Winning! An alternative to “most points”

It’s been a while, Internet. Life has been hectic, and playing few games meant I thought about design less. But now that life is calming down some, and that I’m gaming a lot…

So to get back into writing, I’ve decided to dig into my notebook and look at the SISIGIP section (Stuff I’d Steal In Games I Play): every time I play a new game, I write down one small mechanism that inspires me. It’s kind of like Jamey Stegmaier’s “My Favourite Mechanism in…” series, but I’m focusing more on small pieces rather than the main selling point, and thinking more about where it could fit in a game, or how it could be used differently.

Today, I’m starting the SISIGIP series by talking about Winning conditions: after a game is over, how do you know who won it? As a Euro gamer, I play a lot of Most-VPs-Wins games, but I’m starting to sway more and more towards games which avoid the end game accounting associated with those.

There are a lot of different ways to define victory conditions, but a lot of better writers have tackled those questions before: my first draft of this article was basically repeating Alex Harkey’s Games Precipice article about “Most, First, Last” (link). To recap, the article presents three types of victory conditions: Most (most point-based games), First (race games, but also mission-based), and Last (survival games). More interestingly, they then talk about games with multiple victory conditions, like how in King of Tokyo, you can either be the first to 20 points, or the last monster standing, or in 7 Wonders Duel, which is a most VP game, except for two instant-win conditions if you can manage to complete them (which are, in a way, a mix of first and last, but the line is blurry in a 2-player game).

But in all of these cases, the examples were about multiple, unrelated winning conditions, divided by OR: get to 20 points OR be the last standing; have 5 Sciences, OR reach your opponent’s city, OR have the most points.

Spirit Island‘s Fear System

When I played Spirit Island recently, the Fear system jumped out to me as such a rich victory condition. If you don’t know the game, it is a coop game where you play as Spirits defending an island against colonists laying claim over your land. If you break it down to a very deep, core level, it follows the Pandemic-frame: you must control the unending threat of colonists (playing the role of disease cubes) while making progress towards your goal by accumulating Fear (playing the role of cures). However, how those two aspects translate to the winning condition is very different.

In Pandemic, winning is straightforward: “Find 4 Cures before you lose”. The cubes affect the losing, but not the winning.

In Spirit Island, the winning condition starts as “Get rid of all Colonists”. Every time you get 4 Fear, you gain a small bonus event card; after the third (therefore, after 12 Fear), the win condition becomes one step easier. First, it allows you to ignore the least powerful type of Colonists, and becomes “Get rid of all Towns and Cities”, and then after another 12 Fear, “Get rid of all Cities”. Then, if you gain another 12 Fear, you just immediately win, regardless of board state, just like with 4 Cures in Pandemic.

It would be like if Pandemic‘s winning condition started off as “Win if there are no disease cube”, and after the first Cure, became “Win if there are no cities with 2 or 3 cubes”, then “Win if there are no cities with 3 cubes” after the second, and then “Win if there is no more than one city with 3 cubes”. Then, on the fourth Cure, you win, like in the current game.

What it does well

In Pandemic, you either play defensively by taking cubes away, or offensively by working towards the cures. Mostly, you try to play as offensively as you can, switching to defense when it’s required, because you’re still working against a ticking clock. The puzzle of the game comes in making those switches as seamless as possible: “if I go there to cure cubes, I can also give you this card”. If you play too defensively, you lose: you must take action.

In Spirit Island, you can technically win by killing all Colonists and staying on the first victory condition, or you can win without killing a Colonist, by moving them around or defending against their effects, and by producing 36 Fear before you lose. In reality, most games will be a mix of the two, but it makes “playing defensively” viable.

