Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Victory conditions summary for boardgames/cardgames

For the benefit of my digital game students, I'm trying to summarize/categorize the many victory conditions available in games (especially board and card games).

Achieve a Position
Occupy a location--e.g. Stalingrad, Axis & Allies require occupation of certain cities
Occupy a lot of territory--go, Carcassone, Blokus, many others
Make a pattern of pieces--Tic-Tac-Toe, my Law & Chaos
Move off the other side of board (or the end of the track, as in race games)
There are many other variations...

Wipe out/destroy something
Wipe out everyone--checkers/draughts, Risk [this could be called "last survivor", too]
Take a piece (chess, the King)

Accumulate something or get rid of something (possibly all your assets)
$$$$ (Monopoly)
sets of cards (many card games)
use up all your cards (many card games)

Deduce/find answer
if no deduction is required, this is a form of accumulate (as, sets)

Use up all your assets (be eliminated) either last, or first--can be seen as a form of accumulate something or get rid of something.

Scoring the most points at the end of a set time, or a set number of points, is very common (Settlers of Catan, Brittania), but this is an intermediate step to the achievement of some other goals--money, territory, whatever. Points are used when multiple victory conditions are wanted. For example, Britannia points include holding territory, temporarily occupying territory, killing enemy units, capturing certain locations, and more.

I am going to include "choose own objectives" separately. In the classic game Careers, players secretly allocate 60 points amongst Fame, Happiness, and Money. The first to achieve his objectives wins the game. While it is an "accumulate something" condition, the strategic variability provided by choice is exceptional and notable.

Finally, some games have "Missions" (newer editions of Risk). This is another form of points, that is, each mission is one of the other kinds of victory condition.

I don't consider sports to be a form of boardgame/cardgame, but even sports can be considered in these terms. For example, in baseball, you get points by achieving a position (getting around the diamond to home plate).

Lew Pulsipher

Friday, November 23, 2007

Some additional notes about multiplayer games

In a multiplayer boardgame or card game, the focus is on who (which player) you're going against, not on how you're getting there (maneuver). In a two player game, the focus is on how you're getting there, not on who you're going against, because there is no choice of the latter (you have only one).

In general, in non-electronic games, in multiplayer games you're playing the player much more than the "system". In electronic games, even multiplayer, you're playing the system first, then the other players. You can't "look them in the eye", you can't see body language. Yes, you can use Skype or some built-in system to talk to your opponents, but you may not KNOW them, and you won't see them. It makes a difference.

Do people who play as opponents in online multiplayer electronic games become friends? I'm not talking about co-operative games like Everquest, where they're in the same party/guild. I think the answer is no. Do players of multiplayer non-digital games face to face become friends? Often, if they aren't friends already.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Design Problems to Watch for in Multi-player Games

Digital game development students aren't used to thinking about the consequences of games involving more than two opposing interests, because most electronic games include only two sides, one often a machine opponent. Several problems named by boardgamers can occur when there are three or more sides in a game. Many of these are much more likely to occur when the victory condition amounts to "wipe out the opposition":
• Turtling
• Leader bashing
• Sandbagging
• Kingmaking (petty diplomacy problem)

Turtling occurs when a player sits back and builds up strength while others expend theirs. This can often be seen in multi-player online RTS games. When there are more than two sides, a player can hang back, building up bases and technology, while he lets other players slaughter one another's forces. Then he comes out and cleans up the remainder.

A general solution is to use a different victory condition. E.g., capture of certain locations as the means of victory forces players to come out of their shells. Giving points for destoying the opposition also encourages aggression rather than turtling.

Another solution is to provide economic incentives to be aggressive. This often involves capturing economically valuable areas, so that a successful aggressive player can build up forces faster than the turtle.

Leader bashing tends to happen in games without much hidden information, that is, it must be clear who the leader is. Then the other players gang up on the leader. ("Of course", many would say, why wouldn't one try to weaken the leader?) If it isn't clear who the leader is, this is less likely to occur. If it is hard for some players, at least, to affect the leader in any given situation, then there will be less leader bashing, as those players will distract the ones who can affect the leader.

Sandbagging is often a consequence of leader bashing. A player will try to get himself in second or third place, rather than first, so that when the first place player is bashed, the sandbagger can swoop in for the win. Timing, obviously, is quite important here.

The solution to sandbagging is to reduce leader-bashing to a reasonable level.

Kingmaking is a consequence of what R. Wayne Schmittberger calls the "petty diplomacy problem". Where there are three interests, and one recognizes that they/he cannot win the game, that loser may be able to determine which of the other two wins. Even if the game is being played by more than three, it will often come down to three major interests. More generally, if a losing player can determine who wins, you have kingmaking in play.

One way to avoid this is to structure the game so that a player cannot be sure he is going to lose until it's too late for him to become a kingmaker. Of course, some players believe kingmaking is the "wrong way to play", that every player should try to win no matter what. But designers cannot rely on players to be self-governing in this way.

