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?