The game also has a ton of cards that deal damage and do other things that only drag someone down. The key here is that you draw back up to a maximum hand size on your turn, meaning that you’re obligated to use all of your take-that cards to squeeze as much value as you can out of your start-of-turn draw. You are compensated so well for being mean that it will offend people less when you pick on them specifically.

The second is to not create actions that are only bad for one player and not good for the person taking the action. What few take-that cards exist in Terraforming Mars always have a benefit for the person who played it, and usually that benefit is significantly more impactful than whatever bad effect it happens to have. This means that if you get your greenery wiped out by an opponent’s meteor impact, you can at least feel like they didn’t play that card specifically to pick on you (though they might have timed it that way); they mostly played it for the benefits it granted to themself.

The third is to not tie a mean action to a player’s ability to take further actions. There are a number of cards in El Grande that allow you to be mean to other players, usually by rearranging the caballeros on the board in a way that makes them lose victory points. However, there is also a card that can stop your opponents from playing caballeros that turn; this one is significantly more frustrating because it interferes with not only a player’s win condition, but how they progress to that condition. When designing a mean action, it’s better to make it more of an obstacle course that an opponent has to jump through than a ball-and-chain preventing them from moving.

Conclusion

The theory goes that people like watching scary and sad movies because they get to experience negative feelings in a safe atmosphere. Through a similar mechanism, we can use games to be mean towards our friends and acquaintances while being able to patch it up afterwards. However, the “magic circle” between a game and real life is much thinner than the difference between a movie and the people watching it, so games with take-that elements have to be designed to stop emotions from running a little too hot.

The Tragedy of the Commons, or: The Comedy of the Boardgame

The “Tragedy of the Commons” is a component of economic theory first put forward in the 19th century and eventually named by Garrett Hardin. Investopedia did a better job of writing about it than I can, but to summarize it here, it’s a situation where everyone making the “rational” decision to maximize benefit from a source ends up unsustainably depleting the source.

While this concept is generally used in entry-level discussions about environmental science, the Tragedy of the Commons is a surprisingly useful tool for a game designer’s toolbox, combining both strategy and comedy into a tight, easy to understand package. Let’s look at how we can turn the Tragedy of the Commons into the Comedy of the Boardgame.

There for the Taking

In board games, the Tragedy of the Commons most frequently manifests itself in the following situation: There is an action that players can take that benefits them. However, the more people who take the action, the less beneficial that action becomes.

This is a fairly standard puzzle that combines both logic and player psychology, and the backbone of games with depleting resource pools like Agricola. You could say that almost every Euro-style game has some element that penalizes people who follow the same strategy as the other players. Where the Tragedy of the Commons differs from standard tabletop game design is that, instead of having multiple strategies that encourages players to diversify, there’s one “greedy” action that benefits players more than the others, but that punishes players if too many try to go for it. To put it in Prisoner’s Dilemma terms, it’s as if both prisoners tattling sent them to prison for 50 years.

You can further divide Tragedy of the Commons mechanics into PvP (Player versus Player) and PvE (Player versus Environment). You could think of PvP mechanics as a narrow shortcut in a car race; it might be logical to go for it, but if everyone makes the “logical” decision, the benefit of time saved goes down as everyone crams around it. PvE Tragedy mechanics involve some external force bearing down on the players; if the players don’t band together and take “selfless” actions to prevent it, it’ll result in everything from penalties for the irresponsible to the game abruptly ending with everyone’s loss.

The comedy potential here is fairly obvious. Watching people get punished for their greed has been consistently funny for hundreds of years, and it’s at its peak when everyone, thinking that they’re the exception, reaches into the pickle jar at the same time and get their hands collectively stuck. 

A Comic History of Pastoral Tragedies

It’s easier to understand a design concept if there’s concrete examples instead of just abstract thought, so let’s look at some ways the Tragedy of the Commons manifests itself in existing board game.

Incan Gold is where I got the idea for this article, and its application of the Tragedy is somehow both almost abstract in its simplicity and hilarious in its execution. Players gradually uncover more and more gems as they venture through the temple (why there’s no gold in a game called Incan Gold is beyond me); these are divided evenly among the players still in the temple, with the remainder continuing to sit on the card. In games with 5 or 6 players, quite a lot of remainder can sit around before people decide to leave. When a player leaves, they pick up all the remaining gems: The catch is that if multiple people leave, the gems are divided in the same way! There’s nothing more 

Making this system even more appealing are relic cards, which are worth a ton of points but can only be picked up by a player leaving the temple on their own. The “correct” decision of skedaddling ASAP to grab that statue is now tempered by the extreme fear of embarrassing yourself of leaving the temple, empty-handed and way too early, because one of the other players thought the same way you did.

