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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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?
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”).
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?
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:
Get an awesome pitch;
When somebody responds positively to the pitch, playtest with them;
If they respond positively to the playtest, playtest with them again;
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?
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:
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 & 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?
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.
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.
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.
What other games cause similar shared emotional responses? How do they achieve it?
In the last two entries, I’ve talked about variable setups, both what made the concept attractive, and what made that variety meaningful. Today, I’ll dig into a few games which, to me, have rocked the variable setups, and what we can learn from them to apply to our own designs. I’ve also been careful to choose 3 games which feature different types of variety, to present, well, varied variety. I’ve also stayed away from asymmetry, which I think I’ll cover in another post: these are already long enough as is.
Isle of Skye’s goals
I love Isle of Skye’s economy, but today we talk about its variable setup. Every game of Isle of Skye you select 4 scoring objectives, out of a pool of 16: even if we ignore differences in their order, that is over 1800 different possibilities. But how many of those actually feel different?
I think that there is very little overlap in those goals. For example, let’s look at the 4 tiles related to “completed areas”: – The first gives you 1 point for every area you complete. Just complete stuff, as soon as you can! – The second gives you 3 points for every completed area that goes on at least 3 tiles. Sure, it’s still pushing you to complete them, but it’s making you wait a bit. – The third gives you 2 points for each Mountain completed area: you’re not trying to close off everything, you’re only paying attention to Mountains. – The fourth gives you 2 points for each tile in your largest completed Water area, which pushes you to grow a water area as much as you can, and trying to complete it before the end of the game.
Are these all similar? Yeah, to a certain extent. But could you play a game with all four of those? Hell yes! Sure, they’re all related to the same game element, but they still push you towards different things, even if they overlap. Compare this to the ever-present “score +2 vp for each card with icon X”: they push you towards certain strategies (if that icon is actually meaningful), but they don’t lead to different games. The push-your-luck aspect of that fourth scoring tile, seeing how much you can grow it before you complete it, that is unique to this tile. If it’s not in the game, you don’t experience it.
Imagine if Isle of Skye’s scoring tiles where all what the Scroll tiles currently are: “1 point per Sheep, 1 point per Farm”. How boring would that be? Would it matter which tile comes up? No it wouldn’t: the differences between those elements are defined by the scoring tiles. In a game where neither Cattle nor Forts are featured on a scoring tile, they are actually identical: they are not to be considered unless a Scroll tile comes up, and that Scroll tile has the same odds of coming out for both, and they’d be worth the same thing. It’s Schrodinger’s Scoring Tile.
Oh yes, quantum science reference! I is smart!
So what can we learn from Isle of Skye: variable scoring conditions can be used to define the differences between elements, if they aren’t inherently different.
There are 5 core rules of Ethnos: – On your turn, you draw or play; – Max 10 cards in hand; – When you play a stack, they should all be of the same color or of the same faction; – When you play a stack, discard the rest of your hand – Playing a stack allows you to place a strength token on the region of the card on top, and trigger its ability.
Now, what those abilities are is where the game gets fun. The game comes with 12 factions, each with their own abilities, and each game features 6. The interaction between them is minimal, so Trolls in a setup with Giants feel pretty similar than in a game with Orcs.
So how different are they? The game has 3 elements you interact with: points, the majorities, and cards. Some factions are firmly in one: Minotaurs, Trolls and Wingfolk are solely related to gaining those majorities, Dwarves, Orcs, and Giants are solely points, Wizards and Elves are solely cards. Some have impacts on two fronts: Centaurs and Merfolk help you both in placing strength and gaining points both (although, again, they do so differently); Halflings and Skeletons are helping you in one category, but hurting you in the other. And of course, within each of those broad categories, they all work in slightly different ways: on the majority-centric trio, Minotaurs make placing Strength tokens easier, Wingfolk allow you to place those tokens anywhere, and Trolls serve as the tie-breaker; for the point-scorers, Dwarves just make your stack worth more, Orcs are a set-collection aspect, and the Giants are another majority/race aspect.
