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.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Look me in the eyes before you do that to me!

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How do board game designers make gaming more social?

The author avoiding paparazzi while enjoying "Wildlife".

I greatly prefer playing games live to playing them over the internet. This is despite the fact that I'm not an especially extroverted guy. Some who speak to the advantages of board games over electronic games speak to the benefits of just being with people and having the opportunity to socialize. When I play game, I tend to focus on the game and not the social interaction. So why do I prefer gaming in a social setting?

An important aspect of playing a game is the feeling that you are playing with and against people. Some games bring that spirit out and some games bury it. To some degree, I can understand when players complain of a game having little interaction, even when, objectively, players absolutely can affect each other. The question begins to become - how much of the game is personal and how much of it is purely about the game mechanics? Sometimes the interactions in a game are like the interactions of a pinball against the bumpers - lively but impersonal. The greatest gaming interaction brings out the players' personalities and lets you feel that you are playing with and against the people at your table, and not just managing a bunch of battling wooden cubes.

In the question of interaction, one of the more controversial games is Seyfarth's "Puerto Rico", which some people feel has little interaction and which others say has plenty of interaction. I find there to be plenty of interaction in the game, but the naysayers have a good point. The interaction in Puerto Rico tends to be impersonal. Players must, for example, consider when to produce and when to ship, and these choices can have substantial impact upon opponents. Players will often strategize in a way to avoid producing the same key commodity as their right hand neighbor in order to avoid getting shut out in a trading round. But look at how that is couched: avoid mirroring your right hand neighbor as opposed to, say, avoid mirroring a very aggressive player. When making tactical decisions in Puerto Rico, the consideration is overwhelmingly based on the way that decision affects the complicated interactions of player positions - who is a strong producer, who is vulnerable to having goods thrown overboard, etc. These decisions generally play out in a clear and predictable manner once you understand the game. The interactions in Puerto Rico are important but generally impersonal. Players keep their eyes on the playing mats as they ponder the next best move. A game with greater interaction gets players to also look not only at their opponents positions, but into their eyes as well.

Compare Puerto Rico with a game like "Louis XIV" by Rudiger Dorn. Louis XIV is a majority-control game in which many contested areas have a "do-or-die" element. "I really-really-really need a helmet to insure that I can complete one of my missions this turn. I think I can take it by putting two units on the Dauphin - but what is Bryan going to do? It looks as though he'd be better off spreading his units across several nearby characters, but Bryan is the sort of guy who likes to play defensively and smack people down when they look like a threat. But I'd really like to place my third unit on Louvois, where I think I can pick up an easy influence card..."

In both Louis XIV and Puerto Rico players can have an important effect on their opponents. In Louis, though, there is a much greater degree to which a player naturally considers the motivations and alternatives of his opponents. I'll call the player interaction in Louis XIV "warm" and the interaction in Puerto Rico "cold". It is warm interaction in which you have a great awareness not only of your opponent's positions, but of your opponents as people and are likely to interact with them as such. Play styles differ - and a game of Louis XIV might take place without any table talk, but a player of Louis XIV is much more likely to want to look into the eyes of his opponents when playing.

There are lots of different mechanics that generate player interaction. I'll break them into two large categories: interference and trade. Hurting and helping.

Interference is the more common. It involves any way that an opponent interferes with your effort to achieve your goals. The most obvious is attacking: In a military game, I use my assets to destroy yours. In Eurogames, interference most commonly takes the form of a challenge for control of a resource, or challenge for dominance.

Challenges for control of a resource take place in games ranging from Power Grid to Caylus to Age of Steam. In Power Grid, only one of us is going to get into that nearby city, and if I can get there before you, I force you to expand into a more expensive city - or none at all. In Caylus, all players are competing for the benefits on the tiles, and with the use of the provost, I can even insure that nobody gets the use of certain tiles. There is also the competition for the extra favor provided by building the castle, which only one player can get each turn. In Age of Steam, I am challenging you for control of key routes, and also threatening to deliver goods and deprive you of them.

Every auction is a challenge for control of a resource. I'm going to be the high bidder or else you are. Someone is going to deprive someone else.

A challenge for dominance typically takes place in the form of a majority fight. I want to put more units on a personality in Louis XIV than you have, so that I can reap the benefits. In Samurai, I try to put more points around the Buddha so that I can snatch it away. A challenge for dominance is really just a challenge for control of a resource. The distinction is just that it is more strategic than tactical: it might take place over the course of several turns, it would typically involve investment of other scarce resources like tiles, cubes, or game turn actions, and winning the challenge is often an end in itself (victory conditions) rather than a means to securing some future benefit.

Games with trading naturally have warm player interaction because they require communication and subjective valuation. In Settlers of Catan, when I offer wood for sheep, my potential trading partner can "just say no", even if on the surface the trade might benefit him. He must consider whether it disproportionately benefits me. He must consider whether he might be able to extract another card out of me. He might hold off, hoping to get the card on the next roll of the dice, or from another player. Once we open our mouths and negotiate we are dealing with each other as people and not just impartial players.

