Designer Diary #3: The Nuts and Bolts

This post is Part 3 of a Designer Diary for With a Smile & a Gun, initially posted during the Kickstarter campaign! In this section, I talk about the mechanical evolution of the game, and the thought process behind it. There is some overlap between this post and the “5 Lessons from” post from early January, 2020, but I think they still stand on their own.

Picture from Eric Yurko

With a Smile & a Gun’s core conceit, as I said in the first post, didn’t change since the first draft of the game. Just to recap, that core is:

  • Dice drafting: draft a die for your movement around a 3×3 grid, and a die for your action;
  • Grid: After moving, you affect all districts in the row/column facing you;
  • Area control: Most cubes in a district is how you get points;
  • Laying low: Actions for higher values are stronger, but having a lower action sum than your opponent gives you a bonus
  • Shared enemy: As 2-player area majority tends to lack competition, there’s a 3rd faction, which both players can affect, but not control, and both compete with;
  • Leftover die: to make sure the last player has a decision to make, the leftover die as an effect on the game.

There has been a lot of small tweaks, of course, but there are three sections of the game which have seen dramatic changes since that first draft, and those are what I want to discuss in this post: the scoring system, the effect of the leftover die, and how the area control works.

Scoring
The scoring is without a doubt what took most of my time throughout the development of this game. I wanted to have a system that made the value of each district different, but also dynamic. I didn’t want every district to be the same, because then the whole concept of “affect a whole row” loses its meaning, but I also wanted to make sure that sometimes, a District was just a must-win, where you didn’t mind affecting Districts you wouldn’t care about if you could get that one. I also wanted to make sure that sometimes, second place would be just as good as first, and other times, it was first or bust.

I tried a lot of different things, and most of them fell short, but the one recurring theme is definitely related to complexity. Designers often talk about complexity budget, basically pushing you to ask, with every rule that you add, whether its impact to the quality of the game is worth its complexity. What I learned in developing With a Smile & a Gun’s scoring system is that you should spend as much of your complexity budget where the actual hook of the game is.

I tried a lot of very complex things to make the scoring system more interesting, but the truth is, no one is playing this game for its scoring system: the interesting part is in the dice selection, in what you’re leaving for your opponent and for the shadow. The scoring system, as any good supporting actor, is there to make the dice drafting shine. To do that, it needs to be as simple as possible, so that players can easily spot which districts are worth a lot, which districts are must haves, which districts are of little interest.

A simpler scoring system also means that most districts are scored very quickly, because choosing between 5 and 2 points is a lot easier than choosing between a set collection item and a majority tile. Decisions are nice, but they take time, and when the scoring phase takes as long as the action phase, the game’s pace suffers. In the final version, most rounds will have 7 instant evaluations, but 1 or 2 interesting choices. Not only is that quicker, but the fact that these moments are rarer means they are much more special, more tense, and it becomes interesting for both the player choosing and their opponent.

Grid
Up until quite recently, players would add a single cube to every District in the row facing them, rather than the current 3/2/1. This might seem like one of the secondary changes in that tweak-level, but it’s one of those small things that had a big impact on the way the game evolves:

  1. Come backs in majorities are now possible: before, if you were down 2 cubes, it was almost impossible to get back on top, and placing a cube there felt like a waste. It made the initial neutral cubes feel like a mountain to climb, rather than just an obstacle. It makes the game so much more dynamic, because it takes a lot of effort for a majority to be 100% safe. More dynamic also means less time spent calculating every cube, which means a quicker pace!
  2. Where you land is more important: Before, there were 4 ways to affect each district, and each of them were of similar value. Choosing a die was about which combination of districts you wanted to hit, not about prioritizing them. Now, sometimes its about hitting two districts in one move, sometimes its about dropping 3 in a specific districts, and that adds a lot of depth to the game. Plus, sometimes a die gets you to do both in one swoop!
  3. Districts are inherently different: When you added a cube to every district, the board was very flat: every space linked to three Districts, each District was linked to four spaces, and they all were very similar. Now, the Central district always gets two cubes; Corners can get 3 or 1, and the spaces to place 3 cubes are adjacent to one another; Sides can be hit by 3, 2, or 1, but no back-to-back numbers. It’s minor, and most people would say I’m stretching, but over time you treat them differently. It’s also the reason why I added the 3rd control token to the Central district, to put that difference on display.
Picture from Eric Yurko

The Shadow
This one is a mixture of two things I’ve been toying with throughout the game’s development: one was the leftover die, and the other a desire for replayability.

