This is the essential question in any board game. Given the current state of the board, whatever information I gleaned from my opponents, the strategy I thought would be good at the beginning of the game, what right now is the optimal choice?
And it’s that uncertainty that plays a big part in the enjoyment of games.
Uncertainty as driver of interesting decisions
You don’t need to ask a question if you know what the answer is (unless you’re one of those people…). Likewise, if it’s clear what to do, you don’t need to ponder what your next step should be. If you have no options or if there is one clearly superior choice, there is no real need for a decision.
And if there is no need for a decision, there certainly can’t be an interesting decision.
Thus, there needs to be uncertainty: What option is best? What will get me most in the long run? And in the short run? What is most important right now? And how will my opponents respond?
Not knowing the right answer is what makes a choice interesting.
You see the side-kick walking to the edge of the cliff and as the camera pans down we see the hero hanging by her fingernails. The side-kick reaches down and pulls the hero up…
Not particularly interesting, is it? At no point do you feel that there is actual trouble. Sure, hanging from your fingernails isn’t nice, but help is right there!
To be at the edge of our seats we need to worry, to hope for a miraculous safe. We need to be uncertain of what is going to happen.
This also holds in games. If you roll a die but it doesn’t matter whether it comes up one or six you’re not going to care about that roll. But if a one means total annihilation and a six is complete victory then you’ll be eyeing what pips come up like a hawk!
It is uncertainty about the outcomes (of a roll, an action, the entire game) that pulls in your players and creates the most important feeling in board games: Wanting to know what happens next.
“Upgrade my production and go for that huge end-game scoring, or ignore upgrading and take a few points every turn?
There are board-games that rely solely on tactics: Finding the best play for this turn and not really caring about the next. Most games however have at least some sense of strategy: A path you chose and that you follow for the rest (or part of) the game and where you make choices to maximize the outcome of that path.
Interesting games allow multiple strategies to victory.
In this post I want to look into “general” strategies, ones that can be found in a plethora of games.
The goal of this is to help you as a board-game designer incorporate (more) strategies that are relevant and interesting in your board-game. Hopefully it will even serve as inspiration to even more strategies that are not mentioned here (if you do find any, do let me know?!)
What is a strategy?
A strategy in the context of board-games is a high-level choice on how you will (could) play (a part of) the game. This choice is then “executed” through all of the moves you make whilst actually playing the game.
A strategy can be for the entire game (“I’ll do everything to maximize bonus scoring at the end of each round”), or only for part (“I’ll first increase my number of workers, then I’ll see what I can do”).
Strategies can be stand-alone or overlapping (“I’ll increase my workers so that I have lots of actions and I’ll also go for everything that gives a bonus for many workers”).
It’s possible to start a game with a strategy in mind, or to have it form during the game (“I seem to have gotten more workers than anybody else, how about I capitalize on that?”)
General strategies in board-games
In the following sub-sections I’ll describe a number of “general” strategies for board-games. These should be possible for many different (types of) games, but certainly not for all!
If you have more stuff than the opponent then eventually you will kick their ass.
The core of this strategy is to increase the amount of resources available to you (whatever they might be in the game – see this post on resources in board-games for more). Resources give options and generally with more options you have more flexibility, either to thwart your opponent or to orchestrate your own victory.
Resource optimization works well with “synergy” strategies, discussed below.
“Control” strategies can be an effective counter to this strategy.
Action maximization is a specific form of resource optimization – specifically, you are optimization the number of actions you can take in a turn.
Worker placement games are the poster child for action-based games. In many worker placement games increasing the number of workers is a very effective strategy as each worker should pay for itself, with a bit to spare.
“Actions” are one of the most general resources that you can have, as they can generally be converted into anything.
In Agricola it’s generally a good idea to work towards increasing your family size as quickly as possible as those extra actions are game winners.
In a synergy strategy you try to find combinations of resources (cards, board spaces, tiles, tokens, etc.) that when combined give an effect that is greater than the sum of the parts.
The first version of “synergy” is the “combo”: Two or more effects that when combined produce something that is stronger than the two effects taken separately.
A combo can be very simple and obvious (“3 points for every worker” + “Get an additional worker” is a simple yet effective combo), or it can be deep and intricate.
Combos are generally associated with a certain level of randomness of “getting” the combo. For example in a deck-building game you can have the right cards in your deck but chance still needs to get them into your hand at the same time. When getting combinations is less random it usually becomes a case of engine-building (see below).
Dominion allows for many card combinations that give strong effects together; a deck built of Villages and Smithies will allow you to draw your entire deck almost every turn.
An engine is a “consistent combo”, a combination of game elements that allow the player to increase (certain) resources with regularity.
In many so-called “Euro” games, the building of your engine is the most important aspect of the game.
Engines need time to start paying back sufficiently to “pay back” the resources they cost to set up initially. They are sometimes also susceptible to “disruption” in the form of another player taking control of a required resource (see the “control” strategies below).
Powergrid is an exercise in building an engine, where combining elements gives more money, which then can be used to buy more power plants, connections, etc.
Risk – reward
Many games have randomness incorporated, meaning that there are risks to be taken. This can be from hoping to draw the right card at the right moment, to full blown “gambling” games.
There is a skill in assessing possibilities, but taking risks in itself is not something you are skilled at or not. As such a game where the only difference in strategies is based on levels of risk taking will have a winner determined by luck, not ability.
High risk – high reward
Wherever there is randomness there is risk. And where there is risk, there should be a reward. One strategy then can be to take high risks, in the hopes for high rewards.
By its very nature this is a strategy that is far from certain to pay off; it can leave the player far behind without much chance of recovering.