What makes the Fear System work so well, too, is how different the two axes feel. Gaining Fear is often a thing of manipulation, with a lot of fear-generating effects having “if” or “for each” clauses, and you must still find a way to survive the Colonists’ attacks. On the other hand, Fear gained is never lost. Getting rid of Colonists, however, is a much more direct thing, requiring both frontal assaults by the Spirits and by the island’s natives, the Dahan. They are their own form of defense, but any progress is temporary: more Colonists will come next turn, and the one after. When it comes to the winning condition, Fear is a one-way track, but Colonists are a snapshot: you can rid the board of all Towns and Settlers for a push to victory, but if you were to keep on playing, more would come.

By comparison, Rajas of the Ganges is a popular competitive game with a similar system: there are score tracks, one tracking your money, and one your Fame, and they go in opposite directions. If your markers ever reach one another, you win. In theory, it is a very similar system to Spirit Island’s: you could say that gaining money lowers your victory threshold, or vice versa. However, gaining Fame and gaining Money feel very similar, despite being gained from different systems. If the game had been created with only one point-type, and a single-threshold, the gameplay would not have changed much, I think.

How would I use it?

The Fear system has inspired two mechanisms for me, one for my Coop game SuPR, and one for a competitive game that’s still just scribbles in my notebook.

The first thing that came to mind is “can we play with the number of Fear needed to advance?” That could add one more dimension to play with and link abilities to, but also a very interesting timing element: Fear production is more effective when the threshold is low, so you must strike when the iron is hot!

In SuPR, players are a PR firm working for a Superhero, trying to get them to be liked by the general public. Where in Spirit Island you gain Fear and defeat Colonists, in SuPR you gain Reputation and defeat Supervillains. To me, the Fear mechanism was an obvious move, and a mechanism I wanted to work with. Interestingly, playing with the threshold for advancement had a great mechanical implication: the more dire the situation was, the more heroic your actions were! Mechanically, every neighbourhood’s Hope represented both its “health points”, and how much Heroism you needed to gain Reputation. This added an interesting layer of strategy: how far will you let things slip before you go in to save the day? It added a cynical aspect to the theme, too, which I loved to play with.

In the competitive space, I like games without point systems, which feel a lot more dramatic than the accounting session at the end of my favourite games. Games where you can just reach a certain situation, and WIN. However, more often than not, when I try to design those, they end up with a Munchkin effect: it’s not about being able to Win, but about being able to Win WHEN NO ONE CAN BLOCK YOU, which I think only works in a 2-player game.

However, my scribble concept went to a game about politicians and lobbyists. Every player is a politician, with some key lobbies supporting them. You start the game with, say, 6 cards dictating a certain board state: one says that the education budget must be over 10, another that the tax rate must be under 5. But, of course, both are related, and lowering the tax rate also lowers the education budget. And one of your opponent is pushing for the budget to go to infrastructure. If, at any point during the game, all 10 of your cards are completed, like the victory condition in Spirit Island, you win. Also, throughout the game, certain events and actions lead to Popularity Boosts. When you gain a Popularity Boost, you get to discard one of your Objective cards: now, you only need 5 objectives to be true, then 4, then 3. Like in Spirit Island, you could win through sheer Popularity, but odds are it will be a mix of the two.

Quickly, you’ll get an idea of what other players are pushing, and who is pushing against you. However, the game is not about waiting for others to be out of sticks to put in your wheels, but to, over time, lower your threshold so that you can hit at the right time.

Conclusion

I think there’s a lot that can be done to make the process of determining a winner more dynamic, without losing the granularity and feeling of progress of victory points. Spirit Island’s Fear system is only one of them. What other games explore that space in dramatic, interesting ways? Have you explored that in your own designs?

WHEN to add variability to your design

Last week, I talked about going from idea to prototype. Today, I want to talk about one of the pitfalls many of us fall into when prototyping.

I’m a huge proponent of variable setups, missions, objectives, factions, and characters. I feel like it’s the one thing all of my games will have in common: “20 different powers, only use 3 each game!”

But variability should be the last step when designing your game. To start, you need to make sure your game structure is solid; then, when your game is strong enough to handle it, you can start adding variables to it.