I have a tendency to hyperfocus on games, and play them very frequently in a short window of time, then forget about them for a bit. That’s even more true for 2-player games: in the first 3 months after it came out, I played 7 Wonders Duel 27 times, and to be very frank, I grew kinda sick of it. That happens with a lot of 2-player games for me, mainly because they often end up happening against the same opponent, and can often get stale.

I knew that for a game like With a Smile & a Gun, I wanted a variable setup which would allow some mechanical difference from one game to the next, so that after a game, you could go “hey, let’s try again with this one”. I tried a lot of different things, from changing the players’ action lists, to special action cards, to an event deck, even making one of the District different from one game to the next.

On the other hand, I also had that leftover die, which for the longest time went to the “Police Chief”. It made sense to me that the neutral character would, just like the players, use a die to move a meeple around the city and place dice. Therefore, the Police Chief used the final dice, moved around and placed more Police cubes. Usually, players would forget about the Chief, and either wrap up a round without activating it, or would think of it, move it, and make everyone angry because you hadn’t included it in your calculations.

I’m not exactly sure when those two wires ended up connecting, but at some point they did. Gone was the Police Chief, and his annoying blue cubes everywhere, and in came the Shadow, with an effect that changed from game to game. Still moved around, and affected the district in front of them, but now its effect is different with every play.


And that is the final entry of the With a Smile & a Gun designer diary! Thank you so much for your interest in its development, and feel free to post any comment and question you have!

Making VPs!

Early in the design process for Cartographia, we were brainstorming action ideas for the multi-use cards. Our first idea for Knowledge didn’t really work. We were looking for something else -Ships allowed you to explore, Diplomacy to gain extra actions, and Gold to gain extra resources-, and decided to make it a way to gain points! A different path to victory, isn’t that what everyone wants in Victory Point games?

However, just giving you points for playing a card was… boring. Not only did players feel rewarded for no reason, but there was no way to feel clever for playing it. There was no “right” time to play it, and since everything else did have a timing element, the Knowledge action became the option for when there was no smarter move, which always fell flat. In the end, after trying a few things, we ended up adding a Tech tree, with Knowledge being the main way to gain those techs.

This is only an anecdote, but it’s something I’ve often run into, whether with co-designers, or when testing another designer’s prototype: giving someone straight up points is boring. You can never feel clever for doing it, you never feel like you’ve achieved anything. It is, to me, the difference between a Point Salad and a Euro game, and a question of preference more than one of quality.

Some people will call all or some of these Set Collection: yup. Many of these are ways to score set collection. A reviewer would describe all of those as “Set collection stuff”. I have my own opinion on what is and isn’t set collection, but I find discussions of terminology tedious and of little interest.

Regardless, this was already a long enough intro: here are ways to give players VPs which are more interesting than a simple “here’s 5 VPs!” I’ll use the word “asset” as a catch-all terms to include Tokens, Cards, Resources, or any other piece you obtain in the game that is worth points.


Increasing payoff

Description: Every board gamer has seen the triangular sequence: 1/3/6/10. The more of a thing you have, the better.

Examples: Masks in Teotihuacan (1/3/6/10/15/21 for different types); Science in 7 Wonders (for each type, score X2); Holding cards in Greed (each type you build a holding, it is worth 10k for every other icon of that type you have)

Pros: It makes the assets worth different amounts to each player. It gives you a sense of growth through the game: what is worth 1 or 2 points early on might be worth 20 at the end of the game. You can decide to rewards specialization (which is easy for players to recognize) or diversity (which ensures that players do a bit of everything).

Cons: It’s the most common because there really aren’t many. Rewarding specialization can mean players each choose their own thing and never compete with one another, and diversity can be harder to visualize (“which one am I missing again?”). It often requires a chart to count points.


Decreasing Payoff

Description: The opposite of Increasing Payoff. You get a lot for doing a little of something, but every extra step you do is a smaller bump; Games with negative points for not having done something.

Examples: Income in Power Grid (10-22-33-44-54-65-73-…); Income in Brass (which increases every step early, then every other step, then every third step…).

Pros: Pushes players in doing a bit of everything (because specializing gets less interesting); acts as a catchup mechanism.

Cons: Often lacks excitement, especially late in the game (unless you haven’t done it yet!) Some players will criticize it for being a catchup mechanism. It often requires a chart to count points.


