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A Model for Decision Making in Games, Part Four: Case Studies

Last fall I laid out a model for decision making in games that divided it into three parts: action selection; action execution; and action resolution. This article concludes the series by examining how it works using the concrete examples of three games: the DSP winners from three different decades — which also does a nice job of highlighting how the hobby has changed in the last twenty or more years.


Tigris & Euphrates (1997) by Reiner Knizia

Tigris & Euphrates is a game in the classic eurogame mold. It features some elements rare in modern eurogames, such as more chaotic resolution, and it has a simpler selection model. Put all that together and you have a game that does a great job of demonstrating how this decision making model can be used to map out any entire game. 

Action Selection: Rules Selection, limited Action Points

Tigris & Euphrates doesn’t feel like it has an action-selection model because it uses an old-school methodology. Each turn, players choose two actions from a list found in the rulebook (and on the back of the screens): position a leader, play a tile, play a catastrophe tile, or swap tiles. Despite this simplicity, there are just enough mechanics here to create interesting selection tactics, and that’s largely due to the fact that players can make two action-selection choices each turn, creating the opportunity for surprising combos.

Action Execution: Area Control (Spatial Choice, Token Choice)

Even after choosing an action, a player still has to decide how to execute that action, and here the choices are pretty wide open. For tile swaps, a player can exchange up to six tiles, and for token placements he has up to twelve token choices: four leaders, six civilization tiles, and two catastrophe tiles. Those can go on up to 176 board position. There are certainly real restrictions (such as the placement limitations on blue tiles and river spaces) and practical restrictions (such as the fact that players will primarily place tiles adjacent to their own kingdoms), and they reduce these 12×176 options . However, it wouldn’t be unfair to say that there are still hundreds or thousands of possible action-execution choices, far beyond the four action-selection choices.

Action Resolution: Automatic, Arbitrary

Most results in Tigris & Euphrates automatically occur, but when a player creates a conflict by placement of a leader or by connecting kingdoms, then an arbitrary action resolution occurs — something that’s much more rare in modern eurogames. And, it’s an intriguing one that combines the placement of extant tiles on the board and the play of arbitrary tiles from hands. This keeps the game in line with the strategy of long-term placement, but allows for some tactical surprises (and some pressing your luck). Though there are far more choices in in the action execution phase, the heart of Tigris & Euphrates is really in its resolution, because that’s where the results of the big moves are determined.

Case Study Conclusion

Tigris & Euphrates shows how a game can combine fully featured elements of all three parts of the decision making system. There’s just enough action selection to keep things interesting with a minimal set of two Action Points used for Rules Selection. (A fully old-school game would have just allowed one selection.) Most of the gameplay then occurs in the action selection, but its choices are pretty classic: picking tiles and deciding where to place them. Finally, there’s action resolution to make sure the choices aren’t too staid. It’s a really direct conflict, but one that prioritizes long-term planning over seat-of-the-pants play. Overall, Tigris & Euphrates looks like a bit of a hybrid in the modern day: it partially develops the action-selection phase more common for eurogames, but maintains both a complex action-execution phase and a partially random action-resolution phase, as iswasmore frequent in older Anglo-American releases.


Agricola (2007) by Uwe Rosenberg

Agricola certainly isn’t the first worker-placement game, but it’s a well-known example of the category that uses the mechanic in a fairly standard way; it demonstrates what people like or don’t like about the mechanic.

Action Selection: Worker Placement

Agricola is as pure as worker placement gets. At the start of the game, there are 16 actions. 14 more are added over the course of the game, for a total of 30. Whenever a player takes an action, no one else can take it again that round, though there is some duplication of functionality. The majority of the game’s contention thus happens in the action-selection phase; this is also where the players have to constantly adjust their play to maintain their efficiency. While the heart of Tigris & Euphrates was in its execution, in Agricola it’s right here in the selection, and there’s a reason for that: in each game, the heart is where the players come into conflict with each other.

Action Execution: Resource Management (minimal Spatial Choice, limited Construction & Token Choice)

At first glance, the Action Execution phase of Agricola might seem to be fully degenerated. After all, critics of worker placement say that you just get the choice of which action to take, and that’s it. That certainly could be true for some worker placement games, but in Agriciola, it’d be fairer to say that the action execution phase is limited, not fully degenerated. First, there’s minimal spatial choice: how you expand your house, build your fields, and fence them is meaningful, but slight variations don’t make a lot of strategic difference. Second, there’s a limited but crucial Construction Choice for which improvement and occupation cards a player chooses to build, and directly linked to that, which resources he spends to do so. These are much more important to long-term play because they create the foundation of a player’s gaming engine.

Together, these limited options roughly double the total breadth of choices in Agricola. No, the 30 or so choices available at the start of the game in Agriciola don’t equal the hundreds or thousands in Tigris & Euphrates, but it’s also hard to compare a choice like “place in the space above my kingdom or one space to the right of that or one space to the left of that” with “take two wood or play a wood cutter to improve my wood engine or play a joinery to get better output from my wood engine”. Each game finds complexity and strategy in different ways.

Action Resolution: Automatic.

The final, action-resolution phase, is wholly degenerated in Tigris & Euphrates. There are no surprises: the results of everything are automatic.

Case Study Conclusion

Agricola is an example of how the eurogame market came of its own a decade or more on. Rather than having the wide-open but abstract choices of Tigris & Euphrates, it has more constrained and also more evocative choices. And rather than having the in-your face conflict of Tigris & Euphrates, it instead makes its conflict more hands-off: players don’t play tiles to attack each other, but instead fight to get in line first. It’s certainly a different style of play, despite both games originating in the German community. It shows how dramatically rearranging these three decision making phases can result in dramatically different games.


Terraforming Mars (2016)

Although a modern board game, Terraforming Mars is some ways feels like a throwback, because it goes to the old Anglo-American model of being more random and more simulationist. However, it continues the trend of eurogames away from an action-resolution phase and toward an ever-more complex action-selection phase.

Action Selection: Card Selection and/or Card Drafting then Action Resources and/or Menu Selection

Terraforming Mars actually breaks its action selection into two separate parts, showing how action selection is becoming increasingly complex in eurogames, decade by decade.

First, players decide which cards they want to put into their hands. This is primarily done through “Card Selection”, a methodology that I didn’t include in my original Action Selection article: players are given a large handful of cards, and must decide which are worth purchasing for future use. However, there’s also a somewhat popular variant: players can draft their cards in later rounds of play, which increases game length, but also decreases randomness and increases interactivity.

Really, though, that’s just the prelude: players select actions through an Action Resources method that’s totally separate from the card selection and/or drafting. Players decide which cards to play, in large part dependent upon what they can afford. And, they may never play some of their cards. As a further alternative, players can choose set actions from a menu, whether they have appropriate cards or not, which once more decreases the randomness. Later in the game, players will also get to choose actions from their personal menu of played cards that have actions on them, allowing the creation of interdependent engines as the game goes on

More generally, Terraforming Mars shows how you can use cards to initiate actions, but also how you can both acquire those cards in multiple ways and how you can control randomness while doing so.

Action Execution: Resource Management (minimal Exchange Choice, Expenditure Choice, minimal Opponent Choice, Spatial Choice)

Fundamentally, the majority of the choice in Terraforming Mars comes from the action selection, where a player chooses which card to play, which project to build. or which action to activate. There are expenditure choices created by some of these selection choices, as players choose how to pay for their cards. In addition, a minority or cards, projects, and actions also create execution choices: which tokens do you expend (Expenditure), what do you swap them for (Exchange), what opponent do you steal resources or tokens from (Opponent), or where do you place a tile (Spatial). They’re critical elements of the game, but less so than the core choice of selecting and playing cards and choosing actions.

Action Resolution: Automatic.

Once again, this modern eurogame has a degenerated Action Resolution phase: there are no surprises; once you have your cards in hand, everything occurs as planned.

Case Study Conclusion

In many ways, Terraforming Mars “feels” like a much more classic board game, akin to the more primordial design of something like Tigris & Euphrates. But, when you look at its design, if anything it doubles down on the design decisions seen in the popular worker-placement category of play: most of the decision are made from a limited menu of no more than twenty choices in the selection phase, with the execution phase just offering minor details to those decisions, and the resolution phase contributing nothing.


Appendix: A Chart of Games

The following chart encompasses not just these three games, but also several more that were used as examples in the original articles.

Game Selection Execution Mechanic Choices Resolution
Agricola Worker Placement Resource Management Construction
Spatial
Token
Automatic
Dominion Deck Building Card Management Opponent Automatic
Near and Far Rules Choice Adventure/Exploration Exchange
Expenditure
Obstacle
Purchase
Spatial
Token
Random
Unknown
Pathfinder ACG Deck Building Card Management Expenditure
Region
Token
Random
Unknown
Puerto Rico Phase Selection Resource Management Construction
Exchange
Automatic
Settlers of Catan Action Resources for
Menu Selection
Resource Management Construction
Exchange
Expenditure
Spatial
Token
Automatic
Decision
Terraforming Mars Card Drafting or
Card Selection then
Action Resources or
Menu Selection
Resource Management Exchange
Expenditure
Opponent
Spatial
Automatic
Tigris & Euphrates Action Points for
Rules Selection
Area Control Spatial
Token
Arbitrary or
Automatic
Tikal Action Points for
Menu Selection
Majority Control Exchange
Spatial
Automatic

These primarily euro-driven games again show a tendency toward the selection phase and away from the resolution phase, but the more Anglo-American design of Near and Far shows the other possibilities out there.

