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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 Problem with Game Length

<img data-attachment-id="4502" data-permalink="http://www.mechanics-and-meeples.com/2019/10/28/the-problem-with-game-length/caylus-2/" data-orig-file="https://i1.wp.com/www.mechanics-and-meeples.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/caylus.jpg?fit=500%2C500" data-orig-size="500,500" 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="caylus" data-image-description="

(courtesy 3EBC on BGG)

” data-medium-file=”https://i1.wp.com/www.mechanics-and-meeples.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/caylus.jpg?fit=300%2C300″ data-large-file=”https://i1.wp.com/www.mechanics-and-meeples.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/caylus.jpg?fit=500%2C500″ class=”alignright wp-image-4502″ src=”http://middleirth.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/the-problem-with-game-length.jpg” alt width=”250″ height=”250″ srcset=”http://middleirth.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/the-problem-with-game-length-4.jpg 300w, http://middleirth.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/the-problem-with-game-length-5.jpg 150w, http://middleirth.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/the-problem-with-game-length-6.jpg 500w” sizes=”(max-width: 250px) 100vw, 250px” data-recalc-dims=”1″>Once upon a time, a game called Caylus (2005) was released, and it was quickly lauded as the best game ever. It soon climbed the ranking charts on BGG, and there was much hysteria about whether it would surpass Puerto Rico (2002) as the new #1. (Spoiler: it did not.) And so when I sat down to play it on December 14, 2005, I had high expectations.

They were not met.

OK, I’ll admit, I didn’t understand at the time that the hype was over the worker-placement mechanism, which created a whole new industry of eurogames, including ones that I quite enjoy such as Agricola (2007), Le Havre (2008), and A Feast for Odin (2016) — which seems to suggest that I particularly enjoy the somewhat smaller Uwe Rosenberg worker-placement game industry. But I also love Viticulture (2015) and much of Richard Breese’s Key series, depending on how you define “worker placement”. I mean how many games can say they were the basis of a mechanic tag on BGG? (Dozens, I suppose, with pointless arguments over whether a game was “first” or not, when it’s really a question of whether it was “inspirational”*.) And how many games can say they created stupid arguments over terminology started by people too lazy to understand the words they’re using?

But here’s what I did understand: Caylus was kinda boring.

Blasphemy? Maybe. It just dragged on and on though. Yeah, I’m sometimes a short-timer on games, and was more so in my early days in the hobby. But Caylus has a particularly bad problem in this regard: it can literally run twice as long as you expect!

The troublemakers are the provost and the bailiff and how they interact. Depending on how the players use the provost, the bailiff will either move one space a turn or two … and his movement controls when the game ends. So if you get stuck in a game with players who are constantly backtracking the provost, you find that Caylus outstays its welcome. I don’t know if that was the case with my first game of Caylus in December 2015, or my second game in February 2016, but I know I’d soured on the game by that point because I didn’t play for another year, and in all time I only played the hottest game of (late) 2005 four times.

I’d say “It’s not you, it’s me”, but it’s definitely you: Caylus had a crippling problem with game length.

Breaking the Game (Length)

Any game with a widely variable game length is problematic, because you just can’t assess how long it might take. But it’s worse than just an unknown table time: games with widely variable game lengths often end up being not-fun. Quite simply, a game that’s intended for a specific length is going to be the most fun at that length. If it runs too long, it’s going to be boring, and if it runs too short, it can be unfulfilling. And I think it’s even worse when players are making the choices about game length; because they have a choice, the game isn’t going to be a random length (which will settle toward the average) but instead it’s likely to be an extreme length (either super short or super long).

The Ascension (2010) deckbuilder is another game where I see this same problem: where player choice can dramatically change the game length. There, the game ends when all the honor crystals are given out: that’s a pretty standard end-game mechanism, where exhaustion of victory-point token is one mechanism for game-end. Race for the Galaxy (2007) does it, and so do many others.

The problem in Asension is that honor crystals are mostly distributed for one very specific sort of play: killing monsters. (Lifebound heroes also occasionally distribute honor when played, but they account for a smaller percentage of the honor total.) Unfortunately, this means that players can rush the game-end — and I tend to see this a lot in the computer version of the game, where the AI players mostly focus on monster killing because the monster-killing Heavy Infantry card has a better cost-to-victory-point ratio than most other cards. Even if there aren’t monsters on the board, Heavy Infantry can kill cultists, and the honor crystals continue to run out of the honor pool at a very rapid speed. In the end, other players are left with a half-constructed deck whose engine never got going, extinguishing a lot of fun in the game. Meanwhile, I’ve seen the exact opposite problem in in-person games: no one is willing to buy monster-killing cards and so the center row clogs with monsters that no one can defeat. And that makes the game drag on and on.