But the coolest thing to me about the variety in Ethnos is that I can cater the experience we’ll have to the group. If I’m playing with my family, I can take the simplest ones, which don’t use those weirder mechanisms. If I’m playing with a full table of 6, I try to make sure there are at least 3 point scorers, to compensate for the tougher competition on the majorities. Also, when I shuffle the randomizers and reveal 6, I can ask everyone if they’re okay with it: I personally don’t like the Minotaurs, so unless someone argues for them, I’ll take them out. If someone has a special request, I’ll put them in. Variable setup allows the design to go wider and cater to more people, because everyone can decide to ignore certain parts of the game without losing out.
With the whole Covid situation, I’ve finally PnP’d a copy of Maquis (which is awesome and free on PnPArcade!) and played it multiple times, and I’m hooked. It’s what inspired me to write about variable setups, because of how well it’s done it.
Many games have scenarios or opponents or maps, which go from completely changing the game to barely changing anything. My favorite game, Arkham Horror the Card Game, has some scenarios that I actively disliked, and others that I would play multiple times in a row. They vary so much. On the other hand, if somebody plays Power Grid on the North America map and doesn’t like it, I doubt they’d fall in love with the German one.
It’s a mechanic that’s old as time, but Maquis does it… perfectly. Every game uses 2 of 14 missions, which, in the end, are just pick-up-and-deliver recipes, just like in many other games. Aside from the resources they cost though, they have very important impacts on the game: – Destroy the Train has to be completed between the 6th and 9th turns; – Infiltration will require you to leave the first worker you send there until you send the second one; – Assassination requires you to eliminate Militia, instead of delivering resources; – Bomb for the Officer blocks two action spaces until you complete it; – Take out the Bridges requires you not only to deliver explosives, but also to take out one of the bridges, which, in a game focused on movement like this one, is a huge problem.
It’s not just about varying what the missions or, but using the missions to change what the game is. It’s not only the fact that those missions support the narrative aspect of the game, but also that, despite using the same system and giving you the same options, they push you in a different direction. They aren’t just “oh this one requires red and this one blue”, which would be fine. They have deep impacts on what you are trying to optimize for.
Imagine that you were playing Ticket to Ride, but one of the objectives you drew, instead of being “San Francisco – Phoenix for 12 points”, was “San Francisco – Phoenix, you can only draw 1 card per turn until you finish it”, and the next was “you have to have 20 trains west of Dallas”. Not only (1) are the missions fundamentally different in what they need you to do, and when they need you to do it; but (2) the impact of completing them is also very different. Finally, (3) they’re not just “12 points”, they are “do this or lose”: you HAVE to interact with both of those missions.
Now, of course, Maquis is a solo game, and a quick one, which means it gets away with stuff you couldn’t pull in every game. The variety can have a huge impact on difficulty, or take you right out of the game at some point: that’s acceptable in a solo game, or it could be in a 2p game with a handicap or an instant victory clause, but as you increase the number of players, being taken out of a game, or starting far behind, can be extremely frustrating. I love the tension, and therefore frustration, that comes from Maquis, but I wouldn’t want it during competitive play.
So here you go, those were three games which, to my eyes, rocked the concept of Variable setup, which completes this 3-part series on the concept. Are you working on adding variable setup to one of your designs?
In video games (and I’m assuming animation in general), a palette swaps is when you create a new character by taking an old one and just changing a few colours here and there: that’s how you get Luigi from Mario, Subzero from Scorpion, and 18 different types of goblins in Diablo. The only difference between them is the colour: they use the same animations, the same code. It started as a way to allow two players to play the same character, yet still tell them apart if they were on the same screen, and it filled that role perfectly. Since, it’s mostly been used to generate multitudes of different characters and items and attacks and enemies, but which all feel the same. Many board games go down that road and offer a lot of empty variability, where things change in ways that don’t matter.
There are three things to keep in mind when trying to build variability in a game: the inherent properties, the scope, and the focus.
