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.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Essen 2008 Unwrapped: Part 3 - Cavum

by Wolfgang Kramer and Michael Kiesling

In Kramer and Kiesling's new "Cavum ", the designers offer a new "gamer's game" that reflects the unique sensibilities which have given us games from "Torres" to "Maharaja". As is typical of this team, they present us with a wide ranging menu of choices each turn and enormous freedom to manage our strategies. For some, this freedom lets players fully manage complex strategies, while for others, the freedom only means confusion and headaches. What is especially interesting is how the designers' style is expressed in a new way - disguised but still unmistakably Kramer and Kiesling.

Wolfgang Kramer and Michael Kiesling have been working together as co-designers since 1995, but they came to the attention of many gamers with the release of Tikal and Torres in 1999. In both of these games, players had free form turns in which they could choose from a menu of actions - moving, building, exploring, creating new pawns - each of which required the expenditure of some number of "Action Points" which were limited every turn. Tikal was followed by Java in 2000 and Mexica in 2002, and these games are regarded as a trilogy - for their obvious use of this shared system, for the use of masks on their box cover art, and also for the graphic design used in the games by artist Franz Vohwinkel. Depending on how you felt about these games, the "AP" trilogy either referred to "Action Points" or "Analysis Paralysis" because such freedom could lead players to get stuck managing the details of each game turn.

With some subsequent games such as "Maharaja", "Australia", "Bison", and even "Sunken City", this system got stretched in different directions, but what remained constant was the use of a menu of potential choices confronting players that allows them to manage their turns with great flexibility.

Cavum is a relatively complex tile laying, track building game in which the designers place their stamp in a new way. At the beginning of the "phase", players fill their player mats with the 12 assets shown above. Each represents an action he'll be able to take once. Four of them are ordinary tiles to lay, although each one has a different amount of track (or in this case, "tunnel") One has a piece of track with a big ol' piece of dynamite on it. The three cubes are stations - and these are the only pieces that a player truly owns. They will serve as starting and ending points for paths the player will trace in an effort to claim gems, and they will also block other players' paths. The gray tile with stones on it represents a "vein" which the player may place and "discover" - and will be a source from which all players claim gems. Then there are two wild tiles which may substitute for any of the above, and finally the symbol for prospecting. This will always be the player's last action in the turn, when he traces a path between any two of his stations, crossing through any quantity of tunnels, in an attempt to pass through previously placed veins, and pick up as many gems as possible.

Here is where I think the designers really show their true colors. During a phase, a player is going to engage in all twelve of his actions. However, the phase is broken up into any number of turns. During a player turn, he must select between one and four of his actions to perform before passing his turn. So these twelve actions might be distributed among as many as twelve and as few as three player turns per phase. Each phase always culminates in the prospecting action. So one player might choose to rush with his actions, to ensure that gems are still on the board when it's time to prospect. Another might proceed very slowly, forcing all players to take their actions so that he may use all the resources out there when he finally prospects.

With such flexibility, it is easy to see why this is very much a gamer's game - and one which can succumb to Analysis Paralysis in the wrong hands.

I wonder to what degree Kramer and Kiesling were inspired by Martin Wallace's "Age of Steam", as they seem to have created a sort of negative image of the Wallace classic. In Age of Steam, players are tracing paths with cities as the end points, running through as many towns as possible. In this case, players own the tracks and the cities are public. In Cavum, things are reversed. The paths are public but the end points - the stations - are what is owned by the players. In Age of Steam, goods begin on cities and get removed as they are used. In Cavum, the goods that are removed appear on the veins - which are the equivalent of Age of Steam's "towns".
Age of Steam paths colored for clarity

There is an important consequence of having players share all the "track" in Cavum. They need to be interconnected with lots of junctions so that one player can trace from his stations, through various veins, and back to another of his stations, while another player can use much of the same track, use many of the same veins, but return to his own station. In Age of Steam, where players own each piece of track exclusively, the paths don't interconnect as much and tend to be simpler.
Can you connect a path between any two blue stations (cubes) that pass through as many gems as possible without passing through any red or yellow stations? Can you do it before other players get impatient?

