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Wednesday, November 25, 2009


Partnership games are appealing to me. A lot of this can be attributed to the "high-five" factor; it's more fun to succeed along with someone else.

However, for a partnership or team game to be successful, there needs to be the ability to cooperate without one person running the show. One night, 6 of us sat down to play a game of Settlers of Catan: Cities and Knights, in order to shorten the game length, we decided to play teams. We didn't change the gameplay drastically, so one key strategy was to balance your cards and your partner's cards at the end of your turn so that you stayed below the hand limit.

What ended up happening is that one player (me) on the winning team basically ran the game for both players since the other player was fairly new to C&K. We overran the competition, and it generally wasn't any fun.

In retrospect, it wasn't really a team game because there was no team play. We didn't need to communicate, cooperate, or otherwise by "in sync". These are the aspects of a team game that differentiate them from individual games.

Although I'm speaking from limited exposure to the wealth of existing games, the partnership or team games that I have played (or have otherwise been exposed to) seem to fall primarily into three categories: trick-taking cards games (e.g., Bridge, Euchre, Spades), semi-cooperative games (e.g., Shadows over Camelot, Battlestar Galactica), and party games (e.g., Taboo, Pictionary). I recognize there are  probably more that I don't know about, and I would love to hear about them. Inkognito seems to fall outside these categories, and does interest me. However, it seems that it would have some of the problems I have with semi-cooperative games, which I will describe below.

Unfortunately, these three categories feel a bit stale to me:

I love trick-taking games. However, I find myself more and more wanting to have a richly integrated theme in my games. This is an entirely subjective point, and I couldn't even begin to explain why, except that I find myself enjoying a game more when the actions a more tightly tied to a theme.

Additionally, their mechanics are so similar that I usually don't care whether I play Euchre, Spades, or Rook (or whatever other trick-taking game you want to teach me). But I'm definitely not going to quit a game of Euchre and switch to Spades over some other game.

Party games are fun for a social gathering. I usually don't find them intellectually challenging, and many times the teamwork is more about having a breadth of talents/knowledge than it is about working together.

It's hard for me to complain about semi-cooperative games because I haven't played them. I suppose one reason I avoid them is that they usually contain information that is only known by yourself (or a select few), and require bluffing to play well. Let's put it this way: I don't play poker for (a lot of) money for good reason. Bluffing stresses me out. I prefer games that I can play straight.

All of this generated a design problem for me -- create a game with the following properties:

  • partnerships -- two players playing together as a team with a common goal

  • closed information -- each player has only partial knowledge of the entire game state

  • communication through play, not table talk -- partners can only reveal information to each about their knowledge of the game state through their own play

  • not a trick-taking game -- because there are plenty of these

Initially this design problem led me to explore partnership possibilities in Race for the Galaxy. Following that, I began exploring my own design that centers around actions triggered by set completion as a mechanic. My next two posts will detail these thoughts.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

small world contest: results!

I decided to submit the Giant Spiders, Flanking, and Stealthy to the contest. Given that Days of Wonder has already contacted the winners and that I was not contacted, I guess I didn't win anything.

Despite the disappointment of not winning, it was a good exercise to go through. Here are some of my takeaways:

  1. Hit lots of ideas quickly, and filter out any that unreasonable or unoriginal.

  2. Engage other people that are either interested in the design process or are willing and able to give good feedback.

  3. (cliche alert) Think outside the box

Although I have not seen the winning entries, I believe that my submitted ideas were too unoriginal more than that they were untenable. In retrospect, I wish I had submitted Instigating, although I'm not convinced that would have done any better. Hopefully I can objectively compare my entries to the winning entries to determine where I fell short.

I was hesitant to "bother" other people with my ideas as well. I don't like rejection and failure, but I love to get constructive criticism. The problem is that I haven't found a definitive source of it. The people I usually game with may or may not be helpful. The primary problem there is that we find our game-time so limited that we would rather play tried-and-true games than playtest something that may not be fun.

It was definitely a worthy exercise, and I look forward to entering future design contests!

small world contest: sirens!

