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

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.

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, Mechanics

End of the line folks, time to start a new game!
All things must end, including (or especially!) board games. Imagine a game that just won’t stop (Monopoly? Risk?), it’s just not fun anymore after the 3th hour…

There are a number of common ways for games to end, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. In this post I want to take a look at different ending conditions for board games and how to use them in game design.

Between ending and winning

Ending a game and winning it does not need to be the same. Citadels ends when a player has built an 8th building. The winner however is the player who has gathered the most points during play, which need not be the same player! Alternatively, in Catan the player who first scores 10 points both wins and ends the game.

Ending the game when someone has won (like Catan) makes it very clear what you’re striving towards and how far or close everybody is to that. I’d say that in general this is the simpler option and thus worthwhile for lighter weight games.

There are however good reasons to pull winning and ending apart. For one it can keep the game tense for much longer, especially if part of the winning condition is hidden. In a game of Monopoly it’s generally clear who’s going to win well before someone actually does, making the latter part of the game far less fun for everybody involved. In a game of Terra Mystica on the other hand there are a lot of points only scored at the very end, meaning that you never know who will be the final winner. This tends to keep players involved much more, even if they’re not doing stellarly.

Determining the winner after the game has ended can obscure why someone won. Especially in a “point salad” game (a game where many different actions give you some victory points), it can be hard to determine which actions were a great idea and which ones were not so much. This can be good, as it makes the replay value of your game higher (“I’m not sure if it was my overall strategy or my great tactics that won me the game… Let’s play again to find out!”), but it can also leave people dissatisfied as there might not be a clear way of improving their play.

5 ways of ending a game

Having made the distinction between ending and winning a game, let’s look at some “traditional” ways of ending board games.

1. Set in stone

That’s one stone per round
Terra Mystica and Smallworld each have a given number of rounds and after those rounds are over, the game ends.

Similarly, Chess is generally played with a clock and if time runs out then the game ends (though it can also end earlier).

This is probably the simplest way of ending a game. Everybody knows exactly what is going to happen and they can plan accordingly.

A result of this is that players will tend to play differently in what they know is the last turn: No more investing, grab all those last-minute points!

2. The race

In Catan you’re in a race against the other players: Get to 10 points first. It doesn’t matter if the next round someone else would’ve gotten to 11 points (or 20), the game ends once a pre-set condition is met by a single player.

Similarly, Lewis & Clark is a literal racing game, in that you’re trying to be the first to get to the end of the board.

Racing games show clearly the progression of everybody and thus it’s easy to gauge how far you are from ending the game. There is however some uncertainty, as you can’t know for certain whether your opponent won’t pull a trick out of their sleeve and end the game early, or whether your perfect plan to end this turn gets thwarted and it’ll take you another go to get there.

As a result players will generally start playing differently towards the end of the game, but there is no clear cut-off when behavior changes. This depends on the estimates of each player on how much time they have left. As such it can create a “smoother” experience in that there are no sudden changes in the behavior over the course of the game.

3. The kill

In Monopoly and Captain Sonar you end the game when the other players (or team) is defeated. This generally means taking away certain resources (money for Monopoly, life for Captain Sonar).

Especially in multiplayer games “killing” someone isn’t much fun, as it means that they are no longer allowed to actively participate in the game. For two player games however this isn’t a problem because as soon as one player is out, the game ends for everybody.

“Killing” generally means very confrontational play: You’re directly trying to diminish the other player(s). Not every player is comfortable with these kinds of actions. However, it is also possible to “kill” in a more passive-aggressive way; in Monopoly you never directly “attack” your opponent, it is through their own “actions” (or the roll of the dice) that they are depleted of money.

Ending the game through player elimination can create huge swings in playing time, especially if there are multiple players present: There will be a tendency to “gang up” on whomever is perceived to be winning. The amount of player interaction then determines how successful this is.

4. Too much or too little

One more line and this game is over!
In Pandemic you lose the game if you run out of cards in the deck, if you run out of disease cubes or if the “outbreak” marker gets to the end of the track.

All of these are examples of having too much or too little of something.

This type of game end condition is especially prevalent in cooperative games, though it exists in player-vs-player games as well: In Bohnanza the game ends after running out of cards in the deck for the third time.

This is a very versatile mechanism to end the game with, as it allows for many different variant. How much do players have influence on whatever it is that is ticking towards the end? In Pandemic players very actively try not to get outbreaks, so there is a strong influence on that game end condition. Running out of cards however is only a function of the number of turns taken and thus players really have no control over it.

When players have a lot of control, the length of a game might swing quite a bit, as it depends on how well they are able exercise their control whether the end is triggered. If however there is limited control, game length is much more fixed.

5. The mission

In Risk players get a card telling them what they need to do to win the game: Control 24 area’s, control 3 continents, etc.

The result is that the game can end very suddenly: A player declares they have achieved their objective and the game is over. On the one hand this can create an interesting tension, on the other it can also leave players frustrated as they did not get to anticipate the end of the game. As such, care should be taken when using this mechanic.

However, it is generally hard to fulfill an objective, without signaling in advance that this is your objective and thus other players can anticipate the end of the game to a certain extent.

Using (hidden) objectives also creates an element of bluffing into the game. It can be a wise tactic to go for things that are not directly related to your objective so that other players will try to stop you from doing things you don’t really care about, while giving you free reign to do the things you do care about.

In modern versions of Risk players get multiple objectives and they show them when they are completed. This then gives a sense of progress towards the end: If a player has no objectives finished then they are unlike to be able to end the game any time soon, but if a player just needs a single one, it’s good to start preparing for the finish.

Technically this a version of the “race”, in that each player is racing to complete their own objective(s). However, in “standard” racing games all players are heading towards the same finish and it’s generally known how close they are to it.

Personally I would love to see more games that incorporated this mechanic to end the game. Perhaps something for my own next game…?

Closing thoughts

I’ve found that so far in my designs I never paid really a lot of attention to my end-game conditions. They sortof just “happened”. Which is not to say I never changed them around, but I did it without a lot of thought on what I was trying to achieve. I hope that for the future I can be a bit more direct in this.

And it would be interesting to design something around a specific game ender. As mentioned, I would love to see more around achieving certain “objectives”

Did you ever have specific considerations when designing the end of your game? What were your thoughts?

Further reading

I wrote a previous article about games ending, but that focused on the limited lifespan of any kind of resource: Resources are temporary

This also links to another post: The time-value of resources

And it seems that the awesome people over at Games Precipice had similar ideas, because here is their article on end conditions (I haven’t read it, but knowing their previous work I’m happy to endorse them unread)

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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