WHEN to add variability to your design

Last week, I talked about going from idea to prototype. Today, I want to talk about one of the pitfalls many of us fall into when prototyping.

I’m a huge proponent of variable setups, missions, objectives, factions, and characters. I feel like it’s the one thing all of my games will have in common: “20 different powers, only use 3 each game!”

But variability should be the last step when designing your game. To start, you need to make sure your game structure is solid; then, when your game is strong enough to handle it, you can start adding variables to it.

Believe me, I know all about the temptation of adding that variability early. My first game idea was a game about breeding monsters: I had probably 30 monster cards, and I wanted to have a card for a unique offspring for each of those pairs. And, of course, I wanted to have multiple of each, so you never quite knew, when mixing a dragon and a unicorn, which kind of dragicorn you’d be getting!

Yeah, it was the weirdest idea.

But it never saw the light of day. I worked on it for months, never got close to having it ready for a playtest, and I didn’t want to playtest it without finishing it. I was figuring stuff out, making dozens of cards, making diagrams; I felt like I was making progress. In a way, I was, but in a much truer way… I really wasn’t.

Why is adding variability too soon a bad idea?

There are 3 main reasons why it’s a bad idea to start with your game’s content, rather than its structure.

First, any change in the game’s structure will require changes in the elements built upon that structure. Imagine changing the structure of a game like Dominion. After a few playtests, you decide to remove the limit of actions per turn. Without even entering into the issue of game balance, how many cards suddenly don’t even make sense with the new ruleset? All of the Village cards, or the “cantrip” cards that give +1 Card and +1 Action ⁠— these cards were specifically designed  to overcome that limit, and would no longer have a real purpose.

Picture by iSlaytheDragon

The second reason is that creating content is a time-consuming task which does not really have an end state. Creating content is fun, it’s easy, and it feels like progress, but too much can be a trap. Even if all of your ideas would make it into the final product, you will always have more ideas for new cards, new tiles, new characters, new missions. With a Smile & a Gun is being printed right now, and I still come up with a Shadow card idea every week. If you wait until all of your ideas are in the game before you start testing, you will simply never start testing; each idea you write down will give you another one, and then another.

Finally, content becomes much easier to create after you’ve played the game a few times: you have a better feel for what would be interesting, you can poll your testers for their opinions, and you probably have a pile of mechanisms which did not fit… but maybe could become a card!

But don’t I need content?

Of course! I’m not saying “playtest your card game with blank pieces of cardboard”. Although… if you have a specific mechanism for, say, acquiring or discarding cards, it’s always a good idea to take a standard deck of cards, and try it out.

You can’t playtest your deckbuilder without actually having any cards. Here is a rule of thumb: determine the minimum amount of different elements you need to have to be able to play a single game. If you were making your own version of Dominion, you wouldn’t need to have 25 different action cards designed before you start playtesting; every game only uses 10.

Once you’ve identified that minimum number, make half of it.

No, I’m not kidding. For a first test, you want to have as few variables as you can. If during your test, the game doesn’t click for some reason, you need to be able to identify what causes those issues: it might be the structure itself, or it might be one of the cards that’s throwing the entire game off kilter. Worse yet, it could be an interaction between two cards. Having 5 cards instead of 10 means that not only do you reduce the number of variables which could be affecting the game structure, you’re also reducing the number of possible card interactions from 100 combinations to 25. Sure, 5 is too few for a full game experience, but you’re not aiming for a full game: you are testing whether or not your core idea is fun.

Maybe you can’t actually divide the number by two, but you can just cut down on how different you make these elements. Working on SuPR, a cooperative dice drafting game, I wanted players to roll a pool of dice and determine who would use what. Therefore, I needed players to have different abilities, or else the central conceit would break down. However, for the first playtest, I just changed which action was paired with which: it was very minor asymmetry, and a lot less than what I needed to make the dice selection shine, but at least it made me able to work on the bigger picture.

But I like making content!

Creating content for your game is not only important, it is also fun. It is perfectly okay for you to indulge yourself and create some of that content early. My goal with this article is not to take away your candy, but to make sure you understand that (1) you should not wait for the content to go ahead and playtest; and (2) all the early content you create is unlikely to make it through the game’s development unscathed. 

How early do you usually add this variability to your designs? Have you gotten caught in this pit before? If so, how did you get out of 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?

