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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="" data-orig-file="" 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=”″ data-large-file=”″ class=”alignright wp-image-4521″ src=”” alt width=”250″ height=”250″ srcset=” 300w, 150w, 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="" data-orig-file="" 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=”″ data-large-file=”″ class=”wp-image-3468 alignright” src=”” alt width=”250″ height=”250″ srcset=” 300w, 150w, 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.


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

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

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

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Co-op Case Study: Blood Bound

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

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

This article was originally published on the Meeples Together blog.

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


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

Cooperative System

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

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

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

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

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

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

No Challenge System Elements. Hidden Teams.

Adventure System

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

Final Thoughts

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

Kalle Krenzer

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

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The Problem with Game Length

<img data-attachment-id="4502" data-permalink="" data-orig-file="" data-orig-size="500,500" data-comments-opened="1" data-image-meta="{"aperture":"0","credit":"","camera":"","caption":"","created_timestamp":"0","copyright":"","focal_length":"0","iso":"0","shutter_speed":"0","title":"","orientation":"0"}" data-image-title="caylus" data-image-description="

(courtesy 3EBC on BGG)

” data-medium-file=”″ data-large-file=”″ class=”alignright wp-image-4502″ src=”” alt width=”250″ height=”250″ srcset=” 300w, 150w, 500w” sizes=”(max-width: 250px) 100vw, 250px” data-recalc-dims=”1″>Once upon a time, a game called Caylus (2005) was released, and it was quickly lauded as the best game ever. It soon climbed the ranking charts on BGG, and there was much hysteria about whether it would surpass Puerto Rico (2002) as the new #1. (Spoiler: it did not.) And so when I sat down to play it on December 14, 2005, I had high expectations.

They were not met.

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

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

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

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

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

Breaking the Game (Length)

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

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

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

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

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

Fixing the Game Length

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

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

Better design.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Problem with Player Numbers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article was originally published in the Meeples Together blog.

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


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

Cooperative System

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

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

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

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

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

No Challenge System Elements. Hidden Teams.

Adventure System

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

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

Final Thoughts

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

Santa Ragione

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

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What Makes Wingspan Great?

(Or, Anatomy of a Game: Wingspan)

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

Your birds are ready for watching.

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

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

The Theming

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Mechanics

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

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

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

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

Constructing my second-place tableau.

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

The Production

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

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

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

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

The Luck

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

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

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

The Flaws

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

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

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


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

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

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Co-op Case Study: Forbidden Sky

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

This article was originally published in the Meeples Together blog.

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


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

Challenge System

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cooperative System

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

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

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

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

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

Adventure System

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

Final Thoughts

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

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

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New to Me: Summer 2019 — Others Enjoy Them More Than I

These lists have always been a quarterly summary of the new games that I played and what thought of them, as a medium-weight eurogame-focused player. That don’t necessarily represent if these games are good or bad, just if like them. And that fact felt like it was on particular display this summer, when I played a number of games that were very good in the abstract, but less enjoyable for me specifically.

But I’m going to start off with the one game that may have be the opposite case …

The Very Good (“I Would Keep This”)

Blood Bound (2013). This is a pretty light and simple game that’s more about experience than strategy, and that’s not a category I usually love, but this one was pretty good. It was sort of the deduction of Love Letter meets the gameplay of Bang! There are two teams of players, and each team is trying to capture the leader of the opposite team: but you only know the probable identity of one other player — and nothing about whether they’re a leader.

The cleverness of the hidden teams part of this game is that its deduction comes in two parts: you have to guess both the affiliation of each player, and their rank within the team — and the second part can be quite dicey since there are nine potential ranks in each team, and many of them will be out of play, so the level “7” character will usually not be the leader, but could be.

The Love Letter aspect of this game comes from the fact that each player has a special power that they can use once. These can be cleverly played to help fellows and hurt opponents … if you can guess who’s who.

For a game that’s over in 15-30 minutes, this one has a surprising level of depth, and its two levels of deduction make it more interesting than many in the hidden teams category.