Thresholds

Description: There are multiple ways to present thresholds to players, but the idea is always the same: if you get points for having X, there are some numbers which pay off a lot more than others; Games with “Score your lowest X” (aka Knizia Scoring).

Examples: Sashimi cards in Sushi Go (10 points for every group of 3); the Military track in 7 Wonders Duel (which scores for the differential: 2 points for 1-2, 5 for 3-5, 10 for 6-9, and an instant victory for 10); the Scoring tile in Isle of Skye which gives you 3 points for every column with at least 3 contiguous tiles; any game with contracts to fill.

Pros: It adds tension right before you reach that threshold. If you have two Sashimi cards and need that third, people will try to keep it from you, and you’ll try to figure out a way to get it. It’s quite similar to Increasing Payoff, except that that increase comes at specific points, making those REALLY important.

Cons: You can be screwed out of that final asset (whether by luck or other players), which is not always fun. If that threshold is important enough, the last turn can become ALL ABOUT IT, with nothing else mattering.


Majorities

Description: If you have the most of asset X, score points. I’ve written 3 posts about various twists on Majorities in games, so I won’t fill up this section, but I have a lot to say about them…

Examples: So many… Contracts in Clans of Caledonia; Empire scoring in Terra Mystica; Engineer scoring in Russian Railroads; Round scoring in Wingspan

Pros: Easy to understand, interactive, dynamic. Can be played on multiple levels of involvement (a casual “Let’s have the most!”, or a more strategic “is it worth having the most, or should I settle for second place?”)

Cons: Can lead to large investments that are worth very little. Hard to evaluate the value of stuff, because it’s unclear which position you’ll reach.


Races

Description: First to have asset X gets a reward, or first to have asset X gains a lot of points, then second gains a few points, and third gets even less (or nothing!), or first to have asset X gets points.

Examples: Nobles in Splendor; Museum spaces in Mykerinos; Speed bonuses in Meeple Circus; Family bonuses in Elysium.

Pros: Interactive. Gives you a direction early in the game, and most likely puts players in competition early, which means TENSION! At some point, it’s in the bag, so you avoid that constant one-upping that majorities sometimes lead to.

Cons: If it’s settled early, it becomes a non-factor later on. That’s fine if it’s meant as an early objective just meant to give players directions, but if not, it can lead to the game outlasting its welcome once players know who will win.


Multipliers

Description: Score 3 points for every asset of type Y you have, or for every asset of type Y around the table (in addition to what those would score normally).

Examples: The scoring board in Nippon (assigning multipliers to each category on income turns); Scrolls in Isle of Skye (which are doubled if the zone they’re in is closed off); Round objectives in Clans of Caledonia (which are evaluated at specific times and not at the end of the game).

Pros: Give each player a different specialty. Is useful to get early (to give you direction) as well as late (when you know exactly which multiplier is best). If it varies from game to game, increases replayability.

Cons: If scored after the end of the game, can lead to lots of anti-climactic accounting. If each player scores for different things, it can mean players don’t interact.


Timing dependent

Description: The value of those scoring changes over time. When to score it is what matters.

Examples: Shares in 18xx games (the value of which changes as they are sold and bought, or as they pay dividends); Production in Navegador (when you produce, you will push the value of those goods on tracks, making them vary in value); Palm trees in Silver & Gold  (which score 1pt per Palm Tree on cards in the drawing display at that time); Building the Pyramid in Teotihuacan (which is worth 1pt per level of the piece, +1 pt per icon you cover with an identical one).  

Pros:Rewards flexibility. Since it’s a question of optimal timing, you can’t make perfect plans, as stuff will happen which you need to react to. Not being able to plan perfectly can help limit Analysis Paralysis.

Cons: Hard to plan ahead, which can push AP -yeah, this is often a mixed bag on that front. Also, makes it hard to compare options, since their values are so fluid.


Whenever I think of scoring elements, I try to limit straight-up points and use one of these options when necessary. You can even combine two of them for a single asset: the tracks in Railroad Revolution increase your scoring multiplier when you reach certain thresholds; the Science cards in 7 Wonders score by Thresholds for variety, and by increasing payoff for specialization; the Museum spaces in Mykerinos are multipliers you’re racing to get.

I usually would advise new designers to keep it simple, and only add a rule if the game is much worse without it. In this case, I would advise the opposite: unless you have a specific reason to, I think you should avoid straight-up points.

Did I miss any category, or particularly good examples in one? What is your favorite scoring mechanism?

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!