This tangled web is what can make Cavum more than a little brain-burning.

What about that dynamite? Each turn a player must place at least one tile with dynamite on it. It is possible to cover up those pieces with normal tunnels in order to delay their destruction, but at the end of the turn, all exposed dynamite tiles get removed - and also take out all top tiles in the six adjacent spaces. In a four player game, it's possible for 28 tiles to go to heaven! Some have characterized this aspect of the game as very nasty. Incredible as it sounds, I don't think this rule is there especially to add a "take that" element to the game, and in my playing it didn't come off as mean. Rather, the board can get so dense and locked in, I think that the designers put in the dynamite in order to insure that the board continues to change after each phase. The game is not that nasty because once a player has created a path, it is difficult to obstruct that path until after he has collected his gems. The dynamite doesn't blow until the very end of the phase. Additionally, although stations block other players' paths, they can't be played on existing track. Even if someone places a track tile in your way, you may be able to promote it by placing another tile on it - as long as the new tile has more connections. The only way I know of to to mess with an existing path is to promote it with a new tile that changes its connections. Note that unlike Age of Steam, all existing connections do not need to be preserved.

The way that the designers stray from their Action Point menu and instead specify the particular actions a player must allocate during each phase is a very clever way of directing game play. If this game were from the AP trilogy, it is possible that each action would have had its own cost. A simple tile might cost 2 AP, one with all connections might cost 6 AP, tiles with dynamite could have their own cost, as would stations. The game would have been even more free form, perhaps more strategic, and certainly more maddening. Instead, each player gets a series of 2/3/4/6 branch tiles and they all must be used. Any tile may promote any other tile with fewer branches. There becomes a natural flow and strategy to the phase. Try to start out with the simplest tile possible, and as opponents mess with you, hold back the more complex tiles to play on top and rescue yourself. Or else, use your six early on, secure a complex path - but leave yourself vulnerable if another tile you were relying on gets rerouted. I think that with this method, Kramer and Kiesling have struck a nice balance between freedom and structure in their use of an action menu.

Where things seemed to spin out of control was in the paths themselves, which need to be twisty and often difficult to visualize. Indeed, all players tend to be creating paths which all cross over the same terrain, and it seemed difficult to create a master plan that brilliantly snatched lots of gems. Rather, you're more likely to feel like an idiot if you don't get lots of gems. I suspect that experienced players will learn to visualize the board better, make more strategic use of stations, and reduce the apparent chaos. But in my playing, understanding the board was a little like tracking a single strand of spaghetti as it winds its way around the meatballs.

If the game were just about laying tunnels and grabbing gems, it wouldn't be a Kramer / Kiesling game. On top of all this, there is a modest economic system to value the gems that you do get. At the beginning of each phase, you can take order tiles. It's exactly what you think. Taking the one pictured is a commitment to acquire and trade a light blue, a dark blue, a green and a red for 26 points. Fail to do so, and you lose 2 points. The risks aren't great, but neither are the rewards because you can still sell gems back to the market - potentially doing even better. In the example here, eight of the yellow gems are either still on the board or in people's hands. A reverse auction is held starting at "8" and going down, and the lowest bidding player could sell as many yellow gems as he owns at his bid price. So there are two ways to collect points for your gems, and which is better will depend on how many players own a given color and how aggressive the bidding gets.

The ability to sell gems either to the market or by completing orders struck some of us in our session as a little odd. It watered down the tension. If players must complete orders, then a player has pressure to get the right combination, knowing that not getting the last gem is a big loss of potential points. Such high stakes would provide a natural bomb in the game as it does in Alan Moon's Ticket to Ride. Alternately, forcing players into the market would have created a more economically oriented games in which players must monitor which gems are valuable, jockey for those, and close opponents out of them. By providing both alternatives, players are most likely to go for orders - but relax knowing that the market provides something of a safety net if plans go awry. Perhaps the "all or nothing" game created too much chaos, but this is so obviously a gamer's game, it is surprising to see it made a little more family friendly. I'd love to speak with the designers to learn what they were thinking.

