Board game design, Los Buenos, Personal, Play-testing

The current state of the game
Yesterday I spent a good number of exciting and exhausting hours playtesting Los Buenos at “Spellenspektakel”, a board games conference in Eindhoven, The Netherlands.

In this post I’ll give my observations about going to a conference in general and what lessons I have to make my next time even more productive.

Preparation

Before going to the conference I created a nice prototype of Los Buenos, with significantly upgraded graphics. This meant a lot of work in the previous weeks to get all of that ready, including a high-intensity printing-and-cutting session the evening before. The upgraded graphics seem to have worked; previously I would get comments on the “simple” graphics, while now I did not hear anything negative about the look of the components.

Lesson for next time: Make sure I have at least decent graphics for the game.

I also created some feedback forms, for people to fill out after the game. These had fairly general questions (“What was the best moment in the game?”, “What element would you remove from the game?“), as well as asking for a score of the overall game and whether they would recommend the game to others.

The feedback form ensured that everybody gave feedback on the same things. This was good in that it was consistent, but it also meant that some subjects that were in fact important weren’t covered in the feedback forms. For example, I was quite interested in whether people felt any form of “scarcity” and specifically in what resources.

Lesson for next time: Also think about the more specific issues I have that I want to get some thoughts on.

Setting up

I arrived at the location in time to set up my game. I laid out the game, ready to play for 4 players. I believe that this created a nice overview and made it clear that there was something to be played here!

The table I got had 4 chairs. As Los Buenos plays 2 to 4 players I thought this would be perfect, but I was wrong… A group of 4 wanted to play, leaving myself without a place to sit. I was able to borrow a chair from another table, but they were a bit reluctant to let me have it. I was also somewhat in the way of the flow of the crowd, so this wasn’t an ideal situation.

I don’t know exactly what I could’ve done about this. I’m guessing the organization wouldn’t have been particularly responsive to me requesting an additional chair… I could’ve rented a second table, but that feels like overkill as well…

If the game played more than 4 I definitely would’ve been in trouble…

Lesson for next time: Keep in the back of my mind how many people I want to test with and whether that works.

Getting people to play

Just gather around and we’ll play!
I had asked on Twitter for some last-minute tips. One of them was to create a nice board with the title of the game, a tag-line, how many players can play, playing time and a short introduction. I chose sleep over making this and so I didn’t have it when I arrived, leaving me a bit nervous.

Some of the other stands had something like this, but most didn’t.

Testers were a bit secluded (on the upper “balcony”), meaning that it took a bit of time before people started filtering up.

I found it easy enough to get people to join my game. I spoke to groups of 2, 3 and 4 people (I was mostly interested in testing for 3 and 4 players), asking whether they were interested in playing a game. If they didn’t walk on immediately I gave a very short explanation of the theme of the game and what players would be doing, including the playing time (10 minutes per player). I emphasized what I think is the unique thing about the game, which is that you’re getting points (karma) for doing things that help your opponent.

If people were interested to play I’d have them sit down. If there were two of them I’d play the third player, for groups of 3 and 4 I let them play without me “interfering”.

Lesson for next time: Having a sign explaining your game isn’t necessary. Though if you dislike accosting strangers it might help to draw people in without having to cajole them.

Lesson for next time: Having a short explanation of the game really helps. I also think that the short playing time was a good way to pull people in. If I have a longer game next time I’ll have to give some thought on how to entice people to give up their valuable time.

Explaining the game

I hadn’t really thought too much about how to explain the game in advance. I did find I quickly got my rhythm there. So much so that people complimented me on my explanations!

I tried hard to emphasize consistencies in the game. For example: When you do anything that benefits your opponent you get at least one karma point. After doing that three times players would be able to fill in the gap themselves: “You place the money in the vault, which means that anybody can use it from there. What does that mean for you?” “I get a karma point!”

I also made connections to the real world where possible. “For example you can only start work on a building once you have the required materials for it, because in real life it doesn’t make sense to start hammering away if you don’t have the wood to hammer together”.

Lesson for next time: Point out consistencies within the game and with real life. It helps if the game designed specifically around those ideas of course 🙂

Lesson for next time: Think about how to explain my game a bit more in advance.

Playing the game

No actual dice involved in playing Los Buenos (though these are pretty cool!)
When playing I tried not to point out anything to the other players – no tips and tricks. When I was playing myself this was somehow a bit harder than when I was just on the sideline. I guess I was more involved when actually in the game?

Lesson for next time: Try to stay out of other people’s thought processes even more. I want to see how they play the game, not how I play the game!

I did ensure that I pointed out any rule mistakes that players made. Testing whether rules are easy to remember is something I want to do, but not in these tests.

When it came to distributing resources, doing the end-of-round cleanup and setting up for the next round I tried to be as helpful as possible, mostly by doing as much of the work as possible. This ensured that the “bookkeeping” parts of the game flowed as smoothly as possible. This resulted in quick gameplay and (hopefully) more fun for my testers. It does mean I didn’t observe the “full” game as played by others. Were there mistakes in setting up or moving resources? Is that something I need to think about further?

Lesson for next time: Let players take a bigger part in “running” the game, so I can also observe whether anything can be improved there.

Obviously I have a lot more experience with this game than anybody else that came to the table. This means I could’ve beaten everybody, but I don’t believe that would’ve given them the best experience. Me being part of the game already skews results, but by playing at my best I believe they would’ve skewed even more. So, I played sub-optimally. Taking actions that were not the best, while not being obviously stupid either. I hope that this resulted in “reasonable” results.

