Lifehack the complexity budget!

When designing a game, the balance between depth and weight is a tricky one. Every system, element, or even just rule, you add to a game brings strategy, tactics, balance, but also complexity. Fun : weight ratio, which many prefer to think of as the complexity budget, is an important aspect of game design.

Here’s the thing: there’s a lifehack to this. I have a tool to share with you which can add a lot of depth for minimal complexity, in an almost “too-good-to-be-true” infomercial kind of way.

That thing is Space. More specifically, spatial relations. Our brains think spatially, and a lot of these things are so ingrained in us that it’s harder to put in words than to actually interact with.

Think of the tiles in Isle of Skye: it takes a second of looking at it to parse all that it contains, not only the scrolls, buildings and barrels, but also the land types, roads, and their position on the tile. If these were cards in a tableau building game, no mechanism could make up for that depth.

Now, of course, tile laying games are built around that spatial aspect, and not every game can be about tile laying, or route building, or map skirmish. Yet, even game types which are not intrinsically spatial can be enriched, at no extra complexity, by leaning into our brains’ innate spatial understanding.

Not only good for tiles

Early in With a Smile & a Gun‘s development, you would draft a die, and place influence in the district of that value: 6 districts, each associated with a number. It was easy to grasp, but a bit boring, a bit stale.

I added a lot of strategic depth to the game by making each die value affect two districts, and each district be affected by two values (using my favorite tool, the power of combinations):

By using adjacency, players grasped the relationships just as easily as they did the first version. The decision were more interesting, because of the depth this added to the game, but players didn’t have to spend more cognitive bandwidth on this system.

Version 3, the one the final game still uses, adds a lot more depth without much weight:

GIF by the amazing Jon Merchant

Now your die moves your meeple around the city, and you place cubes in the row/column in front of it. In addition to the added thematic aspect of moving your meeple, here’s all of the strategic difference this adds:

  • You affect 3 districts instead of 2: the most obvious one, but a pretty big impact on depth;
  • Relative numbers matter, not absolutes: going to a spot might require a 2 for me, but a 4 for you, which means I can keep you from going without having to go myself;
  • Distance matters: You place 3, 2, and 1 cube, starting from your meeple, making the choices regarding the area control more granular, more dynamic;
  • The possible combinations are clear: not every combination of 3 districts is possible, and that is clear to every player, even on their first game.

Not only did this system add the thematic resonance of the movement, and all of these interesting levels to the game, but by and large, players found this version simpler to grok than the first two. Of course, other effects come into play, but still: this added a LOT of depth, for virtually no complexity.

Even more intrinsic

I’ve brought this up in one of the designer diaries for the game, but it bears repeating here: there are fundamental differences between the corner districts, the side districts, and the central one, simply based on spatial aspects.

First, the 3/2/1 placement mechanism means that while a side district can receive 3, 2, or 1 cube, depending on where you’re hitting it from, corners can only get 3 or 1, and the center only gets cubes by 2s. It affects how swingy the majority for those districts are.

Second, the distance between two spots that affect a given district vary. The 4 spots to influence the central district are exactly 3 spaces apart. However, after you pass a corner, it can take a while before you get back to placing on it, especially if you need to place 3 cubes.

Now, these aren’t large differences, but they’re still there. What’s more, I didn’t even design them in: it’s just inherent to the spatial design of it. It took me a bit of time to even realize it was the case.

Remember when we were talking about depth : weight ratio? I added depth to my game without meaning to. Isn’t that some magical, snake oil kinda tool!

Other examples

Tzolk’in famously uses these large, interconnected gears to represent the passage of time. In addition to the gimmick and eye-catching aspect of the gears, this entire system would have been so much harder to represent without a spatial aspect.

Final game board with gears and stickers.
Image from publisher

Pandemic is one of many examples of games which feature movement on a map, and you could say that’s an inherently spatial game and I’ve broken my own premise. However, I think it’s worth pointing out how the links between cities naturally create different experiences based on which cities are targetted at setup: 3 cubes on Santiago, with its single path out, is not the same as on Baghdad, with its 5 neighbours, or Madrid, which also has 5 neighbors, but 2 of which are of different colours. If the map didn’t include those spatial oddities, the setup variety would not be as meaningful.

Pandemic, Z-Man Games, 2013 – game board
Image from publisher

Battle Line (also known as Schotten Totten) is, to put it simply, a mix of War and Poker, where the two players play cards in front of a line of 9 flags, trying to make a better poker hand than their opponent. To win, you must either gain 5 of the 9 flags, or 3 adjacent ones. That extra winning condition adds a lot of tension, makes some sites more important, makes the ends of the line feel different from the middle, and all of that at no extra cognitive load.

uncaptioned image
Picture by @BoardGameGeek

Think about the design(s) you’re working on right now: is there a part of your game that you could improve (either by simplifying without making less engaging, or by enriching it at low complexity costs), simply by presenting it spatially?

The Power of Combinations

Modern board games are about choices, difficult choices. Where old games gave you a roll of the dice or a card draw, modern games give you a decision to make, putting you in the driver’s seat, and that’s where most of the fun of board games comes from: meaningful but difficult decisions.

