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

Balanced to death

Maybe if I move the one stone just a few millimeters to the left?
A bit back I wrote about having gone to a convention to play test Los Buenos. I came back with a lot of compliments and also a lot of things that could be improved upon further. In the past few weeks I’ve been hacking away at these issues, while uncovering a few more.

Recently I was able to play a test game with my family. And lo-and-behold! All of the issues I’d identified were gone!

Except…

The game wasn’t fun anymore…(!)

In this post I want to do a post-mortem of the current state of the game. To see what went “wrong”, how I got there and to find steps to go forward.

This will go in-depth in some of the mechanics of the game. I’m not going to give all the rules, but for a very short overview of Los Buenos: It’s a worker placement game where after an earthquake you’re cleaning up and rebuilding a village. The goal is to do “as much good as possible”, which is expressed to gaining karma points whenever you do something that helps an opponent (e.g. cleaning up a destroyed building so that space becomes available to build on, or placing workers on an opponent’s building plan so you help them construct it). I hope this helps to grasp my descriptions of the game. If it’s still unclear, let me know?

The first diagnosis

Would there be a living to be made as a “board game doctor”?
As mentioned I found a number of elements that weren’t working perfectly in the game:

The biggest problem was that first round tended to play out in exactly the same way: The first player would distribute building plans (so they could have the “best” choice of building, while also gaining karma from other players taking one (they “helped” another player to get a plan, so they get karma!)), then the second would distribute money or wood (whichever they needed the most, while gaining karma from others taking some as well) and the third player would do wood or money (whichever of the two was left).

Now, this wasn’t an issue for most people who played the game for the first time. It gives some advantage to being an earlier player, but that can be reasonably be offset in later turns. However, when playing multiple times, it becomes glaringly obvious that you’re doing the same thing over and over.

Another problem was that in the last round sometimes there wasn’t much to do. There might not be any empty spaces to start a new building, or there were no resources to construct buildings with. Players would find something to do (though I’ve had it as well that a player couldn’t use all of their workers), but it regularly felt more like a scramble for a final few points than being actively constructive.

As a final but minor issue I wanted to make it a viable strategy to never construct any of your own buildings, but to win by gaining karma from helping others only.

Taking the medicine

Should I give my game the blue pill or the red pill?
I experimented with potential solutions to the problems above.

Tackling the last one first, I was able to balance things in such a way that “helping” became as powerful as “building”. This was done by reducing the number of karma points that a building gave to its owner to the be very similar to the number of points you could get when helping to build that building.

The other two problems were mostly solved by changing the way things got finished. Initially, finishing buildings and cleanup were done in at the end of the round. This was the moment when players got their karma, where a new building became available (to be used in subsequent turns) and (most importantly) where new resources (wood and money) became available through salvage (cleaning up of destroyed buildings).

I changed this so that whenever the work was done (all required workers were placed), something was finished. Especially for the “cleanup” this made a big difference: Resources and empty spaces (to build on) now became available throughout the round, instead of in a big bang at the end. This greatly reduced the power of the “distribute plans”, “distribute wood” and “distribute money” actions; as soon as some resources became available, some player would usually distribute them (taking most themselves). This would still benefit them, but it did mean there wasn’t the additional karma gained from helping other players get resources.

This also meant that during the final round it was much easier to make resources available and thus that it was fully possible to finish (or even start and finish) a building project.

To solve the issue of the stale first round one more ingredient was needed. The “distribute plans”, “distribute wood” and “distribute money” actions were not immediately available. Instead they needed to be “constructed” like any other kind of building. The first round was (mostly) spent on constructing these starting-action buildings, meaning that it became somewhat random when the actions became available and also how powerful they were at that moment. The result: the first turn played out differently every time!

Side effects worse than the disease?

“The operation was successful. Unfortunately your game is now being eaten by aliens!”
We played a game and all of the original issues were gone!

But the game lost its fun.

To use a quote: “It feels that it doesn’t matter which actions I take, they all give the same result in karma points.”

And this was true. Every action was give-or-take equally powerful. Only through consistently doing a tiny bit better than the others could you scrape together a meager few more karma points than the others.

The balance between different options had become too good. There were no more “stand-out” actions. Or to use the ideas from this post: Nothing made an impact anymore!

And that made for bland and boring gameplay.

What worked before the pills

Before making the changes there were some buildings that were somewhat better than others. Not incredibly much so, but still by a bit. This meant that there was an incentive to go for them. To want them instead of others. Creating excitement when you got them instead of something else. Creating tension on who would be able to grab what.

There were also awesome moves to make: Distributing wood and taking it all! Or giving it all away, earning a whopping 3 karma points with just a single worker (most actions get you in the order of 1 point). This was mostly possible because of the end-of-round finishing of things. There was stuff that was happening this round which set up a lot of possibilities for the next round. Because only in that next round could you make use of all the spaces and resources made available!

More injections or different injections?