This was my final entry for the contest. I didn't really like it in the end.
Sirens - When an opponent conquers a coastal regions (adjacent to a Lake or Sea) occupied by Sirens, the opponent immediately gains 1 coin, but also loses 1 token. If only one token was used to conquer the region, then the conquering race will have no tokens in that region.

I basically ditched this because I don't think it works to have additional disincentive to conquer a region beyond the number of tokens required to do so. Token count is so important, and even an extra coin probably doesn't make up for a lost token.

Final ranking:

  1. Instigating

  2. Giant Spiders

  3. Stealthy

  4. Flanking

  5. Necromancers

  6. Sirens

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

small world contest: flanking!

Our scouts from the north indicated that only a small number of enemy troops had gathered in that direction. As we prepared to defend the northern front, our scouts from the east arrived with a similar report. And then the same from the northwest. And southeast. Before we knew it, they were descending on us from every direction. Panic and chaos ensued; we were forced to retreat in the only direction we could.

Flanking - Flanking races receive can conquer regions with one less token for each additional adjacent region they occupy beyond the first region adjacent to the target region. For example, if the flanking race occupies two regions adjacent to the target region, they need one less token to conquer it; three regions, two less tokens; etc.

This worked quite well. I felt that I needed to make it a 5 ability because you simply need numbers to pull it off. Therefore, the bonus could only kick in for situations where there was more than one region adjacent to the target region (otherwise it would be a better Commando, which would knock the number down to 3). It also makes more sense thematically this way.

Unfortunately, it is difficult for me to describe this without being overly verbose. Hopefully I can rephrase the above description so that it isn't so awkward.

I'm beginning to think that I could submit 2 or 3 ability/races around the theme of "positioning" -- Stealthy and Flanking definitely fit that category.


  1. Instigating (although recent thoughts have me questioning this one)

  2. Giant Spiders

  3. Stealthy

  4. Flanking (although it's basically a tie with Stealthy)

  5. Necromancers

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

small world contest: giant spiders!

Our burgeoning civilization started slowly, only laying claim to three regions. Thanks to our heros, we were able to concentrate most of our forces in one region. We were prepared to defend ourselves from any large scale attack. Suddenly, a great web descended on us, immobilizing our troops. We were ready for battle, but could not expand our glorious civilization into further territories! Instead, we could only watch as the Giant Spiders spread their influence throughout the surrounding regions.

Oh, that's sounds like a ... sticky situation! :P

I apologize for that. On to the description!
Giant Spiders - At the end of their turn, active Giant Spiders may place the web token in any adjacent region occupied by an active race. The race tokens in this region are stuck in this region and cannot be used in conquest. They may decline normally, in which case the web token is removed from the board.

I started this one at 6 thinking that since it does not add a conquest or direct defense bonus, the start number would have to be on the high end of the spectrum to make up for this. So far this feels about right, but it's really hard to judge. The web can be incredibly crippling to the player affected by it. The spiders do tend to score less points in the beginning, but they can also affect the other players' ability to score as well.

In my two-player game, this was especially significant. I didn't take notes, but if I remember right, it caused the other player to decline sooner than they may have otherwise.

It was also effective in three-player. What surprised me here is that it did not grant a significant advantage the the unaffected player. I would think that it would continue to be affective in games with more players, but it's difficult to say for sure.

One web token was enough without any limitations on placement (other than the adjacency requirement). I could tweak this by giving the Spiders multiple web tokens, but limiting the number of race tokens one web token could be used on. For example, I could give the Spiders two web tokens, and each web token could control up to 2 race tokens. Therefore, the web tokens could be placed on two regions with up to 2 race tokens on them, or both on one region with up to 4 race tokens on it. I would prefer to keep it simple with only the one token, but if playtesting shows that it needs improvement, this would be a way to do it.

Right now it's a bit of a toss up which I like better between the Spiders and Stealthy, but I think since Spiders introduces a completely different mechanic, I'm placing it above Stealthy.

  1. Instigating

  2. Giant Spiders

  3. Stealthy

  4. Necromancers

Monday, June 15, 2009

small world contest: instigating!