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

Gentes (2017, 2018). Stefan Risthaus offers up a nicely dense game mixing resource management, variable action points, and limited action selections. It doesn’t quite match any of the action-selection methods I wrote about last year, which makes it new and unique.

So, taking it one element at a time:

The action-selection methodology allows players to take tiles which have costs in money and time, and which provide various resources. The time versus money balance is one of the interesting tradeoffs in the game, because you’re basically deciding whether it’s worth losing some of your actions in order to not spend the cash. The action tiles are also limited, creating a constant tension in the game as players ahead of you take what you want to do.

Money and time are effectively resources, So are cards. But the biggest resource in the game is your citizens, which run the gamut from sages to nobles. These citizens can be advanced (“trained” or “educated”) and doing allows you to accomplish the goals of the cards. Unlike most resources, these (mostly) don’t go away when used; in addition, every pair of them are in opposition: you can only advance a certain amount in the two citizen types combined.

You meld together all of these elements and you have a fairly complex game. In fact, the reason it’s down in my “Good” category instead of up in “Very Good”, where some of my fellows place it, is that it’s too complex at times. I like to play from the gut, and that’s not quite good enough for this game. You need to carefully assess your citizen levels versus card goals, you need to constantly measure out how much time you have left and what actions you might take, and you need to carefully plan out your end game. There are certainly many euros that share these requirements, but for me personally it can get a bit much.

Horizons ThumbnailHorizons (2018). This 3X game (apparently with some eXterimination with one of the variants or expansions) follows some pretty typical patterns. You take actions, and ultimately build things to collect resources, and then you use those resources to build more things. There are goals (“missions”) to help direct your play and there’s some majority control at the end to give another objective in your Xing. So: consider it a 3X-euro hybrid.

It does have a few more unique elements.

First, each player can play a different alien race, and there’s pretty huge variety among the races, with each having a few unique actions and specific build costs. This is one of the game’s best elements — other than the fact that the races aren’t necessarily balanced.

Second, players can purchase bonus actions as special cards, which can be used to give extra powers up to two times when a player takes the associated action. This is a really nice design element that allows for some great tactics and even a bit of solid strategic play.

The simplicity of the resource management and the problems with game balance keep me from rating this game more highly, but it’s still one I’m happy to play a few times more.

Forbidden Sky (2018). Matt Leacock;s newest “Forbidden” co-op offers a whole new challenge: players are trying to arrange tiles in very specific arrangements to create capacitors and enable the creation of an actual physical circuit that will light up a rocket and send it into space. Of course, there are dangers: the circuitry can cause lightning strikes to fry the player’s characters and wind can blow them right off the platforms!

Each “Forbidden” game has been more difficult than the one which preceded it, and this continues the trend. It’s a very think-y game, focused on spatial reasoning. Also, unlike any other Leacock co-op, you can utterly and obviously destroy your position: if you don’t create enough capacitors then you can create an unbridgeable board that simply can’t be wired together.

Each player has their own red-line where a game gets too think-y to be fun, and this one was right on my border (which is why, like Gentes, I only ranked it “Good” despite an innovative and well-polished game design). Obviously, your mileage may vary, and if this is within the boundaries of your fun zone it’s a pretty great design that makes extremely good use of tile laying thanks to the need, but not requirement, to connect up certain types of tiiles (which is the superior design that might make you might rank it “Very Good” or “Great”). My only actual complaints about the games are physical: the tiles can easily be bumped and that will send capacitors and wires bouncing around. In addition, our rocket only lit up after we opened it up, reset the batteries, and put it down, and even then it was inconsistent.

Tiny Towns (2019). This is a curiously abstract game of town building. You lay out resources into patterns on your grid, then when you’ve formed a pattern right, you can turn it into a building. The catch is that the resources and the buildings take up space, so you have to be very careful to leave the right spaces open on your board to allow the construction of additional buildings. Though this type of geometric abstraction can sometimes lead to AP, that’s minimized in Tiny Towns because the play is all simultaneous: one resource is generated and everyone places it.

The game’s depth comes from the fact that each of the buildings has special powers and/or special scoring opportunities. Further variability comes from the fact that those buildings can change from game to game, meaning that it’s always somewhat fresh.