Believe me, I know all about the temptation of adding that variability early. My first game idea was a game about breeding monsters: I had probably 30 monster cards, and I wanted to have a card for a unique offspring for each of those pairs. And, of course, I wanted to have multiple of each, so you never quite knew, when mixing a dragon and a unicorn, which kind of dragicorn you’d be getting!

Yeah, it was the weirdest idea.

But it never saw the light of day. I worked on it for months, never got close to having it ready for a playtest, and I didn’t want to playtest it without finishing it. I was figuring stuff out, making dozens of cards, making diagrams; I felt like I was making progress. In a way, I was, but in a much truer way… I really wasn’t.

Why is adding variability too soon a bad idea?

There are 3 main reasons why it’s a bad idea to start with your game’s content, rather than its structure.

First, any change in the game’s structure will require changes in the elements built upon that structure. Imagine changing the structure of a game like Dominion. After a few playtests, you decide to remove the limit of actions per turn. Without even entering into the issue of game balance, how many cards suddenly don’t even make sense with the new ruleset? All of the Village cards, or the “cantrip” cards that give +1 Card and +1 Action ⁠— these cards were specifically designed  to overcome that limit, and would no longer have a real purpose.

Picture by iSlaytheDragon

The second reason is that creating content is a time-consuming task which does not really have an end state. Creating content is fun, it’s easy, and it feels like progress, but too much can be a trap. Even if all of your ideas would make it into the final product, you will always have more ideas for new cards, new tiles, new characters, new missions. With a Smile & a Gun is being printed right now, and I still come up with a Shadow card idea every week. If you wait until all of your ideas are in the game before you start testing, you will simply never start testing; each idea you write down will give you another one, and then another.

Finally, content becomes much easier to create after you’ve played the game a few times: you have a better feel for what would be interesting, you can poll your testers for their opinions, and you probably have a pile of mechanisms which did not fit… but maybe could become a card!

But don’t I need content?

Of course! I’m not saying “playtest your card game with blank pieces of cardboard”. Although… if you have a specific mechanism for, say, acquiring or discarding cards, it’s always a good idea to take a standard deck of cards, and try it out.

You can’t playtest your deckbuilder without actually having any cards. Here is a rule of thumb: determine the minimum amount of different elements you need to have to be able to play a single game. If you were making your own version of Dominion, you wouldn’t need to have 25 different action cards designed before you start playtesting; every game only uses 10.

Once you’ve identified that minimum number, make half of it.

No, I’m not kidding. For a first test, you want to have as few variables as you can. If during your test, the game doesn’t click for some reason, you need to be able to identify what causes those issues: it might be the structure itself, or it might be one of the cards that’s throwing the entire game off kilter. Worse yet, it could be an interaction between two cards. Having 5 cards instead of 10 means that not only do you reduce the number of variables which could be affecting the game structure, you’re also reducing the number of possible card interactions from 100 combinations to 25. Sure, 5 is too few for a full game experience, but you’re not aiming for a full game: you are testing whether or not your core idea is fun.

Maybe you can’t actually divide the number by two, but you can just cut down on how different you make these elements. Working on SuPR, a cooperative dice drafting game, I wanted players to roll a pool of dice and determine who would use what. Therefore, I needed players to have different abilities, or else the central conceit would break down. However, for the first playtest, I just changed which action was paired with which: it was very minor asymmetry, and a lot less than what I needed to make the dice selection shine, but at least it made me able to work on the bigger picture.

But I like making content!

Creating content for your game is not only important, it is also fun. It is perfectly okay for you to indulge yourself and create some of that content early. My goal with this article is not to take away your candy, but to make sure you understand that (1) you should not wait for the content to go ahead and playtest; and (2) all the early content you create is unlikely to make it through the game’s development unscathed. 

How early do you usually add this variability to your designs? Have you gotten caught in this pit before? If so, how did you get out of it?