Apart from games that involve direct trade or other negotiation, how do designers create games that make player interaction warmer? A key element is that a player is given choices over whether or not to interact and with whom. If an opponent has a meaningful decision over whether or not to mess with you, you take on an active stake in his game.

Two good examples of games which provide warm interaction over common resources are "Ticket to Ride" and "Through the Desert". In each case, players are expanding their reach over the map knowing that, at any given time, only one person can stake a claim to certain assets - whether it is a route or a water hole. What makes it especially warm is the degree of uncertainty in your opponent's move. How long can I continue to draw cards before Albert would take one of my key routes away from me? I'd like to make a move toward that oasis - but will Kelly take the two point watering hole I wanted, or will she leave me alone and take the one near Jason?

What makes it tense is that I have to make a critical choice whose outcome depends on what other players might want to do. Our motivations and our fates are intertwined. Can I see into Kelly's mind? When she does take my water hole away, I take it a little personally. She knew that it was me she cut off. She could have hit Jason. I see Kelly as a person and not just a machine-player.

There is some debate over how much Andreas Seyfarth's "Thurn & Taxis" is too much of a solitaire game. One element of player interaction in the game is the fact that players are racing to pick up scoring bonuses. The sooner you fill up the green area (for example), the more points you score for it. Your decision to fill up the green area is very dependent on what cards are coming up - and the same holds true for your opponent. Most of the time, either of you are going to create a route that fills in an area whenever it works best for you given other considerations. How many stations can I play if I extend the route? What cards came up? Rarely is a player going to try to anticipate the motivations of his opponent to make competing choices. Opponents seem like impartial movers who make the best tactical decisions based on circumstance.

Let's look at some ways that designers make the interaction in their games hotter.

As discussed earlier, the element of player choice is key. How much can a player control whether to directly challenge an opponent and choose the opponent? In many games there is the "Why me?" effect. "Why did you have to go against ME when you could have gone against Peter?!" This pops up consistently in Reiner Knizia's "Through the Desert". In the earlier example, my best choice of move depends on whether Kelly is going to challenge me or Jason for the scoring opportunities that are close within reach. When Kelly decides to move against me, she's not just playing against the game. She perceives me as the stronger threat - whether because I'm leading or because my position threatens her more, or just because she knows I'm the sort of S.O.B. who is more likely to hit her next turn. Either way, I take it personally.

The "Why me?" effect is what can make multiplayer war games so much more contentious than two player war games. You can't exactly get ticked-off when your Memoir '44 opponent takes out one of your tanks. That's his job! But when he kicks you out of a region in Shogun/Wallenstein - well that's NOT his job! His job is to pick on the other guy, and leave you alone, right? When you're in that position, the choice to attack Aaron versus Erin isn't totally strategic. You're also going to consider what their reactions will be - both emotionally and strategically. Aaron tends to blow up and immediately counterattack, but he's better off going south and hitting Ryan. Erin is cooler, but she's in a corner and has no one to hit except for you. How do you choose? Your answer depends on the players, not just the game.

Bruno Faidutti had some very amusing things to say on this subject when interviewed here about his design for Silk Road. He talked about specifically introducing features that caused players to "snivel". "Don't use the thief against me! Use it on Sean! He' doesn't look like he's winning, but he's got the stronger long range position!" Faidutti loves putting in "take that" elements into his games, and by giving his players a reason to snivel, he is introducing more human interaction.

The "why me?" effect isn't for everyone because it can create bad feelings in a game. I think that those bad feelings are strongest when the choice of who gets picked-on is most capricious, and it is weaker when there is some tactical excuse behind the decision. The perfect balance is a matter of taste. At one end of the spectrum is a game like Stefan Dorra's "Intrigue". In this game, players are doling out financially advantageous favors to selected players - based partly on bribes but ultimately selected out of whim. You just offered me $4,000, Mike just offered me $2,000; I keep both of your bribes and I give the position to... Mike. Somewhere toward the other end of the spectrum is a game like Kramer and Ulrich's "El Grande". In this game of majority controlled regions, I might have the opportunity to either take control of Valencia away from you or to take control of Old Castle away from Richard. The choice is entirely mine, but when I choose to attack you, it may be because I can better defend Valencia, and not just that I chose to pick on you.

Hidden information has the ability to enhance player interaction. When a player's assets are entirely public, the game becomes more purely strategic. I know exactly what the effects of my actions are going to be, and I know what Alan can do in response on his next turn. If, on the other hand, Alan is hiding something from me - the difference between what I know and what I don't know is hidden in Alan's brain. How can I read his mind?
We are playing Euphrates and Tigris, and the black leader on my monument is vulnerable. Alan chooses not to try taking control of it. Why? Is he lacking the red tiles that are needed to boot a leader? Is it because he doesn't see the move? Is it because he doesn't need more black points? If I think Alan is a conservative player, he'll probably only attack if he has lots of red tiles. But if he tends to take risks and still doesn't attack my juicy monument - maybe he's really low on red tiles, and I ought to try attacking his blue leader. The element of uncertainty forces me to go beyond what is purely on the board and begin to enter my opponent's mind. I'm playing the player.

