Monday, November 06, 2006
When I created The Journal of Boardgame Design, one of my goals was to pull the nature of board game writing up a notch, beyond game reviews that were intended to be buyer's recommendations and into the level of critical analysis. Treat games as an artform that could be analyzed in the same ways that music, painting, literature and film are treated. If this seems to raise game design to a level that isn't warranted, we should remember that there were times when dance and film were regarded as merely recreation and entertainment. As game design has become more ambitious, so should its criticism.
In the 1950's, Francois Truffaut advocated looking at film in a new way which became known as "Auteur Theory". According to Wikipedia:
"The auteur theory holds that a film, or an entire body of work, by a director (or, less commonly, a producer) reflects the personal vision and preoccupations of that director, as if she or he were the work's primary "author" (auteur).
"Truffaut's theory maintains that all good directors (and many bad ones) have such a distinctive style or consistent theme that their influence is unmistakable in the body of their work."
For a time, auteur theory was of interest only to academics and intellectuals, while ordinary filmgoers could care less about who the director of a film was. Your grandparents probably never talked about seeing the latest Billy Wilder movie (though they might have been aware of the latest Alfred Hitchcock movie.) Still, public awareness of the role of directors became widespread through movie critics who promoted the latest foreign film directors (including Truffaut), and in the 1980's the earth cracked open when names like Stephen Spielberg and Martin Scorcese became part of our daily vocabulary.
It seems as though we are coming in to a time when game designers are beginning to have the same visibility that film directors began to have thirty years ago. As in the 1970's, the talk is mostly among devotees, and mostly about Europeans. As once film had it's Truffaut, Bergman and Fassbinder, today boardgaming has its Teuber, Kramer and Knizia. Once there was a reawakened appreciation of Howard Hawks and today we rediscover the groundbreaking work of Sid Sackson.
Before we elevate game designers from being artisans to being auteurs we ought to ask: does this comparison really make sense? Is there really a basis in comparing games to films, music or literature? Can one really look at the body of work of a game designer and make out a distinctive style or consistent theme? To the extent that it is possible - is it of any consequence?
I didn't initially set out to write an article that questioned the value of examining the collected works of game designers. I set out to find a game designer whose body of work I could analyze, hoping to create a series around this. I soon hit a wall. It is difficult to identify a meaningfully consistent style in most designers. Even Reiner Knizia, who tended to create perfect efficient miniatures early in his career with games such as "Medici", "Modern Art", and "Tutankamen", soon moved on to create sprawling (by Eurogame standards) games such as "Euphrates & Tigris" and "Stephensons Rocket", which seem to have sprung out of an entirely different mind.
Then there is the question of what merit there is in the exercise. Take Rudiger Dorn. We could look at his three best games and indeed see a pattern. In "Traders of Genoa", "Goa", and "Louis XIV", Dorn uses a common mechanism to limit the choices that a player has. In each case, choices are laid out on an orthogonal board and players place markers on locations along a path (Call it the "poop dropping" mechanism). It's a nifty way to structure player choices, and best of all, it's a pattern! We've successfully applied auteur theory to game design!
Okay, so let's compare that observation with one that film critic Peter Rainer makes about director Brian De Palma in a recent Los Angeles Times essay.
"Despite the super-sophistication of his technique, in essence De Palma's movies express, at least for men in the audience, how sex was experienced as an adolescent. ... They capture the rage and mortification, the guilt, the tingle of voyeurism.
"One of the most unnerving things about De Palma's films, even more than their eruptive, gargoyle terror, is the suggestion that these adolescent anxieties are naggingly ever-present. The tyranny of sexual desire, woman as the Other — for most men, these fears still fly."
In contrast with Rainer's observations about Brian De Palma as an auteur, our own observations about Rudiger Dorn seem pretty lame.
The comparison, you might say, is unfair. A movie has a story; it has characters. It is meant to express something - whether it is the wonders of childhood, the anxieties of adolescence, or the alienation of adulthood. A game can't be expected to do all that or any of that. After all, it's just... a game. It's just a bunch of mechanisms.
Perhaps a game designer may not be able to express anything of consequence through his mechanisms, but what about his choice of theme?
The importance of theme no doubt varies across designers. Generally, being a game designer is a poor choice of occupation if theme is your intended means of expression.
Martin Wallace has chosen to maintain a high level of control in his games. He publishes mostly through companies such as Winsome and Warfrog, which he has close relations with, and which have either published his games directly or through licenses with companies that do not change his games. His game mechanisms tend to be closely related to the themes in his games. In a game such as Struggle of Empires, Wallace has chosen to express his thoughts on the drivers behind imperialism, and these thoughts are very clear in the game play.
Most designers, however, find their themes to be controlled at the whim of publishers. Alan Moon and Richard Borg created a game which aimed to capture the spirit of combat in feudal Japan. By the time it was presented by Goldsieber as Wongar, the game was changed by its publisher to be about aboriginal Australian rituals!
In an interview in The Game Table, Reiner Knizia spoke of the relative lack of importance that theme has for for German publishers.
"In America, the theme is seen as the game where as in the European the game mechanics and the game system are seen as the game." Knizia tells a story about when he took a game prototype to America. It had an Egyptian theme and when an American publisher saw the theme they said, "We are not interested in this game, we have a game about Egypt and we don't need another." ... A few weeks later he ... showed the same game to a German publisher. "Oh, we are just in preparation of an Egyptian-themed game, so the Egyptian theme wouldn't work for us. But let's see the game first and then we can see what we'll do about the theme."
Imagine Mark Twain's editor reviewing "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and telling him: "We loved the book and we'd like to publish it. We've kept the basic story about a trip down a river on a raft, only now we've set it in China, and it's about a spice trader who leaves his company to join a local man on a search for a ruby studded statue of Buddha that can make them both rich."
Twain would probably have taken up another profession - something more honest and less prone to meddling, like accounting. Game designers carry on, unfazed.
So if a game's mechanisms don't express anything meaningful, and a game designer can't even control the theme of his game, what is left?
Reiner Knizia does believe that a game designer expresses his personal vision through his work. In his interview for The Game Table, he says:
"I think that every designer has his own handwriting. I am a scientist and that influences my character and how I see the world. So maybe my games have more of the analytical side stressed, not because I am doing this in awareness but more because that's who I am and that's how my world looks like. My approach is that the game should have very simple rules and depth of play comes out of these simple and unified rules. "
Knizia describes here not just a sort of mechanism, or a technique, but rather a guiding philosophy that indeed does reflect his personal vision. I emphasize the word "personal". Why should the rules be simple and unified? Do they make for a better game? Knizia offers no explanation, nor need he offer one. These principles are simply an expression of his personality.
A game with many rules designed to encourage players to explore the nooks and crannies in its mechanisms can be an excellent game - but it would not likely be a Knizia game. Reiner Knizia would of course never have invented a game like "Age of Renaissance", but I think that even "Power Grid" would have looked very different if designed by Knizia. Power Grid has relatively involved rules concerning the changes that occur every time the game enters a new "Phase"as the power plant market gets manipulated and supplies of commodities change. Specific rules create handicaps for leading players. Power Grid has been approached like a work of engineering in which a mechanism may be added to solve a specific problem. Knizia describes himself as a scientist - which along with his stated approach to game design implies that he believes function is more of a consequence of natural laws than an active attempt to manipulate them.
Game designers become auteurs when their style reflects not just a frequently used mechanism but rather an entire approach to gaming, and implies what they believe a game ought to be. In the case of Knizia the scientist, games manifest the complex possibilities that emerge from relatively simple natural laws. If Reiner Knizia - the game designer - is indeed a scientist, he is probably a physicist.
The games of Bruno Faidutti have sometimes been criticized for having too many chance and chaotic elements in them. I imagine his response would be: "guilty, proud of it." Faidutti seems to revel in unpredictibility, and wants his players to share in the fun. He pretty much declared his attitude to the world in one of his earliest published designs: "Knightmare Chess". That game starts with the great Western classic game, but gives players cards which allow them to muck around with the rules in unpredictible ways.
