Board game design

Some time back I wrote an article about scarcity in board games. The premise was that board games revolve around resources (in many different variants) and that scarcity of (some of) those resources creates interesting choices.

What is scarce becomes valuable
In this post I want to go into an example of this, based on Voluntarios (volunteers in Spanish), the game I’m working on. Specifically I want to go into a somewhat novel form of scarcity: The scarcity of space.

A first scarcity of space

In Voluntarios you’re at the head of a group of volunteers (workers) and you have those volunteers do work (in a slight twist on worker-placement, the details of which I won’t bother you with) on reconstructing a village after an earthquake.

There are two types of workers: Experts and Normal workers. Most of the work that needs to be done is “normal” work, but there is also some work that can only be done by Experts. Experts can do the work of Normal workers, but it costs the player a Karma (= victory) point when doing so (because when you’re an expert, you don’t want to do simple menial work, now do you?!). And of course Normal workers can’t do Expert work.

The number of spaces where Expert work needs to be done will ebb and flow through the game, but on average there are slightly fewer spaces than the number of Expert workers available. This means that there is an incentive to “get rid” of Expert workers as soon as an Expert space becomes available. This then creates an interesting decision, where a player needs to decide between placing an Expert or doing something else that might be more useful to do, but with the risk (or even certainty) of losing a point when the Expert is forced to do Normal work.

Expert spaces are created through buildings that can be worked on by all players, but where the player controlling the building will get the benefits when it’s finished. However, making such spaces available generally does not mean that a player can take advantage of them (by placing an Expert) immediately. Thus, there is a choice between making Expert spaces available (which will go toward finishing a building a player controls) and waiting for someone else to do it so that an Expert worker can be placed.

A second scarcity of space

A prototype construction project – with space for 1 Expert (green) and 2 Normal workers (blue)
One of the advantages that finished buildings can have is that they give the controlling player an additional worker. This means that the number of workers increases throughout the game. The total number of spaces for workers however goes down as much as it goes up, meaning that there can be moments where there are more workers than spaces to place them.

Of course, letting things go to waste is well, a waste. Therefore there is a mechanic that players lose points when they have unused workers left at the end of a round.

The result is that players need to think very carefully on whether they want to control buildings that give additional workers; they may be beneficial, but when space runs out they are very much a burden. This then creates interesting strategical choices on whether to invest in more workers or to go for other types of buildings.

And it’s not a stand-alone choice, it very much depends on what the other players are doing as well; if everybody else is investing in other buildings, then having a few more workers of your own means you’ll still be able to place them without too much trouble.

The good, the bad and the unexpected

One of the two types of space scarcity works like a charm. The other has some… Side effects.

Can you guess which one is which?

Well no worry, I’m going to tell you!

(No) space: The final frontier!

When there is not enough space for all workers the result is that all possible worker spaces get filled and thus that all associated actions are taken. A number of those actions benefit not just the player taking them, but other players as well (think of role selection, but through placing a worker instead of taking a card). For any given action there are only two options: I take the action or someone else takes the action.

This is actually quite a bit less interesting than what happens for most games: I take the action, someone else takes the action or the action doesn’t happen.

When all actions are taken there is still jostling for getting the actions that you really want, but there is no tension about which actions exactly will have happened when the round has ended.

Worse, when there are limited spaces at some point players are “forced” to place workers in spaces they aren’t really interested in or even worse, would actively prefer not to take. Technically they have the choice of not placing a worker, but if the downside is high (which it was in my game) then it’s not really a choice at all. And thus this mechanic took away player agency and resulted in a lot of frustration

Bad choice of space scarcity! And thus “too little space for all workers” will be taken care of in the next iteration.

Without space everybody can hear you scream!

What do you mean that space can be scarce?!
The other option for making space scarce, jostling for positions for Expert workers, however works well. It indeed creates a sense of urgency about “having to get rid of” your Expert workers.

So why does this work but scarcity of space for all workers doesn’t?

The fundamental difference I feel is that Expert-space-scarcity doesn’t take away options. An Expert worker can be used for any space, though at a penalty. You’d like to avoid that penalty, and so you’ll work towards that, but you don’t have to. This gives the player control.

For the full-space-scarcity on the other hand at some point it becomes clear how many spaces there and thus for how many workers you’re going to have to take a penalty. There are some actions you can take to increase spaces during a turn, but they help everybody (almost) equally and thus do not really give a sense of control.

Salvage space?

So full-space-scarcity is a bad idea.

But…

I like the idea, as it is novel and actually goes against the idea of so many games that “more workers is better”. So might there be a way to salvage the mechanic?

What if this scarcity generally doesn’t happen, but only shows up every once and awhile? Like in 1/5th of all the rounds?

Would that be enough to force players to take it into account when choosing how many workers to go for? Or will it happen “at random” and frustrate players just as much as when it happens regularly? Perhaps if players are veterans they would learn to plan for this, but for rookies it could still be a big downer? Would it be bad enough that the rookies never turn into veterans?

I haven’t fully given up on the idea, so who knows how and where this might show up?