I suspect the simplicity of Tiny Town’s play is going to ultimately limit its replayability, but as a flash-in-the-pan filler it’s likely to rack up a half-dozen or more plays before you’re ready to move onto the next release. (I played it three times this quarter, and wouldn’t be surprised if I’m done at this point.)

Castles of Burgundy: The Dice Game (2017). Alea’s third iteration of the Castles of Burgundy is a dice game … just like the original. I guess the difference is that it’s a simple dice game, not a complex dice game, but Alea didn’t think that Castles of Burgundy: The Simpler Dice Game sounded good as a title

The Dice Game uses the same one-person-rolls-everyone-builds trope as is found in Tiny Towns. Whereas Tiny Towns encouraged each player to develop differently based on the raw complexity of what you could do with spatial variations, The Dice Game instead does so by offering options in the random roll: you can take one of two color-spot dice and one of two pipped dice, and when you combine those results you (hopefully) get what you need to build a specific type of building that’s adjacent to what you’ve built to date.

The game does an impressive job of adapting Castles of Burgundy’s core ideas to a simpler dice paradigm: it reuses the major tropes, but still creates something that’s more suited for its simpler play. On the downside, I think it still ends up too complex for its components. There’s a lot of opportunities for mistakes, which is always a problem in a simultaneous-play game.Still, given its extremely small footprint and relatively short gameplay, this is probably a game that most Burgundy fans will want to keep in their collection as a start-of-the-night filler (but not necessarily an end-of-the-night closer, when everyone is tired and bleary-eyed).

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

Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space (2010, 2016). This game mixes the hidden roles of games like Bang! (2002) with the hidden movement of games like Fury of Dracula (1987, 2005, 2017). You’re either an alien or a human. If you’re a human, you’re plotting slow movement on a hexagonal grid to get to an escape pod; and if you’re an alien, you’re plotting fast movement on a hexagonal grid to kill humans. All humans who get to escape pods win individually, else all the aliens win jointly.

The big catch in the game is that your movement may or may not be totally hidden. You can choose to enter “silent” spaces, but also can enter “dangerous” spaces, where you’ll either reveal your location with noise or get to make a noise at a totally different location, creating a false trail. This means that your play is largely dependent on the luck of the draw, but if you draw luckily, there’s also a huge opportunity for bluffing and engaging in very clever play. Meanwhile, you’re also forced to decide when to press your luck and run across open, dangerous fields.

The game has a lot more strategy than you’d expect given its level of luck, and also drips tension. It’s certainly toward the light or party side of things (though I think the complexity of hex-based movement and the fiddliness of the rules are somewhat at odds with the simplicity and randomness of the gameplay), but if that’s what you’re looking for, this is a strong game.

Miskatonic University: The Restricted Collection (2019). This Reiner Knizia release from Chaosium is a push-your-luck game.  Ironically, I think it’s a casual game more about experience than strategy, just like Blood Bound, at the top of the list, but I had a more typical assessment of this one: that it was OK.

The object is to keep drawing cards for as many turns as you can each round, but the catch is that you’re drawing the wrong cards will forcibly knock you out of play (and cost you points), if you duplicate them. To keep this from being entirely an exercise in randomness, there are defense cards that you can use to offset bad draws, either before or after you draw.

But it’s still mostly an exercise in randomness.

Perfectly good for casual or party play, especially given its great-quality components, but there’s not much game besides that.

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Co-op Case Study: Pandemic — Reign of Cthulhu

By this point, there have been a shocking number of Pandemic games. Some slightly vary the original formula, while others move increasingly far away. We expect to look at most of them over time, because variations to an an existing system are one of the most intriguing ways to examine the evolution of a game design.

This article originally appeared on the Meeples Together blog.

Publisher: Z-Man Games (2016)
Cooperative Style: True Co-Op
Play Style: Action Point, Card Management, Set Collection


The players take on the role of various investigators who are trying to close four gates that are destroying the world. As in Pandemic (2008) they must balance removing  cultists and shoggoths (to avoid losing the game) and collecting sets of cards (to ensure winning the game). However, this is more than just a retheme, as Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu features a few new threats, such as Old Ones and a sanity die.