As an example of a TotC mechanic that’s component-wide instead of set-wide, take the Cook card from Libertalia. The Cook gets to take two booty tiles instead of one, and is ranked a respectable 18 out of 30, with higher numbers getting first priority. Depending on the booty tile distribution for a certain day, it can be very tempting to play the Cook, get a huge haul, and rocket ahead in one turn. However, if other players play their own Cooks, you could waste yours entirely; you could also suffer if they take the more conservative option and play a high-ranking but risky pirate. There are several ways you could get punished for playing a Cook, but the reward is so enormous it can be worth it.

The most on-the-nose “PvE” Tragedy of the Commons mechanic is in CO2, where everyone loses if carbon pollution raises over 500 ppm. Like most Vital Lacerda games, the system is pretty complicated so it’s hard to summarize in one paragraph, but there’s essentially one single action that can actually lower carbon pollution (demolishing high-emissions power plants and replacing them with renewable energy plants) and many, many other ways to improve your standing in the game, including improving your “expertise” by sending scientists to conferences, proposing projects for plants, and so on. Essentially, if you spend too much time screwing around trying to get territory control bonuses instead of affecting meaningful change, you lose even if you had a substantial victory point lead.

Many PvE games give players who at least tried to fight the problem some kind of bonus. In Uwe Rosenberg’s Lowlands, you have the option to contribute to the construction of a dike; if not enough of the dike is built, a huge flood occurs. People who contribute to the dike avoid the worst effects of it if it breaks and get a monetary bonus if it doesn’t, so the question isn’t “do I take the selfless action of building this?”, but “is it worth the bonuses for building the dike to take attention away from building my collection of sheep?”

I Write Tragedies, Not Sins

There’s a couple of principles that can improve your use of a Tragedy of the Commons mechanic in your board game.

The first is that players’ intent should be largely hidden. The dynamic of not knowing whether the other players are going to go for the “greedy” choice and making your best guess is generally less frustrating than knowing that you’re going to have to play conservatively. The easiest way to handle this is with some kind of simultaneous action, like Incan Gold does, but with many other games it’s difficult to commit fully to either path before seeing exactly what your opponents are doing. Breaking up player turns into multiple actions, like in most worker placement games, is a fine option.

The other is that the exact “tipping point” for when a greedy action is a good idea or not should be ambiguous before you take the action – otherwise, the choice is too obvious. Returning to Lowlands, the exact strength the dike requires to withstand the oncoming flood is hidden until the upkeep phase, where players can’t alter their choices anymore. Thus, you have to make the decision whether to conservatively pitch in on building the dike or spend more time raising sheep and hoping the floods won’t be too bad this time.

Fuzziness in general is key here. The core appeal to both the comedy value and gameplay value of the TotC mechanic is that you don’t know if you can get away with being greedy until everything’s said and done, and it should come as a surprise to everyone what the actual results of their various risk-taking ventures were.

Conclusion

The Tragedy of the Commons is less talked-about that some other common board game mechanics; one reason, perhaps, is that the nitty-gritty of balancing all the options is much harder, and an unsuccesfully executed TotC mechanic can be a serious drain on the game. That said, a successfully executed TotC will generate memories in your players that they’ll carry around for their entire tabletop gaming career, so if you feel like there’s room in your game for something like this, I highly encourage you to at least try to go for it.

Incentives!!! On Ice

Richard Garfield wrote an article in The Kobold Guide to Game Design advising game designers to play as many different games as they can – not even board games, but video games, traditional games like tag, and even sports, as well as watching things like game shows and analyzing them as well. I’ve always found this advice to be spot-on, and try to branch out my game investigations where I can day to day. Because of this habit, I discovered a very interesting lesson about incentives and design intent from an unlikely source: Figure skating.

Super Spin Fighter 4

Figure skating is both a sport and performance art, combining athleticism that earns it several Olympic events with the aesthetic senses of dance media like ballet. This earns it a dedicated crowd of people who may bounce off other sports or arts, but also makes it impossible to come up with a system of judging that everyone can agree on. It essentially boils down to a debate within the skating community – should skating be judged as a sport, or as an art?