I enjoy path laying games and I especially enjoy the complexity that Kramer and Kiesling bring to their best gamer's games. Given the history of such games, I am not convinced that paths laid by Cavum make the most satisfying use of the choices the genre has to offer. The use of actions in the menu in which players may order and group their 12 actions in any way they like - seems to have enormous potential and I hope to see it in a future game. The actual tile and path creation seemed overly involved and counterintuitive. I look forward to future playings to see if I'm able to wrap my brain around this game, or whether the game proves to be the stronger and wraps itself around me.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Essen 2008 Unwrapped: Part 2 - Dominion

by Donald X. Vaccarino

If Sylla was a blend of old wines in a new bottle, Dominion is a tasty young wine which seems unlikely to mature greatly.

Dominion has become an overnight hit, and so many readers have already played it to death since its recent release. I've played it only once, but what stands out about it is its originality despite its simplicity.

The goal is to collect the most and best victory point cards into your deck. Each player has his own deck of ten cards - seven with (1) gold and three with (1) VP. He draws five cards from his deck and can use the gold cards to buy either more gold, more VP's or any one of ten special power cards ("kingdom cards") which are arranged in a display. Cards so purchased are placed into his deck for future draws. After the player has used a power from one of his special cards and purchased a card using his gold, then both used and unused cards from his hand are placed in his discard pile - to be recycled when his draw deck has been used up. In this way, players are consistently drawing five cards, taking actions, buying new cards, and then drawing more. Cards used - or not - are continually being recycled, but at a slower pace as his deck grows in size. When sufficient cards have been purchased, the game ends and the player with the most points in VP cards wins.

This feature of continually drawing and renewing one's own deck, and building that deck on the fly is very original and the game plays like no other Eurogame. Because a player must, as a default, draw exactly five cards a turn and work with only those cards at any given time, the game requires a player not to maximize his assets with the most extensive display of powers possible. Instead, the game is about concentration. How can a player build a deck such that a random assortment of any five cards at a time be most powerful most consistently? What we see is that the cost of adding gold cards to his hand is disproportionately high with higher values of gold. Gold cards valued at (1) have no cost; those valued at (2) cost three, and those valued at (3) cost six. This seems counterintuitive until you realize that normally a deck consisting of all (1) value gold cards could never buy anything costing more than five (and then only rarely), while a deck of (3) value gold cards can much more easily accumulate brawny values used to purchase big VP cards or strong powers.

In any given game, there are ten different kingdom cards to choose from, but the game comes with 25 unique decks, so that the smorgasboard of choices may be different with each game. Examples of powers in the set I used were ones that gave players extra actions and/or extra opportunities to buy cards. There were powers which allowed a player to add three cards into his hand (remember, they all recycle, so this is an alternative way of concentrating your hand), and ones which permitted gold cards to be upgraded to the next higher level.

Player interaction is very limited and from what I saw came in two forms. One is that there are a few cards which enable a player to "attack" others, for example by forcing them to discard down to three cards, and other cards which enabled players to defend against such attacks. In my game, these were used sparingly because they don't really help you advance your agenda, and even a defensive card needs to "just happen to be" in your hand at the time of an attack for it to do any good. The other form of player interaction concerns the pace of the game. A strategy which relies on gradually building up a killer hand and then collecting VP's can be counteracted by a strategy which attempts to buy lots of cheap cards and end the game quickly. In practice, I don't believe that players gain from building up large decks because their powers are not cumulative. You're still drawing only five cards at a time. The value of a large powerful deck is that it is less diluted by VP cards. But an opponent cannot surprise you by ending the game. If other players switch into "collecting VP cards" mode, you can shift gears quickly.

Certainly, the dynamic deck building of Dominion is original. Adding to the freshness of the game is the way that 25 distinct decks of kingdom cards can be mixed and matched to create unique situations for the players. However, many players have compared this game with Tom Lehmann's "Race for the Galaxy"- with many fans stating their preference for the latter. If Dominion is unique - is the comparison reasonable? Looking at the ways that each game works sheds some light on what makes each game special - and also how very different mechanisms can be brothers under the skin.