Lesson for next time: Try to get more groups of 3 and 4 (or test my 2-player version) so that I can be on the sidelines more.

Getting feedback

During the game I tried to make notes on what was going on. Here I focused on some of the issues I had in my mind, like the scarcity of resources from turn to turn. I specifically noted when these got out of kilter – when there way too many or too few resources.

I also noted how people were playing: Intent on the game, or distracted (the first mostly).

And I wrote down any interesting quotes that people had during the game: “What am I to do?” “You should’ve helped me when you had the chance!”.

My feeling is that most quotes were positive, but that might just be projection. It’s hard to gauge exactly what internal processes are when someone says something. “What am I to do?“ can be out of frustration because there really isn’t anything interesting to do, or it can be a sign that there are multiple options that are equally tempting. The first is bad, the second is good. Paying attention to voice and body language then becomes important. Those are hard to capture just in the words though.

Lesson for next time: Put emojis with quotes, to get some idea of how people said it

Taking notes was much easier when I was not playing, so another reason to try to be outside of the playing group.

Lesson for next time: Try to stay out of the playing my own game while testing.

Finally a lot is going on during play, meaning it’s hard to capture it all. Added to that is that my handwriting in the best of circumstances is poor – when writing quickly it becomes horrible.

Lesson for next time: Consider recording the tests – either video or audio

As mentioned I also got feedback through feedback forms. Everybody was happy to fill them in. I did feel a bit awkward in asking even more questions afterwards. I had some good discussions, but I’m sure I could’ve gotten even more out of it.

Lesson for next time: Push through my own awkwardness and ask more questions / feedback afterwards.

Taking care of myself

Because in some ways, a convention is similar to a desert…
Doing an entire day of testing is exhausting! The last test I wasn’t really paying that much attention anymore and I have basically no readable comments from it. Perhaps it would’ve been better stop before that?

Lesson for next time: Stop when drained. Pushing through doesn’t actually give a lot more useful information.

I was also lucky that I got a suggestion to bring snacks and drinks. Especially the big bottle of water was a blessing as I got very thirsty. And while I ate a bit, it felt very rushed, eager as I was to get into the next test. That might have had something to do with me losing energy as well.

Lesson for next time: Take the time to actually eat and drink properly.

After the event

Today I worked through all of my notes, writing everything out and collating the feedback forms. Next step is to draw conclusions and to think about what kind of experiments I want to run in next tests.

Picking this up quickly was good, as where my handwriting failed, memory sometimes still served to bring back what I had tried to write down. It’s also fresh so that I’m eager to get to work on a next prototype!

Lesson for next time: Schedule time very soon after such an event for writing everything out, so that I keep the momentum.

Closing thoughts

Going to the convention was a great experience! I had a lot of fun and I learned a lot! Looking back I think I did very well, but there are always some things that I could do even better. Now to remember to read back this post when I go to the next convention!

I also hope this has been useful to you as a reader, perhaps you picked up a few things you’ll change when you go to your first / next convention? If so I’d love to hear about it!

And perhaps you have further tips for me, so that I can do even better the next time?

About the author

Bastiaan_smallHi, I’m Bastiaan. The goal of this blog is to learn about game design. That’s hopefully for you as the reader, but just as much for me as the writer.

Help me to learn? Leave a comment (below) or connect with me on Twitter? You can also subscribe to this blog (see the sidebar) or like it on Facebook, to get updates when I write them.

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Board game design, Los Buenos

A very early prototype
For longer than I’d really care to admit I’ve been working on my game: Los Buenos (previously called Voluntarios). The game is working well and the core mechanics are all fleshed out. The thing I’m now thinking about is what kind of content I’d like the game to have. Specifically, the game allows for different buildings to be built. What should these buildings do exactly?

A bit of background

As I’ll be using my own game-under-construction as an example, let me give a very quick introduction.

Players are trying to rebuild a village after an earthquake. And as it’s a tight-knit community, you’re not just in it for yourself, you’re trying to be helpful to the others. In fact, being helpful gives you karma points, which determine the winner of the game.

During your turn you will be placing workers to gather resources (construction material and money). Resources and workers are placed on construction sites, to construct the buildings depicted. The twist of the game is that placing your workers on someone else’s construction site gains you karma. The initiator of the construction however will get the benefits of the building (once it is finished).

My current dilemma: What should buildings do once they are finished?

Content – first thoughts

The easiest thing to do is to have buildings give karma as well. It makes reasonable sense: Having a house or shop (re)built benefits the community and as such should give karma.

It is however also a bit bland… Every building would be the same except for the amount of construction required and the amount of karma it garners.

On the other hand, it does keep the game nice and simple. But is that what I want? Wouldn’t it be much more interesting to have a deep and complex game? I’m sure these buildings could be used as parts for an in-game engine; allowing for efficient resource swapping. Or perhaps they could be used to in some way make life for your opponents more difficult (build Mayor’s office to collect taxes from the other players?)?

Maybe something in between? Not so simple, but not super intricate either.

The questions is, how do you decide between these options? Deep games are good, but so are simple games. What’s a designer to do?

What’s your vision?

“So, where do you see your game going in the future?”
This is the first game I sank a serious amount of time into. I never really had a very clear idea of where I wanted to go with it and as such it has evolved through at least 4 very distinct phases – different games almost.