From Idea to First Playtest

The first game I designed was actually a co-design, and Louis onboarded me after a few playtests of his own. For a while, I was an active game designer without any idea how to start a design: I had gotten in right after that part. I’d go around and ask established designers at conventions, or on panels and Q&As: Every time, the answer would be something along the lines of “you just do it”, which is… well, not that useful.

I’ve seen a few people around the Twitterverse asking these questions recently. Remembering my own questions from back then, here is MY method for going from an idea to a first prototype.

Disclaimer: This is a method that works for me. If you have a different method, awesome! If this one doesn’t work for you, I’m sorry! This is just meant as an example: you can try it out and see what sticks.

Step 1: Define your core

Whether I’m inspired by a mechanism, a theme, an experience, my first step is always to define what I want the game to be. This takes the form of a pitch, a short, 2 or 3 line paragraph about what I want the game to be. I want it to be snappy and dramatic to begin with (it will get longer as the concept solidifies) because (a) it’s easier to grab attention that way, and (b) it helps me identify what is the core I’m aiming for, and what is just brainstorming around that idea.

Usually, I’ll try and get some feedback on this pitch. I’ll talk about it with friends, other designers, or just in general on social media. This is useful both to gauge interest, but also to help me smooth out any rough edges: in a way, I’m playtesting the pitch!

Step 2: Deconstruct that core

Once I’ve identified this core, I need to figure out how the game will fulfill that promise. Where marketers often try to represent their target audience with an imaginary character, I try to represent my central idea with a target moment that represents the experience I want the game to offer.

From then, I identify what building blocks I need to make that work.

A few examples:

  • For Off the Record, the core was the growing-pile mechanism, exemplified by that decision between a huge, 6-card pile, or that one card you really need. I needed a reason for you to need a specific card, but a way for any card to be useful for you, which led me to turning in Poker hands for points.
  • For Cybertopia, the juice was that free-flowing roster of workers, where you’d get a different group of options every time you’d gather. That means I needed workers which were different enough for that to matter, and a way for them to be grouped in the actions where they were sent. I also needed those “groups” to be unrelated to the workers’ unique traits, so that they wouldn’t all be piled up in the same groups: instead of workers, we started looking at them as multi-use cards, which made a lot more sense design-wise.
  • For SuPR, the pitch is a large thematic thing, but the core is “you have to save the town, but the more dire the situation, the better it looks”. I knew that the central mechanism needed that risk-reward, where you were not completely able to control your actions, nor perfectly plan them ahead of time, or else, there would be no luck for you to push! This made dice drafting feel like such a good idea!
    Then, coop dice drafting suggested the idea of a “love draft”: instead of “what can’t I leave my opponent?”, I loved the idea of “OH! I NEED THAT DICE! PLEASE LEAVE IT FOR ME!”, which meant, like with Off the Record, I needed a way to have something that was just *perfect* for a player, but for every player to be able to use it, leading me to the idea of a dice you used for both the number and colour.
  • For my untitled coop roll-and-write, I wanted to merge that moment at the end of a game of Pandemic or Spirit Island, where you look at the map and go “this is what’s left of the world”, and the permanence of a roll-and-write sheet. Because of that, the gameplay must be centered around a map, which players are building up while the game is doing its best to tear it down.

Step 3: Good artists borrow…

Even with that central idea fleshed out some, you’re still far away from a playable prototype. This is where I follow the famous saying, and outright steal another game’s frame.

Sometimes my inspiration starts from a game in particular: as I mentioned previously, the coop roll-and-write idea came up right after a game of Troyes Dice, and the first prototype was, more or less, a cooperative version of it.

If not, I try to find a game that would fit my building blocks: with SuPR, I started from Pandemic: the Cure, another coop dice game, and added the “scoring” system I wanted; with Cartographia, we started with Blue Moon City, but with players getting bonuses when others would map the same space as they previously did; Cybertopia started from Imhotep, with the worker cards replacing the boats; With a Smile & a Gun started out as Cat Lady, with the dice-drafting rondel to go with it.

