Lifehack the complexity budget!

When designing a game, the balance between depth and weight is a tricky one. Every system, element, or even just rule, you add to a game brings strategy, tactics, balance, but also complexity. Fun : weight ratio, which many prefer to think of as the complexity budget, is an important aspect of game design.

Here’s the thing: there’s a lifehack to this. I have a tool to share with you which can add a lot of depth for minimal complexity, in an almost “too-good-to-be-true” infomercial kind of way.

That thing is Space. More specifically, spatial relations. Our brains think spatially, and a lot of these things are so ingrained in us that it’s harder to put in words than to actually interact with.

Think of the tiles in Isle of Skye: it takes a second of looking at it to parse all that it contains, not only the scrolls, buildings and barrels, but also the land types, roads, and their position on the tile. If these were cards in a tableau building game, no mechanism could make up for that depth.

Now, of course, tile laying games are built around that spatial aspect, and not every game can be about tile laying, or route building, or map skirmish. Yet, even game types which are not intrinsically spatial can be enriched, at no extra complexity, by leaning into our brains’ innate spatial understanding.

Not only good for tiles

Early in With a Smile & a Gun‘s development, you would draft a die, and place influence in the district of that value: 6 districts, each associated with a number. It was easy to grasp, but a bit boring, a bit stale.

I added a lot of strategic depth to the game by making each die value affect two districts, and each district be affected by two values (using my favorite tool, the power of combinations):

By using adjacency, players grasped the relationships just as easily as they did the first version. The decision were more interesting, because of the depth this added to the game, but players didn’t have to spend more cognitive bandwidth on this system.

Version 3, the one the final game still uses, adds a lot more depth without much weight:

GIF by the amazing Jon Merchant

Now your die moves your meeple around the city, and you place cubes in the row/column in front of it. In addition to the added thematic aspect of moving your meeple, here’s all of the strategic difference this adds:

  • You affect 3 districts instead of 2: the most obvious one, but a pretty big impact on depth;
  • Relative numbers matter, not absolutes: going to a spot might require a 2 for me, but a 4 for you, which means I can keep you from going without having to go myself;
  • Distance matters: You place 3, 2, and 1 cube, starting from your meeple, making the choices regarding the area control more granular, more dynamic;
  • The possible combinations are clear: not every combination of 3 districts is possible, and that is clear to every player, even on their first game.

Not only did this system add the thematic resonance of the movement, and all of these interesting levels to the game, but by and large, players found this version simpler to grok than the first two. Of course, other effects come into play, but still: this added a LOT of depth, for virtually no complexity.

Even more intrinsic

I’ve brought this up in one of the designer diaries for the game, but it bears repeating here: there are fundamental differences between the corner districts, the side districts, and the central one, simply based on spatial aspects.

First, the 3/2/1 placement mechanism means that while a side district can receive 3, 2, or 1 cube, depending on where you’re hitting it from, corners can only get 3 or 1, and the center only gets cubes by 2s. It affects how swingy the majority for those districts are.

Second, the distance between two spots that affect a given district vary. The 4 spots to influence the central district are exactly 3 spaces apart. However, after you pass a corner, it can take a while before you get back to placing on it, especially if you need to place 3 cubes.

Now, these aren’t large differences, but they’re still there. What’s more, I didn’t even design them in: it’s just inherent to the spatial design of it. It took me a bit of time to even realize it was the case.

Remember when we were talking about depth : weight ratio? I added depth to my game without meaning to. Isn’t that some magical, snake oil kinda tool!

Other examples

Tzolk’in famously uses these large, interconnected gears to represent the passage of time. In addition to the gimmick and eye-catching aspect of the gears, this entire system would have been so much harder to represent without a spatial aspect.

Final game board with gears and stickers.
Image from publisher

Pandemic is one of many examples of games which feature movement on a map, and you could say that’s an inherently spatial game and I’ve broken my own premise. However, I think it’s worth pointing out how the links between cities naturally create different experiences based on which cities are targetted at setup: 3 cubes on Santiago, with its single path out, is not the same as on Baghdad, with its 5 neighbours, or Madrid, which also has 5 neighbors, but 2 of which are of different colours. If the map didn’t include those spatial oddities, the setup variety would not be as meaningful.

