Non-decisions

One of the most discussed difference between hobby board games and mass market is decisions. When in Monopoly you roll a die to see where you go, in Tokaido you just… choose where you go. That choice is, really, what modern games are about, where strategy and tactics and story and interaction come from. Recently, I’ve been testing a lot of less-than-polished games from other new designers, and I’ve seen two types of non-decisions: they look like decision, but really aren’t.

I’ve played a lot of prototypes that were spinoffs of the card game War. Imagine a game where you had a handful of monster cards, and played them against one another in duels. One player would play one, and the other would respond, highest number gains a point, discard the cards, go again. This would be a crappy game, and a perfect example of both types of non-decisions: the first player had an arbitrary decision, and the second, an automatic decision.

An arbitrary decision is one where you have insufficient information to make a decision. Not incomplete information -that is actually interesting-, but insufficient to push you one way or the other. If I knew what my opponent had in hand, then I could try and strategize which monsters I’d force them to play, opening things up for the following duel. If the monsters had specific abilities outside of the duel, I could base my choice on those abilities. If the prize differed from one duel to the next, I could choose when to go all in and when to play it safe. But as is, no information means my decision is based on… nothing at all. And therefore, a non-decision.

An automatic decision is the opposite. It’s not only perfect information on the situation, but also clear, directly comparable result. If you play a 6, do I have a card of higher value? Then, I play the lowest one that is still higher. If not, I play my lowest card. That’s it: sure, I can play my 10 on a 3, but that’s just sub optimal.

And you might think “of course, that’s a crappy example of a game just to make your point”, but really, (1) I’ve played games that are pretty close to that, and (2) you’ve played a few prototypes, and probably even a few published games, that rely on non-decisions like that. Will you turn right or left at this intersection? Will you take a bonus red or blue cube? A few decisions like that in a game are annoying, but too many and it’s a problem.

That begs the question: how do you avoid those? If you want to be on the spectrum between arbitrary and automatic, in the good, crunchy Goldilocks zone, how do you make that happen?

Well, as a true blogger, we’ll look at that on Thursday.

Psychology of final scores

There’s a lot of talk in design circles about balance, and how the real focus should be on the illusion of balance, rather than balance itself. I have a cool story about that!

My first game, Cartographia, got signed in 2017. It does new things, but one wheel we didn’t reinvent is “most points wins”. When we pitched it to the publisher that signed it, the final scores were something like 120-80-50. A lot of people who finished in second place felt like they got blown out.

After agreeing with the publisher to change it, we gave everyone an extra 50 points. Not “you each start with 50”, just increasing the value of stuff so that, on average, everyone has higher scores. Scores were now 170-130-100. Suddenly, even though the lead was just as hard to catch up to, players felt better about those scores.

We then halved everything: what gave 4 is now 2, 12 is now 6. You’re smart, you know how halving works. Scores were now 85-65-50, and the point spread was never brought up again.

It would be easy to point to the fact that last place still has 50, and what used to be 70-pts behind is now 35-pts behind: of course they’re okay about that! But in reality, those 35 points now are as hard to get as the 70 before. But the odds of a comeback are not what we care about: the hope is. And that’s emotion, and that just requires re-framing.

All in all, points are a way for the game to compare players’ performances to establish the winner, but players will also compare themselves through it.

It also reminds me of my first game of Heaven & Ale, which is a game I automatically fell in love with. In it, most of your score is your resource that’s lowest on a track (representing how much beer you can produce) multiplied by your beer’s quality (which, IIRC, goes from 2 to 6). But the track starts wayyyyyyy below zero: at the beginning of the game, your lowest resource is at like -12. So, of course, one of my friends finished the game with one resource under 0, and a score of 0. In reality, he scored 0 because you start with -24 points. I think they numbered the track that way to limit the multiplication to lower numbers: you have to play pretty badly to score 0. But when comparing points, it kind of throws everything off, sort of like a graph that doesn’t start at 0.

Do you have a special story about a game’s scoring system, either from a designer or a player perspective? Please share it below, I’d love to read them!

Complexity for its own sake

The goal of this blog is to talk about game design, and the lesson I’ve learned during the process. So why not start with the latest lesson I learned. I had to learn it a few times, too: a mechanism that players don’t interact with is just artistic pretentiousness.

While working on Cybertopia, we ran into this situation twice in the last month. The first time was with the Corporation boards, where players place their Virus tokens, covering certain spots for instant bonuses, and eventually trying to have the most Viruses on it when the Corporations goes in lockout.

While working on Cybertopia, we ran into this situation twice in the last month. The first time was with the Corporation boards, where players place their Virus tokens, covering certain spots for instant bonuses, and eventually trying to have the most Viruses on it when the Corporations goes in lockout. We had 4 Corps, so it made sense to us to have each look different, work differently, and trigger scoring from a different mechanism.

We felt pretty good about it, until we showed that version to a friend: it took me the regular 8 minutes to teach the game, but then it also took 6 minutes to explain how each Corp worked. They liked the idea, and actually found it interesting for every one of them to feel separate. But here’s the thing: it never guided any strategic decision. You didn’t play on the race because it was a race, or on the square because it was a square: you chose which one it was because of the bonuses you could get, and the opponents’ positions on them. It’s not just that it added rules but not strategy: it’s that it was a mechanism which only existed to make us, the designers, feel smart.

We’ve since made the change to make every Corporation work in the same way: a 5×5 square, where players start in the middle, and which scores when 2 lines (rows or columns) are completed. We lost maybe 1% of strategy, but cut the length of the teach by close to half, and the rules mistake by a similar margin. Sure, the system offered differences, but never influenced how players played: that’s where the word interact from the intro comes in.

Worst thing is, we then did the exact same thing: we had a set collection aspect (which is since then gone, but the point still stands), where in order to make every set feel different, we gave them all a different mechanism:

  • Blackmails score 1pt per Secret you own;
  • Blueprints score 15 points if you have 4, 0 if you have less;
  • Dossiers score triangular points (1, 3, 6, 10…);
  • Financial Info comes in 3 flavor, and scores a lot, but you only score the flavor you have the least of.

Sure, it looks cool, but in the end, it’s all set-collection. It’s just “get a lot of these”. So we instead went with streamlining them all to the same mechanism: A scores if you have 2, B if you have 3, C if you have 4. Again, the difference drove no decision: you still wanted to have a bunch of them, and they were not all worth the same to everyone -which is super cool!-, but again: no interaction with the players. It just was there.

It reminds me of when I was DMing D&D and used packaged adventures. They had huge backstories for the bad guys, pages upon pages of who they were, and how Bandit King was Random Bandit #3’s son, and Daddy Bandit just found out his wife died, and then PCs come in and fireball and it never mattered.

In each of those cases, it was technically different: the Corps had a different feel; the Set collections had different risk-levels; the PCs could have a discussion with a faceless goons and use this knowledge to their advantage. But in reality, it’s like Schrödinger’s cat: until they interact with the differences, those differences don’t actually matter.

Except to us, game designers, who can pat our own shoulders and yell “LOOK AT HOW CLEVER I AM!”