To add unpredictibility to chess is a little like painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa. It takes a certain kind of person to do that. More than anything, it tells you a little about what his idea of "fun" is.
In "Citadels", Faidutti's most successful and celebrated game, players target each other with their special powers but in a highly unpredictible way. For example, a player who has taken the role of the "thief" can choose a character whom he plans to rob - but can only make a hunch as to which player he is actually robbing because players choose their characters secretly. This can lead to a lot of grumbling both from the thief, who may have targeted a player who has nothing to steal, and especially from a player who was trailing and became the unintended target (and especially when I'm that player!).
Faidutti's games are often described as being "chaotic" and it's rarely intended as a compliment. The pattern in his games are however so unmistakable that it is clear that Bruno Faidutti revels in the chaos, builds it into the games intentionally, and regards unpredictibility as an essential part of the fun in gaming. I think that the only way to properly appreciate many of his games is to play them in the spirit intended - partly as a battle of wits, but equally as a wild ride. Climb onto the bull and hold on!
This attitude toward finding the fun in a game can manifest itself even into the simplest things - like whether a card game should have a player draw his card before or after his turn. On his website, Faidutti describes the difference:
"The 'draw a card, then play a card' rule ... strengthens the surprise and fun aspect of the game, to the detriment of deep thought and strategy. During opponents’ turns, one will try to think of what one will do next, but will also day-dream of the card one could draw when one’s turn comes. This card, when drawn, may cause some impulsive reaction, and may be sometimes a bad move – but that’s an important part of the game fun. The 'play a card, then draw a card' rule emphasizes on strategic planning. It means one can think of all the possible moves, and check their possible effects, before one’s turn comes. "
From everything we've seen about Bruno Faidutti so far, his preference should be no surprise:
"(Play a card, draw a card) sure makes the game deeper and more challenging, but it also makes it feel less fun and less natural."
Reiner Knizia and Bruno Faidutti are two of the most stylistically assertive auteurs in the game world. You may or may not like their games, but the reasoning behind your opinion is likely to be closely related to the difference between what you find to be fun and what each designer believes to be so. This strong design philosophy is what separates game auteurs from journeymen whose designs lack personal style.
It is really a strong design philosophy and not particular mechanics that define the auteur. When evaluating a designer, the interesting question is: "What effect does he want to achieve?" and not "What technique does he tend to rely on?"
Compare Alan Moon and the team of Wolfgang Kramer and Michael Kiesling. In many of Alan Moon's games, players draw cards from a face-up selection (Elfenland, Union Pacific, Ticket to Ride). Often players are given from one to three actions in a turn (draw cards or use cards in both Union Pacific and Ticket to Ride, the limited actions in Reibach/Get the Goods or Andromeda). On the other hand, Kramer & Kiesling have frequently used action point mechanisms where players get from 6-10 AP in a turn with myriad possibilities on how to spend them (Torres, Tikal, Java, Mexica, Bison). The obvious reason that each designer tends to reuse his mechanisms is that the mechanism works, is reliable, and is flexible enough to solve certain design problems in many games.
Apart from that, each technique reflects a different philosophy. By presenting users with three or four card choices, Alan Moon is pushing some unpredictibility into the lap of his players and forcing them to choose between some very limited options. The chance and unpredictibility of the choices forces the user to adapt to the unexpected, and those key basic alternatives ("play a card or draw a card?" are the essence of the "Agonizing Decision". In contrast, Kramer & Kiesling prefer to be far more open ended. Their gamers' games challenge a player by dumping a large quantity of resources into his lap, presenting him with decision trees that have an intricate network of branches, and demand that the player builds a strategy which uses these resources most effectively.
Alan Moon seems to see the greatest joy in gaming as confronting hard decisions. Kramer and Kiesling see the joy come from the challenge of managing resources and exploiting opportunities.
That pattern has more meaning if it can be applied to other games which don't use the same mechanisms as card drafts or action points. For example, in San Marco, Alan Moon gives players limited hard decisions - but with an entirely different mechanism. He gives one player a series of selected action cards and challenges him to divide them into stacks which his opponents may choose from. Then he gives the remaining players the very limited - but no less agonizing - responsibility to choose the one stack with the most useful actions and least painful penalties.
When Wolfgang Kramer created "Hacienda", he used a card drafting mechanism similar to that found in games such as "Union Pacific" and Ticket to Ride, but he puts these cards to a much more open ended use than is typically seen in Alan Moon's games. In Moon's "Union Pacific" the cards a player draws are fairly passive assets. You draw them, you play them in front of you, and hopefully you score with them. Even in "Ticket to Ride", players have very specific paths that they are trying to take, and they draw cards they need in order to complete those paths. The tension comes from deciding when to draw, when to play, and from dealing with the need to make detours. It is usually self evident where a particular set of cards needs to be placed for a player to achieve his goals. On the other hand, the cards in Hacienda are open ended resources which can often be placed in many different places. Having a set of any cards is just the beginning of the challenge to the player who needs to construct a plan on how to use them most effectively.
Two designers take a similar mechanism - a multiple choice card draft - but treat the use of the cards in entirely different ways. Each use reflects what its respective designer regards to be the interesting challenge in a game.
How, then, are we to interpret games such as Kramer's "That's Life", a family game which offers players very limited choices? How does such a simple game fit in as a part of the designer's stylistic signature? I think that the most honest answer is: "it doesn't." Game designers, especially professionals, need to develop a large number of games every year to be economically viable. All of them will to some degree reflect the designer's values, but many will still be journeymen games that are principally created just to meet the needs of publishers and the public.
Another reason a designer may venture outside his style is just to experiment and mix it up a little. So from Reiner Knizia we'll see a game like "Blue Moon", which has lots of different cards with different powers, and seems a little elaborate for a Knizia game (although its rules are, true to form, very simple.) It seemed very out-of-character when Bruno Faidutti worked on the redevelopment of "Warrior Knights", a long and relatively complex war game, but there it is. Of course, sometimes experimentation is also a way of moving on to something new permanently. We may never again see Reiner Knizia offer up more minimalist masterpieces in the mold of "Modern Art" and "Medici" again (I swear - that run of "M's" was NOT intentional!).
Finally, sometimes an auteur's fingerprints may be a little hidden. The task of decoding and understanding the art of game designers is in its infancy, and in time, as the hobby grows and more people become fascinated with this issue, new minds will discover patterns that are overlooked today. "Stephensons' Rocket" is often regarded as uncharacteristically involved for a Reiner Knizia game. Yet it has only four pages of rules and takes about thirty paragraphs to explain. Compare that with Kramer and Kiesling's "Mexica", which was described as "family friendly" when it came out, and yet has ten pages of rules and about ninety paragraphs. Knizia really does stick to his word when he talks of creating games with "simple and unified rules" even when he slips to the complex side of the spectrum. Switching to film again, there may have been a time when it seemed only coincidental that movies such as "Sunset Boulevard", "Some Like It Hot" and "The Apartment" sprung from the same mind, that of Billy Wilder, but in time admirers have come to see the sexual cynicism that unites them all.
Indeed there is a Catch-22 that impedes our ability to comfortably see the auteur behind the game designer. In order for a designer to really establish his stylistic handwriting, he needs to design and publish many games. But any designer who does so must increasingly design some of his games for purely economic reasons, to satisfy the tastes of a large public audience. Those tastes may or may not coincide with what especially interests the designer.
Some of the most highly rated games to have been published in recent years are not from the great well-established auteurs we've mentioned above, but instead are games from new designers with little or no track record which we can examine for trends. What will the fifth, sixth or tenth game by William Attia, designer of Caylus, be like? Future games will hold new secrets to unlock. Some designers will develop strong styles in their games, while others may produce excellent games but without developing a strong personal style. For many of us players, the joy comes not only from the playing but also from the appreciation of the person behind the game.
Monday, October 09, 2006
One theme that came up a few times questioned my experience with Oasis. In my playing, I've never found the threat of being closed out on the game board to be very consequential. That's not to say it never happened at all, but it was infrequent and tended to have a marginal effect on the players. People who wrote in had different experiences with the game, finding that the board had a very significant effect.