Challenge System

Reign of Cthulhu is built on the challenge system from Pandemic with a number of tweaks. Most obviously, there’s just one type of cultist, not four, and they don’t actually overflow when they replicate. Instead, a fourth cultist in a location generates an awakening ritual, which results in the appearance of an Old One.

Old Ones are a major new threat that introduce both environmental effects and a countdown to DOOM. As such, they’re a nice addition to Pandemic, because the varied environmental effects introduce interesting uncertainty and variability to the game.

And what’s that shoggoth do? It creates an obstacle on the board that will move toward one of the gates … where it will summon yet another Old One into the game.The “epidemic” cards of Pandemic have become “evil stirs” cards, and they’re also slightly different. Besides resetting the draw deck for where cultists appear (and adding cultists to a new location) they also advance the Old One count and add a shoggoth to the board.

The repeated use of Old Ones in the gameplay shows how to take a new mechanic and thoroughly integrate it into the game. In Reign of Cthulhu these Old Ones have practically become the main threat, because they can appear in so many different ways — though you can still lose the game by running out of cultists, shoggoths, or cards.

Challenge Elements: Turn Activation; Card Trigger; Simulation; Decay; Environmental & Removal Consequences; Task Threat.

Cooperative System

The cooperative systems of Reign of Cthulhu are almost identical to Pandemic with one major difference: the clue cards that you need to close the gates are now tied to general areas rather than to specific locations. This makes card trading much easier, and thus a more important part of the game.

The reason for this change may have been partially to simplify the game, but it also seems pretty important for balancing the increased difficulty introduced by the shoggoths and Old Ones.

Adventure System

Cthulhu games generally have great theming, and Reign of Cthulhu is no exception. In fact, it’s a great example of how to add strong theming to an otherwise abstract game. The Old Ones are the most thematic element, with strong art working together with special powers that reflect the monsters. However, the game’s relic cards and its investigators also show how to integrate strong theming with adventure game elements — primarily through colorful descriptions and evocative powers that match those elements.

Final Thoughts

Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu is a mild revamp of Pandemic that shows how to link new mechanics to an existing system, how to balance difficulty, and how to introduce evocative adventure game elements. Though there’s nothing particularly innovative, it’s a good design.

Chuck D. Yager

Chuck Yager is a video game producer who also designs board games for fun. He’s obviously a Lovecraftian fan, as he previously produced Rise of Cthulhu (2015), a small press two-player Cthulhu card game. However, Reign of Cthulhu is his most popular game to date by far.

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Co-op Case Study: Onirim

We analyzed co-op games small and large while working on Meeples Together. Onirim was one of the smallest: a 78-card game for just two players in a teeny little card box. But size can be deceiving …

This article originally appeared on the Meeples Together blog.

Publisher: Z-Man Games (2010, 2014)
Cooperative Style: True Co-op
Play Style: Card Management, Set Collection


Players wander the dream realms trying to find the oneiric doors and escape.

Actually, this is a pretty abstract card-management game with nice artwork. Each turn a player plays or discards a labyrinth card, then draws a new card. If a player plays three sequential cards of the same color or draws a door card while holding a key card of the same color, then he can take the door. The object is for each of the two partners playing the game to collect one door in each of the four colors.

However, the players are also bedeviled by nightmares, which are cards that each cause the loss of 1-5 cards. If the players can’t discover their eight doors before the deck of cards runs out, they’re lost forever in the dream realms.

Challenge System

The most important element of Onirim’s challenge system is the timer: when the deck runs out, the game is over. This acts very similarly to timed decks of cards in Hanabi (2010) and (to a lesser extent) Pandemic (2008). In each case, the limitations of the deck of cards force the players into super-efficient play … and if they’re not efficient enough, they lose.

The other element of Onirim’s challenge system is its threat: the ten Nightmare cards that players can draw. Nightmares come from the same deck that contains the labyrinth cards, so players never know if they’re going to get something good or bad. This is a rarity in cooperative game design: it randomizes the activation of threats at a pretty low level. Nonetheless, it can also be found in Terra (2003) and (to a lesser extent) Lord of the Rings (2000).