Earlier figure skating judging tried to combine the two, with judges giving a score between 0 and 6 for each category of presentation and technical skill. However, a corruption scandal at the 2002 Winter Olympics led to the adoption of the current standard used in skating competitions around the world, the ISU judging system. The ISU is a more objective scale that assigns a set value to each element (jumps, spins, etc.), then adjusts those points based on the element’s execution. There’s still points awarded for aesthetics, but it’s much more of a subordinate to execution.

The ISU scoring system was almost certainly a net positive when it comes to maintaining a competitive skating environment free of judging bias. However, this created an unintended side effect that affected how competitive people approached figure skating as a whole. Now that the majority of points were earned by execution of difficult elements, skating routines moved from a cohesive whole to more of a vehicle designed to cram in as many difficult elements as possible.

The flagship for this change is the “quad”, or a jump that requires that the skater rotate four times in midair before touching back to the rink. Suddenly, whether your routine did well or not depended in great part on whether you could hit the maximum number of quads in your routine, and less on whether those quads made aesthetic sense. As such, figure skating post-ISU scoring is now a race to the most difficult and elaborate moves, including more and more quads of various kinds. (And thus, figure skating is now a 4x game.)

Was the “quad revolution” worth the greater measure of objectivity earned by ISU? Was it also due in part to a gradually increasing athleticism on the part of people as a whole as coaching and training methods became more refined? These are questions better answered people who are more familiar with skating. What interests me is how the quad revolution was a perfect example of the core of all game design, tabletop and otherwise – incentives.

Quadruple Lutzing Through Hoops

Playing a game is the same as giving the designer permission to determine your behavior. What we do, think, and feel while playing a game are drawn from this social contract made with the game. However, designers have to use certain techniques to draw out these behaviors in the ways they want, and the best way to do that is to use incentives – a series of carrots and sticks that force players to make interesting, exciting, and challenging decisions.

There are many ways to incentivize player behavior. If a player wants to “win” a game, then any action that draws them closer to a win state than their opponents is incentivized, whether that’s lying in Werewolf, having kids in Agricola, or picking a funny card in Apples to Apples. Incentives are almost universal, even the unwritten ones – pretty much everyone who’s played a game of Codenames has given mocking suggestions to the opposing team when they’re in the weeds, because they’re incentivized to do so by the downtime and high tension on the other side.

 What’s always interested me is that, barring extreme acts of willpower from jokers who do things like build the longest road in Catan and no towns or cities, players will chase an incentive to win subconsciously, no matter how boring or miserable it is to do so. Thus, our responsibility as designers is to make sure that we’re incentivizing the things that let the players have the most fun.

The reason games go through so much playtesting is that incentivizing the right decisions for our games is nuanced and complicated. I played a Bang!-style hidden role game at a playtesting night a few years ago that was mostly performed in dead silence as we tried to figure out which roles the other players were. The designer, clearly a bit distressed, informed us that we should be talking in order to deceive the other players or suss out who was an opponent. The problem was that, based on the current rules of the game, the best thing for us to do to win the game was to quietly work towards our win conditions and not give away any information at all – if we were supposed to talk and argue, there should have been a good reason to. It wasn’t something that could have been found out by creating the rough draft and thinking about it, as human behavior in these scenarios is consistent but unpredictable.

Figure skating judging, both before and after, are examples of contests with flawed win incentives. The old 6.0 system incentivized judges to give higher scores to their home country and lower scores to opponents, as they had the freedom to do so within the rules and doing so was the best way for their country to win. (The only reason this didn’t turn into a leveling war and a race to nul points for every country was because there was a subjective limit to how much of this the audience, IOC, etc. would accept.) Under the ISU system, judges no longer had much room to do this, but skaters now had a clear incentive to adhere to an objective set of rules and maximize points as much as possible. 

Planning Your Program

At this point, we’ve broadly covered the why and how of incentives, though of course there’s so many fine details that you could fill multiple books with them. What we haven’t yet covered is the what – what do you actually want your game to incentivize? In here, too, figure skating proves deeply illuminating.

As I mentioned previously, figure skating straddles the fence between “art” and “sport”. When coming up with a system of judging, or in other words the incentives you give to skaters and coaches, how do you want to treat the practice of skating? Because skating is in the Olympics and many of the other major competitions follow in its footsteps, the broader organizers of the skating world firmly pointed the needle towards “sport”. However, while that may have been the best decision for their circumstances, it had its consequences and was not perhaps the ideal choice for skating enthusiasts or the medium as a whole.