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2018 Article Index

This is an index of all the Mechanics & Meeples articles from 2018, followed by an index of all my RPGnet reviews from the same year.


Design

A Model for Decision Making in Games, Part One: Action Selection
A Model for Decision Making in Games, Part Two: Action Execution
A Model for Decision Making in Games, Part Three: Action Resolution

Expansions:

I Poison My Games with Expansions


Design, by Game Type

Adventure Games:

A Deckbuilding (And Adventure Game) Comparison of Aventuria

Bagbuilding Games:

A Bagbuilding Look at Altiplano

Cooperative Games:

The Alpha Player Problem (or: How to Avoid Controlling Co-Ops Without Even Trying)
Co-op Interviews: Nikki Valens

Deckbuilding Games:

A Deckbuilding (And Adventure Game) Comparison of Aventuria
Deckbuilding Expansion: Ascension, Part Three: From Dreamscape to Shadows
A Deckbuilding Look at Approaching Dawn: The Witching Hour
A Deckbuilding Look at The Quest for El Dorado
A Model for Decision Making in Games, Part One: Action Selection

Escape Games:

The Anatomy of Racing Games: Close Cousins

Legacy Games:

A Legion of Legacies, Part Three: Legacy Mechanics
A Legion of Legacies, Part Four: Legacy Emotions & Agency

Pickup and Delivery Games:

The Anatomy of Racing Games: The Wider World

Racing Games:

The Anatomy of Racing Games: What Makes a Great Race
The Anatomy of Racing Games: Close Cousins
The Anatomy of Racing Games: The Wider World

Train Games:

The Anatomy of Racing Games: The Wider World

Wagering Games:

The Anatomy of Racing Games: Close Cousins

Worker Placement Games:

Defining Worker Placement
A Model for Decision Making in Games, Part One: Action Selection


Design, Anatomy of a Genre

The Anatomy of Racing Games: What Makes a Great Race
The Anatomy of Racing Games: Close Cousins
The Anatomy of Racing Games: The Wider World
A Legion of Legacies, Part Three: Legacy Mechanics
A Legion of Legacies, Part Four: Legacy Emotions & Agency


News

Meeples Together:

Announcing Meeples Together
Meeples Together is on Kickstarter


Personal Pieces

What Makes a Great Gaming Community? (or: “Thanks, Endgame!”)


Rants

Defining Worker Placement
I Poison My Games with Expansions

Etiquette:

The Alpha Player Problem (or: How to Avoid Controlling Co-Ops Without Even Trying)
Don’t Be that Gamer
What Makes a Great Gaming Community? (or: “Thanks, Endgame!”)


Mini-Reviews

Co-op Case Studies:

Co-op Case Study: 12 Realms
Co-op Case Study: Between Two Cities
Co-op Case Study: Lord of the Rings
Co-op Case Study: Pathfinder Adventure Card Game
Co-op Case Study: Sub Terra
Co-op Case Study: Thunderbirds

Recent Games:

New to Me: Fall 2017
New to Me: Winter 2018 — Another Season of Co-ops
New to Me: Spring 2018 — A Last Look at Co-ops
New to Me: Summer 2018


Major Designer Discussions

12 Realms:

Co-op Case Study: 12 Realms

Corrao, Ignazio:

Co-op Case Study: 12 Realms

Knizia, Reiner:

Co-op Case Study: Lord of the Rings
A Deckbuilding Look at The Quest for El Dorado

Leacock, Matt:

Co-op Case Study: Thunderbirds

O’Malley, Matthew:

Co-op Case Study: Between Two Cities

Pinder, Tim:

Co-op Case Study: Sub Terra

Rosset, Ben:

Co-op Case Study: Between Two Cities

Selinker, Mike:

Co-op Case Study: Pathfinder Adventure Card Game

Stockhausen, Reiner:

A Bagbuilding Look at Altiplano

Valens, Nikki:

Co-op Interviews: Nikki Valens


Major Game Mentions

Ascension:

Deckbuilding Expansion: Ascension, Part Three: From Dreamscape to Shadows

Altiplano:

A Bagbuilding Look at Altiplano

Approaching Dawn: The Witching Hour:

A Deckbuilding Look at Approaching Dawn: The Witching Hour

Arkham Horror:

Co-op Interviews: Nikki Valens

Aventuria Adventure Card Game:

A Deckbuilding (And Adventure Game) Comparison of Aventuria

Between Two Cities:

Co-op Case Study: Between Two Cities

Eldritch Horror:

Co-op Interviews: Nikki Valens

Legacy of Dragonholt:

Co-op Interviews: Nikki Valens

Lord of the Rings:

Co-op Case Study: Lord of the Rings

Mansions of Madness:

Co-op Interviews: Nikki Valens

Pathfinder Adventure Card Game:

Co-op Case Study: Pathfinder Adventure Card Game
A Deckbuilding (And Adventure Game) Comparison of Aventuria

The Quest for El Dorado:

A Deckbuilding Look at The Quest for El Dorado

Sub Terra:

Co-op Case Study: Sub Terra

Thunderbirds:

Co-op Case Study: Thunderbirds


RPGnet Reviews by Designer

Brown, Chad:

Thornwatch (B+)

Holkins, Jerry:

Thornwatch (B+)

Krahulik, Mike:

Thornwatch (B+)

Peterson, Paul:

The Ninth World (B)

Radakovich, Boyan:

The Ninth World (B)

Selinker, Mike:

The Ninth World (B)
Thornwatch (B+)

Thompson, Rodney:

Thornwatch (B+)


RPGnet Reviews by Name

The Ninth World (B)
Thornwatch (B+)

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Co-op Case Studies: The Witches

This article originally appeared in the Meeples Together blog.

Our Meeples Together model for cooperative games broadly divides their design up into three major parts: cooperative elements, challenge elements and (sometimes) adventure-game elements. These mechanical elements can also be used in other sorts of games. In particular, challenge systems can appear in fully competitive games, making them more unpredictable and also creating the possibility of survival-focused gameplay, where all of the players can lose to the game system.

This month, at Meeples Together, we’ll be exploring two challenge systems that Martin Wallace designed to add survival concerns to otherwise competitive games: The Witches (2013) and AuZtralia (2018). (The second will be along in two weeks.)


Publisher: Mayfair Games (2013)
Cooperative Style: Survival-Focused Cooperation
Play Style: Adventure Game, Card Management

Overview

In The Witches, players take on the roles of trainee witches, who are sent to the country of Lancre to solve problems.  Whoever solves the most and most difficult problems wins — but if too many crises stack up, or if too many elves appear, then everyone can lose.

Challenge System

Though The Witches is ultimately a competitive game, it shares common features with cooperative games thanks to its survival-focused loss conditions. These originate within a challenge system that looks very similar to a fully cooperative challenge system.

The challenges are based on simple turn activation: a new problem tile is placed on the board each turn, in a location determined by the separate draw of a card. Splitting the trigger into two parts like this adds some nice variability to the game, so that the same problems don’t always accrue at the same locations. It’s something that could easily be adapted to other cooperative games.

If there is already a problem at the location, then the active player instead places a crisis marker and then draws a new location for the problem. This can result in several crisis markers appearing in a single turn if the players are unlucky in their draws.  The result works rather like the “hot spots” in Flash Point: Fire Rescue (2011): there’s the opportunity for cascading failure if players allow too many unsolved problems to accrue. However, unlike in Flash Point, the cascade is ultimately bounded by the fact that only one crisis marker can be placed on each problem. Ensuring that there are limits on random cascades helps players to feel like they have some control over the challenges, but it also decreases the feeling on impending doom.

Unfortunately, a lack of impending doom is a general problem for The Witches. Thirteen crises have to be placed to doom the players, and that’s a high enough number that it won’t be a frequent threat for careful players. Similarly, the game ends if there are three face-up elves, and it’s very easy to avoid that by concentrating on existing elves before revealing new “hard” problems. Tuning for challenge-based loss is always tricky, and it’s likely that Wallace decided to focus The Witches on the competitive play; as a result, the survival-focused play becomes a pretty minor element. (However, Wallace does offer some variants to address this, as described below.)

Challenge System Elements: Turn Activation; Arbitrary (Tile) Trigger and Arbitrary (Card) Trigger; Exponential Cascade; Skill Threats; Competitive Winner.

Cooperative System

This is no mechanical support for cooperation in The Witches. Players may momentarily coordinate in solving problems if crises or elves start to run rampant, but that’s the extent to which they can work together.