After thinking about it (and more importantly trying many things out), I’ve come to some ideas about what I want the game to be like:

  • The core is about helping other players, but in such a way that you’re benefitting more yourself
  • The game plays fairly quickly (10 minutes per player) and I want to keep it at about that level
  • Depth mostly comes from player interactions – any way of building upon that is appreciated
  • Player interactions should not be negative – getting in the way is fine, forcing your “help” upon someone else is fine, but direct attacks are not fine
  • From vision to choices

    The vision above gives direction to what kind of content choices I might make.

    Helping other players: Giving only karma for finishing a building doesn’t work against this, but it doesn’t work with it either.

    In many games buildings do something: Create resources or hinder your opponent. This could very well add something to my game as well.

    It then makes sense to allow buildings to be “activated” by placing a worker. In most games only the “owner” of a building benefits from it, but here it would be interesting to allow any player to activate a building. This should of course give something to the owner as well. That still doesn’t say what a building should do exactly, but it gives some direction at least.

    The game should be fairly quick: This would imply that the game shouldn’t be made much more complex. Thus, heavy engine building is probably better left behind. Some form of light engine building might still work, but that might go against the previous idea; engines usually work for the player building them, not so much for the entire group.

    Depth from player interactions: This would also imply that it would be good for players to be able to make use of each other’s’ buildings.

    Player interactions should not be negative: This follows mostly from the choices above as well. It does mean no “taxing others”, but I think I’m happy to live with that 🙂

    Content – second try

    The conclusion from the previous paragraph is that buildings should be useable by other players for some benefit, while also giving benefits to the “owner”.

    Benefits can come in a number of forms. The simplest form would be to increase resources:

    • Karma
    • Construction resources (materials and money)
    • Workers
    • Construction sites to work on

    Thus, a building could create some form of resource. And to stay in the spirit of things, a worker should be placed to actually produce those resources. The player who places the worker should get the resources.

    For this the two “basic” resources of the game, building materials and money, make perfect sense; they are meant to be scarce and thus there would be an incentive to produce more of them through buildings (see this post for more on incentives in board games). After all, it would be pretty boring if the buildings didn’t actually get used.

    Karma also makes sense, as that would be the goal resource. However, it goes a bit against the idea of “helping others” to gain karma by doing something that doesn’t really benefit anybody else.

    Producing workers might be possible, but it seems a bit strange to place a worker to produce a worker. Maybe if you placed 2 workers…? But what exactly would be the building that would allow for that?! Then again, it would be quite interesting if two different players could produce a worker together… This is something to consider further.

    Another, simpler option is to have a building give a worker when it is finished. That however would mean it wouldn’t have any actions that other players could make use of. It’s of course not strictly necessary to have an action space, but it does fit the vision well.

    The latest prototype – version 50!
    Getting a new construction site to work on also can make perfect sense. However, there is already a mechanism for that. And having construction sites be scarce could seriously slow down the game and would move back to something I tried before: Making spaces for workers scarce (read more about that idea here. Spoiler, it didn’t work that well). I’ll not try this one for now.

    When a building has an action space, the owner of the building should also gain something. One possibility is to gain some of the same resources that the player who placed a worker got. So for example a building could produce money both for the owner of the building and for the person taking the action. Another option is to have it give some karma.

    The karma option seems like the better one. It’s simpler and it’s more in the spirit of the game: Be helpful (by creating a building others want to use) and get rewarded with karma when others actually do.

    Final choices

    What is definitely going in is buildings that produce resources when workers are placed and that give the owner some karma. With two types of resources (building materials and money) this gives two different types of buildings.

    Having a building produce workers by placing workers seems like a very interesting idea and is something I’m going to try out. I’m not entirely sure about the exact mechanism, but I’m sure I can figure something out. This gives a third type of building.

    Finally the I’ll have some buildings which only give karma when constructed. This to keep the game simple and not create too many spaces for workers.

    Closing thoughts

    Having a vision for your game can help to make design choices. Here I showcase it using content choices, but it can be equally helpful for other types of design choices.

    I came by my vision long after I started working on the game. I do believe that this was one of the reasons I had to back-track many times; without a vision I had no way of pre-selecting which design options to peruse, so I had to pursue them all.

    The wise lesson here is to create the vision before getting too deep into a design – something I’ll definitely be doing next time!

    Further reading

    For more reading about the vision of your game see this post.

    I also have a number of posts which tell you more about specific design issues for Los Buenos (then: Voluntarios):
    General introduction
    An example of using scarcity in board games
    Strategy in board games
    Creating interesting choices

    About the author

    Bastiaan_smallHi, I’m Bastiaan. The goal of this blog is to learn about game design. That’s hopefully for you as the reader, but just as much for me as the writer.

    Help me to learn? Leave a comment (below) or connect with me on Twitter? You can also subscribe to this blog (see the sidebar) or like it on Facebook, to get updates when I write them.

    And perhaps you know of others interested in learning? Share this post using the buttons below:

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Board game design

He’s not really my type…
”Why do we play board games?”

“To have fun, duh! Stop asking stupid questions!”

We play games to have fun. But I’ve found that different people enjoy different games, or different parts of the game. My wife for example doesn’t care much what she plays, as long as she wins! For myself I much more enjoy finding out what the different possibilities are that a game allows (though winning is neat too of course!).