I’ve talked in an earlier post about how to make those choices meaningful in a more theoretical, academic way. I’ve talked about four aspects to consider: opacity, comparability, uncertainty, and interchangeability. I’ve also mentioned that choices, while they are at the core of what makes games interesting, also take time. Today, I’m here to share with you a more practical tip to designing interesting decisions without breaking a game’s pace, and probably my go-to design tool: combinations.

First, I guess I should offer a definition: combinations are what happens when you put two things together. Rather than offering your players a display of 5 cards, and telling them to draw 2, you make 3 pairs of cards, and tell them to choose a pair.

There are a few interesting things that happen when you combine decisions:

  • The game speeds up: Like I said above, a decision takes time. By combining 2 decisions into one, you half the number of decisions players have to make.
  • The choices are harder to compare: If I need a wood, could use clay, but already have a million stones, would I rather take a wood and a stone, or two clays? The decisions instantly become more interesting.
  • It makes you work on multiple fronts: It is a pretty boring game where you just focus on one plan, complete it, then go to the next. It’s a lot more interesting to push your players into juggling multiple different tasks. Combinations lead to players piling up “kickers”, stuff that they got as bonuses for the things they were trying to do, and eventually, they’ll figure out what to do with them!
  • Sometimes, there’s a perfect storm: Sometimes, the two things you need just so happen to be paired together! Sure, it defeats the purpose of the “difficult decision”, but if it happens only a few times a game, it is a great feel-good moment!

Combinations are already often used in games, in ways we’ve come to take for granted. For example, in worker placement or card drafting games, taking an action or card does not only affect you, but also limits what your opponents can do; in many Euros, you build buildings that give you points and a special ability; in rondel games, the space you go to matters, but so do the ones you skip over.

These are examples of basic combinations: we take them for granted because, most of the time, one of them is very secondary. Most of the time, when I play Le Havre, I’ll choose my action based on what I need, and if it blocks you, that’s just icing on the cake. It’s solid design, but we can still take it further.

One of the games which best represents this, to me, is Sentient, an underappreciated game by J. Alex Kevern. In Sentient, you place workers on a display which (a) determines the card you’ll draft, and (b) counts for the majority scoring for the tiles in between each card.

Investors and bots
Picture from BGG user Zedsdead

What makes this mechanism great is that, sometimes, there’s a card you really need, and sometimes, there’s a tile you really need: either of them could make the scale tip. There so rarely is a tableau where none of the possibilities fulfill one of your goal, and sometimes the stars align, and the perfect choice comes up, and you get to stand up and cackle fiendishly as you place your meeple at that perfect spot. Maybe your opponents will even give you a standing ovation.

And isn’t that why we play games?

Designer Diary #3: The Nuts and Bolts

This post is Part 3 of a Designer Diary for With a Smile & a Gun, initially posted during the Kickstarter campaign! In this section, I talk about the mechanical evolution of the game, and the thought process behind it. There is some overlap between this post and the “5 Lessons from” post from early January, 2020, but I think they still stand on their own.

Picture from Eric Yurko

With a Smile & a Gun’s core conceit, as I said in the first post, didn’t change since the first draft of the game. Just to recap, that core is:

  • Dice drafting: draft a die for your movement around a 3×3 grid, and a die for your action;
  • Grid: After moving, you affect all districts in the row/column facing you;
  • Area control: Most cubes in a district is how you get points;
  • Laying low: Actions for higher values are stronger, but having a lower action sum than your opponent gives you a bonus
  • Shared enemy: As 2-player area majority tends to lack competition, there’s a 3rd faction, which both players can affect, but not control, and both compete with;
  • Leftover die: to make sure the last player has a decision to make, the leftover die as an effect on the game.

There has been a lot of small tweaks, of course, but there are three sections of the game which have seen dramatic changes since that first draft, and those are what I want to discuss in this post: the scoring system, the effect of the leftover die, and how the area control works.

Scoring
The scoring is without a doubt what took most of my time throughout the development of this game. I wanted to have a system that made the value of each district different, but also dynamic. I didn’t want every district to be the same, because then the whole concept of “affect a whole row” loses its meaning, but I also wanted to make sure that sometimes, a District was just a must-win, where you didn’t mind affecting Districts you wouldn’t care about if you could get that one. I also wanted to make sure that sometimes, second place would be just as good as first, and other times, it was first or bust.

I tried a lot of different things, and most of them fell short, but the one recurring theme is definitely related to complexity. Designers often talk about complexity budget, basically pushing you to ask, with every rule that you add, whether its impact to the quality of the game is worth its complexity. What I learned in developing With a Smile & a Gun’s scoring system is that you should spend as much of your complexity budget where the actual hook of the game is.

I tried a lot of very complex things to make the scoring system more interesting, but the truth is, no one is playing this game for its scoring system: the interesting part is in the dice selection, in what you’re leaving for your opponent and for the shadow. The scoring system, as any good supporting actor, is there to make the dice drafting shine. To do that, it needs to be as simple as possible, so that players can easily spot which districts are worth a lot, which districts are must haves, which districts are of little interest.