Palette Swaps: when variety underwhelms

Last week, I discussed why I am a big fan of variable setups, but acknowledged its shortcomings. The main one, I think, is variety that isn’t meaningful. Today, I dig into that a bit more and talk about palette swaps.

In video games (and I’m assuming animation in general), a palette swaps is when you create a new character by taking an old one and just changing a few colours here and there: that’s how you get Luigi from Mario, Subzero from Scorpion, and 18 different types of goblins in Diablo. The only difference between them is the colour: they use the same animations, the same code. It started as a way to allow two players to play the same character, yet still tell them apart if they were on the same screen, and it filled that role perfectly. Since, it’s mostly been used to generate multitudes of different characters and items and attacks and enemies, but which all feel the same. Many board games go down that road and offer a lot of empty variability, where things change in ways that don’t matter.

There are three things to keep in mind when trying to build variability in a game: the inherent properties, the scope, and the focus.

Inherent properties

I’ve talked about interchangeability twice before: once in my grammar-as-theme series, and once in Avoiding non-decisions. Inherent properties are the opposite of interchangeability. An element (whether a resource, a card, an action, a faction, any part of a game) has inherent properties if it can be defined without depending on other elements. For example, the tracks in Endeavor have inherent properties: Industry determines which buildings you have access to, Culture determines how many workers you get, Economy determines how many actions you can empty, and Politics how many cards you can keep. The tracks in Terra Mystica don’t: their only differences are which round tiles are present in a given game.

This is where many games fall short in terms of making variability meaningful. Starting with a boost on the Industry track in Endeavor will feel very different than one on the Culture track. It will affect which building I can start with, but limit how many actions I can take. However, starting with a boost on the Blue track in Terra Mystica does not lead to a different game than one on the Red: it only matters in which round tiles will give you income, and on where other players will go. They are different, sure, but only because they will evolve differently.

Picture from the publisher

When it comes to variable setup, your goal is usually to push players into different experienced, but for those experiences to be meaningfully different, they have to have inherent differences. To make sure of it, describe the scenarios, and try to see how many links to other elements you have to make before you use a different verb (or verb phrase), rather than a different noun:

  • 0 link: “In Ethnos, there are 6 types of cards in each game, out of a pool of 12. Trolls allow you to break ties. Giants score points if you have the biggest stack. Wingfolks place their tokens anywhere.
  • 1 link: “In Spirit Island, players will choose a Spirit, which gives them different innate abilities and starting cards (noun). (LINK) This Spirit’s powers allow you to scare away the Invaders, while this one is specialized in defending the land. (verb)
  • 2 links: “In Gaia Project, there are extra scoring conditions if you can do certain actions during a specific round. This one will give you points if you build a Mine, and this one if you build a Research Center. (LINK) A Mine gives you Mineral, and a Research Center gives you Research. (LINK) Mineral is used to build more Mines, while Research is used to improve a technology.

The fewer links you need, the more inherent the difference, and therefore, the more meaningful the variability: each link takes away from that variability both mathematically (because those aren’t perfect relations) and psychologically (because each jump makes it feel less meaningful). Of course, it’s not a perfect relationship, but I use that thought exercise in my designs quite often.

Sometimes, no amount of links will ever come to a difference. There’s no difference in Coloretto between starting with a Red or a Brown card. In that case, that is not variable setup. In Coloretto‘s case, the goal is to have every player start with a different card, which helps make the first round interesting. It should not, however, be considered variable setup.


Another aspect to consider is the scope of that variability: how much of the experience does it actually change?

As an example of analyzing scope in starting situations, let’s take a look at everything that your choice of Spirit in Spirit Island will give you, thinking about how different they make a game from another, and for how long those differences last:

  • Starting presence: within two turns at the most, your board presence is virtually the same as everyone else’s;
  • Income abilities: Minor differences overall. Some provide more flexibility, some less, but they’re all quite similar;
  • Innate abilities: Very important difference. It’s abilities that only you can do, and they’re rather strong and stay useful throughout the game. They also push you to acquire certain cards, with the icons you need to trigger them. Those are a 1-link relationships, because cards with specific icons will also have specific types of effects, meaning a card with Fire as a trigger will tend towards aggressive cards throughout the game;
  • Starting hand: Fundamental difference early, but since you acquire new cards quickly, and get rid of those you started with, you will end up with most of your cards being from the central deck rather than your starting hand.
Picture from BGG user TheBratPrince

Add it all together, and those Spirits make Spirit Island a highly asymmetric game. The Innate abilities, however, do most of the heavy lifting. I’d even argue that the starting hands are probably there to support those innate abilities, make sure you have the icons you need and have cards that follow its theme, rather than to increase asymmetry.