The way in which these threats work may be the most interesting element of Onirim’s challenge system. When a Nightmare appears, the active player must choose to do one of four bad things: discard a (rare) key card; discard a door that’s already been collected; discard his entire hand; or discard up to five unseen cards from the draw pile.

Because players have to make a hard decision every time a threat comes out, those threats feel very important. The result is pretty terrific for the dread (and agonizing decisions!) that it introduces into the game and for the gameplay it allows.

These choices also create a real feeling of sacrifice; sometimes a player might have to give up something notable (like an otherwise unmatched key) in order to prevent his partner from giving up something horrific (like a valued card in the cooperative pool). Though other cooperative games have tried to create hard choices between a player keeping something for himself or giving something better to the rest of his team, Onirim is one of the few to make that decision a nonobvious one.

Challenge System Elements: Turn Activation; Card Trigger; Decay; Timer; and Removal Consequences (with choice).

Cooperative System

Onirim can be played as a solo game or as a two-player game. The two-player game introduces the game’s only cooperative system: the shared resource pool. Rather than a single player having a hand of five cards (as in the solo game), each of the two players has a hand of three cards, plus there are two more cards in the middle of the table, which are called the “shared resource”. Either player can play or discard those cards, just as if they were a part of his own hand.

Obviously the players need to jointly manage this cooperative card pool, so that the cards in the pool always go the player who needs them most. This results in a surprising amount of thoughtful gameplay. A player can purposefully decide to discard his hand (and thus the pool) if he thinks that his partner could really use two new cards to look at. He could similarly play or discard a single card from the pool to try and help out his partner.

Meanwhile, there’s a lot of solo play going on, as each player has to make a sequence of cards (and thus acquire doors) on his own. This creates a nice balance that helps to prevent a controlling player from taking over the game. Though there are clear group decisions to be made, the success of the group ultimately depends on each player’s individual play of cards.

Finally, Onirim is notable for the fact that it’s perhaps the only mass-market cooperative game that maxes out as two players. This allows it to focus on a very different sort of design. For example, the cooperative card pool probably wouldn’t work nearly as well with four (or eight!) players, because so many people adjusting the pool would make it much too chaotic. Conversely, it can work great when just two partners are working together.

Expansions & Variants

Onirim contains three different expansions in its box, each of them adding several cards and some new rules to the game. Having all of these rules laid out together is interesting, because they jointly show how expansions need to include both good stuff and bad stuff, so as not to upset the balance of the cooperative game (unless it was previously unbalanced).

However, the particular dilemmas introduced by the various expansions are also interesting, because they show how challenge systems can go beyond simple threats. Thus, the first expansion introduces “goal” cards, which are limitations on how cards can be played; while the second expansions introduces new requirements in the form of “tower” cards — which must also be played to win. Finally, the last expansion includes a more typical threat: “dark premonition” cards that make bad things happen when certain conditions are met.

A second edition (2014) of Onirim introduced four more of these “modules”.

Final Thoughts

Onirim is an interesting cooperative design. That’s in part because it’s so minimalistic: with just 78 cards it manages to create compelling and tough cooperative play. Hanabi and The Game (2015) are among the few co-ops in the same ball park.

Beyond that Onirim has an interesting challenge system (because it requires hard choices) and an interesting cooperative system (because it keeps the players both separated and working together). Finally, it may be the only notable cooperative game specifically designed for two players — which probably contributes to its unique design.

Shadi Torbey

German-born Lebanese singer Shadi Torbey has performed in operas throughout Belgium and France. He’s also designing a series of card games that can be played solo or in cooperative partnerships. Onirim (2010, 2014) was the first, followed by Urbion (2012), Sylvion (2015), Castellion (2015), Nautilion (2016), and Aerion (2019). They’re all set in the same dream-like universe of Onirim.