When creating a game, you want to think about what actions, reactions, and emotions you want the game to generate and then build a system of incentives and punishments that push players towards those goals. Sometimes it’s very easy and almost subconscious to choose your design intent, particularly when working in an established media – the intellectual coziness of trick-taking games, the adrenaline rush of social deduction games, and the joy and despair of co-op games. Other times, you’re trying to mirror the emotional experiences of an external source, whether that’s the harrowing nature of the Underground Railroad or a schlocky B-horror film.

Sometimes your game, like skating, will have multiple emotional reactions it’s trying to draw from players and you need to design incentives that strike a balance. MMORPGs like World of Warcraft are essentially two things at once – a video game designed to challenge players and encourage them to continue playing in order to maintain their position on the “content treadmill”, and a virtual community that offers numerous opportunities for socialization and customization. For games like this, what looks like contradictory incentives – extremely high-end raids that require countless hours to succeed at alongside “minigames” like gardening and fishing – are trying to accomplish both goals at the same time.

When iterating your game, whether it’s broad mechanical changes or tweaking numbers, first ask yourself, “Why did I design this game? What did I want players to get out of it?” Then iterate your game so that it grows closer to that intent and not something else. It’s easy to be led astray by preëxisting games or criticism of games that aren’t like yours and to do things like make a game with wacky asymmetrical factions homogenous and boring in the name of “greater balance”, or make a party game too complex in an attempt to stand out from genre competitors; having a conscious sense of what you want your game to be, and what it could be but you don’t want it to, will keep your design journey more focused.

Kiss and Cry

Many people design games at the brain-stem level without really thinking about why they’re doing what they’re doing. God knows I do. However, tabletop game design is a profession that forever rewards you for doing the hard work of overthinking every tiny detail, and no detail is more consequential to forget than “Why was I making this in the first place?”

These questions are so obvious that they are often easy to forget. I’m grateful that the quad revolution, and skating and general, helped me wake up and consciously think about it.

Board Games and the Attention Economy

The “attention economy” is a sociological and economic term that has gained increasing relevance as users gain near-constant access to media channels via smartphones. Herbert A. Simon summarized the concept as “…a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.” To be more succint, attention is a finite resource and each call for a person’s attention drains some of it.

The attention economy is also a valuable metric to keep in mind when designing tabletop games (though I’m migrating the term a bit from its original meaning). In fact, I would argue that one of the most important indicators of a game’s complexity is its attention strain, which we can define using several objective factors.

Factor 1: How Much?

The first, and most obvious, factor in a game’s attention strain is how many components there are. However, this isn’t just total number of components – it’s the total number of components the player needs to pay attention to in order to play the game.

The distinction here is most noticeable in tableau-building games like Roll for the GalaxyRoll has a fairly large number of distinct components: Each player has a sizable tableau with up to six or seven different powers, an action strip to which they assign dice, and a pool of dice, in addition to the victory point chips and round information markers in the center of the table. However, despite this staggering amount of components, Roll is still a medium-weight game because each player only really needs to pay attention to about 20% of them. Because you can’t interact with your opponent’s tableau, you only really need to know your own components in detail most of the time.

Components that entry-level or intermediate players don’t have to pay attention to may deserve attention from advanced players, and that’s okay – advanced players will have a better range of attention for your game anyway because they’ve internalized the basic principles. Returning to Roll, a player of average skill might not pay attention to things like their opponents’ dice colors or the distribution of tiles of a certain type, and it’s not necessary for them to do so to win against people of their skill level, but that opportunity exists ready for a highly skilled player to exploit.

Factor 2: How Often?

Even if a component deserves attention, it doesn’t necessarily deserve your foremost attention all the time. Some parts of a game are only important during certain times, and at other times they can be safely ignored at no strategic cost to the player.

In many games, you can’t take every kind of action every turn, so the features you have to pay attention to are limited by whether they actually matter to you in the immediate moment. Great Western Trail has a number of disparate features, including a “job board” where players can hire cowboys and such; a cattle market where players can buy better cows for their deck; a train track running around the board with stations that grant special abilities; and the board itself, which has a number of hazardous areas that can drain money from players. However, actions are limited to the “buildings” that your cowbeeple can reach within three steps. Unless you’re planning ahead for a future purchase, you only have to care about the parts of the game that you can actually get to in the present moment, and you don’t have to balance every component at once.

