There are three lines in board game ads that are way too common, to the point of being ridiculed on social media whenever they come up:
- “Minute to learn, lifetime to master“
- “Never-seen-before mechanism!“
Those two I understand: too often, it’s mostly empty marketese and proof of somebody who hasn’t been around the board game sphere, the kind of naivety which suggests a less-than-stellar game. Sure, sometimes it’s true, and when it is, those qualities do have great value, but the words themselves have lost the benefit of the doubt: show, don’t tell.
The third one is “Over 100,000 different setups!“, or any other similarly high number, often followed with “no two games will ever be alike!“. The goal is to present a highly re-playable game, with a broad spectrum of experiences to deliver. Variable setups, and their close cousin modular expansions, are a divisive thing in our hobby, but boy oh boy do I love both.
First, just so we work off a common definition, I’ll define variable setup thus:
Variable setup is when a game’s starting state changes from one game to the next, in a way that is known to the players.
This definition therefore includes modular boards, starting resources, available actions, special abilities, or goals, but not the order in which the cards in a shuffled deck are ordered, or objectives which are revealed later in the game. And of course, it’s a spectrum, going from starting with a different card in Coloretto to playing an entirely different game with the same system in 504.
To me, variable setup is an asset in games I buy, and an objective in games I design. Yet, many choose to mock games which advertise it as a main selling point. There are a few good points that come out of the mockery, which is why I wanted to spend a post to discuss it. I would group the mockery in 4 general threads, each containing a nugget of truth:
- Who cares, just focus on making a good game!
- Why bother? People only play games once these days!
- Variability should come from the game itself!
- How many of those 100,000 are actually different?
Each of them brings up an important characteristic of setup variability, each with its own pros and cons:
- Not everyone values variability. A lot of people prefer a game with a more limited and defined scope, which delivers a specific experience every time. Furthermore, many see variability as dilution of the product: if the game delivers 10 different experiences, how much design time has gone into each of them?
Now personally, I very much disagree. Of course, some games have gone too far with the variability, and made a hundred mediocre games instead of a great one. But that being said, a strong core which you can then go down multiple paths in is something that hooks me and keeps me coming back.
- Many people only play games once. Yes, that’s true: if you’ll only play a game once, just give me a single setup, it’s much simpler, much cheaper, much quicker.
That being said, I see that situation as a challenge to overcome, not as a reality you have to follow: very often, after a playtest of With a Smile & a Gun or Off the Record!, I’ve had players look through the power cards, and just go “oh yes, I want to play again with this one”. After them having a good time, having their interest piqued is the best way to get a player back to the table, thinking “oh what else does it have in store?”
- Variety can come from other sources. It can. Player interaction is a great way to surprise players even after repeated plays, so is randomness. Those can make sure that no two games are ever the same.
That being said, a variable setup is not only a source of variety: it is also a strategic puzzle in how you react to it. Just like player interaction is about reading your opponents, and randomness is about pushing your luck, a variable setup is about evaluating the situation, and which paths are advantaged or not in a specific game. Sure, you may not like that, just like I don’t particularly like having to mitigate die rolls to determine success.
- Variability is not always meaningful. My gateway into board gaming was Dominion. In it, each game is centered on a different set of 10 cards, from a pool of roughly… 400 different cards now? That being said, not every one of those setups is significantly different: if you have access to Gardens (which score points based on the number of cards in your deck) and Workshop (which allow you to gain more cards per turn), that opens up that strategic path, but whether that 10th available card is a Village or a Market really doesn’t change much. Meaning that out of millions of setups, you probably have closer to 100 meaningfully different ones. That’s still a lot, but that 100 is what I care about, not the more often presented millions.
That obviously begs the question “what makes variability meaningful?”, which, I swear, I’ll get into… next time. Just let me wrap this one up first.
So no. variability in games is not a marker of quality, just like meanness or puzzliness aren’t. However, when done well, it is a feature of a game which many (including me) enjoy: those moments of “wow, they can use this system for THIS too?”, or “Ohhhh, can’t wait to try out this faction”. It’s the exploration factor, the learning new things constantly, but also the adaptability: “yeah do you mind if we don’t play with the Skeletons in this game, I don’t really enjoy them”. Done!
Some have described it as breadth rather than depth, as exploring rather than mastering, but I think it belittles the strategic aspect of evaluating each setup and how it will affect the game: whether it’s looking at where the starting cubes are in Pandemic, which combos you have in your hand in Agricola, or the objectives available in a game of Gaia Project, I personally love the adaptability it requires, how much it pushes you in different directions.
Not for everyone, but most definitely for me. And hopefully for others, because boy oh boy are they central in the games I design.