When a game tends to always run too short in its computer incarnation and always too long in its physical incarnation, that’s a prime sign of a problematic game length. Because it shows that the game length is largely controlled by player choice (and unfortunately, the different player choices in the physical and computer game versions tend to push it toward the least desirable lengths for each of those mediums).

(And I should say, unlike Caylus, I loved and still love Ascension, but I think that’s because its extremes of game length are smaller, probably accounting for a few rounds of difference at most, not an entire doubling of the game length.)

Fixing the Game Length

Don’t take this rant to mean that variable game length is problematic: it’s not. Variable game length can add both tension and strategy to a game. If you don’t know when the game is going to end, that’s tension. And if you can slightly move the needle, to make the game last a round less or a round more, that’s strategy. The problem is a game like Caylus that can last twice as long or a game like Ascension that can have enough variability to move it outside of its zone of best-play.

So how do you have variable game length without fully telescoping game length?

Better design.

That’s often done by replacing a player choice with a randomization, because randomization will eventually move towards the mean (if the randomization occurs sufficiently!).

Ra: The Dice Game (2009) offers a fine example. Players throw a hand of five dice, and get to reroll them a couple of times. At the end of each player’s turn, any die showing a sun is added to the counter that advances the game toward the end of the round (and eventually, the end of the game).

But, that could have created a lot of variance, as the timer could have advanced 0-5 slots on each turn, so game designer par excellent Reiner Knizia also put in a limiter: if more than two suns turn up, then the timer isn’t advanced at all, meaning that in reality it advances 0-2 suns each turn. This keeps the game length bounded and makes sure it doesn’t spiral into any less likely randomizations.

Even with total player choice, game length can be tightly constrained, as is the case with the excellent Poker-derivative, Havoc: The Hundred Years War (2005). In a normal game, there are up to two rounds of play before each of the first eight wars, but players can make the game go short by starting wars early. How do you balance this? Self-interest. A player only calls a war early if he thinks he can win, but the longer it’s been since the last war … the more likely that someone feels like they are that especially lucky player.

However it’s more than just self-interest. As opposed to Caylus, the correlation between game length and winning in Havoc is much clearer. In Caylus, the movement of the provost and the bailiff is not just really abstracted, but it’s far removed from winning. A player can make the game go long or short without feeling like they’re making a commitment. But in Havoc, a player is making a real commitment to win a war when they shorten the game, so they make very sure they know what they’re doing**.

Overall, the way to fix a broken game-length design is just to apply game design. It needs to be carefully considered, like the rest of a game’s play; problems occur when a designer thinks the issues related to game length aren’t important. The tight limitations of Ra and the strong incentives of Havoc demonstrate two ways to manage a game’s length, but they’re just two possibilities among an infinity of choices.

The Problem with Player Numbers

Before I close out on the problems of game length, I want to complain a bit about a closely related topic, player numbers (which I ranted about a decade ago: some things never change).

The problem is that too many games don’t account for player numbers when determining their game length.

If a game manages to stay the same length for most player numbers, that’s great. Consider Pandemic (2008): the size of the player deck is set, and so the game is bounded by the same length if you have two players or four.

If a game goes a little bit longer with more players, I think that actually might be ideal: individual players don’t lose too much of the experience, but still you don’t have to massively change the game length.

But the games that chunk up an extra 30 or 45 minutes, those are problematic, especially when they don’t admit it on the box. Heck, box labeling might fix most of those problems, as “30 minutes / player” is actually more informative than “1-2 hours”, but it’s still a subpar situation where you’re trying to get a game to the table at a gathering, and you have to calculate whether it’s playable in part based on how many people are interested. Give me a game that only runs 3-4 players any day over one that runs 3-6, but which adds on 20-30 minutes for every player you add.

And then there’s the occasional game that gets exponentially longer the more players you add. Bleh!

(Also the worst: games that just list one play length, irrespective of the number of players. So you sit down for your 60-minute game, and two and a half hours later you’re cursing out the four friends unlucky enough to be playing with you, as well as scaring the cats.)

Just as designers need to think about game length in their design, they also need to think about the effects of player counts on that game length, rather than just throwing their games into the wild and hoping for the best (because then those are the games that then get thrown in the trash).

