Board game design, Strategy

After a long time of just plodding along, Voluntarios, the game I’ve been working on, has moved forward in a big step. The core seems to work and I’m about ready to start on some serious balancing.

Before doing that I decided to take a step back and look at the game from a distance.

Got to love the deep strategy in this game (yes, that’s sarcasm)
Yes, the core works, it’s fun, there are interesting decisions, there is a reasonable amount of tension. But still there was something missing…

When playing Voluntarios you’re really trying to answer “What is the best move right now?”. The game is highly tactical, but it’s hardly strategical. That’s doesn’t need to be a problem, but if I could add strategy without making the game much more complex, that would certainly increase the replayability of the game (and thus its awesomeness!).

So I got digging into the idea of “strategy”. Join me to see how deep this rabbit hole goes?

What is strategy?

The first question to answer is “What is strategy?” or “What does it mean for a game to be strategical?”.

My first and intuitive answer would be that a game is strategic when it offers different (viable) paths to victory. An example of this would be Puerto Rico, where one viable strategy is to produce a lot of cheap stuff and ship it, while another is trying to get as much money as possible and get to the expensive point-producing buildings. These are two main strategies, with many variations on how to actually execute these.

In my mind this means that (once you know a game well) you can chose a strategy before the game begins and then follow that. Of course you’ll still need to make turn-by-turn (“tactical”) decisions while playing, but those should choices all be geared to execute your strategy as much as possible, given the state of the game.

But then what about Agricola? I’d say this is a fairly strategic game, in that there are medium term goals you’re trying to achieve, like building your food engine, getting the well or growing your family. But at the end of the game everybody generally achieved more-or-less the same. Everybody has multiple family members, a few animals, some professions, etc. In Agricola you don’t go in deciding “I’m going to have all my professions and win that way!”. Still, working towards medium-term or intermediate goals is strategic as well, isn’t it?

And how does Carcassone rank? I’ll put my tile here to start a new city which I can claim and then finish over the next few turns. Is it a strategy to start that new city?

The conclusion from the examples above would be that a “strategicalness” (is that a word? It is now!) comes in different time-frames, from long-term (over the entire game) to short-term (for the next round only)

What is strategy – take 2

Left, right or straight, what’s the best strategy?
Whilst working through this I posted a question on Reddit (see here for the discussion) and someone posted what I think is a great way of looking at strategy:

”Strategy emerges when players have different options later on in the game, based on decisions they made earlier in the game.”

You play the game, you make choices and because of that new choices become available. This fits all of the examples above, whether they are “long term” or “short term”.

I would add one thing to this though. It’s not only making different options available, but also making different options lucrative. By this I mean that a certain option can always be available, but whether it is a good option depends on earlier choices. As an example, in Agricola at some point the option to increase your family becomes available. After the card is flipped this option is always there, but whether it’s a good option for me very strongly depends on how much food I’m able to produce.

The summary is that any choice that changes how you would play the rest of the game is a strategic choice!

And thus a game that has many of such choices is high in strategy.

Why strategy at all?

Of course there are options for adding depth as well…
So we’ve more-or-less answered what strategy is. But there is a more fundamental question to be asked: Why do you need your game to be strategical at all?

In the introduction I already touched upon one reason: Because it adds replayability (“depth”) to a game.

A game that allows for multiple (viable) strategies remains interesting for much longer. On different plays you can try a new strategy and as you’re doing things differently (doing different things!), in a sense you’re playing a new game.

And of course you won’t perfect a strategy the first time around, so you’ll need a few games to really find out whether it works (and is better than some of the other strategies available).

The “longer term” a strategy is, the more the above holds. In Carcasonne I can try out the “roads” and “cities” strategies very easily in the same game and figure out that cities gives me more points. In Puerto Rico however the “big money” and “deliver cheap stuff” strategies really do require separate plays (and multiple of them!) before you can compare.

A second reason is that strategic and tactical options can clash, creating interesting decisions (see this post for more on interesting decisions): Go for the pile of wood which I can only take this turn but which I don’t need for my strategy, or strategically expand my family so I can produce more in the long run?