I don’t like needles, so here is a picture of some cute bunnies instead
In solving one set of problems I created another set.

The choice now is whether I want to continue with what I have and solve the new stuff, or whether it makes more sense to go back to a previous version and try to solve the original problems but in a different way.

What’s the right way forward?

I feel that the answer to this one is actually quite simple. Previous problems were about solving important but in the end minor problems (similar first rounds, uninspiring last rounds). While my current problem is that the game has lost its fun!

Issues can be overlooked, as long as the game is enjoyable!

So, I’m going back to a previous version and I’ll try to solve my problems in a different way.

Thoughts on new treatments

The biggest issue that I had was that the first round always was the same. One way of fixing this is “skipping the first round”.

Generally in the first round people would work to get a project and to get the resources for them. Perhaps I can start them out with a project and the resources required. Or even better, start with projects that don’t require resources?

This is thematically somewhat less satisfying, but I think I can make a twist on the story that works. And while I think thematic embedding is very important, I do think fun should trump it!

For the last round having nothing to do, I believe that it would be possible to simply ignore this problem (no solution is also a solution!) but I do want to give it further thought. One option is to have some ways of generating resources throughout the game (there is already something in it to do that – perhaps it could be strengthened?).

A more important issue might be not having any empty spaces available to build on. This could be solved by creating a stronger incentive to create empty spaces? Simply giving out more karma points would probably work, but that might create other balancing issues (I don’t players to start the game with cleaning up all the available spaces either!). I’m sure that there is some intermediate solution that could be found for this, with a bit more thinking!

Strengthening the patient even further

I see a lot of potential!
This time at the “intensive care” has given me time to think about what is important in a game. I want to give more thought to “creating impact” in the game, to ensure that players can have “awesome turns” (while at the same time ensuring that these do not mean a complete win of the game).

This could be done by making things less balanced. More difference between buildings to be built. Giving a decent chance of having a lot of resources to spread so that the “distribute” actions become very cool when pulled off right.

I also think it would be good to give some thought about adding more strategy to the game. It’s now very “tactical”; players are trying to optimize each turn, without thinking ahead too much about how it will all come together. Luckily I already wrote something about general board game strategies some time ago. Perhaps I can make use of some earlier insights? 🙂

One way could be to have a mild form of “set collection” in the game, where you gain additional points based on what kind of buildings you’ve built. Another option is to do more with the location of buildings (relative to each other), so that players care more about what they are building where: Houses built next to each other gain additional points, but houses next to a workplace lose a point?

A final option is to add some sort of “objective”; hidden information on something that would score a player further points (this is inspired by this post on the different endings of board games).

And perhaps I’ll come up with some other ideas as well when pondering this further.

Closing thoughts

After playing the last test I felt down. It sucks to solve your problems only to create bigger ones in their place!

Now, with a bit of reflection, I’m already feeling a lot better. Set-backs happen. And in the bigger scheme of things, this really is a minor one.

In fact, some really good stuff might come from this. I hope I’ll be able to really strengthen the game where it comes to creating impactful turns and by injecting some strategy into it. Had these issues not come to the fore, I might never have thought about that!

What are your memorable set-backs?
How did you take them?
What did you learn from them?
And most importantly, what did they do to your game in the end?

Finally: If you have any brilliant ideas or solutions to my specific problem, I would love to hear about them! Leave me a comment or use one of the other ways of contacting me below?

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.

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16 Comments

  1. Off the cuff, I can’t help but wonder if there’s a way to add some zero-sum stuff into the game. We’re not all unselfish, altruistic people… Perhaps some actions (think stealing from a store) reduce karma but give us the materials we need to rebuild something… Some actions might require doing something at the same time as another player – we both do it, we both score, but if one doesn’t, then no one does. A little Prisoner’s Dilemma sort of thing.

    Each player could also represent a different facet of society – the superintendent at the schools who scores VP for getting the schools up and running. The cops, who score VP if the ‘looting’ track is below X. The mayor, who scores VP if X buildings are finished by round Y…

    Reply
    1. BastiaanReinink Author

      Hi Chris,

      Thanks for the suggestions.

      I like the idea of the prisoner’s dilemma. There is already a bit of something similar in it (do I use my workers to help you or help myself?), but might be interesting to look into that further. I don’t see how that solves my immediate problem of having a “set” first round…

      And the different facets of society would be interesting as well, it would make for a very natural way to add some end-game scoring, which is something I’ve been considering. Thanks!

      Reply
  2. The last round should be a time of big moves that generate a lot of points, rather than scratting around just getting one or two extra points — it’s the last chance to truly change the outcome of the game!
    Is it possible to have some buildings that need insane quantities of resources, or precursor buildings, or whatever, that are therefore only available later in the game? Or perhaps some buildings give resource discounts so that previously-unimaginable constructions can finally be laid…?
    Or maybe, the last round is the last chance to gain bonus points for “built most buildings” or “gave away most wood” or whatever, that conveys a decent sum of bonus points.

