That’s a pretty momentous statement, right? Well, now we’re going to lose all of that momentum as I plunge this review-car up to its axles in mud, because Fox in the Forest is a trick-taking game.
The board gaming scene has a habit of not explaining what “trick-taking” is, probably because it’s a huge pain in the ass to teach. But we’re going to do it, here and now, in SU&SD’s famous spirit of accessibility. We can through this mud together, reader! You get in the driver’s seat, I’ll get out and push. Just stick with me! Now, feather the accelerator! The ACCELERATOR! That’s what we call the gas pedal in England do it oh god the mud is in my shoes
In a trick-taking game each player holds a hand of cards. To play, one player first “leads” the trick by playing a card from their hand. The other player must then play a card of the same suit from their own hand.
So in the 2 player game Fox in the Forest, if I played a 6 of Moons, you’d have to play a Moon too, if you have one. The person who played the higher Moon “takes the trick”, meaning they take the cards you both played and put them in a little pile.
In Fox in the Forest this is a good thing, because at the end of the round you get points depending on how many tricks you won. Winning a trick also lets you lead the next trick, forcing your opponent to play something else.
Think of it like fishing. You examine the scene in front of you, throw out some bait, and try to catch your opponent.
And here’s a tip! By laddering the tricks you’ve won (pictured above) you’ll look like a stony pro even if you have no idea what you’re doing.
Since you’re both dealt 13 cards at the start of a round and you don’t draw new ones, this results in a narrowing possibility space as you play cards back and forth until the 13th “trick” is you both just dropping your 13th card on the table and seeing who takes it.
Since Fox in the Forest only has 33 cards in total, you’re partly playing a simple gambling game where you’re guesstimating what cards your opponent is holding.
Where things get crafty is if you can’t follow a trick, like if I led the trick with the 6 of Moons but you aren’t holding any Moons. You can then play any card you want, with varying results.
In Fox in the Forest, one final card is dealt face-up in the centre of the table at the start of the round. In the above picture it’s the 10 of Keys. This is the trump suit, and it always wins. So in the above pic, if I lead a trick with the 6 of Moons and you couldn’t follow it and played a 1 of Keys, you’d win the trick.
But maybe you don’t want to! Because now, finally, I can do my magician-like reveal of the rule that powers Fox in the Forest and makes this back-and-forth so exciting. Remember I said that you get more points if you win more tricks? That’s true… unless you win 10 or more of the 13 tricks, at which point you become “Greedy” in this fairytale, you get 0 points, and your humble loser of an opponent gets the maximum of 6 points.
So each round of Fox in the Forest starts with an awesome question: Look at your hand. Are you going to play to lose? Suddenly, even the act of following a trick that you know you can’t win becomes interesting, because you could ditch a low or high card, depending on whether you’re going to put up a fight or collapse like a wet paper bag. And what makes this even more fun is that the game’s probabilities are so tricky and the penalties for missing your goal are so severe that players will switch their goal all the time.
You might both start off trying to lose, then both switch to trying to win, only for one of you to bail and go back to losing. And never mind your own plan, you’re also trying to figure out what your opponent is doing since that dictates how you should be playing. Every decision in Fox in the Forest is as sweet and chewy as so much fudge. Everything is in your control, but nothing is truly knowable, and this kittenish struggle perfectly fits the intrinsic coyness of holding and playing cards.
As an object, Fox in the Forest is a perfectly pleasant game to go through the motions of. Spiritually, it’s a disrespectful slap fight where rounds will often end in a player utterly embarrassing themselves, but where they have to laugh, because it was always their fault.
Players have this sense of control over their destiny because 6 of the 11 numbered cards ever-so-slightly tweak the game state. Vitally, none of these powers are particularly aggressive; there’s nothing that’s going to spoil the laid-back atmosphere. Instead, the powers let you play.
The number 7 cards are my favourite, the “Treasure”. Winning a trick with a 7 in it just straight-up gives you a permanent point, but 7 is such a deliciously low number that it’s hard to lead a trick with a 7 and win. So you might want to hold them back until the end of a match when players have used all of their high numbers, but the longer you hold them, the more likely it is that it’ll be forced out of your hand by an opponent leading the trick.
Or what about the Fox, little number 3? They let you swap the Trump suit card with a card from your hand, a powerful ability, one with more depth than I first imagined. In “swapping” the cards you need to consider the card you’re picking up. And while having a lot of, say, Bells, and changing the Trump suit to a Bell is a nice play, in putting a Bell down there you now have one less Bell to play with. Are you sure your opponent doesn’t have more?
But I don’t want to make this sound overly complicated. Figuring out the good plays in Fox in the Forest isn’t so hard. What’s hard is figuring out precisely when to play each card in this 13 step dance you’re doing together. When do you throw out the treasure? When do you change the trump?
Perhaps too often Shut Up & Sit Down praises games that play like soldiers in the service of simulation or innovation. Games that come stomping into our review stack and make everything else look like toys. THIS is the next big thing! Pay attention to ME!
Fox in the Forest is something so much more subtle. It’s not trying to be big, or clever. It’s trying to be nice. And while that’s common, the level of success here is not.
Mind if we take a little diversion?
There was a micro-backlash two years ago when I reviewed Archaeology: The New Expedition (pictured above). A few people bought it only to discover, to their horror, that whether they won or finished last was down to luck. Like the titular excavator, these people dug their hands in the sand and came up with nothing of value. There was no control. No game. Or rather, the game in Archaeology is often little more than gambling.
But that was precisely the point!
Take a stroll through Pagat.com’s list of the most popular card games sometime. You might be shocked at how many of them are inane exercises in random chance. But if you actually work your way through that list, there’s no denying the quiet alchemy in each of them. There’s an ineffable yet gentle tension. They leave room for conversation. Mistakes and victories might be down to random chance, but they feel human. For want of a better word, I’m going to summarise all of these little pleasures as “card gameiness”, and I’m going to point out that some games are rich in this comfortable magic, and others aren’t.
In other words, some games are just nice to sit down with and see what happens. Do you get me?
Fox in the Forest is anything but inane. It’s a witty, taut little contest that you can pour thought into, if you so choose. But it also has the supreme ease and cosiness that unites so many classic card games, a trait I only now recognise in the supreme Mundus Novus, which we reviewed in 2012 and I still play to this day.
This has been a rambling, challenging review for me. Fox in the Forest is an inscrutable game to try and pick apart. The question as to whether you should buy it, though, doesn’t have to be so complicated.
You should buy The Fox in the Forest if you love the quiet moments in table gaming as much as the loud ones. You should buy it if you think you know why, for 500 years, humans have been inseparable from playing cards.
And maybe you should buy it if you just like pretty foxes and handsome woodcutters. As I said, it’s a gentle game. You can put as much thought into it as you wish.
Paul: Welcome to another tub-thumping edition of Games News, the only board games news anywhere that features FIREWORKS and PYROTECHNICS and a ten meter CATHERINE WHEEL-
Quinns: paul you’re on fire
Paul: ON FIRE WITH EXCITEMENT about CASTELL and LOWLANDS and even HARRY POTTER.
Quinns: Paul you’ve never been excited about Harry Potter. What you should care about is human towers!
Did you know that there’s a Catalan tradition of building human towers, no kidding, that are multiple people high? Now you can recreate those in Castell, travelling from festival to festival and growing a team of expert tower-humans, your mission to create the ultimate people pile.
That’s pretty terrific, right, both as a concept for a game but also as something that actually happens?!
Paul: I’ve actually been in the middle bit of a three-layer human pyramid and that was more than enough for me. Everything wobbled the whole time so, as far as I’m concerned, these people are GODS.
In a combination of worker-placement and detective work, one to four players together try to recover the missing memories of a man who seems to be terminally ill, gradually revealing his mysterious past and the story of how he got to where he is now. It’s like board game designers never, ever run out of amazing new concepts.
Interestingly, Holding On is also the next project from Rory O’Connor, of the ubiquitous Rory’s Story Cubes.
He’s gone a lot darker for his second project, eh? Rory’s Gory Story.
Or do your tastes run a bit more traditional? This week I was ogling Lowlands, a pretty-looking game of sheep, floods and fencing announced this week by Z-Man.
I always liked the fenced farm animals you get in Agricola, but breeding animals in that game was like a single breezy spot in a gruelling two hour hike. I’m thrilled to see the same idea getting some TLC in Lowlands, with players deciding how best to shape their paddocks before adding tiles like Feeding Troughs, Orchards and Breeding Farms.
There’s also this line in the description: “Adding expansions to your farm will unlock new options and score you victory points, but helping to build the dike that collectively protects all players is also rewarded. No matter what, the tide will rise and, if the dike isn’t high enough, it could rush in and sweep away your hard-earned profits.”
Does that mean your sheep will get swept out to sea like little cotton balls? The horror!
Paul: You want something even more familiar? Let’s talk about the new HARRY POTTER MINIATURES GAME! Announced a month before a Kickstarter campaign next month, this elaborate wand-wiggler has players running around famous Potter locations as they cast spells and complete quests.
Naturally, it features all your favourite characters, like Luna Lovegood, Sirius Black and Dwight Eisenhower, and it looks nothing if not fancy and filigree. It’s also from Knight Models, publishers of the excellent Batman Miniatures Game, so it stands a chance of being a strong one.
Quinns: Paul, I’m picking up that you don’t really care about Harry Potter.