Like "Race for the Galaxy" and its predecessor "San Juan" by Andreas Seyfarth, Dominion is an economic game based entirely in cards. Each player collects cards which enable him to buy yet other cards, which add to a player's collection, giving him new powers and more victory points. One glaring difference which drives different approaches in each game is that in Race for the Galaxy, players are purchasing cards for a permanent display in front of them, while in Dominion, purchased cards simply enter a player's deck. The Race for the Galaxy player has assets which are continually growing, as each purchased card accumulates powers on top of those already present. Every new asset is a good thing. In Dominion, only a few cards are operating at any one time, and then they are quickly recycled and the player moves on to another set. It's good to have lots of kingdom cards because a hand dominated by VP's can't purchase anything new. It is also possible to select a variety of cards which are likely to interact in productive ways when they show up together. But the effectiveness of any deck is going to max out quickly as the best you can do is to get a handful of productive interactions and then move on to the next draw. Dominion requires a new kind of thinking - one in which more isn't always better.

In Dominion, players begin the game by selecting ten different decks of power cards and those become the fixed choices throughout the game. In Race for the Galaxy, there is a single deck used in all games, but players must make choices from the cards they randomly draw throughout the game. The argument for replayability in Dominion is that with ten out of twenty five possible cards being used in a game, there are 3.3 million different possible combination. In Race for the Galaxy, there's only one. Yet Dominion has a hidden weakness. It lacks sufficient ability to surprise the players and force them to react to unanticipated challenges and opportunities. When a game forces a player to keep on his toes and potentially change his strategy substantially, I call it a Nervous System. In Dominion, the experienced player can survey the available cards, map out his strategy, and execute it. The degree to which cards interact in his hand will force tactical decisions, but not generally a rethinking of the plan. In comparison, Race for the Galaxy has only about 100 cards, but they are all (or nearly all) different, and their appearance at any time is entirely unpredictable. A player can set off down a particular path... and discover opportunities in his cards which tickle him into straying down a new path. Furthermore, because the player's actions depend both on his own choices and those of his opponents, he may find himself with unexpected opportunities to exploit.

Dominion is a sufficiently short game that it isn't crippled by the lack of surprise. You can lay out a set of ten cards to start with - and for the next thirty minutes, maybe that's all the surprise you need. But it is a limitation that's in the game's structure. Like a mechanical dog which has dozens of interchangable parts, there is lots of potential variety, but after a while I suspect that players may find that underneath it all, it still always barks to the same cues. Time will tell.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Essen 2008 Unwrapped: Part 1 - Introduction and Sylla

It's been a long time since I've contributed to this Journal; the last article appeared over six months ago. That's just wrong. I have been working on an article - about the "Frustration Factor" in games. However, work and writer's anxiety have been pushing it out and out and... It's a tricky thing to create an article about types of game mechanisms because the subject is so vague. Worse, any given topic seems to be so broad that I keep writing when I ought to just wrap it up. So in an effort to get the train moving again, I'm offering a sort of article that I've specifically avoided in the past. Game reviews. OK - This is not your father's game review. It's not even Schloesser or Vasel's game review. It's a game review JBD style.

1) The focus is on the game mechanics. Expect little or no discussion about the theme or components.

2) Game mechanics are described in their most essential form. There will be no rehash of all the rules, but instead a focus on the handful of mechanisms that drive the game and the decisions they offer.

3) I may provide only a passing mention of whether I think the game is good. Don't expect a buyer's guide. More emphasis will be placed on what mechanics are innovative or effective and why. In most cases I only had a chance to play the game once.
One reason I've avoided writing reviews in the past is that there are so many of them out there already. Tossing another one onto the net seems redundant. However, I had the good fortune to attend BoardGameGeek.con and had a chance to play many new games which I know there's lots of curiosity about. I'm going to limit each post to a single review. This will hopefully make it easier for people searching for information about a given game to find it, and will also keep each post to a manageable length. My hope is to publish a new review every three or four days. Here goes....