Sorry, no narrative intro for this one, yet...
Instigating - At the end of their turn, Instigating races place the four reward tokens any four separate occupied regions on the map that are occupied by a player's race (active or in decline). If any other player conquers that region, the conquering player receives one coin, and the reward token is removed from the board If the race occupying that region abandons the region, the Instigating player receives one coin and the reward is removed from the board. Any reward tokens that are still on the board at the start of the Instigating player's next turn are removed from the board, and the Instigating player receives one coin for each of those reward tokens. This happens before the Instigating race starts conquest or goes into decline. This process starts again after every turn the Instigating race is active. Note: In two-player games, the Instigating player cannot place reward tokens in a region occupied by his opponent's active race.

First, I have to mention that I'm not married to the name. I tried "persuasive", "conniving", "rewarding", but nothing seems right. Is there a term for someone who places a reward or bounty?

I started this one at 3. Comparing it to Alchemist, it has the potential of generating more points per turn (up to 4), but not all 4 points are guaranteed. As I've only played games where I'm controlling each player, it is a bit difficult to judge the effectiveness of this power. In general, it seems to work. 3 is a pretty decent number consider the race's ability to generate points without conquering anything. It could be tweaked up, especially if the number of rewards are reduced. 3 might play okay with 5 rewards as well.

It also swayed my decisions for the other players quite a bit. By conquering a space with a reward, you gain 2 points while denying the Instigating player one point as well as causing the same or another player to lose a region. It creates a tension of doing what gains you the most points, but knowing that you are also doing it in a way that may be in the instigating player's best interest.

I like this one a lot, but it will require much more playtesting. Because of it's flexibility in numbers (can add or remove more tokens as well as rewards), this one is jumping to the top of the list.

  1. Instigating

  2. Stealthy

  3. Necromancers

Thursday, June 11, 2009

small world contest: necromancers!

Sure, the initial confrontation had shaken us. After all, they did out number us. We were not, however, prepared for the terrifying site of our fallen brethren reanimated, bloodthirsty, and turned against us. Who were these warriors, and what dark magic did they command?

Necromancers, clearly! (and the reanimating-the-dead type of dark magic, of course)

Necromancers are able to raise their fallen enemy to use in future conquests. A token can only be raised if there are more Necromancers than raised tokens in the region. In general, there must be one Necromancer for each raised token in any given situation. Specifically:

  • During redeployment, the raised tokens may be redeployed with the Necromancers as long as each region has at least as many Necromancers as raised tokens.

  • While readying your troops, you may leave as many raised tokens in a region as you want, as long as you also leave at least as many Necromancer tokens in that region.

  • During conquest, you may use the raised tokens to complete a conquest as long as you use at least as many Necromancer tokens in that conquest.

  • When a region occupied by Necromancers and raised tokens is conquered, the Necromancers must return a Necromancer token to the try. If before the conquest, the region contained an equal number of Necromancer and raised tokens, a raised token must be returned to the try along with the Necromancer token.

Note: As Elves do not return any tokens to the tray when active, Necromancers may never raise any active Elves. When Elves are in decline, they are subject to the Necromancers' power.

I really like this idea, but it is a pain to balance. Some comparisons:

  • Trolls(5): They both gain defense, but the Necromancers must conquer an occupied region to gain defense (in the form of raised tokens). However, upon successive conquers, the Necromancer's defense stacks, whereas the Trolls only receive +1 per region regardless. Trolls keep their defense in decline; Necromancers do not.

  • Giants/Tritons(6): Giants gain a -1 conquest bonus when on mountains. Tritons have a -1 conquest bonus along coasts. Necromancers cannot gain a combat bonus (in the form of raised tokens) until their second turn, but their combat bonuses can stack, and it can be used anywhere.

Based on that point, I began playtesting the Necromancers at 6 because they do not have the decline bonus to make their defense bonus as effective, and they do not get the combat bonus out of the gate. At 6 they start very slowly -- in both games they only gained 3 and then 6 territories. However, it is cost prohibitive to attack them early on, which allows them to gain momentum. I think they would be a good "long-lasting" race to come in as a second race after "wide-spread" race like Amazons, Skeletons, or Ratmen.