Paul: I don’t all that much, but I like Alan Rickman and Maggie Smith. Is Maggie Smith in this? Can she be in more board games?
Quinns: I’ll tell you what games she’s not in–
Quinns: And that’s Coimbria and Reef. These are two games from Plan B that I’ve been ogling in the Games News this year, and The Dice Tower only went and posted first impressions of them both this week.
Quinns: I don’t know about anyone else but now I know more about these games I feel both Releefed and Coimforted.
MOVING ON to some Kickstarters this week, Aeon’s End: Legacy is the third in the deckbuilding series and, as you’d guess from the name, indulges in the now familiar legacy format. You can build a character over a campaign, make enemies, grab gear and do your best to defend Gravehold from THE NAMELESS.
But if they’re called THE NAMELESS, they still have a na- You know what? I think a deckbuilder could be a strong format for a legacy game and a great way to watch both a campaign and a character grow, gradually revealing more plot, enemies and items, while also giving you the opportunity to buff yourself until you’re blue in the face. I don’t know much about the world of Aeon’s End but I can absolutely see all the potential in a game like this and wait am I getting excited?
Quinns: Last time you asked me that it was a rumble from a passing lorry. This time? Perhaps not so much.
I talked a bit about Aeon’s End in my 2016 Corner Awards, describing it as a “Greatest Hits” album of deckbuilding. I’ll give it this- Clank! gets all the attention as a fantasy deckbuilder, but I preferred Aeon’s End and I think you might too.
Paul, you put Blinks into the Games News document this week, but… what exactly is it? Is it an actual game, or a framework for a bunch of games? It looks like tiny digital hexes which you have to buy more of if you want a bigger and better experience.
Paul: I… am not entirely sure the answer to either of your questions now! I thought this was unusual because all these little gadgets clearly click together to make a game, but, like playing cards, can also be used to play a bunch of different games. The more you have, the more you can play except WHOA this gets expensive quickly.
Still, I think I wanted to mention it because it reminded me of something called the ePawn Arena, a failed Kickstarter we covered three years ago. Like that one, Blinks look like it might not do hugely well, and I think while I think it’s terrific when people have ideas for these inventions that can serve as the foundation of something, if you forget to show people something they can actually do with it, they don’t really know what they’re buying. Does that make sense?
Quinns: It does, Paul. It does. The number of Blinks pictured in the above photo would cost me more than $200. At that price I’d like to know a little more about what I’m getting.
Quinns: Books! They’re like very long board game manuals without a game.
Now I’ve got a good 23 years’ distance from the bullies at my school, I’m freely able to say that I think books are nice, and today on the site I want to recommend the board gaming books that I’ve had the most fun with. There’s fiction and non-fiction, controversy and aliens, a Go master at the end of his life and a 21st century designer at the peak of his powers.
But best of all, each one has helped me to understand this ancient hobby a little better.
Matt and I both fell in love with this sci-fi novel when we read it as teenagers and it more than holds up today. The protagonist, lifelong game player Jernau Gurgeh, agrees to travel to an alien system where a fabulously complicated board game determines your place in society. Jernau’s mission? To compete in the tournament as a foreigner and perhaps spare the galaxy an ugly war.
The “game” in the novel is probably most similar to Diplomacy or Civilization, but the real delight comes from Banks’ ability to exaggerate contemporary games. To this day I’m still in love with the image of a desperate Jernau cradling an organic playing piece, trying to somehow “know” it. Though secretly, the games Jernau plays are just part of a larger contest…
If you enjoy Player of Games (and I don’t know anyone who hasn’t), the author’s early works are all treasures. Consider Phlebas and Use of Weapons are stellar sci-fi, and The Wasp Factory is a great place to start with his contemporary fiction.
There’s no word for it in English, but The Master of Go is “fiction-ish”?
In 1938 author Kawabata was a reporter present at the final game of an aging Go master. It took a staggering six months for the game to end and the master died soon after. The Master of Go is a gently fictionalised account of that game, even including occasional diagrams of the board state (which mostly serve to show how hellaciously inscrutable Go is).
The Player of Games is fun to a modern gamer because it’s evocative and recognisable. The Master of Go is almost the opposite- the Go board depicted in this book is a dark, old, bottomless abyss with no parallel in gaming today. Compared to Player of Games, the Master of Go is literally stranger than fiction. The 2,500 years that Go has been around for have allowed the culture of the game to evolve into something almost unknowable.
None of which means that this is a hard book to read, mind you. It’s a short, sweet little novel. Consider it required reading if you’re interested in board games, not because you can see the contemporary hobby in it, but because you can’t.
Or I can’t, anyway. Maybe your favourite board games involve more death and anguish than mine.
Ah, the perfect gift for that special poindexter in your life!
Geoff Engelstein might be best known as the designer of whimsical games like Space Cadets and Pit Crew, but he’s also a professor of board game design at New York University and a true fountain of wisdom. Don’t be misled by this book’s phlegmatic title. I was giggling aloud as I popped each new page into my brain like so much candy.
From why games need good endings, to the mathematics behind card shuffling, to how chess players are ranked (and why that’s a problem), every page of GameTek has a new secret it wants to share with you. It’s half pop science book, half incorrigible gossip, and I love it. If Geoff writes another book I’ll be buying it on day one.
GameTek also has a fun appendix of recommended reading, which led me to…
Engelstein lists a few “catalogue of games”-type books in the back of GameTek, but this collection of dice games by Reiner Knizia (the designer of Ra, Tigris & Euphrates and more than 600 other games) is far and away the best.
It’s not just that Knizia showcases these games in a manner that’s concise, yet colourful, with all sorts of little remarks as to strategy, history or what makes the game fun. What makes Dice Games Properly Explained so exciting is that this is a whole genre of games that nobody plays anymore. When I got to a bluffing game called Little Max I was laughing out loud just reading the rules. When I got to the section of betting games, the book had me fantasising about a game that might let me turn my living room into a casino.
If you’re an amateur designer there’s no time to waste. Buy this book and rip one of these games off immediately. We can’t let all of these ideas fall by the wayside!
An order of magnitude longer than any book on this list, Playing at the World is a heroic document on how wargaming in 1780 evolved into Dungeons & Dragons and the dawn of roleplaying in 1977.
The book can be quite academic so you might have to skim-read sections that don’t interest you, but I found myself interested in pretty much all of it. From the chapter on how the medieval fantasy genre came about (which is book-length just by itself), to the history of Diplomacy and “playing roles”, to the struggles companies had in trying to sell Dungeons & Dragons, I found myself continually charmed by the people Pererson depicts.
This book also made me realise that D&D can be found in the DNA of most modern games, which makes all of the missteps and weird evolutions that the game went through particularly juicy. Our nerdy world could have been so different if that had taken off instead, or they’d stuck with that idea instead of this one!
Incidentally, if you’re interested in a similarly good book about the early history of video games, Replay by Tristan Donovan is my favourite. I had so much fun reading it.
Finally, here’s a curiosity written by none other than Matt Thrower, a freelance reviewer for this very site!
Haynes is a UK publisher of hardback “general interest manuals” for everything from cars, to pigs, to the Millenium Falcon, to nuclear weapons. This year they commissioned one for Tabletop Gaming and Thrower did some sterling work.
In 183 full-colour pages the book takes you on a tour of the entire hobby. The first couple of chapters are a breakneck sprint through the history of games, and after that the chapters cover everything from where to play games online, to how to store games or paint miniatures, to how mathematics fit into the hobby or how small publishers make ends meet.
If you needed to explain this entire hobby to aliens, or perhaps your parents, this is the book to get. Although I think the final line of this manual could have sufficed as the entire book: “So long as you’re having fun, you’re doing it right.”
What are your favourite board game books, everybody? As tangential as you please.
We’re excited to return to our ongoing series titled “Game Structures”, a series of topics we’ve organized to help understand the foundations of successful game design. Our initial run of articles covered “Early Game Structures”;aspects of games such as initial starting positions and resources, the value of turn order and key decision points that help to generate replay value and keep players coming back time and time again.
Our follow-up titled “Mid Game Structures” focused on prolonging player engagement the core of the game experience. We covered topics like player ecology to help drive player motivations and player interaction and player strategy which allow player choices to pivot and create new and interesting decisions during games.
During the next few months we’ll be tackling “End Game Structures” which help to drive player satisfaction and help to bring players back to the table again and again. As part of the series we’ll be looking at end game conditions, scoring methodologies and otherwise satisfying elements of game design we’ve encountered in games. To help guide us, we’re going to look at two key questions, how do players factor into the end of the game, and how do the ending conditions of the game factor into the game’s design? Let’s get started.
Question #1: How do player’s factor into the end of the game?
Longtime readers of Games Precipice might have noticed my enthusiasm for mapping design problems to a couple of orthogonal dimensions, and I think the same sort of analysis is useful here. The first axis might be the more obvious: to what extent can the players control when the game ends?
Players have No Control
No Control: Players take the backseat while the game grabs the wheel and drives to the final destination. The “Uber” of end game conditions.
Games at this end of the axis end when they end, and the players can’t do anything about it. The most common way to implement this condition is to have the game last a fixed number of rounds or turns, then the game ends, and a winner is crowned. Terra Mystica lasts six rounds, period. Small World lasts between 8 and 10 rounds, depending on the number of players. Of course, this doesn’t mean that players have no control over the flow or pacing of the game: each player may accomplish a different amount of stuff each turn, and each turn may last a different amount of time. But each player gets only a certain allotment of turns to accomplish their strategy.
