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Co-op Case Study: Pandemic Legacy — Season One

Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 was an amazing innovation when it was released in 2015, and it continues to be one of the newest foundational games in the co-op hobby. What made it so great? It’s not just that it broke new ground with its Legacy-campaign play, but also that it integrated that fully into its existing simulation.

This article originally appeared on Meeples Together.


Publisher: Z-Man Games (2015)
Cooperative Style: True Co-Op
Play Style: Action Point, Card Management, Legacy, Set Collection

Overview

The players take on the role of various specialists who are trying to cure four pandemic diseases that are ravaging the world. As in Pandemic (2008) they must balance removing disease cubes (to avoid losing the game) and collecting sets of cards (to win the game). However, there’s a twist: the game repeats over 12-24 sessions, with characters, the gameboard, and the rules all evolving over time.

Challenge System

Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 is built on the challenge system from Pandemic with one big change: the game evolves and changes from one session to another. Much of this comes about from careful changes to Pandemic’s simulation, linking its core model of disease to Legacy changes. For example:

  • If a disease outbreak occurs in a city, then unrest begins to rise there, leading to: instability, rioting, collapse, and eventually the fall of the city. This makes the city harder and harder to access in future games.
  • If a disease outbreaks occurs in a city with a character, then the character is “scarred”, receiving some disadvantage in future games.
  • If a disease is cured and eradicated in a game, then the players can make the disease easier to deal with in future games through an “upgrade”.

These extensions effectively expand the gears of Season 1’s simulation from something that affects a single game to something that has repercussions in future games — which is just as innovative as Pandemic’s simulation system was when it first appeared.

There’s one other major change to the challenges in Season 1: the end-game goals are laid out by objective cards rather than a simple rule, which allows them to change over the course of the campaign, creating more variable gameplay. Though the first objective is to cure four diseases, just like in the original Pandemic, by the end of the campaign, the gameplay will be very different.

Whether the players accomplish their goals can also affect the simulation: if the players win a game, then they have fewer resources for the next game, while if they lose a game, they’ll get more resources next time. Maintaining the difficulty of a game over time has been a real issue with campaign games, with one of the main complaints with the very innovative Descent: Road to Legend (2008) campaign being that it got too easy for one side over time. Season 1 demonstrates how to use a simple but very effect method to dynamically adjust a game’s long-term difficulty based on the players’ success.

Though each game of Season 1 will evolve very differently because of its simulation-linked Legacy changes, the game also pushes its plot (and the changes to its challenge system) in a set way: between games players draw cards describing changes in the world, some of which will cause set changes to the challenge system. A disease might become incurable, epidemics might occur faster, or something totally wacky might happen. This obviously creates variability from game to game, and also keeps players on their toes.

Challenge System Elements: Turn Activation; Arbitrary Trigger; Simulation; Exponential Cascade; Decay; Campaign; and Replicating Task Threats. 

Cooperative System

The cooperative elements of Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 are largely unchanged from Pandemic, but that cooperation is now expanded to span an entire campaign, not just an individual session. To start with, there’s cooperative metagaming at the beginning of each session, when players decide which characters to use from a pool, focusing on how their special abilities will likely impact the coming challenges. There’s similarly metagaming within each session, because players must make decisions (about sunsetting a disease or letting a city outbreak) based on repercussions in future games. Finally, the players make cooperative choices between games, when they purchase upgrades for cards, characters, diseases, or the board, using a group pool of points.

Adventure System

Season 1’s Legacy rules notably expand the adventure system of Pandemic. Part of this comes through the aforementioned upgrades. At the end of each game, players can choose to make cards better, characters better, cities better, or diseases worse. The character upgrades in particular feel like “experience”, an important element of the roleplaying games from which adventure games derive. There are “downgrades” too: players can be scarred … or die! This ups the ante of the adventure-style play.

Season 1 also contains a lot of “story”. The set cards revealed after each session describe the plot of outbreaking and changing diseases. This explicit plot combines with the implicit story of simulation changes and various upgrades to add color and change to the game; players come back because they want to see what happens next!

Finally, Season 1 also revisits the concept of a campaign co-op popularized by Road to Legend and the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game (2013) and central to true “roleplaying” play, but it uses a very different model. Where Road to Legend was just a big 40-hour game broken into bite sized bits, and where Pathfinder ACG focused its campaign around selective character changes in the face of set systemic changes, Legacy instead makes systemic changes its entire game over time.

Expansions & Variants

Pandemic Legacy Season 2 (2017) followed a few years later and Pandemic Legacy Season 3 looks likely to be a 2020 release.

Final Thoughts

Pandemic was a foundational game for the co-op industry thanks to its implementation of tight, quick, abstract play. Season 1 innovates things again by introducing clever methods to expand Pandemic’s simulations to a long-term campaign.

Matt Leacock & Rob Daviau

Leacock is the creator of the original Pandemic. Daviau’s claim to fame is “Legacy” style games, the first of which was Risk Legacy (2011). They’re built around the idea that the game will change from one session to another, with players permanently marking and changing their game components (and presumably throwing out the game when it’s all played out). Pandemic Legacy was Daviau’s second Legacy game, followed later by the competitive SeaFall (2016) and the cooperative Betrayal Legacy (2018).

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What’s for Dinner: Food-based Game Design

Food.

It seems a far stretch from game design, but it turns out to have puzzles and challenges of its own, and some of them could be great designs for board games too. So, this week, I wanted to talk about a few food-related design problems that have shown up in games (and one that perhaps hasn’t), because they could all be expanded and used more.

I feel like it’s a space that’s just ripe for plucking new ideas.

I Cut, You Choose. This is a classic problem that’s already been put to good use in the game space. It answers the problem of how you divide up a resource (like a slice of cake) between two different people, with the answer being that one person cuts and then the other person chooses his portion. Easy, peasy. The goal here is to force the cutter to equally apportion the parts, else he’ll get the lesser selection.

But that’s not how games approach this problem at all. Instead, games tend to twist the classic food problem by instead encouraging the divider to divvy up the resource so that the other participant will be forced to take the lesser portion because it’s more valuable to him personally, even if it leaves the divider with a bigger piece.

I feel like there are two classic games in this design space. San Marco (2001) divides up cards that players will then play for actions, while Piece o’ Cake (2008) divvies up a more literal pie, with pieces going toward majorities of each type.

Dividing up an actual cake. Picture courtesy of binraix on BGG.

Besides encouraging unequal selections, these games also change the traditional two-player problem into a n-person mechanic, with the divider always getting the selection that no one else wanted.

These two twists show how you can change a traditional food problem into a great game mechanic (and with it being more than a decade since the release of Piece o’ Cake, it’s clearly time for the next foundational I-Cut-You-Choose game).

Making the Hot Dogs and Buns Come Out Right. A lot of food problems are about resource allocation, which is why they work great for game design too. Take the hot-dog-and-bun problem. It’s built around the fact that hot dogs and hot dog buns come in different packages, often with different quantities: say, four frankfurters and six buns per package. So you have to work to use all of your resources correctly without wasting any

In a game design, this problem becomes a question of efficiency, which is the margin of victory in many eurogame designs. If one player can make the dogs and buns come out right, he’ll win, because he doesn’t have unused (and thus wasted) resources, like his fellows.

To a certain extent, the hot-dog-and-bun problem appears in every resource-management game which is about turning one resource (or set of resources) into another — and ultimately into victory points. Take Catan (1995) as an example. If a player loses the game while holding a brick, a wood, a wheat, and a stone, he didn’t make the dogs and buns come out right, because that’s not quite the formula for producing any victory-point structure. Conversely, if he’d ended the game with a sheep instead of a stone, then he would have been able to create an additional settlement (and perhaps win).