You can also call attention to different components through a scoring system. In Cartographers, your scoring conditions are 2 out of 4 conditions that rotate every round; something you might need to pay careful attention to at the start of the game will become irrelevant, replaced by a new scoring condition. Besides ensuring that players aren’t pulled in too many directions at once, a system like this also keeps each round fresh and interesting, preventing a snowball effect of one player’s early lead compounding.

One of the big issues of trying to make components that only require players’ attention some of the time is that having a component only matter once in a while, or even worse, once every few games, is going to be more taxing on your players than if you had to pay attention to that component all the time.

Factor 3: Where?

The spatial placement and grouping of components can often make it easier for players to concentrate on a number of otherwise unrelated actions. This plays off the psychological principle of chunking, where humans can more easily process large amounts of information when they’re organized into discrete groups. (Think about how phone numbers are easier to remember because the 10 numbers are broken into three segments.)

In Cosmic Encounter, gaining 5 colonies on other players’ planets will let you win the game. This can frequently be difficult to track, especially with a full player count of 5+ players and with ships of multiple colors hanging out on different planets. The Fantasy Flight edition includes a tracker that lets you keep track of everyone’s foreign colonies at once, which is a baseline move for a game like this, but in a stroke of brilliance, attached the tracker to the Warp component. The Warp, beyond storing everyone’s “dead” ships, is also the focus of numerous mandatory phases during the game: Notably, at the beginning of everyone’s turn, they retrieve a ship from the Warp, thus allowing their eye to drift over the foreign colony tracker. In this way, remembering to check the win condition is chunked into normal game actions, making Cosmic‘s total cognitive load easier. (Something very valuable when you’re playing with the more complex aliens.)

There is one point of caution here: The more you dictate where all the components are located relative to each other, the more you’re dictating where everything in the game is set up. This can be an issue for people with smaller tables if your components are a weird shape that won’t fit the available space. Try not to combine too many features into a large component and keep things “free-floating” as much as you can.

Factor 4: When?

This article was inspired by the deckbuilding games Dominion and Trains. Both games have expansions with “attack” cards that affect the other players in some way, something removed from the extreme multiplayer solitaire feel common to their genre. However, despite increased interaction generally being considered a good thing, these attack cards frequently detract from the game experience because they break the unspoken promise that you don’t have to pay attention during turns that aren’t yours.

While up until now my discussion of the board game attention economy has been spatial (referring to concrete objects and their placement), when a player has to pay attention is also important. In some games, typically party games, players have to be “on” and engaged all the time. Meanwhile, in many Euros, what the other players do on their turns doesn’t require your attention until it’s your turn again. Having to be always on, especially when you’re regularly making complex strategic decisions, can often be more draining than when you have time to take a break and think about your next move sometime in the future.

Just because it’s good to let players take a break from concentrating on the present game state sometimes doesn’t mean you need to strike interactivity from the game entirely; you just need to make sure that interactive actions that affect players outside of their turns are one-sided. Two attack cards in Dominion are the Witch, which dumps a negative VP card into your opponents’ discard piles, and the Rabble, which makes each opponent do the work of discarding certain cards from the top of their decks. The Witch is much more successful in Dominion‘s context because you can mess with other players without yanking their attention away from their personal hand of cards, as the Rabble does.

This is something that’s typically determined by your genre of game. If you’re designing a game that has even partial family members in a genre, try playing those and see when you actually have to pay attention to the game. This will inform your players’ expectations going into the game, and meeting them will help prevent needless friction.

Factor 5: Wait, This is the Conclusion

Game design is about establishing a “magic circle”: Inside the circle, you want to challenge your players and deprive them of the means to achieve their goals, while outside it, you want to support your players in their gameplay experience and prevent friction in the same way other designers do. Unless you’re designing a game specifically intended to test your players’ attention span and memory, paying attention to when your players expect to concentrate and not interfering in that space will help maintain the magic circle’s integrity.

Losing Is Fun

It’s fairly easy to enjoy a game, even a bad one, if you’re winning really hard. Even in situations where your lead was determined by luck and it’s so unstoppable that you can do literally anything and coast to victory, there is something satisfying about smugly wishing the other players a good game at the end.

Conversely, many games, even good ones, can be unfun if you’re losing. This is especially true for Euro-style games that bill themselves as luck-free strategy contests – this copy implies that this kind of game is a contest that can accurately measure each player’s relative intelligence, so if you’re losing very badly in a Euro-style game, even an otherwise acclaimed one, you feel like the game is telling you that you’re stupid.