“No control” may sound like a bad thing given how much we’ve focused on player control as a per se good in game design, but there are a lot of advantages to having a mechanically enforced end point over one that the players can control. First, it’s completely objective and happens the same way every time, so it will not come as a surprise to any players (assuming you remember to slide the round marker down the track). This means there are no “mah jong” moments where one of your opponents suddenly fulfills a victory condition that you thought was at least three turns away, abruptly ending the game for everyone and creating a lot of satisfaction for one player but confusion for the rest.
A similar advantage of a fixed end-game condition is that it allows players to evaluate their strategies relative to how close the game is to ending. Keyflower, which we recently profiled as part of our Design Analysis series, does a phenomenal and thematically appropriate job of this. A game of Keyflower lasts four seasons starting in spring and ending in winter. Here, the thematic implication is that you “sow” in spring and summer and “reap” in autumn and winter. That is, you plant the seeds of your engine in the early phases of the game, and if you’re not scoring many points, that’s okay; conversely, you shouldn’t be wasting your time creating infrastructure you’ll never use in the later parts of the game, and this is instead when you should be doing most of your scoring. The effect is that Keyflower’s theme and design work together to enforce a fixed end-game condition that informs player strategies.
Finally, some of the practical benefits to fixed end-games might help to make games more approachable for new players. If your game contains six game years, and each game year takes around 15-20 minutes to play, you can confidently tell someone who has never played your game before that it will last 1.5 to 2 hours. And explaining to a new player that “the game ends once everyone has taken six turns” is much easier to grasp than “the game ends once someone has constructed their thirteenth pylon.” What is a pylon? How do you construct it? And what does it mean to have thirteen of them?
Given all of their strengths, why might a designer not want to implement a fixed end-game condition? The most obvious answer is that they can be tricky to balance. One turn too many, and a game can quickly overstay its welcome; one turn too few, and players can come away from it feeling like they haven’t had a complete experience. Careful playtesting is critical for this sort of design. Another potential problem is that absent a positional balance mechanic, runaway leaders can occur fairly easily. We’ve all played games of Yahtzee where the question on everyone’s mind going into the final throw of the dice isn’t “who’s going to win” but “what are the odds on my large straight hitting because that’s literally the only way I can possibly catch Alex” and the answer is usually “not good enough.”
Before I move on to other end-game paradigms, I wanted to briefly mention fixed conditions that are not tied to turns or rounds. Some games use timers as a way to make absolute time, rather than in-game time, end conditions: Taboo uses a one-minute timer to end a team’s turn, while Boggle turns last three minutes. Games that use fixed time limits for the entire game, rather than simply individual turns, are rare, but Time ‘n’ Space is a fascinating example of a game that lasts exactly 30 minutes, regardless of what the players actually do. It’s a brilliant way to enforce a hard limit on how much of your evening the game can monopolize, but it’s probably only suited for games with over-the-top chaos and plenty of modes of interaction.
The Ticking Clock
Ticking Clock: The game will inevitably reach the final countdown. Players just need to put themselves in the best position by the time the clock strikes twelve.
The ticking clock is a special case of a player-uncontrolled end condition that’s worth discussing because of its prevalence in cooperative and team games. The basic idea of a ticking clock is that the game ends after a certain structural condition is fulfilled, very often a deck running out of cards. Mechanically, this is an end condition that’s identical to the ones described above, but there are particular thematic or other design reasons why you might want to use one.
Ticking clocks are almost always implemented as “Plan B” (or Plan C, or so on, depending on how complex the design is) in cooperative games to push the game toward a resolution in case the players don’t accomplish their objectives. For that reason, these end conditions tend to be coupled to loss conditions (the building burns down in Flash Point, the ancient demon awakens or the house collapses or a myriad of other horrific things happen in Betrayal at House on the Hill), but they can be neutral game-ending conditions (there are no more fireworks to launch in Hanabi) or even potentially coupled to win conditions (you’ve evaded the zombies for help to arrive in Hypothetical Survival Horror Game).
A very common structure in cooperative games is to have a player-controlled end condition coupled to a win condition and a (perhaps less directly) player-controlled end condition coupled to a loss condition, with the uncontrolled ticking clock lurking in the background. The clock may serve the mechanical purpose of preventing the players from “turtling” until an ideal game state comes along, and the thematic purpose of ratcheting up the tension and making the players feel like the stakes are real.
Players have Indirect Control
Indirect Control: Players may captain the ship, raise the sails or even rock the boat, but ultimately the wind and the current will have the greatest impact in where the game is headed.
Seasons ends after the winter of the third year. The end of Scrabble is triggered when the bag has no more letter tiles. One way in which Concordia can end is the personality deck running out of cards. And Ascension ends once a pool of points, earned throughout the game, is depleted. These conditions are centrally imposed and not tied to the players’ game states or any objectives they might accomplish, so shouldn’t they be examples of “no control” end-game conditions?
The distinction here is that games like this, which I’ll call “indirect control” end conditions, give the players some measure of control over when the end game arrives. Importantly, no player can unilaterally end these games by creating an end-game trigger; they can simply affect the pace of the game by accelerating or decelerating the inevitable. And each player can in turn do their part to hasten or postpone the end of the game as they please. Exactly how much influence the players might have on the end-game conditions depends on the game.
In Seasons, a dial showing the four seasons indicates the phase of the game; once the dial passes winter for the third time, the game ends. The twist is that the movement of the dial is not the same from round to round; instead, it can advance one to three spaces depending on the results of a draft of randomized resources. Further, players can occasionally take actions to manipulate the dial independently of the resource draft. But in general, every turn represents some amount of progress toward the end of the game, and that amount exists within a relatively narrow range. Concordia can actually end in two different ways: one is tied to a player accomplishing a settlement-based task and therefore more directly under the players’ control, and the other is an indirectly controlled condition where the players can take more cards to end the game faster or fewer to drag it out.
Scrabble famously doesn’t end until one player has no more tiles left, so it’s a rare example of a game shifting from an indirect condition to a directly controlled condition at the very end of the game. Finally, points are awarded in Ascension in two forms–the shared pool and by a value represented on each card–so some players might be aggressively pursuing a strategy that hastens the end of the game, while others might be ignoring the end-game condition entirely.
This approach adds an interesting strategic wrinkle to the strict no-control condition but remains relatively accessible and easy to understand. Explaining to players that the game ends when the deck is depleted is an end-game condition that makes intuitive sense whether each player draws one card per turn or chooses to draw between zero and three cards per turn. Although games that use this condition are more complex because they ask the players to make more decisions, that complexity only comes into play toward the end of the game, when hopefully everyone already has a good idea of what’s going on mechanically in the rest of the game. Critically, these games don’t require their players to build an entire strategy around when they want the game to end, as no player can decide alone to end the game, and there’s sufficient player-driven chaos that it would be impossible to guess the end point more than a few turns out.
Another benefit of indirect-control end conditions are that they can increase replayability. Even though each game might end once the hypothetical gold mine is depleted, the fact that that mine is depleted at a different rate every game and under different conditions makes the experience of playing feel less static.
The “indirect control” approach seems to work best in card games or other games with a fixed set of components, like the Scrabble bag, where the end-game condition is tied to the deck running out of the bag depleting. Additionally, there needs to be some cost or reward associated with making the game go faster or slower: perhaps you can draw as many cards as you want to speed up the end of the game, but each additional card past the first costs some resources. Otherwise, an entrepreneurial player could simply fulfill the mechanical condition as soon as was convenient and end the game with a thud of an anticlimax.
It’s a system that in a lot of cases represents a nice balance between the static determinism of no-control games and the too-many-moving-parts possibility for direct-control games (which I’ll cover in the next section), but it’s not a perfect solution in every case. Most importantly, the connection between the theme and the mechanics of the end game can be tough to justify. What’s so special about going through the deck three times; why not two or four? If we’re delaying the end of the game by drawing fewer cards or choosing to move the turn tracker fewer spaces, what does that correspond to thematically? A game like Seasons at least attempts to explain some of these mechanical elements thematically, but it mostly boils down to “time travel magic,” which will not be a universally applicable explanation.
Finally, on a related note, it’s much tougher to apply these end conditions to games that aren’t based on the idea of cycling through a deck or counter or a track a certain number of times. In principle, it might be possible to design a territory control game that ends when a total of fifteen of the map’s twenty-one territories have been conquered. Worker placement games, I think, would have an even tougher task trying to pull this off.
Players have Direct Control
Direct Control: A player who grabs the reigns can steer the group to his or her preferred final destination.
On the other side of the spectrum lie games that end when a player fulfills a particular condition, as I’ve alluded to a few times already. Race for the Galaxy ends when a player has a total of 12 developments and planets in his tableau. Chess ends when one player checkmates the other, when one player resigns, when an outright victory becomes impossible, or if the players agree to a draw. Fluxx is an intriguing example of being so directly player-controlled that the win condition itself is undefined at the beginning of the game, and the players change the win condition as frequently as they actively try to win. Team games like The Resistance often end when one team performs its objective (here, a first-to-three in either succeeding or failing missions) and cooperative games like The Grizzled often ask the players to accomplish its objective and thus end (and win) the game before the ticking clock ends it.
As you might expect, direct control can be great for player control as it gives the players a lot of agency in terms of how long the game lasts and on what terms it ends. From a player’s perspective, it can be a lot more fulfilling to end the game because you accomplished something than because the designer decreed that it was time for the game to end.
