Board game design, Fun, Learning from Existing Board Games, Los Buenos

This is the amount of not-fun I’m talking about!
In my previous post I mentioned I had “balanced my game to death”: In solving some technical issues, I drained all the fun out of it. I got some very interesting and useful reactions to that post and I’m happy to say that Los Buenos is back on track!

All of this did get me thinking: How is it possible to make a few (minor!) changes to a game and suddenly have it not be fun anymore?!

In this post I want to look at some games that I don’t think are fun (feel free to disagree, but please don’t try to convince me, I’ve got my mind made up!). From that I want to distill elements that make a game be not fun and then flip those around to be able to actively design for fun.

Not fun: (The previous version of) Los Buenos

When working on Los Buenos I wanted it “balanced”, without really giving much thought to what exactly that entailed. I had some vague feelings; something about different strategies all affording a similar win chance.

What I did (in hindsight of course!) was make every choice similar-ish. No matter what you did, the results would always be more-or-less the same (in karma (=victory) points). And players were left with an unsatisfied feeling of having done a lot, but not having played.

Not fun: Haunted house on the hill

Haunted house on the hill consists of two phases. In the first you’re exploring a house, in the second something or someone turns against (part of) the group and needs to be defeated.

I absolutely love the idea of this game! But I never enjoy actually playing it…

In the beginning you’re “exploring”, but there is no goal to it (except to trigger the second part). Any actions you take could work in your favor, but there is an (almost?) equal chance of them working against you.

Then when the second phase is triggered there is generally a huge discrepancy in power between the group and the “bad thing” (with either of these two ending up with much more power).

The result is that in the first part choices are random: You cannot predict what their consequences are and thus it doesn’t matter which choice you take.

In the second part the huge discrepancy in power means that you’re either going through the motions of winning, or going through the motions of losing, without much influence on the end result.

Not fun: Tic-tac-toe

“Draw in 6 moves!”
If you’re older than 7 years old a game of tic-tac-toe is finished before it starts. No matter what move you make, it’s perfectly clear what the opponent should do to ensure that you don’t get your 3-in-a-line. And likewise, you’ll be doing the same with them, meaning that any game of tic-tac-toe will end in a draw.

It matters which choice you make, but only in that it prevents you from losing.

And, it’s immediately clear what that choice should be.

Not fun: Risk & Munchkin

Risk and Munchkin suffer from the same problem: They can be interminable. This is because as soon as someone starts winning, the other players will gang-up to prevent exactly that. And thus the game will go back and forth, coming through a conclusion only because of luck, stupidity or people getting so bored they want to lose.

During a game your choices matter, but at some point the majority of those choices are geared towards not losing, through bringing down the player that is in the lead.

Not fun: Monopoly

Did I lose yet?!
Monopoly has the same ailment as Risk and Munchkin, in that it can take a very long time, but it has another big issue: It is extremely luck-driven. How you roll in the early game determines whether you can buy a lot of good locations. Then how you roll in the later game determines whether you end up on a lot of bad locations.

There are some low-level choices to be made: Buy something or not (but if you have the money, buy!). Mostly however the interesting “choice” is made by the dice: Where do you land and is this good or bad?

Drawing conclusions

Playing a board game consists of taking a series of choices. An essential part of the fun in a game then lies in making these choices interesting. In the previous paragraphs I’ve sketched some ways in which choices can be uninteresting. Let’s draw out some common themes.

No choice

If there is no choice, there is nothing to agonize over. In Monopoly it’s the dice that play the game, with the humans around the table only there to throw them and move pawns accordingly. Choices really are very limited: Buy or don’t, what to sell when you run out of cash. Who wants to be a robot that does what a bunch of dice tell them?

No consequences

A choice can be uninteresting is if there are no (real) consequences. This is what Los Buenos suffered from: No matter which action or string of actions you took, the results would be just about the same. And while at the surface players were doing lots of things, intuitively they felt very well that it was just “going through the motions”.