I’ve talked about interchangeability twice before: once in my grammar-as-theme series, and once in Avoiding non-decisions. Inherent properties are the opposite of interchangeability. An element (whether a resource, a card, an action, a faction, any part of a game) has inherent properties if it can be defined without depending on other elements. For example, the tracks in Endeavor have inherent properties: Industry determines which buildings you have access to, Culture determines how many workers you get, Economy determines how many actions you can empty, and Politics how many cards you can keep. The tracks in Terra Mystica don’t: their only differences are which round tiles are present in a given game.
This is where many games fall short in terms of making variability meaningful. Starting with a boost on the Industry track in Endeavor will feel very different than one on the Culture track. It will affect which building I can start with, but limit how many actions I can take. However, starting with a boost on the Blue track in Terra Mystica does not lead to a different game than one on the Red: it only matters in which round tiles will give you income, and on where other players will go. They are different, sure, but only because they will evolve differently.
When it comes to variable setup, your goal is usually to push players into different experienced, but for those experiences to be meaningfully different, they have to have inherent differences. To make sure of it, describe the scenarios, and try to see how many links to other elements you have to make before you use a different verb (or verb phrase), rather than a different noun:
0 link: “In Ethnos, there are 6 types of cards in each game, out of a pool of 12. Trolls allow you to break ties. Giants score points if you have the biggest stack. Wingfolks place their tokens anywhere.
1 link: “In Spirit Island, players will choose a Spirit, which gives them different innate abilities and starting cards (noun). (LINK) This Spirit’s powers allow you to scare away the Invaders, while this one is specialized in defending the land. (verb)
2 links:“In Gaia Project, there are extra scoring conditions if you can do certain actions during a specific round. This one will give you points if you build a Mine, and this one if you build a Research Center. (LINK)A Mine gives you Mineral, and a Research Center gives you Research. (LINK)Mineral is used to build more Mines, while Research is used to improve a technology.
The fewer links you need, the more inherent the difference, and therefore, the more meaningful the variability: each link takes away from that variability both mathematically (because those aren’t perfect relations) and psychologically (because each jump makes it feel less meaningful). Of course, it’s not a perfect relationship, but I use that thought exercise in my designs quite often.
Sometimes, no amount of links will ever come to a difference. There’s no difference in Coloretto between starting with a Red or a Brown card. In that case, that is not variable setup. In Coloretto‘s case, the goal is to have every player start with a different card, which helps make the first round interesting. It should not, however, be considered variable setup.
Another aspect to consider is the scope of that variability: how much of the experience does it actually change?
As an example of analyzing scope in starting situations, let’s take a look at everything that your choice of Spirit in Spirit Island will give you, thinking about how different they make a game from another, and for how long those differences last:
Starting presence: within two turns at the most, your board presence is virtually the same as everyone else’s;
Income abilities: Minor differences overall. Some provide more flexibility, some less, but they’re all quite similar;
Innate abilities: Very important difference. It’s abilities that only you can do, and they’re rather strong and stay useful throughout the game. They also push you to acquire certain cards, with the icons you need to trigger them. Those are a 1-link relationships, because cards with specific icons will also have specific types of effects, meaning a card with Fire as a trigger will tend towards aggressive cards throughout the game;
Starting hand: Fundamental difference early, but since you acquire new cards quickly, and get rid of those you started with, you will end up with most of your cards being from the central deck rather than your starting hand.
Add it all together, and those Spirits make Spirit Island a highly asymmetric game. The Innate abilities, however, do most of the heavy lifting. I’d even argue that the starting hands are probably there to support those innate abilities, make sure you have the icons you need and have cards that follow its theme, rather than to increase asymmetry.
When it comes to variability of scoring systems, let’s look at Isle of Skye, which offers you 4 different scoring conditions every game. A game of Isle of Skye finishes with average scores in the 60-90 range. On average, about 10 points will come from stuff unrelated to those conditions, whether leftover money or acquired Scrolls. That means that, on average, about 80% of your scores will come from those variable scoring conditions.
Compare that with Prowler’s Passage, a really neat 2-player game. In it, every game, you choose 3 objectives, and the first player to complete each will get points, between 3 and 6. Players score, on average, about 100 points each. Out of an average of 200 total points, 12-15 will come from the achievement cards, or 7%. How much do these objectives push you to do different things from a game to the next?