That is my game length TED talk. Thank you for listening to me rant.


* The pedants will argue “Caylus wasn’t the first worker-placement game.” Probably the case, though I violently disagree with the idea that Keydom (1999) / Aladdin’s Dragons (2000) was anything but an auction game. But, the “first” is rarely an important marker in any case: the “popularizer” is what matters.

** Could a bad player still ruin the game by shortening every round of play? Yes. It’s a vulnerability in the game, but one that will only be exploited by someone purposefully breaking the game, and they’ll likely be disinvited from the next game.

– The image of Caylus is courtesy 3EBC on BGG. This version of it has been cropped to highlight the problematic pieces.

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Co-op Case Study: Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space

The hidden team games are an interesting adjacent space for co-op design, both for the cooperative mechanics of their team-based play and for the introduction of deduction, something that any traitors game could learn from. So over the rest of October we’ll be looking at a pair of hidden teams games.

This article was originally published in the Meeples Together blog.


Publisher: Santa Ragione (2010, 2016)
Cooperative Style: Hidden Teams
Play Style: Hidden Movement

Overview

The humans are trying to escape! The aliens are trying to kill them! And you are secretly either a human or an alien. Your moves are secret too, though you’ll sometimes reveal your true location and sometimes a false location, based on which cards you draw when exploring. Humans win individually if they escape, and aliens win collectively if they eat up all the tasty human morsels.

Cooperative System

Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space is obviously reminiscent of Bang! (2003), the first hidden teams game of the modern era, and before it Werewolf (1986, 1997). They’re all about figuring out which team everyone is on, and then killing off your adversaries. However, Escape focuses a lot more on its deduction— though it’s deduction that’s somewhat tangential to the teams themselves.

Deduction tends to be the first cooperative design element of hidden teams games: it traditionally focuses on whether players can mechanically determine which team another character is on. In Escape, a few of the core actions (playing an item and making an attack) largely reveal which team a player is on. Unlucky draws of movement cards can also do so. It’s all quite rote (and very black and white).

So, the role deduction in Escape is somewhat limited on its own, but fortunately there’s another super-star deduction mechanic: Escape’s hidden movement system. The fact that a player can either reveal a real or a fake location, depending on the draw of a card, allows for both bluffing and deduction regarding where a player actually is. This dovetail nicely dovetails with the hidden teams, allowing for some more thoughtful role deduction as a result: a locations might reveal which team a player is on or it might obscure it (depending on how good a job the player is doing with the hidden movement). It’s a combination that’s rarely been used, but fits together well.

The second cooperative design element of a hidden teams game tends to be whether players can work together. Unfortunately, this isn’t as strong as Escape’s two-tier deduction system. As it turns out, the humans have almost no incentive to work together because they win individually. Meanwhile, the aliens can work together once they verify who’s on their team, but the rules are silent on what they’re allowed to say. If the aliens just generally talk about which areas they’re moving to and what they’re going to do, all is well. But, if they’re allowed to state the exact sectors they’re moving to, then the game loses one of its vital balances: the ability for aliens to accidentally kill each other. Escape very much needs a detail limitation in its communication rules, but doesn’t have one.

There’s one last weird quirk to Escape’s cooperative play: a winning condition unlike almost anything in the cooperative world — at least when using its classic “Infection” rules or its standard rules set in the Ultimate Edition (2016). The aliens all win if they kill all the humans … but any humans killed become aliens. That suggests that either everyone wins during any game in which the aliens win, or at worst only the last human loses. Fans of the game have tried to come up with alternatives, like transformed aliens being “lesser winners”, but none of this is supported by the rules. This winning condition is an example both of how victory rules can undercut cooperative gameplay and how victory conditions need to be carefully defined.

No Challenge System Elements. Hidden Teams.

Adventure System

The aliens and humans each have a role that gives them a slight advantage. Unfortunately, these roles aren’t very evocative during the play of the overall game (and thus don’t really constitute an element of an adventure system). That’s in part because they tend to be secret, meaning that most of the table doesn’t see the results, and in part because they’re often one-use, meaning that they don’t have any ongoing effect.

The roles are also unbalanced: some have one-use effects that might never be used, while others have continuous effects that can offer minor but ongoing benefits. This type of unbalance is usually a poor choice in an adventure game, unless it’s a purposeful design element — perhaps one that encourages or molds cooperation in some way. (Escape’s roles don’t.)

