Unsung Mechanism 2: Silver & Gold

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

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

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

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

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

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

Silver and Gold
Image by BGG user Rascozion

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rules are meant to be broken

Early in the design of Cartographia, we had a problem about players hoarding cards: it’s a bad strategy, but every now and then a player would try it and ruin the night for everyone else by limiting their access to specific cards, slowing the game economy, and opening their own options to such degree to cause monumental AP. All of that would turn a brisk 75 minute game into a 3 hours slog.

We tried pushing players to action, but sometimes, it was a first-time player who didn’t want to commit early, and would just let others do stuff to then copy: we had hit the limit of soft limits. We wanted to take the possibility of a player tanking the game for everyone else (either inadvertently or on purpose) completely out of the equation, and so we added a hard Hand size limit: you could never have more than 15 cards in hand. If you drew, you stopped drawing once you had those 15.

Of course, board games do not enforce the rules themselves, and so often, people would forget. “Hey, how can you have so many cards in hand?” cam up at least once a playtest. My co-designer wanted to dump the hand size limit, but I convinced him to try one last thing: an exception to the rule.

I can hear you: “but Jon, exceptions suck! They’re even HARDER to remember! Now I don’t have to remember one rule, I have to remember two, and the subtle nuances of when each of them take place!”

You’re right, they do suck! What I mean is “let one player break the rule”. The game has a tech tree, and so we diminished the hand limit to 10, and added a power in there that boosted it to 15. That changed a few things:

  1. It added a reminder during the teach: When I was teaching the game, I’d explain the hand size limit while explaining the draw phase, and then again for the techs. When others were teaching it and often forgot it during the draw phase, they’d remember it while teaching the tech: “increase your hand size” only makes sense if you have a hand size.
  2. It added a reminder during the game: Getting the 15-card tech was often an early move for less experienced players: it was an easy first level strategy. That means that throughout the first few rounds, they were thinking about their hand size. And it wasn’t too long before someone unlocked it, and then claimed “and now I can hold 15 cards!”… usually leading to everyone checking to make sure they had 10 or fewer!
  3. It adds an enforcer to the table: If I’m playing, it’s easy for me to police what others are doing: I know the game inside out, I know how much hoarding hurts it, and I know what I’m doing enough to be able to pay attention to what others are doing…. but I don’t come in the box! However, when one player has invested effort and time into being able to break that rule, you know they’ll make sure others don’t get that bonus for free. We hope they won’t be an asshole about it of course, and they’re not on the lookout, but they will spot it.
  4. It’s not related to breaking the rules per se, but to the point of increasing retention: The rule came up often and early: When you are taught a game, you have a lot of information in your brain, but you haven’t learned it yet: it’s when you actually start playing and experiencing it that those rules start to merge together into a system. If a rule doesn’t come up early, you risk having built that system in your head without it. With the lower hand size at the beginning of the game, someone hit that 10-card limit in the first three or four turns, while at 15, there were games where it never came up.

While I think cutting an oft-forgotten rule is better, sometimes it’s impossible: in these cases, I tend to use the ability to break them as a way to help enforce them.

Grammar and Theme p5: Adjective theme

So far we’ve talked about Noun theme (how you name the stuff in your game and how it relates to the situation you are presenting), Verb theme (how you name the actions in your game and how it relates to the situation you are presenting), and Adverb theme (the feelings evoked by the gameplay and how they relate to the situation you are presenting). Today we’re talking about Adjective theme, or how a board game looks. It’s not about how good the art is, or how impressive the minis are: it’s about whether or not the components support and enforce the other three types of theme.

Now I have to admit, for a long time, I sneered at players who would think of components as theme. “Oh, look at those minis, so thematic!” sounded like kids who get their first non-picture book and wondered how they were supposed to get the story. Then, as I got my first game signed, and started thinking of self-publishing, I started thinking of those components more, cand… oh boy should I have thought of them earlier.

Art Style

Think of all the games which look somber and serious, but then are dynamic and quick-paced, or the other way around. One of the best examples is the Bruno Cathala card game Crazy Penguins, which is a quick but thinky card game of machiavelian intrigue and tense strategy. It’s about giving your opponents cards so they can fight each other and leave you alone. It’s an amazing game that evokes Game of Thrones, but instead is… ridiculous, cartoony penguins.

Picture from StudioBombyx.com

The art style here does two things: first, it attracts casual players who are then turned off by the gameplay, which is all nuance; second it suggests to the hobby players that this is a game to be played on a light and chaotic level. And of course, it can be, but then it’s just one more card game. That extra level of strategy, where it becomes interesting, is one for which the game’s look gets in the way.

On the other side of the spectrum, have you ever tried to get muggles to play Ethnos? It looks serious, it looks dark, it looks like those strategy games where you stare at each other while contemplating the board, yet it’s a quick-paced game of card play and combos, which every fan of Ticket to Ride should give a shot to.

If you want to look at better combinations of Art Style and theme, good examples on the silly side are Camel Cup or Potion Explosion, and on the serious side you have games like Godfather: Corleone’s Empire or Goa. Overall, most of the big hits are game where you have a good idea of the feeling of the game when looking at the box – that’s how you create an expectation you can fulfill, after all.