When designing a game where strategy is an important component, as much as we have to make a winning strategy also the most fun thing players can pursue, we also have to ensure that players have a good time even while they’re losing. This article explores a few methods that can help this pursuit.

Allow Players to Reach Smaller Goals

The vast majority of games have a final goal that, when reached, wins the game for the player or players who reach it. However, many games also have lesser goals whose achievement helps pave the road for the final goal. This can range from the minor, like assembling a set of all three science symbols in 7 Wonders, to the major, like conquering a continent in Risk.

The trick is that these sub-goals are often as satisfying to complete as the major goal of the game. If a player loses, but they have these goals to point to as a quantifiable achievement, they feel like they were able to accomplish enough that playing the game had worth. So by including sub-goals or concrete steps toward victory, you can help players feel that they were able to prove themselves to a lesser extent.

The best part of using sub-goals to help losing players enjoy themselves is that it isn’t hard to knit them into your game in the first place. Sub-goals crop up naturally in most strategy game designs because it provides an exponentially ramping complexity and power that tends to be satisfying. So adding goals that give all players a sense of accomplishment is more about intention that actively going out of your way to include something in your game that doesn’t work there.

Muddle Scores

One of the big changes Small World implemented compared to its predecessor, Vinci, was replacing Vinci‘s double-sided victory point coins with single-sided ones that could be hidden from the other players once acquired. Part of the reason for doing this is that both games are territory control games, and keeping scores hidden stopped the table from picking on whoever was in the lead. But it also exemplified a method to keep losing players engaged: Muddling the scores enough that you don’t know exactly who’s winning.

Most of your players aren’t stupid, and have some general sense of how well they’re doing based on the game state. However, many players falling behind will willfully deceive themselves if the scores are muddled – if they don’t know for sure that they’re hopeless to win, then they’re willing to believe that their actions still have some use.

You don’t necessarily need to keep scores “hidden” in the traditional sense either: Another valid concept is to have one major strategy score points incrementally while another scores in the late- or endgame. Returning to 7 Wonders, players going for science and civic strategies will gradually accumulate a lot of point-scoring cards in front of them over the course of the game, but they’re not necessarily guaranteed victory despite this appearance of a massive lead – players who stockpile a lot of resources and gain military cards will suddenly catch up late in the game as cards that grant huge amounts of points to that strategy start to appear.

For games that end when a player reaches a certain amount of points, rather than after a certain number of rounds, including methods for a player to suddenly rocket ahead will help muddy how distant someone’s lead actually is. The soldier cards and longest road bonus in Catan allow a player to suddenly earn 3 or 4 points of the 10 they need to win in a single turn, meaning that another player with 6 points might think they’re competitive until the very last moment.

Wrap the Game Up Quickly After A Winner Becomes Clear

Some games create the unfortunate game state where the winner is obvious, but the players still have to play out a significant part of the game before they can wrap it up. This is particularly true in racing games – my only game of Camel Up ended with one camel rocketing far into the distance ahead of the others – but can be true in many other types of games, as well. Of course, making it so any player can win the game no matter how late it gets then eliminates the point of good strategy anywhere but before the very end of the game.

A better option is to wrap up the game right as the gap between players could become untenable. In a time-based game, that means cutting the game by maybe a round or two so people with a lead can’t reinforce that lead. (This is particularly true for engine-building games where your lead will build on itself most of the time.) In a score-based game, ensure that the winning score isn’t so high that a humongous lead isn’t even mathematically possible and then reinforce it by either not allowing a player to accelerate or letting them accelerate so quickly that you have only one or two “dead rounds” where the outcome is known.

If handled well, quickly wrapping up a game can make even the unthinkable plausible. One of the first things you learn as a game designer is that player elimination is about the worst thing you can include in a game, but the widely lauded Love Letter uses player elimination well by virtue of having extremely short rounds. Even though you have literally no chance of winning once you’re eliminated, it’ll only be a few turns before you can go back into the game.

Conclusion

As much as more serious game designers hate to admit, whether we won or lost a game still influences how we feel about it regardless of its objective design qualities. This is even more true for players, who don’t have (nor are they expected to have) the level of detachment that benefits designers. You can’t make a competitive game with no losers, but endeavoring to make the sting of losing as gentle as possible makes your game much more likely to have repeat players.

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.

 

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!

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.

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!

The One About Expansions

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

Cognitive Load

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

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

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

Limit the number of components that show up at once

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

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

Replace rules instead of adding new ones

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

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

Work within your game’s vocabulary

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

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

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

A Case For Odin

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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