A simpler scoring system also means that most districts are scored very quickly, because choosing between 5 and 2 points is a lot easier than choosing between a set collection item and a majority tile. Decisions are nice, but they take time, and when the scoring phase takes as long as the action phase, the game’s pace suffers. In the final version, most rounds will have 7 instant evaluations, but 1 or 2 interesting choices. Not only is that quicker, but the fact that these moments are rarer means they are much more special, more tense, and it becomes interesting for both the player choosing and their opponent.

Grid
Up until quite recently, players would add a single cube to every District in the row facing them, rather than the current 3/2/1. This might seem like one of the secondary changes in that tweak-level, but it’s one of those small things that had a big impact on the way the game evolves:

  1. Come backs in majorities are now possible: before, if you were down 2 cubes, it was almost impossible to get back on top, and placing a cube there felt like a waste. It made the initial neutral cubes feel like a mountain to climb, rather than just an obstacle. It makes the game so much more dynamic, because it takes a lot of effort for a majority to be 100% safe. More dynamic also means less time spent calculating every cube, which means a quicker pace!
  2. Where you land is more important: Before, there were 4 ways to affect each district, and each of them were of similar value. Choosing a die was about which combination of districts you wanted to hit, not about prioritizing them. Now, sometimes its about hitting two districts in one move, sometimes its about dropping 3 in a specific districts, and that adds a lot of depth to the game. Plus, sometimes a die gets you to do both in one swoop!
  3. Districts are inherently different: When you added a cube to every district, the board was very flat: every space linked to three Districts, each District was linked to four spaces, and they all were very similar. Now, the Central district always gets two cubes; Corners can get 3 or 1, and the spaces to place 3 cubes are adjacent to one another; Sides can be hit by 3, 2, or 1, but no back-to-back numbers. It’s minor, and most people would say I’m stretching, but over time you treat them differently. It’s also the reason why I added the 3rd control token to the Central district, to put that difference on display.
Picture from Eric Yurko

The Shadow
This one is a mixture of two things I’ve been toying with throughout the game’s development: one was the leftover die, and the other a desire for replayability.

I have a tendency to hyperfocus on games, and play them very frequently in a short window of time, then forget about them for a bit. That’s even more true for 2-player games: in the first 3 months after it came out, I played 7 Wonders Duel 27 times, and to be very frank, I grew kinda sick of it. That happens with a lot of 2-player games for me, mainly because they often end up happening against the same opponent, and can often get stale.

I knew that for a game like With a Smile & a Gun, I wanted a variable setup which would allow some mechanical difference from one game to the next, so that after a game, you could go “hey, let’s try again with this one”. I tried a lot of different things, from changing the players’ action lists, to special action cards, to an event deck, even making one of the District different from one game to the next.

On the other hand, I also had that leftover die, which for the longest time went to the “Police Chief”. It made sense to me that the neutral character would, just like the players, use a die to move a meeple around the city and place dice. Therefore, the Police Chief used the final dice, moved around and placed more Police cubes. Usually, players would forget about the Chief, and either wrap up a round without activating it, or would think of it, move it, and make everyone angry because you hadn’t included it in your calculations.

I’m not exactly sure when those two wires ended up connecting, but at some point they did. Gone was the Police Chief, and his annoying blue cubes everywhere, and in came the Shadow, with an effect that changed from game to game. Still moved around, and affected the district in front of them, but now its effect is different with every play.


And that is the final entry of the With a Smile & a Gun designer diary! Thank you so much for your interest in its development, and feel free to post any comment and question you have!

Designer Diary #2: The Setting

This post is Part 2 of a Designer Diary for With a Smile & a Gun, currently on Kickstarter! In this section, I talk about the thematic evolution of the game, and the thought process behind it.

Once I started work on what would become this game, the mechanisms had created some requirements for the theme:
• I needed a setting that would support and suggest the theme of intrigue and underhandedness;
• I needed the players to have a third entity to compete with, but one which worked under different rules and therefore couldn’t just be a third of whatever role the players would fill;
• I needed a thematic explanation for the bonus of the player who took the lowest sum of action dice.

The first theme I went for was the discovery of Atlantis: the players were rival researchers, trying to be known as the world’s leading expert, and would stop at nothing to discredit their opponent. There was also a capitalist mogul who had sent a ship to find those relics, and that acted as the third player.

That theme didn’t really last. It only took a few tests before I realized how clunky it made everything, and as much as I liked the more original theme, I defaulted to a gangster theme—which checked all the boxes, but was a bit bland—, covered everything in GTA screencaps, and told myself I’d figure theme out later.

I developed the game around that gangster theme: the police as the third player, the thematic explanation for needing to lay low, the brawn-vs-brain decisions. I always saw it as a placeholder though. I wanted to avoid making yet another game about generic organized crime: while I was working on this game, three Godfather-themed games came out, and I wanted my game to stand out. If I could set the game anywhere, why not go for a more unique theme?

Every time I’d try out a new theme though, it added expectations that I never intended to meet: I made the game about a mutiny on a pirate ship, and people asked “when do we go out and plunder?”; I made it about sorcerers and people asked “why can’t I just shoot fireballs at them; modern politics led to “when do we get to the debate?”; Caesar’s assassination to “what if people stay loyal to the Emperor?”