Different players have different motivations for playing games. Understanding what these are can help create better board games.

Fun from games

Different players enjoy games for different reasons. When looking at the people I’ve played with I can see a number of distinct “types” of players:

  • Power-mongers
  • Socializers
  • Imaginers
  • Explorers
  • Creators

(Are all of those real words? They are now!)

In the following paragraphs I’ll write something about each of these drivers and how you can cater to each of them in creating your game.

Power

In board games you can rule civilizations, build monuments to the gods and utterly crush your opponents. All of these are expressions of power, of bending the world (within the game) to your will.

Power can be over the elements of the game: You get to decide what your workers do, where buildings are built or what your character does. These are the kings and queens of imaginary fiefdoms, happy to rule for as long as the game lasts.

The most important way to achieve this is of course by winning. After all, nothing shouts out that you’re more powerful than others than beating them.

As most games are built with player vs. player interaction in mind, this is an expected part of most games and nobody will begrudge a player of doing their best to gain the upper hand. In fact, many people are very happy to get some good opposition, as it makes it all the more delicious when you do finally grasp victory.

Another way in which players can express power is in “quarterbacking” in coops: Telling other players what they should do. Some people are happy to let others decide for them what the best move is (most importantly Socializers, see below), but it can be a real downer for many other players.

Designing for power-mongers

People who enjoy power in their games tend to prefer player vs. player games (though as mentioned, they can also show their preferences in coop games).

For some power-mongers the simple pleasure of winning is enough, but for others direct confrontation is preferred. Euro-style getting-in-the-way passive-aggressive play is not what they are looking for, they prefer more direct interaction. This can be through aggressive action (attack!) but it is also possible to exercise power over other people with more innocent player interactions: Forcing another player to give you 3 bricks for your one sheep in Catan can put a gleam in the power-monger’s eye.

When it comes to mechanics, anything they can amass will tickle their fancy. This can be resources, but preferably it’s something that can be used to directly interact with the other players with (think huge stockpiles of armies in Risk).

Area control is also a mechanic that works well for the power players, as it easily shows who has control (power!) over how much of the board.

Example games for Power-mongers

Risk, Dungeons & Dragons (really any RPG where you can build overpowered characters), Munchkin, Monopoly.

Socializing

“…so I said to her: You’re such a kid! Anyway, want to play a game?”
Board games are inherently social activities (I know, you can play board games online and there are quite a few solo games now…) and this is what Socializers love the most in playing.

For them it matters less what they are playing and more whom they are playing with. A game is a reason to get a group of friends or family together and that’s the thing to cherish.

As such they may have little to no interest in actually winning; in fact they may well give up a beneficial action to help someone else.

Designing for Socializers

Cooperative games are a natural fit for Socializers, as it allows them to put their best effort into winning (which everybody else seems to think is important), without anybody feeling bad (for having to lose). Also the joined victory or defeat can create a group feeling, which is something Socializers value.

Outside of cooperative games, Socializers prefer positive player interactions, for example trading (see this post for more on cooperative forms of player interaction). And they dislike confrontational player interactions such as direct attacks.

Socializers are also perfectly happy to play “multiplayer solitaire”, as it means they do not have to do anything that could antagonize anybody else.

A large dose of randomness can also be appreciated by Socializers, as it means that anybody losing is not of their doing.

Finally, Socializers prefer games that don’t require too much brainpower. Not because they can’t handle it, but because if everybody is staring intently at their cards, there will hardly be any banter going on… They also tend to like party games, as winning and losing tends to be less important than the fun that is had together.

Example games for Socializers

Cards Against Humanity, Dungeons & Dragons, Pandemic, Captain Sonar.

Imagining

Board games allow us to live on an uninhabited island, colonize mars or be queen of a fairy kingdom. They allow players to experience things they never would be able to in real life. And Imaginers live for this.

A game for them is a way to be or do something that is out of the ordinary. And generally the more exotic the better. A game should create a story (though it doesn’t need to be a story-telling game): The best games are the ones where something happens you can tell your friends about afterwards.

And though it’s nice to imagine a glorious victory, a bitter defeat can be just as exciting.

Designing for Imaginers

Imaginers want to “live the game”. This means that a lot of work should be put into artwork and other visual elements, so that it’s easy for them to transport themselves to your game world.

Cooperative games tend to lend themselves a bit better to the style Imaginers prefer, as in real life we tend to cooperate more than that we are directly antagonistic to each other. But if you are simulating something where there is a clear rationale for confrontation (e.g. a war game) then this should definitely be included.

When playing the game mechanics should “make sense”. Every element should have a connection to something that could happen in real life – it makes sense that your family needs to eat at some point (Agricola), it does not make sense that parts of your kingdom show up at random moments (Dominion). This doesn’t mean that everything has to be simulated to the finest detail, a level of abstraction is fine (no toilet breaks for your workers required).

For Imaginers randomness has a place in a good board game, but only if it links to something that is (or comes across as) random in real life as well.

Mechanic wise, hidden information can be a big boon to Imaginers, as they can use their imagination on what it is that might be hidden for them. Worker placement works (pun intended) as it conforms quite well to the actual notion of “work being done”. And a board that represents a physical space (instead of say a number of tracks), on which playing pieces can be placed or moved around, helps to visualize what is going on.

For further reading, in this post I look at a number of games that do the “imagining” very well.

Example games for Imaginers

Robinson Crusoe, Terraforming Mars, Dead of Winter, Netrunner.