I mention this just to hedge my own opinions. I've only played the game a few times (because, after all, my experience wasn't favorable). However, I don't feel that uncomfortable with my criticism because:
1) The game has lots of other problems (most especially, the auction mechanism in which you neither know what you're bidding with nor what you're bidding for.)
2) The point was just to illustrate how if a game board isn't constructed well, and doesn't sufficiently threaten to close off a player's options, the effect is to create a boring superfluous mechanism.
3) Hey, even a "review" is typically based on just a few playings and is similarly limited.
I always feel a great responsibility to be fair to a game I criticize, though.
Richard Abrams questioned whether my (modest) complaint with Caylus, that it has inferior privelege tracks, can't be mitigated by players tweaking the rules.
"...what's stopping us from re-doing the favor track to make each of the tracks approx. equal in value? ... Tweaking the favor track should be easy, and would allow players to choose the track that best fit into the strategy they were pursuing."
It's not easy. It requires playtesting (in a 3 hour game) to properly balance. And that's the job of the designers. Yes, any game's problem can theoretically be solved by the players, but then it's a different game. I think it's fair to say that a Well Constructed Game doesn't need to be stamped "Assembly Required".
Markmist agrees that the hard work comes in playtesting:
"To design a "well constructed game" is an exhaustive process - one in which you need to constantly be analyzing playtests (looking for what works and what doesn't work)."
Markmist writes as though he himself is a designer. Are you?
He also agrees that Caylus makes much better use of the different commodity types (cube colors) than does Keythedral:
"I played Caylus first and then played Keythedral and I felt that Keythedral was the vastly inferior game based on the points you mentioned. The color of the cubes in Keythedral seemed inconsequential and arbitary compared to Caylus."
Perhaps I'm too cautious, but I feel more comfortable praising a well rated game (on the Boardgamegeek) and criticizing one with a mediocre rating. But Keythedral, with its 7.5 rating, is a game in which I feel that the Emperor has no clothes. I can see the appeal: the whole way of building cottages and claiming resources is really fascinating. However, every time I played it, I found that there seemed to be little cause and effect going on in that system. You can bid for control and get totally screwed. You can hang back and see things just fall into your lap.
I also agree with Markmist that Through the Desert is an exceptionally Well Constructed Game, and one of my favorites. See my article on Story Arc for more details.
My next article will examine how possible it is to identify a specific style in the works of any given game designer. I am trying (foolishly!) to get it out within a reasonable time - hopefully within about a month of my last article.
Monday, September 25, 2006
Some board games seem constructed like a Mercedes and some seem contructed like a Yugo. Some games respond actively to every touch of the pedal and hug the road on every twist of the wheel, while some have trouble shifting and then bang around noisily from all the loose connections.
In game terms I mean that some games have all of their mechanisms tightly tuned, where every rule presents an agonizing decision, and every decision affects your game, while some games are thrown together, with rules that hardly matter and frequent decisions that are barely relevant.
Even if the latter game "basically works" it lacks the thrill of the feeling you get when a game has been trimmed and tuned. That's what The Well Constructed Game is: one which is not only fun, but which has all of its mechanisms tied together, effective, and purposeful. In this sense, The Well Constructed Game truly is a work of art - it has an aesthetic thrill that goes beyond its basic function of entertainment and competition. This artistry is very difficult to pull off and is the mark of a great designer.
I want to talk here about compactness and elegance in a game design - deliberately avoiding what neccessarily makes it "fun". In admiring The Well Constructed Game, I don't want to imply that this characteristic is either neccessary nor sufficient for a game to be good. But we can certainly admire it when we see it.
For much of his early career, Reiner Knizia was especially admired for how much good game he got out of some incredibly simple designs. Modern Art is a terrific example of a very simple and Well Constructed Game from this era. The basic structure of the game requires players to maximize their income both when they sell works of art (cards) to other players, and then later when they sell the art back to the bank. What drives the game so wonderfully is the scoring mechanism which creates a spectrum of implications for the players. Basically, the cards auctioned off come in one of five suits ("artists"), and the artist whose works have been most auctioned in that round pays the most. Players therefore have motivations to promote the auction of artists whose cards they hold in their hands - knowing that this will make them fetch a higher price - and they have motivation to auction off cards by artists they've already bought in the round - thereby bolstering their value at pay off time. Additionally, Knizia incorporates an excellent scoring bomb by having the values of paintings accumulate each turn - but still paying zero if that artist isn't in one of the top three positions. With just an auction and a well designed scoring mechanism, Knizia creates a very tense and engaging game. Every element in the scoring mechanism has a way of working to create strategic decisions for the players.
Actually, one could fairly argue that there is a supefluous mechanism in the game. There are 4 different ways that a card may be auctioned, and each card specifies how that card is auctioned. It might be through an open outcry, or a closed bid auction for example. These alternatives definitely add color to the game, but are they neccessary? I think that they're a little fiddly, and they detract from the game's basic elegance - but I love 'em anyway. I suppose that this shows that being Well Constructed is a nice thing - but it's not everything.
The Well Constructed Game is efficient but it need not be simple. It is not important that there are very few rules - only that every rule contributes significantly to the game play. Wolfgang Kramer and Richard Ulrich created a miraculous design in "El Grande". In El Grande, players place wooden cubes from their "court" supply onto any of nine regions on the board, in an attempt to get first, second or third place leadership positions during the game's three scoring rounds. Essentially, three mechanisms drive the game, and each one is a doozy. The first is that players must bid for turn order in each turn- which is key because early players have their choice of "Action Cards" which can give great advantages. Gnashing against this, is the fact that the higher your bid to go first in the round, the fewer "caballeros" (wood cubes) you'll have in your supply to place on the board. Finally - Kramer and Ulrich create an extremely effective tool to govern where players may place their cubes at any moment - they must be into a region adjacent to the "king", but not in the same region as the king itself. Moreover, the king is moved each turn - with the right to control his placement governed by the player who earlier bid for that right. As anyone who has played El Grande knows, this simple rule governing the king and his placement creates a spectrum of tactical decisions for the players.
Notice also how these three mechanisms mesh with each other. You want to control the king to place your caballeros in the best position. To do that, you need to bid high for that right. But the higher you bid, the fewer caballeros you make available to yourself. The interaction of its mechanisms, the dramatic effect each mechanism has on game play, and the agonizing decisions they place on players all combine to make El Grande a supremely Well Constructed Game.
I first noticed the value of a Well Constructed Game when I was playing a game I found to be poorly constructed: the self-published Garden Competition by Ken Stevens. Garden Competition is by no means a bad game, but what struck me was just how many different rules and mechanisms seemed to not achieve their intended effect. For example, a key aspect of the game is the fact that players must decide which flowers to plant. Of the dozen or so different types, only certain ones are worth points at the end of the game. There is an elaborate system in which each player has slightly different information on which flowers - or colors of flowers - will score. Players are expected to deduce which flowers are valuable by observing their opponent's behavior. The problem is that deduction is either trivial or unneeded. If an opponent plants a rose, it means either "red" or "rose" is worth points. If you can get a rose - plant it. If not... well then there are so many *other* flowers to focus on, you may as well just ignore it.
This looseness and clutteredness in design shows up in the work of seasoned designers as well. If a Well Constructed Game is one with no excess baggage, then it's easier to appreciate tight design by looking at games by otherwise excellent and respected designers that seem burdened by superfluous mechanisms and inconsequential game play. Oasis by Alan Moon and Aaron Weisblum and Keythedral by Richard Breese are examples of designs with rules and mechanisms that have a disproportionately low consequence on game play and strategy.