Focus is an aspect that came to me while I was writing the two previous ones. In my earlier examples, I’ve talked mostly about strategy games, mostly Euro ones, because that’s my jam, that’s what I design and play and know. However, if you design a narrative-centric game, or a very puzzly abstract, the scope you aim for and the kind of inherent properties you care about will change.
If I play a fantasy skirmish game, I don’t care whether I play Dwarves or Orcs: what are their abilities? How are they different mechanically? However, if I play an RPG, leading an army of Orcs is going to be quite different than an army of Dwarves, even if, mechanically, they’re the exact same, because different story challenges will come out of it.
Now, I’ve seen many board games where they offer variability, but without focus. Many games centered around “missions”, which are mechanically just recipe fulfillment, resource management things, with very different lore behind them, but only meaningless differences in the recipes you needed to fulfill. Is that variety? Only if the narrative aspect is what matters to your target audience!
I think of Munchkin, where the target audience will consider a Magic Sword and Laser Vision very different cards, even if both just give you +1 in combat. I think of Claustrophobia, which has a few different enemies in it, but many criticize its lack of variety because “they’re all demons”, even if they’re mechanically different. Can’t please everyone it seems…
And that is not just theme vs mechanisms: you can also use that to dig deeper. In a game were movement on a map is key, like Hawaii or Maquis, changing the connections on a map would make for a very different feel, much more so than it would in a game like Godfather: Corleone’s Empire or Spirit Island, where those spatial relationships are important, but secondary.
Being even more of a nitpick: the character in Marco Polo which allows you to choose the value of your dice is exciting in that game, because the game’s focus is one of optimization, and the dice you roll just add that limitation to your turn. That same power in Sagrada would take away half of the puzzliness of the placement, remove from the game’s focus: much less interesting. It’s not that the mechanism takes a different place, it’s that the experience you want the player to have is different.
I always do this: I start with a short article, and then keep on adding on to it until it reaches “geez no one’s ever going to read this”. If you made it to this part, AWESOME! You win a virtual cookie!
So yeah, those are the aspects that I think one has to keep in mind to avoid palette-swap, skin-deep variability: how inherently different are the two things you’re comparing; how noticeable is the difference; and how fundamental to the game is the element you’re changing.
Next week, I think I’ll get into some examples of games which have done variable setup particularly well!
Roadblock is a series of articles where I interview other designers, developpers, and others involved in the industry, to do a deep dive into a specific issue they’ve dealt with in a project. The goal is to add concrete examples to the mass of game design advice out there.
JV: Today I’m sharing with you folks a discussion with Chris Anderson, designer of the Tempus series of solo games and host of The Board Game Workshop podcast. Today, Chris will tell us about an issue he ran into in designing the latest Tempus game, Tempus Infinitum.
Can you give us a bit of background on what the game is like, so readers better understand?
CA: All of the Tempus games are similar. They work like a roll and write, but instead of rolling dice you write down the day and time you start playing and use those numbers to populate the map with resources and obstacles, and also to determine your actions for the game.
Tempus Infinitum specifically has unique maps generated based on a player’s email address.
JV: That random seeding through the date and time is interesting to me. Why not simply go with cards or dice?
CA: The original game design idea that eventually spawned the Tempus system was to make a diceless roll and write. I wanted a game that required minimal materials to play, in this case just a single sheet per player and a pen. The Tempus idea came up as an option for solo play but worked so well I abandoned the multiplayer idea.
Now, the Tempus system is what makes the games stand out from other roll and write games.
JV: The number distribution in dates and times is skewed: no numbers over 3, 2, and 5 for the first digit of date, hour, minute, respectively, for example. How did you consider that in your designs?
CA: That’s the best part of the system. It’s like designing around weighted dice and gives a lot of opportunity that uniformly random dice don’t have. The numbers affect two things in the game: the setup of the map and the player’s actions.