I have not tested it, but they might work well at 5 with an added decline bonus:
When Necromancers go into decline, they can keep up to 1 raised token for each declined Necromancer token. When the declined Necromancer token must be returned to the tray, the raised token must also be returned to the tray.

This probably makes them better than Trolls, who are 5. For that reason, it seems that they are better without the decline bonus. Therefore, this needs to be added to the Necromancer description:
When the Necromancers go into decline, all raised tokens must be returned to the tray.

My biggest fear is that this race is too fiddily. It takes some sorting out to determine how to make sure that you can maintain your raised tokens, as well as capture new ones. Some might find that tactical thinking fun, while others may find it too difficult to want to bother with it. Also, the rules take a lot of explaining, even though they are quite simple. One must be quite verbose to cover all the bases and fill all the holes.

New rankings:

  1. Stealthy

  2. Necromancers

small world contest: stealthy!

It was quiet that night. Our scouts from the front lines reported no signs of activity from the enemy. After a day of traveling, we welcomed the cool wind that accompanied our warm dinners. It felt good to relax and actually enjoy each others' company. What didn't feel good was the Troll's club coming down on my head. The last thing I remember thinking was, "How did they get past our front line?"

Clearly these were no ordinary Trolls! No, these Trolls were something special. They were Stealthy Trolls!
Stealthy - Stealthy races can sneak past the enemy lines, using the element of surprise to gain an advantage on their opponent. You may attack any region that is adjacent to a region that is adjacent to a region occupied by your race. If the target region is not adjacent to your active race, you may conquer the region with one less token than normally required.

I need to check how some of the other abilities are worded to make sure that this make sense, but this basically allows your race to attack behind enemy lines for an attack bonus. I'm not sure if this is more or less powerful than Commando as it opens the number of regions you can attack, but does not give any bonus on normal attacks. I'd am playtesting this at 5, but might also try 4 to see what makes the most sense.

A couple of simulated games (i.e., I played against myself) seems to indicate that this is both a viable and interesting ability. I played one game with Amazons where I did not use the ability as much, but in the second game I used the ability quite often with Orcs. The condition that the attack bonus only comes when the target region is not adjacent to one of your regions caused me to abandon regions just to gain the advantage to maximize my point bonus from Orcs.

I feel that the rules for this ability are difficult to explain, as there are three regions involved: your region (A), a region adjacent to your region (B), and the target region (C). B must be adjacent to A and C, but in order to receive the combat bonus, C cannot be adjacent to any of your regions. Perhaps it would clearer to say:
Stealthy races can sneak through one region, using the element of surprise to gain an advantage on their opponent. You may conquer any region that is not adjacent to one of your regions if it is adjacent to a region that is adjacent to one of your regions. Such a conquest requires one less token.

The above also clarifies that the "middle" region does not need to be occupied by the same race that is being conquered, nor does it need to be occupied at all. Originally my thought was to make it so that the middle region did need to be occupied. However, it was difficult enough to position the Stealthy tokens so that they were not adjacent to the planned target region that I felt additional restrictions only dimished the value of the ability.

Although it's a bit silly to list it after only one ability/race, here's my current ranking for my ideas:

  1. Stealthy


Friday, June 5, 2009

quick update

Has it really been four months?

Even though my recently busy schedule has prevented me from blogging, it has not prevented my mind from wandering into the realms of game design.

A mini design contest was held on BGG. Although I completed some tiles for my design, I didn't follow through in writing up the rules or entering the design in the contest. In my game, each player starts with a set number of tokens. At the beginning of a player's turn, the player can make one change to the layout of the tiles. The layout of the tiles determines to which other player each player passes their tokens on that turn, and how many points they get for doing so. I never play-tested it, so I have no idea if it's even any fun.

Another mini contest started after that, but despite the fact that I'm a huge sports fan, I couldn't gear myself up to think of a good design for it. I do have a rough design that intended to give the feel of several seasons of fantasy sports, but I'm neither happy with it, nor do I feel that it was appropriate for this contest.

I've become rather obsessed with Race for the Galaxy. I've been kicking around ideas to put my blank cards to use. Right now I'm thinking of a set of cards around a Cybernetics theme, perhaps introducing a new keyword. I fear that the upcoming expansion may distract me from that, but I suppose I could avoid it by not purchasing it (yeah, right).