Does the game stop when the end condition is triggered? Sometimes it ends immediately, sometimes the current round finishes (or, in games with multiple phases per round, the current phase but not the current round finishes), and sometimes everyone just gets one more turn, like in Ticket to Ride. This is nice because it gives players a chance to tie up loose ends and perhaps have a small value play, to throw a Hail Mary if they know they’re going to lose anyway, or just to have fair warning for the end of a game instead of never looking at their pieces again. It’s more emotionally satisfying when a TV network announces a “final season” of a cancelled show instead of unceremoniously failing to renew it (or, worse, yanking it from the schedule mid-season).
Sometimes, final plays can even become fun collaborative puzzles that all of the players can contribute to solving even in competitive games: your strategy is already played out, and it’s not like you can score any more points or the other player can derail your strategy, so why not help the other players to get as many as they can?
As I mentioned earlier, triggering the end of the game is not necessarily the same as winning it. We’ll be exploring this idea in detail in the next article in this series as we look at the various ways in which games might be won or lost. For now, I’ll briefly mention that some direct-control games have their end conditions coupled to win conditions, and some are merely coupled to “let’s do some math” conditions.
Win-coupled end conditions tend to exist in the classical abstracts (when I get all of my stones to my store in Mancala, the game ends, and I win) and in some card games (if you get rid of all of your cards in Rummy or Uno, you win; the first person to reach an agreed-upon number of points over many hands of Cribbage wins) though they’re not uncommon in Euro-style games either, with Settlers of Catan (when someone reaches 10 points, the game immediately ends with that player’s victory) being a prominent example. Among Euro games with player-controlled end conditions, uncoupled end conditions tend to be the norm: (our favorite) Power Grid ends when one player has a certain number of cities in his power network, but the winner is the player who actually powers the most in the last round of the game. That structure serves as a check on a player trying to win through a “rush” strategy and ensures that the winner is the player who actually has the best-constructed network and not simply the most overextended one.
Such player-controlled, win-uncoupled end conditions can provide a tense and exciting endgame, and they can be strategically more interesting than either “it’s the end of the seventh year, so the game is done” or “I end the game, so I win.” In particular, there are fascinating strategic implications with deciding to end the game: sometimes a player can meet the condition to end the game, but it’s ambiguous as to whether he should because he might have a better chance of winning if he lets the game play out another round or two.
In certain rare cases, a directly-controlled end condition is actually coupled to a loss condition: if I’m the clumsy (or simply unlucky) player to grab the wrong brick in Jenga, the tower topples, the game ends, and I lose. Having no way to actually win the game, aside from being the player not to lose the game, is an odd choice that violates our maxim of seeking net-positive satisfaction: the person who loses is deeply dissatisfied, left questioning that last move and wondering if the strategy or simply the execution was off, while the other players are not actually that satisfied, collectively shrug, and are just glad they’re not holding the brick.
One crucial idea here, regardless of whether the end condition is coupled to a win condition or not, is that one player can end the game when he meets the end-game condition. Depending on the extent of player interaction, the other players might have a lot, a little, or nothing at all to say about it. In our earlier article on player interaction, I defined one axis of interaction, similarly to this axis of control, as spanning games with no interaction, implicit interaction, and direct interaction. The closer to the “no interaction” side of the continuum, the more a game might be thought of as “multiplayer solitaire,” and the associated end-game condition is a big reason why. Most of the player interaction in San Juan comes in trying to anticipate which roles your opponents are likely to select and being flexible enough to play off their strategies. But ultimately, a player’s decision to build 12 buildings and therefore end the game is an individual one that the rest of the players cannot do much about.
Therefore, I think that the lack of influence on an end condition that is ostensibly under the players’ direct control is one of the biggest frustrations associated with so-called multiplayer solitaire games. This brings up one of the most important drawbacks to direct-control end conditions: if you’re going to tell the players that they, not the rules, get to decide when the game ends, then a game ending when someone looks up and announces “game over!” is going to feel terribly anticlimactic. On the other hand, games that both 1) give the players a lot of control over when they end and 2) make that decision feel like all of the players are collectively invested in it are necessarily games full of interaction. And as we discussed in our article on player interaction, a direct interaction paradigm is neither an optimal design for all types of games nor something that every player is expecting or comfortable with.
Last man standing
One special case of these interaction-intensive, direct-control end conditions involves “king of the hill” or “last man standing” scenarios where the object of the game is to eliminate all of the other players, and whoever is left is the winner. This case is most common in Risk and other similar war-themed games, where one empire is trying to achieve dominion over the entire world, but you also see it in games like Bang!, where the Renegade can only win if he’s the last character alive.
The most obvious reason why a designer might implement this end condition is because it fits a game’s theme uniquely well: if your game is about conquering the world, then the most intuitive way for it to end is to have someone conquer the world (and, naturally, the winner is the player who conquered the world). We’ve discussed extensively why we’re not the biggest fans of player elimination as a mechanic, and of last-man standing end conditions in general: the Reader’s Digest version is that being eliminated 30 minutes into a 3-hour game (as can, and does, happen in Risk) is one of the biggest ways to drive dissatisfaction, not to mention downtime.
But last-man-standing is making a more thoughtful comeback in the form of micro-games like Love Letter and Coup. In Coup, you’re as likely to be out of the game by your second turn as you are to win, but that’s okay because each game lasts about ten minutes. Love Letter presents an innovative nested approach to player-controlled end conditions: each “hand” of Love Letter is win by a last-man standing condition, but the “game” of Love Letter is won by the first player to win five hands.
Finally, a few games don’t end at the same time for all of the players, even in the absence of a player elimination mechanic. I only know of this occurring in race games, where every player is trying to reach the end of a path, but it’s possible to envision a bizarro-San Juan where every player gets to construct 12 buildings, and the game ends not when the first player hits 12, but instead when the last player does.
Two actual examples are Tokaido, which allows each player to personally achieve their end condition (finishing the pilgrimage from Kyoto to Edo) at their own pace, and Around the World in 80 Days, which has the fascinating idea of in-game days being separate from mechanical turns, and the winner is not the person who circumnavigates the world the fastest within the conceit of the game’s mechanics (i.e., in the fewest turns) but rather the most efficiently within the thematic universe of the game (i.e., in the fewest days). Both games do have incentives to finish the race quickly in the form of bonuses at certain spaces on the road (and Around the World in 80 Days is slightly meaner, furthermore penalizing players who don’t get back to London quickly enough) so that players can’t meander and play a “back game” to wait for optimal moves to show up.
Clank! follows a similar itinerary as Around the World in 80 Days but one in which players have the goal of trying to collect as much loot in the dungeon as possible. A player seeking a rush strategy may decide to forgo larger treasures to “start the clock” on their opponents. The first player to leave the dungeon and return to the surface with at least one treasure is finished with their normal turns and on each future turn advances a pawn on the Countdown Track in the game; a mechanic that adds pressure to players still in the dungeon and increases risk involved in continuing to plunder. After five turns the Countdown Track results in the demise of any players who have yet to surface. There is a strong correlation between how deep into the dungeon a player ventures and their potential score, so the overall effect is a fun challenge at judging when someone has gotten too greedy and quickly rush to the surface with the hope they can’t make it back in time.
Question #2: How is the end condition connected to the game’s design?
Now that we’ve (more exhaustively than I anticipated!) discussed how much control players have over how a game ends, let’s move on and talk about the second axis, how closely is the end condition tied to a game’s design? We’ll approach this similarly to how we talked about a game’s theme in relation to its design and in particular how “persuasive” the end condition is given the game’s theme and mechanics.
Incidental end conditions
Incidental end conditions: Some races have arbitrary lengths and finish lines. Little known fact; the marathon was actually assigned a length of 26.2 miles to encourage consumer sales of the confusingly titled “26.2” bumper stickers.
Some games end at an arbitrary point because they have to end at some point and not last forever. If we were a blog that argued definitions between what makes a “game” versus an “activity”, some might say one difference between the two exists here in that an activity ends at the choice of its participants while a game has pre-defined end points. The key here is that the end condition is essentially independent of either the game’s mechanics or its theme. Playing strictly by the rules, the game it ends at the point that the designer chose, but the game could end at some other point and still feel like the same game and accommodate a wide variety of house rules.
For example, Apples to Apples ends after a player collects a certain number of green cards. This number is ostensibly encoded in the rules (and decreases with increasing player count) but there’s no thematic or mechanical reason that, for example, a 5-player game should take 7 green cards to win instead of 10 or 3. Similarly, Dixit ends when a player scores 30 points, though this could just as easily be 15 or 40 or “everyone is satisfied with the amount of Dixit they’ve played” and it would not change the mechanical functionality of the game or the experience of playing it. (Dixit can also end if the card deck runs out, an example of what I’ll refer to later as a “mechanically persuasive end condition.”)
Typically, games with incidental end conditions are lighter party-style or trivia games, though some strategically deeper games also use them. Lost Cities can be played as only one game, but the “recommended” way to play is to total scores from three games. And the aforementioned Love Letter canonically ends when someone wins 5 hands but it could just as easily be some other number without compromising the experience of playing it.