Oasis is an unfortunate example of a boardgame where nothing that happens on the board is all that interesting. Players collect tiles in 3 different land types, trying to gain large clusters of adjacent tiles. But unlike a similar mechanism in Merchants of Amsterdam by Reiner Knizia, it is rare to find oneself threatened with being cut off or enclosed. Oasis tends tco have fairly large areas to play one's tiles, and there are no tactical objectives besides getting a lot of them all together. In contrast, Merchants of Amsterdam requires players to lay adjacent clusters of tiles in the sections of the city, but the grid is narrow (2xn), and littered with strategic points (bridges) which encourage players to play tiles where they otherwise wouldn't want to. The effect in Oasis is a feeling of pointlessness and disappointment. Here is this evocative board with placement rules and the promise of interesting strategy. Eventually players find that their choices aren't all that important, that it is unlikely that they will be cramped in, and that the feeling of tension was false.
In no way does this break the game. It remains entirely playable. But by having its board not finely tuned, the game ends up feeling a little limp and disappointing. Players have a sense of putting tiles on the board for little purpose.
Keythedral suffers from the problem of having needless distinctions for its commodities. Keythedral is a little like Settlers of Catan in the way that players collect five different types of resources by having cottages and workers on tiles which produce goods each turn. Collecting certain combinations are important at the beginning of the game in order your upgrade cottage or to build fences which help you defensively. However, soon into the game the primary use of resources is to spend them in particular combinations in order to buy tiles which are worth victory points. As the game progresses, larger quantities of resources are needed to buy bigger tiles worth even more VP's.
Pretty cool until you start to realize that this entire mechanism barely matters. There are so many tiles that will come available in so many different combinations that any player has no urgency to take any particular resource type. Nor is there much need to rush to take that perfect tile when it comes up. If you just hold on, you'll find the tile you need for whatever resource cubes you have. (A limit on the number of cubes you can hold would have been effective.) Furthermore, the amount of VP's you get per cube doesn't really change throughout the game. Early on you get few VP's for few cubes, and later you get lots of VP's for lots of cubes - but the value is pretty much proportional. There is neither much incentive to spend your cubes early nor to save them for later. What seems to be a series of tactical choices for the players aren't really choices at all because they hardly make any difference. Only in the last game turn or two, when future VP tiles become limited, does the urgency to manage your purchases become tense - and suddenly the game picks up a little.
Compare this to the William Attia game Caylus, which also uses different types of commodity cubes, but far more effectively. In Caylus, players have many different uses for their commodities - to buy tiles, to help construct the castle, or for special features such as the "joust". In fact, commodity cubes used in the castle have great flexibility as well: the only restriction is that of three cubes, one is "food" and that all three cubes are different colors. With such flexibility, you would expect that players would be unconcerned about which particular color of cube they pick up. In fact, the distinction among colors works extremely well. For one thing, although castles tend to need food, jousts need cloth, and tiles are hungry for wood and stone, each choice has different strategic implications. So while a player may almost always be able to find a use for his cubes, he needs to manage his production in order to achieve the particular strategic goals he has set for himself. Furthermore, any of these uses - tiles, castle, or joust - can't be chosen at will. The ability to joust or to build tiles is in short supply for each turn, and there are tactical reasons that a player may want to contribute to the castle ALOT on this turn, but not at all on the next turn. Finally, while a player who gets shut out of his choices can always accumulate cubes for another day, timing is much more important in Caylus than it is in Keythedral. A tile built this turn has greater opportunity to earn VP's. The need to delay a castle contribution can mean missing out on getting a bonus or stealing the majority favor from another player. In practice, players find that they need to plan carefully to take and spend the right combinations of cubes - and they need to desperately create alternative plans when their original plan doesn't go as expected.
The one thing that holds me back from calling Caylus a Well Constructed Game is that annoying matter of the unbalanced favor table. In Caylus, a player will occasionally earn "favors" and he has a choice of four different types to take. Of these, one type (commodity cubes) seems so weak that players hardly ever pick it, and one (money) is sufficiently underpowered that players typically use it only as a fall back or occasional choice. How much tighter and more satisfying the game would have been had each favor created its own strategic path! Fortunately, this doesn't hurt the game that much. You can always ignore those paths and they are not a major part of the game. This is very different from the case with Oasis where players must use the board constantly only to feel that they are spinning their wheels whenever they do so.
I am not a board game designer, but my belief is that playtesting is the most important contribution to a Well Constructed Game. Designers need to brainstorm. They need to come up with lots of creative ideas, and in many cases, there is little way to distinguish between what is working and what is superfluous without seeing the mechanism in action. Is the board too big to force players into Agonizing Decisions? How often are people using all the options presented to them (and how often do they win with the less popular ones?) When I wrote my series of Game Theory 101 articles for The Games Journal, all of the ideas I had were addititve in nature. What do designers put in a game that cause its complexion to change and create a Story Arc? Where are the bombs that place players in do-or-die situations? What conditions can be imposed to force players to constantly reevaluate their positions? The Well Constructed Game is the product of a reductive process. What stuff was added to the game that isn't making a difference? What decisions aren't agonizing - and can they simply be eliminated?
I've spoken here about the value of a game having no superfluous elements. Of course, a game succeeds on the basis of what it does have and not what it doesn't have. So appreciating a Well Constructed Game is mostly a matter of aesthetics. It is an opportunity for us game-lovers to simply admire the perfection in a board game design above and beyond the hours we spend immersed playing it.
This is what I am hoping to achieve in this journal with every article. A greater pleasure in the love of The Game.
Friday, September 08, 2006
The comments on “Taking Care of Business Games” mostly focused on games I had omitted from the discussion.
My goal was to look at a certain kind of business game and examine the mechanisms found in it. I wanted to see how different games in the genre deal with some of the problems that are specific to that genre. I also wanted to show the breadth of games, themes, and mechanisms that I believe still share common links.
Unlike my series on scoring mechanisms, I decided to identify four games and stick with them for the entire article. The idea was to show just how games can share common mechanisms, face common design issues, and still be very different. I didn’t want to just look at a bunch of mechanisms – I wanted to look at the whole game.
For every angle, I wanted to compare *every* game in my list, if possible. That meant keeping the list down. If I had six games instead of four, the article would have been 50% longer, and it was quite long enough.
The need to limit the games I examined and the desire to look at the whole game meant that some excellent and relevant games wouldn’t make the cut. The most significant of these were the 18xx series and Age of Steam. In both cases, I felt that these games had so much more going on than just “production”. The rail-building aspect of the games, and the stock aspect of 18xx dominate a player’s decisions. So while it is true that in Age of Steam, players invest in rail lines, reap income from them, and reinvest the proceeds in more lines, I couldn’t fairly examine that game without getting into the specific issues that occur on the game board - which were outside the scope of my article.
Martin Sz said:
“... what about Acquire? An all- time classic, and possibly the best pure business game ever. Lord knows I love both Power Grid and Settlers, but to focus on these to the exclusion of Acquire in an article centerd on business and eco-dev games is perhaps a serious oversight, in my opinion at least.
To a lesser extent,
Regarding the omission of Acquire, adiamant nailed it when he responded:
I don't think Acquire actually fits the mold here... Jonathan is talking about production oriented business games, while Acquire isn't that. Puerto Rico certainly fits and is indeed mentioned in the article, even if not analyzed thoroughly.
Yes! I wanted to focus specifically on games where players build up some sort of production mechanism that grows and pays off ever more as the game develops. Acquire is more a game of stock speculation. Players owning shares in an Acquire hotel aren’t getting income from it. They might get a big payoff if it gets acquired, but that creates entirely different strategies than the ones found in the four games I focused on.
Adiamant also said:
Civilization games are probably more similar to the production business games. AH Civilization was what came to mind as an example of producing a variety of goods then using them to buy future production capability, but the way it's used is more circuitous, less direct.
I agree with this. In games like Civilization or Antike your “factories” take the form of population or cities on the board. But like Age of Steam, what’s happening on the board dominates the game in a way that would have taken the discussion in a different direction.
Anonymous took us beyond the realm of games and into the dismal science:
You seem to come from the bigger is better school of economics, but bigger is not always better. Economies of scale apply only to a point, depending on business; and after that, the top of the organizational pyramid is just an extra cost.
So, bringing this back to gaming, the diminishing returns of Power Grid may be quite appropriate.