The map is a 10 by 10 square grid. Since we only use day, hour, and minute we have 6 numbers to assign. Each of those is assigned to one column and one row. During setup, each of those columns and rows has an item that will be drawn on the map in the space dictated by the number. So if the first digit of the day is 2, the item in that column will be drawn in the second box down. Zero is always at the end.
Since, like you said, the first digits in day, hour, and minute are limited, this creates empty spaces that won’t get drawn in items. These empty spaces are what make the unique maps.
With 10 columns and 10 rows but only 6 numbers, there are also completely empty ones. The digits always go in order, but that still gives 210 possible arrangements for columns or rows. When you combine the possible columns with the possible rows you have 44,100 possible map layouts.
Each of these maps has a different arrangement of empty spaces. In previous Tempus games with only a single map I would choose the layout I wanted and add static items to the empty spaces. They could be obstacles, enemies, resources, or goals. With Tempus Infinitum, though, we are potentially using all 44,100 layouts. So the static spaces and the column and row write in items are arranged by each map’s random seed from a pool of 37 items with some restrictions. The arrangement of these items combined with the different map layouts is what gives us millions of possible layouts. Not infinite, but Tempus Very Large Number doesn’t sound as nice.
The other thing the numbers control is the player’s actions. Again, the unique aspect allows for some control. Each of the 4 actions is assigned a number range. Make a Road 1-2, Dig a Lake 3-4, Build a building 5-8, and use a building 9 & 0. Based on the statistical occurrence of each number in all possible day/times, each action is approximately equal in potential occurrence. But the first digit can only be 0, 1, 2, or 3 and 3 is pretty rare. So almost two thirds of the time your first action will be building a road. Building a road is the most critical action early on, because it’s the foundation to performing other actions. And again with the first digits for hours and minutes we have a restriction on potential actions that skews towards lower numbers and the more important actions of building a road and digging a lake.
So it’s specifically the missing numbers that create the setup and makes each minute a unique puzzle to solve.
JV: Very cool! So getting back to the whole point of this interview: What is the roadblock you ran into? How did you identify it?
CA: The issue with Tempus Infinitum is the variety of possible maps. In previous Tempus games I had a lot of control of how maps were laid out and could balance difficulty by adjusting the layout. Since Tempus Infinitum has to work with millions of potential layouts it’s much harder to control difficulty.
JV: Why is variability of setup particularly important to the game?
CA: Variability of setup is the unique twist that sets Tempus Imperium apart from the other Tempus games. The system has been refined through previous games, but offering every player a unique map makes it much more personal.
JV: Could you expand on that? Why is that worth the extra balancing issues?
CA: I’ve been working on Tempus games for years now and what continues to surprise me is just how much design space they have. Tempus Quest is 13 unique maps in a campaign, where what you do in previous episodes helps you in the future. It was designing those different maps that made me realize how many possibilities there are for the setup, even if you keep the exact same rules.
Tempus Infinitum is my attempt to use all of that potential in one game. It’s definitely an ambitious design challenge. And, at best, each uniquely generated map is no better than an individually designed map.
But, I think the ability to offer players a unique map that is theirs alone, that they can try and master and share with their friends, adds a level of community and metagame that solo games don’t often have.
JV: You coded a tool to help you for the setup: what did you use for that? What do you see as the pros and cons of the tool?
CA: I’m only an amateur when it comes to coding. I use Processing (https://processing.org) to create the individual maps. It’s based on Java and the main benefit is that I know how to use it. I’m pretty sure it’s not the most efficient method for what I’m doing though.
JV: How do you imagine it working in a final product, or will it just always keep that computer generated aspect?
CA: Currently I have to manually run the program to generate the maps. Ideally the tool would be integrated into a website so players can instantly get their unique map.
JV: So this will always stay a PnP? What pushed you in that direction, versus trying to publish a physical copy with 100 different setups in a block of paper?
CA: Yes, the plan is for it to always be a PnP. Since the main goal is offering each player an individual, unique map, it’s the easiest way to get those to them. When testing is done, I’ll set it up as a “pay what you want”. So if anyone would like to support the work, they can. But the biggest reward for me is having people play my game. So I much rather see a picture of a completed game on Twitter than make a few cents selling a pad of paper.
