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