Yes, it is true that I advocate increasing returns to scale – but this is from a game perspective; it has nothing to do with reality. I point out in my article on The Art of Scoring, that games often use and benefit from a scoring system that escalates progressively – such as 1,3,6,10,15… Power Grid’s payoff does the opposite. In this sort of game, it is appropriate and needed to help slow down a runaway leader. I think that this regressive payoff scale is a good, integral way of slowing down a runaway leader, whereas I think that all the other benefits given to trailing players are pasted on.
[What follows may cause those of you who haven’t taken Econ 101 to glaze over.]
In terms of economic reality, Power Grid’s payoff scale does follow the “law of diminishing returns” and in this sense is entirely consistent with classical economic theory. Now the law of diminishing returns mostly applies in the short run. The idea is that if you try to produce more with your existing factory you have to pay your workers overtime, you use methods which aren’t the best, and so on. Power Grid arguably simulates more of a long run environment, where the standard assumption is that you can always at least reproduce your production abilities, and possibly improve on them. Anonymous argues that this isn’t always the case – that as you get bigger, you end up with more bureaucracy and can run less efficiently. One could also make the case that what Power Grid simulates in its use of a declining payoff is running down the demand curve. The more you produce, the lower your price needs to be in order for you to sell of all of your inventory. Now in Power Grid, it doesn’t matter if you’re the only person selling into a given city, or whether you share it with two other competitors. Try Medieval Merchant if you’d like a game where that mechanism is used. Maybe Power Grid uses the declining payoff to simulate this effect in the easiest way possible. Or maybe… it’s just a game.
More business analysis from Anonymous:
(To comment on Acquire, what drives anyone with business knowledge crazy about the game is that you want to be the loser, the acquired company, not the big company in the game. A good game, but far from a simulation!)
Now here I disagree. All of us who have been through the dotcom wars know that it’s often best to be the acquired company. The larger company will pay a premium over the market share price to get a controlling interest, and the shareholders of the acquired company benefit. In fact, there have been academic papers showing that when a merger is announced, the acquired company’s share price typically rises, while the acquiring company’s share price will, on average, stay the same.
Thanks to everyone who read and appreciated Taking Care of Business Games. I’m busy at work on my next piece which I promise will be SHORTER THAN AVERAGE! We’re going to be looking at “The Well Constructed Game”.
I also invite comments on the format and nature of the blog as well. My articles tend to be a lot longer than most of what’s out there. Some have commented that they are “really long”, while others have said that it’s nice to read material that’s so different in scope from most of what else is out there.
My articles also tend to be pretty technical. Do you feel that you’re getting something that really increases your appreciation of the hobby? That’s my goal – I want to elevate writing in this hobby to look at games almost like an art form. But man, sometimes I think it would be easier, and probably better appreciated, to write about how to choose what game to play, and which Settlers expansion is best, and… REVIEWS! People love reviews, and I’d get some freebies!
While I’m on the subject of game writing that is out of the norm – I’ll put in a plug for a guy who I regard to be a sort of soulmate on the other side of the country. Mike Doyle is a graphic designer with a special interest in the physical design of games. He frequently will completely redesign a game and present it on his website: http://mdoyle.blogspot.com/
It is very refreshing to see someone examine games from a genuinely original angle – with such creativity and talent!
Wednesday, April 26, 2006
In the introduction to this blog, I state that what I really care about in a game is its mechanisms, not its theme. And that's true. To a point. Some popular Eurogame themes tell you nothing about the mechanisms involved: Ancient Egypt, Renaissance Italy, Pirates. There are some themes, though, that do imply something about the mechanism involved. Offhand, these include racing games, railroad games, and business games.
Business games are my personal favorite genre. It's a natural for me, since my graduate degree is in finance, and my career is in business planning. I like the idea of building things that make money, and reinvesting the proceeds to build even larger things that make even more money. I prefer the challenge of competition to that of conquest - and so I prefer my escapades to come from playing a business game rather than an empire building game.
But not all business games are about economic development in the way I described. Some, like Chinatown, are about trading. Some are about buying and selling at a profit. This would include many "Pick up and deliver" games like Eurorails, as well as speculation games such as "Buy Low, Sell High", and operational business games like Schoko & Co.
But what really gets my juices flowing is the idea of building a commercial empire - investing in capital, reaping the profits, and reinvesting. This doesn't truly even need to take the form of a "business" game. It can have any darned theme. I'm going to call these "economic development" games, and I'd like to pull a few of my favorites apart to see what makes them work.
The games I'm going to examine are, in many respects quite different from one another. Power Grid, by Friedmann Friese, is probably the most obvious and pure form of this genre. It's modern. It's literally about business. Goa, by Rudiger Dorn is themed as more of a trading game, but players don't trade with each other or with the environment in any real sense. The heart of the game is gaining resources - spices, ships, and money - and reinvesting them in a way that increases your future output. Settlers of Catan , by Klaus Teuber, is themed as more of a community building game, but it is a game of economic development in the truest sense. Finally, The Scepter of Zavandor , by Jens Droegemueller, avoids the theme of economics entirely and instead cloaks itself as a fantasy game of collecting magical gems - but who's kidding whom? The game is adapted from the Sci-Fi economic development game, James Hlavaty's Outpost, and plays like a business game. Zavandor is familiar to the fewest readers, so I'll explain its mechanics, later, in more detail. It is expected to be released in an English language edition later in 2006.
By my own standards, games of economic development come handicapped. They tend not to involve majority control, and so it is more difficult to create "bombs" that provide disproportionate rewards. Indeed, by their nature, they tend to be rather incremental. In the case of Power Grid, the rewards for maintaining larger systems are actually *less* than proportional. For example a size "4" grid pays off 46, whereas a size "8" grid pays off 74 - less than double. So one challenge in making such a game successful is in creating that "do or die" tension in other ways.
Conversely, another pitfall is in avoiding the runaway leader problem. Economic development games can be low on player interaction. If four players are each building up their empires independently, without getting in each other's hair, how can a player in fourth place ever hope to catch up with the leader? The leader presumably has all the advantages - not only more money (perhaps) but also a superior infrastructure that guarantees him the future advantages.
Finally, these games may or may not suffer from a lack of Story Arc. If all a player is doing is building, reaping rewards, and reinvesting - there is a danger that the end of the game may feel exactly like the beginning of the game - only bigger. There needs to be something that causes game play to turn a corner and become slightly different in character as it proceeds.
Some of the games I've mentioned have these problems. Some deal with them well; others not so well. But I love 'em all. I don't think it's quite like the case of the French chef who has a hankering for Big Macs. Rather, I think that these games have some other things that make them special - and I'm hoping to examine and discover that. In the process we'll look at some of the problems and mechanisms they share and how each game approaches them.
The basic mechanism in any of these games is that players control assets which will periodically pay off, and then have those proceeds reinvested. The basic challenge is in keeping this from being totally generic - like a bank account that just pays interest. What's the catch? Where's the competition? What wrinkles create agonizing decisions for the players?
Scepter of Zavandor is probably the most straightforward of all the four games in its mechanisms. There is only one currency/commodity: "energy". There are five different types of gems (read: factories) that produce "energy" (money), but each one is just like the others only bigger. So sapphires produce about 5 units a turn, emeralds about 7.5, diamonds about 10, and rubies about 15. Players earn magic each turn, and then reinvest it in more gems and bigger gems, gradually increasing their production each turn. So far, it sounds like about as much fun as investing in certificates of deposit. The key wrinkle here is that players face severe limits to growth. They may only have up to five gems producing on any turn, and they may buy nothing bigger than a sapphire. Maximum production: about 25 magic units a turn. There are, however, three ways around that:
1) Get more spaces to put gems
2) Get the right to buy bigger and better gems
3) Get special cards that act like bigger gems, but require no spaces.
The most critical strategic decision players face is in how to break through the glass ceiling that limits their production. Each of the approaches above has, in turn, different ways to go about it. The right to buy emeralds and diamonds come from cards that are in short supply, which are expensive and must be purchased at auction. The right to buy rubies, on the other hand, is a special power which requires long term investment which is in itself expensive, and which doesn't pay off for up to four turns. While it's certainly possible to develop a plan that enables you to buy all types of gems, such a plan is expensive and redundant. At what point do you skip a level - and for how long can you tolerate producing at a suboptimal rate?