Final Thoughts

Escape is a pretty terrific hidden movement game, but unfortunately that’s where its focus tends to be, not on the hidden teams / cooperative play. A hidden teams and movement game could be a great combo, and in fact Escape’s hidden moves give a little depth to its role deduction, but beyond that Escape’s cooperative elements are relatively weak.

Santa Ragione

Pietro Righi Riva is the studio director of Santa Ragione, a “micro game design studio” in Italy, while Nicolò Tedeschi is its director. The studio has mostly put out computer games, with Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space being their one tabletop release.

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What Makes Wingspan Great?

(Or, Anatomy of a Game: Wingspan)

Obviously, Wingspan is both one of the most controversial and hottest games of 2019. I wrote about the controversy some months ago, discussing how its production decisions were pretty typical, despite the conspiracy theories that some people were spinning. But, because of the game’s scarcity, I wasn’t able to actually give it a try until this week, which now allows me to talk about its hotness.

Your birds are ready for watching.

I should say that I’m usually somewhat biased against a game when it achieves HOTNESS, because I find it increasingly likely that the emperor has no clothes. And even if the emperor has attractive lavender threads, I figure they won’t be as beautiful as what I’ve imagined in my head. Sometimes the hotness does turn out to be a terrific game like Terraforming Mars, but it’s equally possible that it’ll be a deeply flawed release like Caylus (and I’ll talk more about why I think that in a future column).

But in the case of Wingspan, I’m thrilled to say that it holds up to the hype. Here’s how I think it ended up a terrific game.

The Theming

Honestly, I was unthrilled by the bird theming of Wingspan when I first heard about it. I mean, how can playing birds in their habitats compete with venturing into dungeons, fighting killer diseases, and turning cubes into cards? And, I was wrong, because it turns out that bird theming is one of the best parts of the game.

That’s in part because the components are great. There are 170 different bird cards, and every single one of them has beautiful, unique artwork. There’s a reason that bird-watching is popular: it lets you view some of the most beautiful creatures in the world. And Wingspan translates that existing joy into the world of board games.

Oh, and Wingspan has cool pastel eggs too. (And a nice dice tower, and great quality dice, and is overall a high quality production.)

A bird-feeder dice tower; and a pretty utilitarian goal sheet.

But Wingspan’s theming also excels because of designer Elizabeth Hargrave’s superb adaptation of the theme to her game. We’re well, well past the point where it’s acceptable to release a eurogame where you push red, green, black, and blue bits around a board, but Wingspan goes even beyond the present day’s medium-level euro-theming. As part of its strong theming, WIngspan’s birds feel like they have appropriate powers. There are scavenger birds and predatory birds and migratory birds and cuckoos and many others, and they all do things that feel right.

(And I should note that the bird theme, less exciting to me than the fantasy, science fiction, and history that I tend to play, might have made the game more approachable to the masses, and thus more popular for that reason alone, when personally thought it made it less sellable.)

The Mechanics

On its face, Wingspan is a fairly typical resource-management game. You have three resources: bird cards, eggs, and food. One action generates each of the three resources, then a fourth action allows the play of bird cards, at the cost of food and (sometimes) egg cards. That’s a very simplistic formula, albeit one with a lot of variability (and thus replayability) because of the vast array of different birds. But, the game manages to be a lot more than that, through a tight design and a lot of nuances.

Generally, I find that eurogames (and especially resource-management eurogames) come in one of two sorts. In the first sort, you line yourself up with a very long strategic plan, and every turn you engage in the next small step of the plan, moving ever onward. In the second sort, you have a lot of things that you could do simultaneously, and you have to constantly decide which to do next. In many ways, it’s the question of strategy vs. tactics.

Wingspan manages to end up over on the tactical side of the equation in part because players are constantly choosing between multiple good choices and in part because some of your decisions are time-sensitive. Both of these designs are accomplished in large part through goals: players have to decide between earning points from those goals and building their bird engine, and they also have to decide if it’s worth meeting goals before their deadlines expire. So that’s the tight design: any game where you want to do everything at once and are angsting over the things you can’t do tends to be a good one.

The nuances of the game tend to focus on the action system. It’s a clever system where you place your birds onto your action tracks, and by doing so improve those action tracks in two different ways. First, the action gets stronger the more birds you have on that track (a “habitat”). Second, some of those birds also contribute their own special powers every time you take the associated action. The ability to juice an action over time is a fairly standard strategic element of action-selection games, but the ability to also add in unique abilities by linking the game’s action selection with its tableau building is much more unique. I always applaud the option for player creativity in games, and think that allowing players to creatively build out their own action sets in this way is likely another element that makes WIngspan just plain fun to play.