By then, what I realized is that a game’s theme is not just about fitting the game’s mechanisms, but also setting up what the players expect to do. Sure, the game is a perfect representation of a mutiny, but this is not the game people want when they hear a title about pirates. However, it all makes so much sense when you apply it to a game about gangsters—which, of course it does, that’s the theme I developed the game around!

I think that, rationally, I knew the gangster theme was the way to go, but I couldn’t convince myself it was the right call, kind of like when you know you should go to bed but instead browse Netflix until 3 am. That is, until I found the Al Capone quote. I don’t remember exactly how I fell on it, but it was love at first sight:

“You can get pretty far in life with a smile, but you can get a helluva lot farther with a smile and a gun.”

I love this line, but I also thought it was such a perfect representation of the game’s tone: it starts all nice and kind-hearted, but then gets darker. The abrupt change of direction makes it funny, not laugh-out-loud funny, but the kind of funny where you smile and exhale from your nose. There’s a threat in that sentence, but there’s also the smile. It’s the bravado of those who know they’re in control of the situation.

That was the time where I committed to the mobster theme. If the theme wasn’t the most unique, I could find an art style that would make the game stand out.

That was last December. Over the holiday period, I was at my parents’ house, scrolling through Twitter, and I fell on this tweet:

external image

That barn illustration blew me away. Black-and-white, the cross-hatching, the pop of colour, the atmosphere that was somehow both peaceful and spooky. I wanted to see more of that art. I wanted my game to take place in this universe, in this palette. I contacted Justin that day, and I was overwhelmed with joy when he accepted to join the project.

And just like his Christmas cards, the game devolved into a spooky flavour. He is who he is.

I grew up on D&D and Lord of the Rings, and I’ve started loving those fantastical aspects into non-medieval settings, be it Westerns like in the Dark Tower, modern times like in Dresden Files, or sci-fi stuff like in Shadowrun. Fantasy Noir sounded like a fascinating universe, and Justin rolled with it.

The fantastical aspect is subtle: I don’t with to overshadow the noir. I don’t want to fall into creating expectations I can’t meet again: if you’re looking, you’ll see the easter eggs. You’ll see the signs.

And when the surprise happens, you’ll think “oh, I should have seen that one coming”.

In the next entry, I’ll talk about the mechanical evolution, the real nuts and bolts stuff. Again, hopefully a few of those lessons I learned throughout the development will be helpful to others.

If this game sounds interesting, you can go look it up at withasmileandagun.com

Designer Diary #1: The Spark

This is the first entry in my Designer Diary series for With a Smile & a Gun, coming to Kickstarter on July 14th, 2020. In this installment, I talk about the inspiration for the game, and core of the game, and how I filled it out to a workable mechanical framework.

Two-player games were my entry point into the board gaming hobby and, fwo-player games were my entry point into the board gaming hobby and, for the long period before I managed to get a steady game group, mostly the only way I played. I had two opponents: Josianne, my best friend and partner of 15 years, and James, one of my closest friends, a relationship based on ribbing and schadenfreude.

Ever since I started designing games, I knew I wanted to make a two-player game one I could play and enjoy both with Josianne, on a more casual, feel-good level, and with James, where I’d get to explode into laughter at his swearing whenever I messed up his plans. 

With a Smile & a Gun is that game.

First Steps

When I first started working on a two-player game, there was one core concept I was interested in exploring: I wanted the players to share a pool of actions, but to be able to use them for different objectives. In Agricola, to block you from taking wood, I need to take wood myself but I might not want wood. For that, I wanted each action to be used in different ways, to be interesting regardless of strategy.

The idea of a “shared action pool” led me to try and make a game about a  werewolf — one player would play as the human, the other as the beast within⁠ — where each action would take the form of either a helpful companion or potential prey. This was my first game design, and it never got anywhere; I realized I needed to start smaller. I might still make that game one day, but at the time, I wasn’t a good enough designer for an asymmetric project like that, like Vast or Root. To be honest, I still don’t think I am.

The question became: how could I make “shared opportunities, used differently” work without drowning in asymmetry?

Second Draft

Eventually, in mid-2017, I started playing (and loving) a lot of dice-drafting games: Sagrada, Roll Player, Blueprints, Grand Austria Hotel. It took me a bit before I realized that mechanism was exactly what I was looking for: a shared pool, which players would be able to use in different ways. 

I usually tend to spend a lot of time in the early stages of design thinking about game ideas in an almost academic way. Once I find a core, I break it down, trying to find what makes it interesting, and then trying to see what other mechanisms would be best suited to support the core. I often start with “key moments”, which are what I want to cause, as often as possible.

In this case, the key moment was the turn angst of leaving the last 4 in the dice pool, hoping your opponent doesn’t take it… Then, either it got back to you, or it didn’t: either way caused a strong, emotional reaction. 

For that type of moment to happen, I needed players to have two ways to use dice: one that required specific numbers, to cause that turn angst, and one where you could use a bit of everything, to allow for that denial drafting, where the numbers mattered, but it lowered the cost to block. It’s not exactly what I had in mind from the get-go, but it checks all the boxes: you don’t need to hurt yourself in order to block your opponent. I was already imagining doing it to James, and was grinning just thinking about it.