I was also impressed with the recently released Small World. While it's not much of a brain-burner, it does require enough thought and planning to make it interesting. I've only had a chance to play with two and three players, but I'm expecting that more players will increase the table banter, which is always good.

Days of Wonder has also started a contest to design new abilities and races for the game. The idea of getting my idea published is incentive enough for me to put in an entry, but DoW is sweetening the deal with an expenses paid trip to Essen Spiel 2009. That, my friends, would be unthinkably awesome.

I hope to continue this blog for my own good. Family, jobs, and other general grown-up activity has a way of putting a cramp on the blogging time, but I can't ignore the value of a creative outlet that this blog can be.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

rethinking deconstructions

After completing my first game deconstruction, I realized one thing:

That was way too exhausting.

About halfway through I was beginning to lose interest. It felt like academia all over again, and that's not the reason I started this blog. Additionally, I'm not convinced anyone is interested in reading a blog post of that length in its entirety.

For that reason, I'm going to do deconstructions in a different fashion going forward. For a single blog post, I will focus on a single element or a small combination of elements from a particular game. I may reference other parts of the game or other games that have similar elements, but only as necessary and as briefly as possible.

I think these excercises are beneficial enough to go through the process of doing them but only under a scope that doesn't burn me out.

Monday, February 16, 2009

deconstruction: The Settlers of Catan

For my first deconstruction, I decided to look at The Settlers of Catan. I credit this as the game that helped me look past Scrabble and Trivial Pursuit at the wealth of board games that lie outside of major retailers. It is also probably my most played game, so I feel that I'm pretty familiar with the game.

I believe the popularity of Catan lies in the fact that it is extremely approachable while forcing players to make strategic decisions. The approachability comes directly from the small number of components and actions that the player must consider while playing. The strategy lies in determining which components to focus on first, and which can be obtained later. While the breadth of strategy is not large, it is large enough to be interesting, but small enough not to be overwhelming.

I'm going to approach the deconstruction by first recognizing the predominant strategies, and then discussing the game from the beginning.


Although I have not read extensively on strategies, it seems that two strategies are recognized the most. First, there is the strategy of focusing on brick and wood. I call this the "expand early" strategy. This allows for quick expansion with roads and settlements, and the possibility of obtaining the longest road victory points.

Second is the strategy of concentrating on ore and wheat. I call this the "city building" strategy. This allows the player to upgrade his settlements quickly and to utilize the development cards with the possibility of obtaining the largest army victory points.

I would contest that I have seen a third strategy work quite well: make sure that you are producing at least one of everything. Personally, I usually find it difficult to find locations that have good probabilities that all cover all five resources, but I have seen this work for some people.


Perhaps the single aspect that makes this game incredibly replayable is the board design. By randomizing the placement of the resource hexes, players have to adapt their strategy with each new game. Players cannot develop one tried and true path to victory -- what may have been a successful strategy in one game may fail in the next game.

However, the order in which the number tokens are laid out remains the same every game. The start point of the tokens and the location of the desert hex add a little variation to the final layout of the tokens. After several plays, you do start to see similar patterns emerge.  In the end, the set up of the tokens was carefully designed so that two tokens with the same number would be next to each other. Additionally, no 6 and 8 (the highest probability production rolls) would be next to each other. While it may seem minor, this allows the board to be random while maintaining a certain amount of balance.

Determining turn order always seems to be a bit of a bear to me. Highest roll works fine, but I always feel that the second and third players (whether it's a three-player or four-player game) have a slight advantage. Perhaps it's because by the time it is time to place the fourth settlement, all the best production spots are taking. Additionally, by the time the first player is able to place his last settlement, there are very few spaces worth taking. This being said, it is probably only in my head that it seems that the second or third player wins every game I've played.

Players start with two settlements for two very important reasons. First, (despite what I wrote above) this gives a certain amount of equality to the player's opportunities when choosing their starting positions. By "snaking" the order of placement, the start positions are probably balanced the best way that they can be.