SYLLA by Dominque Ehrhard

Ehrhard used to be a
considerable force in Eurogame design, but he hasn’t been on the gamer’s game radar for a while. When they came out, I had great enthusiasm for both Condottiere and Serenissima, but those are over ten years old. Sylla is released by Ystari, and it has their fingerprints all over it. It appeals to gamers, and has oodles of features that feel familiar – competing auctions, income generating tokens, food shortages- and it offers situations where scarce resources must be carefully allocated among competing needs.

The driving mechanism is that players each start with several character cards, and will get to add another to their hand in each game turn. Each character has one to three colored symbols (red/blue/yellow) and potentially an additional special power. After adding a new character at the beginning of each game turn, players may use these in any of several auctions for tiles which grant benefits. Each auction is color coded, so a character with a red symbol may only be used in a “red” auction, while a character with all three may be used in any of them (but may only be “spent” once) – the three colors make him three times more flexible but not three times more valuable.

Among the other assets that players take – each turn and also potentially from winning auctions – are disks in any of three colors. These disks will have varying values at the end of the game. Players also earn money every game turn and also take income from certain tiles and from one of the characters.

The most original phase comes in the election to suppress bad events. Four events are dealt out, and two of them will occur each turn. Now, unspent cards with the appropriate special power (the soldier in the upper left, and the rather matriarchal looking "vestal virgin" in the upper right) may contribute to influence these events. (The first event card, on the right, may receive votes from both soldiers and Virgins, the one below it only accepts votes from Virgins.

The two events receiving the fewest suppressing votes are the ones that occur, and these may cause the values of certain chips to drop, or may cause a certain type of character card to become out of play for several turns. Finally, players may convert money into VP’s. Sometimes this is through an auction and sometimes at a fixed price.

From the description you’ll see that there is nothing glaringly innovative here. There are auctions in multiple “currencies”. The auction to control events is similar to that found in Rieneck and Stadler's "Cuba". In Cuba though, a single player selects the “laws” while in Sylla the votes are aggregated among players. The varying values of the colored chips is similarly a commonly found market mechanism.

In spite of this, I found Sylla to be greater than the sum of its parts. There are A LOT of mechanisms in play each game turn, but all are reasonably familiar so the game is easy to learn. One aspect of the game I appreciated is the fact that a given character typically can either be spent in the auction for tiles OR provide income OR be applied to a subsequent voting process. So many different sorts of needs are competing for the attention of your very limited resources. Since the special powers differ from card to card, the selection of characters becomes a strategic consideration. It is not the same as having a bunch of money and many places tospend it. Every card has only select places where it can be used. An urgent need to come up with another red dot may force you to spend a card you were hoping to hold back – for yet another urgent need.

Example of six tiles up for auction in a given turn. Note that the first two only accept "red" cards, the next two only "yellow" and the last only "blue". The winner of each auction chooses the tile to auction next.

Sylla's variety of character types and colors, its pricing mechanisms for colored discs, and its multiple distinct phases create plenty of opportunities to let players try out different strategies. Does one concentrate in order to maintain strength, or diversify in order to have flexibility? If you focus on earning lots of tiles, you may earn many discs - but if you ignore the events, then other players may drive the value of your discs way down. Another strategic decision lies in how many of your characters should be "Christian" as symbolized by the fish symbol. At the end game, all Christian cards gain bonus VP's. The down side is that certain events can cause your Christians to remain out of play for one or more game turns. An over reliance on such cards can cripple your play indefinitely.

There are also good situational issues that arise. You might expect to win a valuable tile by committing two cards. If forced to bid three, do you commit a card that you wanted to use in the event phase?

Every game turn has seven phases with perhaps ten individual auctions, but the game doesn't come off as a repetitive auction fest. For one, the types of things being auctioned tend to vary throughout the turn, and so do the methods used. The auction for tiles is a traditional sequential auction, while the bid to control events is more of a majority control type of play. Additionally, the various "currencies" are in short supply, so auctions don't overstay their welcome. Players might have at most four red cards to compete in a red tile auction, and all assets are public. The auction plays out tactically. Do I want to commit everything to guarantee getting what I want - or do I hold back a smidgen to at least drive the price up and maybe get a bargain? Each auction is over quickly and there is little downtime.