The primary purpose of an incidental end condition is to give a game a sense of identity where one might not exist otherwise. An end goal and a final objective, even a largely arbitrary one, can turn what would otherwise be an activity into a structured game, and it can keep players working toward something instead of the game just ending when everyone loses interest. Of course, incidental end conditions don’t work well for heavily thematic games, which should end when it makes contextual sense for them to end, or mechanically complex games, which often have more finely tuned balance considerations that could be upset by a longer or shorter experience.
Designer’s Choice (Balance-Justified) end conditions
Designer’s Choice: If the game doesn’t have a natural end point, it’s your judgement call as the designer.
More often, Euro-style and other strategically complex games end at points that are not truly arbitrary but rather represent the designer’s idea of when a balanced, fully experienced game should end. To use the common metaphor of the engine for player strategies in Euro games, many games end once the engine has been constructed and fired up but long before it runs out of gas and needs new parts. As we alluded to in our earlier discussion of dissatisfaction, one useful trick game design is to have the game end just a turn or two before it feels like it should, so it both avoids overstaying its welcome and makes the players want to come back for more.
There’s nothing in the mechanics of Settlers of Catan that would make it impossible to have the game end when someone reaches 8 or 12 points, nor is 10 points thematically significant to Settlers. And sure, you could very easily house-rule that Settlers ends when someone reaches 8 or 12 points instead of 10. The distinction between these games and ones with incidental end-game conditions is that the end condition is not intimately tied to the design of either category games, and changing the end condition is easily possible to imagine for both, those changes would disrupt the experience of playing games with balance-justified end conditions.
Due to the caps on the number of settlements that any one player can have and the single time that any of them can be upgraded, the marginal difficulty of gaining points in Settlers keeps increasing with higher point totals. In other words, although 10 points is only 25% more than 8 points, it’s much more than 25% more difficult to reach 10 than it is to reach 8. In effect, decreasing the end threshold from 10 to 8 would make it much easier to win Settlers accidentally and provide a dissatisfying, anticlimactic end before everyone really felt like their engines were firing. On the other hand, increasing the end condition from 10 to 12 would turn the game into a brutal slog, where the Longest Road changed hands every round and players started buying up the development card deck in chunks in a desperate bid to unearth the Library.
This flavor of end condition can be applied to either player-controlled or player-uncontrolled mechanics. Other player-controlled, balance-justified end conditions include Dominion ending when three piles are depleted (an example of indirect control in contrast to Settlers’ direct control) and one player running out of money in Last Will. Player-uncontrolled, balance-justified end conditions include many games that end after a certain number of rounds, including Small World, Agricola and Elysium.
These end conditions are pretty simple to implement, especially in the absence of a more compelling mechanical or thematic reason to end the game. They can be finely tuned to suit a game’s unique design and benefit most from playtesting to arrive at an optimal number of turns or player objective. However, they are not necessarily intuitive for players to keep track of or build toward, and they could be a sign of an underdeveloped theme.
Mechanically persuasive end conditions
Mechanically Persuasive: Every book ever written has a final page. The author of a great book invests in making that last page turn meaningful.
This category includes games that end when there’s just no more game to play, maybe because the pieces have made it to the end of the track, there are no more cards in the deck, or one player has all the marbles. This is a “stronger” end condition than the previous category because there’s a physical reason connected with the end of the game, even if there isn’t necessarily a thematic justification to back it up.
Mechanically persuasive end conditions are particularly prevalent among abstracts and card games, which aren’t particularly concerned with theme. Checkers ends when one player doesn’t have any more checkers, trick-taking card games like spades and bridge end when the deck has been run through and there are no more tricks to be taken, and professional games of poker end when one player has control of the entire pot. Scrabble is over when a player has no more tiles to play or draw.
Some thematic games also rely on mechanical cues to end: Hotel Samoa ends once the players have exhausted their bidding tiles, rather than achieving some goal related to developing their hotels. Hotel Samoa features a market-based bidding structure, where players use tiles to place bids on improvements to their hotel and the rate they’re charging to prospective guests. Once a player has used a particular tile, that player can’t use that tile again for the rest of the game. And, naturally, once the supply of tiles is exhausted, the game ends. It would be possible in principle–though it wouldn’t make much sense–to end the game when every player had two tiles remaining, and unless the players were armed with some cardstock and Sharpies, there wouldn’t be anywhere for the game to keep going after all of the tiles were used.
Similarly, Speculation is over once a company token reaches the end of a track, rather than being tied to a particular market event. In Speculation, tokens representing fictional companies move up and down a track as their valuation changes, and the game’s end condition is tied to those tokens reaching the end of the track. You could decide that the game ends when pieces are a few spaces away from the end, though it’s obvious from looking at the game’s mechanical design when it’s supposed to be over.
Connecting an end condition that was otherwise merely balance-driven to a physical component is a good design choice because it gives the players a constant visual and tactile reinforcement of how much the game has progressed and how much it has left to go. Furthermore, because some of the simplest and most universally known games use these end conditions, they can help with the Clarity axiom of approachability. Even though you’re probably designing a more innovative deck of cards than the standard 52-card deck, your players have played a ton of games that end when the deck runs out, so it’s comfortable and familiar for yours to end under that condition too.
If you’re going to use a balance-justified or a mechanically persuasive end condition for the game that you’re designing, how do you know where to set the cutoff? How many times do you need to run through the deck, what’s the right track length, how many turns does each player get? As good friend of the blog and French game designer Xavier Lardy put it, “Ideally, a game should end ‘just before’ the moment the players would wish it to end, to create a desire [for] replay. A game that lasts too long after the game has been played for some or all the players ([where] we already know the winner) makes your game unpleasant.”
Thematically inseparable end conditions
Thematically Inseparable: The final piece of a puzzle is inevitable. It’s predictable, achievable, satisfying and it wouldn’t make sense to end the experience any other way.
The strongest end conditions are ones that make sense both thematically and mechanically. Risk is a game about world domination, and for all of its faults with positional balance and player elimination, it ends precisely when it’s intuitive for it to end: when one player’s empire stands unopposed. Burgle Bros ends appropriately when either the players have been caught or they successfully complete their heist and escape. And Lewis & Clark has a “sudden death” condition where the first player to complete the expedition and reach the Pacific Ocean ends the game and wins.
There’s a pattern here: each of these examples, and many other games in this category are themed around the real world and/or historical events. A game could also be successful in this space if it relies on an established fictional canon, such as Battlestar Galactica or the Game of Thrones board game, by drawing on the “victory conditions” present in those worlds (like the Cylons destroying the human fleet or one of the houses sitting uncontested on the Iron Throne). And of course, it’s not inconceivable that a thematically inseparable end condition could exist in a completely novel, fictional world, and if any of our readers have good examples of games like this, I’d be happy to hear them.
Thematically inseparable end conditions are great because they help the players feel like they’re doing what the game tells them they’re doing, which is a design paradigm that we love at Games Precipice. They can also be very hard to persuasively incorporate into games, especially ones that are not set in a version of Earth or an existing fictional reality. Finally, if an end condition is driven too much by thematic concerns and not by balance, it could be a really dull march for the last ten turns when everyone knows that the Alliance is eventually going to steal the Death Star plans, it’s just a matter of getting the Bothan Spies on the right space at the right time.
I’ll wrap up with a closer look at two games that exemplify a wide range of these conditions and illustrate that games can end in vastly different ways and exist in large areas of the space.
Cooperative games always make fascinating case studies for ending conditions, and nearing its tenth anniversary, Pandemic was one of the originals and still one of the best. As I mentioned above, cooperative games tend to have a player-controlled end condition coupled with a win condition, one or more end conditions with varying degrees of player control coupled with loss conditions, and a ticking-clock loss condition lurking just to keep the players moving and the intensity up. Pandemic exemplifies all of these paradigms almost perfectly.
The players in Pandemic win by developing cures for four different diseases. Developing these cures is directly in the players’ control: it is the goal of the game and the objective that the players should be building toward. (To accomplish their goal, the players accumulate cards specific to each disease and take them to research stations.)
Pandemic is set on a map of the world, with nice attention paid to network nodes and edges corresponding to how people actually move around the world. I’ve already noted the tendency of Earth-based games to have very tightly integrated end conditions that reflect the design well, and I see Pandemic’s win condition as almost, but not all of the way, toward the thematically inseparable end of the second axis. Pandemic is about curing diseases that threaten the world, and, fittingly, it can end once all of these diseases have cures. But in a few ways, this end condition is more of a mechanically persuasive condition than a thematically inseparable one: the four diseases intentionally do not represent real diseases, and the game could have been designed with three or six diseases and remained thematically sound. However, cartoon electron micrographs of the four pathogens are displayed prominently on the game’s board, and the colors associated with each disease are reflected on the board, cards, and various other components, leaving little doubt in the players’ minds that their goal is to cure all of them.
The most dramatic way for Pandemic to end is when eight disease outbreaks occur. Essentially, an outbreak happens when a particular city should have its infection burden increased past its capacity, and the disease spreads to neighboring cities. Clearly, this end condition is coupled with a loss condition. This is not something that the players can control directly, but they can take steps to mitigate the threat, most often by treating a disease if it becomes too concentrated in a particular city. In terms of design integration, this end condition is strongly mechanically persuasive (with an Outbreaks track at the side of the board, and a token sliding farther down toward the scary red skull and crossbones each time an outbreak occurs) if not necessarily thematically inseparable (would eight disease outbreaks really cause the public to panic if six or seven didn’t?).