Similarly, there are alternative ways to get more spaces to put your gems - also limited and expensive. Which is the best path and when do you switch over? More gems? Or bigger better ones? Or both?
Settlers of Catan turns out to use this mechanism as well - although it shows up in a very different way. In Settlers, players are also confronted with the alternative of building bigger production facilities, in the form of cities, or more of them. As in Zavandor, the additional challenge of being able to build more production facilities is finding the place to put them - by building roads and expanding your network. Both games provide players with scarce resources and competition for these additional sites - although in Zavandor a player does have the ability to create up to two additional sites with no competition - by buying advances. I think that the race for spaces on the board in Settlers is the more interesting challenge - precisely because it is more competitive - but I do admit that in Zavandor, a player does face some agonizing decisions in the choice of which of the six advances to purchase in any given turn. Each of them is, in its own way, so important - and you can only buy one per turn!
Power Grid makes the question of expansion intriguing by not permitting players to grow the number of sites they have. Players may own 3 power plants at any given time, and can never grow beyond that. Any further plants must displace one already owned. By cutting off one avenue of growth, designer Friedemann Friese creates a distinct strategic dilemma.
"To what degree is this new plant even worth owning? It's expensive. If I don't buy it, I'm limiting my growth until a newer better one becomes available. But if I do buy it, there is an (often severe) opportunity cost of possibly having to let it become obsolete at a later turn, and passing up a more attractive plant that could show up in a turn or two." For me, the choices around which power plant to buy, and when, and how much to pay are the most appealing aspects of Power Grid. It is a great example of how lopping off certain player choices can make what's left so much more challenging. If players were able to own any number of power plants, each one would, to a greater degree, just be scaled up versions of one another. A plant that fires up 4 cities could be directly compared to a similar one that fires up 2 cities - after adjusting for the cost of fuel. But in Power Grid, that's not the case. The smaller plant will prevent you from reaching victory conditions, which require you to fire up a certain number of cities using only three power plants. It has built in obsolescence which must be considered.
The limitation on the number of plants in Power Grid helps to prevent them from being perfectly scalable. If they were, then their values could be more objectively calculated, and the whole game would be less interesting. The productive ability of the different gems in Scepter of Zavandor is scalable - but while it is possible to either get better gems, or more places to put them, each option has a cost, and this cost helps make the game resist analysis and keep it interesting. In Settlers, production has only limited scalability (you can't grow past a city), and the fact that turning settlements into cities requires entirely different resources than does building roads and new settlements gives the tradeoff its own unique characteristics. So does the fact that expanding your network of roads has it's own challenges. But all three games offer the same basic challenges to the players: how do you grow your production network when there are both limits to the size of the "factories" and limits on the quantity that you may own.
Some games of economic development rely on one basic type of currency which is produced and spent, and others use distinct commodities that need to be collected, managed, and combined. Again, Zavandor is clearly the most straightforward: everything is measured in "energy", and the only difference among the gems is how much of it they produce in a turn. Although Power Grid involves different types of fuel for energy, your network produces money and requires money to fund it. The different types of fuel are all comparable - and the only real difference between them is the fact that some will be more expensive and some will be cheaper (although shortages can also play a role sometimes.)
Settlers of Catan was a groundbreaking game in the way it uses five different commodities, combined in different ways, for a player to reinvest and build his production abilities. Settlers was not strictly the first game in which players produced different commodities. Other games, however, could not come up with a way to use this differentiation effectively, especially for economic development. Pick up and deliver games such as the "Empire Builder" series, by Darwin Bromley and Bill Fawcett, just used different commodities as a way to determine which cities could deliver to which other cities. In 1977 SPI published "After the Holocaust" by Redmond Simonson and Terry Hardy, a game of economic development, which mostly just required players to build their capacities up equally in each commodity. It packed a lot of rules into mechanics which were ultimately less detailed than those found in Settlers of Catan (but, for example, required much calculation any time a player wished to consummate a trade).
Goa also uses the feature of different commodities, but in a manner that creates very different consequences for game play. In Goa, the ability to improve your production in any of five categories requires the expenditure of an equal combination of "ships" and "spices". The ships come in one flavor (uh... "ships") , but the spices come in five flavors (ginger, cinnamon, pepper, nutmeg, cloves). Regardless of the production track you are trying to improve, going from a level "1" to a level "2", eg, will require two ships and two spices - but the specific spices needed will vary. And I really mean vary. As the game unfolds, the particular spices that a player needs will be constantly shifting. What makes this especially challenging is that unlike in Settlers, there are "no substitutions". Players cannot trade and they cannot substitute multiple copies of one spice for another. The only flexibility a player has is that some of his plantations are wild cards and can produce any type of spice. Players will typically be strong in producing certain spices and weak in others.
The limited flexibility in the use of differing commodities in Settlers and in Goa ends up causing that mechanic to have entirely different game consequences. In Settlers, a player may be somewhat neutral in the decision to build a settlement or a city at any given moment ("it's all good"). In Goa, the order of building is extremely important - every action depends on the prior ones.
Moreover, in Goa much more than in Settlers, a player has very specific plans which he is trying to execute in a specific order. Rudiger Dorn has used the differentiation of the spices to limit each player's options and thereby force them to develop long term plans. He uses the unpredictibility of the auctions for tiles to muck those plans up a little - presenting unexpected opportunities. The tightness of the need to get ships and specific spices, along with the unpredictibility of the auction phase injects a Nervous System into the game which forces players to constantly reevaluate their plans. In this sense, Goa has a lot in common with Princes of Florence. Both are games of intense planning where very specific assets need to be acquired, often in a specific order, for a player to maximize his score. Perhaps it is no coincidence that both games alternate fairly controlled purchase phases with more chaotic auction phases to work so effectively.
What we see is that designers use differentiation of commodities in differing doses to restrict a player's options, make a game more "gamey", and require more planning. In Goa, the differing spices needed to build to new levels force a player to plan carefully and go down paths that are not the most direct ones to easy growth. Settlers of Catan doesn't require or permit the same degree of planning because of the luck involved in getting any given commodity, and because players may substitute commodities by trading with each other or at the ports. Scepter of Zavandor is even more business-y and less gamey because the primary production commodity is the fully fungible "energy". However, players are heavily restricted in their ability to purchase the more valuable gems that produce more energy, and so this differentiation creates obstacles to growth. In Power Grid, the need for differing types of fuel mostly just affects cost, and only occasionally will block a player's growth. Power Grid is the most realistic business game of the four and it has the fewest artificial restrictions that are introduced primarily to enhance game play.
One problem in any game in which players build a production empire is the potential for a runaway leader to emerge early on. In these sorts of games, if a player emerges as a leader, not only does he have more victory points, he also has superior assets with which to get even more victory points. So the argument goes that an early lead can be unstoppable and the game can be flawed or even broken.
As a general rule, this can be the case if the leader is able to mimic the moves of those players who trail him. If I have all the assets you have - and then some - then literally, anything you can do I can do better. And I will. So for a game in this genre to avoid breaking down, it has to insure that trailing players have options which the leader won't neccessarily have and which can be better than the ones he does have.
There is an obvious way to handle this problem. Unfortunately, it is also an unsatisfying way. That is, to just provide special bonuses to trailing players and handicaps to leading players. Two of the games we're looking at use this mechanism. In Scepter of Zavandor, players are able to acquire certain assets - artifacts (special power cards) and sentinels (bonus scoring tiles) more cheaply just by virtue of being a trailing player. Power Grid goes even further, providing benefits to trailing players and handicaps to leading players in nearly every phase of the game turn. In Power Grid, trailing players can buy fuel more cheaply, they get the jump on advancing into new cities, and they have much greater flexibility in putting up new power plants for auction and bidding on them. In fact, the benefits awarded to trailing players in Power Grid are so great that a key aspect to strategy in the game is knowing when to hang back, deliberately underperforming, in order to maintain a competitive edge on opponents.