Second, by starting with two settlements, the players have the option of pursuing either of the two dominant strategies. With less than two settlements, the city-building strategy would fall flat if the player could not expand. With more than two settlements, the expand-early strategy would not be as powerful as a city-building strategy as players can only build 5 settlements in total before they have to upgrade to a city anyway.

Finally, the players start with one resource for each hex that is adjacent to their second settlement. While this may add a little strategy to the placement of the second settlement, it mostly serves as a way to jumpstart the game. Without this rule, several turns will be necessary before anyone will be able to build anything.


Players are limited to three main actions during their turn: produce (roll the dice), trade resources, and build. They can also play a development card if they have one.

Production is probably the  most controversial part of the design. Many hold the belief that too many random results can ruin a design. I personally believe that the dice roll is random enough to be interesting because the results are not guaranteed, yet predictable enough that your settlement placement does matter. Additionally, by indicating the probabilities on the number tokens themselves with both pips and by the font size of the number, it is easy for players to immediately recognize where the higher probability numbers are even if they do not fully understand why they are the higher probability. (Anecdotally, one new player wasn't quite understanding the probabilities until he realized, "It's just like craps!")

Trading is the heart and soul of this game. The mechanic itself takes little design thought, but without trading this game would hinge more on luck than it already does. That said, the addition of ports plays two important roles. First, it solves any problem of stingy opponents that will never trade (Monopoly has this problem). Second, it increases the value of some of the coastal locations that only have one or two hexes adjacent to them. Successful strategies rely on the fact that you can trade with your opponents or the bank.

Building serves two purposes. The components built are either means to victory points (roads and development cards) or worth victory points. They are also the means to producing more resources. The problem this introduces is the "runaway leader" syndrom because the leader is usually producing more goods than the other players. This is mitigated by the hand-size penalty and the robber, which I will discuss later.

Finally, development cards play an interesting role in the game. From personal experience, they are not perceived by new players to be as powerful as they really are. They provide the compliment to a city-building strategy in the same way that roads compliment an expand-early strategy. Not only can you earn the Largest Army victory points (whereas the expand-early strategy lends itself to earning the Longest Road), but they provide an alternate way of gaining the resources you lack (whereas an expand-early strategy will allow you to expand to get these resources). In particular, the Monopoly card is perhaps a bit overpowered, especially if there is one particular resource that every seems to have all the time. For the most part they play an important role of making the city-building strategy viable (as well as giving you another way eto spend those pesky sheep!).

The gameplay is that simple. Once again we can see how the game is accessible to new players by limiting the number of actions a player can perform on their turn. Seldom does a new player find themselves saying "I didn't know I could do that!"

The hand-limit rule is quite important to the play of the game. First, it encourages players to build when they can, which in turn prevents players from hording cards in order to gain many victory points on their turn. It's not that this doesn't happen, but the hand-limit makes it a riskier strategy.

Second, it hurts players that are producing a lot of resources more than it does players that aren't. In this way, it helps the players that are further behind more than it does the leading players. However, it does hinge on the roll of a 7, which is only a 1/6 chance of occurring. By itself, the hand-limit rule does little to prevent a runaway leader.

The robber introduces perhaps the best means of containing a runaway leader. When one particular player emerges as the clear leader, it is common that all the other opponents will pick one of the leader's best production spaces to lay the robber on. However, the "best" space is purely subjective, so it isn't always a clear-cut decision. Perhaps the best effect of the robber is the lobbying that occurs from all the players as to which hex should receive the robber. However, the robber can be frustrating, especially if played early on a hex that is important to a particular player, and it doesn't move for several turns. For this reason there is a common variant or house-rule that allows 7's to be re-rolled for the first few turns.

The robber also provides a medium for a savvy player to acquire the resources he needs through deliberate use of the knight/soldier cards. If a player watches what resources other players are acquiring and spending, he can play a well-timed robber on a player that holds a key resource that he needs. Although this may not guarantee he will get that resource, if played at the right time, he can increase his odds of getting the resource he wants.

Game End

The game ends at 10 victory points. It is difficult for me to discern whether this was a "nice round number," or if it was determined in playtesting that it felt like a good number to end on. My initial reaction would be to guess it is the latter, as the game does not seem to end too early for players that may have a slow start, but it also does not drag on while everyone is waiting for someone to get that last point.