Exploring

I wonder what’s at the bottom of this ocean / deck?!
There is nothing quite like opening up the box for a new game. What’s inside, what adventures, quests and clashes will it bring?

Explorers like the “new” and the “unknown”. A new card to draw, a tile to flip. But also a new mechanic to try or a combination to experiment with. As long as a game keeps bringing up new situations they are happy to play. But inevitably, a game will grow old and it will be time to move on to pastures greener.

It’s interesting to try out different combinations and to push the limits of the game. That will most probably mean an Explorer won’t win, but she’ll have a great time going down in a blaze.

Designing for Explorers

Explorers seek novelty. That means that for a game to continue to interest them, it will require a lot of depth (see this and this post on depth in board games). Player interaction is one good way of providing this, as it very hard to fully gauge the mind of your gaming buddies. And if actual depth is hard to provide, large amounts of content will do in a pinch: A game with a thousand unique cards is where it starts getting interesting.

Another way of keeping explorers interested is by providing components that can be combined in many different ways. Dominion is a good example of this; there are many combinations of kingdom cards that can be made and a proper explorer will want to try every one of them.

Explorers love hidden information, so be sure to add a lot of cards that can be drawn at different moments, tiles that can be flipped and tokens that are taken from bags.

When it comes to mechanics it’s more important that something is new than what it actually does.

Legacy games are the games for explorers, as they provide fresh content (and an evolving story) for many games to come. Because opening a small box inside your game is only slightly less awesome than opening the big box in the first place.

Explorers’ second favourite type of game are decksploration games (e.g. T.I.M.E. Stories) where you get to explore what is in a deck of cards.

Example games for Explorers

Robinson Crusoe, Pandemic Legacy, The 7th Continent, Escape.

Creating

There is nothing quite like taking 10 turns to carefully set up your engine, seemingly not making any progress at all, only to then switch it on and win the game in one huge bonanza of victory points!

The Creator wants to make something, using the tools provided by the game. Each element provided is but a building block and it is her task to find the best combination out of all of those. This can be an amazing combo or an efficient engine, but also the prettiest tableau or the fullest hand. It does have to be useful though (else you’re just exploring).

Winning is the name of the game for the Creator, because that’s how you know what you built works. But where the Power-monger wants to win, no matter what, the Creator wants to win with style.

Designing for Creators

Creators need to be provided with lots of different elements that can interact with each other. They love the string actions, cards and tiles together to get to a beautiful machine that turns one resource into another, which is turned into the next, and so on, until at the end they get a big pile of victory points.

For Creators a game should be fairly “meaty”, to have sufficient raw material to work with. The more steps it takes to do something, the better.

This also means they prefer Euro style games; most war games don’t care much about how efficient your army is, as long as it’s big. Limited interaction also means that there is nothing getting in the way of working on the grand opus; there is nothing as frustrating as having your combo ready to fly, only to have it disrupted by someone stealing a card.

Similarly, randomness can be fun at times, but mostly it just means having to wait longer until you do your big trick. And the same holds true for hidden information: It can’t be incorporated into the engine, so it’s just frustrating.

Deck builders, bag builders, dice builders, tableau builders, all of these are great for Creators, as it allows them to piece together what they need from a big market of possible resources. Barring that, a game where there are lots of different cards and tiles that they can combine will make them happy.

Example games for Creators

Agricola, Dominion, Magic the Gathering, Catan.

Mixing types

No man is an island. But every person is a cocktail!
The previous paragraphs sketch 5 different “player types”. Obviously these are exagerations and abstractions; nobody is a “pure” Explorer or Socializer. Everybody caries each type (and more), but some types will be more strongly represented in one player than another (for example I’m a strong Explorer and a weak Power-monger).

And these 5 types certainly aren’t the end-all either. I’m sure that with some thought you could add another 5 (or 50!) categories. And perhaps you can come up with a completely different categorization as well.

The point isn’t that these types are the truth. Instead they are meant to help you think about what kind of players you are catering to. What parts of your game would appeal to whom? Can you add further elements to make them like it even more?

”But shouldn’t I make something that appeals to everybody?”

Well… If that were possible then yes! But unfortunately that’s not possible, something that I hope the different types also show. Different people like different things. You can make something that nobody hates, or you can make something that some people love, but not both. A game nobody hates doesn’t sell, a game that some people love does!

Closing thoughts

We create games to have them enjoyed by our players. But who are “our players”? Do you have an image in mind? Perhaps a friend (or yourself)? What does this specific person enjoy the most? And what does she absolutely hate in a game?

Are you play-testing with those people? Or are you pulling in random strangers and trying to cater to every suggestion that they bring up? Who is your audience and what do they like?

And when you test your friends’ games, are you able to tell them: “This game is not for me”? Because you may very well not be their target audience either.

Further reading

Thinking about player types helps to create a vision for your game. This post looks at the vision for your game from a different perspective.

And a long time ago I wrote a post on games without winners, in which I also briefly touched upon different player types.

About the author

Bastiaan_smallHi, I’m Bastiaan. The goal of this blog is to learn about game design. That’s hopefully for you as the reader, but just as much for me as the writer.

Help me to learn? Leave a comment (below) or connect with me on Twitter? You can also subscribe to this blog (see the sidebar) or like it on Facebook, to get updates when I write them.