Finally, Pandemic has two sets of components that both represent ticking-clock end conditions: the four sets of colored cubes used to track the disease events and the stack of city cards used to travel and develop cures. If either runs out, the game ends and the players lose; according to the official rules, these lose conditions represent the disease spreading too much and the team running out of time. Both are indirectly controlled by the players, but there are many more ways to affect the number of cubes remaining (again, mostly by treating diseases) than the number of cards left (which are generally drawn at a fixed rate at the end of each turn but may be modified under a few special circumstances). We certainly appreciate designer Matt Leacock’s efforts in making these end conditions more thematic, but they are mostly mechanical end conditions as well.
We posted our design analysis of Twilight Struggle almost two years ago. I haven’t gotten the chance to play it since then, but I still can’t help thinking about it in nearly everything I write about game design. In my original notes for this post, I seemed to recall that “Twilight Struggle can end in six thousand different ways”; to my surprise, the game’s rules list only four.
Three of these are player-controlled “sudden death” conditions; the player who triggers the end condition automatically wins two of them. A player can end and win Twilight Struggle by reaching the end of the tug-of-war style Victory Point track or having a sufficient amount of influence in Europe when a European scoring event is triggered. The Victory Point track is perhaps the single least thematic thing about Twilight Struggle and is a necessary abstraction to wrap up the space race, cultural influence, political developments, and every other aspect of the Cold War that is not reflected on a situation room-esque map of the world. It’s a balance-justified end condition that’s not intimately tied to the game’s mechanics or theme. Having enough influence in Europe to “control” it is much more thematic, and absent any official proclamations from Twilight Struggle’s designers to the contrary, I think the way the Cold War ended in real life.
It certainly didn’t end in the third way that Twilight Struggle can end: triggering DEFCON 1 and a nuclear war. This is a rare example of a Jenga-style directly player-controlled end condition coupled with a loss condition–whoever starts the nuclear war fittingly ends and loses the game–and one of the sneakier ways to win Twilight Struggle is to force your opponent into reaching DEFCON 1. This end condition occupies an interesting sort of middle ground between indirect and direct control (you would never choose to trigger the nuclear war, but occasionally your opponent can make a play to make you do it) and is the most tragic yet thematically appropriate way the game might end.
Finally, a player-uncontrolled safety net exists to catch games of Twilight Struggle that don’t end in any of the above three ways. At the end of round 10, corresponding to in-game 1989, all of the regions are immediately scored on their levels of influence, and the player with the most victory points wins. This is a mechanically persuasive end condition (there are no more cards to play) with a dash of thematic justification (there is no more history to play).
Here, we’ve looked at a variety of end conditions across two different continuums: how directly the players can affect when the game ends, and how much sense the game’s end makes in the context of its theme and mechanics. We’ve seen how certain types of end conditions naturally make the most sense for particular designs and illustrated a couple of case studies with many different end conditions that span wide swaths of the design space we created.
Although some discussion of win conditions has inevitably spilled over into this post, especially because so many sudden-death type end conditions are tied to a player immediately winning, Alex will follow up next with a more detailed discussion of winning conditions, and he’ll finish out this series by taking a look at various scoring systems.
We’re diving into one of our recent favorites this week as Orléans was our top “new to us” game on the site for 2015. Since then, our opinions have drifted in different directions and we thought it would be fun to look at how the game has aged for us only a few years later.
If this is your first time visiting Games Precipice, our focus is on game design theory and ideas that can make games great. In writing about Orléans, the large majority of our conversation is a deep dive into this brilliant game applying the game design frameworks we’ve been writing about recently. To help frame the discussion, this is more than just a write-up about Orléans; this is an article about Orléans in the greater conversation of pool building games. So let’s jump right in.
Orléans is best classified as a bag building game and it shares a number of familiar concepts with a deck building game like Dominion or a dice building game like Quarriors. We recently covered these various mechanics collectively in a series on pool building games.
Despite the similarities on the surface, these games can be tricky to break down as a group. One approach we’ve taken to look in-depth at these mechanics has been to identify the common skills and tasks players are carefully considering while building their deck in Ascension or filling their bag in Orléans.
In Pool Builders… players manage long-term efficiency
A common bond among pool building games is that these mechanics relay a marathon mentality to players. Orléans is a game of putting one foot ahead of the other in order to string together a strategy over the long-term. By the end of the game, a player will rarely be able to pinpoint the exact moment or turn that pushed them toward victory, since each turn the player moves the needle forward just enough to see observable progress in a race of efficiency.
One notion we settled on early in our deep dive into pool building games like Orléans is that the order in which you acquire new tools or resources is at least as important as what you acquire. Orléans offers plenty of compelling choices, but only two options directly provide a direct efficiency benefit to players. Pictured below, craftsmen and knights are the two key additives for a well-oiled engine in Orléans.
In the growing family of pool building games, Orléans is rather unusual in that these core efficiency upgrades are:
…available to you every game.
…available to you from the very beginning of the game.
…so abundant that each player could acquire each option several times.
A criticism of Orléans we’ll explore deeper into this article is that the game can seem to lack a significant degree of replay value. It’s a criticism rooted in perception, but for many players it has some merit, as each session of Orléans can often feel very similar to the last. It’s also a criticism worth introducing here as it can be hard to imagine many successful strategies that don’t incorporate the basic building blocks of a player’s engine like knights and craftsmen. Actions to acquire these workers can feel like standard opening moves which hinder the freedom and creativity players may be seeking in pool building games: developing fun, interesting and sometimes finding unexpected synergies from game to game.
On the topic of long-term efficiency, if we step back for a moment and think about game mechanics that often emphasize engine-building like tableau building or pool building, players are usually accelerating as soon as the game begins. In these games we’re strongly incentivized to find that powerful combination of cards or resources that will take our engine from 0-to-60 and swing the needle on our metaphorical speedometer. But in Orléans, success is better characterized by looking at our odometer and measuring the distance we can cover during 18 turns of the game. On a street with bright lights and flashy cars, the winner of Orléans is often the king of fuel efficiency.
In Pool Builders… players manage encumbrances
Several of the most interesting mechanics we’ve seen in recent years emerged from the simple idea of limiting which resources a player has access to at any given moment. Dominion’s five card hand size wasn’t a new idea, but when it is paired with the reality that some cards in a player’s deck can lack any immediate usefulness, it generated the need for players to manage the size and composition of their resources in pool building games.
One of the most intriguing features of pool building is that your starting set of tools (your initial deck of cards, workers, etc.) come with a sort of designed obsolescence. Even as you’re acquiring awesome new cards in Dominion, you’ll still have to wade through your starting copper and estate cards whose value gradually transitions from a tool into a bigger and bigger obstacle. We tend to refer to these tools or items as encumbrances and their inefficiency can play a significant role in a player’s performance.
Among deck builders, players frequently have the ability to “trash” or upgrade their starting hands, yet a bag builder like Orléans deviated from this approach by ensuring that a player’s starting set of workers stick around no matter the event.
Impressively, Orléans avoids the concept of deliberate encumbrances such as “curses” or “weaknesses” that we often find in deck builders (cards that have no immediate value and potential negative scoring value at the end of the game). Orléans also detoured from similar concepts we’ve seen in other bag building games; the wear cubes found in Automobiles and the waste cubes in Hyperborea are routinely added to a player’s bag based on decisions they make. These encumbrances can provide game design benefits in the form of competitive balance and strategic challenge in the form of pool management. On the other hand, encumbrances can lead to frustrating side-effects like player dissatisfaction, potentially longer games and, on occasion, a completely wasted turn.
One of my favorite attributes of Orléans is that you never quite feel like you’re losing our on a turn. You may not always accomplish exactly what you hoped to do this turn, but you’re rarely more than a turn away from finishing your short-term goals. Inactive workers carry over from turn to turn and so even when you’re experiencing a truly lackluster turn, it is possible to set up your player board to have an extraordinarily productive turn next round. In the most dire conditions (or as part of a game-long strategy), you can manipulate the contents of your bag so you have complete (or almost-complete) control over your next bag draw.
Regardless of the quantity of workers in your bag in Orléans, you’ll never be able to draw more than eight workers each turn, so optimizing the contents of your bag is nearly as important as adding new things to it. For instance, if you have way too many farmers crowding your bag, sending a few to the Town Hall can help to thin your bag of such pests and ensure your next bag draw will produce a more fruitful harvest in the future.
Orléans uses the Town Hall as an interesting approach to help you manage your pool of workers. Many deck builders only grant the concept of “trashing” as a privilege – sometimes a unique action or a powerful card ability is the only method of dispatching weaker cards and refining your deck down to just the good stuff. By contrast, the Town Hall makes it very easy, almost too easy, and in the process of getting rid of those farmers, you even get compensated in a variety of benefits for doing so.
In execution, the mechanic of using the Town Hall comes across an awful lot like sending an old horse to the glue factory when you’re done with it. Except, instead of horses, we’re sending those pesky farmers. And so the tables have turned.
If Orléans is any indication, a truly great bag building system is one that gives you almost complete control over the inputs (which tools you add to your bag) but very limited control over the outputs (which tools you draw from your bag). Each type of worker has a few specific tasks it can help with and, because of that, it can be a delicate balance to complete the tasks you need as quick as you want them.
Very few things are more frustrating in this style of game than to draw seemingly everything… except that one very specific card, tile or token you need most right now. Pool building mechanics are often a tangible reminder that you can’t always get what you want and sometimes that reminder is sticking its figurative tongue out at you turn after turn.