However, the best game I’ve seen to utilize the dog and bun problem is The Dresden Files Cooperative Card Game (2017), by my friend Eric Vogel (and by my Designers & Dragons publisher, Evil Hat). I think it uses it well because it’s so specific and explicit in its usage.

Basically, you have two types of hot dogs: clues and hits. They’re put on two types of buns: cases and foes. Hexenwolves  (a foe) might take 8 hits to kill, while figuring out Which Wolf is Which (a case) might take 7 clues. You want to make the dogs and buns come out precisely right because any excess clues and hits placed on a case or foe are wasted … and it’s a very tight co-op, so every wasted token puts you that much closer to loss.

A bunch of buns waiting to be filled. (This picture is taken from the Dresden Files computer adaptation, because somehow I don’t have good pictures of the tabletop game despite 26 plays to date.)

A few characters’ special powers build on this foundation by allowing more precision in hot dog allocation. Where cards might dump 2-5 tokens  on a bun at a time, a player’s special power might allow the more delicate placement of a single token of a specific type.

So if you were going to ask how game have varied this food problem, you might say that they’ve given more variance of package size (like in Dresden) or that they’ve created more complex formulas for what all needs to go on a bun (like Catan)

Eating the Food Before it Goes Bad. My wife is a prime player of the eat-the-food-before-it-goes-bad game, where you have to constantly figure out what’s about to go bad in your fridge, so that you can eat it — irrespective of whether you really want it at the time or not. We played it more when we lived in Berkeley — which was a more urban locale than our new home on Kauai, and so we were more likely to have restaurant takeout in the fridge.

This is of course another problem of resource allocation: you’re trying to not waste resources (much as in the dogs and buns problems), this time by using them before they go away. I’m not sure I’ve seen any game directly use the problem (though I’m surely missing some), but I’ve seen some close approximations, mostly in supply-chain games.

Macao (2009) is one of the most interesting games of this sort, mainly because it’s built around very abstract supply chains. In Macao, you’re setting up resources that you’ll receive on a certain future turn, but then you can only use them on that turn, so you have to make sure the resources received on that turn all fit together and can be used immediately. It’s the ultimate in resource rotting, where you must use it immediately or lose it.

Setting up the supply chain in Macao.

I think there may be a lot of mileage for this sort of mechanic in resource-management games, though the problem with resources rotting is that it can become fiddly and bureaucratic, so it needs to be a really simple and natural part of the game (as is the case with Macao).

The Unscrupulous Diner’s Dilemma. I wanted to end with one food-based design problem that’s recognized in game theory, but which I’m not aware of being used in any game design: the Unscrupulous Diner’s Dilemma. Wikipedia says that it’s an n-player Prisoner’s Dilemma, another game theory problem that hasn’t been well adopted to game designs. It goes like this:

A large number of people are all eating out together and have decided to split the bill equally. When ordering, they could either get a cheap dish that’s good, or an expensive dish that’s great, but whose greatness isn’t worth the extra cost. On their own, they’d get the cheap dish, but since the bill is being split equally, getting the expensive dish has a much lower cost for each individual. (For example, if a diner is getting an expensive dish that’s $20 more expensive, and there are 20 total diners, he’d only pay $1 extra, instead of the full $20 of the dish.) So, each individual is encouraged to get the great dish that they like better. Unfortunately, the fact that each individual is encouraged to get the more expensive dish means that the group as a whole is encouraged to do so, which means that most or all of the will do so, thus each person ends up paying the much higher cost that they didn’t find worthwhile!

Like any Tragedy of the Commons, the Unscrupulous Diner’s Dilemma ultimately comes down to individuals making selfish decisions about resources that spoil things for the group as a whole. It’s a unique combination of competitive self-interest with cooperative group dynamics — which is probably why you don’t find game theory problems like this in many game designs.

Could it be part of a semi-cooperative game, where players are playing for their competitive good, while still trying to stave off the game-ending effects of not cooperating enough? Maybe — though a similarly Tragic design in Bruno Faidutti’s Terra (2003) showed off the Free-rider Problem, but let free riders win.

Could it be part of a more completely cooperative game? Maybe, though here you’d have to figure out how to maximize self-interest and minimize communication about it without spoiling the cooperation itself. (And we wrote about this class of problems a bit in Meeples Together exactly because I think they’re apt for exploitation in cooperative game designs.)


So that’s my first four thoughts on food-based game design. If you have any food-based problems or challenges that you think would fit well in the realm of game design, I’d love to hear about them in the comments below!

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Co-op Case Study: The Resistance

Publisher: Indie Boards & Games (2010)
Cooperative Style: Hidden Teams
Play Style: Voting

Overview

In The Resistance players are secretly divided into one team of rebels and one team of spies. Though the spies know which team everyone is on, the rebels do not.

Gameplay centers on missions that are assigned by a rotating leader. Each leader chooses a fraction of the players around the table to join the mission. The players then openly vote whether to OK the members for the mission. Once a mission has been OKed, its members secretly vote to determine whether the mission succeeds or fails — and a single act of sabotage causes the mission to fail!

The rebels are trying to succeed at three missions before the spies cause three missions to fail.

Cooperative System

Most hidden teams games divide their play into two parts: deduction gameplay where players figure out who their teammates are and action gameplay where the teammates then try to work together. The Resistance offers an interesting change: each of the two teams tend to focus on just one side of this equation.

For rebels, The Resistance is all about figuring out who your teammates are. The rebels do this via deduction — based upon who voted for each mission and which missions (mysteriously) failed.

Because it’s so simple, The Resistance does a great job of showing how much information can be acquired from such a minimal source: the players have a maximum of four missions to figure out what’s going on. This minimalism nicely spotlights the deductive side of hidden-teams play.

(Why don’t spies deduce? Because just like the werewolves in Werewolf, they get to open up their eyes at the start of the game and see their team.)

For spies, The Resistance is all about sabotaging missions without appearing suspicious. This means that spies have to put other spies on missions for what seem like good reasons, and they have to figure out when to play failure cards in such a way that they (and their fellow spies) don’t look too guilty. There are so few choices that each one is quite important.

All of the votes for the success of a mission are randomized, but rebels can slowly start to deduce who might have played which cards as different subsets of players take part in different missions — which is what requires spies to play carefully together. This is the same successful design used in Battlestar Galactica (2008) — but massively simplified as is appropriate for a smaller, tighter game.

(Why don’t rebels work together? Well, they do, but they have an obvious choice if they can manage the deduction: choose fellow rebels for missions and support the missions. As in Saboteur, the teams are unbalanced, with fewer saboteur/spies, so there are always enough rebels to win … if they choose correctly.)

No Challenge System Elements. Hidden Teams.

Expansions & Variants

The Resistance has an almost identical variant game called The Resistance: Avalon (2012), which moves everything to King Arthur’s court.

Meanwhile, if there’s an alternative way to manage hidden teams, it probably appears in one of the Resistance expansions: Hidden Agenda (2014), Hostile Intent (2014), or The Plot Thickens (2016).

Giving individual players special powers is a popular mechanism that first appeared with characters like the Seer in Werewolf (1986). Thus, The Resistance has some traditional characters-with-powers, such as Hostile Intent’s Inquisitor and Hidden Agenda’s Commander, each of which has informational advantages, and Hostile Intent’s Reverser, who has an action-based power.

However, The Resistance offers an interesting twist on character powers in The Plot Thickens, which includes cards that a leader must give to another player to activate special powers. This implicitly introduces trust into the game, as the leader must now decide which players he really trusts, to enact certain powerful effects. It’s a great idea for hidden team games, and would work well in traitor games as well.

The other popular way to expand a hidden team game is to introduce special characters or special teams that have new or different goals than the standard two. Thus, there are Rogues in a promo set who can win on their own and Hunters and Assassins in Hostile Intent and Hidden Agenda who can help their team win by identifying opposition leaders.