Pandemic, Z-Man Games, 2013 – game board
Image from publisher

Battle Line (also known as Schotten Totten) is, to put it simply, a mix of War and Poker, where the two players play cards in front of a line of 9 flags, trying to make a better poker hand than their opponent. To win, you must either gain 5 of the 9 flags, or 3 adjacent ones. That extra winning condition adds a lot of tension, makes some sites more important, makes the ends of the line feel different from the middle, and all of that at no extra cognitive load.

uncaptioned image
Picture by @BoardGameGeek

Think about the design(s) you’re working on right now: is there a part of your game that you could improve (either by simplifying without making less engaging, or by enriching it at low complexity costs), simply by presenting it spatially?

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?

When to use randomness in your design?

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.

Theme

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.

Surprise

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Variety

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?

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?

Multi tasking is actually the best

This year, I’m a mentor in Mike Belsole’s Mentorship program (if you don’t know it, go check it out, it’s pretty sweet). I don’t consider myself accomplished enough for that title, but I thought that if I think myself smart enough to write about game design, I guess I should be smart enough to mentor game designers, right?

I met with my mentees, and there’s one piece of advice I repeated often, and so I thought maybe I should write a blog post about it:

“You should work on more than one game at a time.”

Working on multiple games is, I think, the difference between a game designer and someone with a game design project. Many will disagree, and that’s fine, but I think working on a second game, and probably even a third, will make each of them better.

Rebuttal 1: But Jon, I barely have time to work on this one game?

When I was in university, I used to say that about working out. “I barely have enough time to live my life as is, how can I add a half hour of physical activity a day?” Then I realized that by doing a half hour of physical activity every day, after a few weeks, I had an extra hour’s worth of energy.

It’s the same thing with game design. Working on multiple games takes time, but that investment will very quickly pay for itself by allowing you to bypass blocks (when you get stuck, hop to something else), to group actions (printing three prototypes is not three times as long as printing only the one), and by allowing you to take some distance from your work (which helps you avoid dead-ends and death spirals).

Rebuttal 2: But Jon, this is my baby! I don’t want to work on anything else

I said earlier working on multiple designs is the difference between a game designer and someone with a game design project: if you want to stay in that second category, that’s fine. I still think your game would be better if you took on a second project, but I get it. It’s too much trouble for just the thrill of creating something. Fine, this advice doesn’t apply to you specifically.

However, if your goal is to design games, you need to get rid of that “my baby!” feeling ASAP. You know the saying “kill your darlings”? You need to turn that baby into a darling to even start considering killing it. And to a mere tool to start cutting efficiently. That distance, it comes from spreading your love around, just like with actual babies (wait what did I just write?) It’s what gives you some

Rebuttal 3: But I have very limited playtesting opportunities!

Probably. You know what though? It’s a lot easier to get testers to try something different than the N-th version of a prototype they’ve played twice a week for 3 months. It also becomes easier for them to compare your prototypes: when you say “I need to test something, what do you want to play?”, their reaction is the first feedback of that session.

Also, I strongly suggest working on games which don’t overlap in game length and/or player counts. I usually try to have one filler, one 2-player game, and one mid-weight Euro going at any time, and if I could design a party game, I’d add it to that list as well. If I work on two mid-weight Euros at the same time, they do take away from one another’s playtesting time, but with this system, they rarely compete.

Rebuttal 4: When I spread my focus, I don’t get anything done

That’s a tough one. I’ve been there, trying to make 20 games at the same time, wheels spinning so fast that I rarely was working on only one. If the first 3 are mostly misconceptions, this one is a true pitfall: you should only get started on a second game after you’ve made some progress on the first one. Don’t just go running after the shiny new idea: write it down, keep it for later. If you find you can’t focus on game 1, jump over to the new idea, and use that drive to get it to a testable state and get it to the table.

I find that people who jump from project to project without getting anything done are usually not certain what the first step is. You get that new idea, and because you’ve been stuck in the idea stage forever, you’ve lost any momentum to the previous one: it hasn’t gone anywhere, and so why not jump to a new one? That is not what I’m advising here. That being said, once you’ve turned an idea into a game, something with enough structure to get it tested, then is the time… to get it tested! After that, you reiterate, and test again. However, when you start getting frustrated, then! Then you probably still want to work on it a bit more.

It’s hard to know when any creative project develops an energy of its own, but at some point, even if you leave it on the table for a month, you’ll go back to it. At that point, you go look at your notebook full of ideas, find the one that excites you the most, and try to turn it into a game as well.

Rebuttal 5: I don’t want the quality of the work to suffer!