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Deckbuilding Expansion: Ascension, Part Four: From Elements to Ancients

Ascension Core GameAscension continues to be one of the most popular deckbuilders out there. So, following in the footsteps of my previous articles, A Deckbuilding Look at Ascension (#1), Deckbuilding Expansion: Ascension, Part One — From Chronicle to Heroes (#2-4), Deckbuilding Expansion: Ascension, Part Two — From Vigil to Champions (#5-8), and Deckbuilding Expansion: Ascension, Part Three: From Dreamscape to Shadows (#9-10),  I’m looking at sets 11 and 12, to see how they changed the game, for better or for worse, and how they ended a second era of Ascension, that had big ideas (almost) every time.

Set Eleven: Gift of the Elements

The eleventh Ascension set turned out to be a very traditional one, repeating and innovating old mechanics. As such, it turns out to be a set that can be combined with almost anything, which is nice given Ascension’s move away from the block structure.

New Mechanics — Empower & Infest. OK, Gift of the Elements does actually have some totally new mechanics, but they’re pretty minor. Empower is a keyword on cards that lets you banish a card you play when you acquire the Empower card. Infest is a keyword on monsters that lets you place them in someone else’s deck, where they take up space like a traditional Curse in Dominion.

How It Works — Infest. Ascension has always had a minor element of PvP combat, mostly focused on rewards when monsters are killed. Gift of the Elements nicely complements that with its Infest. It’s monster oriented like the PvP in previous sets, but it goes to the core of deckbuilding, because you’re trying to wreck someone else’s deck by filling it with dross.

This type of “Curse” mechanic can be quite frustrating in some deckbuilders, but it’s sufficiently bounded in Gift of the Elements that this doesn’t tend to be the case. You can only “Curse” if a specific Infesting monster comes out (of which there are 13, four of which continue moving around afterward), so you’re more likely to slightly water down someone’s plays rather than create entirely useless turns.

How It Works — Empower. And Empower can actually offset that, by giving players another option to banish cards. But it goes beyond that: it makes deck filtering somewhat easier, allowing players to focus more on the strategy of deckbuilding than the tactics of individual turns. Finally, Empower manages the trick of encouraging players to take fairly mediocre 1-cost cards. Because they tend to have the Empower keyword, they’re usually replacing an Apprentice or a Militia, so it’s still a step up.

There’s one other pseudo-new-mechanic that goes hand in hand with Empower: a few cards give additional bonuses if banished “from anywhere”. That gives players more tactical possibilities for their Empower acquisitions, and shows how nicely a design can link together a lot of minor mechanics into something that changes the overall strategy of a game.

Revamped Mechanics — Events & Transformation. Along with those pretty minor additions, Gift of the Elements also brings back two classic mechanics. Events appeared back in Block One (2010-2011), while Transformations were originally keyed off energy in Block Three (2013), then returned to be keyed off factions and honor gains in Set Seven, Realms Unravelled (2014). Gift of the Elements cleverly combines the mechanics by introducing events that also can be transformed into a card if a player pays a big sum (8 runes or 8 power) for them!

How It Works — Transformation Events. The events in Gift of the Elements have notable effects, giving free card draws, free Runes, and free Power. That’s the sort of thing you want for an adjacent game element like the events, because they’re big enough that people won’t forget them.

Beyond that, I adore the fact that Ascension figured out a third, very different way to do Transformations … but I’m not convinced it’s successful. First, the transformations are easy to forget since players are excited about buying things in the Center Row, and second … they’re really powerful. It’s great giving rewards for the tough task of getting 8 Runes or Power in a single turn, but some of these transformed cards can end the game, particularly the transformed Cetra, Celestial Body, which gives Honor for all the Honor values in the center row, something that I’ve seen score over 20 points from a single play(!). Nothing else is quite that powerful, but acquiring all the Constructs (Forgemaster Reysa) or taking 2 Honor from each player (Emri, Born of Battle), which is an 8-point swing against everyone in a four-player game, can also be pretty game changing.

Overall, Gift of the Elements is a nicely designed set that’s also quite traditional and so could easily be a great third box for new players after Chronicle of the Godslayer and Return of the Fallen. That’s a nice return to simple form for an eleventh set.