Closing thoughts

Scarcity is one of the fundamental building blocks of board games – something has to be scarce for there to be any competition.

In this post I gave two very concrete examples of scarcity, one that worked and another that didn’t. The fact that I used the somewhat unusual scarcity-of-space hopefully doesn’t detract from the lessons that can be taken from this.

The most important of these I feel is that when working with scarcity, allow your players to work with it, instead of simply having it forced upon them. In this sense there is a similarity to randomness: Forcing players to live with (the outcomes of) randomness is tedious, but once you give them some control after the randomness has happened, the game becomes a whole lot more interesting.

I hope that after reading this you’ll take a look at where the scarcities are in your own game and how your players get to handle these.

Further reading

For more on Voluntarios, read this post which uses Voluntarios as an example for strategy in board games, or this post in which I realized Voluntarios had too few interesting decisions.

And here is the original post on scarcity.

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.

Insights are scarce so 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, Learning

Introduction

You're never to old to learn!
You’re never to old to learn!
”Experience is the quality that lets you recognize a mistake when you make it again…”

In this post I wrote about feedback loops in board-games. I left out one very important feedback loop though: The one that happens in the head of the player.

When we play a game we get better. We try a strategy and see it work or fail. We find that this card is strong and that one is weak. We learn.

Now you might be going: ”Well, duh!”. But bear with me, because this has some interesting consequences for board-game design.

The joys of learning

Humans are learning machines. You can see this when you observe kids: Infinitely curious, happy to try anything. Which makes sense: Imagine a kid that wasn’t interested in learning to walk; they wouldn’t be particularly effective in later life… And so the desire to learn is hard-coded into our being.

As adults we’ve left the exploration phase behind. We know it’s a bad idea to grab a burning stove, how our hands work, that bees are to be avoided and that ice-cream is delicious.

That doesn’t mean we stop learning though. Or that the craving for new things to learn goes away. It just means that we have do a bit more work to get to something that gets our neurons firing.

Which is where board-games (and really any form of entertainment) comes in: A system all set up with juicy and intricate rules that we can figure out!

Three levels of learning

Learning the rules might not be the most fun part, but they are there for a reason...
Learning the rules might not be the most fun part, but they are there for a reason…
Board-games offer three levels of learning:

  • The rules
  • The system
  • Winning

Let’s take a look at each in turn.

Learning the rules

The first part of learning a game is learning the rules. These are what is written in the rulebook or what is explained by someone who has played before.

For most people this is not a particularly enjoyable experience. This is because it mostly comes down to memory; can you remember the rules well enough to get to the next level? Because of this player-aids (and simple-to-remember rules!) are a big boon to games.

For some people (myself included) learning the rules is enjoyable as well. I think this is because simply by learning the rules you already get some insights into the system behind them, which is the next level of learning.

Learning the system

Learn to game the system and get rich quick!
Learn to game the system and get rich quick!
The second part of learning a game is understanding the system. This is how the rules and components interact to create something bigger than the sum of the parts.

In poker the rules say which hand beats which and that you can bet chips based on whether you think you will win the round. Just from reading that however you most likely wouldn’t realize that it’s possible to bluff.

The system is all the interactions that are possible. It’s the difference in Dominion between playing a Smithy and a Village, and then seeing what could happen if you play them both.

For many people there is real joy to be found in this phase of learning the game. That’s because true insight is created. By playing, you figure something out that you hadn’t known before. Eureka!

Learning to win

It's not whether you win but how you play. But it's about winning!
It’s not whether you win but how you play. But it’s about winning!
The final part of the journey is to learn to win. This means understanding the system well enough to know which option is better than another, to find new and more intricate combinations to get even more bang for your scarce resources (see this post for scarcity in board-games).

It is here that you are trying new tactics and strategies, optimizing a single turn or getting the best out of your entire play.

Better: To win, mastering the system isn’t enough; you also need to outsmart your opponent(s), taking the experience of learning to an even higher level!

This is what we mean when we say that a game takes minutes to learn and a lifetime to master: Rules that are simple to memorize, but a system that is interesting to delve into and a game that keeps on bringing up new learning experiences.

Learning and replayability

Someone must not have been paying attention....
Someone must not have been paying attention….
One of the holy grails in board-game design is “replayability”, the possibility to play a game multiple times without it getting boring.

A very good bad example of this is tic-tac-toe. No one in their right mind would play this, right? Well, not true: Kids actually really enjoy this game. For them it is not obvious that you can always play to get a draw. They haven’t learned yet that this is the case. And so they’ll happily keep at it, throwing their full intellectual capacity at it. Until they get it. At which point they’ll be like you and me, not touching it ever again.

The lesson is that as long as there is something to be learned in a game, it’ll stay interesting. I think I’ve played 50+ games of Agricola in my life, but I’ll gladly play another round, because there really is more to be explored.

The way then to increase replayability is by allowing a lot of things to be learned within the game. There are two ways of doing this:

  • Adding depth
  • Adding ambiguity
Learning in the deep end

“Depth” is one of the other holy grails of board-game design (mostly because it gives replayability!) and it would take an entire blog post (and more!) to go into it (many others have done so, a bit of Googling should get you far).