I enjoyed my one play of Sylla. The play was certainly very familiar, but while the game may have lacked focus, the variety of arenas to compete in kept the game changing and engaging. Players who have appreciated the rock solid reliability and Euro-ishness of other Ystari games such as Amyitis and Caylus are likely to welcome another recognizable member of the family.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

What is this board game about?

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"So what is this game about?" is the natural first question you might ask when someone brings out a new board game for you to try. That question can have one of two answers, depending on the angle you look at the game from: theme or mechanics.

"The game spans 1500 years of Egyptian history. You goal is to influence Pharoahs, build monuments, farm on the Nile, and advance the culture of the people in an attempt to appease the god of the Sun."

"Okay, but what is the game about?"

"It is a set collecting and auction game. There is a wide variety of tiles that you'll collect, which combine in myriad ways to score points. On your turn, you'll decide whether to add one more tile to the pool, or to auction off the ones already there. Your goal is to collect those tiles which will be most valuable to you, prevent your opponents from getting too many tiles valuable to them."

Either of the above is a reasonable description of Reiner Knizia's "Ra". Since this is the Journal of Boardgame Design, I'm interested almost 100% in the latter. Either description could reasonably be called the game's "theme", but in practice "theme" has come to mean the historical context in which the game supposedly takes place. The designer drapes a bunch of mechanisms around the theme, and he has a game. Maybe the mechanisms are closely tied to the theme and often, in Eurogames, they aren't.

A game, at its best, is more than a bunch of mechanisms. It is a coherent system of mechanisms with a theme of its own. Let's call this theme that summarizes the system of mechanisms the game concept. There is nothing to prevent a game built from a bunch of connected mechanisms from being lots of fun, but I think that having a strong game concept takes the game up a level. It helps to focus the players' goals. It adds meaning to the game apart from the theme. It defines the game.

"Players choose among a series of actions which help them to score points, gain resources, or avoid catastrophes. The more you are able to take the same action during the game, the more valuable it becomes. The trick is that in each turn, a player is presented with three possible actions, and he must decide which one to play, and which ones to make available to the players to his left."

-Notre Dame

I enjoy explaining game rules, and I always introduce the game by first describing the game concept. Every rule has a role in supporting the game concept. If players can wrap the whole idea of the game around their heads, then all the individual rules ought make sense. Players can sit down and get to work at trying to win. If they can't get the game concept, then most likely you'll see the "deer in the headlights" look. "Okay, you explained the game to me but... what am I supposed to do?"

The issue of game concept surfaced when I recently first played "Amyitis" by Cyril Demaegd. On any given turn, a player will take one of five different actions. The Merchant and Peasant each give you distinct types of resources. The Engineer gives you immediate points and a shot at a majority battle, for more points, on the main part of the board. The Priest lets you take part in a different majority battle in a small part of the board, which help you win more points or resources depending on where you choose to play. Finally you may move the caravan - in which you spend the resources you earned elsewhere to earn: points from cards, income, faster caravan movement, or the ability to earn points on the main board, which in turn is limited by choices made by players who chose the Engineer earlier in the game.

Deep breath.

So the game Amyitis is about... I'm not sure.

Cyril Demaegd has a defense of the structure of Amyitis which is worth reading. He described it as having a "star structure" rather than a "line structure". I think I understand his point. Some games, ones with a linear structure, have their elements lined up like dominoes. The first one effects the next one, and so on down, until the last mechanism which affects the victory conditions. "Power Grid" by Friedmann Friese is an example of this. You buy power plants, which give you capacity to use fuel. You buy fuel that fills your plants, and together they can power your cities. You extend your network of cities, which when powered give you victory points, as well as income that feeds the entire cycle for the next game turn.

What I think is meant by a "star structure" might correspond to what Americans call a "wagon wheel" or "hub and spoke" structure. There is a core mechanism and several secondary mechanisms. The secondary mechanisms may be independent, but they all affect the core mechanism.