When it comes to variability of scoring systems, let’s look at Isle of Skye, which offers you 4 different scoring conditions every game. A game of Isle of Skye finishes with average scores in the 60-90 range. On average, about 10 points will come from stuff unrelated to those conditions, whether leftover money or acquired Scrolls. That means that, on average, about 80% of your scores will come from those variable scoring conditions.

Compare that with Prowler’s Passage, a really neat 2-player game. In it, every game, you choose 3 objectives, and the first player to complete each will get points, between 3 and 6. Players score, on average, about 100 points each. Out of an average of 200 total points, 12-15 will come from the achievement cards, or 7%. How much do these objectives push you to do different things from a game to the next?


Focus is an aspect that came to me while I was writing the two previous ones. In my earlier examples, I’ve talked mostly about strategy games, mostly Euro ones, because that’s my jam, that’s what I design and play and know. However, if you design a narrative-centric game, or a very puzzly abstract, the scope you aim for and the kind of inherent properties you care about will change.

If I play a fantasy skirmish game, I don’t care whether I play Dwarves or Orcs: what are their abilities? How are they different mechanically? However, if I play an RPG, leading an army of Orcs is going to be quite different than an army of Dwarves, even if, mechanically, they’re the exact same, because different story challenges will come out of it.

Now, I’ve seen many board games where they offer variability, but without focus. Many games centered around “missions”, which are mechanically just recipe fulfillment, resource management things, with very different lore behind them, but only meaningless differences in the recipes you needed to fulfill. Is that variety? Only if the narrative aspect is what matters to your target audience!

I think of Munchkin, where the target audience will consider a Magic Sword and Laser Vision very different cards, even if both just give you +1 in combat. I think of Claustrophobia, which has a few different enemies in it, but many criticize its lack of variety because “they’re all demons”, even if they’re mechanically different. Can’t please everyone it seems…

And that is not just theme vs mechanisms: you can also use that to dig deeper. In a game were movement on a map is key, like Hawaii or Maquis, changing the connections on a map would make for a very different feel, much more so than it would in a game like Godfather: Corleone’s Empire or Spirit Island, where those spatial relationships are important, but secondary.

Being even more of a nitpick: the character in Marco Polo which allows you to choose the value of your dice is exciting in that game, because the game’s focus is one of optimization, and the dice you roll just add that limitation to your turn. That same power in Sagrada would take away half of the puzzliness of the placement, remove from the game’s focus: much less interesting. It’s not that the mechanism takes a different place, it’s that the experience you want the player to have is different.

I always do this: I start with a short article, and then keep on adding on to it until it reaches “geez no one’s ever going to read this”. If you made it to this part, AWESOME! You win a virtual cookie!

So yeah, those are the aspects that I think one has to keep in mind to avoid palette-swap, skin-deep variability: how inherently different are the two things you’re comparing; how noticeable is the difference; and how fundamental to the game is the element you’re changing.

Next week, I think I’ll get into some examples of games which have done variable setup particularly well!

Chris Anderson on his roadblock

Roadblock is a series of articles where I interview other designers, developpers, and others involved in the industry, to do a deep dive into a specific issue they’ve dealt with in a project. The goal is to add concrete examples to the mass of game design advice out there.

JV: Today I’m sharing with you folks a discussion with Chris Anderson, designer of the Tempus series of solo games and host of The Board Game Workshop podcast. Today, Chris will tell us about an issue he ran into in designing the latest Tempus game, Tempus Infinitum.

Can you give us a bit of background on what the game is like, so readers better understand?

CA: All of the Tempus games are similar. They work like a roll and write, but instead of rolling dice you write down the day and time you start playing and use those numbers to populate the map with resources and obstacles, and also to determine your actions for the game. 

Tempus Infinitum specifically has unique maps generated based on a player’s email address. 

JV: That random seeding through the date and time is interesting to me. Why not simply go with cards or dice? 

CA: The original game design idea that eventually spawned the Tempus system was to make a diceless roll and write. I wanted a game that required minimal materials to play, in this case just a single sheet per player and a pen. The Tempus idea came up as an option for solo play but worked so well I abandoned the multiplayer idea. 