A pool building system is only as good as its solution(s) to alleviate randomness and players are always in need of “better” tools to mitigate the situation. In regards to the workers of Orléans, a description of “better” can be perfectly synonymous with “highly flexible”, and having a few wild cards each turn can help you do what you want, when you want it. Through the powers that be, Monks can do anyone’s job in Orléans and may substitute for any worker variety on a given turn. Every other worker type has a few very specific actions they can be used for, and if a worker doesn’t align with your goals this round, they begin looking a lot like one of those pesky encumbrances we talked about in the last section.
Fortunately, there are also several place tiles that sacrifice direct scoring potential for long-term strategic flexibility. The School and the Herb Garden transition scholars or boatmen into a pseudo-wild role to help fill worker shortages in your most desired action spaces. Strong strategies in games usually correspond to specializing toward a specific action or scoring opportunity and performing it greater, faster or with fewer resources expended, yet there is surprising merit to a generalist strategy using these place tile buildings in Orléans. While other players will occasionally be spinning their wheels trying to do anything; you’re frequently able to do something productive each turn.
One observation that stands out in Orléans is that the workers aren’t inherently superior than one another in performance. In games of efficiency, quality is often king. A gold in in your hand in Dominion is always going to get you further than a copper, and replacing rookies with free agents in Baseball Highlights: 2045 or buying more powerful ships in Star Realms can be the difference between victory and defeat.
But unlike the Medieval time period the game is set in, Orléans doesn’t use the sort of feudal ranking or hierarchy of resources that we’ve come to expect in pool building games – every worker type fills a specific role in the economy. You’re usually praying that you’ll draw the monks from your bag, but using them over a farmer or knight won’t earn you any extra points or resources. If you build the Herb Garden, your boatmen don’t suddenly transform into an unstoppable naval armada. They just acquire some additional skills in farming, trading and carpentry.
I find this to be an underrated attribute of Orléans; players aren’t gaining an implicit advantage and then able to leverage that into an even larger advantage. Runaway leaders can still happen, but several things usually need to align and in a game limited to 18 rounds, the timeline for a leader to get out to an early lead and snowball toward a massive one is limited.
A common trait among pool building games is that players typically cycle through their entire pool of resources before starting afresh. If I acquire a specific card in Dominion or a particular cube color in Automobiles, I can usually expect to see it once between each reshuffle. This complete cycling of resources leads to a predictable thoroughness that can help smooth out the randomness of the draw.
Orléans occupies a unique position among pool building games in that the mechanics don’t require you to completely cycle through your resources at any point in time. Any of your workers that trigger an action each turn go straight back into the bag and completely avoid any sort of discard pile they would make a pit stop at in Automobiles or Dominion. This means that the all-important Monk I acquired early in the game could theoretically be drawn back out on every turn, or hardly at all.
At first glance, it would seem like Orléans could suffer from an incredibly high variance factor, but it can actually allow players to exert more control over what they might draw each round. If you’re not drawing the worker types you need, you can trim your pool of workers using the Town Hall. You can also temporarily remove a worker from circulation by allocating it to an action you don’t intend to complete this round, giving you greater control over what you might draw next turn.
As we write in depth about game mechanics, Matt and I enjoy identifying common strengths and weaknesses that we observe across a large group of games and we did just that in an article about pool building games last fall. Orléans tends to exhibit many of the traits one can find in many pool building games, but I’ll highlight two examples below.
Pool building games tend to functionally scale well between player counts…
…and Orléans scales more effectively than almost any other pool building game. Orléans allows players to plan simultaneously and resolve quickly, which bodes well for minimizing downtime; a factor many deck builders struggle with at higher player counts. As a result, rounds in Orléans can take a comparable amount of actual time to resolve whether you’re playing with two players or five.
For comparison, a deck builder like Dominion is mechanically very effective from two to four players, but each additional player will add a proportional amount of downtime each turn since players individually plan and resolve their turns in sequence.
Pool building games tend to have a lengthy set-up, a lengthy clean-up or both…
…and Orléans is just as guilty as most games in the genre.It’s not unusual for pool building games to need substantial pre-game work; plenty of deck builders require some combination of sorting, randomizing, organizing and/or shuffling before (and after) playing.
In Orléans, there is a fairly important randomization of the goods on the map, along with organizing player pieces, worker types and remaining goods into their respective areas of the board. It’s just enough to warrant multiple helping hands whenever it reaches the table.
It’s worth noting one of the reasons it can take several minutes to organize before the game is because Orléans does scale so well; the worker count of each type scales with number of players as can several other factors when incorporating the expansions.
Pool building games tend to have plenty of moving parts as soon as they begin and that often leads to an additional investment of time and preparation in analog gaming.
As part of our ongoing series titled “game structures“, we’ve been examining specific approaches and principles that game designers can use to enhance replay value, engagement and satisfaction in games. Many of these ideas are present in Orléans and as one might expect, it was one reason we selected the game for this design analysis.
Each game of Orléans begins in what we classify a “low resource” starting state; every player starts with the four basic workers and a handful of coins to help survive any untimely event tiles. Just like many other pool builders, players start with the bare essentials and choose their path as they go.
Personal objectives drive divergence, often encouraging players to diversify their approach from one another.
Although a player can activate many of the actions on their player board from the very first turn, there are inevitably are only a few logical opening moves. As a result it is not at all unusual for all of the players to execute the same sequence of actions in the first two rounds and while these initial choices do eventually branch out, the decision tree can initially feel narrow and the first few rounds can become routine over time.
One approach game designers might use to provide variety between games is to assign a personal objective or secret goal to players, which can encourage players to spread out in different directions during the game. Destination tickets in Ticket to Ride help to put players on a different track from one another and the hidden objectives in a game such as Scythe provide unique assignments that might encourage a player to attempt something new in the game that they may not have tried before.
Interestingly, Orléans doesn’t assign players any personal objectives or secret goals and since players start from an identical position with identical starting resources, there is relatively little in the base game of Orléans that helps to avoid several players from pursuing the exact same strategies. While an absence of personal objectives is a perfectly valid design choice, it does feed into the argument that the replay value of Orléans suffers because it doesn’t incentivize a player to try something new.
One advantage Orléans gains by avoiding personal objectives is that the strategic freedom is handed over entirely to the players. The design of the game isn’t trying to dictate part of your strategy or confine you to a small corner of the map. For experienced players, this can be empowering, since it is up to each player to find opportunity anywhere their opponents are ignoring it. In short, Orléans follows the old gaming adage; go where no one else is going and maximize your own scoring potential.
If we glimpse briefly at the expansions, particularly the cooperative mode of Orléans: Invasion, players are assigned a role paired with a personal objective they must complete before the end of the game. It’s a welcome change and in some ways it rectifies the recursive feel of the base game. The variety between the roles functions as a division of labor for the team by encouraging each player to specialize and gravitate in different directions, all the while still coordinating the team’s goals.
Early last year, we covered a variety of mechanics and ideas that motivate player behavior in games. Games frequently offer bonuses for fulfilling achievements or threaten penalties for ignoring an area altogether and in Orléans, Reiner Stockhausen uses both approaches to influence player behavior.
Community objectives drive convergence, highlighting prominent areas of competition among players.
If the personal objectives we looked at in the last section can drive divergence and motivate players to try something new, community objectives are another tool that game designers can use to drive convergence, or areas of collective interest and competition.
Community objectives are public, often significant to a player’s final standing and sometimes vary between games. Suburbia prominently features four random end game scoring tiles each game which reward players for achieving things like having the largest population or having the fewest industrial tiles in their player area. Splendor uses noble tiles to award a sizable scoring benefit to players who satisfy their requirements. The largest army and longest road tiles in Catan can also fall under this approach to game design. Community objectives help to highlight areas of competition; dangling the proverbial carrot in front of experienced players while also providing guidance and a clear motivation to new players.
At first glance, Orléans doesn’t offer any traditional community objectives we might find in other games. Rather than outright scoring bonuses, citizens are awarded first-come, first-serve to the players reaching progress points on the character and development tracks and more citizens to the players who finish out sections of the Town Hall.
Citizen tiles tend to reward players for things they’re probably already planning to do but also present a source of urgency for players advancing side-by-side along the same tracks during the game. Citizens certainly aren’t game-breaking in score (they’re worth at most a half dozen points), but they’re the icing on the cake for people who enjoy that sort of thing.
The event tiles in Orléans fulfill another role in motivating players by nudging them toward (or away from) particular actions each round. The event tiles are a refreshing addition to the game and they help in some small way to shake up preset player behavior, particularly early in the game when a player might have a standard sequence of turns in mind.
After playing the game several times, it became apparent to me just how important the combination of events and citizens are to the first half of a game of Orléans. They help keep players engaged as there is always something to race for (citizens) or worry about (events) and without them the game would miss out on key mid-game goals players can prioritize on their journey.
Player Motivator – Scarcity
Practically everything in Orléans feels a lot like a limited time offer and that can lead to an exciting atmosphere as players grab as many of the beautiful Kickstarter Deluxe components they can get their hands on.
The urgency and fear of missing out on various scoring benefits is a primal motivator in game design and practically anything you desire in Orléans is probably dwindling in supply as we speak. There are seven main cookie jars players are gradually depleting over the course of each game:
Finite Worker Supply: There are only a handful of workers employable in each of the trades, so hiring the last knight or monk can be a small victory if it ends up in your bag and stays out of someone else’s.
