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.

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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Around the Web, Board game design

Introduction

This blog is about learning about game design. A very important part of that is reading about it (which is why I hope you visit this blog!). I’m however far from the only one who has something to share about the subject. Below are a number of articles that I found insightful, though-provoking or otherwise worth the read. I hope you do too!

Some lesser used mechanics

Both the roundel and deck management are not used in many games. Shannon Applecline from Mechanics & Meeples shows that there are intriguing similarities between the two (something I never would’ve thought). Examples and some theory might give you some inspiration to use these mechanics in your game?

Read all about it at: Deck management is the new roundel

Interesting question…

“Well begun is half done.” Nat Levan (twitter) from Oakleaf Games goes into the questions you should ask before you start working on a game. I especially like “What’s the player’s fantasy?”. One of the most important reasons (for me) to play board games is to be / do / feel something I can’t in real life.

I do however feel that sometimes it’s better to begin before you have something fleshed out entirely. Games evolve with creating and sometimes it’s as much a “discovery” what a game is about as it is a plan.

Check it out: Questions to ask before making a game

A strategic read, for tactical reasons

“Tactics are small, frequent decisions in which there is often one or several right answers (that are often determined through analytical reasoning), whereas strategic choices are large, infrequent decisions that are often chosen through experimentation and intuition.” In this older post Max Seidman (Twitter) from Most Dangerous Games gives examples insights in both tactics and strategy. Especially his ideas for adding either to a game when they are lacking are worthy of further thought!

Read it here: Designing for tactics and strategy

Favorite mechanics

This is getting a bit meta, but Pini Shekhter (Twitter) from Board Games Hate Pini rounds up his favorite mechanics. Now I really want to play Mombassa!

Don’t let the silly title distract you, here is the link: More elegant than a cat in a tux (Seriously?!?)

Food for thought

Another one from Max Seidman (Twitter), Most Dangerous Games. This one is about digital games, but it gives food for thought: How would the “instant gratification” translate into board games? You’d need something where you take an action, the result is not certain, but the potential pay-off is significant. Certainly it would be possible to create something like that through randomness, but is it possible through skill alone?

Get gratified: Instant gratification

When world building and games collide

As a designer, you have the world in your hands!
My favorite article of the bunch (always save the best for last!). Matt (I’m sure he has a last name and I feel sortof bad about not remembering because I’ve met this great guy… (Twitter)) from Creaking Shelves usually does board game reviews, but I’m very happy he’s also delving into the design aspect! He argues that what great new games do is that they build a “world” that extends beyond the game that is played. This is something near and dear to my own heart, as I love story driven games, which work so much better if they feel like they’re a part of something larger.

Absolute recommendation! Designers should build worlds

Feedback please!

I’m very open to your ideas and thoughts, let me know in the comments below 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 (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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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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