In a similar way the choices in the second half of Haunted house on the hill are uninteresting. There are “real” consequences if any player completely screws up, but if everybody plays halfway decent then it is very clear who is going to win. And thus any single choice of action really doesn’t matter to the outcome of the game.

Consequences can’t be foreseen

If you play like this, it’s probably your own fault…
In the first half of Haunted house on the hill there are consequences to what players do: They might get bonuses or suffer penalties. But which of the two it’s going to be is completely random. From a strategy point of view it makes just as much sense to stand still as it is to go exploring. And doing nothing is about as boring as it gets.

Consequences are too clear

In Tic-tac-toe the consequences of your choices are extremely clear. Make the wrong choice and you lose (almost immediately).

In a more complex way this is what ails Munchkin and Risk as well. At some point the “rational” way to play is to attack the strongest player; either you do that, or you lose the game.

The result of too-clear consequences is that agency is taken away from the player. If you can (perfectly) foresee what is going to happen then it is also (perfectly) clear what the right choice is. Meaning that basically there is no choice.

Flipping the negatives around

As a board game designer, the right tools are essential!
So now we have some idea of what not to do. How to translate this in something we should do, something actionable?

First: give players choices. A game is about agency, making changes. For that players have to have a way of influencing the game, which means they have to have different options of doing so.

Second: Make choices have consequences. When players take an option, something has to happen! The state of the game has to change, be it for better or worse. The more different those consequences are, the more interesting the choice is. “Take 1 wood or take 1 stone” is a choice with consequences (you then have either a wood or a stone), but “Build a factory or attack Sue” is a far more interesting choice, as the consequences affect the game in completely different ways.

Third: Make it clear what the consequences are. Players need to be able to look into the future, to see whether any given option will make things better or worse for them. Only then can they make meaningful choices and only then will they care about them. Thus: Be careful when you have randomness involved in the consequences of choices.

Fourth: Don’t make the consequences too clear. If it’s completely obvious what the long-term results of a choice are then there isn’t really a choice to be made. The important word here is “long term”. It’s perfectly ok to see what will happen immediately (“If I place my worker here, I’ll get 1 wood”), but it should be obscured what that means over multiple rounds. This can be done through other players’ actions (“Will Achmed take the second wood I need?”) or randomness (“I hope the ‘woodworker’ will come out next turn so I have a good use for my 1 wood”).

Bringing this all together, what you want your players to think when they’ve made their choice is: “I’m reasonably sure that this option will bring me closer to victory.”

Some ideas for creating interesting choices

As mentioned, having fundamentally different consequences to choices makes for interesting options. One way of doing this is by allowing very different strategies to emerge. The “choice of strategy” then becomes a very interesting (and important) choice in the game.

I also suggested that direct consequences can be clear immediately, but that the long term effects should be obscured. This will happen quite naturally for a lot of games (there will be choices by other players and most likely randomness as well), but it is also possible to design it in. One way of doing this is by having “end game bonuses”; for example the player with the most houses gets an additional 5 points. This way a choice early in the game (e.g. “build a house or build a factory”) will have a consequence that is guaranteed to only be shown at the end of the game.

The two options above can even be meshed together: “This game my strategy is to build as many houses as possible!”

Closing thoughts

Decisions, decisions!
This blog post ended up being mostly about “interesting choices”. That most certainly isn’t the only source of fun for board games, but it’s a very fundamental one!

Perhaps it would be interesting to look at games that are “not fun” in different ways as well? I think I covered most of the games I’ve tried that I didn’t enjoy, but perhaps with some digging I’ll come to other ones (we tend to push our traumas away? 🙂 )

What are games you think aren’t fun?
Why aren’t they?
Or perhaps you have a game that is the perfect example of fun?

Further reading

This post mostly went into “interesting choices”. I’ve written about this before, in the context of a previous version of Los Buenos (then still called “Voluntarios”). There I was also able to lose the fun, but that time by removing choice from the game. At least I’m not making the same mistake twice…?