The problem is that there is no core mechanism in Amyitis. The garden, which does take up the most physical space on the game board, really turns out to be just another way of scoring points that is not obviously more important than any other. Here's my picture of the Amyitis structure, which looks more like the floor plan from a spy movie than a wagon wheel.

From all this, it may come as a surprise when I say that I think Amyitis is a hell of a lot of fun. There are some very clever mechanisms in the game, and notwithstanding the nightmare diagram above, the interrelationships play well. However, playing Amyitis is a little like playing with sand. It can be lots of fun, but there is nothing to hold on to. A strong game concept doesn't make a game good. It makes a good game more substantial and more satisfying, and it serves a similar role that a good theme does.

Sometimes having one strong central mechanism that ties the others together can provide a game concept. The hub and spoke diagram above shows a game with many mechanisms which all affect a central one, which in turn provides the victory conditions.

"Caylus", by William Attia, does this, but works the other way as well. The central mechanism is the road, which players build upon and which provides the actions players must choose from. The road is also where the "provost" moves, and he can wipe out some players' actions depending on where they lie on the road.

"Players take actions on the road which gives them commodities, and then they use those commodities to create more buildings on the road (as well as the castle) to earn victory points." That's the whole game summed up in 32 words. Unless you're writing copy for the game box, being able to sum up a game in 32 words or less is no particular virtue. However, it shows that the game is well focused, with a strong game concept that ultimately ties together many mechanisms into a cohesive game. Players sit down to a game of Caylus with a strong sense of what they are doing, purely in terms of the game's mechanics.

A game can seem more complicated than it is when its game concept is weak. Many people regard Reiner Knizia's "Stephensons Rocket" as a complex game in spite of the fact that its rules are remarkably compact. Its rail building theme is pretty good - but what exactly are you trying to do with those railroads? You want to control them of course. But that only pays off at the end. Meanwhile, you want to run them in to cities, but only after you build stations that you ran the railroads into first. You also want to control the cities that you run the railroads into, and you want to control the commodities that each city produces. Finally, you want to merge the railroads in a way that insures you control the really big railroads at the end of the game. Whew.

In a public appearance, Reiner Knizia once said that scoring and victory conditions are good things to manipulate to get the players to do what you want. In the case of Stephensons Rocket, he took his own advice too well. He made the game work by tinkering with the scoring mechanisms at the cost of maintaining a strong game concept. The final product is a good game, but at times it seems to be a runaway train that is in constant danger of running off its rails.

Conversely, even a complex game can be held together with a combination of strong game concept and theme. Karl Heinz Schmiel's "Die Macher" holds together remarkably well despite being one of the most baroque of all German games. It takes about 45 minutes to teach the rules for Die Macher, and each turn has 13 phases. I don't think too many players would tolerate that sort of complexity if its mechanisms didn't tie so well to its election theme. When a theme is strong, the theme merges with the game concept. "Players represent political parties, each trying to get as many votes in regional elections as possible, which earns you points. You'll attempt to manipulate your party's policies and public opinion in order to get votes in those regional elections. Success in those elections in turn enables you to control the national agenda, which scores you more points." Along with Die Macher's strong theme, and the way it successfully bonds its mechanics to its theme, Die Macher has a strong central mechanism which gives it a strong game concept. Everything flows in and out of the regional elections. You manipulate policies, you buy media, you place party markers, and you manipulate your local popularity all in an effort to gain influence in the local elections. After you've scored your points there, the regional elections affect the national board which gives you money and points for the endgame scoring. Die Macher holds rather well to the spoke and hub model, with somes spokes pointing in to the hub, and others pointing out from it.

Die Macher benefits from both a strong theme and a reasonably central mechanism to maintain some conceptual unity. As games move along the spectrum from "Eurogame" to to "Simulation", the mechanics tend to blossom around the need to recreate reality rather than to maintain any conceptual unity. When a game is primarily a simulation, then the theme becomes the game concept. Imagine "Squad Leader" or "War of the Ring" as an abstract game and the rules would make no sense. Why create all these special exceptions and unique units? How can anyone possibly understand what is supposed to be going on? Once you realize that you are simulating small unit fighting or the battle for Middle Earth, everything comes together. The games remain complicated, but every mechanic serves the basic concept of the real world (or fantasy world) simulation. As long as the players understand what is being simulated, the mechanics hang together conceptually.