Curiously, players have more ability to intentionally mess up cooperation: in other words, they can decide to end the game if they want. By running around and revealing hard problems, players can increase the chance of elves being revealed; and by losing fights to vampires they can increase the number of crisis markers on the board.

Most groups would frown upon this sort of “spoiler” gameplay, but it’s still notable that The Witches makes it very possible — and it’s notable because it’s a problematic design feature: there should be control over how much the players can worsen the situation created by the challenge system, to avoid situations where players could purposefully lose the game out of spite.

Adventure System

Though players take on the roles of individual characters, those characters are minimally individualized: they each have a one-use special power, but otherwise they’re only differentiated by the cards a player holds — which tend to change from turn to turn. However, characters can gain experience — improving their hand size and their problem-solving ability as they solve more problems, which introduces some nice short-term goals into the game.

The Witches also features a skill-test system, a common element of adventure games. When testing a skill, a player rolls dice, adds cards, then rolls more dice — all in order to achieve a target number. It’s an interesting combination of randomness and of risk management, thanks to the player’s ability to add cards to support the skill test in the middle of rolling.

However, The Witches draws most of its adventure-game theming from its setting — which leans heavily on its license, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. Piles of individual cards and locations on the board depict the people, places, and things of that world.

Expansions & Variants

Wallace acknowledges the ease with which the challenge system can be beaten by including “expert competitive rules”. It drops the number of available crisis markers from 12 to 8 and allows multiple crisis counters to go on to the same location. This makes the question of survival much more central to the gameplay.

Wallace also includes a fully cooperative variant. Here, the crisis counter supply is similarly decreased — to 7-10, depending on the number of players. In addition, players can now lose by accumulating too many “Black Aliss” markers or by not solving enough problems by the game’s end. The proliferation of loss conditions may actually exceed the number that players can easily remember, and the problem-solving requirement is a somewhat clumsy conversion from competitive to cooperative play. Nonetheless, the simplicity of the conversion to cooperation shows how close a survival-focused game like The Witches lies to the cooperative sphere.

Final Thoughts

The Witches is most interesting for its challenge system, which is as fully developed as anything that you’d find in a truly cooperative game. The inclusion of a challenge system in a competitive game shows the potential for challenge systems of the sort described in Meeples Together to be used in game designs of any sort.

Martin Wallace

English designer Martin Wallace is one of the most successful indie designers in Europe. He’s been publishing games since the ’90s, with his most famous designs appearing in the 21st century — many of them involving intricate financial models and thoughtful simulations. Though he’s published many of his games through his own publishing house, Treefrog Games (previously Warfrog Games), he’s also produced games for larger publishers such as Eagle Games, Fantasy Flight Games, and Mayfair Games. Wallace’s best-known games are probably his many railroad games — including Age of Steam (2002), Railways of the World (2005), and Steam (2009) — and the northern England industrial game, Brass (2007). He’s never designed a full cooperative game, but The Witches (2013) shares some characteristics with the co-op field as does his more recent AuZtralia (2018).

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New to Me: Fall 2018 — A Season of Sequels

Other than my favorite gaming community ending its run, fall was a great season for gaming. I got to play several very new games, and many of them were very good. As usual this list is games that are new to me, no matter how long ago they were published, and as usual this is a rating of the games solely as I enjoy them, as a medium-weight eurogamer.

The Great (“I Would Buy This”)

Altiplano (2017). This new game by Reiner Stockhausen is very much a sequel to Orléans (2014). It’s another bag-building game where you draw colored disks, which can be used to power various actions. The difference is that where Orléans felt like a rather unique action-selection game, where you had to formulaically enable actions through the combination of specific “workers”, Altiplano instead feels like a resource-management game, where you’re pushing up through the supply chain, transforming lesser goods into greater goods. What a difference a bit of theming makes (and this also reminds me how wide the world of action selection is!).

Overall, Altiplano is a very tough and thinky game. You’re constantly trying to figure out the optimal use of scarce resources and which rewards you want to purchase from the board. Constraints are piled atop each other, but there’s also a lot of opportunity for careful, directed play. It’s not just that there are a lot of paths to victory (there are), but there’s also the opportunity to build a meaningful engine, allowing you to make better use of your resource-disks and also overcome the locale-based constraints of the game.

I don’t think this is a better game than Orléans, but it’s impressively different for a game that uses the same core bagbuilding and formulaic-action-construction mechanics, and so fans of the one might also want the other in their collection. (I’ve now got both in mine.)

Dragon Castle (2017). Keep in mind: I love creatively building stuff. In this Mahjong Solitaire inspired game (which also reminds me of Web of Power: The Card Game), you pull Mahjong tiles off of a stack, either singularly or in pairs, then you play them to your own board. When you create sets of four or more tiles, you score, and can also build temples atop those tiles for more points. Afterward, you can build not just on your board’s foundation, but also atop those scored tiles.

That alone would have created an interesting game worth a few plays, but Dragon Castle goes to the next level with special victory conditions that vary from game to game. They reward you for building your tiles into certain shapes or with certain relations. They create an orthogonal strategy where you’re trying to do two things at once, and that becomes tricky and intriguing. It’s what brings this game up to a Great. Even better, since these special goals vary from game to game, there’s a huge amount of variability.

A Feast for Odin (2016). Uwe Rosenberg really found his grove when he began working with resource-based worker-placement games, starting with Agricola (2007); A Feast for Odin is a fine (somewhat) new entrant in that field. In fact, it has an amazingly large worker-placement board, with dozens of actions spread across several categories. They’re helpfully organized, which is great for a game with this many options. It’s also got one somewhat unusual element for worker placement: actions can cost 1, 2, 3, or 4 workers.

However, the real innovation in the game comes from its tessellation of tiles. You see, the games all about collecting stuff, whether it be food or goods. These objects come in different sized tiles, which are laid out in the feasting table (for food) or in a huge grid of squares that’s the heart of your personal board. The Tetris-like tessellation forms a whole subgame, where you’re simultaneously trying to cover appropriate spaces to earn income, gain bonus goods, and earn points. It’s a nice new element for worker placement, probably inherited from Rosenberg’s own Patchwork (2014), and as I understand it, Rosenberg has continued to develop it in Cottage Garden (2016) and Indian Summer (2017).

Overall, A Feast for Odin is a dense, complex worker-placement game with a fun puzzle element and tons of paths to victory. It can be a little intimidating at first, but it’s definitely a worthy addition to the line of games that Rosenberg began with Agricola.

The Very Good (“I Would Keep This”)

Between Two Castles of Mad King Ludwig (2018). Take the basic Between Two Cities mechanic, where each player is simultaneously drafting tiles that he uses to build cities (castles) with the players to his left and right. Add in Castles of Mad King Ludwig scoring, where there’s a lot of scoring for what’s adjacent to each tile, and also add in the more freeform placement of Castles.

The result of this mashup works well. It’s really a joy to see how differently the different castles develop, and I think there’s more depth and more variety of play than appeared in Between Two Cities, both from the more varied scoring, and the fact that players get bonuses when they build three or five of the same tile type. Mind you, Between Two Castles is also more intimidating and more of a bear to explain, but the iconography of the tiles helps that all come together. (And I found it easier to explain after I’d played through it once, and better understood that I could just point players toward the tiles.)

This is definitely something that belongs in a collection that already contains Between Two Cities (and it might even fire the previous game if you solely prefer the more complex gameplay).

AuZtralia (2018). This new Martin Wallace game combines Cthulhoid menace with resource management and a sort of light civ building. You gather resources that you use to build train tracks and army units (while also building farms). The army units are important because Cthulhu has already seeded AuZtralia with monstrosities. (Hence the Z? I guess?) And there’s a challenge system where these monstrosities will wake up over time and start rampaging toward players’ farms and ports, destroying everything that they encounter. The resource-management is simple, yet it leaves you scrambling for what you need to build, and the Cthulhoid challenge system can actually be quite dangerous, leaving players afraid to expose themselves … and sometimes even losing to Cthulhu.

This is all linked together with a simple time-based action system, like the one originated in Thebes (2007) where the players who has taken the least expensive action gets to go next. Wallace had previously used a similar system in Tinner’s Trail (2008). As always, the system works well because you have to calculate when your opponents are going to get to actions before you do. But it integrates even better with the Cthulhoid challenge system, because suddenly you have to figure out how many times the monsters are going to rampage before you go again.

As with Wallace’s A Study in Emerald (2013), the Crthulhoid theming is a bit unusual. But overall, this is a thoughtful and colorful game, with the active Lovecraftian menaces being what really puts it over the top.

Aquaretto (2008). I’ve played Zooloretto (2007) a total of twice. It takes the brilliant core mechanic of Coloretto (2003), where you create lots and pick lots and changes that from a filler into a light game. In Zooloretto you had limited enclosures, which give you same ‘ole dilemma of trying to collect a limited number of sets, while the ability to spend coins to expand a zoo and/or move or purchase animals, gave it a little more depth than Coloretto. The question for me was: did Zooloretto actually add enough to make it more worthwhile than the filler Coloretto?