The extreme case is in a game such as Liar's Dice, where psyching out your opponents is the main appeal of the game. Not only does the intrigue of the game come from trying to bluff your opponents and to decipher their own bluffs, but the moment when dice are revealed is very satisfying because it pits the challenger and the challengee up against each other in such a personal way. Paul jumped bid to nine "6's". Do I really think he has more than one or two? I challenge. Everyone at the table has their eyes on Paul, and when he reveals his dice... he's got five 6's! Paul suckered me in! The groans and laughter at the table make it clear that this game is about Paul and me - not about dice.

There is an important case where hidden information destroys warm player interaction. It is when you don't know which player controls which pieces. This is a mechanic I strongly dislike. It is seen in games such as "Clans", "Top Secret Spies", and "Drunter & Druber". In these games, players are dealt a card, face down, indicating which color pieces they control. During the game, they may make moves which might benefit any color - with the purpose of advancing their own position, but not in so obvious a way that would tip off other players as to which color they control. At the end of the game, when "red" wins, players reveal their cards to see who was playing red.

By its nature, this mechanic hinders the personal relationship between players. I try hurting "blue". But who is "blue"? My relationship focuses on the innocent little pieces of wood. Even the moment of victory is anti-climactic as it requires another step to reveal which player won. To some degree, the player interaction takes the form of trying to guess who is behind each color based on the players' actions. Even so, the fact that you can't reveal what you think you know means that players play in a very sheltered manner hidden behind poker faces.

The components of a game can even contribute to making the interaction in a game warmer. To the degree that players are all competing in the same physical space, and to the degree that these conflicts are graphically evident, players tend to feel the competition more directly.

This is a shortcoming of Thurn & Taxis. A part of the competition in this game involves taking cards away from opponents who might otherwise need them. However, it's a pretty abstract and indirect process to visualize this. I need to look at the route of area cards that my left-hand opponent is collecting, check the board to see what areas are adjacent to his route, then check the card display to see if any of those areas are currently available, and finally check my own card display to see if I can use the card that I'd like to take away from my opponent.

Usually, I'm too lazy to do this on a regular basis. For me, the physical layout of the components encourages a more solitaire play.

Imagine how differently the game would feel if the six available areas on the board had a black pawn on them. As a player takes a pawn (instead of a card), he puts down a marker to indicate that it is part of the chain he is building. (Note that this would not conform to the actual rules of Thurn & Taxis because in the game, players do not immediately add cards taken to their route but instead take them into their hand for later play.) In this scenario, players are all engaged together in the same space. I can see exactly where you need to go and I can see exactly where you can go. By playing in the same space, players have a greater awareness of their relationships with one another and will naturally play more actively against each other. This sort of scenario is closer in spirit to "Ticket to Ride", where everyone's position, and their potential to block, is right out there. It's one reason that I prefer "Ticket to Ride" over "Thurn & Taxis".

Mike Doyle, the artist who has contributed new designs to games such as Caylus and the upcoming El Capitan, recognized the value of having players share the same space when he created an alternative version of Puerto Rico, which uses a central board rather than individual player mats.Doyle talks at greater length about what he wanted to achieve with this design on his site,
and also created a mini-site in which he provides detailed graphics and instructions for the player who might want to try creating his own map and playing Puerto Rico this way.

As we've seen, player interaction in a game is more than just the ability to affect your opponents. The interaction becomes hotter when the game is designed to force people to come out from behind their wooden cubes and relate to the people at the table. The most significant way that designers do this is by giving players choice in whether and when to interact, and with whom. Similarly, when a player's strategy is dependent on the whims of others, it forces him to look away from the board and into the minds of his opponents. All these things bring out the social nature of gaming and help to insure that each session we play is as unique as the people playing.


Yehuda Berlinger said...

I play Puerto Rico exactly the way you describe. I think it takes at least 20 or so plays before you get to that level.

I'm always considering what some player is going to do if I do something, and how this will hurt him, or how I can persuade him (through my actions) to take what I want in order to hurt another player or to help me, or to do mutually beneficial things.

I.e. I play totally "warm" in the game. It's only when you are overwhelmed by the mechanics of the game that you play PR "cold".


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this really interesting discussion of how different games encourage different styles of interaction. I grew up on role playing games and was always a bit snobby about board games. I only recently discovered the whole area of German/Euro games and had to admit I'd been thinking about board games all wrong. Your post, without trying to be, is actually a nice intro to these sophisticated board games.

Anonymous said...

Great discussion on player interaction, this will help me greatly as I puzzle on some designs that I'm trying to cook up.

LA Nickers said...

Great idea . . . making board games more personal than online or video games. That's a big plus!

Ricardo Garriota said...

Great post. Just wanted to say that.