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Board game design

OK, we’re all in this together! Going nowhere…
Recently I’ve been thinking about designing a board-game where players cooperate, even though there could only be a single winner.

Thus far I’ve found it hard going; it’s all too clear that cooperating means helping another win and thus getting yourself to lose.

So, it’s time to go to first principles, think deep and hard about different ways of engendering cooperation. The best way I’ve found for that is by writing about it: Nothing makes vague thoughts clear as committing them to paper (electrons). And who knows, maybe others will read this and come up with some brilliant ideas to help me further as well (do leave a comment or hit me up on twitter!)

What is cooperation?

Cooperation is anything where two or more people interact and those who interact benefit.

Note that this does not mean that all should benefit equally, only that all gain something from the cooperation.

Why have cooperation in your board-game?

Interaction between players is a strong driver of depth in board-games: Players are infinitely more complex than anything that can be captured in card-board (see this post on player interaction).

Interaction in most board-games is “negative”: Preventing another player from achieving their goals. This can either be very direct, by attacking them, more passively, by “getting in the way” or in a myriad of other ways.

Cooperation is a second form of interaction, one that is much more “positive”: All of those interacting gain. As such I believe it can be a source of additional fun in board-games.

Cooperation in real life

In real life cooperation is very often a good idea. ”Let’s go hunt with the entire group so we can take down a mammoth and have ample food for the entire village!”

This is because in real life we don’t normally think in winners and losers: Cooperating makes sure that we all have food and that none have to starve.

Having said that, cooperation is generally not entirely “fair”: The leader of the hunt gets more status and perhaps the juiciest bit of mammoth. But even here there is a trade-off: It takes a lot of investment to become leader of the hunt. And that investment certainly isn’t risk-free (mammoths have those tusks for a reason!)

Cooperation in board-games

Board-games have very clear winners and losers (though, do read this post for ideas on board-games without a winner). This makes that players will assess actions not only on how much it brings them but also what the others would gain: “an opponent’s gain is my loss”. In a two-player game this is very clear: There is little difference between my opponent gaining a point and myself losing one.

This makes it difficult to foster cooperation: My gain has to weigh up to what the other(s) gets.

But, there are board-games that do get people to cooperate. Let’s take a look at some ways in which this can be done.

1. Trading

How many bricks was I getting?
In Catan players can trade resources; they give something they have in high supply and get something that is scarce for them, in the process increasing the value for themselves (see this post about value and cost in board-games and this one on scarcity).

The player on the other side of the trade however gains in the same way. One player might get a better deal, but both players must agree that it’s good enough else they wouldn’t be willing to make the trade.

There are losers in this though: Anybody not in the trade. The traders increased the value of what they have in their hand and thus moved a little bit ahead, leaving anybody outside the trade a little bit behind.

Thus trading only really works when there are more than two players.

2. Moving ahead together

The idea of trading can be generalized to any action that benefits two or more players while leaving the other players behind.

In Munchkin players can work together to defeat a monster that a single player wouldn’t be able to handle. Any treasure that results from the encounter is then split by the cooperating players. There can be barter involved, but it’s not a real trade, as the resources are “new” (coming from the defeated monster).

3. Ganging up

In Risk it at some point becomes clear that a player is surging ahead. At this point every other player is at a serious risk (pun intended) of losing the game. There is then a clear incentive to gang up on the leader to bring her down a notch.

Once the playing field has been equalized again however there is no real reason to continue the cooperation; yesterday’s ally could well be tomorrow’s greatest threat!

This only works if there is a way of directly attacking other players, something that a lot of people are not particularly fond of.

And while the players who are bringing the leader low are cooperating, this is very directly at the cost of another player.

4. Accidental help

In Puerto Rico each player selects a role, which can then be executed by all players. This means that every role selected helps you, but it also helps all the other players.

Here you’re not only trying to find the role that help you most, but also the ones that benefit all the other players least.

Though this is a form of interaction that is “positive” for all players, it does not feel to me that it’s really “cooperating”. Still, it is a very powerful way of creating interesting forms of player interaction.

5. For the greater good

If there is a goal that needs to be achieved by all players, then people will very naturally cooperate to reach that goal.

In true cooperative games (e.g. Pandemic) this is an optimal way of playing. However this need not be the case in semi-cooperative games.

In Dead of Winter there is a mutual goal whilst players also have their own goals (and there is a chance of having a betrayer). Here people in general want to work together to reach the mutual goal, but they would much rather have the other players contribute more than they do themselves, as that leaves more resources for them to pursue their own individual goals.

This can even be implemented in non-cooperative games, if the penalty of non-cooperation is high enough (e.g. everybody loses the game).

6. Cooperative synergy

When trading, resources chance hands, but the total number of resources remains the same; value is created by having different preferences for resources.

Value however can also be created explicitly: Do an action on your own and you get two resources, but do the action together with someone else and you get five resources for the two of you.

Terra Mystica uses a form of this, where building buildings next to your opponent’s makes (some of them) cheaper, while at the same time allowing your opponent to take magical power.

In this case the game rules give a “multiplier” to incentivize cooperation (see this post on incentives in board games).

7. Hidden goals

This is a sure-fire way to getting someone to inadvertently help you!
When you cooperate you’re helping your opponent. This means that they are closer to winning and thus that you might lose the game.

One way to mitigate this somewhat is by having hidden goals; if you don’t know exactly what your opponent is trying to achieve, it becomes harder to see how much you’re helping them (and vice versa). This allows players to act more “selfishly”, looking more at what they will gain from the cooperation and taking less account of how much they are helping the other.