Obviously, there was still room for more complexity, and that’s what the sequel, Aquaretto, offers. It’s a ten-year old game, but I never got around to playing it before this winter. The placement of animals and the expansion of your zoo is now much more freeform, giving more room for creativity (and cleverness). There are also some new orthogonal ways to score, using meeples, which gives the game more tactical depth and also more thoughtfulness when players are selecting tiles. Overall, I think Aquaretto does a great job of showing how to add tactical depth to a simple and successful game without muddying the waters. Compare it to Queendomino (2017) which I think slowed down Kingdomino (2016) too much; here instead, you have a game that I think it is obviously superior to its predecessor.

(And is it more worthwhile than Coloretto now? Probably, but I still think it’s got limited long-term gameplay in it.)

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

Crusaders (2018). This new game by Seth Jaffee shares some characteristics with his classic, Eminent Domain (2011), as both allow players to power up actions with matching icons. However, it’s more similar to Stefan Feld’s Trajan (2011) as they both use a mancala-like mechanic, but in opposite ways.

In both games, players have a circular set of six trays/tiles with markers on them. They pick up the markers from a tray, then drop them down one per tray in a clockwise direction. But in Trajan, the player got to take the action of the tray he landed in, meaning that it was always a game of getting the precise number of markers into a tray to take an action that was desired somewhere clockwise of it (and meanwhile, set collection in the trays kept things interesting), whereas in Crusaders plaers are instead trying to gather as many markers as possible in a tray, because they take that action when they move the markers out, and it’s more powerful when there are more markers.

Of course, this is just the front-end action selection. On the back-end there’s a whole system of moving knights around Europe, killing enemies, and building various structures. There’s a good amount of depth, but the mancala-selection is the clever and interesting bit. And surprisingly, it plays extremely quickly.

Space Base (2018). It’s Machi Koro in space-ace-ace…. Sort of. Space Base is definitely a dice-rolling resource-production game where you can earn money (and victory points and basic income) both on your turn and other players’ turns, but there are some clever nuances that in many ways make this a better polished game than Machi Koro (albeit, with less depth).

A player starts off with a set of rockets labeled 1-12. Each one earns them either money or basic income (e.g., what money gets reset to whenever it’s spent). You roll two dice, you either read them singly or together, and you earn what rockets are at those one or two dice. Afterward, you buy a ship, clearly getting better ships the more money you spend. The clever bit is that when you buy a ship, it displaces your previous ship for that number, turning it into a ship that instead earns money or victory points or basic income on the other players turns (and sometimes in slightly different amounts; you flip the ship over for the other value). Oh, and some ships have special powers that you have to charge up.

Advantages over Machi Koro: you always earn something on your turn, so there’s no frustration; and you can always start earning on other players turns by buying new rockets, which removes another source of frustration. Disadvantages: there are none of those clever interactions that you find between different cards in Machi Koro, though it’d be easy to add that in a supplement.

Just One (2018). Yet-another word-guessing game. This time around, everyone is working as a team to help the last player guess a word. But, the clue-givers only have one word each to do so, and if two players write the same word-clue, they’re thrown out. This is a nice co-op because it gives players so much agency and responsibility, but it’s just a mild variation of a pretty well-explored category of play.

Betrayal Legacy (2018). Rob Daviau’s newest Legacy game takes the core gameplay of Betrayal at House on the Hill (2004) and adapts it for Legacy play; the result doesn’t feel like it’s very different from its predecessor, at least not in the first few games. That means you get all the good elements of Betrayal at House on the Hill: a fun, evocative, and pseudo-scary setting that you get to explore, that then introduces a storyline which the players play out. It’s definitely one of the more narrative games out there, and close to the roleplaying origins of the adventure-game genre. And, you get the bad elements of Betrayal at House on the Hill too: a high level of randomness that can cause some players to do pretty much nothing over the course of the game, and some storylines that feel like they’re real railroads, running right over the players. If you’ve played the original Betrayal you’ll know where you fall on the love/hate spectrum for that gameplay.

As for the Legacy elements: early on, at least, they’re pretty weak. For the most part, it’s just a growing familiarity with the House, its environs, and its artifacts, and a memory of what these elements did in past games. There can be some minor changes to the house, but nothing like the scope of a SeaFall (2016) or Pandemic Legacy Season 2 (2017); it also looks like we’re going to see future events and other elements added into the game based on the outcome of previous games, which is nice, but also tends more toward the narrative element. Generally, it feels like the Legacy of Betrayal Legacy just makes it more like Betrayal: an evocative story-focused game. And, you again already know where the fall on the love/hate spectrum for that gameplay.

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

Pocket Imperium (2013). A 4X space game in an hour or less (or maybe more on a first game). This is a simple game where you select your X (expand, explore, or exterminate) then either add pieces, move ships, or attack ships. It’s a simultaneous-selection action pick, and there’s a little bit of punishment for choosing at the same time as others, which is pretty typical for that genre. Unlike much of the genre, the selection is a little less important, because each round you’re taking all three actions, but it certainly matters from time to time.

Unfortunately, the action gameplay shades over from simple to simplistic. There’s not a lot of opportunity for cleverness, and there’s not actually enough incentive to attack. Otherwise it plays fine, and so if you’re looking for a short little 4X game, it might hit the spot.

Khan of Khans (2016)This Reiner Knizia game is set in one of my favorite worlds, Greg Stafford’s Glorantha, developed primarily for his RuneQuest and HeroQuest games. It’s a simple and simplistic game: you draw cards from piles and hope to get good cards of “herds” without getting bad cards that could wipe them out. There’s a lot of luck there, but it creates tension, and there’s some skill in both take-that play and memory of what’s in each pile of cards. It’s not bad for a light filler game.

The real joy will probably come for fans of Greg Stafford’s Glorantha, because it’s a beautifully produced game with great art depicting a lot of the people of Prax and Dragon Pass, including the various animal riders, the Mostali, the Sun Dome Templars, and the ducks.

As a gamer, I found it shallow. As a Glorantha fan, I really enjoyed it, and it’ll stay in my collection as something that might get play occasionally from roleplaying friends.

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Co-op Case Study: 12 Realms

We played both well-known and less-known co-ops while preparing Meeples Together: they were both sources of inspiration. 12 Realms, which Shannon received as a review copy, was thus the game that introduced us to icon-cost tasks, though we didn’t nail them down as a design pattern until we played a few other games two years later! The pattern eventually made its way into one paragraph in Chapter 8, the “Players Undertaking Tasks” section of Meeples Together.

Remember that Meeples Together is now available for preorder.

This article was originally posted to the Meeples Together blog.


Publisher: Mage Company (2013)
Cooperative Style: True Co-Op
Play Style: Action Point, Adventure, Resource Management

Overview

12 Realms is a classic fantasy adventure game. Each turn, new monsters and items appear across four realms, and players must use their renewable attributes to defeat those monsters and acquire those items — all en route to combats with the Dark Lords for those realms. If the players defeat all four Dark Lords they win the game.

Challenge System

The challenge system in 12 Realms is based on a simple card draw. Each card generates a specific monster (or loot) in a specific realm at a random location. The obstacles created by these card draws can then be overcome by using the renewable talents that each player possesses. The result is a turn-based tactical puzzle, as each player figures out how to move about and conquer obstacles in the most efficient way possible.

Undefeated monsters move the game toward defeat: each monster sitting around at the start of a turn causes an Invasion Track for that realm to increase. The general trend toward defeat can gain momentum if too many monsters end up on a board, causing the Invasion Track to increase very quickly. When the Track reaches 15, a Dark Lord appears, and when it reaches 20, all is lost.

However, this challenge system has one major flaw: if the players are doing really in a realm, then the Invasion Track never reaches 15, the Dark Lord never appears, and the players can never win! If the game is weighted well, this shouldn’t be a major problem, but it still causes some overly “gamey” responses — such as players ignoring monsters in order to get the Invasion Track exactly to 15, but no higher.

In fact, as experienced co-op players, this is exactly what we saw when we played the game.

Other than that flaw, there’s little to say about the 12 Realms challenge system: its random draw of monsters that accumulate to move the game toward loss is Co-op Design 101. There’s little that’s innovative, but that might be fine for a game that is clearly intended to be introductory.

Challenge System Elements: Round Activation; Arbitrary Trigger; Exponential Cascade; Environmental Consequences; and Combat & Skill Threats.

Cooperative System

Much of 12 Realms is played out through strategic cooperation: the players will tend to split up among the four boards so that there’s someone dealing with the monsters in each realm. The fact that you have to end your turn to go from one realm to another enforces this strategic division.

However, there is some opportunity for tactical cooperation, and it should come up organically through gameplay: players can share their skill tokens to defeat a monster if they’re in the same space, and this is often required to face down the Dark Lords.

The result is an interesting game flow, where the players start out apart, but then come together when they’re ready to defeat Dark Lords. This is some danger of anti-climax at the end, when everyone is waiting around to defeat the final Dark Lord — an issue shared with Star Trek: Expeditions (2011). Nonetheless, players coming together for the ending is almost always good plotting in a co-op game.

