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Designing for Loss, Part One: Obscuring the Loss

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

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

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

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

Solution #1: Hide the Score

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

Small World image courtesy garion on BGG.

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

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

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

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

Solution #2: Divide the Score

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

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

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

Solution #3: Hide & Divide the Score

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

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

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

Solution #4: Focus on Engine Building

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

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

Solution #5: Omit the Score

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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


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

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

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GAMES NEWS! 11/11/19

Quintin Smith37 comment(s)

Quinns: Woo! I don’t know what your weekend was like, Ava, and I don’t want to be coy, but I played a *very* large board game that I’ll be covering in our big, year-end blowout review.

Ava: How large are we talking?

Quinns: OK, imagine how big a board game should be.

Ava: *closes eyes* I’m doing it.

Quinns: It’s even bigger than that!

Ava: Oh my.

Ava: Fantasy Flight has announced Fallout Shelter, their latest riff on the infamous post-apocalyptic Fallout video games, and will see players looking after vault dwellers in a happiness-powered bunker. Each player will build their own level of a shared complex, slowly filling the table with increasingly elaborate options for adorable little vault-dwellers to reap exciting rewards. Also, it looks like a little lunchbox filled with apocalyptic snacks, which isn’t something I realised I wanted.

I feel like the Fallout cartooniness used to have an amount of satire that isn’t entirely present here, but that might not stop it being an interesting game. It occurs to me that this is probably the first time Fantasy Flight have gone near traditional worker placement games? Is that right? Does that matter?

Let’s wait and see whether this sets the world on fire, eh?

Quinns: Staying nuclear, but moving to Eastern Europe, we have the announcement of Zona: The Secret of Chernobyl from Rebel Games.

While the new HBO Chernobyl TV series might paint this as a particularly grim setting (‘Roll 7+ to send 530,000 to clean up an incalculable tragedy’’, etc.), Zona instead draws from the wealth of Eastern Euopean sci-fi surrounding Chernobyl, which is mostly populated by gnarly scavengers in custom jackets.

Players will each take on the role of one of these scavengers, racing to uncover secrets and to reach the sarcophagus that covers the devastated power plant before the ‘final emission’. Which sounds to me more like a fart gag than a mind-bending mystery. Or maybe that’s me being small-minded- after all, couldn’t it be both?

Also, one of the playable characters is “Drunkard”, which makes me laugh.

Ava: Let’s stick with the soviets, and take a visit to Mayday Games’ Red Outpost, a communist take on worker placement.

Players will take control of a hidden soviet conclave on an alien planet, with joint responsibility for the comrades calling it home. Resources are shared among the whole table, as well as control of the workers themselves. Victory is earned by maintaining the mood of the workers as you move them from building to building to earn resources, build statues and get drunk.

There’s a couple of rules here that tickle me, like the bureaucrat getting a crystal if they go to the admin building, but if anyone else visits, it makes the bureaucrat happier. Poor lonely space bureaucrat! Just wants someone to come say hi. The other effect of that building is fiddling with another player’s point-scoring influence disks, leaving them taking the fall for someone else’s misery. Which sounds a little bit like every business meeting I’ve ever been in.

Quinns: I’m not convinced that this will be great, but I do have a soft spot for games that make your worker pieces more than just lumps of wood. Is there a more poignant moment in board games than when your parents finally die in Village? And then you get REALLY upset because you realise that Dad was the only person who knew how to make a cart?

Or what about Pie Town! A game where getting extra workers is great, but until they’ve been around the block a few times your junior employees are liabilities who might spill your pie secrets.

Quinns: Oh baby! It’s not often that board games get outright sequels. Marco Polo II: In the Service of the Khan is being described as an “epic standalone follow-up” to The Voyages of Marco Polo, a game we had a lot of fun reviewing (even though Big Spitting Bumpy Boys would break up just weeks later)

The prevailing attitude from the designers of Marco Polo II seems to be “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Players still choose their role from something like a 13th century character select screen, they still place dice to hustle across Asia, and they still have to fulfill trading contracts while on the road. But of course, as we learned from the superb Brass: Birmingham, sequels need more stuff, and that’s why players will also have to manage a new, sixth resource: jade.