But, with millions of possible maps, most of which will never be generated for individual players, if people would find some benefit from having a printed pad, I’m not opposed to the idea.
JV: Had you ever encountered a similar problem before? Why was this one different?
CA: A lot of my game designs use combinatorics to generate a variety of states, but this is the first to use that in the design instead of just in the play.
JV: And how do they differ?
CA: When combinatorics is in the play, for example having a card game that works with multi card combos, an individual play will work out a certain way, but the next play will be different. So there can be some forgiveness in edge cases that are less than ideal.
When combinatorics is in the design, the generated game is all there is for that player. So a less than ideal edge case will always be less than ideal for the player that got it.
JV: Can you talk about the process of solving your roadblock? What worked? What didn’t?
CA: I’m still in the process of solving the issue of balance.
In early versions I had a lot of variability which led to a huge variance in difficulty between maps. Some players would have 5 enemies to deal with and others would have 10. As I’ve gotten playtester feedback, I’ve restricted some of the variability so that maps have a similar difficulty. The trouble is getting the difficulty balanced while still having a huge variety of unique maps.
JV: And how do you contain the difficulty behind the scenes? Do you define more closely how much of each thing will appear, or do you go with a point system to evaluate how “positive” a setup is? (or anything else of course)
CA: In the first version, the item in each space was chosen independently, similar to a die roll, so my only control was adjusting the statistical chance of an item being chosen. This caused the huge variance. Now all the items are selected from the same list of 37 items, similar to a deck of cards, so only the arrangement differs between maps.
I’ve also added restrictions on where certain items can appear. Currently the restrictions I have in place limit only certain items to being in the write in spots or static spots. When it places items on the map it will always place an enemy after a farm. This increases the likelihood that enemies will be next to farms to start, increasing the difficulty. But still has potential to leave a space between them depending on the map layout.
A player request was to have a target score scale so players could tell how well they did. So a potential addition is to have a unique scale for each map based on its difficulty. So on an easy map, 150 is a great score. But on a hard map, 60 is great. This would be a great way to make all maps comparable. But it requires being able to accurately judge the difficulty of each setup automatically during creation.
JV: It feels to me like a variable setup is particularly important in a solo game, where you can’t rely on player interaction to make games play differently. What do you think of that statement?
CA: I think it is important for replayability. A solo game with a single setup is fine for a single play, like a puzzle or choose your own adventure. And could potentially get a few more plays if you want to fix mistakes and get a better score. But the interest to play drops off sharply. Variable setup makes each setup its own puzzle to solve while still rewarding skills and strategies learned from previous plays.
JV: Where else do you want to take the Tempus series?
CA: Once I get the map generation figured out for Tempus Infinitum, I’d like to make new ages for it. Currently it’s set in a vaguely medieval age with castles and farms. I can see making slight adjustments to actions and setting, like I did in Tempus Quest, and getting millions of new maps to play.
But my greatest hope for the Tempus system is that other designers will use it. So far I’ve heard of one designer trying to make a game with it, but I’d love to see what others can do.
JV: Is there a game that you think does this variable setup particularly well? One that you could point designers to so they can learn from it?
CA: Friday by Friedemann Friese. It’s a solo game where you work your way through a shuffled deck of benefits and threats. So each game will be a different order but the things you learn from each play about how to deal with threats will inform your future plays.
JV: Well thanks a bunch Chris! I’ve been thinking about trying and making a solo game during the confinement, and I’m sure I’m not alone in that situation: surely this discussion will be helpful to many a designer!
There are three lines in board game ads that are way too common, to the point of being ridiculed on social media whenever they come up:
“Minute to learn, lifetime to master“
Those two I understand: too often, it’s mostly empty marketese and proof of somebody who hasn’t been around the board game sphere, the kind of naivety which suggests a less-than-stellar game. Sure, sometimes it’s true, and when it is, those qualities do have great value, but the words themselves have lost the benefit of the doubt: show, don’t tell.