Component Choice

But art style is not the only part of Adjective theme: so is component choice. As I said in the Noun theme post, having realistic resources really supports the theme, because it enforces the vocabulary you want players to have, but it also goes beyond that: I recently had a discussion with an indie game designer by the name of Jamey Stegmaier (if you don’t know him, you should check him out: the kid has potential!) I asked him why he decided to go with resource tracks, rather than resource tokens, in his Civ game Tapestry.

Jamey: On the track, I thought it would feel more macro–a broad look at your civilization, opposed to games where you’re collecting individual resources by harvesting, cutting down trees, etc…

Image from StonemaierGames.com

And it is true that having the tracks, instead of individual pieces, gives that sense of scale: while the scale of resources in games are always abstracted (how many dead trees does this one brown cube represent?), having a physical piece does make suggestions, specifically when, like Stonemaier usually does, the pieces are realistic representations of the bits in the game world. It’s pretty easy to assume that drum of oil in Scythe represents a single drum of oil.

Overall table presence

Sometimes, art and components are both on par, but the overall game still feels off. Michael Kiesling’s Vikings is a great game, but it’s one of the most unthematic games out there, failing on all four types of theme.

Image from BGG user Pouringraine

As you can see in that picture, like every Viking chieftain ever, you are filling up a grid with islands to place different types of vikings of them. And like in real life, islands (which all are parallel lines) can only contain vikings which share a job: you wouldn’t put a Soldier on the same island as a Chef, of course!

But looking at that picture, does it look in any way thematic? Does it suggest a Viking theme at all? Of course not. It suggests abstract. It’s not the meeples (the horned helmets are a nice add honestly), nor the art (which I really like), it’s the fact that the game looks like a grid. You can look at that picture and learn a few of the rules, which is great from a gameplay perspective, but takes away from the theme.

Anecdote time!

My first design, Cartographia, is a game about mapping the world in the Age of Discoveries. You discover parts of the world, and once a region is discovered, it can be mapped by spending resource cards, in which case you had a token to the board to say it’s mapped.

The night before the pitch that led to the game’s signing, we played a game with new players so I could practice teaching the game, and make sure we remembered everything about it -the game had been with other publishers for a while, so we hadn’t played it for several months. And throughout, those new players referred to mapping as “building”. We corrected them, but it still wouldn’t sink in. Crap.

After the publisher signed the game, he brought up that exact point, and together we brainstormed a great fix: that token you place on the board would come from a dual-layered player board: under would be the drawn world map, and the token on top of it would be a blank piece of paper. With that change, when you take the token to go place it on the shared board, you also reveal the growing map of the world from your personal player board.

Wow, imagine how cool a picture of it would be right now! Hopefully, my words have done the idea justice and you can see it. Since that change, people never use a word other than map.

Conclusion

This was the last of the Grammar as Theme articles. Hopefully it was helpful to some of you in breaking down the various ways in which a game’s theme can be revealed, and therefore what people mean when they use the term.

I’ll switch gear to something else for a bit, but eventually I’ll come back to this and discuss how the theme of my own designs evolved over time along those four axes.

Psychology of final scores

There’s a lot of talk in design circles about balance, and how the real focus should be on the illusion of balance, rather than balance itself. I have a cool story about that!

My first game, Cartographia, got signed in 2017. It does new things, but one wheel we didn’t reinvent is “most points wins”. When we pitched it to the publisher that signed it, the final scores were something like 120-80-50. A lot of people who finished in second place felt like they got blown out.

After agreeing with the publisher to change it, we gave everyone an extra 50 points. Not “you each start with 50”, just increasing the value of stuff so that, on average, everyone has higher scores. Scores were now 170-130-100. Suddenly, even though the lead was just as hard to catch up to, players felt better about those scores.

We then halved everything: what gave 4 is now 2, 12 is now 6. You’re smart, you know how halving works. Scores were now 85-65-50, and the point spread was never brought up again.

It would be easy to point to the fact that last place still has 50, and what used to be 70-pts behind is now 35-pts behind: of course they’re okay about that! But in reality, those 35 points now are as hard to get as the 70 before. But the odds of a comeback are not what we care about: the hope is. And that’s emotion, and that just requires re-framing.

All in all, points are a way for the game to compare players’ performances to establish the winner, but players will also compare themselves through it.

It also reminds me of my first game of Heaven & Ale, which is a game I automatically fell in love with. In it, most of your score is your resource that’s lowest on a track (representing how much beer you can produce) multiplied by your beer’s quality (which, IIRC, goes from 2 to 6). But the track starts wayyyyyyy below zero: at the beginning of the game, your lowest resource is at like -12. So, of course, one of my friends finished the game with one resource under 0, and a score of 0. In reality, he scored 0 because you start with -24 points. I think they numbered the track that way to limit the multiplication to lower numbers: you have to play pretty badly to score 0. But when comparing points, it kind of throws everything off, sort of like a graph that doesn’t start at 0.

Do you have a special story about a game’s scoring system, either from a designer or a player perspective? Please share it below, I’d love to read them!