From there, the blocks started falling into place: 

  • The simplest way to require a specific number was to make it a draft-and-move: drafting a die to determine your movement, and the spot you fell on determining the actions you’ll do. Like a roll-and-move, but with a decision point instead of a random result.
  • To avoid a single hate draft costing you the game, I took the 3×3-grid mechanism from Cat Lady: if there was an action you desperately needed, you could access it from its row or its column.
  • To make sure the second die still mattered, I was inspired by Signorie, and made higher dice better, but penalized the players for taking only high dice. In a two-player game, making it a majority-contest opened up a lot of interesting decisions related to the shared pool: the last low die can become a decision maker in a tight race.
  • The best way to incentivize the players to deny opportunities to their opponents, without falling into take-that or wasted turns, is area majority. With a mechanism where placing a cube is worth as much as keeping your opponent from placing theirs, you have to focus on what you leave for them. Piece o’ Cake and Hanamikoji are two of my favorite games, and definitely inspirations for this limited-opportunity approach to area majority.
  • With a two-player game, area majority games often don’t work very well, because there’s no incentive to try and catch up: if a single presence is good enough for 2nd place, why bother trying to get 1st? It’s a flaw often raised by Rahdo, amongst other people, and one I definitely agree with. By adding a third value, not a dummy player per se, but a set value the players have to beat to get their piece of the pie, you often solve this problem: it’s a simple solution that’s often left behind, but it was perfect for this game.

And suddenly, there it was: the skeleton of a game, which still stands to this day, which survived iteration after iteration.

In the next entry, I’ll talk about the game’s thematic evolution. If you’re a mechanism-first designer like me, and you also struggle with finding a theme, maybe my process can help you out?

If this game sounds interesting, you can go look it up at withasmileandagun.com

When to use randomness in your design?

I feel like randomness in game design is like salt: when you start cooking, it’s a quick, easy, cheap way to make anything taste good; then you realize how it overpowers everything it’s in, and kills any sort of deeper flavor, so you throw it out and stop using it; then, eventually, you realize that salt, when used in moderation, is a powerful tool that can help you bring out certain other elements of your dish.

What I mean by that very average metaphor is that I think a modern game should only have random elements if they fulfill a role in the design, but that these roles can make randomness a powerful tool. This post is about the 6 roles randomness can play in games. For each of these roles, I’ll briefly cover how to balance it to avoid overpowering any other part of your game.

Also, most of these examples use the language of dice rolling, but it’s as applicable to drawing a card, pulling a token, or pointing at something with your eyes closed. It’s just simpler to write “roll” than “roll/draw/pull/point”, and most gamers have a common understanding of the impacts and probable outcomes of a die roll.

Theme

I’m getting this one out of the way first, because I have a very strong, but very biased, opinion on this one. Theme is only a good reason to add randomness if you are designing a simulation. If the goal is for your players to be feel like they’ve played a baseball game, or that they’ve lived through a specific historical situation, then fine, add randomness to be true to real-life.

However, if you are making a game, trying to make players experience strong moments and a good time, theme is not a good enough reason. If it fits another role AND is thematic, awesome! But on its own, I don’t think it’s a good enough reason.

Surprise

One of the main draws of randomness is “stand up moments”, moments of tension in a game where players cannot help but stand up because of how much is on the line. Then, at the reveal, some curse, some laugh, some cheer, but those moments always end up memorable.

That being said, for that moment to work, you need the players to care about the result. “D’uh”, I hear you say, but so many games throw me randomness before I care about what happens. There are three factors you can use to make me care about a result:

  1. Clear and understandable result: if I roll 10 dice and need to add them up and know if I have rolled more than 24, that moment gets diluted. If I roll 10 dice and know I need 4 Fist-icons, that I can get right away. A great example of this being done perfectly is Las Vegas, which I’ve talked about in this post.
  2. An important and immediate impact: Imagine a combat game where my attacks deal 2d6 damage: I don’t care how well I roll against a Demon with 100 hit points, because the difference will not be felt for a long time. If that Demon has 10 hit points, then suddenly, it’s the difference between defeating them and them getting another turn. If I know their next attack will kill me, suddenly I’m standing up for that roll, because it literally is life-and-death.
  3. Clearly bad odds: If the odds are in my favor for a roll, two things can happen: either I roll well, which isn’t particularly satisfying, or I can roll poorly, and get very, very frustrated. On the other hand, if I need to roll a 10 on my d10 to dodge the robot’s attack, I can either fail and know the odds were against me, or pull it off and feel like the baddest of all badasses.

If you’re adding randomness to a game to cause those surging moments of surprise, you need to use it sparingly, and only when it matters. No big moment will come out of casual randomness.

Variety

My favorite way to use randomness is to seed the opportunities the players can use: in With A Smile & A Gun, the dice pool you can draft from is rolled every round, and that roll creates scarcities and abundances which change from round to round and can have quite an impact on how the round plays.

That being said, it’s easy for that randomness to either not have a significant impact on the game (which I talked about in this post about meaningful variable setups), or to unfairly punish some players and not others based on their previous choices.