It won’t. It actually is suffering much worse right now, because you’re not working on other stuff. You’re lacking the distance to be more objective, the ability to put it down when you’re stuck, the experience you gain from solving problems in Project A which helps you in Project B. You’re lacking the momentum that comes from the early steps when you reach the later ones.

Most of all though, working on projects one at a time exposes you to the biggest problem all designers, especially younger ones, face: the kitchen sink. By focusing on one project at a time, you never have to define what it is: it’s just your game. You never have to define what it’s trying to accomplish, what are the must’s and the don’t’s. By spreading out a bit, you have to draw the line somewhere, if only to differentiate A from B from C: that keeps your projects focused, and makes you ask the dreaded question: “what makes this special?”


It might seem illogical, but I swear: I’ve been there, and I’ve been part of multiple design groups, I’ve had discussions with others. I’ve seen the difference it makes. This blog is about offering advice that goes beyond the first-level, often discussed stuff, and this is perhaps the most underrated design lesson I’ve come to.

My go-to questions to playtesters

So during a playtest, I’m an Observer more than a Poller. I find 95% of the feedback I get from looking at players’ engagement, listening to the questions they ask, spotting the mistakes they make. Usually, at the end of a playtest, I’ll mostly share my observations so they can either be confirmed or nuanced by the testers.

That being said, I have 5 questions I love to ask in playtests, and thought to share them with you with a quick rationale. Overall, you’ll notice a pattern: I rarely ask the question I want the answer to. I was a Research Assistant in Psyc in college, and learned quickly that people get in their own way a lot, especially when you ask them to analyze their own experience. By asking related questions, they tend to overanalyze a part I’m less interested in, and share truer reactions about what I care for.

How long did you feel like the game lasted? If their impression differs from the actual length, it gives you a great amount of insight in how engaged they were. Of course, it’s important too ask this one before people look at their phones and watches, or you lose that subjectivity–which is exactly what you’re asking for!

I also like to follow it up with “how long would you like a game like this to last?” I’m not really asking for the number I should aim for, but there are two types of comments that can come out of this: (1) The game finished a turn too early/too late to feel satisfying; or (2) This has too little depth / too much complexity for its length. Asking follow-up questions is how you can make the difference between the two, although sometimes the vocabulary used is a hint on its own: “It could have ended a round early” vs “I feel like this is a 30 min game”.

How well do you think the final scores represent your performance? This is my favorite question because of how much can come out of it: perceived balance issues, frustrations, actions that players really enjoy doing but are not incentivized. I’ve before that balance is not as important as the feeling of balance, and that is exactly what this question addresses.

I’m trying to add variability to the game: do you have any suggestions for special powers or special goals? Hint: I rarely actually am thinking about those things, but it’s the best way I’ve found to get players to talk about other stuff they’d have liked to do, or do more of, or limits they found frustrating. And sometimes, you even get an idea for a little bit of variability! It’s how, for With A Smile & A Gun, I got a lot of players saying they wanted to move the police around more, send it out of their ways and into their opponents’, and that became a core part of the game.

Can you rank these in order of power? It can be actions, strategies, special abilities, goal cards. Usually, a table will be able to come to a consensus (sort of), because of social dynamics and the impact it had in that one game. That being said, you’re keeping that info handy to compare over multiple groups: if you see a consensus across groups, then there is a problem.

What do you think should happen? This is more of a question during games, but it still is one of my favorite tools: if players run into a corner case and ask “so what happens now?”, even if I know what the official answer is, I ask them what seems intuitive to them. If they come to the right conclusion, great! If not, that’s okay… unless it happens all the time. And if you didn’t have an answer yet, it gives you (1) a proposition, and (2) some time to think about it. In that case, you know you’ll have to figure it out, and you just want to make sure it doesn’t break the rest of the test.

So these are my go-to questions, and aside from asking for confirmation or explanations, they’re almost the only ones I ask. What are your go-to’s after a playtest?

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.

The Healing Potion Effect

I’ll pre-empt your question: yes, this article is about board games. Eventually I’ll make a board game design point.

Scene: Smelly basement, five 20-year-old’s are huddled around a table covered in paper, dice, and cups of Mountain Dew.

Me: The Vampire appears behind you, coming out of one of the tunnels, and shoots rays of necrotic energy towards you two. You are surprised, and *rolls* just have time to turn around before you get hit. Falballa, you take *rolls* 28 damage, and Melran, you take *rolls* ahhhh, you lucky duck, only 4!

