The focus is on game mechanisms - what makes a game exciting and why. How did the board game designer make his game fun? Components and theme are secondary. The play's the thing.

Monday, September 25, 2006

The Well Constructed Game

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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.

5 comments:

Richard Abrams said...

Jonathan,

As always, an excellent analysis, no naturally, I agree with you. Re Caylus, what's stopping us from re-doing the favor track to make each of the tracks approx. equal in value? This was done in St. Petersburg to reduce the value of the aristocrats, which were dominating the game, and causing players to avoid the buildings. Tweaking the favor track should be easy, and would allow players to choose the track that best fit into the strategy they were pursuing.

Rich Abrams

markmist said...

For not being a game designer, you sure have a good handle on the profession. Would-be game designers would do well to heed your suggestions.

Your views on brainstorming and playtesting hit the nail on the head. 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). Can what works be enhanced? Can what doesn't work be fixed or can it just be deleted? What other potential solutions might there be to make decisions more meaningful?

Game design is tough as it is, but to get to the point where your game is "well-constructed" takes ALOT of effort, analysis, and patience. --- from a game designer's point of view.

markmist said...

Interesting that you compare Keythedral with Caylus. 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. Keythedral is not a bad game, but I couldn't help think that it was a poor man's Caylus. Thanks for going more in depth than I ever could on that point.

On Oasis - this game was on my radar a long time, but I never pulled the trigger and purchased it. After reading your comments -I am glad I didn't. I am thinking that Through the Desert is the better camel game - go figure, it's a Knizia, and if you played it, maybe it could be another example of a "well constructed" game.

Greg said...

re: Caylus

My group has actually been working on modifying the cube favor track to make it more appealing without making it too powerful. Our current rule change is that you get an extra resource of the same color of whatever you selected. So, the first space nets you 2 pink, the second space allows you to choose 2 cloth or 2 stone, and the third space lets you opt for 2 indigo. The fourth space lets you choose any 2 resources (without paying one).

Think this modification might be overpowered? Well, it's not! I actually thought it would be, but so far (in 3 player games only) what people have done is go up the track once or twice in the early game, then focus on another track. It helps to provide a nice little resource boost early on, but then it just doesn't mean as much when you start to get the resource buildings out there. The only time it might be overpowered is in a resource-poor game, but my group generally doesn't play a lot of those types of games, so I can't say for sure. Additionally, it would probably be far more useful when playing 4 or 5 player games.

meowsqueak said...

re: Modern Art

I think the different auction types are an important part of the game. Depending on the situation, certain auction mechanisms can have different results. For example, you may wish to ensure the player on your left has a particular artist in their gallery (perhaps to encourage them to play that artist themselves) - so offer them a low-priced Fixed auction. Or perhaps you know a particular artist is very sought after by everyone - in this case, an Open auction may work better than a Closed. They all have other uses too, it just depends on the situation. Double auctions are extremely useful for skipping the next player's turn.

I think they are as much a part of the game as everything else.