For my money, handicapping is a cheap designer's trick that distorts the core game design. It's a cheap trick because it is an artificial add-on. It's really more of a remedy than a core game mechanism. Games, at their best, shouldn't need special rules to fix them. It is like selling a car with a flawed design that causes it to accellerate uncontrollably, and fixing it by putting a piece of wood under the gas pedal. Handicapping distorts the core game design because it encourages players to try to win by underperforming. This is a business game! Show me a business executive who would rather be sixth in his market than first, and I'll show you someone on the way out. This is not the same as holding back in order to manage limited resources. Nor is it comparable to the situation in other game genres. In a racing game, it is reasonable for players to benefit by slipstreaming. But please leave those strategies to the next Lance Armstrong - not to the next Bill Gates. Bill Gates does not try to be #6 *in anything*.
I wouldn't deny that both Power Grid and Scepter of Zavandor could suffer from a runaway leader problem if it were not specificially remedied, however neither game is structurally guaranteed to prevent a trailing player from catching up. The key is that any trailing player might have certain assets which would benefit him more in the endgame than they had up to any given point in the game. For example, in Zavandor, as we discussed, a player has many limits to growth: the size of gem he is capable of buying, the number of spaces he can use to activate gems. A leading player might have more gems that are providing a greater income, but the trailing player might have invested in assets which make it possible to expand more rapidly in the future.
It doesn't always - or often - happen that way, and so designer Jens Droegenmueller added the catch up rules to James Hlavaty's original "Outpost" design. But there are other ways that designers have dealt with this - which may or may not have been appropriate to the game. For example, a key way of getting more gem spaces is by buying certain advances. These advances are available to everyone. Had they been in limited quantity, then a player might be faced with investing in them early on, knowing it will slow his growth, on the knowledge that it will help his endgame position. Indeed, keeping assets scarce is a general way that designers force players into tradeoffs such that the short term leader may not have the best long term position.
And of course, sometimes in a game, one player will have it all. He'll have more money, more production assets, and more growth potential. At best, a game should have been designed to make that an unlikely occurrence. But sometimes, there's been one player who has just cleaned up - in which case the best thing that the game can do is to have endgame rules that recognize it as soon as possible, declare him the winner, and put everyone else out of their misery.
To some degree, a game is only going to have a runaway leader problem if the leader can concoct a plan and follow it faithfully. Another factor will be if a game tends to have a single path to victory. After all, if there is only one way to victory, trailing players will pretty much have to follow in the leader's footsteps to advance. While there is a lot of good gaming in Power Grid and Scepter of Zavandor, it is true that there are limited ways for a trailing player to circumvent the leader without the built in handicaps. In Power Grid, a trailing player would need to have power plants that use differing fuel than the ones the leader uses - on the hope of saving enough money to more than compensate for the additional income that the leader is generating. Possibly he may be in a better position to enter cities more cheaply. But typically, a player that has fallen behind has no better access to cities nor resources, and any advantage that he may have can be minimal.
Both above games, not coincidentally, use single commodities, money and energy respectively, as their medium of exchange. This fact will tend to exacerbate a "single path to victory" situation and pave the way for a runaway leader.
Settlers of Catan has many tools to alleviate the problem. The most basic is luck. A trailing player just might get the die rolls he needs. Usually, though, by midgame, the influence of luck lessens because all players - especially the leader - have spread out to cover a greater variety of numbers. The "take that" mechanism of the robber can certainly slow the leader down. But in Settlers, there just tends to be more player interaction, and this is helped by the fact that the game uses five different commodities. In addition to encouraging the use of trade (which a leader can be frozen out of), the varying commodities and competing uses for them will tend to put players on differing paths. A leader may be strong in wood and bricks, helping him to build his network and develop settlements - but then become stuck when it comes to getting the wheat and ore required to build cities. The combination of luck, player interaction, and alternative paths and varying commodities puts the unpredictibility into the game which alleviates the runaway leader problem found in games of this sort.
Of course, in Settlers, you can still get totally boxed in and be a runaway loser. I never said the game was perfect.
Goa has so many different interacting mechanisms - including the use of multiple commodities - that the runaway leader problem tends to be alleviated here as well. (Or possibly, the game is so complex and players are so focused on their own player boards that nobody notices.) There is no single path which a player can dominate to the point that he dominates the game. One player may have the most points because he has concentrated in getting the high scoring values on one or two tracks, but another player may have a greater balance in being able to buid ships and gems in order to score future advances, and a third player may have the strongest money position with which to seize the best assets at auction. The very fact that players need to use special combinations of commodities to advance may hamstring the leader if his plantations don't produce what he needs next.
One possible weakness in the Goa system occurs in the auctions. I have not personally experimented with a money strategy, but money can buy pretty much anything in Goa. There isn't much that can prevent a player from pushing hard on the money track, and then using purchases at the auction to fill in his production gaps. There is no way for players to gang up against him. What does alleviate such a strategy is the ability of players to avoid putting certain tiles up for auction after carefully seeing what the leader needs (a difficult tactic). Another mitigating mechanism is the "once around" auction mechanic which makes it difficult for the leader to guarantee being the highest bidder.
As they say about mutual funds: "past performance is no guarantee of future results". To the extent that this is true in a game, a trailing player ought to be able to catch up. This is the challenge that designers of economic development games must address to insure that all players remain viable.
Any business game has the potential problem of being repetitive. This can especially happen in operational games like "Schoko & Co." In these games, players are going through several seasons of business cycles, but their basic position isn't changing. Some prices may be higher, others lower, but there is no long term development and such games can suffer from that.
Games of economic development have a distinct advantage over such operational business games because players positions are changing. Their productive assets are getting bigger; their income is getting bigger. Unless this opens new choices to the players, though, then nothing fundamentally changes. How do business games get their Story Arc?
In order for these games to avoid being repetitive, designers have put into place mechanisms that cause them to "shift gears" in some way so that the late game doesn't feel too much like the early game.
Scepter of Zavandor is probably the least successful in this regard. Players are always jockeying to get bigger better gems that will give them more income, but there is nothing about a diamond that makes it different in nature than an emerald other than income. Indeed, one of the key improvements that Jens Droegemueller incorporated over the original "Outpost" design was to streamline all the different production levels. So diamonds and emeralds are pretty similar - but a player does need to decide which, if any, he'll go for. To make the jump to rubies does require an entirely different strategy. Instead of buying special artifact cards at auction, a player must advance on the "Knowledge of Fire" level. That's a great example of shifting gears. As players start to really expand their production, they hit a ceiling unless they abandon one growth path and start another. The alternative is to try to accellerate to the endgame by getting those big-VP sentinels. Nonetheless, Scepter has a certain sameness to it which hurts the game - especially considering its length.
Power Grid uses the limitations of the map and the three plant limit to add new dimensions to the game. In the beginning, players are typically just finding the most efficient routes to build on. Eventually, they crash into each other and the game becomes more territorial as expanding out to the remaining available cities becomes a key strategic consideration. As the endgame approaches, players confront a new challenge: how to trade up efficiently so that the total of all three plants puts them over the top for reaching victory conditions. This can be very tricky because often the "best" available plant is very economical, but it isn't good enough for final victory. Players must manage the decision of whether to hold out - producing at a suboptimal level for some game turns - or to invest money in a plant which is efficient, but which will require yet another plant to be replaced.
Goa has many tools at its disposal to add variety: the many different tracks that a player may choose to build on, as well as the differing types of commodities that a player must collect. However, I feel that like Scepter of Zavandor, Goa falls a little short in its ability to provide different types of experience to the players as it progresses. Finding the right commodity needed to advance is important in the endgame- but it is always important. If there is any gear shifting that goes on, it is in the need to switch from a strategy that maximizes productive capacity to a strategy that maximizes victory points. By the time players are getting to the end, they can often produce more stuff than they can reinvest. It is at this point when a player is most likely to want to cash in oodles of spice for money. There can be some gross imbalances in a player's production and in the endgame some of the challenge comes from finding a use for it that will translate into victory points. In the middle and endgames, players confront the race to be the first to grow to the 4th and 5th levels in order to earn extra expedition cards. However, I think that the game would have benefitted from new restrictions or opportunities which would have made the endgame feel less like what came before it.