On the other hand, taking extra risk can allow a player that is just a bit behind take the lead (but get even further behind as well of course).
Poker is a good example of a game that allows for both high and low risk strategies: Only play on a great hand, forgoing many plays, or bluff with a hand full of garbage.
Low risk – low reward
The opposite of the high risk – high reward is the low risk – low reward strategy. Here you try to keep variance down to a minimum, instead opting to score a limited but certain number of points every turn, making sure nothing goes wrong, whilst hoping that the opponent makes a mistake or runs out of luck.
A final broad strategy is by “taking control”. It is about denying your opponent(s) choices or forcing them go down a path they’re not particularly interested in going in.
Player elimination is frowned upon in modern gaming, but it is still present in some games. “Killing” the opponent is the ultimate way of controlling them; out of the game means no options at all.
Even if it’s not possible (or desired) to completely eliminate a player, bringing them enough to their knees can mean that you don’t need to worry about them for the rest of the game.
Being the one brought low however is not a very satisfying experience – there is a reason many games nowadays shy away from player elimination. Be careful when this is a viable strategy in your board-game!
In Risk players can attack each other, to the point of extinction. Many missions however don’t call for the full elimination of a player, but bringing a neighbor down can certainly make your life easier.
By going on the offensive I can force my opponent to defend herself, even though she would much rather be building up her engine.
Taking offensive action means that your opponent is limited in choices – defense has has to come first. This can result in an interesting cat-and-mouse game, where the offensive player needs to try to keep the other on the defense (and thus is limited himself as well!) while the defensive player tries to break through and gain back the initiative.
Continuously checking the king in Chess forces the opponent to do something about it, severely limiting what moves they take.
This can be a particularly effective strategy against engines and combos, as they generally spend the early game setting up (and not working towards “victory”), leaving them with few points when that early end is triggered.
Citadels generally takes a fair number of turns. It’s however possible to build only cheap buildings, finishing the game well before anybody else is close to 8 buildings, winning on bonus points.
If you are able to gain control over one or more of the essential resources (a monopoly) then the opponent is forced to deal with you to get what she needs, or find alternative (and probably expensive) means.
An example comes from the game of Monopoly, where it’s a viable strategy to build as many houses as possible and never upgrade to hotels, denying opponents the use of houses (and subsequent upgrades to hotels).
There are board-games without strategy. In Bohnanza or Carcasonne you are so dependent on what cards / tiles come up that it’s generally only possible to react tactically. Thus, it’s not necessary to have strategies in your game.
For longer games however allowing for multiple strategies significantly increases the space of things that players can explore and with that the replay value. In a good game each strategy is worth investigating and perfecting, meaning that many games need to be played before it is shelved.
In the sections above I’ve tried to give a number of possible high-level strategies. Not every game needs all of these, in fact I would strongly recommend against trying to incorporate them all. But the list can serve as inspiration for what you could try to incorporate.
It is also not the case that each high-level strategy can be implemented only once. There are multiple ways to creating synergy between your game elements. A monopoly can be acquired on any resource. And with multiple ways of ending the game, there are multiple possibilities to rush.
The best strategy for learning is by asking for feedback, s, let me know in the comments or on Twitter if you agree or where you think I completely missed the point?!
Hi, 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.
The other day I was at the London Playtest Meetup, having just finished a test-game of Voluntarios. One of the players was pretty positive, but the other had this pensive look on his face: “It’s really hard to put my finger on it, but something is missing…”
This echoed my own feelings, so we discussed further, trying to find out what that “it” was. And after a few minutes we got it:
There were no interesting decisions that needed to be made!
In the game you pick a project and though they are cosmetically all different, they’re all fundamentally the same. And you’d have to gather resources, but one way or another, you’d get what you need. Sure, you could do things more or less efficient, but that was about it…
This of course is a very serious design flaw and so it needs to be fixed. But how?!?
Time to think deeply about what “interesting choices” in board-games are.
What is not interesting
To start out, let’s look at what are choices that are not interesting to make.
The obvious choice
You could have a hundred choices, but if one of them is so obviously the best one, then the other 99 might as well not exist.
In Voluntarios you lose points for having resources left at the end of a round. This means that spending any leftover resources becomes very obvious, even if it doesn’t gain you anything. You could not spend them, but that would just be silly.
“I can take that wood now, or I can take it later.”
Technically this is a choice, but the result of the two options is exactly the same and thus it is not an interesting choice.
Stated as above it’s pretty clear that this is not an interesting choice, but what I’ve found in Voluntarios that such a non-choice can be hidden somewhat: “I can take the wood now, but then Sarah will take the coins so I’ll have to pay in reputation to get my coin. Or I could take the coin now, but most likely Max will have grabbed the last wood, so I’m down some reputation to get that…” Again the result is exactly the same, but you’ve done quite some mental work to figure that out. Brainpower wasted (analysis paralysis!), without any real gain.
Another example of this is the Voluntarios projects mentioned, which do not fundamentally differ from each other.
The scripted choice
One choice can lead to others that you have to make.
In Voluntarios you pick a project and then you have to gather the resources to finish that project. Get that wood, or you’re simply not progressing (or worse, moving backwards). The one choice (of project) very much dictates which further choices you will be making.
In the above there are some examples of what are not interesting choices.
What do all of these have in common?
They are all easy choices to make!
That is not to say there is not a lot of thinking done before: You need to analyze what the impact of each choice is. But once that impact is done, it’s clear which choice you should make. It’s the obvious one. Or the scripted one. Or it doesn’t matter because all options give the same result.
This should make it clear what makes for an interesting choice: One that is hard!