Final Thoughts

The Resistance clearly comes from the Werewolf school of design, but it offers a eurogame take on the older game. The result is a cleaner game with just a little more in the way of mechanics; it also eliminates troubling elements from the original like player elimination.

From the cooperative point of view, The Resistance introduces interesting ideas that could be used in traitor-focused cooperative games — prime among them minimalism, voting, and the idea of introducing trust through the transfer of special powers.

Don Eskridge

Don Eskridge’s first designs were The Resistance (2009) and The Resistance: Avalon (2012) — plus the various expansions and supplements. After working on that for several years, he created Orange Machine Games, which has allowed him to create new negotiation and teamwork games like Abandon Planet (2017) and Black Hole Council (2018)

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Co-op Case Study: Saboteur

In October we discussed a few hidden-teams game. We’re back this month with two of the best known ones, starting with Saboteur, which followed in the footsteps of Bang! (2003) and is another of the foundational games of the hidden-teams genre.

Saboteur actually gets some attention in Meeples Together, where we talk about its relations to both partnership games and co-op traitor games, but here’s a full case study.

This article originally appeared on the Meeples Together blog.


Publisher: AMIGO Games (2004)
Cooperative Style: Competitive, Hidden Teams
Play Style: Card Management, Pipe Laying

Overview

Miners play tunnel cards to advance the mine toward gold nuggets, but saboteurs are simultaneously trying to ensure that the gold is never found! And no one knows who’s who!

Cooperative System

Like most hidden teams game, Saboteur is about discovering who your teammates are and (secretly) working with them. Since some players are purposefully sabotaging the others, the play style is quite close to the traitorous co-op genre.

The problem with Saboteur’s traitorous play is that there’s almost no mechanical support for playing the role of the saboteur. You can do two bad things: break other miners’ tools and point tunnels in the wrong direction. Unfortunately, both actions are pretty obviously saboteur-ish. Unless you can convince the other players that an honest miner is really a saboteur, you don’t have a lot of options. This lack of support for mechanical treachery tended to be a downfall of a lot of the games in the first generation of traitor and hidden-team play — which certainly includes Saboteur, which was right at the forefront.

Saboteur is also an unbalanced teams game, where there are more honest miners than saboteurs. That means that it’s important to pretend that you’re not a saboteur, so that the more plentiful “honest” players don’t mob you. This makes the limitations on traitorous play even more notable.

Though there’s a lot of potential cooperation for the secret teams of Saboteur through collaborative card play, it’s not ultimately a cooperative game. That’s because its cooperation is entirely transient. Players are on the same team for a single round of play, and then they draw new teams for the next round. This creates a game that’s fully cooperative (within the teams, within a round of play), but also fully competitive (between players, outside of a round of play). In other words, it’s a dynamic partnership game. Unfortunately, Saboteur can fall prey to a typical problem of dynamic partnerships: if you end up teamed up with a strong competitor for the last round of play, you might not be able to win.

No Challenge System Elements. Hidden Teams.

Expansions & Variants

The original Saboteur (2004) was expanded by Saboteur 2 (2011), which introduced new rules and also offered support for full team-based play. A few foreign-language editions combine the two sets, but more recently they’ve been re-released in the US in two different boxes by Mayfair Games (2015).

Moyersoen has also returned to the idea of digging for gold with Saboteur Duel (2014), but that’s for just 1-2 players, so obviously it does away with the hidden teams core of the game.

Final Thoughts

Saboteur is the classic-co-op game that’s not really a co-op game. Nonetheless, its hidden-team play offers interesting insights into traitorous co-ops, particularly the earliest traitor designs. However, the hidden players get so little mechanical support that you can’t really compare Saboteur’s mechanics to those of a more modern traitor games.

Though its mechanics are pretty simplistic, Saboteur still works and is fun.

Fréderic Moyersoen is a French game designer best-known for the classic hidden-teams game, Saboteur (2004). He’s published quite a few games that aren’t cooperative, but which nonetheless touch upon cooperative issues. Nuns on the Run (2010) and Bedpans and Broomsticks (2014) are both reverse-hunter games with a few hunters and many escapees. Whitewater (2012) is a game built on partial partnerships. Even Saboteur isn’t quite a cooperative game, since the dynamic partnerships result in a single winner.


We haven’t played this game in a decade, so we didn’t have a picture of it! Thanks to imake, who released their picture for use through BGG.

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New to Me: Autumn 2019 — Farewell to California

2019 was a bit of a changing of the guard for me. After 30 years living in Berkeley, across the Bay from San Francisco, and after more than 15 years of gaming with friends at Endgame (and later Secret) on Wednesdays and at my house on Thursdays, I’ve moved to the Hawaiian island of Kauai. I’ve been here almost two weeks now, and I haven’t had time yet to search out my next board game opponents, but they’ll certainly be different from the friends I had out in the Bay Area. So here’s my last look at new games played on the west coast of the United States.

As usual, these are games that were new to me (whether they were quite new or quite old) and I’m listing my ratings of the games as a mid-complexity eurogamer. Your mileage may vary.


The Great (“I Would Buy This”)

Wingspan (2019). The hotness lives up to its hype. I’ve already written extensively about this game, but in short it’s a tableau building game where you improve the power of your actions, both by making them stronger and by giving them variety. And then you try and accomplish goals, some short-term, some long-term. This is all done through bird cards: you gather food, you lay eggs, you collect the bird cards and then you play them. The cards in turn can hold eggs, can generate actions, and can earn victory points. It’s a well-themed, variable, and enjoyable game that’s not quite like anything else on the market.

(And I can buy myself a copy now that I’ve landed in Hawaii and won’t have to ship it over in a container. I mean, if I can find one in-print.)

The Very Good (“I Would Keep This”)

Glen More II: Chronicles (2019). Almost a decade on, Glen More returns in a massive new edition funded by a Kickstarter. And, it’s more than just a new edition because it’s been expanded and numerous variants have been added.

The original game had an innovative tile-selection mechanism (where you could select “better” tiles at the cost of actions), an innovative tile-laying mechanism (where meeples control where you can place tiles), and an innovative action system (where powers come from those tiles near your newly placed one). That’s all in the new Glen More, plus there’s a new orthogonal sort of play in a “clan” board and there’s a bit of polish here and there. It’s definitely a worthwhile update.

Then, there’s the “chronicles” system, which is basically eight extensive variants for the game, starting with a boat race and a mountain where “there can be only one”. I haven’t played any of these yet, but they look like they add good variability to the game, which I feel was needed, and they’re packaged very well, in little boxes, so it’s easy to grab just the components for any one variant.

Finally, it’s worth commenting on the production. Newcomer Funtails used a Kickstarter to fund a really sumptuous production. That’s resulted in beautifully painted tiles and great shaped wooden resources, both of which are huge upgrades from the original Alea edition of the game, which was somewhat held back by its very plain production. But the overall box is ridiculously big, which isn’t going to do it any favors getting it to tables. (The original Glen More was a big game in a medium box; this one is a big game in a gargantuan box.) There are also a few production missteps of the sort that you’d expect from a first-time publisher (like clan alliance tokens which look like the little cardboard bits you’d throw out in many games, and a rulebook which leaves out a few crucial things). Despite the complaints, this is a very nice production of a still-innovative and interesting game.

Walking in Burano (2018). A clever little card-drafting game, where players are drafting cards from rows of cards, then using them to build a street of houses, which like the houses in Burano, Italy must each be a single color, and not be the same color as adjacent houses.