My main complaint about Settlers of Catan (probably even moreso than the luck of the dice) is that the game can easily take two hours to play. For this reason, a common variant is the "quick start" which has the players add a city to their second start location instead of a settlement. This does benefit the 3rd or 4th player the most as their 1st and 2nd locations are basically interchangeable, but it probably doesn't benefit anyone so greatly as to upset the balance of the start positions. Several official variants and expansions actually use this starting mechanism in the rules, but it could be for reasons other than shortening the game.


Settlers of Catan is a beautifully designed game. The simplicity of the game allows new players to pick it up quickly. Even with the low learning curve, players will want to come back to perfect their strategy. The random board layout creates a new challenge that forces players to adjust their strategy without forcing them to abandon basic strategies.

Once the players are comfortable (or even bored) with Catan, the base game lends itself to expansions and variants. With 3 official expansions and several unofficial variants, it is easy to see why Catan is in many gamers' libraries.

Friday, February 6, 2009

efficiency and execution in Race for the Galaxy

Race for the Galaxy is really growing on me. Since I learned San Juan first, I see it as a more interesting version of San Juan.

One aspect I noticed in a game that I played today is that the final outcome very much leans on who can be the most efficient in their play. Another way to look at it is, who can execute their plan flawlessly.

I made a big mistake at the end of the game that might have cost me the win. It was a two-player game, and I chose Consume x2 and Produce as my two phases. This allowed me to gain considerably more VP's than my opponent. My mistake was playing the Produce phase. Without the Produce, I would still have had 1 good to consume in the next round. My opponent would have had nothing, thanks to his Pilgrimage World which forces him to consume all his remaining goods.

Since I did play Produce, and because there were only 8 VP's remaining in the VP pool, we were both obliged to play Consume x2. This time, since he played the x2 as well, my advantage was not as great. I should have considered which phase would have been the next most advantageous to myself because of how much Produce helped him.

The beautiful thing about Race for the Galaxy is that the games are quite fast (usually about 45 minutes, regardless of the number of players). While one mistake can hurt your whole game, it doesn't hurt for very long. There's always time for another game!

Monday, January 26, 2009

design deconstruction

Possibly because of my short stint in academia, I believe that a lot can be learned from analyzing the design of existing games. I'm primarily interested in the mechanics of the game and how they work together to create an enjoyable game. Therefore, I am going to start posting a series of design "deconstructions" where I rip the game apart to inspect the individual pieces of the game.

I honestly don't know if anything fruitful will come of this, but my hope is that a better understanding of the "fun" elements of some games may bring light to design challenges I encounter in the future.

If nothing else, I personally will enjoy the exercise, and I hope that it may promote interesting discussion.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

NFL OT solution - no coin toss

This is a bit off-topic, but I wanted to record my thoughts on how to make overtime in the NFL better.

The primary complaint is that a coin toss determines who gets the ball first in a sudden death overtime. From what I've heard, no one is interested in prolonging the game by guaranteeing each team gets the ball once, or playing an entire quarter, etc. So I was trying to determine a better way to determine who gets the ball first.

My solution is that the team who scores last in regulation has to kickoff to the other team. This gives the team that is tying the game the opportunity to be in control of their own destiny. Do they go for the tie and go for the stop in overtime? Or do they try to score more than their opponent and end the game in regulation?

The only time this wouldn't be an option is if the team is down by 8 and needs a touchdown and two-point conversion to tie. Other than that they have the option of going for a two-point instead of a one-point, or a touchdown over a field goal.

I think this would create more interesting decisions at the end of the game. It also takes the chance out of overtime -- you know exactly who will get the ball if the game goes into overtime. In general, I believe this would improve the current overtime rules without changing them drastically.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

opposing progress with sub-goals and multiple actions

In (American) football, it's called "field position".

I grew up a fan of baseball, basketball, and football, but I never really appreciated the intricacies of the third until the past few years. The more I watch it, the more I understand, and the more certain subtleties become obvious to me.