Adventure System

Each player in 12 Realms plays a specialized character with a special power and specific attributes, which make them better at dealing with certain types of threats. As a result of these specialties, individual players can easily follow their own path in the game. There’s also quite a bit of evocative color in the characters (and generally in the setting of the game), which mixes together fairy tales, myth, and more frivolous fantasy.

However, 12 Realms’ biggest (perhaps only) innovation is how it models skill-tests using icon-based resources. This clever mechanism abstracts skill use into a simple icon-based language where players expend appropriate icons to match the formula of specific tests. Here, players get iconic tokens as listed on their character, and then must expend specific ones to move, defeat monsters, or collect loot. The tokens then regenerate at the start of the player’s next turn. More recently, Attack on Titan: The Last Stand (2017) and Masmorra: Dungeons of Arcadia (2017) used a similar idea, except the icons were generated by dice every turn rather than being based on each character’s attributes.

Expansions & Variants

12 Realms only depicts four realms. Supplements depict more lands based on fairy tales, legends, and myth, including: Ancestors Legacy (2015), Bedtime Story (2016), and Ghost Town (2015). Their next release, 12 Realms: Dungeonland (2019?) is intended to be a standalone game, but as with other recent Kickstarters from Mage Company, it’s been plagued by delays.

Final Thoughts

12 Realms is nice, introductory cooperative game. The mechanics are simple but elegant; it’s often obvious what someone should do tactically, but players nonetheless have to stay on their toes to manage the bigger picture because they never know what threats will emerge on each turn. Though this is all well-designed, it’s not particularly innovative; 12 Realms finds its inspiration not in its co-op system, but instead in its equally simple-but-equally-elegant icon-based skill-test system.

Ignazio Corrao

12 Realms (2010) is the first (and to date only) game produced by Italian designer and art director Ignazio Corrao. It was intended to meld fully cooperative board games with the style of Japanese roleplaying games. Since its release Corrao has continued to work on 12 Realms expansions of various sorts.

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A Bagbuilding Look at Altiplano

Deckbuilding seems to have slowed down in recent years, after being one of the dominant forces in the industry throughout much of the ’10s. But it’s nice to know that when we see a new game in the genre, it tends to be more original and innovative, as is the case with Reiner Stockhausen’s newest bagbuilding game, Altiplano (2017).

The Physicality of Bagbuilding

Each of the bagbuilding games that I’ve played has gotten me thinking about the genre because it’s simultaneously so close to deckbuilding, but so intriguing different. So I previously defined the subgenres derived from deckbuilding (while writing about Orléans) and talked about the things that bagbuilding does particularly well (while writing about Automobiles).

This time I was thinking more about the physicality of bagbuilding: how it tends to be built around small pieces, like the cubes in Automobiles or the discs in Orléans (and Altiplano Itself) by simple virtue of the fact that that’s what you can easily draw from a bag.

We already know that small components of this sort create limitations (like the fact that you can’t print complex rules on the things you’re drawing) and advantages (like the fact that the drawn components are easier to see when they’re sitting around). However, it also lends itself to certain types of play. Because you have small bits you can pile them up in various ways. Altiplano shows this off well: you can have piles of discs all over your action cards, powering the actions (just like in Orléans) and you can also store and set-collect piles of components (as happens in your warehouse in Altiplano). Clearly, there are lots of other ways that these small components could be used to advantage a game: you could build literal structures, use bits as pieces in puzzles, or pass components around in trades. The grid-covering of A Feast for Odin (2016) and the structure building of a game like Rumis (2006) could potentially be enhanced by a bagbuilding mechanism.

And when is a bagbuilding game less successful? If it doesn’t take advantage of the physicality of its components. For example, Automobiles did some good things with its cubes, such as the ability to recover them from its “discard”, but overall it treated them as cards that could be drawn from bags, and that seems like a game system working against its own physicalities rather than in concert with them.

The Game

In Altiplano, your draw disks from a bag each turn and use them in various combinations to power actions. However, each action is associated with a location, which creates a second, orthogonal level of strategy: not only do you have to assign disks to actions, but you also have to assign disks to moving among the locations, and because there are restrictions to how far you can move at a time, you can be limited in what you can do in multiple ways.

The output of the vast majority of actions is more disks. Most will help you power actions, which grow more powerful as you use rarer disks. Many of these disks will also be worth victory points. The actions that don’t create disks can instead improve your position in the game (by giving you more disk draws or by giving you new, unique actions) or can improve the point value of your disks (through stone houses that increase the value of certain disks, though orders that can be fulfilled by certain disks, and through warehousing to set-collect disks).

In the end, you try to achieve the most value from this spaghetti of points, probably by specializing in a few resources and/or a few methodologies of earning points.

Orléans & Altiplano Fight

One of the most interesting things about Altiplano is that its core system of bagbuilding a set of disks that are then used to power actions is very similar to the bagbuilding in Orléans. However, it also has some really notable differences.

There are changes to how you gain and lose disks:

Non-Mandatory Disks. In Orléans you were almost forced to take disks in order to take an action that you wanted. This meant that you were often accumulating disks that you didn’t need, and either had to quickly filter them out or figure out how to use them. This somewhat undercut the bagbuilding play. In contrast, the actions and bagbuilding of Altiplano are much more discrete: if you acquire a disk, it’s because you chose to do precisely that.

Warehouse Filters. In Orléans you filtered disks out to the Beneficial Deeds board, but there was little reward and eventually Deeds spaces would fill up, and players would lose the ability to filter some of the disk types. In contrast, you get huge rewards for filtering in Altiplano because you earn set-collection points from the warehouse. This opens up a whole new subgame where you have to decide when to use your disks and when to turn them in for points, a mechanic also found in Tyrants of the Underdark (2016) but generally pretty rare. (You also can’t run out of filtering ability until maybe at the very, very end of the game.)

There are changes to how you draw and discard disks:

Draw & Discard Mechanics. When you discard disks in Orléans, they go straight back into the bag, which means they’re immediately available for redrawing. In Altiplano, they’re instead placed in a cart, which is mixed into the bag for redrawing only when the bag is emptied. Ironically, this makes Altiplano’s randomness work more like deckbuilding than bagbuilding: it’s now mirroring the way that players place cards into a discard pile before reshuffling. I’m never that convinced by a game mechanic that actively works against its components (against its physicality, one might say), which this does. However, it certainly makes Altiplano a more deterministic game than Orléans. (More than once, I checked what disks I had remaining in a mostly empty bag, knowing that I was guaranteed to draw them on the next turn.)

Reserve Disks. In Orléans, you could hold a few disks in reserve without them impacting your ability to draw (except, perhaps, late in the game). In Altiplano, those disks are instead subtracted from the new disks you get to draw. This forces players to commit those disks earlier than they might like … and in some cases, where they can’t be placed anywhere, punishes a player for poor bagbuilding. This is an example of a mechanic change that quite simply makes the game more challenging than its predecessor.

And there are changes to how you use disks:

A Different Output. In Orléans, the most important output of an action was often the action itself: gaining some advantage on a track on the game board. In contrast, in Altiplano, the most important output of an action tends to be a disk. Whereas Orléans felt like an action-selection game, where the actions were selected in a very unique way, Altiplano instead feels like a resource-management game, where you’re climbing up a supply chain by generating base resources, which in turn allow you to generate advanced resources. This certainly shows how variable bagbuilding play can be, when even such similar mechanics can produce gameplay that feels so different.

Variable Actions. In Orléans, when you placed disks in a space, you were simultaneously declaring which action you’d be taking. However, in Altiplano, when you place disks in a specific location, they can still be used for different things. For example, cocoa placed in the Forest can be used to generate flood, cloth, or glass. Some spaces have even more variability: a pair of rounded stones placed in the Village could be warehoused or they could be used to build a stone house … and the player doesn’t have to decide which until he takes the action! This is one of several mechanics in Altiplano that makes the game feel much more tactical.

Location Restrictions. Here’s the biggest change for Altiplano. In Orléans, actions could be taken freely if they were activated by the correct disks. In Altiplano, the player’s pawn must also be in the right place, and if a player wants to go to more than two locations in a turn, he must spend food, and even then the extra locations have to be close together! This creates a big puzzle every turn. In doing so, it also expands upon two of the other trends of Altiplano’s revisions: it makes the game more complex and more tactical.

Variable Actions. Both games allow players to purchase personal actions: they are buildings in Orléans and “extensions” in AltiplanoAltiplano may encourage players to purchase a few more over the course of the game than Orléans, but the total counts similar. It wouldn’t be unusual for players in either game to have 4 or 5 of these action-expansions by the end of the game. Despite all of that, the extensions in Altiplano feel much more important than the buildings in Orléans. That’s probably mostly due to the location system: because it’s costly to move between locations, players specializing in limited locations will be advantaged … and will tend to use those particular extensions frequently. However, the two games also have a different philosophy about their core actions: in Orléans, the core actions tend to be required throughout the game, while in Altiplano it’s possible to abandon some of them if a player has great extensions to use instead. The end result is that players in Altiplano have more agency and more ability to build up their own engines, creating more differentiation and more variability in play.