The cleverness of this game comes from the fact that the houses are full of well incorporated bits of iconic art for cats, flowers, plants, awnings, chimneys, and lightnings, which can score you bonus points if you have the right inhabitants and/or tourists. Not only are their beautifully detailed, but this is what makes the game, because it allows scoring in a few orthogonal directions, so that even if you’re stymied in one sort of scoring, you can go for another.

This seems to be advertised as a family game, but it’s got some nice depth to it because of its intricacies of scoring and the unforgivingness of its draft.

My only complaint is the way that the drafting, building, and finances together create a timer that’s not entirely intuitive, but nonetheless can result in a player not being able to complete his town.

Draftosaurus (2019). We’re not sure why it took four designers to produce this relatively simple game, but there are definitely four names on the box. This is another drafting game, this one focused on dinosaurs: you grab a hand of six dinosaurs, and you place them one at a time, drafting the rest, and then you do the whole draft again, and then you score points.

Obviously, the gameplay is in the placement. Dinosaurs score based on whether they’re the same or different or whether you have a majority or whether you have no other dinosaurs in that type, depending on where exactly they go. And not only are you limited by the dinosaurs you’re given, but you also can only place in certain places each turn, based on the roll of a die.

There’s a bit too much unbalanced randomness in this game (like the fact that a final dinosaur can be deadly or that a random location restriction can really hurt you), but I suppose that’s OK in a game that’s just 15 minutes long or so.

The Good (“I Would Enjoy Playing Your Copy of This”)

Res Arcana (2019). Another of the hottest games of 2019? Res Arcana is the definition of a cube pusher, except this being 2019, the cubes are now wooden bits sorta in the shape of abstract resources like life, death, fire, water, and gold. Resources go in, resources go out, and eventually resources convert to victory points. Tada! It’s a euro!

The game is held together by a solid, relatively thematic spine of tableau building. Each player gets a micro-deck of eight cards or so, which they’ll build using resources over the course of the game; they’ll then use the cards to generate more resources. These cards tend to have conversion and generation powers as well as a few attacks to make things interesting. Finally, there are some extra-expensive monuments to be built.

You can obviously see this game is built by the same designer as To Court the King (2006) and the Race for the Galaxy (2007) family. It’s simpler than most of the others and it accelerates so fast that it’s over before you even realize that’s a possibility — much as is the case with Jump Drive (2017). And it’s an enjoyable play, but not one that does enough new that I feel like I have to have a copy. I’d currently rather play Roll for the Galaxy (2014) or New Frontiers (2018), two of the later incarnations of Race.

Las Vegas: The Card Game (2016). Take Rüdiger Dorn’s excellent dice-rolling game of majority control and brinkmanship and replace the dice with cards. I didn’t have high hope for this game, because you lose the excitement of dice rolling, which was pretty much what the original game was about, but the result really isn’t that bad. You have some increased tactics in choosing which cards to play from what you draw and some increased strategy from knowing what cards you might draw (the latter being a typical benefit of changing out dice for cards). Still, it’s not as viscerally evocative, and it feels like the gameplay can stagnate based on which cards people have left and what’s already been played.

Is it as good of a game as the original Las Vegas? No. Is it worth having in a collection with Las Vegas? Maybe. If you want to have a game that does play faster or is much smaller.

Carpe Diem (2018). It’s a bit hard to rate the final game in the original Alea series, because it’s perhaps an interesting design, and it was held back in its first printing by terrible, terrible production.

This is a tile-laying game with a slightly interesting tile-selection mechanism (you take them from a sort of roundel) and a definitely interesting goal-selection mechanism (you have to take a pair of adjacently placed goals and can be blocked by other players). Throughout all of that you’re building a little city area, which means the game has the typical joy you find in creative games.

The problem is that Alea totally blew the color production of the game. A bunch of different terrains look too similar to each other, some because the colors ended up too similar, and some because they weren’t color-differentiated in meaningful ways. Then this is made even worse when some of those terrains are iconically represented on tile frames where the icons just aren’t clear representations of the terrains, and even worse by the fact that the hard-to-separate colors look slightly different on cards.

Alea has fixed some or all of this in a second printing, but it’s just humiliating for the company that used to do the best development in the business to have put out a game that was this horribly flawed in its first printing. And it’s cold comfort for those of us stuck with a nearly unplayable first printing to know there are better copies out there.

(And I say this was hard to rate because I don’t know entirely how good the game is or not when you’re not fighting with color and pattern matching the whole time.)

The OK (“I Am Willing to Play This if You Ask”)

Sheriff of Nottingham (2014). A game of bluffing and negotiation. Every round, you bring goods into Nottingham: perhaps following the strict rules of what you can bring in (just one sort of good, with no contraband) and perhaps not. Then you might need to bribe the Sheriff not to inspect your goods: if he chooses to inspect your legal goods, he pays you a fine, but if he manages to inspect your illegal goods, you do instead.

It’s an exhausting hour or more of lies, deceit, and interpersonal negotiation. If you like that sort of thing, Sheriff of Nottingham offers an OK, albeit simple, framework, and if you don’t, it’ll probably be … a lot. (The rating reflects the fact that this isn’t really my sort of game. I’d probably mark it as at least “Good” otherwise. And hey, I won something like 247 to a next highest score of 199, despite this not being my sort of game, mostly by subtly convincing people that I was smuggling goods when I wasn’t. And by drawing sets of cards.)

The Meh (“I Would Prefer Not to Play This”)

Shadows of Malice (2014). A co-op adventure game where players have to wander around hex maps, murdering monsters for their “soulshards” and loot. When they’ve collected enough loot, the players should be powerful enough to kill the guardians of the gate, and if they manage to open all the light gates, they win (but if the bad guys open a light gate first, then instead everyone goes to the Big Bad fight).

Ultimately, the whole adventure game genre is derived from the roleplaying industry: they’re attempts to model roleplaying’s more superficial aspects (e.g., exploration and looting) with board game mechanics. But this game feels closer to the roleplaying field than most. In fact, it feels like an attempt to convert an archetypical ’80s roleplaying game into adventure game form. That isn’t a good thing, because the trends of the ’80s had roleplaying games becoming more and more complex. When you fumble through all the “LRs” and “CRs” in this game, when you add and subtract huge batches of dice and bonuses, you’ll see why.

But the biggest problem with Shadows of Malice is that it’s tedious. You wear monsters down one slow hit at a time, and it’s pretty hard to hit them at all. The combats just drag and drag and there’s not enough interesting tactical choice (like there is in a game such as Descent) to keep that interesting.

Which is a shame, because there’s a lot here that’s quite evocative. The hex maps that the game is played on really feel like they depict a world. The randomly generated monsters can help you to tell stories. Even the various treasures, potions, and specialized power feel pretty neat.

But that’s matched with a slow game system of a sort  that went out of style decades ago.

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Co-op Case Study: Dead Men Tell No Tales

Publisher: Minion Games (2015)
Cooperative Style: True Co-Op
Play Style: Action Point, Adventure

Overview

Dead Men Tell No Tales puts the players in the roles of pirates looting a ghost ship. Their goal is to recover sufficient treasures before the boat goes up in flames or the defending deckhands overcome the piratical forces.

Challenge System

The challenge system in Dead Men Tell No Tales centers on a rather unusual two-phase challenge system. At the start of each player’s turn, he reveals more of the pirate ship by randomly drawing and placing a tile, then placing a challenge token on that tile. This supports tile-laying play, but replaces the player-directed exploration found in games like Betrayal at House on the Hill (2004) and Sub Terra (2017) with a more methodical reveal of the map that ensures that the entirety of the ship appears over just twenty turns of play. The challenge tokens that are placed during the map creation don’t immediately activate, which is the other innovative part of Dead Men’s challenge system. Instead, these tokens reveal either set challenges or else pending dangers that might be activated in the challenge system’s second phase.