Vince (who plays Melran): I’m dead.

All: What do you mean you’re dead? You never told anyone you were so low on hit points!

Vince: Well I knew the Cleric was out of healing spell, what else could I do?

*A boss fight later*

Other player: Wow, and there still are some guards upstairs. I need some healing…

Vince: Melran has a healing potion on him, you can take it, he won’t need it where he is.

All:

Vince: What? I thought maybe I wouldn’t need to use it!

Me: But it was 4 points of damage that killed you… You were at 3 and thought you’d be okay?

Vince: I was at 2 actually.

Wow, what a setup. It will probably be longer than the rest of the post will be.

So, what is the Healing Potion Effect? The Healing Potion Effect is what happens when you give players limited uses of an ability that is of situational value, and they then decide to hoard them.

“But I can only use it once, what if it would have been better later?” is a crappy place to be in in a game. Whether it’s healing potions in D&D, an Event card in Pandemic, the “Discard and Redraw” token in Ginkgopolis, or a +1 in Ganz Schön Clever, we’re always worried there might be a better time for it in just a bit, and if we use it now we’ll feel like such idiots when that opportunity arrives, so we prefer inaction. But inaction is boring. You want players to do cool stuff, not to hold on to them until it’s too late!

First, what causes that paralysis? Why do we feel that way in Pandemic, Ginkgopolis and Ganz, but not about our Rerolls in Castles of Burgundy, or our Wood in Agricola? It’s rarity. You know that you will only have one token in Gink, and 5 Event cards in Pandemic, and at most 6 +1’s in GSC. In Burgundy, if I run out of rerolls, I can go get another one easily, and so I can spend them willy nilly. Rare is special, it adds that element of excitement when it happens, but it also means I want to avoid wasting it.

Therefore, how do you push players towards using those one-time powers? Let’s see a few ideas:

  • Put a limit on what you can carry: In Pandemic, you can’t have more than 7 cards in hand. If you hold an event card, you’ll need to discard Cities. Also, event cards can be played after you draw, which means the question is no longer “is this the best possible time to use it?”, but “is holding on to this card worth wasting a City card?”.
  • Define exactly how good it can be: In Five Tribes, if you play with the Artisans expansion, once during the game, instead of placing a Camel, you can place a Tent, which gives you one point for every Red tile surrounding it. At the beginning of the game, looking at the setup, you know exactly how much a Tent can be worth: again, it switches the question from the more abstract “is this the best possible time to use it?” to a more concrete calculation: “I could get 7 there, this is 5: is it worth missing out on 5 to maybe get 7?” In Pandemic, you can’t put a number on how useful skipping an Infection turn is, but you do with this one.
  • Make it get worse over time: In Sagrada, the first player to use a tool will pay a single gem, and others will pay two. You have very limited gems in Sagrada, but you still are pushed to use them early. You might very well wait until you don’t have a choice, but there is this slight incentive which you could get
  • Don’t make it so timing-dependent: After I wrote about making players feel clever a week ago, maybe this seems out of character. However, maybe you can make players feel clever by triggering the bonus, even if the bonus is always good: in Spyrium, for example, you get a bonus (either 5$ or a worker) when you reach 8 points. 5$ is always good, and you want the worker as early as possible (going back to Make it get worse over time), but when you can only get to 7, figuring out how to reach that threshold is enough of a puzzle: you don’t need to also optimize the payoff.
  • Don’t incentivize hoarding them: If an unused cool-thing-to-do is worth points at the end for not using them, you’re adding an extra barrier before using them. I did this with the power tokens in Off the Record, and quickly realized no one was using them: the question wasn’t only “can I get more out of it next turn?”, and it wasn’t even “is this move worth more than 3 points?” Instead many players just thought “I’ll keep them for the points and strategize about other stuff”
  • Make having used them better: I don’t think I’ve seen this done, but imagine this: You start the game with a mega power card. Once used, you flip it over and it becomes a passive bonus, or it increases your maximum hand size or hit points or the amount of dice you roll. Maybe I read about a game that did that? Have you ever seen that in a game?

All in all, the important part about the Healing Potion Effect, like many other things in game design, is that sometimes, you have to push players towards having fun: otherwise, they can forget that’s the point.

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?

Avoiding non-decisions

Tuesday’s post was presenting two types of non-decisions, which look like decisions from the designer’s POV, but not for players when they experience the game. Those were Arbitrary and Automatic decisions. Today we talk about avoiding them.