Just scratching the surface, I would say that depth is “interesting complexity”. One way of incorporating this in your game is having multiple viable tactics and strategies. Each of these can be tried out and players can learn how well they work, which are the best and which combine well.

If it takes 3 tries to really work out a strategy then adding one more strategy just increased the replayability by 3 games…

Ambiguous learning

There is always more to learn
There is always more to learn
Once you know something, there is nothing left to learn. It’s gotten boring and thus not worth any further effort. Tic-tac-toe as explained above is a good example of this.

But what if you sortof know what’s going on, but not entirely? This is extremely tantalizing for the human brain: “I’ve figured it out so far, now I want to know the last bits as well!” As long as there is ambiguity, the brain will continue to work on it.

One way of introducing ambiguity is by creating situational dependence. This means that your strategy depends strongly on tactics and the state of the rest of the game.

Imagine you have a good strategy, which needs a combination of resources. In some games you can get these reasonably well, but in others they are scarce. You need to learn more (namely, how to ensure that you get those resources)!

But what if there is no sure-fire way of getting them? Then your strategy will mostly win, but not always. And you’ll continue to wonder what you can do better.

This ambiguity can be the result of randomness. As long as you don’t draw too poor cards or you’re not rolling only ones, your strategy does well. Figuring this out is more difficult than a strategy that does not involve any randomness. At some point however the player is going to catch on and accept that the strategy just can’t be improved, that in the end it’s lady Fortune that decides whether it succeeds or not. And they’ll stop playing the game (or latch on to a new strategy to try).

This is especially the case since randomness tends to be rather “heavy handed”. Sure, sometimes you’ll be exactly 1 resource short, but in many cased you’ll really have way too little (or you’re drowning in the good stuff). When the influence of randomness is so un-subtle, it’s easy to see that it’s the culprit.

A more interesting way of creating ambiguity is through player interaction. This is the way the typical “Euro” game works: ”I could execute my strategy perfectly, if it weren’t for the others players getting in my way!”

If you’re short wood this game, then next game you’ll pounce on it more aggressively. With as a result that another player has a chance to take the stone that you also need. Your priority shifts again next game, but once more you’re missing something. Is this because the strategy is flawed, or does it mean that you just have to be even better at foreseeing what your opponent will do?

Maybe one more game to see if it works this time?

Learning, hard choices and ambiguity

What's the optimal choice?
What’s the optimal choice?
In this post I looked at what makes for interesting choices in board-games. I concluded that an interesting choice has to be hard to make – it should not be obvious which of the options gives the best result.

The learning process in a board-game then is working through the hard choices and – through experience – finding out which option does give the best results.

This allows us to rephrase the part about ambiguity from above in different terms. If there truly is an optimal choice then we need to learn this once and then we (our brain) is done. If however the choice is only optimal part of the time (because of randomness or the actions of other players) then we’re not done learning (and enjoying!) yet.

A tip when playing

Winning is a big part of the enjoyment of playing a game. I hope though that the above has shown that learning the game is just as big a part of the pleasure.

Therefore: Optimize your learning pleasure – don’t look up tips and tricks online. Figure it out for yourself. Even if that means taking a beating.

Closing thoughts

Board-games give an opportunity to learn, something that isn’t present a lot otherwise in adult life. It is one of the joys of playing and as such should be in the forefront of a designer’s mind.

To allow players to continue to learn within the game, there should be a lot of game space to explore. This can be in broad strokes, in the form of different strategies to try out, but also at a micro level, when trying to get the best out of a chosen strategy.

Ambiguity in outcomes means that the brain hasn’t learned all it can, resulting in a drive to learn and thus to play more.

Next steps

I already mentioned that “depth” would take an entire blog post to delve into (see what I did there?), so I probably will take the plunge at some point (see what I did there? I’m on a role!).

Ambiguity in board-games is also something I feel that can be explored further. Above are some good opening thoughts, but this can definitely be expanded upon.

Feedback please!

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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Board game design, In-game economics

Introduction

You only miss something once it becomes scarce
You only miss something once it becomes scarce
In a number of previous posts I’ve been discussing “in-game economics”, using ideas from economics to gain further insight into what makes board-games “tick”.

In this post I’ll delve into the idea of “scarcity” (of in-game resources) and what this means for your games.

Quick recap: Value

In this post I wrote about the value of in-game resources. The basic idea was that the value of a resource (for more on in-game resources, please read this post) could be expressed in how much it helps a player to win the game. Especially when “winning” is based on a numerical value (e.g. “victory points”) this can give a common “currency” in which the value of all resources can be expressed.

If all resources are plentiful, this idea works marvels. But what if resources are not plentiful?

An example of scarcity

Imagine a game of Catan in which the sixes and eights are on forests, while meadows have only the 2, 12, 3s and 11s. There most likely will be a great surplus of wood, while sheep will be in very short supply.

Continue Reading

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