The clarity of “up to”

I’m an ardent supporter of clarity in games, to allow players to focus less on what they can do, and more on what they want to do. A big part of this is to only add rules when they are necessary, to keep the structure as light as possible.

This week, playing Arkham Horror LCG, I found one rule I think you should always add: the “up to”. Compare these two cards:

Pictures from ArkhamDB.com

These two cards are very different, but both share the “Gain X, where X is _____” format. I love those so much, mainly because of how satisfying they are: the timing aspect gives it a push-your-luck vibe, and you feel like you’re getting away with something when you get it to the high values! You feel clever, there are opportunities for awesome combos, and your game is memorable.

Such cards are hard to balance (but, remember, balance schmalance), because the timing aspect is very limiting, but the value is also very variable. However, it feels good to pull off a high number on these, so I’d assume they are balanced assuming you’ll hit pretty close to that maximum value.

Crack the Case is based off of your location’s shroud, which usually hovers between 2 and 5. Search for the Truth is based off of the number of clues you currently have, which is almost limitless, and therefore, they put an upper limit: “up to 5”.

You could say that both are more or less the same. Crack the Case has a similar cap of 5, but it’s hidden: you need to have played a few games to understand what those shroud values usually are. Putting the upper limit on the card feels less elegant, because it’s a rule they have to spell out rather than let you learn, but it also raises the barrier to entry. If an experienced player uses it on a 3 and reveal a 5 on the following turn, it’s a “fun” frustration: you played it safe and shouldn’t have. If a new player does it, it’s just frustrating, because they weren’t shown what these values could be.

Still, you can just say that this is part of your learning process: your second game will be more satisfying, and that’s just part of the depth of the game. Sure.

However, one place where calling out the limit makes it clear is by pushing you towards action. Without a limit, you can spend turns and turns boosting up a single action, which leads to a static, stale game. Sure, that one action will be cool, but will it be cool enough to warrant that big of a warmup?

By putting this hard cap, you tell players exactly when they should stop planning to boost it. Without a limit, players start planning dozens of turns ahead, which means they plan dozens of possible outcomes for each, which quickly pushes them towards AP. With an “up to” clause, you tell your players that they can plan… up until this exact point.

When they get to that point, they use their cards, and then get planning cool combo #2, looking 2, 3, 4 turns into the future instead of 20.

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