Another way to avoid kingmaking is to make it too hard for a player to use all his capability against another to prevent that other from winning. As a simple example, in a race it's usually hard for a losing player to have much effect on the leading players.

Now here are some alternatives to a victory condition of "kill everyone else". These help mitigate some of the problems we've been discussing. These are:
• economies (especially zero-sum)
• points
• missions

Economies. Players receive more assets as the game progresses, in accordance with some rules relating to locations or resources, not merely to a table of additional appearances. If a player plays well, he will earn more new assets than if he plays badly.

In a zero-sum game, each player's gain is another player's loss. The classic game Diplomacy is the best example of this. There are 34 "supply center" locations on the board. A player gets one unit (army or fleet) per center. If a player takes another's center, the first is going to increase his forces, while the second will lose forces, at the next building period.

Points. Players earn points for certain events or achievements. This could be capture of certain locations, destruction of enemy assets, holding certain places at given times, and so forth. In a wargame, a player could be wiped out, yet if he's done enough beforehand he can still have the most points to win the game. In general, where points are concerned the game does not continue until all but one player is wiped out. Either there will be a time limit or a point limit.

E.g., in my "light wargame" Britannia, players receive points for holding areas, occupying areas during a certain period, for dominating regions (king of England), for forcing nations to submit, and even for killing enemy units. A nation may be wiped out in the course of the game, but each player controls several, and the points that defunct nation earned still count. Points are based on historical performance, and are accumulated at different paces, so the current score is not a good gauge of who is actually winning the game.

Missions. This is a form of points because the mission involves completion of particular goals, but when a mission is completed the game is over, so no point record is needed. A mission can be as simple as capturing certain cities, or much more complex. Occasionally the missions are hidden, that is, you don't know which mission your opponent is trying to fulfill.

Now let's take Risk as an example. Risk is not a particularly good game, but a great many people have played it, and it exhibits most of our design flaws.

In Risk the object is to completely wipe out all competition. It uses economy to try to avoid the four problems. You get extra armies at the start of your turn if you hold an entire continent, to provide an economic incentive to attack. There is also card acquisition: you must take a territory in a turn in order to get a card, and matched sets of three cards gain you large numbers of armies. You also get armies according to the number of territories you hold. If you turtle or sandbag you get fewer new armies than your competitors. In fact, it's typical for players to attack as much as they can until they're out of spare armies, in order to limit how many territories their opponents control (and consequently how many new armies the opponents get).

There is certainly leader-bashing, but some players may not have forces near enough to the leader to do any damage. You are often better off wiping out a weak power rather than attacking the strongest, because when you wipe out an opponent, you get his cards, and if you can make another set you get more armies (in increasing numbers) with which to immediately continue attacking.

Kingmaking is also quite limited, as by the time a player realizes he's a goner, he doesn't have enough force to do much damage to one of the leaders.

Despite all this, a couple decades after the original English edition of Risk was published, "Mission Cards" were added to the mix. Each player receives one with a mission unknown to his opponents. A mission might be something like "Control Asia" (the largest continent). Hence a player can win the game, by completing his mission, long before he wipes out all opposition. Unfortunately, the mission cards aren't modified by the number of players, so some may be much easier to achieve than others in certain situations.

(Another well-known board wargame, Axis&Allies, is two sides even when there are five players (Germany and Japan on one side, Britain, US, and Russia on the other), hence not subject to these problems.)

How to improve replayability in a game

While the "cult of the new" tends to mean that games aren't played many times before players move on to the next game, replayability is still a desirable feature of any game.

Most of the following amounts to "vary the experience", which of course is what provides replayabilty--varied experience:

• "Multiple paths to victory"
• Variable rather than set starting positions
• More than two players
• Asymmetric game
• Use of event cards
• Scenarios
• Optional rules
• Different sets of rules
• Hidden information
• Special abilities

"Multiple paths to victory" will result in much-improved replayability. Drawback: makes it much harder to balance the game

Variable rather than set starting positions (players choose their starting positions). A few games offer both options. Risk offers a random setup and a setup that lets players choose locations. The drawback: this lengthens the game.

More than two players (each player provides variability of himself). The drawback: lengthens the game.

Asymmetric game (standard starting position is not the same for all players). The drawback: makes it much harder to balance the game (i.e., give each player an equal chance of winning).

Use of event cards (especially in symmetric games or games without other chance factors). The drawback: can be seen to increase the influence of chance. But event cards often adds enjoyable color to the game as well.

Scenarios (which amount to differences in positions or victory conditions (or both)). Used primarily in historical games. The drawback: more time-consuming to design.

