I’ll pre-empt your question: yes, this article is about board games. Eventually I’ll make a board game design point.
Scene: Smelly basement, five 20-year-old’s are huddled around a table covered in paper, dice, and cups of Mountain Dew.
Me: The Vampire appears behind you, coming out of one of the tunnels, and shoots rays of necrotic energy towards you two. You are surprised, and *rolls* just have time to turn around before you get hit. Falballa, you take *rolls* 28 damage, and Melran, you take *rolls* ahhhh, you lucky duck, only 4!
Vince (who plays Melran): I’m dead.
All: What do you mean you’re dead? You never told anyone you were so low on hit points!
Vince: Well I knew the Cleric was out of healing spell, what else could I do?
*A boss fight later*
Other player: Wow, and there still are some guards upstairs. I need some healing…
Vince: Melran has a healing potion on him, you can take it, he won’t need it where he is.
Vince: What? I thought maybe I wouldn’t need to use it!
Me: But it was 4 points of damage that killed you… You were at 3 and thought you’d be okay?
Vince: I was at 2 actually.
Wow, what a setup. It will probably be longer than the rest of the post will be.
So, what is the Healing Potion Effect? The Healing Potion Effect is what happens when you give players limited uses of an ability that is of situational value, and they then decide to hoard them.
“But I can only use it once, what if it would have been better later?” is a crappy place to be in in a game. Whether it’s healing potions in D&D, an Event card in Pandemic, the “Discard and Redraw” token in Ginkgopolis, or a +1 in Ganz Schön Clever, we’re always worried there might be a better time for it in just a bit, and if we use it now we’ll feel like such idiots when that opportunity arrives, so we prefer inaction. But inaction is boring. You want players to do cool stuff, not to hold on to them until it’s too late!
First, what causes that paralysis? Why do we feel that way in Pandemic, Ginkgopolis and Ganz, but not about our Rerolls in Castles of Burgundy, or our Wood in Agricola? It’s rarity. You know that you will only have one token in Gink, and 5 Event cards in Pandemic, and at most 6 +1’s in GSC. In Burgundy, if I run out of rerolls, I can go get another one easily, and so I can spend them willy nilly. Rare is special, it adds that element of excitement when it happens, but it also means I want to avoid wasting it.
Therefore, how do you push players towards using those one-time powers? Let’s see a few ideas:
- Put a limit on what you can carry: In Pandemic, you can’t have more than 7 cards in hand. If you hold an event card, you’ll need to discard Cities. Also, event cards can be played after you draw, which means the question is no longer “is this the best possible time to use it?”, but “is holding on to this card worth wasting a City card?”.
- Define exactly how good it can be: In Five Tribes, if you play with the Artisans expansion, once during the game, instead of placing a Camel, you can place a Tent, which gives you one point for every Red tile surrounding it. At the beginning of the game, looking at the setup, you know exactly how much a Tent can be worth: again, it switches the question from the more abstract “is this the best possible time to use it?” to a more concrete calculation: “I could get 7 there, this is 5: is it worth missing out on 5 to maybe get 7?” In Pandemic, you can’t put a number on how useful skipping an Infection turn is, but you do with this one.
- Make it get worse over time: In Sagrada, the first player to use a tool will pay a single gem, and others will pay two. You have very limited gems in Sagrada, but you still are pushed to use them early. You might very well wait until you don’t have a choice, but there is this slight incentive which you could get
- Don’t make it so timing-dependent: After I wrote about making players feel clever a week ago, maybe this seems out of character. However, maybe you can make players feel clever by triggering the bonus, even if the bonus is always good: in Spyrium, for example, you get a bonus (either 5$ or a worker) when you reach 8 points. 5$ is always good, and you want the worker as early as possible (going back to Make it get worse over time), but when you can only get to 7, figuring out how to reach that threshold is enough of a puzzle: you don’t need to also optimize the payoff.
- Don’t incentivize hoarding them: If an unused cool-thing-to-do is worth points at the end for not using them, you’re adding an extra barrier before using them. I did this with the power tokens in Off the Record, and quickly realized no one was using them: the question wasn’t only “can I get more out of it next turn?”, and it wasn’t even “is this move worth more than 3 points?” Instead many players just thought “I’ll keep them for the points and strategize about other stuff”
- Make having used them better: I don’t think I’ve seen this done, but imagine this: You start the game with a mega power card. Once used, you flip it over and it becomes a passive bonus, or it increases your maximum hand size or hit points or the amount of dice you roll. Maybe I read about a game that did that? Have you ever seen that in a game?
All in all, the important part about the Healing Potion Effect, like many other things in game design, is that sometimes, you have to push players towards having fun: otherwise, they can forget that’s the point.