Constructing my second-place tableau.

Finally, this all dovetails into Wingspan’s well considered game flow. The game plays very quickly at the start, as players engage in lots of simple actions. But, over the course of the game, players pay out their action tokens to accomplish end-round goals. That means that at the end of the game they’re engaging in fewer but more complex actions. There’s many a game where turns just get longer and more convoluted over the course of the game: consider the short and simple early turns of Terraforming Mars and its long and complex late turns. The fact that Wingspan figured out an elegant and organic way to manage the balance of its turns, resulting in a game flow that leaves you wanting more at the end rather than being exhausted and done, is a crucial design accomplishment.

The Production

The production of WIngspan also deserves a bit of note, not necessarily because it’s great, but because it’s at least a cut above the already strong production of most eurogames.

That starts with the cards, which do a great job of making a lot of different information easily available, using a combination of words and icons. Some nuances like the color-coding of the different types of card actions (for effects that happen immediately, on other players’ turns, or when activated) are quiet triumphs that improve the play of the game. The most unique design element is probably one found on the bonus cards: each one clearly tells the player which percentage of cards will accomplish the goal, taking guessing (and “rules mastery”) out of the goal selection process.

Another good, but quiet production element is Wingspan’s use of cubes to designate actions. They ensure that each player remembers to take their actions and can be used to later walk back and see what the did. But the use of the cubes on the action spaces is particularly powerful: a player places his cube on the leftmost empty space on his action row, then walks it from right to left along all of his birds, ensuring that he never forgets an action, even when he has a large list of them, late in the game.

Though each of these production elements is a small one, they’re also the sort of things that most developers don’t think of when releasing a game, yet they definitely make Wingspan better, by removing the frustration of things like misunderstood goals and forgotten actions.

The Luck

All that goes to say that Wingspan is a good game. A very good game, really. And Stonemaier has some great infrastructure for publishing and releasing games. But even if you’ve got a great game, there’s always some luck involved in its success too: it’s got to catch peoples’ eyes and attention and it’s got to have just the right content for the gaming gestalt at that time.

Wingspan somehow attracted that attention, which transforms a very good game into a great release. And though I’m sure that the game’s accidental scarcity hurt sales, it certainly kept it in the public eye as well.

This all goes to say that not every great game actually ends up one of the hottest releases of the year: Wingspan was not just good, but lucky too.

The Flaws

No game is perfect, and I think Wingspan has a few minor flaws.

Even with its careful attention to production details, it’s still quite possible for players to miss actions: primarily those bonus, bird-fueled actions on the habitat spaces. (But I’m not sure what else could have been done: the use of the action cubes to guide this is excellent.)

And, I feel like the game gets a little math-y in the last turn or two, when you have to calculate the precise returns of your various actions, because the longer turn proposition of building a tableau engine is now gone.

Conclusion

So in 50 words or less, what makes Wingspan a great game?

In my opinion, it’s the combination of: an approachable theme that’s tightly integrated into the gameplay; variable play that makes every game (and even every player’s game) feel different; and an innovative action structure that lets the game play quickly early on, but which ensures it doesn’t bog down as complexity increases.

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Co-op Case Study: Forbidden Sky

Forbidden Sky was the game that we really wanted to include in Meeples Together, but it came out too late in the year for it to meet our schedule. So, consider this a true addendum to Chapter 4, where we offered case studies of Pandemic, Forbidden Island, and Forbidden Desert.

This article was originally published in the Meeples Together blog.


Publisher: Gamewright (2018)
Cooperative Style: True Co-Op
Play Style: Action Point, Tile Laying

Overview

The players take on the roles of space archaeologists exploring a secret power platform. They must build an electrical circuit to power a rocket ship. But, a storm has overtaken the platform, and it may electrocute the explorers or blow them off the platform, sending them plunging to their death.

Challenge System

The basics of the Forbidden Sky challenge system look very familiar. At the end of each player’s turn, there’s an arbitrary (card) trigger of the challenge system, causing bad things to happen, with the number of cards drawn increasing over time. However, Leacock has built a very different set of challenges upon this familiar chassis.