So what causes Automatic or Arbitrary decisions? They are two extreme of the same spectrum: Automatic is what happens when you have perfect knowledge of the impact of your decision -making it just a matter of comparing the numbers and choosing the one with the most benefits; Arbitrary is what happens when you have no knowledge of the impact of your decision -meaning all options look the same.

Therefore, stand in the middle. Done, blog post over. Nailed it!

You want a bit more? Oh. Okay.

So I think there are four important things to keep in mind in avoiding non-decisions, and in each, an example of a game I love which does it well:

Opacity is how I describe a game that, through layers of complexity, makes it hard to evaluate impact because of the limits of the human brain. Opacity is often achieved through multiple layers of math, mostly in economic games, but can come from important mechanisms which are not apparent from the get-go. Some will argue it’s a feature because of how clever you feel when you understand it, but I think it is quite problematic: either it leads to arbitrary decisions, because you can’t figure out what each move is worth, or it becomes an automatic decision once you can. I am a fervent advocate of games requiring as little brain juice to understand the rules, to have more left to understand the strategy: to me, opacity is a necessary evil that should be limited as much as possible.

Picture by BGG user Gastgast

A game that achieves depth without being too opaque is Russian Railroads: the impact of an action are as straightforward as can be, whether it’s gaining a new piece, or moving a piece forward. The impacts of a move are also straightforward: this will give you an extra point per turn, but gets you closer to you !-bonus. Instead of having very complex, interconnected systems, it presents them to the players in a really simple way.


Comparability is the ability to compare results. Back when I played Dungeons & Dragons, I had this buddy who just loved big numbers: he had an attack that dealt 20 damage, an attack that dealt 15, and one that dealt 10. Every combat, he’d do his 20, then his 15, then his 10. On the other hand, I had an ability to push enemies, one to stun them, one to teleport to another enemy I could see. Which one was best depended on the situation. Comparing them was more about gut feeling, making the decision interesting.

Picture by Jamey Stegmaier

Wingspan is a great example of a game that makes choices hard to compare: even leaving out round objectives and egg maximums, are you going for the 2-food, 4pt, forest bird which gives you a bonus card; the expensive, 7pt plains bird which can give you an extra point every time you activate it, or for the quick to play, 3pt forest bird which has the same special ability, but a lower chance of success? How are you even supposed to compare those? Because they vary on multiple axes (without becoming opaque), and because of the special abilities which feel very different, it makes those decisions based on the situation rather than a clear cut better option.


Uncertainty is not having an exact value for an action, because its value depends on other things: a random factor (draw the top card from the Building deck and build it right away -but how good is that card?); other players’ actions (the player with the most Honor gains 10 points -how safe is my lead?); or your own future actions (gain an extra wood every time you go to the forest -how often will I get it?).

One thing to keep in mind is that uncertainty can lead to arbitrary decisions if taken too far, and if it isn’t combined with another mitigating factor. “Gain a point every time a blue card is played” is an interesting effect of uncertain result, but if I had to choose between that and “gain a point every time a red card is played”, unless I know what people are likely to play, then it’s arbitrary. If you mitigate it with comparability (gain a point per blue card vs gain a wood per red card), then it’s less arbitrary.

Picture by BGG user Punkin312

One game which uses uncertainty to make decisions interesting is Libertalia. Because of the simultaneous selection, and despite having perfect information of what others have in hand (barring some specific special effects), you can never be certain what the exact impact of your move will be, because the effects of the cards are interrelated.


Interchangeability is a really long word. I really like Euro games, but too many of them end up increasing the number of resources without making them feel different, and in so many games, the choice of a wood vs a brick is the color of the cube. Many games even allow you to pay resources of any type for a lot of things, making what little difference there was even thinner. Most of the time you care because you’re building towards something specific, but by giving each resource a specific niche, you’re making sure those choices stand on their own, not only when an objective requires a specific one.

Picture from BGG user srokaplotkara

Le Havre is an example of a game with a load of different resources, which each feel different, mainly through its two-level, multi-use system. Resources are upgadeable, each type leading to a specific “second level”; some are used for building, some for food, some for energy, and most change use on the second level; some reproduce on their own, while most don’t. All in all, it means that the decision between a Fish and a Coal is never arbitrary, and never automatic.


I think by keeping these four things in mind, the ends of the spectrum become easier to avoid.