The Good & The Bad

So, with all that said, what’s good (or not) about Altiplano as a bag-building game?

The Good: Altiplano’s intricate rules for both bagbuilding and action selection result in a tactical, puzzle-focused game with a lot of depth. Each player’s initial impetus, in the form of an Extension that gives access to certain disks, also does a great job of setting the different players down different paths — and it ultimately rewards them by supporting a number of different paths to victory.

The Bad: Tactical complexity is often a double-edged sword. This isn’t a simple deckbuilding game where you draw your cards and then immediately know how to use them. Instead, the complex numerous possibilities result in a very think-y game, which can cause AP. (Fortunately, the simultaneous placement of disks in action spaces partially offsets this.) The game also runs a bit long for what it is, a minor flaw that it shares with Orléans.

Conclusion

Altiplano continues to expand the small bagbuilding genre and shows how minor changes to a rule set can result in major changes to how the game plays. Investigating the differences between Orléans and Altiplano could be a course in game design all its own. With that said, they’re both similarly good games; the real trick is in understanding how those mechanical differences result in gameplay differences that are likely to interest different audiences.

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Co-op Case Study: Pathfinder Adventure Card Game

This co-op case study was originally posted at Meeples Together, a blog focusing exclusively on cooperative game design. And, if you missed the Kickstarter for my upcoming book on cooperative game design, you can now preorder it with Backerkit.


Publisher: Paizo Publishing (2013)
Cooperative Style: True Co-Op
Play Style: Adventure Game, Campaign, Deckbuilding

Overview

The Pathfinder Adventure Card Game is built with a unique combination of deckbuilding, adventure gaming, and cooperative gaming — resulting in a cooperative campaign that can last for 30 or more play sessions! Over the course of many games of Pathfinder, players improve their characters by acquiring new cards while simultaneously fulfilling the scenario objective, which usually requires defeating a villain after beating up some of his henchmen as well.

Challenge System

The main challenge system in the Pathfinder ACG is a simple timer: each turn the active player flips over a “blessings” card, and when all 30 are gone, the group loses. The timer itself does contains a little bit of uncertainty: if a player fails to defeat the villain in combat, then the players can lose extra blessing cards that they weren’t counting on. However, it’s mainly a monotonic count towards doom.

The rest of the challenge system depends on exploration activation: players have to reveal (mostly unknown) cards at locations in order to eventually track down the villain and his henchmen. The results could be bad (a monster attack or a barrier) or good (an opportunity to gain some equipment). As in any well-considered exploration-activation system, players sort of know what they’re getting into: they can review the general composition of each location, which tells what types of cards it contains.

Because players must dig through the locations to find and trap the villain, these activations are required to beat the timer. If the players are unlucky, unprepared, or insufficiently aggressive in drawing from the location decks, they might run out of time before they find the villain and his henchmen. In other words, the uncertainly that’s missing from the timer itself is instead a part of the location system.

The Pathfinder ACG also includes a surprisingly strong anti-cooperative incentive. A character dies if his personal deck is emptied of cards. This can happen through character damage or through the normal play of cards; it creates another, personal timer.  This anti-cooperative incentive works better than most character-death systems for two reasons. First, it feels very tight: even at the beginning of the game, a player can look at their small deck and consider how close your character lies to oblivion. Second, it’s a big deal to lose a character, because the player could have invested many sessions of gameplay into him; by creating a cooperative campaign, Selinker has dramatically escalated the stakes for character death.

One of the interesting elements of the Pathfinder ACG’s challenge system is that it doesn’t really discourage losing. That’s because there’s no penalty, other than having to play the scenario again. Beyond that, there’s no tally of wins or losses, just a gradual movement toward the campaign’s end. As a result, if a character is wounded, that player may stop exploring locations, largely canceling the challenge system, to ensure that his character doesn’t get killed. In fact, players may even choose to concentrate on improving their characters rather than winning a game (prioritizing the group’s long-term viability over the win of a single session). Despite all of this, there is still tension in the game. Players do still want to win. It’s just not the literal do-or-die of many other co-ops. The fact that the Pathfinder ACG still is obsessively replayable despite this just shows the strength of its overall design.

Challenge System Elements: Exploration Activation; Card Trigger; Timer; Campaign; and Combat & Skill Threats.

Cooperative System

The cooperative mechanics of the Pathfinder ACG are all pretty simple, but there are enough of them that they create a critical mass of cooperation.

That begins at the strategic level: players will visit different locations at different times. Early on, they’ll choose to visit different locations based on their characters’ strengths or needs. Later, when they’re trying to capture the villain, they’ll remain stationed at different locations to keep the villain from escaping.

There’s also quite a bit of tactical cooperation. Most notably, players have blessing cards that they can play to help each other on their task resolution. There are enough of them for their use to be a constant possibility, but not so many that their use becomes too easy. It’s a delicate balance that’s been well maintained. In addition, some player abilities allow mutual aid, as do some items. Finally, players will sometimes want to tactically team up to fight the villain; this is specifically allowed by monsters who require multiple skill tests to overcome, ensuring that the greatest cooperation occurs at the most dramatically appropriate time.

Surprisingly, some elements in the game also discourage cooperation. The rogue’s ability to backstab monsters only applies when he’s on his own; while some later supplements include monster effects that hit everyone at the same locations (encouraging players to spread out). In order for this sort of cooperative disincentive to work, there needs to be strong incentives to balance them; absent that, the strategic cooperation often wins out over the tactical cooperation in the Pathfinder ACG.

Adventure System

The Pathfinder Adventure Card Game has some of the strongest adventure game elements in the entire cooperative field — which is unsurprising because it’s derived from the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game (2009).

That begins with the character, which is individually defined, has lots of special abilities, and can improve over time. This is all enabled by Pathfinder’s unique card game system: though a player’s character sheet defines a few abilities and which cards a character can have, the actual cards define the majority of a character’s powers in play. During a game, players gain new cards, but they must drop back down to their limits at the end of each session. However, characters will still be improving from this influx of cards because they’ll constantly be throwing out less powerful ones and keeping more powerful ones (or at least more complementary ones). A character’s ability to grow over many sessions of cooperative play is what really makes the adventure system of Pathfinder stand out.

The Pathfinder ACG also contains a simple-test system: players are given a target number for a task, then get to throw a pool of dice which is defined by a character’s base stats, his equipment, and other card play. This same system is used for acquiring new cards, defeating monsters, and overcoming barriers.

Finally, Pathfinder is strong in its creation of an evocative world. This is built on its use of scenarios — which not only define the ongoing story of an “adventure path”, but also list which locations, villains, and henchmen to use in the game. The powers of those specific cards then influence how the game plays out. Beyond that, the individual cards all add color to the game.

Expansions & Variants

The trick with a scenario-based cooperative game is to ensure that it remains fresh. The Pathfinder ACG manages this with an ongoing stream of Adventure Decks. Each “adventure path” starts out with a big box of cards, which is then supplemented with six Adventure Decks — each of which features a total of 110 new cards to freshen up the play decks. This is a good model because it introduces variety to both the goals and the cards that the players see; it also allows the game to ramp up in difficulty over an extended period of play.

The Pathfinder Adventure Card Game has proven quite popular, and as a result four different adventure paths were released for this original incarnation of the game: Rise of the Runelords (2013), Skull & Shackles (2014), Wrath of the Righteous (2015), and Mummy’s Mask (2016). A new Core Set (2019?) is planned to revamp the game, introducing more cooperation and more story; the fifth adventure path, Curse of the Crimson Throne (2019?), will then supplement the updated game system.

Final Thoughts

Pathfinder Adventure Card Game is an extremely innovative deckbuilding game. However, it’s a bit more staid as a cooperative release. Its location-based challenge system and its piecemeal cooperative system both work well, but they don’t bring a lot of novelty to the category. Instead you can see the influence of classics like Arkham Horror (1987, 2005, 2018), which follow similar play patterns.

With that said, Pathfinder Adventure Card Game offers one notable cooperative design expansion: the cooperative campaign. Players level up their adventure gaming characters over dozens of play sessions and while doing so face ever-improving monsters and villains. Though there’s clear victory (or defeat) at the end of each session, there’s also constant momentum as players struggle to improve at the speed required by the oncoming Adventure Decks. No one else has tried to create an ongoing cooperative game of this sort (though obviously, it shares elements with legacy games); it shows the exciting directions that cooperative gaming could go in.

Mike Selinker

Selinker is an American game designer with an extensive professional career in the industry. He started creating puzzles for Games Magazine in 1985, worked for Wizards of the Coast from 1995-2003 and with Paizo Publishing from 2006-2009. He also formed his own game design studio, Lone Shark Games, in 2003 and turned it into a publishing company in 2015.