Field position is one of these subtleties. The primary goal of the offense is to score points. However, if the offense is unable to score points, it does have a secondary goal of creating poor field position for their opponent. When making the appropriate play call, the coach has to take in to consideration a myriad of factors, field position notwithstanding. This is probably most evident in "3rd and long" situations where obtaining a 1st down may be a long shot. In some cases, it may be more desirable to make a safe call that will gain a few yards than to take a risky shot at a first down.

I've been thinking of this as a mechanic of the game of football, and am curious how such a mechanic could be implemented with a board game. Abstracting it out of the game of football can be a bit of a challenge because of all the different factors that play into the significance of the mechanic.

The integral part of the mechanic is opposing progress. This is when one player's progress reverses the other player's or players' progress. This can be anything quantifiable. In football, this is the distance to the opposing team's goal line. This is also seen in Othello, where turning over an opponent's piece results in the player gaining a piece of his own.

However, in Othello the progress is towards the final goal of having more pieces at the end of the game than your opponent. In football, the progress moves you toward a sub-goal of the larger goal of having more points at the end of the game. To make it more interesting, there are actually two sub-goals: the field goal and the touchdown. The latter is more desirable as it generally results in more than twice as many points than the former, but the former is easier to obtain.

Finally, in an oversimplified view, there are two ways to progress in football. One is to run the ball, which is generally a more sure way to gain a few yards (less progress, less risk). The other is to pass the ball, which may not gain any yards, but tends to gain more yards than running the ball when you do gain yards (more progress, more risk). This is an important dynamic in the situations described above; the player must decide which action to take to not only maximize his own progress towards a sub-goal, but which will also maximize the backwards progress of the opponent.

In summary, these elements should be present to replicate the "field position" mechanic in football:

  • Opposing progress - One player's progress negatively impacts the progress of the opposing player or players.

  • Sub-goals - There should be multiple sub-goals where the ease of obtaining a sub-goal is inversely related to the reward for obtaining the sub-goal (i.e., the touchdown versus the field goal). The progress described above should move the player closer to the sub-goals.

  • Multiple actions - Each successful action should progress the player, but actions that progress the player further should carry a higher risk of either no progress or negative progress (i.e., the run play versus the pass play).

  • Progress punt - The player should be able to "punt" (for lack of a better term) their ability to progress to drastically reduce their opponent's progress. Implementation of this element is easiest when only one player can progress at a time, and the progress punt ends their turn at progressing.

While it is possible to implement a portion of these elements, I do not believe that you can create interesting decisions similar to the "field position" decisions on a football field without at least implementing the first three elements. The final element, which I did not discuss in detail, would create a more complete analogy, but it could also be eliminated if it proves difficult to implement or creates an imbalance in gameplay.

I also did not mention an important part of the mechanic in football. The teams are limited to the number of plays they can run because they must progress ten yards within four plays. In the case of a game where players take turns performing actions, this would not apply as the player would be slowed by the progress of the opposing player. However, if they were to take turns progressing with multiple actions (as it is in football), they would need to be limited in the number of actions they can take before their turn is over. This way, there would be a reason to use the riskier actions instead of only using the low-risk actions.

In a future post, I hope to mock up an example implementation.

Friday, January 2, 2009

a record of thoughts

A couple years ago, I started a short-lived blog. I was bored, and I thought I'd try it out to see why so many people insist on writing blogs. To me, it wasn't an interesting use of my time, and so it now sits unused, unread, and mostly forgotten.

Here I am again, starting a blog. But this time is different! This time, I have a purpose! I am starting this blog to record my never-ending, incoherent, and marginally useful thoughts on games and game design. In case it is not clear, this is almost entirely a selfish purpose, but I am making this blog public in the off chance that someone gleans some useful information from it.

Two years ago, "game and game design" would have been almost exclusively a discussion of video games.  As my priorities have changed, I find that board games fill up more of my leisure time. Additionally, board games take significantly less time and technical expertise to design and prototype. These are primarily the reasons why I have embraced the limitations of board games, making board games my new primary hobby.

This may be short-lived, but my passion for game design has not waned in 15 (or so) years. Even if I ever become bored with board games, I will probably not cease having the kind of thoughts that will be recorded here.

That is to say, I hope that this blog lasts longer than the last one.