The third one is “Over 100,000 different setups!“, or any other similarly high number, often followed with “no two games will ever be alike!“. The goal is to present a highly re-playable game, with a broad spectrum of experiences to deliver. Variable setups, and their close cousin modular expansions, are a divisive thing in our hobby, but boy oh boy do I love both.
First, just so we work off a common definition, I’ll define variable setup thus:
Variable setup is when a game’s starting state changes from one game to the next, in a way that is known to the players.
This definition therefore includes modular boards, starting resources, available actions, special abilities, or goals, but not the order in which the cards in a shuffled deck are ordered, or objectives which are revealed later in the game. And of course, it’s a spectrum, going from starting with a different card in Coloretto to playing an entirely different game with the same system in 504.
To me, variable setup is an asset in games I buy, and an objective in games I design. Yet, many choose to mock games which advertise it as a main selling point. There are a few good points that come out of the mockery, which is why I wanted to spend a post to discuss it. I would group the mockery in 4 general threads, each containing a nugget of truth:
Who cares, just focus on making a good game!
Why bother? People only play games once these days!
Variability should come from the game itself!
How many of those 100,000 are actually different?
Each of them brings up an important characteristic of setup variability, each with its own pros and cons:
Not everyone values variability. A lot of people prefer a game with a more limited and defined scope, which delivers a specific experience every time. Furthermore, many see variability as dilution of the product: if the game delivers 10 different experiences, how much design time has gone into each of them?
Now personally, I very much disagree. Of course, some games have gone too far with the variability, and made a hundred mediocre games instead of a great one. But that being said, a strong core which you can then go down multiple paths in is something that hooks me and keeps me coming back.
Many people only play games once. Yes, that’s true: if you’ll only play a game once, just give me a single setup, it’s much simpler, much cheaper, much quicker.
That being said, I see that situation as a challenge to overcome, not as a reality you have to follow: very often, after a playtest of With a Smile & a Gun or Off the Record!, I’ve had players look through the power cards, and just go “oh yes, I want to play again with this one”. After them having a good time, having their interest piqued is the best way to get a player back to the table, thinking “oh what else does it have in store?”
Variety can come from other sources. It can. Player interaction is a great way to surprise players even after repeated plays, so is randomness. Those can make sure that no two games are ever the same.
That being said, a variable setup is not only a source of variety: it is also a strategic puzzle in how you react to it. Just like player interaction is about reading your opponents, and randomness is about pushing your luck, a variable setup is about evaluating the situation, and which paths are advantaged or not in a specific game. Sure, you may not like that, just like I don’t particularly like having to mitigate die rolls to determine success.
Variability is not always meaningful. My gateway into board gaming was Dominion. In it, each game is centered on a different set of 10 cards, from a pool of roughly… 400 different cards now? That being said, not every one of those setups is significantly different: if you have access to Gardens (which score points based on the number of cards in your deck) and Workshop (which allow you to gain more cards per turn), that opens up that strategic path, but whether that 10th available card is a Village or a Market really doesn’t change much. Meaning that out of millions of setups, you probably have closer to 100 meaningfully different ones. That’s still a lot, but that 100 is what I care about, not the more often presented millions.
That obviously begs the question “what makes variability meaningful?”, which, I swear, I’ll get into… next time. Just let me wrap this one up first.
So no. variability in games is not a marker of quality, just like meanness or puzzliness aren’t. However, when done well, it is a feature of a game which many (including me) enjoy: those moments of “wow, they can use this system for THIS too?”, or “Ohhhh, can’t wait to try out this faction”. It’s the exploration factor, the learning new things constantly, but also the adaptability: “yeah do you mind if we don’t play with the Skeletons in this game, I don’t really enjoy them”. Done!
Some have described it as breadth rather than depth, as exploring rather than mastering, but I think it belittles the strategic aspect of evaluating each setup and how it will affect the game: whether it’s looking at where the starting cubes are in Pandemic, which combos you have in your hand in Agricola, or the objectives available in a game of Gaia Project, I personally love the adaptability it requires, how much it pushes you in different directions.
Not for everyone, but most definitely for me. And hopefully for others, because boy oh boy are they central in the games I design.