Games most often build their game concept around a central dominating mechanism which all others relate to. Are the other mechanisms truly secondary, or do they take on a life of their own? If those secondary mechanisms become significantly complex, the game can lose its focus. Compare Caylus with Age of Empires III by Glenn Drover. Both use a similar action selection mechanism, but Caylus is a more straightforward, focused game, while Age of Empires III adds a lot of extra stuff behind each possible selection and is a more baroque design.

In Caylus, actions taken on the road generally give a player resources or allow him to spend resources on a building. The entire game is about acquiring and spending resources effectively. There are other choices in the beginning of the road - and these create a little metagame around the use of the road: they control items such as turn order, the cost of an action, and which actions on the road will actually occur this turn.

In Age of Empires III one feels as though he is playing four games at once There is the entire colonization battle for majority control off on the side - but one need not participate in that game wholeheartedly. There is a separate module dealing with collecting trade goods. There is the "discovery" game which sets the stage for the colonization game, but has its own set of goals and victory points. Then there is the action selection game which determines how many resources you bring to bear in the other three games. These games-in-a-game all intersect and collide but without truly building upon each other. The theme of colonization just barely stitches this patchwork together.

"Puerto Rico" by Andreas Seyfarth may be the great enigma when it comes to the notion of game concept. There are many facets to the mechanics. Each one is essential and none seems to dominate. Is the game about the role selection? The selection of roles is a central and original concept, but I think it dominates the game much less than does the road and the selection of actions in Caylus. The specifics of the actions - which building to buy, where to put your colonists, your choice of plantations, trading and shipping - are all critical, balanced, and tightly woven. What is the game about? Well, it's an engine building game, of course, but it's about the whole package. To the new player, Puerto Rico is sort of a fascinating mess. To the experienced player, the game is its own concept.

Puerto Rico is relatively complex for a Eurogame, and it cannot be summarized by a simple game concept. Still, its structure is not especially convoluted as the diagram below shows. While all of its mechanics may be harder to describe than for Amyitis, the entire system is conceptually more compact. Compare the diagram for Puerto Rico, below, with the one above for Amyitis.
This diagram does simplify some things. There are ways of getting doubloons besides trading goods, and the various buildings can affect all of the game functions. However the basic engine is all there, and it makes for a pretty neat package. Puerto Rico's game concept may not be easily broken into its parts, but taken as a whole it is manageable.

This seems to be the nature of most "engine" based games. Games such as Puerto Rico, Power Grid, Goa, and Settlers of Catan cannot readily be understood in terms of their component mechanisms nor summarized by a central mechanism that drives all others. The cogs of each mechanism are too tightly meshed. The game concept is the total effect. The challenge is to create a structure that is complex enough to satisfy the designer's ambitions, but simple enough to be comprehensible. Anyone who has taught Puerto Rico to a newbie knows that even the simple structure pictured above starts to push the limits of comprehensibility for most people.

I think that this is the sort of structure that Cyril Damaegd had in mind when he spoke of a "line structure". Neither Power Grid nor Puerto Rico have structures which are simple lines, but both have a chain of causes and effects which takes place over several steps to yield victory points. Understanding the game requires understanding the chain.

When people ask "what is this game about?" they are most frequently asking about the theme. Unless the theme is well integrated with the mechanics - not a hallmark of many Eurogames - then knowing the theme doesn't really answer the question. For many of the best games - including ones with strong themes - a game is about its game concept. The game concept may be a strong central mechanism that the others all relate to, like the road in Caylus. It may be a dominant mechanism which virtually defines the entire game, like varied set collection rules of Ra. It may be the historical theme, as in a simulation game. It may be a tightly interwoven set of causal relationships as in Puerto Rico. Whatever it is, it brings the entire system together so that the player knows just what... the game is about. Without a game concept, what's inside the box can still be fun, but it may just be six mechanics in search of a game.

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.