If you’re going for variety, you want players to know their goals before they start building towards them: revealing on the last turn that Diamonds are worth 10 points instead of 5 this game is a really bad surprise to the player who just sold theirs. However, knowing at the beginning of a game, or right before the Diamond mine action comes out, that Diamonds are worth a lot in this specific game, is a good way to push your players in different directions.

Reducing the skill gap

Most critics of randomness in game say a lot of things that come down to “I can lose even if I played better than every one else”, and that’s definitely an impact of randomness, but it can be a good thing. Sure, “the best player should win” sounds right, but if you had to play a master of a game you’ve never tried, would you rather it be a small dice game, or a chess-like, perfect information abstract?

It’s not just having a shot at winning, it’s also about having a shot at making an impact on the game. I’ve played over 60 games of card game Hanamikoji, and still have meaningful games with brand new players, but in only half as many games of abstract Taluva, and it’s hard to get interested in a game with someone who doesn’t have a similar level of experience.

Some games can be satisfying even outside of the competitive aspect, making this skill gap less problematic, games where you can build something or pull off some cool combos. Still, randomness is what allows players of various skill levels to have the experience together without one ruining it for the other.

However, if you reduce the skill gap too much, then your game becomes meaningless, because my decisions feel like they’re less meaningful than how well I roll. Yes, FEEL, because it’s not about how often luck determines the winner, but how often it feels like it does.

Increasing the pace

Analysis paralysis is a common problem with gamers. Sometimes, it’s a player problem, and there’s a lot to unpack there, but sometimes, the game itself pushes players to plan for A LONG TIME. If you find that your testers’ planning slows the game down, you can limit their plans in two ways with randomness:

If the planning space is too wide, meaning they have too many options, limit their options. In Dominion, if you had your entire deck in hand, the combinations would be endless, but because you only draw 5 cards per turn, it limits your options.

If the planning space is too long, meaning they can plan too far in the future, you have to add some breaks in that plan, moments of uncertainty such that you can’t plan much after it. In Dominion, there’s no point in planning 3 turns ahead of time, because you don’t know what you’ll draw next turn.

That being said, limitting a players’ ability to plan doesn’t take away the planning time, it just breaks it down: if new information is revealed during their turn, they’ll have to start planning again while everyone is staring at them.


How eager are you to add randomness to your designs? Have you ever run into a problem that you solved by adding a random element?

Hidden Incentives: Daycare pickups and bribing for attendance

Yup, that’s not a title you thought you’d read eh?

In these days of confinement, I’ve started watching a lot of videos about video game and RPG design, and I like to take those learnings from adjacent disciplines and bring them into board games. And one I’ve read this weekend has stuck with me: the idea that some DMs offer players experience points when they show up to play. Based on the comments I’ve read, it also seems to be a very common thing too.

The idea baffles me for multiple reasons: (1) if your game is enjoyable, players will want to be there by default; (2) if life gets in the way, no XP bribe will be enough to skip out on a funeral; and (3) if it’s a case of “I’m not feeling up to it”, and the bribe does work, how much fun do you think that will be? It reminds me of professors in university who would assign a portion of your mark to attendance: why don’t you instead focus on making your classes interesting and informative, and evaluate the stuff you cover in class?

I also was reminded of this study they covered in Freakonomics (which is one of my favorite books in the world and you should read it too) about a daycare in Haifa, Israel, which had a problem with parents arriving late to pick up their kids, which led to anxious kids and frustrated teachers. As a good game designer would do, they added a counter incentive: if you came in late, it cost you 3$. Instantly, the number of late pickups… almost tripled. They incentivized against something, yet instead of deterring it, it seemed to encourage it?

In fact, what happened is that the cost replaced the much stronger social and moral incentives: before, you wanted to be there on time so you wouldn’t have to face the teacher you had kept from going home, or because you wanted to do the right thing, but after, all of those things were gone. The 3$ erased the guilt: it now just became an exchange like any other, and 3$ is not enough for someone to leave a meeting early or head out while you’re “in the zone”. It’s no longer about the kid, the teacher, or what’s right: it’s about that money.

Same thing happens, in my experience, with attendance “bribes”: if I had a long day and game night feels more like a chore, I might push myself to go so as not to disappoint my group, but if I start to think of it in terms of XP, I’m staying right on my couch. Same with class attendance: by offering points for being there, when my alarm rings in the morning, I think about how many points I’ll lose by staying in bed, not about the commitment I made or the learning I’ll miss.

In games, the same thing is true: in games with targeted interaction, everything else being equal, I’ll try and spread out who I pick on. Actually, spreading it out is a pretty high priority for me: I’ll do it even if it’s less optimal. In Small World, I’ll come in between two other players, just to hit them equally, even if it’s harder to defend; in Scythe, I won’t attack a player I just took a bunch of stuff from. To me, it’s part moral (“we’re all here to have fun, let’s not ruin anybody’s game”), and part social (“I don’t want them to be mad at me”).

Pic by BGG user Lacxox

Then, take a game like Hyperborea, where you get 2 points for every different opponent you’ve won a fight against: all of a sudden, those go out the window, and I’m trying to evaluate whether focusing fire is worth more than 2 points.