The set challenges revealed by the token placement are actually the victory conditions that players are working toward: six of the tokens are guards, protecting the treasure that players are trying to get off of the ship. If a player can reach a guard he activates it through his movement. He must then succeed at a skill test to defeat the guard. If he does he can grab the treasure; once four to six treasures are taken off the ship, the players win!

Meanwhile, the more active element of the challenge system occurs at the end of a round, when a “Revenge” card is drawn that can activate threats already present on the map. Most importantly, it can: increase fires; add deckhands; and move skeletons.

The fires are an ever-present force on the ghost ship. They work something like the fires in Flash Point: Fire Rescue (2011). Each new tile starts off with a fire, with its strength represented with a die marked from 0 to 5. Then each Revenge card causes all of the fires of a certain value and color to increase by one. Disasters can occur in two ways: any time a fire reaches a “6”, the room explodes, destroying it and increasing the fire of all adjacent rooms. In addition, some rooms have gunpowder barrels that can explode at lower numbers, also increasing the fire in one adjacent room. Overall, the fire system is somewhat simplistic. Because of that, there’s not a lot of chance for confusing interaction: it’s pretty easy to see if a fire is going to blow up, and it’s pretty easy to see the resulting effects.

The deckhands can appear in two different ways: they either appear at rooms with trap doors, or they spread out from the trapdoors that they’re at. This system feels like the diseases of Pandemic (2007), though it’s mostly simplified. The exception is the mechanic for deckhands spreading out, where their expansion has several limitations: they can only spread through doors, to rooms without trapdoors, and that have fewer deckhands than the originating room. There is the opportunity for confusing interaction here, but it’s not necessarily beneficial to the game. It’s not just that you can’t predict where the deckhands will go; it also takes a lot of concentration to place them at all!

The skeletons are a pretty minor element in the game. They’re effectively monsters that move toward the nearest player if they’re activated … but they’re also loot, because defeating them reveals valuable prizes. The biggest issue with the skeletons is that they don’t move enough to be an actual threat. Of the 19 Revenge cards, just four move skeletons. Since they just move one space each time, they don’t surprise players very often, which means that they don’t introduce enough dread to really pull their weight.

None of the individual threat systems of Dead Men is particularly innovative. They’re all pretty obvious matches for what had previously appeared in other games. Though Dead Men contains a lot of these systems, that’s not necessarily a good thing. Paired threats often work well (such as fires vs. deckhands), but Dead Men may have spread out its focus too much with its five different threats (fires, destroyed rooms, deckhands, guards, and skeletons).

With that said, Dead Men’s challenge activation system offers some interesting innovation. By splitting up its challenges into two parts — a tile-laying phase where threats are announced and a card-drawing phase where threats are advanced — it’s created a new model for how challenge systems can work in a cooperative game. (In fact, Sub Terra later used the same model, perhaps to better effect because of a more focused challenge system.)

Challenge System Elements: Turn and Movement Activations; Arbitrary (Card and Tile) Triggers; Simulation; Exponential Cascade; Decay; Removal Consequences; and Combat and Replication Task Threats.

Cooperative System

As with many cooperative games, the core of Dead Men focuses on strategic cooperation. Players each work on different problems at different locations, guided in large part by their character’s abilities. With everyone working together, all of the problems are (hopefully) resolved. However, Dead Men also contains a few innovative systems that create interesting tactical cooperation.

Its first cooperative innovation lies in its action point system. Like Flash Point, Pandemic, and other games in this co-op family, players in Dead Men expend action points on their turns to do a number of different things — including moving, fighting fires, and removing deckhands. However Dead Men varies from its predecessors by offering the ability to pass a limited number of action points to the next player. This creates considerable tactical opportunities and also gives players the ability to work together even when they’re far apart (by deciding who needs more or less actions at any time).

Its second cooperative innovation lies in its item system. Each player starts the game out with an item that provides a minor special power, while a few other are left on the table. As an action, a player may take any item — from the table or from another player. This gives players the ability to tactically decide which of them need which powers at any time, which is a real rarity in the field.

Adventure System

Each player initially gets a character and an item — providing them with lots of varied setups, chosen from 49 different possibilities (7 characters * 7 items) —which is much more variability than in most co-op games. Each of these 49 possibilities introduce some evocative adventure-game elements into the game.

The other innovation in Dead Men’s adventure system comes from its “fatigue” system. These are essentially life points, which decrease as a character enters hot rooms or is damaged in combat. The innovative element is that players accrue disadvantages as their fatigue increases by losing the ability to enter certain rooms. There are a few other games with similar decay-related disadvantages, but it’s still a ripe area for exploration.

Final Thoughts

To a certain extent, Dead Men Tell No Tales feels like a hodge-podge, adopting many of the general ideas from a handful of successful co-op games, particularly those in the Pandemic family of design. This comes across the most in its challenge system, which might have mashed together too many possibilities.

With that said, it’s also got quite a few innovative (or sometimes: rarely used) ideas that would be of value to the rest of the cooperative field, including: a two-phase challenge system, a two-part character system, redistributable action points, and easily redistributable power items.

Kane Klenko

Wisconsin game designer Kane Klenko appeared on the scene in 2014 and initially focused on real-time designs like Mad City (2014), Pressure Cooker (2015), and Proving Grounds (2019). The turn-based co-op Dead Men Tell No Tales (2015) was a bit of a departure, but Klenko then combined his interests in the real-time co-ops FUSE (2015), Flatline (2017), and most notably Pandemic: Rapid Response (2019).

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Co-op Case Study: Sprawlopolis

This week’s case study is about what may be the most minimalist co-op that I’ve met: 18 cards, and less than 15 minutes play. Nonetheless, it’s an enjoyable and intriguing game.

This article originally appeared in Meeples Together.


Publisher: Button Shy (2018)
Cooperative Style: True Co-op
Play Style: Card Management, Tile Laying

Overview

It’s city-building time! Players are given three goals for building their city, then must do so by playing 15 cards, one at a time. In the end their city will be scored based on adherence to those goals, the minimization of roads, and the alignment of matched city districts.

Challenge System

The challenge system of Sprawlopolis is largely dependent on the time limitation implicit in the fifteen-card deck. To be precise, it has a point-based timer: players must achieve a certain number of points before the timer runs out. This methodology has appeared in a few recent co-ops that have minimal challenge systems, with another example being the co-op version of Lone Shark Games’ The Ninth World (2018).

However, there’s also a more standard card activation that goes off on each player’s turn — at least in minimal form. Each turn (until late in the game), a player is given a hand of three cards, and he must play one. This introduces previewing and choice not found in most co-ops, but in the end a player is effectively activating a challenge system when he chooses what to play.

The thing that makes this card selection a challenge system is that some of the cards have positive aspects (because they can extend current districts and because they can fulfill positive goals) and some have negative aspects (because they add roads and because they achieve negative goals). A challenge system is all about weathering negative surprises while trying to advance on positive goals — and it’s all there in Sprawlopolis, albeit in a simple form. It’s a nice alternative way to look at challenge system mechanics.

Challenge System Elements: Round Activation; Arbitrary Trigger (with Preview); Scoring Timer

Cooperative System

Sprawlopolis is about players taking coordinated action toward a shared goal: they’re working together to build a city meeting certain criteria. However, there’s just a single mechanic that supports this cooperation: a player makes a choice to play a single card from a hand of three, then he passes the rest on to the next player.

A similar mechanic is used to good effect in Between Two Cities (2015). That city-building game depends on card-drafting, where a player is constantly choosing a pair of tiles from a larger set, then passing the rest on to one of his partners in urban construction. There, the mechanic allows silent signaling between players, as one player tells another what to do through the tiles he places; it also creates the opportunity for strong collaboration, as a player can play tiles that set up his partner.

