Unsung Mechanism 2: Silver & Gold

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

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

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

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

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

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

Silver and Gold
Image by BGG user Rascozion

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unsung Mechanism 1: Las Vegas

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

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

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

The dice are in.
Pic by BGG user msaari

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

The colorful dice
Pic by BGG user jsper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 Games that nailed variable setups

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?

Picture by me (YEAH! I ALSO HAVE A CAMERA!)

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.

Ethnos’ Factions

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.

Picture by W Eric Martin

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.

Maquis’ Missions

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.

Another picture by me!

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?

Avoiding the count-up auctions

Power Grid is one of my favorite games, and despite how much I love it, I still get annoyed at the auctions: “I bid 16”, “17”, then people just count up for minutes, increasing the time between each number is called, and often making faces. While I can appreciate those faces, often, those parts of auction games often just end up… boring. They’re slow, there’s very little tension, you can’t plan ahead too much, and as soon as you drop out, you don’t really care much about the rest of the auction.

Now some people love those auctions. I don’t know why, but some do, and that’s fine. If you like them, then go ahead, you have my blessing! However, if you don’t, then let’s take a look at a few ways you can address this problem, and games which have done it.

One caveat: I don’t like Modern Art much. I won’t mention it here. It probably does most of these, feel free to add it to all of these examples if you care. I don’t think I missed any twists that ONLY Modern Art does. I’m also not talking about blind bidding, because that is an entirely different mechanism.

Incentivizing players to make their best offer: Part of the problem is that auctions are about players getting more value than what they paid. What that means is that what you’re encouraging is to low-ball as much as the players can get away with: maybe they’ll win with a ridiculous bid, or, worst case scenario, they’ll bid higher later. That focus can be interesting—it’s a great moment when you can pull it off–, but it can also be very tedious.

The simplest way to mitigate that incentive is to make the auction go around only once, like in Goa, Ra, or The Estates. One player starts the bid, and every player gets a single chance to bid. Usually, the player who started the auction will have the last word, incentivizing them to start the bid on something they’re interested in because of how strong that final say can be. It kind of pushes you to go as high as you’re comfortable going, and to assess other players’ desire for it: can I get away with a lowball? In my experience, once around auctions are not quicker than the standard ones, because each decision takes a lot longer, but they are a lot more tense.

Picture by BGG user Pedro Vaquero

In between Infinite and One, there are other ways to limit how many bids your players can make. For example, in Infamy, each time you bid you pay 1$. If you get outbid, you get your bid back, but that 1$ is lost, representing the time and energy it took to actually get to the person you’re trying to bribe. It’s a less draconian way of doing the once-around: you still get a second chance, but you still would have been better off nailing it on the first try.

Picture from BGG user Daniel Thurot

Even more nuanced is the way High Society does it: you have a set of money cards which you cannot break down into smaller denominations. Once you play a card, increasing your bid requires you to add a card, without changing what’s already on the table. If you bid high early, you still have all the versatility of your smaller values, but you have a very limited amount of those.

Incentivizing dropping out: In the end, an auction a “Last one standing” situation, and so making sure people drop off quickly can make the auction go faster. For example, many games give something to players who do not win an auction: in Dream Factory and Rising Sun, the winning bid is split up between the auction losers. This is interesting for two reasons: one, because it’s a catchup mechanism as well as an auction fixer; but also because it adds a very important layer of strategy in how much money you give your opponents, which they can then use on the very next auction against you. They also make you care after you drop off, because it still determines how much money you’ll get.

Picture from BGG user Christian Monterroso

For Sale does a similar thing, although it presents it differently. Instead of rewarding the dropper, it makes players want to avoid being that Last one standing, because that player pays the entirety of their highest bid, while all other players only pay half. There’s more nuance there, but as far as the auction is concerned, that’s pretty much what it comes down to. Taking away the card aspect, it’s very similar to the previous twist mathematically (you spend less vs getting new money), but it also feels veeery different. While mathematically, giving money to your opponents is a much bigger swing than getting that 50% discount, it doesn’t feel as bad. Loss aversion is such that you don’t care about others taking your breadcrumbs, but you do care about paying double what others are.