Though it’s not the best example, Risk can have this. If it’s my goal to eliminate yellow, then any player who attack attacks yellow is actually helping me achieve my goal.

While this technically complies with my definition of cooperation (both players benefit), it’s unknown to the player taking the action (attacking yellow) that she’s helping another player. As such this also feels like a weak form of cooperation.

Closing thoughts

Cooperation is a positive way of engendering interaction between players, with all the benefits that that entails. There are however natural barriers to cooperation in board-games, all stemming from the idea that any help to my opponent brings her closer to winning.

In the sections above I give a number of ways in which a board-game can make cooperation between players more likely. Hopefully these can be helpful to you in creating interesting and positive player interactions. And while I give a fair number, I’m sure that with a bit of thought you can come up with many more. If you find an interesting one do let me know?

Further reading

Cooperation is a form of player interaction. Read more about the subject here:
7 forms of player interaction
How to use player interaction for better board games

About the author

Bastiaan_smallHi, I’m Bastiaan. The goal of this blog is to learn about game design. That’s hopefully for you as the reader, but just as much for me as the writer.

Maybe you can cooperate with me? Leave a comment (below) or connect with me on Twitter? You can also subscribe to this blog (see the sidebar) or like it on Facebook, to get updates when I write them.

And perhaps you know of others interested in learning? Share this post using the buttons below:

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Board game design

Though some great games can only be played a single time (e.g. T.I.M.E. Stories, though there technically it’s a scenario that can only be played once), replayability is generally seen as something to strive for when designing games.

So the rules are simple…
In a recent post I argued that why we like “deep” games is that they are replayable.

Then I recently read this article, which does an amazing job in tying depth, strategy, tactics and many more subjects together (warning, long read!). In it the author defines depth as:

“Depth is a function of the layering of heuristic understanding necessary for effective play”

This seems to coincide well with my own ideas. I never gave a formal definition, but informally it’s something like: ”A game is deep if it requires a lot of play-throughs to master”. I guess my loose definition is a bit more easy to understand, while the definition from the article is more rigorous. Take your pick…

Both ideas center around how much you need to invest to really learn a game. And thus learning is one of the central points here. Which will be the subject of this post.

How humans learn

Kids learn through rewards and punishments: “Hold your hand against a burning stove and it burns (don’t do that again!).” And: “Eat a piece of candy and you get a delicious taste in your mouth (more please!)”. There is a very quick feedback between the action (touching a stove) and the result (pain!). Because of this you really only need a single encounter with a hot stove to be very careful around one for the rest of your life. Likewise, if we get a candy and it doesn’t taste good, we’ll be slightly less inclined to have more candy in the future.

As we get older, we can learn when there is a bigger remove between our actions and the results: “Be nice now and get desert later.” Or: “Don’t do your homework today and get punished at school tomorrow.” Still, there is a clear connection between our action and what comes our way because of it; the teacher is very clear that you have to go see the principle because you didn’t do your homework.

When we are grown up we can handle even bigger temporal differences: “Study for a year and you’ll be in line for a promotion after that.” And as long as we do actually get the promotion, we’ll have learned that studying leads to advancement.

The examples above all have a clear link between our actions and what we get out of it. But those connections aren’t always so clear cut, especially when timeframes are longer: “Did I get my promotion because I worked hard, because I have skills that nobody else in the team has or because I sucked up to the boss?”

The joys of learning

Humans really like learning stuff – being able to form a connection between an action and its results. This makes sense, because else life would involve random acts and random results, meaning you’d never be able to predict what would happen next. People without the ability to predict don’t survive very long (“Let’s see what happens when I go pet that lion?!”)

You might disagree that people enjoy learning. That is because most people associate learning with school and school is anything but fun. This is because when studying the result is very indirect. What you learn in school doesn’t help you to predict the world better, it only helps you to do well on an exam.

Learning the correct conjugation of a French verb in school doesn’t do anything in real life. But compare this to someone who moved to France who has a bit of insight and through interacting with the locals is improving his language ability. This does immediately impact his life and as such is much more satisfying.

Learning in board games

So what does all of this have to do with board games (yes, the subject of this blog really still is board games!)?

The most important thing to learn is not to play this game…
When you first play a game you suck. And you’ll readily lose to someone with more experience. But while playing your first game you’re gaining insight in how the game is played. You should play this card and not that, going for points early makes you lose steam for the end game.

This is not some dry learning you’re doing in school, no, you’re learning something that is immediately applicable, in the next round or in the next game.

My belief is that this is one of the most important reasons people enjoy board games so much: They give the best kind of learning experience. The kind that can be used right away. You are now able to predict the future that much better, well done, have a shot of dopamine!

How to learn to play a board game

So you want people to be learning while they play your game, as that gives a pleasurable rush.

How do players learn a game? Through a bit of insight, but mostly through trial-and-error. When you play Catan for the first time (with others who have no experience) you haven’t a clue on what the best choices are, so you place your villages almost at random. Then a few rounds in someone remarks that rolling sixes and eights seems more likely than twos and twelves, so you’ve learned to focus on the big numbers (big as in that they have a larger font size on the tiles). Good, have your jolt of pleasure!

Then you learn that you need to spread what kind of resources you get (buzz!, but that a bunch of meadows combined with a sheep harbor is also a good idea (buzz!). Then your neighbor blocks one of your roads and takes a juicy spot, taking the game to another level (more buzz!).

