The Power of Combinations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Investors and bots
Picture from BGG user Zedsdead

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

And isn’t that why we play games?

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!