Once a choice is made, you get to a phase of “waiting to see whether your choice actually worked out”. This is where tension in board games comes in.

I made mention of strategy as allowing for interesting choices. In this article I wrote down a number of general board game strategies.

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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Board game design, Learning from Existing Board Games

Introduction

Recently I had the joy of a weekend away with friends. In between sleeping late, hiking, great food and a beer or two, there was ample time to play games. And by far the biggest hit was “Evolution” (or specifically “Evolution – Climate”, which is the game with an expansion built in, though in this post I’m going to focus on the Evolution game, without the Climate expansion).

In this post I’ll do my best to dissect the game, trying to glean some insights as to why it’s such a good game (so that you can make yours equally great!).

Evolution in a nutshell

In Evolution you get a bunch of cards, with which you can create awesome animals with which you will compete in an ever-evolving ecosystem.

Cards can be discarded to start a new (“blank”) species, to increase population of a species or to increase body size. These cards can also be played to give your animals up to four “traits”: A long neck to get additional (plant) food, a hard shell or horns to protect against carnivores, or your species can become a carnivore itself so it can eat other animals. Finally, you have to discard a card to add (plant) food to the central food stockpile (called the watering hole).

Then it’s time to feed your animals. Herbivores eat from the watering hole and carnivores eat other animals. You decrease the population of your animal(s) if you can’t feed them (there are no more plants for your herbivores or all animals are protected against your carnivore) or when they get eaten by a carnivore. If the last animal of a species dies it goes extinct. But not to worry, you can start a new species!

Final scoring is for the amount of food your animals ate during the game, how much population you have left at the end of the game and how many traits your surviving species have.

Now that you have a basic understanding of the game, let’s delve into its brilliance!

The periphery

There are a few reasons that, though they aren’t central to the game, certainly help:

  • The game is relatively simple: There are only a handful of rules to remember and they’re all reasonably intuitive
  • The only real resource the game uses is cards, which are used in many capacities, lending the game a beautiful elegance
  • The cards are just beautiful to look at

The core

There are a number of elements that I believe are at the core of what makes Evolution such an enjoyable experience. The following paragraphs try to show these off.

Immersion

Evolution is very strong at immersing you in the game, making you care.

During the game you’re building a species: A pack-hunting, climbing, horned, carnivore or a burrowing, hibernating, migrating, long-necked herbivore? You take your pick! creating something gives a sense of “ownership”, which makes it much more likely that you’ll care about it.

This is enhanced by the fact that you’re creating a creature. We’ve all had a pet rabbit or gazed lovingly at an elephant in the zoo. There is something about animals that makes our human hearts skip a beat. Something that a city, civilization or farm just won’t do. The graphics on the cards help with this, turning any “mud-wallowing” (yes that’s a trait!) animal into a cute wart-hog and a “furry” animal into a great big ox.

These animals even act like (very stylized) versions of the real thing: They need to eat and they can breed, making them seem even more “real” to the mind’s eye.

And when the game has done everything it can to make you care about your make-belief animals, it does something wonderfully horrible: It kills them! Either because there just isn’t enough food, or because they become a tasty snack to another player’s carnivore. This creates a roller coaster of emotion from happy conception to tear-jerking death, helps to pull you even further into the game.

See this post for more on immersion through story telling.

Player interaction

Hey buddy, pall, friend… Wouldn’t you rather interact with someone else?
I love modern (Euro)games. But too often it feels like I’m playing on my own with people sitting nearby who only happen to be playing the same game.

Evolution has a healthy dose of player interaction: Which carnivore is preying on my cute bunny-like animal? What would be a good snack for my tiger-equivalent? Can my turtle get some food or is that lizard on the opposite side of the table going to grab the last vegetation?

Through this you’re constantly looking out for what your opponents are doing. It’s very figuratively a matter of eat-or-be-eaten.

And even if there is currently nothing that can touch my almost-dinosaur, I have to be acutely aware of what some player might evolve next turn: Can any carnivore grow large enough to eat it?