Game design is about creating incentives, but one thing you can’t forget is that you have to consider incentives that come from outside of the game during your process: they are often very powerful, but easy to extinguish.

Sometimes, like in the examples above, those incentives already go in the direction you want to push, and you want to avoid smothering them. Sometimes though, those incentives go against your goal: in games about deception, stealing, and other activities which are morally wrong outside of this setting, some players might resist. Adding even a tiny game element can take the guilt right out of it: in my interview with him, Peter C Hayward talked about the hidden incentive of valuing your turns, even if there were no limit to the number of guesses, because those were *your* turns.

Can you think of other instances of hidden incentives in games, whether in published games or in your own designs?

Superfans and Lead Testers

This post was inspired by this tweet, part of a really interesting thread from Emma Larkins, who rocks and is awesome and you should all follow:

The Superfan is something I try to get very early on in a game. Of course, I design games I love, but as Emma said, I want to make sure I’m not the only one who does so. I talked before about designing pitch-first, to make sure you’re designing towards something appealing. Getting a Superfan is a great way to do make sure that that pitch is attractive to someone else, but also that through your process, you’re staying true to your original vision. Plus, if you’re lucky, they’ll keep you accountable: “hey, how is game X going? looking forward to trying out the newest version!”

On each of my games, I’ve managed to get a Superfan early on, and then, I’ve turned them into what I like to call Lead Testers. If a Superfan is proof that your game can attract someone other than you, a Lead Tester is a tool to make sure it stays this way. A Lead Tester is someone who rides the line between playtester and developer, who through repeated play becomes an expert, and who through repeated discussions about the game has a deep understanding of the game.

If you’re reading this, you hopefully know the oft-repeated advice “don’t just playtest with your friends and family”. Cast a wide net, get 50, 60, 80, 100, 200 people to try it out. You need to get multiple opinions, see if the game can survive multiple different groups, and also, get some people hyped about your game, and maybe even your other designs! But another part of it is also that you need people who haven’t played it before to try and see how well a first play can go. Can people understand the rules? Are there first-level strategies? How approachable is the game? How readable? All those questions can only be answered through testing with new players, and you can’t “pretend you don’t know it”. In this world of games which are only played once, that first impression is key.

That being said, the Lead Tester will also help you with something else: expert-level play. Can the game sustain interest through repeated plays? Can a strategy be exploited? Are all of these factions viable? Sometimes, what you need is not a pair of fresh eyes, but the keen, wise gaze of a veteran, someone who’s been there before, and knows the game as well as you do, without being as close to the content as you are. Sometimes, you need someone to play the game 10 times in a row, so you can try out a few different faction ideas you’ve had. When I first added what would become the Shadow cards to With A Smile & A Gun, my buddy James ordered me to go make some more: “we both have Thursday off, let’s go for coffee and try them all out!”

Of course, a Lead Tester cannot be your only source of testing, but I would still suggest you try and get one for each of your projects. But how? It’s a very simple 4-step process:

  1. Get an awesome pitch;
  2. When somebody responds positively to the pitch, playtest with them;
  3. If they respond positively to the playtest, playtest with them again;
  4. After each test with them, push the discussion a bit deeper.

Some people won’t want to be that involved. Some people won’t need to be pushed. At this point, it’s social skills: try to feel their interest level, and the relationship you have with them; make sure not to push on them roles they don’t want. If you’re lucky, a Lead Tester will take that role with pride, without you having to ask, but most of the time, you’ll either have to gauge it as you go, or, and I would suggest doing it this way, just asking them: “Hey, I think you’re exactly the kind of gamer I’m making this game for. Would you mind being making sure the game stays true to that throughout its development?”

Have you had the chance to get a Lead Tester for one of your designs? Or have you yourself taken that role, whether officially or not, for another designer?

Unsung Mechanism 2: Silver & Gold

Roll-and-Writes (RnW) is a trend that sort of passed me by in board games, and out of the piles and piles that I’ve played, there are only a few that have really made an impact: Silver & Gold is one of them.

Silver & Gold is a RnW-meets-Polyomino game in the vein of Patchwork Doodle, Second Chance and Cartographers. However, it stands out from those because instead of one large grid, you are filling up multiple smaller ones:

Silver & Gold, NSV, 2019 — box and sample cards (image provided by the publisher)
Image by publisher

When you finish one, you add it to your score pile and draw a new one from the 4 available ones. The cards are dry-eraseable, which gives the game a strong tactile element, and drawing on cards adds a thrill of the forbidden, not unlike ripping up stuff in a Legacy game. It does take away from the feeling of having created something that is intrinsic to many RnW’s however, but it does make you feel like you’re accomplishing stuff throughout the game, because you’re completing a card every few turns.

The Unsung mechanism of Silver & Gold is more related to its Polyomino-ity than to its RnW-ness (which are both words now). Polyomino games are about filling up your shape in the most optimal ways, which comes with multiple heuristics, but basically comes down to “play it safe”: don’t split an area in two, keep large squarish patches rather than long narrow ones, know which shapes have yet to come out.