    Reply
    1. BastiaanReinink Author

      This is my problem exactly, the last round should feel like the grand finale, not everybody starting to clean up after the party (if you’ll forgive me mixing my metaphors 🙂 ).

      I’m thinking about making more variety in buildings. However, the more “insane” a building is, the more turns it’ll take to finish. Of course -just- finishing a building (or -just not- finishing that building) can give a lot of tension. Currently buildings come from the deck randomly, meaning that if you get a really expensive building in the last round, you wouldn’t possibly be able to finish it.

      Though maybe some form of scale-up would be possible there? If resources become easier to come by… And there are more workers to go around…? Something to consider at least!

      And the game-end bonuses for having done XYZ are a good idea as well, thanks!

      Reply
      1. You can always implement “eras” where more expensive or more powerful buildings only become available later in the game. Or take Splendour’s route, and have tiers of buildings available at all times but where the expensive ones are segregated from the main draw.

        Reply
        1. BastiaanReinink Author

          That’s a good suggestion. I’d toyed with it but haven’t gotten round to actually testing something like that out. The game is short (6 rounds on average), meaning that the “newer” buildings would have to become available fairly quickly. But, that might be doable fairly easily actually…

          And I had not considered the “Splendor” method, where different cards are available but “out of reach” in the beginning. Thanks!

          Reply
  3. (I myself went through many revisions of my wild-west themed worker placement game in order to try and make every possible building a player might choose seem awesome, to avoid this problem of bland incremental improvements.)

    Reply
      1. No, it doesn’t — there is actually a difference between “meh, everything is a bit crap but I guess I’d better do something” and “all these cards are great! I’m spoiled for choice!”.

        Mechanistically, investing in small rewards is a positive feedback loop that accelerates far more slowly than investing in big rewards that can be plowed back into your engine. So when “everything is awesome” then players can make larger investments later that were initially unreachable.

        Go West is not perfect – I still need to make the buildings that are available in the final even more powerful because the players only get a couple of turns to operate them. But the final couple of rounds are generally fairly high-scoring, which is what I was aiming for.

        Reply
        1. BastiaanReinink Author

          That’s a very good point actually… You want players to be spoiled for choice: I want all of these, but I can only get one…
          So, more awesome in my game!

          And good luck with continuing your development on Go West. Looking forward to hearing more about it!

          Reply
  4. Brad Steffen

    Hi there!
    Thank you for these articles. I enjoy seeing how other designers think.

    For the first turn problem, what about a random draw of cards that provide an initial building and a significantly mis-matched set of resources that cannot build that building (too little of one and too much of another). This would incent player interaction right from the start.

    Also, have you seen the worker placement and recall method in Energy Empire? A similar mechanic could be used for asymmetric harvesting of resources. The player could then either keep their harvested resources for themself or use a worker to take some to the community supply to sell for Karma.

    Perhaps the community supply is segregated by player and for each resource taken from a player’s store they receive a Karma point? This would allow the players to control how many Karma points they distribute to other players.

    Regarding balance between building and distributing resources, buildings should provide less Karma than the resources it takes to build them. However, buildings generate resources so there is still a reason to build. Perhaps only some buildings add to Karma when built?

    Hope that helps…

    Reply
    1. BastiaanReinink Author

      Thanks for the tips. I’m now trying giving players a choice of buildings and giving very limited initial resources. They can then choose to go for an awesome building (but won’t be able to start it in the first turn, due to lack of resource), or go for something simple that they can start immediately.

      The “harvesting and returning to the pool for karma” is in fact already in the game, though I didn’t know that was in Energy Empire as well. I’ll check that out, thanks 🙂

      Reply
      1. Brad Steffen

        The innovation in Energy Empire was to have the “recall your workers” turn actually create resources for your next placement turn. It both makes the “recall your workers” action feel like less of a waste of time and makes it an option that a player may elect to do early.

        And thank you for your personal response. Not everyone does that on the Internet.

        Reply
        1. BastiaanReinink Author

          Thanks for the further explanation, sounds interesting!

          And this blog is very much for my own learning, so I feel very happy when people reply / help me. Least I can do is send something back, right? 🙂

          Reply
  5. Sean

    Have you considered that each player character has different skill sets, or represents different organisations with different benefits, so skill in accomplishing something aids them or others & having unbalanced karma – maybe it makes sense to keep the wood because you have a better carpenter but that means someone can’t finish a building needed by everyone even though you will gain more karma later when you finish your high quality timber building?

    Reply
    1. BastiaanReinink Author

      Hi Sean,

      I have actually considered that. It would be an interesting addition to the game. For now I’ve decided against adding it in though, because it also further complicates the game. I’m trying to keep it as “light” as possible for the time being. However, this might in fact be (another) way of breaking the “over-balanced” issue, so perhaps I could experiment with it for a bit as well. Thanks!

      Reply

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