Selinker has done a lot of co-op work over the years. Besides co-designing Betrayal at House on the Hill (2004) while at Wizards, Selinker has also led the industry in adventure co-op design at Lone Shark. Following the creation of the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game (2013) for Paizo, he co-designed the Apocrypha Adventure Card Game (2017) and Thornwatch (2018) there.

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Co-op Interviews: Nikki Valens

Nikki Valens was a Senior Game Designer at Fantasy Flight Games from 2013-2018, during which time she worked on several cooperative board games, including two of FFG’s top releases: Mansions of Madness and Arkham Horror. This compressed period of game design has already made her one of the most prolific and knowledgeable co-op designers in the industry.

Nikki was kind enough to talk to me about her co-op designs while Christopher Allen & I were amidst the Meeples Together Kickstarter last month (now available for preorder).


Shannon Appelcline: You seemed to hit the ground running at Fantasy Flight with a heavy focus on cooperative games, starting with Eldritch Horror. Was there something that drew you to cooperative design?

Nikki Valens: To me, games are a social experience. I like to play games with my friends and family. But I have no desire to enter a competition against those I love. As a result, I tend to enjoy co-op games more than competitive games, especially if there’s narrative investment involved. Winning a game of Hearts is abstract enough that there’s not going to be any hard feelings, but getting invested in a story and characters only to lose feels quite a bit different for most players. When I design games, I’m usually working toward a specific experience that I want to give to players.

SA: Eldritch Horror revisits many of the ideas from Arkham Horror 2e. Were there elements of Arkham Horror’s play that you were specifically trying to redevelop?

NV: Eldritch Horror was certainly inspired by Arkham Horror, but it was never the intent that Eldritch would replace Arkham. Eldritch sought to take some of the core ideas of Arkham Horror and apply them to a globetrotting Indiana Jones like narrative.

For the handful of core systems that the two games share, it was important for Eldritch to not only find its own way, but also to be more accessible to new players. Major design choices, such as the round structure or other world encounters were created taking inspiration from Arkham, but in ways that would be easier to learn, teach, and play.

SA: You’ve produced quite a few supplements for Eldritch Horror. Did you learn anything new about its cooperative or challenge game systems as you went?

NV: Absolutely. As is going to be the case with virtually any game, the expected balance when the game first comes out won’t even resemble the balance later in a game’s life cycle. How the base game and first expansion valued different effects was much different than the later expansions, causing some of the early investigators and items to be either hugely overpowered or basically useless.

Another thing about games that you discover the more your work with them is how much design space certain mechanics have. For instance, the mysteries were created to allow scenarios to play out differently from one another and tell unique stories, but it turned out there was a lot less space for unique designs for mysteries than we originally thought. This results in the ancient ones not always being as diverse as we had hoped.

SA: Your second co-op, Mansions of Madness 2e, was even more explicitly a redevelopment. Leaving the innovative computer app aside for a moment, what were your other goals in redeveloping the game?

NV: One of the most important goals with Mansions second edition was to create a deeply immersive story experience for players. It was important that the balance between narrative and mechanics was just right to allow players to embody their characters and become part of the world within the story.

SA: What do you think the app added to the game, particularly as a cooperative game?

NV: The companion app was one of the biggest tools when trying to accomplish that goal for the narrative. It meant that the game could be a fully cooperative experience instead of needing one player to act as the keeper and tell the story.

By allowing the app to tell the story and handle game effects, we were also able to hide much of the game’s complexity behind the scenes and out of the reach of the players. No need to worry about fiddly token counting or reading a flow chart to determine how a monster moves. The app will just take care of that busy work for you so that you can spend your time exploring a spooky mansion and solving a mystery.

SA: Your third co-op, Legacy of Dragonholt, is thus far your only co-op that wasn’t some form of reimagination or redevelopment. What was your intent in creating a totally new co-op game?

NV: Much as it was with Mansions or Eldritch, Dragonholt was about creating a narrative for players to immerse themselves in. Reading fiction is one of my favorite hobbies. I love losing myself to a good book. But for many, being able to directly interact with the story is important, so I wanted to give them that. I like to think of Dragonholt as about as close as you can get to being a character in a fantasy novel.

SA: It’s been billed as a GM-less roleplaying game. How do you think that differs from a traditional co-op?

NV: The traditional composition of a co-op game (think Pandemic for example) places a lot of emphasis on working together to overcome a challenge and win. The difference between winning and losing such a game is extremely clear.

That’s not the case with fiction or with roleplaying. There is much more nuance to if each character has achieved their goals and what did they sacrifice to get there. In a roleplaying game, that goal isn’t for the player characters to crush the game master, nor is it for the game master to TPK. The goal is for all of the players to collaborate and create a fun story. And that’s what Dragonholt chooses to focus on. I tried to give players enough options that they could feel like we were working together to tell a fun story, even if not all of the characters achieved their personal goals.

SA: Most recently you produced the third edition of Arkham Horror. What did you feel needed to be changed in the game?

NV: Primarily the game wanted to be more accessible. Second edition had its dedicated fans, but many of them have stories about how difficult it is to get new players to play the game and keep playing it.

SA: Were there any lessons learned from your creation of Eldritch Horror?

NV: There were many things. One that sticks out to me is giving players a fun narrative while also letting them have the deterministic advantages they want. In second edition, players would frequently use static effects of locations instead of resolving encounters because the sure bet was simply the better choice. In Eldritch, we instead wanted more focus on the story of the encounters, so we put the location effects in the encounters themselves. But we didn’t push it far enough. The effects weren’t consistent enough for players to feel like they got to really make a choice.

In Arkham Horror third edition, the encounters almost always let the player do exactly the effect that is expected of a location. If you want to buy items, nine times out of ten an encounter at the general store will let you spend your money on the items in the display (and that tenth time might just give you an item for free).

That’s not to say that third edition was able to execute on all of the lessons learned. As I look back at the design, I see things that could be improved.

SA: What will particularly excite existing players about the new game?

NV: Something that’s new to this edition is that each scenario has a set of cards that help tell its story and often that story has branching paths depending on either the players’ decisions or how well they’re doing. It’s not endless replayablility, but there’s at least multiple different ways each scenario can conclude whether the players win or lose.

SA: With four co-op games under your belt, you’re one of the most experienced cooperative designers in the field. At this point, what would you say are the core defining characteristics of cooperative games?

NV: Cooperative games have just as much potential for diversity as competitive games. Many co-op games look similar now because there are fewer of them, but the industry will see that the breadth of co-op games will just keep growing.

As a result, the only real defining characteristic of a co-op game is that it requires players work together to accomplish their goals. How they do it, the story (if there is one), and what they are trying to accomplish could be virtually anything. It’s even possible the experience isn’t 100% cooperative. Games like Betrayal, Dead of Winter, and Descent are cooperative, even if there’s a traitor among the players or one of the players is openly working against the rest from the beginning.

As the hobby grows, we’ll likely find the line between co-op and competitive games blurring even more.

SA: Any other interesting lessons learned from your cooperative designs?

NV: A big one is that “your players are always right,” whether that means your designs are fighting against human nature, players are consistently misplaying some aspect of your game, or players elect to houserule certain aspect of the design. Any of those small changes could disrupt the intended balance or pacing of your game, so it’s easy to get defensive as a designer. But hopefully these small differences in how player want to play the game and how you intend for them to play it come out in playtesting. When players consistently misplay something or choose to play it differently, they’re telling you they’re not having the best experience. It’s good to listen to that and take that unspoken feedback to heart.

SA: What are your plans now that you’ve left Fantasy Flight?

NV: To create more great co-op games!

I have a game that will be coming out in 2019 that I’m very excited for people to see. I’ve also been working with Fog of Love on an expansion that will be coming out (hopefully) in Q2 2019. Beyond that, I have a number of small card games I’m working on as well as some narrative games and some larger games in the long term plans.

For anyone that wants to get some sneak peeks at what I’m up to, you can follow me on Twitter: @valens116.

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A Model for Decision Making in Games, Part Three: Action Resolution

In recent months, I laid out a three-part model for decision-making in games, where you first choose an action with action selection, then specify an action with action execution. Now, I’m ready to talk in brief about the third part of the process, where you determine the results of an action with action resolution.


Phase 3: Action Resolution

Action resolution forms the back end of a decision, where the decision-making mechanics have been overtaken by the game mechanics. In other words, it’s not actually about the process of making decisions, but instead about how the decisions that a player makes are translated into results within the game’s core system—whether it be resource management, area control, majority control, or something else.

The possibilities laid out below are drawn in very broad strokes, as the specifics will often depend on how the action resolution integrates into the back-end game mechanic itself (something that will be discussed more in some case studies, in a fourth and final article in this series). As usual, action resolution is a phase that can be degenerated, in this case into “Automatic Resolution”. Eurogames are somewhat more likely to have a degenerated action resolution phase, while Anglo-American games, with their increased player conflict and their usage of adventure-game mechanics are somewhat more likely to have a fully considered action-resolution phase.