Now, the Tempus system is what makes the games stand out from other roll and write games. 

JV: The number distribution in dates and times is skewed: no numbers over 3, 2, and 5 for the first digit of date, hour, minute, respectively, for example. How did you consider that in your designs?

CA: That’s the best part of the system. It’s like designing around weighted dice and gives a lot of opportunity that uniformly random dice don’t have. The numbers affect two things in the game: the setup of the map and the player’s actions. 

The map is a 10 by 10 square grid. Since we only use day, hour, and minute we have 6 numbers to assign. Each of those is assigned to one column and one row. During setup, each of those columns and rows has an item that will be drawn on the map in the space dictated by the number. So if the first digit of the day is 2, the item in that column will be drawn in the second box down. Zero is always at the end. 

Since, like you said, the first digits in day, hour, and minute are limited, this creates empty spaces that won’t get drawn in items. These empty spaces are what make the unique maps. 

Picture by ME!

With 10 columns and 10 rows but only 6 numbers, there are also completely empty ones. The digits always go in order, but that still gives 210 possible arrangements for columns or rows. When you combine the possible columns with the possible rows you have 44,100 possible map layouts. 

Each of these maps has a different arrangement of empty spaces. In previous Tempus games with only a single map I would choose the layout I wanted and add static items to the empty spaces. They could be obstacles, enemies, resources, or goals. With Tempus Infinitum, though, we are potentially using all 44,100 layouts. So the static spaces and the column and row write in items are arranged by each map’s random seed from a pool of 37 items with some restrictions. The arrangement of these items combined with the different map layouts is what gives us millions of possible layouts. Not infinite, but Tempus Very Large Number doesn’t sound as nice. 

The other thing the numbers control is the player’s actions. Again, the unique aspect allows for some control. Each of the 4 actions is assigned a number range. Make a Road 1-2, Dig a Lake 3-4, Build a building 5-8, and use a building 9 & 0. Based on the statistical occurrence of each number in all possible day/times, each action is approximately equal in potential occurrence. But the first digit can only be 0, 1, 2, or 3 and 3 is pretty rare. So almost two thirds of the time your first action will be building a road. Building a road is the most critical action early on, because it’s the foundation to performing other actions. And again with the first digits for hours and minutes we have a restriction on potential actions that skews towards lower numbers and the more important actions of building a road and digging a lake. 

So it’s specifically the missing numbers that create the setup and makes each minute a unique puzzle to solve. 

JV: Very cool! So getting back to the whole point of this interview: What is the roadblock you ran into? How did you identify it?

CA: The issue with Tempus Infinitum is the variety of possible maps. In previous Tempus games I had a lot of control of how maps were laid out and could balance difficulty by adjusting the layout. Since Tempus Infinitum has to work with millions of potential layouts it’s much harder to control difficulty. 

JV: Why is variability of setup particularly important to the game? 

CA: Variability of setup is the unique twist that sets Tempus Imperium apart from the other Tempus games. The system has been refined through previous games, but offering every player a unique map makes it much more personal. 

JV: Could you expand on that? Why is that worth the extra balancing issues? 

CA: I’ve been working on Tempus games for years now and what continues to surprise me is just how much design space they have. Tempus Quest is 13 unique maps in a campaign, where what you do in previous episodes helps you in the future. It was designing those different maps that made me realize how many possibilities there are for the setup, even if you keep the exact same rules. 

Tempus Infinitum is my attempt to use all of that potential in one game. It’s definitely an ambitious design challenge. And, at best, each uniquely generated map is no better than an individually designed map. 

But, I think the ability to offer players a unique map that is theirs alone, that they can try and master and share with their friends, adds a level of community and metagame that solo games don’t often have. 

JV: You coded a tool to help you for the setup: what did you use for that? What do you see as the pros and cons of the tool? 

CA: I’m only an amateur when it comes to coding. I use Processing (https://processing.org) to create the individual maps. It’s based on Java and the main benefit is that I know how to use it. I’m pretty sure it’s not the most efficient method for what I’m doing though. 

JV: How do you imagine it working in a final product, or will it just always keep that computer generated aspect?

CA: Currently I have to manually run the program to generate the maps. Ideally the tool would be integrated into a website so players can instantly get their unique map. 