Sadly, the same doesn’t occur in Sprawlopolis despite the very similar mechanic. The main reason is the complexity of its cards (which are an equivalent component to the tiles of Between Two Cities). Each city card shows four quadrants, each of which belongs to a different district, and three of which contain road segments. This is a high level of information, especially when multiplied across three cards. Simply deciding which card to play and where to play it on an ever-growing board can cause a lot of Analysis Paralysis for a player; trying to be clever and playing a card while setting up a play for a partner will be impossible for all but spatial geniuses.

In fact, Sprawlopolis feels a lot more like cooperative solitaire than a true collaboration, and that largely comes down to the spatial complexity of the potential plays. It requires sufficient concentration that the other players are likely to fade into the background unless a player gets really stuck and calls out for help. It’s an interesting lesson in co-op design: no matter how good the cooperative systems, a game can step back from cooperation if players have to think too much on their own.

The other interesting aspect of Sprawlopolis’ cooperation is its free discussion: players can openly talk about all of their cards. However, much as in T.I.M.E. Stories (2015), that open communication is meaningfully restricted because the players can’t reveal the cards they’re discussing. There’s enough complexity in Sprawlopolis’ cards that there’s just no way for a player to convey all of the possibilities of all of the cards in his hand — and even if he painstakingly describes each one, panel by panel, the other players are unlikely to fully understand.

Final Thoughts

Sprawlopolis is a very minimal co-op, with almost no cooperative systems and almost no challenge systems. However, it’s also a very minimal game that plays out over the course of just 15 turns, in 15 minutes or less. Though the co-op mechanics of the game might not be that notable, they’re exactly what’s needed for a simple game of this sort.

Button Shy Games

Jason Tagmire is the founder of Button Shy Game, a producer of small, wallet-sized microgames created by his family and friends. Steven Aramini, Danny Devine, and Paul Kulka have also designed a few other games for Button Shy: Circle the Wagons (2017) and The X-Files: Circle of Truth (2018). They used a similar card-drafting mechanism, but this was the first to use that card drafting in a cooperative context.

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Co-op Case Study: Descent – Journeys in the Dark 1e

The overlord category of co-ops gets a decent amount of attention in Meeples Together, but we probably could have written a whole chapter on how overlords interact with the challenge machinery of a co-op game. Instead, we offer up this case study, our first to discuss an overlord game. It describes one of the foundational games in the modern overlord category, and also outline how overlords and challenge systems work together.

This article originally appeared in Meeples Together.


Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games (2005)
Cooperative Style: Overlord
Play Style: Adventure, Combat

Overview

In Descent: Journeys in the Dark, players take on the roles of heroes who are venturing forth on dangerous quests. Each of these quests is codified in a scenario that tells the overlord how to lay out rooms and monsters. The game is then played out as tactical combat, with the heroes trying to fight their way to the end of the scenario while the overlord tries to slay them.

Challenge System

Descent was the first major overlord-driven co-op of the euro-influenced wave of games that followed the release of Lord of the Rings (2000). However, its design for how its overlord interacts with the challenge game system largely follows in the footsteps of older co-ops such as HeroQuest (1989).

This interaction comes from the overlord filling two major roles.

The overlord’s true interaction with the challenge machinery comes from his second major role, as a fighter. Here we truly see how an overlord can work as a cog amidst the challenge gears.First, the overlord acts as an administrator: each scenario describes a dungeon with different areas separated by doors. Whenever a door is opened, the overlord places rooms, corridors, monsters, and treasures according to the design of the scenario. There’s also a minor storytelling role here: the overlord is instructed to read color text when each new area is unveiled (and also when certain events occur). Neither of these roles is a very interesting part of the challenge machinery: the players could just as easily do this placement themselves if they could be protected from seeing information that they shouldn’t — as Fantasy Flight has managed in some of their later, app-driven co-ops, such as Mansions of Madness 2e (2016).

Like many co-ops that derive from the roleplaying side of gaming, the overlord in Descent activates just once a round, after all the heroes’ turns. This is pretty important for overlord play because an overlord shouldn’t go too often, lest they impact everyone else’s fun.

After the overlord is activated, he has an overlord trigger, meaning that he makes the decision about which bad things happen. But, that’s not the whole story. The overlord can only play cards that he draws, which effectively introduces a card trigger to the equation: it’s just hidden from the other players, because only the overlord gets to see those cards before they’re played. There’s also a simulation at play, because the overlord is spawning monsters, which he’ll then activate and move toward the players. (Their activation isn’t automated as in similar co-ops that don’t have an overlord, such as the Dungeons & Dragons Adventure System games, but nonetheless their movements and attacks will often be pretty set, depending on the powers of the monsters and the position of the heroes.)

Descent doesn’t contain much decay, which is another standard for overlord play: because the overlord is more explicitly a competitor, the game can’t be too unfairly biased toward him. As for cascade, the closest is a system of resource-driven ebbs and flows. The overlord has to pay for his card plays with the “threat” resource, which he gains every round. He can continuously play it to generate constant pressure, but he can also save it up to suddenly hit the players with multiple problems (or one big problem) all at once. So, it’s a uniquely player-driven style of cascade, where the overlord decides when everything spins out of control.

Generally, one can model overlord-driven challenge machinery as a system of inputs and outputs with the overlord sitting at the middle. Here, he receives cards, resources, and a round-limited activation as inputs and he outputs monsters and consequences that then link into a monster simulation and can create cascades.

Challenge System Elements: Round Activation; Arbitrary Trigger; Overlord Trigger; Simulation; Linear Cascade; Overlord; and Combat Threats.

Cooperative System

Descent is a game of tactical combat, and so the majority of its cooperation occurs via that mechanism. This cooperation is enabled by the specialization of the heroes, which mainly focuses on how they fight. Tanks stand up front and use their armor to shield the rest of the party, while more vulnerable spellcasters and archers attack from afar. Together, they group damage to try and kill monsters in the most efficient way possible. It’s a simplistic method of cooperation, but the complexity of the game board creates tough tactical decisions.

Adventure System

Contrariwise, Descent has a very intricate adventure system.

Each character is defined by a character card (which includes ten attributes), three skill cards (which grant special abilities), and a number of equipment cards (which mostly aid the character in combat). This creates quite a high level of specialization for each character.

The game’s skill-test system is based on carefully manufactured dice. This is quite a clever design, because the players don’t have to learn special rules for figuring out when they hit their foes: they just roll the dice and read the results.

A “miss” result (or its lack) determines the overall success of the dice, while “damage” results measure the total number of hits; this means that the more dice a character rolls, the more damage he does, all without requiring special rules for more proficient warriors: they just roll more dice. Special “power surge” results integrate special powers: a character uses any surges rolled to pay for those special abilities. Finally, ranged attacks roll special dice that include “range” results, which are added together to measure how far the character could fire; this is yet another clever and intuitive integration: better ranged fighters will roll more dice, which will allow them to hit from further away.

Since Descent’s skill-test system is focused on combat, it doesn’t have the breadth of some other adventure games, but its use of special dice to model the usage of special powers and the advantages of proficiency remains unmatched even more than a decade later.

Expansions & Variants

Descent reimplements the game system from Doom: The Boardgame (2004), adapting it for dungeon play. The two games remain close cousins.

Descent has also been much expanded. Most of its supplements add new rules, new scenarios, and piles of new plastic monsters to fight. These include: The Well of Darkness (2006), The Altar of Despair (2007), and The Tomb of Ice (2008).

Descent 1e’s Road to Legend (2008) expansion marked a larger change — and also a turning point for the whole co-op category. Road to Legend introduced rules that allowed players to engage in many sessions of tactical combat, all connected together as a campaign, lasting perhaps 40 hours in total. Back in 2008, the idea of being able to pack up a game and return to it was all but unprecedented. Road to Legend managed it by using a campaign board to link together all of the adventures and by providing boxes that could be used to store a character’s cards and markers. As a first in its class, Road to Legend was a bit unpolished, suffering in particular from problems with maintaining balance over time, but it was still an amazing innovation.