Unique Place Tiles: If you’ve got a strategy in mind, there is likely a specific building that relates to it. If you can grab the deed to it first and stake your claim, its exclusive benefit becomes your own.
Limited Goods Supply: If any of the resources such as wine or cheese run out, they’re gone.
Restricted Monetary Supply: The coins in Orléans are limited to the tangible supply that is available. In some games this may never be an issue, but in other situations a player might be motivated to empty the bank to void all future payouts to their opponents.
Narrowing Travel Rewards & Guildhall Locations: The ship and wagon actions provide resources to the earliest players to hit the road and set sail from Orléans. In the base game, the first player to build in a town is also the last.
Dwindling Citizen Count: Claiming citizens isn’t everything, but if two players are already headed down the same path, one citizen can be a small victory in the bigger picture.
Shrinking Beneficial Deeds Board: If you push your workers from your bag into early retirement, you can get a slightly better compensation for placement on the beneficial deeds board.
One of the successes of Orléans is that the scarcity of all these cookie varieties will fluctuate depending on the group you’re playing against. You may have to sprint to construct some of the place tiles before they’re gone while some worker types may never be in short supply. All of the possibilities lead to some very interesting tactical choices available surrounding when and where a player should prioritize his or her efforts. While players always have plenty of overlapping demand with one another, each person can still be running a slightly different race.
At the same time, it can be common for nearly every player to be doing a little bit of everything in Orléans and I think this is one more reason for why sessions of the game can feel eerily similar. A player is going to have a tough time specializing or executing a truly extreme strategy in Orléans because as soon as you exhaust the 1 or 2 areas you’re focusing on (like maxing out several of the worker tracks), your remaining menu of options dwindle. For your final few turns you’re practically compelled to bounce back and revisit to some of the areas that you were previously ignoring.
By the end of some games, you may find that every player had their hands in nearly every cookie jar; making it appear that I didn’t do a whole lot different from anyone else, nor did I do anything dramatically different from my last game.
Orléans occupies a category of player interaction that we refer to as “implicit interaction” as does the vast majority of pool building games. In this category, players can’t directly hinder each other’s game states but can still affect the strategies and the options available open to them. In a sense, each player is working on their own puzzle, but everyone is sharing in the same box of puzzle pieces.
Whenever a game has a relatively low degree of player interaction, it runs the risk of turning into an optimization problem. Players will naturally concentrate on similar choices and decisions and – in Orléans – that means fighting over the same place tiles, the same worker types and the same coveted citizens. Many games combat this “optimization problem” by incorporating variability and swapping some of the puzzle pieces in and out – things like modular boards, alternate maps, randomized scoring conditions or asymmetry between players.
For better or worse, Orléans sticks with a fairly static setup and when that is paired with a low degree of player interaction, it misses out on a lot of opportunities that help keep the game refreshing and unpredictable. Because players have very few opportunities to surprise one another, they often miss out on the need to adapt to one other or even to the game itself. If a player settles into a routine opening or desires to play ten games of Orléans in a row executing the exact same strategy, there often isn’t a lot standing in their way from game to game and that can rob a title of some of its longevity in the modern tabletop environment.
From your first few plays, it can be surprisingly easy to settle into a favorite strategy for yourself in Orléans – and that is one of the most welcoming attributes of the game. Yet once you get that strategy to work, the game doesn’t really give you any incentive to explore new things, or even a strong impression that there are more things to explore.
Players are rarely forced to adapt and it can make players feel like they’ve played it through and have nothing left to explore. In many cases, game sessions can feel more repetitive than they probably are if one were to record the results and compare them side-by-side.
Part of the problem might be that Orléans offers a player everything all at once. As an example: If I want to place a building, I choose from the entire stack of buildings; a format that inevitably leads to group think surrounding the “best buildings” at the expense of a player’s need to evaluate the situational value of a limited group of buildings available. A lot of interesting game design space exists simply by constraining the options or knowledge a player has access to and allow them to figure out how to best use the buildings or resources they acquire.
At this point I’ve picked on Orléans for its replay value, but it is entirely possible that it was an active publishing choice rather than a limitation in its design. As impressive of a bag building system that Orléans introduced, the expansions that have followed are masterful in resolving any shortcomings the base game may or may not have. Innovative game design carries a risk of becoming bloated or rendered inelegant by too many ideas at once and were the publisher to have included more of the expansion content (which arguably resolves replay value criticisms) in the base game would have potentially fallen into the trap of design creep. As gamers, we’re always grasping for more and in this highly competitive era of tabletop publishing, some minimalism can also be the right choice. As the saying goes; sometimes less is more.
If we look at the expansions; Orléans Invasion is one of the most fulfilling game expansions I’ve come across in years. It expanded the game into solo scenarios and a brilliant cooperative mode, it resolved the questions of variety in replay value and it provides the impetus for players to pursue different strategies. While the expansions improve the experience substantially, the base game deserves a lot of the credit for laying a foundation for strong ideas to be placed a top it.
Conclusion – Rating Orléans
Over the years I’ve evaluated games using an unnecessarily complex set of seven attributes which reflect my personal preferences. Three significant attributes carry additional weight (Originality, Pure Fun & Replay Value) and four more represent my preference for a few specific attributes in games (Theme, Strategy/Luck Ratio, Scalability & Parity).
Originality: One thing I’ve realized since we looked closely at Terra Mystica is that I underestimated just how influential its design would be in the years since it was published. We’ve observed many of its characteristics in games that have been published since. I don’t know if we’ll see the same fate for Orléans, but it doesn’t have an obvious comparison at the moment, and it may not for some time.
Theme: Both the actual city of Orléans and the map used in the game are flush with rivers and canals, but the theme can come across as dry as a desert. It’s not a strength of the game, but it also doesn’t need to be.
Pure Fun: Orléans is deeply satisfying at its core and very fulfilling by its conclusion. The bag building mechanic feels like a pleasant puzzle where there isn’t any pressure and I’m always building toward something bigger and better. I think the main strength here is that the game avoids much of the frustration that can take place in other pool building games; lackluster or wasted turns and anti-climactic finishes.
Replay Value: My main reservation about Orléans is that it doesn’t have the staying power it feels like it should. The expansions add a tremendous amount of replay value, but the base game doesn’t have the longevity for which I’d like to give it credit.
Strategy to Luck Ratio:Orléans offers a range of methods to mitigate the randomness of your bag, and your performance is determined largely by your actions, and on occasion, the actions of your competition. I’ll never ask for anything more than that from a game.
Player Scaling: Orléans scales almost effortlessly (beyond the setup) and the level of interaction between players is a fairly consistent experience whether you’re playing with two or five. Lastly, it avoids a lot of downtime with each additional player.
Parity: It’s not unusual to win or lose Orléans by only a few points and (even more importantly) the score almost always feels close because it usually is.
Alex’s Verdict: 4.5/5.0 The reigning king of bag building and one of my all-time favorites.
I use five equally weighted themes that reflect both the design achievement of the game and how excited I get to play it.
Aesthetics: Orléans plays on an intensely Euro-y board with paths between villages, resource tiles, meeples, workers, tracks, and player mats. The artwork and graphical design are both attractive enough but nothing you haven’t seen before. I didn’t find the theme particularly persuasive–the game could just as easily be about contemporary real estate development or even be a pure abstract as it could be about a medieval French city–but the tactile experience of handling the bag and drawing tiles from it was a nice touch, and the “deluxe” components look and feel great if you’re lucky enough to have them.
Flexibility: If there’s one knock on Orléans’ design, it’s that the lack of variation in its setup and the generally optimal things to do to start the game can make each experience feel substantially similar to the last, though the randomization of which tiles are selected on each turn does force players into pursuing slightly different strategies.
Fun per time: Like in many pool builders, there’s something nice and satisfying about getting your engine up and running in Orléans, and the competition for the most beneficial workers adds a level of interactivity that can be absent in many pool builders. You might see a “bag builder” as just another pool builder, but the novelty of the idea makes it perhaps artificially fun. 90 minutes is a little long for what Orléans brings to the table, but at least it doesn’t pretend to be shorter than it is, and it goes pretty quickly as most of the actions are simultaneous.
Depth per complexity: As Alex mentioned, there’s always something different you can do in Orléans, though the game doesn’t necessarily incentivize you to try them all. The short-term objectives that Orléans constantly encourages players to achieve helps players to craft coherent strategies and get better handles on what could otherwise be a dizzying amount of complexity.
Mechanics: This is where Orléans really shines. For all of the reasons Alex mentions above, I think the bag builder represents a real innovation in the pool builder genre. Orléans also does a lot of great things with variance mitigation and managing encumbrance that designers of any pool builders would be wise to take a long look at Orléans’ approach.
Matt’s Verdict: 3.5/5.0 As much as I enjoy Orléans, I think Alex is probably the bigger fan between us. I’ve never had a bad time playing it, though it’s not necessarily a game I find deeply immersive or that I want to keep coming back to as a mainstay in my gaming rotation, largely because every game of it can converge into feeling very similar. That said, there’s no question that it’s one of the most innovative games to surface in the pool builder space in a long time.
Special thanks to the talented photographers and our amazing Patreon Supporters including David Satterfield, Isaias Vallejo, The Nerd Nighters and Vincent James for their incredible support!
Also a big thank you to friends of the blog David Satterfield and David Skoog; without their contributions and tireless efforts to save Orléans from Invasion, this article may have never survived.