Forbidden Island and Forbidden Desert were both about the decay of the game board, as tiles disappeared or as sand piled up. Forbidden Sky is instead about the decay of the characters, as their health weakens due to lightning strikes and as their ropes fray due to wind-driven falls. In other words, players largely face death-tally threats in Forbidden Sky, something that was touched upon in Forbidden Desert with its water system, but which is otherwise largely absent from both the Forbidden and Pandemic games.

However, there’s a bit more depth to Forbidden Sky’s two sorts of death-tally threats:

First, both threats are highly manageable. The lightning threat strikes lightning rods on the platform, then travels along wires, hitting everyone on those tiles. This means that players can not only avoid the tiles which are threatened by lightning, but they can also cooperatively expand the platform in such a way as to minimize the lightning strikes. Similarly, the wind threat only endangers players who are standing at the edges of the platform.

Second, the wind threat also has a secondary effect: it introduces chaotic uncertainty to the game. Though players can somewhat assess where they’re likely to be blown by wind, they never know when wind will strike, and it also has the possibility of changing directions. Where most challenge systems offer results that are absolutely bad for the characters, Forbidden Sky’s wind threat is a refreshing change: if the players are very careful, they can actually harness the wind threat for good, by having it help them along the way.

As in Forbidden Desert, the randomness of the challenge cards is carefully controlled: there’s a specific number of each sort of card in the deck, which the players can easily count, thus knowing what dangers lie ahead. The card that causes the players to shuffle the deck also stops the challenge system for the turn, ensuring that card counters aren’t put back on their heels. But, later in the game, when two or more cards are drawn at a time, there’s still the possibility of surprise from the arbitrariness of the cards: most notably, the wind can suddenly change directions, then blow characters off the platform when they thought they were safe!

Challenge System Elements: Turn Activation; Card Trigger; Simulation; Decay; Environmental Consequences; and Tally Threats.

Cooperative System

Forbidden Sky is another of the rare tile-laying genre of co-ops, where drawing and placing tiles on the board to form the map is the core gameplay: Sub Terra (2017) was another recent example.

Leacock takes full advantage of the tile laying system by very cleverly having tiles possess only portions of the components that the players need to form an electrical circuit and win the game. So, an individual tile might possess half of a small capacitor or a quarter of a large capacitor or launch pad. Players then need to strategically work together to place tiles in such a way that complete components are created. Additionally, they work strategically to wire together those components into a complete circuit. There’s almost no possibility for tile trading, so this turns the game into a strategic puzzle, with each player holding only some of the pieces.

It’s a pretty good representation of a core theory of co-op design, which Meeples Together describes as: “Spread the pieces out among the players, then give them the opportunity to bring those puzzle pieces together.” Of course, the book was speaking more theoretically then this wonderfully physical and concrete design.

The tile laying of Forbidden Sky can also be entirely pitiless: if the players don’t lay down their tiles well, leaving gaps in their circuitry where things didn’t connect up, they can create a platform that’s fundamentally impossible to wire together (or at least impractical). Without careful play, players can find they’ve lost before the game is over, which isn’t a lot of fun.

Beyond the tile laying, Forbidden Sky’s core cooperative elements are as familiar as its challenge chassis: players use action points to move and to take crucial actions. But again, the result is very different: it’s strategic in a different way, focusing on connecting up tiles rather than dealing with distant threats.

Adventure System

Like its predecessors, Forbidden Sky has specialized characters, an evocative setting, and a gaming plot that supports rising action (once more: everyone must return to the ship at the end). It also contains an entirely unique element: an electric rocket ship that actually makes noises if you connect up your circuit correctly. Well, theoretically: as long as the wires are all placed carefully and the battery is set in correctly.

Final Thoughts

Matt Leacock is a star co-op designer, and Forbidden Sky shows how he can use his cooperative infrastructure to create totally different sorts of play. The challenge system is interesting for its focus on a death tally and on chaotic interference while the cooperative system is intriguing for its use of tiles as literal puzzle pieces. As with most Leacock designs, Forbidden Sky offers a master’s class in co-op design.

“In Forbidden Island the deal is that the tiles in the game are disappearing as you play … in Desert they’re shifting around and the sand is building up so you’ve got shifting tiles, so we wanted to do something different with the tiles, so this is a bit of an exploration game: you’re building the tiles as you explore.”
—Matt Leacock, 2017, “Matt Leacock Interview and Design Discussion”, One Stop Co-op Shop, http://www.geeksundergrace.com/tabletop/interviews-tabletop/interview-with-matt-leacock-designer-of-pandemic/

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