Most Polyomino games will then give you a second, competing incentive –really, competing incentives are what makes for interesting game design–: Patchwork has the economy of buttons, for example, while Barenpark has the race for tiles.

Silver and Gold
Image by BGG user Rascozion

Silver & Gold’s second incentive is its bonus squares. There are three types of bonuses you can get by covering their associated symbols on a card:

  • X’s, which allow you to cover another square anywhere;
  • Coins, which have a race aspect to them, as getting 4 coins gets you a Trophy, which are worth less as people get them;
  • Palm trees, which give you, when you cover them, a point for every Palm Tree in the display.

As one side of your brain is thinking about optimizing the filling of your map cards, the other is thinking about the optimizing of those spaces: X’s are added flexibility, and so very situational; coins are a race, so of course you want to cover them as quickly as possible, but depending on what others have available, that will affect how much pressure there is for you to finish that set of 4; finally, those Palm Trees are a really cool push-your-luck aspect, because they can be worth anything from 0 to 4, meaning you’re not letting go of a shot at crossing the for 4 points, but you’re probably avoiding even an optimal placement if that means you’ll get a 0.

I covered those timing-based opportunities in another post (Making VPs), where one thing I mentioned was that it made options hard to compare, because they were of unknown values. In this case, it’s rather easy to evaluate how high or low it is, because the information “how many palm trees in the middle” is super easy to visualize, without any calculation required, and even the odds of it going up or down are very clear. If the value was kept on a track, going up or down based on revealed cards, it would certainly lose that ease.

As I discussed in that other post, timing-based opportunities are one of my favorite things in games, because they push you towards adaptability. In Cartographia, the draw piles change size over the course of the game, and that means that even when you’ve planned a few turns in a row, sometimes when it gets to your turn you’ll see a 7-card pile and… you just have to take it, right?

What other games have similar timing-based opportunities, and how do they present them in a way that’s clear and easy to understand?

Unsung Mechanism 1: Las Vegas

So I haven’t been very consistent with my blog posts recently. It’s equal part confinement, personal issues, and prepping for a Kickstarter, which leave me without the mental bandwidth for the huge, 1500-word long behemoths I usually go for. I therefore decided to try to go for more frequent, but shorter posts: whether I manage to fit this in the 600 word I aim for is another thing altogether.

This series is about the small parts that hold games together. We often focus on the innovative mechanisms, or the larger, puzzlier parts of a game, but when designing, the parts I most often lift from other games are the smaller elements, the glue that makes every other mechanism stick together. So that’s what I think I want to talk about in this series.

Today, I want to open this up by talking about Las Vegas, a dice game designed by Rudiger Dorn and published in 2012. It’s an area majority game, where each turn, you roll your dice, and choose a number you rolled, placing all dice of that number on the associated tile. Once every player has placed all 8 of their dice, whoever has the most dice on each tile gets points. That’s 90% of the game.

The dice are in.
Pic by BGG user msaari

I love Las Vegas, and it’s pretty easy to see that it’s an inspiration for With A Smile & A Gun, which is also a dice-driven majority game. The best thing about Las Vegas is that it has a crystal clear board state: how much each space is worth, how many dice every player has in each space, and therefore what the odds are that you’ll get a prize, are always very easy to see, which allows you to play it even with the most casual players. I got 3 games in with my grandparents at Christmas, and my grandma gets confused when we play Telestrations. She wouldn’t let me leave the table without a rematch of this one.

The colorful dice
Pic by BGG user jsper

Another impact of very clear board states is that when something happens, for example a certain roll, players can very quickly go from seeing it to realizing what it means, which leads to instant emotional reaction. You don’t stand up in a game of Dominion when somebody buys a card, because you don’t know exactly how good that play will be for them. In a game of Terra Mystica, a player can take a superb move, but because it will take you a bit of time to figure it out, the response is logical, not emotional.

In Las Vegas, it’s automatic: people stand up, throw their hands in the air, laugh, yell, call each other names. That’s the game’s strength, and why I love it so much. And it comes down to two rules, and how they interact.

Rule 1: You must choose a number you rolled, and place all dice of that number. Those dice are gone. If your first roll of the round is 8 of the same number, you place all of them and you’re out for the round. It is really rare, but it happens, and every time it’s a strong moment.

Rule 2: If multiple players have the same number of dice, their dice are not considered. In other words, if A and B have 3 dice, and C has 1, C has the majority. It also creates for huge moments, because you can win a lot with very few dice. It also feeds into the gambling theme very well: no matter how well you’re doing, you can lose it all… or you can win a bunch on a whim of the dice.

However, the way they interact is sublime: as your dice pool gets smaller, the odds that all your dice will have the same number, and therefore you’ll have to place there, gets higher. If you only have a single die, you will roll and place it on the associated tile.

Almost every round, at least one player causes a tie with their last roll, and it’s ALWAYS dramatic. It is huge swings of points, but most importantly, it is immediately apparent to all, meaning it elicits an emotional reaction, not a logical one, and everyone shares that moment together, because they figure it out at the same time.

The dice aren't going my way.
Pic by BGG user Stickdood

What other games cause similar shared emotional responses? How do they achieve it?