JV: So this will always stay a PnP? What pushed you in that direction, versus trying to publish a physical copy with 100 different setups in a block of paper?

CA: Yes, the plan is for it to always be a PnP. Since the main goal is offering each player an individual, unique map, it’s the easiest way to get those to them. When testing is done, I’ll set it up as a “pay what you want”. So if anyone would like to support the work, they can. But the biggest reward for me is having people play my game. So I much rather see a picture of a completed game on Twitter than make a few cents selling a pad of paper. 

But, with millions of possible maps, most of which will never be generated for individual players, if people would find some benefit from having a printed pad, I’m not opposed to the idea. 

JV: Had you ever encountered a similar problem before? Why was this one different?

CA: A lot of my game designs use combinatorics to generate a variety of states, but this is the first to use that in the design instead of just in the play.

JV: And how do they differ?

CA: When combinatorics is in the play, for example having a card game that works with multi card combos, an individual play will work out a certain way, but the next play will be different. So there can be some forgiveness in edge cases that are less than ideal. 

When combinatorics is in the design, the generated game is all there is for that player. So a less than ideal edge case will always be less than ideal for the player that got it. 

JV: Can you talk about the process of solving your roadblock? What worked? What didn’t?

CA: I’m still in the process of solving the issue of balance. 

In early versions I had a lot of variability which led to a huge variance in difficulty between maps. Some players would have 5 enemies to deal with and others would have 10. As I’ve gotten playtester feedback, I’ve restricted some of the variability so that maps have a similar difficulty. The trouble is getting the difficulty balanced while still having a huge variety of unique maps. 

JV: And how do you contain the difficulty behind the scenes? Do you define more closely how much of each thing will appear, or do you go with a point system to evaluate how “positive” a setup is? (or anything else of course)

CA: In the first version, the item in each space was chosen independently, similar to a die roll, so my only control was adjusting the statistical chance of an item being chosen. This caused the huge variance. Now all the items are selected from the same list of 37 items, similar to a deck of cards, so only the arrangement differs between maps. 

I’ve also added restrictions on where certain items can appear. Currently the restrictions I have in place limit only certain items to being in the write in spots or static spots. When it places items on the map it will always place an enemy after a farm. This increases the likelihood that enemies will be next to farms to start, increasing the difficulty. But still has potential to leave a space between them depending on the map layout. 

A player request was to have a target score scale so players could tell how well they did. So a potential addition is to have a unique scale for each map based on its difficulty. So on an easy map, 150 is a great score. But on a hard map, 60 is great. This would be a great way to make all maps comparable. But it requires being able to accurately judge the difficulty of each setup automatically during creation. 

JV: It feels to me like a variable setup is particularly important in a solo game, where you can’t rely on player interaction to make games play differently. What do you think of that statement?

CA: I think it is important for replayability. A solo game with a single setup is fine for a single play, like a puzzle or choose your own adventure. And could potentially get a few more plays if you want to fix mistakes and get a better score. But the interest to play drops off sharply. Variable setup makes each setup its own puzzle to solve while still rewarding skills and strategies learned from previous plays. 

JV: Where else do you want to take the Tempus series? 

CA: Once I get the map generation figured out for Tempus Infinitum, I’d like to make new ages for it. Currently it’s set in a vaguely medieval age with castles and farms. I can see making slight adjustments to actions and setting, like I did in Tempus Quest, and getting millions of new maps to play. 

But my greatest hope for the Tempus system is that other designers will use it. So far I’ve heard of one designer trying to make a game with it, but I’d love to see what others can do. 

JV: Is there a game that you think does this variable setup particularly well? One that you could point designers to so they can learn from it?

CA: Friday by Friedemann Friese. It’s a solo game where you work your way through a shuffled deck of benefits and threats. So each game will be a different order but the things you learn from each play about how to deal with threats will inform your future plays. 

JV: Well thanks a bunch Chris! I’ve been thinking about trying and making a solo game during the confinement, and I’m sure I’m not alone in that situation: surely this discussion will be helpful to many a designer!

If you are interested in designing your own Tempus game, you can submit it to the Tempus Design Contest by May 4, 2020. https://www.venntikgames.com/contests/tempus-design-contest

You can listen to The Board Game Workshop and get more info on its annual design contest and design day at www.theboardgameworkshop.com

You can contact Chris on Twitter at www.twitter.com/BlueCubeBGs