One thing I did in one of my prototypes (which never went very far) was to make dropping order during the auction phase the turn order during the worker placement phase. Players would often be just as happy passing as they would be winning the auction. However, after the first player had passed, or the second in a very high player count game, that incentive would be close to worthless, which actually encouraged the other players to keep on bidding even further: sure, they could get 3rd place now, but if they weren’t going to get 1st, they should at least get the prize of the auction! Sunk cost fallacy is a tough one to avoid…

Limiting your decision space: Part of what makes auctions take so long is how granular they can get. In Power Grid, the game doesn’t progress much between a bid of 25 and one of 30, yet that probably took going around the table two or three times.

A simple way of increasing that is to lower the numbers. If you have 100$ in hand, bidding 14 or 15 doesn’t change anything. If you have 20, then that can make a bigger difference. Since most games deal in whole numbers, lowering all numbers in your game can have an impact by making each unit matter more.

Some games pre-set the possible values you can bid: in Amun-Re or Stockpile, the potential bid values are predetermined, meaning you don’t have to choose between all the numbers that exist, only those 8. Also, in both games, those available amounts follow the triangular sequence (0-1-3-6-10-15-21), meaning that the higher you bid, the more it takes to outbid you, incentivizing you to put your best offer early.

Picture from BGG user Tom Delme

In a similar but less restrictive vein, Cursed Court requires any outbidding to at least double the previous bid. Given that you only have 20 coins to spread around 4 bids, there’s a lot of interesting psychology that comes in.

In Ra, you can only bid one of your tiles for the value on it. Unlike the previous examples, here each player faces different limits. Bidding a 6 when your opponent only has a 5 and a 12 forces them to outbid you by a LOT. This not only a great way to accelerate auctions, it also causes a lot of tension in those moments.

What is your take on count-up auctions? What is your favorite twist on auction mechanisms?

The Caverna effect, or avoiding inflation in games

In D&D, specifically the 3rd edition I grew up on, there’s this sort of a treadmill of numbers: at level 1, your sword deals 5 damage to an 11hp Orc; at level 8, your +2 holy battleaxe deals 50 damage to an 110hp Fire Giant; at level 12, your +4 flaming magicbane greatsword deals 100 damage to an 220hp Purple Worm. The numbers get bigger, but they increase at the same pace, so it never feels like you’re making progress. Color swap the enemies and get on to the next dungeon. If all you saw was a health bar rather than the pure numbers, you couldn’t tell the difference. I guess at least you’re rolling more dice?

The same thing happens in many Euro games. A game where you do the same thing on turn 2 as you do on turn 18 gets boring quickly, so many designers use inflation to solve that problem: early on, an action nets me 2 wood, and building the inn costs 5 wood to get 8 points. Afterwards, by the time I get my engine going, I can get 6 wood as an action, but by then, there are no inns to build, only Castles, which cost 15 wood and give me 24 points. Same ol’ number treadmill as D&D. Inflation makes it feel like you’re doing more, but its a very thin illusion that doesn’t take very long to peel off.

Then, Caverna happened. I liked Caverna a whole lot, despite disliking Agricola. One of the big parts of it was how each action just gave you more stuff. Not “double every number”, but just more variety. You were sitting there, thinking “I need wood, let’s go here to get the 4 wood I’m missing… and a pig? Alright, sure.” Then, next turn, you’d have to choose: “do I try to do something with this pig, or use that wood I’ve accumulated?”

Pic by BGG user Chacki

If you’re working on a game with an engine building aspect to it, I’d strongly urge you to look into this. Giving your players more varied yields to their actions is a lot more interesting than just giving them a lot more of the same stuff. It opens up your options. It gives players ways to feel clever. It opens up your design room: Now you can have more than one actions which give you wood, each with their own kicker!

And just to be clear, this isn’t just true of worker placement games. To go back to D&D, one of the main switch after 3rd edition was to go from a magical sword that gave you +3 to your attacks, to one that allowed you to push your enemies around, or which could turn to fire, or allowed you to teleport, or heal your allies. It’s the difference between Pandemic’s “5 action” Generalist, and every other role with a special ability.

You might think “this is the exact same thing as your post about straight-up VPs“, and you’d be right. Wow, you saw right through my ruse. I think it is applying the same logic to a different problem. There’s a lot more stuff you could apply this to!

I think building those power curves is a necessary part of designing most games, but too often designers default to the boring answer that is inflation. Open your horizons, and your players’ options!