I then make my first prototype as close to that game as I can. But…

Step 4: Start with the second prototype

“Your second try is always better than your first.”
“So how do I start with my second one?”

My first prototype never actually touches the table.

The simple act of building a prototype, to me, is a first round of testing: I ask myself how things will interact, I write cards and get cool ideas, I find a cooler way to present a decision, I imagine myself playing a round and cursing my friends out.

You can argue it’s semantics (and you’d be right), but it highlights one of the biggest problems I have with creative endeavours: I can’t start creative without knowing what I’m making, but I need to start making it to figure out what I’ll be making. Therefore, I have to trick myself, and start making something I know I won’t ever be using, just to get the gears in motion.

Sometimes this “first prototype” is writing a bullet-point rulebook, sometimes it’s taking pieces from the seed game and moving them around, sometimes it’s opening up PowerPoint and making cards. The zeitgeist says “get it to the table ASAP”, but you can use a metaphorical table: in a way, a spreadsheet is a table, right?

Step 5: Schedule a playtest

If you are gifted with the ability to solo playtest your game, go ahead and do that.

Otherwise, if you’ve read last week’s post, you know that the best way to finish a prototype is to schedule a playtest and give yourself a deadline.

Oh, it’s not finished? Of course it isn’t: that’s WHY you playtest.

You can keep on changing and tweaking and editing and adding, but a 30-minute playtest will help your design more than another 30 hours of modifying your prototype.

I just beat designer’s block

I ran my first Kickstarter campaign in July to publish Subsurface’s first release, With a Smile & a Gun. It’s been an extremely rewarding experience, but it’s also been draining, especially during a worldwide pandemic. Since then, between said pandemic, the lack of a regular game night, and the remaining amount of work related to producing and shipping a game, I have not worked on any of my designs. Actually, I’ve only run two non-WaS&aG playtests in the last 12 months.

Truth is, inertia is a pretty major hurdle to jump. After focusing on the business side of games, I’ve lost my design momentum, and in these circumstances, it’s been really hard to get back.

I’m sure I’m not alone.

Before I dig into how I got back into it, let me say that it’s okay if you can’t get yourself to work on your projects. If it’s doing more harm than good, don’t. Don’t beat yourself up: these are difficult times. It’s okay if you’re not being productive. You’re not less than because you’re struggling.

However, if you feel like a creative endeavour would improve your quality of life, but you’re not sure how to get back on the horse, then here’s what’s worked for me:

Play some games

When I was younger, I’d read a lot of YA books, and I’d keep on wanting to write my own books. Then I read webcomics, and tried to learn to draw. Then it was movies, and standup comedy, and short stories.

For me, consuming any form of art makes me want to produce my own. I’ve been told it was hubris, thinking that I could make better versions of these things —and to a certain extent, it is–, but to me, it’s less a question of “better” than “more to *my* tastes”.

It stands to reason that this dry spell of design coincides with an equivalent dry spell of playing. No game night means that, slowly but surely, gaming is less common. Sure, we used to play over BoardGameArena and Tabletopia, but it sort of fizzled out over time.

Then I got back into it. I started my weekly online game of Arkham Horror LCG again; then a friend bought roll-and-writes and offered to play them over Zoom; then I started playing games with my daughter after she comes back from school.

Inertia is a thing, but so is momentum. A little push puts stuff in motion. After a game of AHLCG, all I can think about is levelling my deck, which makes me think about how cool this card combo could be, and oh, I haven’t played Underwater Cities in forever…

Be it games over Zoom or BGA, with friends or strangers, or even in person with your partner or roommate or kid, or even solo or on an app: starting to enjoy the hobby again might give you the spark.

Get excited!

That friend who bought all of those roll-and-write games? He said “you know, if you were working on a roll-and-write, we could have a weekly playtest night!”

After every new game we’d play, we’d talk about the design, and eventually, we played both Aeon’s End and Troyes Dice back-to-back. “Wouldn’t the Troyes system be a great skeleton for a coop roll-and-write?”, he asked, and, well, we talked about it for an hour and a half.