Third, strategic choices are generally harder to make than tactical ones (you need to “oversee” a lot more potential results), which makes a game more interesting for a fair amount of people (and will make them less interesting for people who prefer their games simpler).

Fourth, making strategic choices available makes that your game changes while playing it. ”Strategy emerges when players have different options later on in the game, based on decisions they made earlier in the game.” When we turn this around, making a strategic games gives players different options later in the game than they had in the beginning. This means that the game “refreshes”, that you’re not making basically the same choices over and over again.

Strategies and viable strategies

A game may have many choices that change how you play the game, but if they very obviously don’t help you to win the game, they might as well not be there. As an extreme example, it’s possible to “concede” on your first turn in a game of chess and it will make the game play out very differently than if you didn’t. Does that make it a “strategy”? Technically maybe, but not in any real sense!

A slightly less extreme example would be Catan. At a tactical level there are many choices (”Build my road here or there?”) and even for the short term there are “strategic” choices to be made (“Save up for a city or a village?), but for the long term there is really only a single over-arching viable (long term) strategy for winning the game: Build stuff that gets you resources as quickly as possible and use those resources to build more stuff.

It can be that different strategies are “viable” against different opponents. When you’re sitting down with people who have never played Agricola before it might work perfectly well to not bother with building out your house, getting multiple family members and setting up a food engine. For a game with veterans however you will most definitely need to do these things if you want to have any chance of winning.

Strategy versus progression

Now that’s the kind of progression I’d like to see!
The last reason for strategy from the previous paragraph says that strategy means you don’t do the same thing again and again. In this way it creates a sense of “progression”.

It is however not the only way of creating progression in a game. In Agricola you open up a new card every turn, meaning that every turn there is (at least) one new thing that you can do (or at the very least should take into account).

And it is also possible to have players “progress” without making deep strategic choices. In Catan players start out building roads and villages and then at some point “progress” to cities and development cards. This is not set in stone: It’s perfectly possible to start out buying development cards from the get go and as such this could be deemed a “strategy”. But as explained in the previous paragraph, it’s not really a viable strategy and thus everybody ends up doing more-or-less the same. The progression then is a result of being “forced” to follow the only viable strategy.

Playing for the long term

Board games have a goal: To win! That means that anything that helps you reach that goal is a good thing to do. In Chess you can sacrifice half of your pieces if in the end you get that check-mate.

In this sense, anything you do is for the long term; and thus any move is “strategic”.

Except that most modern games aren’t as binary as Chess. Instead of doing this one very specific thing (the check-mate), you’re either trying to get more (victory points mostly) or go faster (to the finish line) than your opponent. Agricola is about getting the most points, Catan is about getting ten points the fastest.

Both games work great, but there is a downside (from a strategy point of view): Instead of a grand finale (the check-mate) there are many steps that all need to be taken to bring you closer to the final goal – every victory point needs to be earned and each brings you somewhat closer to winning. This makes these games “shortsighted”; instead of asking “How can I win this game?”, you’ll be wondering “How can I get my next victory point?”.

This then turns a potential long-term strategic arc into a much shorter-term one. This makes it much easier for players to understand what to do (get the next point!) but it detracts from taking a long-term and in-depth view of the game.

Closing thoughts

Having a deeply strategic game can make a game better, but it certainly comes with downsides; it will generally make the game more complex and thus it might take longer and invite paralysis analysis.

Strategies come on a spectrum of time, ranging from the full game to looking ahead only to the next turn. Both advantages and disadvantages become more pronounced with a longer time-frame.

Strategicalness is intertwined with a sense of progression in a game, though there are other ways of accomplishing this as well.

The yardstick of any game is whether it’s fun to play. Adding strategy can make something more fun for a group of players whilst detracting for others. Who are you building for?

In writing this post I had my own game Voluntarios in the back of my mind. I found that it already has quite some medium-term strategy and I’m wondering whether it’s necessary to add further long-term strategy to it. It currently is fairly light, does it need to be burdened with extra weight? I don’t have the answer to that yet, but I certainly understand better what the question means!

Further reading

If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read:
7 general strategies to add to any boardgame
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.

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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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