Ava: It is still /very/ brown, though. Albeit a somehow brighter brown than the base game?

Quinns: Come sit on my knee and I’ll tell you a story.

Ava: I’m 35 years old, Quinns. I’ll do it, but only if you provide safety equipment and a risk assessment.

*several hours of bureaucracy and hoisting later*

Quinns: In 1996, when I was very small, an incredible video game called Quake was released. And the video game journalists who I liked the most said that Quake was incredible, but they also made fun of it for years for being exceedingly brown. The whole game was like trying to spot corduroys in a clay pit.

And you know what? Time proved them right. Quake was way too brown.

Ava: This is entirely irrelevant but when I was first playing Quake I didn’t realise I had left the wrong CD in the drive, and so for me the soundtrack wasn’t Nine Inch Nails, but the saccharine misery-pop of the Lightning Seeds. I still can’t hear Sugar Coated Iceberg without flashing back to wasting all my ammo on a big red snake demon before realising I just had to go upstairs and press some buttons.

Quinns: I can’t hear The Offspring’s Conspiracy of One without thinking of Sacrifice.

Anyway, Marco Polo II: In the Service of the Khan! It’ll probably be nice?

Ava: Look, either you’re paying me to sit on your knee, or have opinions. I am not doing both at once.

Ava: I’m two months late to noticing that a second expansion to Terra Mystica is taking to the seas.

Terra Mystica: Merchants of the Seas, will add a host of factions that take advantage of water in one way or another, alongside new shipyards, docks and ships. The expansion also gives you a new double sided board, with fjords or lakes to mix up the territories.

To balance things out, the game has to jump back in and shuffle around the victory point settings for various factions on the base game boards, as some will be stymied by a lack of water, and others will have the opposite. It all sounds a little queasy to me, but if you love slamming those enormous slabs of wood on the board and getting your brain crushed by competing point possibilities, this promises more of the same. I say bon voyage to it.

Quinns: Hey, we were just talking about board game sequels- when the sequel to Terra Mystica, Gaia Project, came out, I felt profoundly alone when I said that I didn’t like it as much as the original game. I can at least take some solace in them still releasing expansions for one and not the other.

Ava: You’ll never walk alone, Quinns. Gaia Project felt weirdly shapeless to me. Absolutely fine, but it never furrowed my brow as tightly as Terra Mystica did.

Ava: Sometimes I want to highlight a random design diary from BoardGameGeek just for a random game doing something unusual. Today is one of those days. Ian Bach has written about the evolution of his animal-catching dice and card game Merlin’s Beast Hunt.

Merlin’s Beast Hunt will have you rolling dice to try and get combos that will allow you to prop up cards and build little walls around animals and trap them. That’s it. It’s just dice and cards being used in a different way.

I’m faintly disappointed as it drifts away from it’s novel prototype roots into something with custom dice and transparent cards, but it still looks like Ian has brewed an idea up from cosy messing around with easily available components combined in a novel way. I like it! I’m curious! I hope it’s good!

Quinns: I’m not convinced this is the most interesting reporting I’ve ever seen. But Quartz pointing out that Nigeria are doing great at Scrabble just makes me want to note that Scrabble must be the most respectable of the classic mass market games that every home has a copy of.

Ava: I’ve got a long-standing rivalry with a friend that runs to hundreds of games played remotely via app. It feels less like a word game and more like a ruthless territory control and push-your-luck contest, and I love it for it.

Quinns: Oh, it’s so true! Returning to Scrabble after playing a load of designer board games is bizarre. You think it’s a word game, and then as an adult you do a double-take and see that it’s an area control game!

I still can’t beat my wife, mind you, because she knows the deviant two letter words. Trying to beat her is like trying to stave off a pack of flying monkeys, except instead of monkeys it’s words like “za” and “gu”.

The original article can be found on the fantastic Shut Up & Sit Down