When you’ve played a lot of different board games you start to recognize meta-patters: More resources is generally better. Getting more actions (e.g. more workers) is almost always is a good investment. Etc. But you still need to dig into the game to really learn its specific ins and outs. Which means playing, trying and failing. Until you stop failing.

The measure of success

What does it mean to stop failing? What does it mean to succeed?

When learning French your aim is to be able to have a conversation with that hot Parisian. When learning to play a game, your aim is to win.

The learning feedback loop

During a board game you do a lot of things. And at the same time your opponents are also doing lots of things. You’re playing cards, gathering resources, bluffing and moving tokens about. Depending on what game you’re playing you might take between a single and hundreds of distinct actions.

Sing it back, bring it back. Sing it back to me!
Only when all these actions are taken does the game reach its end. And only then can you determine whether you did well or not, because only then will the winner be known.

The result is that the feedback loop on whether any single action was “correct” is relatively long: Only after the game is over can you determine if that action was part of a winning way of playing.

More interestingly, giving feedback (win / loss) only at the end of the game obscures the information about any single action immensely. Because was it this action or that one that made the difference? Was it their combination? Or were both of those actually sub-optimal but did you win because you did a few other things right?

Worse, you can have won because of luck. Or because everybody else was playing like wet rags.

The result is that it can be very difficult to figure out what an optimal choice is at any given moment (which is of course exactly what we want; it’s well known that interesting (read: difficult) choices make for good games).

Too long a feedback loop

However…

If the feedback is too obscure, if you really can’t figure out how or why you won (or more likely, lost) then a game will lose its appeal. As written above, learning is fun if you can use what you’ve learned. And that means that something actionable has to come out of the learning experience: ”Next time I won’t place my first village between the dessert, the sea and a two…”

Luckily, games generally provide shorter feedback loops as well. In Catan you can see when someone else is getting more resources than you are. Being human we instinctively understand that more stuff is better! So it might only take few turns to regret placing our village at a two instead of at a six, meaning we will have learned something.

A layering of feedback loops

The ideal game then has feedback loops at many different “levels”; there should be extremely quick feedback (having more villages means I get more stuff!), intermediate feedback (placing a village at a six is better than at a two), long term feedback (taking a number of development cards is a good idea as that obscures how many points I have, meaning I won’t be the target of the robber that often) and every level in between.

“Deep” games have many layers of such feedback loops, resulting in interesting learning experience for absolute beginners, but also for people who have already played a game for a hundred times.

What this means for game design

So how does all of this help us design better board games?

I think it’s a light bulb…
Telling players how they are doing can help create short feedback loops. If you gain a few victory points with most actions then you can very quickly see your progress and measure it against your opponents’. This helps to quickly progress through understanding, which can be a good or bad thing, depending on your target audience. If you’re trying to create something quick and light then this is definitely the way to go. But if you’re catering to die-hard gamers then it makes more sense to obscure any form of progression, as these people can more likely glean the “basics” quite easily and would in fact be more enamored by having to learn through long-term feedback loops. This then means that it would be better to give as little information as possible about “who’s ahead”; no victory point tracks (or perhaps no victory points at all). Imagine for example a series of hidden objectives which stay hidden until a player has achieved all of theirs and declares herself the winner.

It also means that self-testing of your game-under-development is difficult if not impossible. It’s your game so you’ve probably played it many times and know the ins and outs, meaning you aren’t learning anymore. Or even if you are, it is most certainly not at the same level as a novice player. You might argue that different versions of your own game will require new learning and you’d be right about that, but that learning is helped immensely by all the learning you’ve done on previous versions (I’m going to assume here that versions are actually quite alike; if not you’re basically starting on a new game).

This is not to say that self-testing is completely useless; when balancing game elements you can probably get reasonably far just on your own. Just remember that you will be playing as an expert and thus that the “balance” you’d create would be for an expert. The result can be that the game would actually be quite unbalanced when playing for the first time if an opponent happens to stumble upon a strong combination that an expert would easily deal with but that will simply kill you when you’re new. As an example consider the Fool’s Mate in Chess which is not fun to get served up when you’re learning the game.

Closing thoughts

As mentioned above, I believe that “learning” is one of the main drivers of enjoyment for games. This is in general not something you need to think about actively when designing; it’ll happen automatically. But when you’re going a layer deeper, this might be exactly the thing to think about: What is the learning path, what would players pick up first, what later? Is there an entry level that’s interesting enough to get to the deeper stuff? Is there deep stuff that keeps the game interesting for a long period?

Indirectly this also answers why I love writing this blog so much: I’m learning – not about any given board game, but about board game design. I hope you’re enjoying your learning as well! 🙂

Further readin

A while back I wrote about the different ways in which learning a board game can be enjoyed: The joys of learning board games

And perhaps you’d be interested in creating something that requires different skills to be learned? 12 Skills you can design board games around

About the author

Bastiaan_smallHi, I’m Bastiaan. The goal of this blog is to learn about game design. That’s hopefully for you as the reader, but just as much for me as the writer.

Help me to learn (because hey, it’s fun!)? Leave a comment (below) or connect with me on Twitter? You can also subscribe to this blog (see the sidebar) or like it on Facebook, to get updates when I write them.

And perhaps you know of others interested in learning? Share this post using the buttons below:

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