Automatic Resolution. Most game have a degenerated action-resolution phase: actions just resolve automatically and successfully. When you decide to place a tile in Carcassonne (selection) and when you decide where to place it (execution), there’s no question about whether the placement is successful or not (resolution). This is the most typical sort of action resolution in games of all sorts.

There are a number of different models beyond “Automatic Resolution”. Most games focus on one model, to reduce complexity in this core model, but it’s certainly possible to pick and choose between all the possibilities.

Figure 6: Elements of action resolution

Model 3a: Resolution Uncertainty

What’s the opposite of automatic resolution? Resolution uncertainty, where you don’t know whether an execution will complete as you expected or not. One way to introduce such uncertainty is through a simple game effect that ensures the results aren’t guaranteed.

Random Resolution. The most common sort of resolution uncertainty comes through randomness: someone rolls a die. This is most frequently seen in adventure games: you decide you’re going to take a specific action, you roll some number of dice, and you try to equal or exceed a target nurmber; alternatively, different results occur based on your sum total. Arkham HorrorBetrayal at House on the Hill, and Pathfinder Adventure Card Game all have mechanics of this sort. Random Resolution can also tie into Conflicted Resolution, where you’re facing off against another player. In Risk, for example, both players roll dice to determine which opposing armies are destroyed.

Arbitrary Resolution. Some games use cards rather than dice to determine their random results. The result is largely the same, except you may be able to count cards to determine if upcoming results are likely to be good or bad.

Unknown Futures. The other major way to introduce game-based uncertainty into action resolution is to have some unknown future: you start executing your action, but as you do something changes, and this might force you to change your plans. Take Ascension as an example. You begin executing your action by buying cards, but as you do, new cards will come out into the center row. You may then decide to purchase those new cards, instead of what you’d originally planned. (Technically, these new cards are an arbitrary element, but they don’t actually affect your resolution, but instead introduce uncertainty into how you’re going to continue executing.)

Model 3b: Resolution Conflicts

There’s another way to introduce uncertainty into resolution: through other people. Opponents can mess up your resolution either purposefully or accidentally.

Chaotic Resolution. Other players’ choices may impact yours in a number of ways. SImultaneous-selection games like Basari tend to epitomize this. Players make a secret choice (selection), but before they can execute they have to learn what other players did, which may force them to bid for the right to take their own action. Similarly, in 6 Nimmt! after the players all choose their cards to play (execution), the resolution is based on how those car choices interacted. Chaotic Resolution can even occur in a cooperative game if players are making simultaneous choices, as is the case in Space Alert where one player can use an elevator or energy needed by another player.

Conflicted Resolution. Things get more personal in Conflicted Resolution, where one player is trying to take an action directly opposed by another player. If the players roll dice against each other, this really falls back to Random Resolution, as was the case in Risk. However another possibility is for a player to have an option to stop the action which he may or may not use, because that option is a limited resource. Consider a Counter Magic spell in Magic: The Gathering. Every attack against the player holding that spell is a decision whose resolution is conflicted; the player with the Counter Magic has to choose which one he really wants to stop.

Decision Resolution. Opponents may also have the option to spoil a Resolution without it being a direct conflict. This is often the case in trading or negotiation games, where resolution depends directly upon the good will of other players: a player has to offer enough that his opponent will go along with his selected action. For example in Settlers of Catan, a player might decide to try and make a trade (selection) and he may then offer some specific resources he has in exchange for specific resources he wants (execution). In order for the trade to go through, another player must agree to the trade or even offer an alternative (resolution).

Model 3c: Resolution Delays

Uncertainty isn’t the only way to introduce complexity to decision resolution. You can also introduce factors that change its timing.

Delayed Resolution. An action is usually resolved immediately, but this doesn’t have to be the case. It’s possible for the resolution to occur after some number of turns, such as the way that your resources are delayed in Macao.

Incomplete Resolution. More common is the idea of incomplete resolution. Orléans offers a great example: you can choose to take an action (selection) and choose to place some of the character disks for that action (execution), but if you don’t place all of the disks, the action can be deferred until a later turn when you complete the resolution. (In fact, the resolution can even be deferred if an action is otherwise ready to go!)

Conclusion

In some ways, Action Resolution as the simplest part of my decision-making model. But, that’s because this part of the model is so abstract. This article details ways that you can model action resolution at a high level, but its complexities are ultimately integrated with a game’s back-end engine, and that’s where a lot of the nuances live.

This ends my model for decision making in games, but I’m going to revisit it in the near future to show how it fits together, using some case studies of well-known games.

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Co-op Case Study: Sub Terra

Our Kickstarter for Meeples Together ends this week, but we’ll be continuing to publish new case studies supplementing the book in the weeks and months to come. (We’ve got more than 50 additional case studies drafted, plus another handful planned.) Today’s talks about Sub Terra, one of the big co-op Kickstarters in recent years, and one that turned out to be quite a good game too!

This article has been crossposted from the Meeples Together blog, which focuses exclusively on cooperative game design.


Publisher: Inside the Box (2017)
Cooperative Style: True Co-op
Play Style: Action, Tile Laying

Overview

Whoops! You fell in a cave! And your flashlight batteries are going to run out! You and your fellows thus have a limited amount of time to explore the caverns by laying tiles, trying to find the exit. However, floods, gas, and quakes all make those tiles more dangerous … and then there are the monsters hunting you in the dark!

Challenge System

As in most co-ops, the challenge system in Sub Terra is triggered by the draw of a card, which reveals a new hazard. However, Sub Terra’s challenges have a unique twist: though a few such as “Tremor” and “Out of Time” have global effects, others such as “Cave-In”, “Flood”, and “Gas” are linked to specific tiles. This creates a very elegant interdependence between the co-op system and the game’s main (tile-laying) mechanic — something that any co-op could benefit from.

This is supplemented by a combat-threat system that’s much more typical, but that still has interesting complexities: monsters are activated by card draws; every turn, they then move toward the nearest player. The very constrained passages of Sub Terra turn this into a simple simulation where the players can carefully control the movements of the monsters, much as is possible with the slave catchers of Freedom: The Underground Railroad (2012). Combining this sort of controllable threat with something more random, like a card draw, supports both player agency and the surprise of an unexpected occurrence: in Sub Terra, not only do you not know when new threats will appear, but there’s also a slight chance that they’ll move double speed each turn.

Sub Terra contains one other challenge element is of note: it essentially contains two timers. If players get to the bottom of the tile deck, that’s a good timer, because they find the exit, but if they get to the bottom of the hazard deck, that’s a bad timer, because their flashlights go out. This struggle between two different clocks is quite unique in co-op play.

Challenge System Elements: Turn Activation; Arbitrary & Simulation Triggers; Sequential Cascade; Decay; Timer & End-game Goal; Environmental Consequences; and Combat & Skill Threats.

Cooperative System

The cooperation in Sub Terra is entirely strategic, with different players taking on different tasks, but the game is rather uniquely designed so that this strategic play is both required and deleterious! The strategic play is enforced by the need to reach the bottom of the tile deck: players must split up to explore enough tiles over the course of the game. It’s contradicted by the fact that players must be together at the end of the game in order to get out of the caves: if they’ve gotten too far apart, some will be stranded and everyone may lose! The back and forth between strategic exploration and possibly wasteful congregation is another strong tension in the games; other co-ops could probably benefit from Sub Terra’s idea of simultaneously rewarding and punishing strategic play<<IDEA>>.

Players can also work together to clear cave-ins, to heal fallen comrades, or to use their specific advantages for the good of the group. There’s a wide variety of ways that players can cooperatively interact, which creates interesting gameplay.

Adventure System

Sub Terra is on the fringe of adventure gameplay, with a few elements of particular note.

The most important adventure elements are the characters, which each have special abilities that are specialized enough that they will push players in specific gameplay directions. There’s also a simple skill-check system: a player rolls a die and tries to get 4 or more.

None of this is particularly complex, nor are there any surprises, but these simple adventure-game systems show their important to cooperative games.

Expansions & Variants

Sub Terra was Kickstarted with a huge variety of add-ons and variants. A lot of them were cosmetic, but there were also three small expansions: Annihilation (2017), Extraction (2017), and Investigation (2017). Each introduces a new player character and also features some slight new rules for play.

Final Thoughts

Sub Terra’s greatest strength is its integration of random tile-laying play with cooperative gaming. Though there are certainly other games that feature tiles, such as Mansions of Madness (2011, 2016) and Star Trek: Expeditions (2011), most haven’t managed to capture the fun and excitement of tile draws. Betrayal at House on the Hill (2004) and its various spin-offs was probably the only major release to really exemplify the joy of exploration that tile laying can create, and Sub Terra follows right in those footsteps. It also takes a step forward by truly intertwining the tile-laying and the challenge play, making them into a cohesive whole.

Other elements of the game are more mundane from a design perspective, but the result is nonetheless exciting, tense, and fun, which is all you can ask for.

Tim Pinder

Although he’d previously self-published Draftica (2015), Sub Terra (2017) marks Tim Pinder’s first fully professional game design.

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