No other game has repeated Road to Legend’s idea of simply breaking a game down into bite-sized scenes, allowing for sessions as short or long as desired. However, the concept of campaign games has proliferated, particularly in card-based campaign such as the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game (2013) and in legacy games beginning with Risk Legacy (2011), which spawned co-op campaign releases such as Pandemic Legacy (2015, 2017, 2020?). Fantasy Flight themselves repeated the campaign idea for Descent 1e in Sea of Blood (2009), though it reportedly had even more game balance problems.

The whole Descent line has since been revamped in Descent: Journeys in the Dark second edition (2012).

Final Thoughts

By reimplementing the Doom: The Boardgame (2004) system, Descent 1e became the first of the new dungeon delve co-ops. It (and Doom before it) in turn followed in the footsteps of HeroQuest, redefining its classic gameplay — with an overlord laying out set scenarios and controlling combat threats, while the other players cooperate mainly through tactical combat — while applying more precise eurogame mechanics. Many more games of this sort have followed, from the flicking Catacombs (2010) to the three-dimensional Attack of Titan: The Last Stand (2017), from the overlord-free Masmorra: Dungeons of Arcadia (2017) to the Legacy-hit Gloomhaven (2017). But this is where you can find the core concepts that defined the category of play.

“When I designed Descent 1st ed., I purposely started the quests easier for the heroes at first, and then ramped them up over time because of the violent reactions some folks had to Doom’s difficulty. It’s tricky to gauge that sort of thing because no two gaming groups are the same, and that makes the 50/50 win ratio that some expect kind of impossible, assuming it’s even a worthwhile goal.”

—Kevin Wilson, January 2012, “Interview with Board Game Designer Kevin Wilson”, Cheerful Ghost, https://cheerfulghost.com/jdodson/posts/666/interview-with-board-game-designer-kevin-wilson

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Designing for Loss, Part One: Obscuring the Loss

Classic board games are all about competition: someone wins and (usually) several someones lose. But, those games aren’t just about instantaneous moments of victory. They’re about ever improving victory over time, which tends to appear in one of two ways.

  1. Linear Gain. Players gradually gain points over time. Though players may gain more or fewer points on any turn, a player who is ahead has more likelihood to stay ahead, and a player who is behind has more likelihood to stay behind. Candy Land (1949) offers an example (with the understanding that a race track is the same thing as a score track, except the winner is the one who gets to an arbitrary score, as opposed to the player who is ahead at an arbitrary time): players further ahead on the track are more likely to win the game than those behind. 
  2. Exponential Gain. Many more games instead support a system of exponential gain, where a player who is ahead gains lots more points than one who is behind. This tends to be because they’ve built an engine that is linearly better than those built by opponents, and that linear improvement tends to translate into an exponential point game in many designs. Take Catan (1995) as an example: with a simple linear expansion of cities and settlements, a player becomes much more able to build new cities and settlements, and perhaps more notably to take road spaces and build sites desired by opponents.

Whichever way that players improve their score, there’s a notable problem: it becomes quickly apparent that some players are winning and some are losing, and so are more likely to win or lose the whole game. So how do you keep “losers” interested in a game? There are a couple of game design solutions, of which I’m going to discuss the simplest in this first article: obscuring the score. Because when playing a competitive game, it’s quite often literally true that ignorance is bliss.

There are a number of different ways to obscure victory in this way.

Solution #1: Hide the Score

<img data-attachment-id="4521" data-permalink="http://www.mechanics-and-meeples.com/2019/11/12/designing-for-loss-part-one-obscuring-the-loss/smallworld-2/" data-orig-file="https://i0.wp.com/www.mechanics-and-meeples.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/smallworld-1.jpg?fit=506%2C506" data-orig-size="506,506" data-comments-opened="1" data-image-meta="{"aperture":"0","credit":"","camera":"","caption":"","created_timestamp":"0","copyright":"","focal_length":"0","iso":"0","shutter_speed":"0","title":"","orientation":"0"}" data-image-title="small world" data-image-description="

Small World image courtesy garion on BGG.

” data-medium-file=”https://i0.wp.com/www.mechanics-and-meeples.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/smallworld-1.jpg?fit=300%2C300″ data-large-file=”https://i0.wp.com/www.mechanics-and-meeples.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/smallworld-1.jpg?fit=506%2C506″ class=”alignright wp-image-4521″ src=”http://middleirth.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/designing-for-loss-part-one-obscuring-the-loss.jpg” alt width=”250″ height=”250″ srcset=”http://middleirth.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/designing-for-loss-part-one-obscuring-the-loss-5.jpg 300w, http://middleirth.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/designing-for-loss-part-one-obscuring-the-loss-6.jpg 150w, http://middleirth.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/designing-for-loss-part-one-obscuring-the-loss-7.jpg 506w” sizes=”(max-width: 250px) 100vw, 250px” data-recalc-dims=”1″>Simple, small, subtle designs can fix big problems in games. I think I saw this most clearly when I observed the design changes from VInci (1999) to Small World (2009).

In the original game, each player’s score was recorded on a score track, and as a result the player who got out ahead early in the game got stomped by his opponents later. It meant that the gameplay ended up focused on figuring out how to hang back just long enough that the assaults by your opponents couldn’t drag you back before the end of the game. As a result, each game was full of hesitant play and kingmaking. It made Vinci uncomfortable, despite its brilliant special power system.

In contrast, Small World gives players points as coins, which they can then turn upside down to hide, and that makes all the difference. Yes, players could count every coin that a player collects, but they don’t, and as a result players can suspect who is winning, but they never know for sure, and so there isn’t the same entirely obvious assault upon the winner.

More notably for the problem discussed here, there’s not an entirely obvious loser either. Which means that even if a player is behind, they can have fun, because they don’t know about their sad state.

Solution #2: Divide the Score

Catan CreativitySometimes, you can keep scores open, but make them complex enough to calculate that players can’t easily assess them over the course of the game.

Catan (1995) trends this way, but doesn’t go far enough because players can actually count the points from settlements, cities, and the majority awards pretty easily — though they’re still not constantly in players’ head.

Going further, consider a game like the recent Draftosaurus (2019), which has dinosaurs scoring in six or seven different ways. Players are not going to look at each others’ boards and calculate all of their points, and so even if a loser is doing badly in Draftosaurus, they’re not entirely sure how that interrelates with other players.

Solution #3: Hide & Divide the Score

ConcordiaFinally, it should be obvious that combining both dividing and hiding the score can do even more to preserve the innocence of losers.

Most deckbuilders do this, such as Ascension (2010), which gives players honor points for the monsters that they kill, but which grants most of their points for the cards in their decks (which yes, are bought in the open, and are even played in the open, but there’s no way to track them rationally, other than the big picture stuff like, “She’s got a lot of valuable Mechana Constructs”.)

A stronger example appears in Concordia (2013), which offers an entirely clever correlation of divided and (somewhat) hidden information: the cards that a player collects in his deck are multipliers for victory points earned from things on the board like money, cities, provinces, and colonists.

Solution #4: Focus on Engine Building

Roll for the Galaxy Trays ThumbnailAlternatively, games can hide how well players are doing by focusing on the heart of their exponential scoring: engine building. Maybe players will see that one of their opponents is building a better tableau in Race for the Galaxy (2007), a better dice collection in Roll for the Galaxy (2014), or a better deck in Ascension (2009), but that’s not numerically measurable in quite the same way that a score is; even moreso, it’s not immediately obvious how a good engine turns into a good score: I’ver certainly seen enlightened Ascension decks that were great at playing through their whole deck … without actually generating much in the way of Runes or Power.