Sometimes a game won't suffer too much from sameness because it's sufficiently complicated that the players don't notice. To some degree all of the above games have that going for them. They require a lot of analysis and juggling of competing needs - enough so that players are too busy to feel that the last turn is similar to the first ones. In fairness, late game positions in these games are not just scaled up versions of early game positions, but they all do have some elements of that.
Settlers of Catan is the game among the four which I think has the best story arc. It has a lot going for it. It has a board which is much more textured than the Power Grid board, forcing players into new considerations as they expand away from the richest areas of the board into leaner ones. Players will also find the mix of commodities they produce to change significantly as the game evolves, which also forces different play styles. But the inclusion of the bonuses for longest road and largest knight force is a critical inclusion. It adds a new dimension to the game of pure expansion and creates heavy contests in the midgame and endgame. Consider the fact that earning either of these contributes 25% of the total points needed for victory - once you subtract the initial two points that all players begin with. Imagine what Goa would be like if the races for 4th and 5th levels contributed 2-3 points each. I can't promise that it would be a better game, but it would certainly add a new dimension to the game once players began approaching those levels.
Hey - think fast. In a business game, what are the victory conditions?
Here's the obvious answer: most money in the end wins. Here's the surprise: none of these games are determined by most money. Actually, that's a realistic result. In the real world, who cares about how much cash a company has? A company's value is determined by its future earnings expectations. In a game, that needs to be simplified and quantified in some objective manner, usually by evaluating a player's production capacity.
Power Grid, true to its relative realism, handles this in the most straightforward manner. The player who can supply energy to the most cities wins. This is really another way of saying: the player with the most annual revenue at the end of the game wins. Of course, if the game were to play out another turn, that could change. Fuel might become unavailable. Also, the game measures total revenue and ignores the "operating cost" (of fuel) that the player incurs. But overall, this is a pretty good measure of a player's earning potential.
Settlers works in a similar way, rewarding the quantity of settlements and cities - the main production units - as the primary source of victory points, and then adds in the bonuses for longest road and largest army - principally (in my opinion) to just add another dimension of gameyness go give players alternative paths to aim for.
Scepter of Zavandor departs most significantly from its roots as an economic development game by giving victory points for non-productive assets, especially the "Sentinels". The sentinels in Zavandor are similar to the large buildings in Puerto Rico. They are ways of converting lots of money into lots of victory points (but no other advantages), where the quantity of points depends on other conditions you've achieved during the game. In a way, this is really just a way of awarding VP's for having money. It merely adds another game step of making big stacks of cash (yeah, yeah, "energy") convert into VP's by requiring players to auction off the sentinels, and having their VP value contingent on other strategies that the player has pursued. It's a good enough solution. It is, at least, more interesting than just awarding 1 point for every 10 energy points. But even if having a player buy a bunch of seemingly useless sentinels has no business parallel, ("great, I just bought a statue of a giant frog") it is also more satisfying to actually own something physical than to count gobs of cash at the game end. Additionally, these mechanisms help to create end-game conditions, and they provide players with a use for resources that would otherwise escalate to a point that becomes meaningless. If Scepter of Zavandor, or any of these games, ended when one player accumulated a certain quantity of money or commodities, the endgame would seem like a let down. Players would start accumulating more resources than they had outlets to spend them on, and the whole exercise would be begin to seem pointless.
Goa addresses victory conditions in the least realistic and most game-y manner. Goa assigns varying victory points to a variety of conditions, most notably the advancement levels that a player has in each track. Moreover, the victory points are not proportional. For any given track, the first level is worth 1 point, then an incremental 2 points, then 3, and so on. Ultimately, this does parallel the notion of awarding points for productive assets. It is game-y in the way that values escalate. Now if you look at any given track, the actual production of a track tends to be stepwise. On the ship track, the first step produces one ship, then two ships, then three and so on. One more ship per level. But the points are 1 VP for reaching the first level then 3 VP for reaching the second, then 6 for reaching the third, and so on in a triangle function. This was clearly a conscious sacrifice of realism in order to inject more agonizing decisions into the game. If all levels paid off proportionally, players would tend to build their levels equally, benefitting from being able to play a balanced strategy. Instead, Rudiger Dorn forces players to go against their natural desires and instead to shoot for the big payoff. These escalating payoff tables are commonly used in many games to provide players with potentially big payoffs which add to the excitement of the game.
In most of Klaus Teuber's subsequent settlers games and historical scenarios, Teuber pretty much forces players to invest in non-productive ventures. In Cheops, for example, players must allocate commodities to building the pyramid, and they will gain or lose considerable victory points depending on their relative contributions. I've always hated these mechanisms. Hey, I'm running a business here. I'm trying to build something productive. Why are you wasting my valuable resources with the need to build some pile of crap for a stinkin' monarch? It only made matters worse that players are in perpetual competition with each other to waste more resources than anyone else. Fall behind, and you lose VP's. Thematically, Teuber made these diversions less offensive in later games. In The Great Wall of China scenario, for example, players need to contribute to building the wall in order to keep those nasty Huns away. I guess I'd rather pay for defense than for tribute.
The effect of having nonproductive uses for resources is very different in the Catan games than it is in Zavandor (or Puerto Rico). In Zavandor and Puerto Rico, the decision to buy Sentinels or Large Buildings is always an endgame move. After a player has done everything possible to expand his productive capacities, these choices become alternative ways to store value (VP's). They accellerate the endgame and don't really compete with the need to build things that provide more money. On the other hand, the need to invest in walls or pyramid blocks or knights in the Catan games can't wait until the end. In some cases, players need to actively build the stuff early on or else be attacked by Barbarians, Pirates, Huns, or government bureaucrats. Additionally, players often need to secure specific non-productive positions on the game map early on, or else risk being closed out of them by the game's end.
There is a tradeoff in designing the game this way. As irritating as I may find these wasteful uses of resources to be, I certainly respect them as game mechanisms. They absolutely encourage player interaction and alleviate the incremental nature of business games by adding a bomb, in the form of a competition for some very valuable victory points. On the other hand, they can detract from letting players pursue the core strategy of building a production empire, which for me is the heart and soul of what makes these games interesting.
So what can we take away from all of this? I think that the most critical component to making a game of economic development interesting is finding the road blocks to pure growth. Each of the games we've looked at introduce limits to growth as a key mechanism. Potentially, these can enhance the sense of story arc in a game as players grow and begin to bash their heads against each other - or the game's own ceiling - and are forced into new directions. These games also benefit from presenting players with alternative paths to growth - whether in the form of different commodities which may come into play in different ways as the game evolves, or in the form of varying growth paths such as are found in Scepter of Zavandor and Goa. They introduce strategic options into the game and can help to alleviate the runaway leader problem that is a danger in this genre. The best games are designed to insure that trailing players can find potential shortcuts to growth which don't force them to follow in a leader's footsteps. These designers have also shown that there are very different ways of incorporating player interaction. They can range from the direct interaction found in the trading phase of Settlers of Catan to the head-butting found on the map in Power Grid to the inter-turn auctions of Goa. But they only work when small changes can make a big difference to the players. The auctions in Goa work because they can provide players with opportunities which can radically affect the decisions made in the solotaire portion of the game.
I have heard that some designers have no interest in creating games around business subjects because this is something that can be done in real life better than it can be done in a game. That may be true, but few of us have the opportunity to be corporate CEO's - much less renaissance traders. I find that business games are one of the great opportunities in gaming to engage in a real-life fantasy, and one which doesn't involve hacking, slashing, or overrunning armored military units.
I deliberately chose to look at these four games because they are so different from one another. Some don't even look like business games - but they all approach the common situation of enabling players to start with meager resources and to use them to build an economic empire. Each is an excellent game and together they show the breadth of possibilities that great game designers have created in the genre.