Obviously, getting your animals eaten by someone else isn’t good for your point total. Luckily it’s generally fairly doable to protect your animals, or at least make it costly for someone else to go after them. You might very well lose a bit of population, but getting an entire species eaten is generally more due to your own inattentiveness than what exactly your opponent does.

And of course, turn-around is fair game! Nothing is more fun than turning that cuddly prey-animal into a ferocious hunter itself!

The circle of life

Many games have a sense of buildup: Get resources to build something up so you can get more resources (rinse, wash, repeat). Mostly however this progression is either (almost) straight up (e.g. Agricola) or it’s a back-and-forth where my progress is your downfall (e.g. Risk).

In Evolution you’re definitely building things up (cool species, to be exact!). There is something very satisfying with creating the perfect killing machine or an animal that eats all available food before anybody else has the chance.

But there is a very real possibility of loss as well: Your apex predator can suddenly find itself going hungry as all prey has suddenly “evolved” powerful defenses against it. And one of your animals might go extinct, but it’s easy enough to create something new (and even more awesome!).

The result of this is that it’s never a case of “the winner keeps on winning”. No species is invulnerable for very long, the high will be brought low and the low will rise up. Possibly even multiple times in the same game.

Tension

Tense as a steel cable!
Is that carnivore coming after my cute little pig, or is my neighbor’s gecko a better bite? Will there be enough food to keep my species from losing half its population? Is that last prey animal my species can eat going to evolve the ability to climb so I can’t get at it?

Through a combination of never knowing what your opponents are going to do and some hidden information, there is a lot of tension in the game (see this post for more on tension in board games).

This partly overlaps with the paragraph about “immersion” about. Because you get so into the game, any threat is felt even more acutely. It’s not some abstract bits of wood and cardboard, it’s a magnificent species that might get wiped off the face of the earth (well, tabletop)!

Meaningful decisions

The amount of resources (see this post for more on resources in board games) you have available is very limited: You only get a few cards per turn. This means that you have to make those cards count! Increase population for additional points when feeding, but running the risk there might not be enough food? Increase body size to protect against predators? Start a new animal in the hopes that nobody will eat it straight away? Add further protective traits to your strongest animal? But which traits to give up?

And what’s nicest is that these choices are not made once, but every round again. A species is never “finished”; that great defense last turn might be a liability this turn. And where food was the limiting factor in the beginning of the game, maybe it’s all those pesky carnivores at the end. You’re constantly reacting and trying to foresee what the game (other players) are throwing at you.

An unfortunate choice might mean a wasted card, a significant loss of population or even the extinction of your species, so these choices matter!

And there are generally multiple ways of “solving” a problem. Predators roaming? Protect your species with traits, grow it too large to be eaten, breed it faster than it can be consumed, or have your own carnivore eat the other’s!

Lots of meaningful decisions to be made (see this post for more on meaningful decisions)!

Closing thoughts

Evolve, or you might end up as these guys
Evolution” certainly isn’t perfect. There is a bit of a learning curve for all of the different cards, it can be hard to keep track of exactly what all the other animals are capable of (especially with many players) and having a hand full of cards can lead to serious analysis-paralysis (see this post about how to reduce analysis-paralysis in your own game).

All of that doesn’t stop Evolution from being a great game! And it certainly doesn’t stop it from being a good example of how you can improve your own game.

Are you immersing the players in your game? Do they care about what it is they’re doing?

How do your players interact? Is your choice for multiplayer solitaire (or all-out war!) a deliberate one or just the easiest option? What do your players feel about their opponents at the end of the game?

What are the sources of tension in your game? Are they at the edge of their seats or looking at their phone most of the time?

Do players have meaningful decisions? Are there multiple choices that give distinctly different outcomes? Is there an always-best choice?

Good luck with your design endeavors!

Feedback please!

Wisdom evolves through discussion: I’m very open to your ideas and thoughts, let me know in the comments or on Twitter if you agree or where you think I completely missed the point?!


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 or connect with me on Twitter? You can also subscribe to this blog 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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