In any case, whether players are building up board positions, card decks, or economic engines, it’s often less obvious when players are far ahead. This is particularly true when games are built on a popular design pattern where players create their engine early in the game, then only make the rush for points late in the game.

Solution #5: Omit the Score

<img data-attachment-id="3468" data-permalink="http://www.mechanics-and-meeples.com/2018/03/05/the-anatomy-of-racing-games-close-cousins/streetcar/" data-orig-file="https://i1.wp.com/www.mechanics-and-meeples.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/streetcar.jpg?fit=600%2C600" data-orig-size="600,600" data-comments-opened="1" data-image-meta="{"aperture":"0","credit":"","camera":"","caption":"","created_timestamp":"0","copyright":"","focal_length":"0","iso":"0","shutter_speed":"0","title":"","orientation":"0"}" data-image-title="Streetcar" data-image-description="

The Streetcar picture (actually of the Linie 1 edition) is courtesy ikajaste on BGG.

” data-medium-file=”https://i1.wp.com/www.mechanics-and-meeples.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/streetcar.jpg?fit=300%2C300″ data-large-file=”https://i1.wp.com/www.mechanics-and-meeples.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/streetcar.jpg?fit=584%2C584″ class=”wp-image-3468 alignright” src=”http://middleirth.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/designing-for-loss-part-one-obscuring-the-loss-4.jpg” alt width=”250″ height=”250″ srcset=”http://middleirth.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/designing-for-loss-part-one-obscuring-the-loss-15.jpg 300w, http://middleirth.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/designing-for-loss-part-one-obscuring-the-loss-16.jpg 150w, http://middleirth.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/designing-for-loss-part-one-obscuring-the-loss-17.jpg 600w” sizes=”(max-width: 250px) 100vw, 250px” data-recalc-dims=”1″>There’s one last way to hide a score, which is to omit it entirely. Instead, give players some goal that they’re trying to accomplish to win the game, one that is not entirely based on just earning numerical points.

Blue Moon City (2006) trends in this direction: players collect crystals to be the first to make four contributions to the central Crystal of the Obelisk. So, it’s sort of a game with a four-point score, but there’s so little granularity that players can’t always see who’s ahead or behind: instead a game is often won by the minor efficiency of who saves a turn or two, and is thus able to make a final contribution first.

Streetcar (1995) trends even further in this direction, because the most crucial goal is completing a network of connections. Perhaps we could say that someone’s score is equal to how few tiles he needs to lay to finish his connection, but that feels like sophistry. Unless you’re talking about the racing end to the game (which usually doesn’t change the order of completion), then Streetcar is scoreless.

Clue (1949), Mystery of the Abbey (1995), and other deduction games offer even more clear examples of scoreless games. They’re usually entirely binary: either someone wins because they get the answer right, or they don’t.

Conclusion

It is about whether you win or lose, and although good sports will take their loss graciously, no one has much fun playing an extended game, knowing that they’re going to lose the whole time. The first, and most obvious solution is to hide that fact from players, and there are a number of ways to do so.

But there’s another option: giving players the ability to catch up. More on that later this month.


Most of my game collection has been boxed up for a move, and so I couldn’t get new pictures of stuff I own! Alas! The Small World image is courtesy garion on BGG. The Streetcar picture (actually of the Linie 1 edition) is courtesy ikajaste on BGG. Both games are strong games that are still in my collection!

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Co-op Case Study: Blood Bound

We’ve just passed by the night of masks and false faces, so it seems appropriate that we’re talking about another hidden teams game (and one that feels like a natural successor to Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space, which we discussed two weeks ago).

As it happens, we’ve played a number of hidden team games since the publication of Meeples Together, and we’ve still got a few classics to touch upon as well. We don’t want to take away from the full co-op games that are the core of the book, but we will be returning with a few other games of this sort in January. 

This article was originally published on the Meeples Together blog.


Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games (2013)
Cooperative Style: Hidden Teams
Play Style: Take That

Overview

You’re a vampire of the secretive Rose or Beast clan. They’re so secretive that you don’t even know who the other members of your clan are! Instead, you must engage in deduction by stabbing the other characters with a knife. Your eventual goal is to identify the leader of the opposing clan and capture them — but if you capture the wrong vampire, your whole clan loses!

Cooperative System

Blood Bound is obviously a descendent of team games such as Werewolf (1986, 1997) and Bang! (2003), but it may share the most interesting similarities with Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space (2010): both are elimination-focused hidden teams games that layer a second level of deduction atop the typical role deduction.

Role deduction is always a core element in hidden teams game. Unlike games such as Bang!, Saboteur (2004), and Werewolf, which only support role deduction through assessment of game activity, Blood Bound has an actual deductive system: each character has two  affiliation tokens and one rank token that identify that character. The core action of the game, stabbing another character, reveals one of these identity tokens each time a character takes a wound. It’s a simple system, but the ambiguity of some of the tokens means that many of the characters are never entirely identified, requiring players to meld this mechanics-based deduction with the more typical assessment of player actions.

On its own, Blood Bound’s role deduction would be interesting, but it rises up to the next level because the game also contains rank deduction: each character has a rank between 1 and 9, with between three and six ranks appearing on each team in a game (depending on the number of players). The players know that the lowest ranked character is the leader, but not only don’t they know what everyone’s rank is at start, but they also don’t know which rank is the lowest. In an eight-player game, with four players per team, the rank “2” character is probably the leader (unless there’s a “1” in the game), but and less obviously a “6” could be. This means that players often have to weigh what they know and what they’ve deduced against probability — which is a good design for a hidden teams game because it forces players to make decisions when everything is shades of gray. (In our opinion, a hidden teams game where you’re able to deduce most of the roles by the end of the game is superior to one where you always deduce all of them.)

The other major element of hidden teams games, the ability to work together, does get some attention in Blood Bound, even if it isn’t as intricate of a system as the deduction. Obviously, players can work together to kill (capture) their opponents, just like in Bang! or Werewolf. There’s also an ability to “intervene”, throwing yourself in front a knife meant for someone else, which can help keep your leader safe (assuming you’ve deduced correctly). Finally, each player has a special ability, and a number of these can be used to help fellows or hurt opponents — and again are made more interesting by how often players are not 100% sure of their assessments.

Finally, Blood Bound contains a “deductive cue” to get things started: at the beginning of the game each player grants a “clue” to the player to his left: he shows them a corner of his card, which contains an icon that probably shows which team he’s on. Giving player this sort of starting cue helps them make more thoughtful deductions and take more meaningful actions; it compares favorably to a more classic game like Bang!, where the first player is forced to take a shot, not knowing who most of the players are.

A deductive cue also offers the ability to provide information (or misinformation) to the rest of the table. Players assume that their fellows will take certain actions based on what they know — and that can be used to benefit one team or hurt the other, but it can also be used to throw the rest of the players off the scent.

No Challenge System Elements. Hidden Teams.

Adventure System

The theming of Blood Bound as a vampire fight is very shallow. Though there are nine ranks, each with their own title and special ability, neither that nor the game’s theming makes it much of an adventure game.

Final Thoughts

Blood Bound has a strong deductive system that shows what you can do when you focus a game entirely on deduction. In particular, it shows how much uncertainty you can allow in a game that focuses on hidden teams (or traitors), while still allowing players a good chance at figuring things out, and it demonstrates the benefits of doing so.

Kalle Krenzer

Kalle Krenzer has designed just one game: Blood Bound for Fantasy Flight Games. It received good attention when demoed at Heidelberger Spieleevent 2012 and was a 2014 Kennerspiel des Jahres Recommended game.

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The original article can be found on the great Mechanics & Meeples