Set Twelve: Valley of the Ancients

Ascension Valley of the AncientsThe twelfth Ascension set returns to introducing notable New Mechanics — here new resources, new victory-point cards, and new keywords. Whew! None of them are particularly connected.

New Mechanics — Keystones & Temples. The new resource is the keystone. It is earned via certain cards, and like almost every other resource in Ascension is ephemeral. The first time a player gets a Death keystone, they can turn it in for the Temple of Death, which originally comes from the supply and later is taken from the current holder. Additional Death keystones while a player is already holding the Temple allow them to banish a card and take the Temple of Immortality. Similarly, the first Life keystone gives a player the Temple of Life and additional ones give them 2 Runes and the Temple of Immortality.

And the Temple of Immortality? If a player is holding it, he can Rally one Faction each turn: if they acquire a card of that faction and that same faction refills in the Center Row, they take the new card too. Ad Infinitum. (Curiously, the Temple of Immortality doesn’t use the Rally keyword.)

Oh, and all the Temples are worth Victory Points: 5 for the lesser temples and 10 for the Temple of Immortality.

How It Works — Keystones & Temples. The Temples feel like a great mechanic that just doesn’t work out. That’s in large part due to randomness. First, only about a quarter of the cards grant keystones, and they’re usually tied to a secondary requirement (like one of the new keywords or a more traditional requirement, such as killing monsters or uniting). That means that a player might find himself in a situation where he can’t practically earn one or other keystone, which is a big disadvantage.

Beyond that, the Temples create a huge, chaotic swing. There’s no way to stop another player from grabbing a temple from you, and if they do, it creates a 10-point swing for the lesser temples and a 20-point swing for the Temple of Immortality. Games are sometimes won simply on who gets to go last.

Presumably, the goal here was to create more player interaction, just like the Infest in Garden of the Elements. And, there was probably another goal of creating an orthogonal way to deckbuild, as players could now collect cards that granted one keystone or the other. But with the randomness underlying both that collection and that interaction, the result wasn’t necessarily fun.

New Mechanics — Echo. The Echo keyword grants additional special abilities on a card if there’s a card of the same faction in the discard pile.

New Mechanics — Serenity. The Serenity keywords grants additional special abilities on a card if there are no cards in the discard pile.

How It Works Echo & Serenity. These new keywords feel like they’re quite similar because they both force players to focus on their discard piles. But, they really couldn’t be more different. The Echo mechanic is both strategic and tactical. It encourages players to focus on factions (strategically), but it can also be used tactically if a player purchases a card of the faction just before playing the Echo. On the other hand, Serenity is almost pure luck. Oh, there are a very small minority of cards that can be used to empty discards, and maybe a player might occasionally need to think about when they purchase a card and when they force a reshuffle, but those are rare enough that the Serenity mechanic mainly feels luck-based (and when it’s not, it’s usually just an arbitrary set of actions to set up the discard pile correctly).

Overall, the Temples and the Keystones make this supplement feel unwieldy and awkward, let alone the huge swinginess of Temple control. They make it one of the less desirable supplements, in my opinion, which is a pity given the interesting new Keywords.


In retrospect, I think Sets 9-12 represented Ascension getting its feet under it as it figured out how to produce singular sets of cards. As I noted when I wrote about sets 9 and 10, they each had a big concept (even if one of those big concepts was returning to great classic mechanics) and some of those big concepts worked better than the others: Dreamscape (#9) continues to be well-loved, but War of the Shadows (#10) is usually too finicky to play in person; Gift of the Elements (#11) was a strong return to form, while Valley of the Ancient (#12) introduced new mechanics that seemed like more trouble than they were worth. I saluted the innovation when I wrote about the previous sets, but now I’m a little tired of a 50% hit-to-miss ratio.

But Ascension was also at a turning point, where they were about to return to more classic mechanics in totally new ways and then more massively renovate the game than ever before. Perhaps those next sets managed to figure out the success of the innovative Dreamscape and the classic Gift of the Elements, because they seem to be more consistently enjoyed than the series of sets from 9 to 12.

But that’s the topic for the next article.

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