Optional rules. Again this seems most common in historical games. These are alternative ways to play the game. At some point, many rule choices in a game design are largely arbitrary, that is, one choice leads to just as interesting a game as the other choice, but the designer must choose one. The other can become an optional rule.

The drawback: virtually none, if the optional was tried sufficiently in playtesting.

Different sets of rules (for example Basic, Standard, and Advanced). The drawback: longer rules, and perhaps a feeling from some contemporary players that there's something wrong with the game because there's not "one way to play".

Hidden information. The game can diverge along many different paths when some information is hidden. Event Cards are an example of the use of hidden information, and electronic games typically enjoy the benefit, as the computer tracks the information much more easily than non-computer methods can. The drawback: something/someone has to track the hidden information, and in some cases, cheating may be possible.

Special Abilities. Cosmic Encounter thrives on the variety of special abilities for each side. Role-playing games typically include a vast number of skills, feats, spells, and classes, not all of which can be included in any single game or series of games. The drawback: play balance can suffer; and there's a lot of information to be devised and incorporated into the game.

Finally, people have suggested that, in general, the more chaos in a game, the more replayability it is likely to have. Even Go, which has none of the overt variation I've listed above, is highly replayable because a single move can change circumstances fairly strongly.

Another point of view is that when the number of reasonable choices is maximized, replayability is enhanced. But too many choices can also lead to "analysis paralysis".

Saturday, November 10, 2007

The virtues of cards in "boardgames"

I am going to try to summarize the virtues of using cards in boardgames--or perhaps in boardgame-card hybrids. I'm doing this primarily for the benefit of my students, but I thought it might be worth contributing to others as well.
(This has also been posted on teachgamedesign.blogspot.com.)

• Cards reduce the need to read rules before playing ("put the rules on the cards")
• Cards are a simple way to add color and visual interest to a game (as opposed to expensive 3D sculptured pieces)
• Cards provide a simple and clean way to add "chrome" to a game (chrome usually involves rule exceptions)
• Cards provide a convenient way to "inventory" game information
• Cards are an easy way to increase variety in a game (which usually increases replayability as well)
• Cards can be used as a substitute "board"
• Cards are a more acceptable means of introducing variation through chance, as many people now dislike dice rolling

Cards reduce the need to read rules before playing

"Put the rules on the cards". This is the easiest way to simplify the difficulties of learning a game, especially for those teaching it to others. A player only needs to consider/understand the card-rules when they hold or draw the card. Well-known collectible card game designers introduced me to the "seven line rule": players won't read more than seven lines of rules on a card, so don't put more on them. For millennials the rule is certainly "the less text the better".

This is also a good way to reduce the size of the rulebook. Big rulebooks are daunting even if the game itself is fairly simple.

Cards are a simple way to add color and visual interest to a game

Cards often host attractive color graphics, much larger than you can put on tiles or counters. They are cheaper than sculptured three dimensional figures. 3D figures are seldom multi-colored, too.

Cards provide a simple and clean way to add "chrome" to a game

"Chrome" is the term for special rules that often reflect special historical or personal circumstances. Hence chrome usually involves rule exceptions. And where "chrome" includes a visual, a card is the best way to illustrate/introduce it. This relates also to the first point, putting rules on the cards rather than in the rulebook.

If I designed Britannia today I might include cards to add "chrome" to the game. A variant using "Nation Specialty Cards" already exists (my design, not released).

Cards provide a convenient way to "inventory" information

When players need to keep track of what items or spells or capabilities they possess, cards are an excellent choice. They're familiar, easy to organize, and have both text and graphics. For example, spells are tracked in EL:the Card Game (see below) via cards.

Cards are an easy way to increase variety in a game

"Event cards" are quite common in games these days. Lots of different scnearios/situations can be introduced in a small deck of cards.

The variety of the cards usually increases replayability as well. More possibilities equals more paths that the game can follow. Players can play many times and still be able to say "I never saw that happen before".

Cards can be used as a substitute "board"

I've devised several prototype games that use cards in place of a board. From a commercial point of view, this results in a much less expensive package that is easier to ship and to find shelfspace for.

In Battle of Hastings some of the cards represent Saxon and Norman units; the play area is so crowded until late in the game that the cards can be arranged in a 7 by 6 array of "spaces", though I also have two strips, one to either side, to help orient the rows.

In Enchanted Labyrinth: the Card Game (derived from EL the boardgame) some of the cards represent the "dungeon" being explored by wizards and their minions. As creatures move into new areas, the cards are turned face up to reveal the contents of the area.

In Zombie Escape, face-down cards represent the building (a reform school) that the players try to escape from in the face of zombie infestation. Once again, discovery occurs when players move onto the card areas.

Cards are a more acceptable means of introducing variation through chance

Many people now dislike dice rolling, if only as a reaction against the random "roll and move" mechanic so infamous in older American family games. People believe (and sometimes it's true) that they can manage cards in a way they cannot manage dice rolls.