Board game design, Los Buenos

A very early prototype
For longer than I’d really care to admit I’ve been working on my game: Los Buenos (previously called Voluntarios). The game is working well and the core mechanics are all fleshed out. The thing I’m now thinking about is what kind of content I’d like the game to have. Specifically, the game allows for different buildings to be built. What should these buildings do exactly?

A bit of background

As I’ll be using my own game-under-construction as an example, let me give a very quick introduction.

Players are trying to rebuild a village after an earthquake. And as it’s a tight-knit community, you’re not just in it for yourself, you’re trying to be helpful to the others. In fact, being helpful gives you karma points, which determine the winner of the game.

During your turn you will be placing workers to gather resources (construction material and money). Resources and workers are placed on construction sites, to construct the buildings depicted. The twist of the game is that placing your workers on someone else’s construction site gains you karma. The initiator of the construction however will get the benefits of the building (once it is finished).

My current dilemma: What should buildings do once they are finished?

Content – first thoughts

The easiest thing to do is to have buildings give karma as well. It makes reasonable sense: Having a house or shop (re)built benefits the community and as such should give karma.

It is however also a bit bland… Every building would be the same except for the amount of construction required and the amount of karma it garners.

On the other hand, it does keep the game nice and simple. But is that what I want? Wouldn’t it be much more interesting to have a deep and complex game? I’m sure these buildings could be used as parts for an in-game engine; allowing for efficient resource swapping. Or perhaps they could be used to in some way make life for your opponents more difficult (build Mayor’s office to collect taxes from the other players?)?

Maybe something in between? Not so simple, but not super intricate either.

The questions is, how do you decide between these options? Deep games are good, but so are simple games. What’s a designer to do?

What’s your vision?

“So, where do you see your game going in the future?”
This is the first game I sank a serious amount of time into. I never really had a very clear idea of where I wanted to go with it and as such it has evolved through at least 4 very distinct phases – different games almost.

After thinking about it (and more importantly trying many things out), I’ve come to some ideas about what I want the game to be like:

  • The core is about helping other players, but in such a way that you’re benefitting more yourself
  • The game plays fairly quickly (10 minutes per player) and I want to keep it at about that level
  • Depth mostly comes from player interactions – any way of building upon that is appreciated
  • Player interactions should not be negative – getting in the way is fine, forcing your “help” upon someone else is fine, but direct attacks are not fine
  • From vision to choices

    The vision above gives direction to what kind of content choices I might make.

    Helping other players: Giving only karma for finishing a building doesn’t work against this, but it doesn’t work with it either.

    In many games buildings do something: Create resources or hinder your opponent. This could very well add something to my game as well.

    It then makes sense to allow buildings to be “activated” by placing a worker. In most games only the “owner” of a building benefits from it, but here it would be interesting to allow any player to activate a building. This should of course give something to the owner as well. That still doesn’t say what a building should do exactly, but it gives some direction at least.

    The game should be fairly quick: This would imply that the game shouldn’t be made much more complex. Thus, heavy engine building is probably better left behind. Some form of light engine building might still work, but that might go against the previous idea; engines usually work for the player building them, not so much for the entire group.

    Depth from player interactions: This would also imply that it would be good for players to be able to make use of each other’s’ buildings.

    Player interactions should not be negative: This follows mostly from the choices above as well. It does mean no “taxing others”, but I think I’m happy to live with that 🙂

    Content – second try

    The conclusion from the previous paragraph is that buildings should be useable by other players for some benefit, while also giving benefits to the “owner”.

    Benefits can come in a number of forms. The simplest form would be to increase resources:

    • Karma
    • Construction resources (materials and money)
    • Workers
    • Construction sites to work on

    Thus, a building could create some form of resource. And to stay in the spirit of things, a worker should be placed to actually produce those resources. The player who places the worker should get the resources.

    For this the two “basic” resources of the game, building materials and money, make perfect sense; they are meant to be scarce and thus there would be an incentive to produce more of them through buildings (see this post for more on incentives in board games). After all, it would be pretty boring if the buildings didn’t actually get used.

    Karma also makes sense, as that would be the goal resource. However, it goes a bit against the idea of “helping others” to gain karma by doing something that doesn’t really benefit anybody else.

    Producing workers might be possible, but it seems a bit strange to place a worker to produce a worker. Maybe if you placed 2 workers…? But what exactly would be the building that would allow for that?! Then again, it would be quite interesting if two different players could produce a worker together… This is something to consider further.

    Another, simpler option is to have a building give a worker when it is finished. That however would mean it wouldn’t have any actions that other players could make use of. It’s of course not strictly necessary to have an action space, but it does fit the vision well.

    The latest prototype – version 50!
    Getting a new construction site to work on also can make perfect sense. However, there is already a mechanism for that. And having construction sites be scarce could seriously slow down the game and would move back to something I tried before: Making spaces for workers scarce (read more about that idea here. Spoiler, it didn’t work that well). I’ll not try this one for now.

    When a building has an action space, the owner of the building should also gain something. One possibility is to gain some of the same resources that the player who placed a worker got. So for example a building could produce money both for the owner of the building and for the person taking the action. Another option is to have it give some karma.

    The karma option seems like the better one. It’s simpler and it’s more in the spirit of the game: Be helpful (by creating a building others want to use) and get rewarded with karma when others actually do.

    Final choices

    What is definitely going in is buildings that produce resources when workers are placed and that give the owner some karma. With two types of resources (building materials and money) this gives two different types of buildings.

    Having a building produce workers by placing workers seems like a very interesting idea and is something I’m going to try out. I’m not entirely sure about the exact mechanism, but I’m sure I can figure something out. This gives a third type of building.

    Finally the I’ll have some buildings which only give karma when constructed. This to keep the game simple and not create too many spaces for workers.

    Closing thoughts

    Having a vision for your game can help to make design choices. Here I showcase it using content choices, but it can be equally helpful for other types of design choices.

    I came by my vision long after I started working on the game. I do believe that this was one of the reasons I had to back-track many times; without a vision I had no way of pre-selecting which design options to peruse, so I had to pursue them all.

    The wise lesson here is to create the vision before getting too deep into a design – something I’ll definitely be doing next time!

    Further reading

    For more reading about the vision of your game see this post.

    I also have a number of posts which tell you more about specific design issues for Los Buenos (then: Voluntarios):
    General introduction
    An example of using scarcity in board games
    Strategy in board games
    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.

    And perhaps you know of others interested in learning? Share this post using the buttons below:

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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, 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.

And perhaps you know of others interested in learning? Share this post using the buttons below:

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Board game design, Strategy, Tactics

Introduction

A recent version of Voluntarios
A recent version of Voluntarios
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.

The non-choice

Which ever way you go, it seems to be the right way. No interesting choices to be made here...
Which ever way you go, it seems to be the right way. No interesting choices to be made here…
“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.

Interesting choices

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!

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Board game design, Learning

An early version of "Voluntarios"
An early version of “Voluntarios”
This blog is to learn about game design. And writing about it most certainly helps. But doing it helps even more!

In fact, I’ve been “doing” it for a few months now. The most progress I’ve made with “Voluntarios”, a game where you try to do as much good as possible by working in a voluntary organization.

The game has been under development for a few months now and in that time has gone through numerous iterations. And though it works, there is always space for improvement!

One of the lessons of game design I’ve already learned is that you can’t do it all on your own. I’ve been staring myself blind at Voluntarios and it’s gotten to be very difficult to look at it with a fresh eye. So I need some help!

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