I find that while playing games brings those sparks, talking about those sparks with others is the kindling that starts the fire. It’s what turns idle ruminating into forward progress, and gets that rolling stone moss-free.

Procrastinate about something else

Even with a good idea that excited me, making that first prototype is such a big hill: without super-momentum, you roll back down all Sisyphus-like.

LPT: If you just cannot seem to get Sisyphus to offer his quest to buy his  freedom -- make sure you actually talked to Bouldy. : HadesTheGame

Then, November arrived, and for the first time in forever, I thought about NaNoWriMo in late October: finally, I could try this writing challenge, use social media for added accountability, and…

Well, having this other, much more daunting task made making the prototype look like the easy way out: isn’t that interesting?

I’m not sure you can reproduce this feeling, but when I had to write 1700 words of a novel, for which I only had a two-line description to go from, I managed to trick my brain into making that prototype and thinking it was procrastination.

Again, this is what worked for me! Please don’t use this blog post as an excuse to not finish a work assignment or a school project!

Schedule a playtest

Here’s a veteran tip:
The best time to prepare a prototype is an hour before the playtest starts.

If you wait for your prototype to be ready before you set a date, it will never happen. If you schedule other people, magically, your prototype will be ready.

livememe.com - 60% Of The Time, It Works Every Time

Momentum might be a thing, but a deadline is another.

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.

Identical vs Equivalent

I often say that board games are the combination of psychology and mathematics. More exactly, they use mathematics to induce specific psychological reactions: tension, angst, euphoria, excitement, satisfaction, all just because your number will be lower than your opponents’. Fascinating, isn’t it?

Now let’s take that vision of games and look at them through a game design lense. A game’s elements (be they components, theme, or mechanisms) are not the point: they are tools to create a specific experience. Sure, all of these elements are important pieces, but the sum of the parts are what’s important.

This sheds light on one easy pitfall of design: to look for identical alternatives rather than equivalent: too often, I hear playtesters suggest alternatives, and designers turn them down because of some minor mathematical differences. This is especially true when we talk about streamlining, about suggestions that could simplify an entire system but are turned down because that one action would now give 4 rocks instead of 3. Is that a meaningful difference?

I talked about one similar situation in this blog’s very first post, when we had included 5 different ways for tokens to score, and 4 different mini-games, which were technically different, but did not affect the game’s experience or the players’ decisions at all.

Another example is from the roleplaying games side: in 13th Age, players roll obscene amounts of dice for damage. The designers strongly suggests to instead either (a) take the average damage, (b) roll one die and multiply it by the number of dice, or (c) roll two or three dice and take the average for the rest.

These are all mathematically different: the static number obviously stands out, but even multiplying one die leads to much swingier results than the standard die roll, which itself is swingier than just rolling a few and averaging the rest. However, while all are mathematically different in how extreme the results will tend to be, the game does not change much between the two. You could have a group where each player chooses a different way of calculating damage, and it wouldn’t make much of a difference: while not identical methods, they are by and large equivalent.

When designing, every design element should be there for a reason. During your process, it’s important to look for equivalent alternatives, which could fill the same role in the design, without being identical.

For example, High Rise, Lords of Waterdeep, London, and Cleopatra and the Society of Architects all have a Corruption mechanism: some things you do are stronger, but come with this negative token you then have to manage, and try not to have the most of. They all have a different associated mechanism, but they all have the same impact: give some actions a delayed, and uncertain cost. If you took any two and switched the Corruption mechanisms, they would mostly still feel the same. There would be differences, but I’m not sure they would be that meaningful.

Of course, the difference between identical and equivalent is very subjective, and highly context-dependent: you might disagree with my example above. Yet, I would still suggest you err on the side of openness, especially early in your design process: it’s so easy to try something, and, if it doesn’t work, to just CTRL+Z the change.

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