Since our last batch of Design Analysis articles, we’ve started two ambitious, multi-month article series. Our Game Structures articles are meant to explore the design decisions that matter most at the beginning, middle, and end of games and to answer questions like “who goes first, and does it matter?” and “what time horizons do players plan their actions across?” Our Mechanic Archetypes series takes deep dives into some of the most popular and prevalent game mechanics, beginning with worker placement and pool builders. Both of these series are ongoing; look for late-game structures soon and more mechanic archetypes for as long as we keep having interesting things to say about them.
Once we’ve covered a wide range of game design topics, we really like to take what we’ve written and apply our own analytical frameworks to recent successful games with the goal of trying to determine what a game does well, how it implements these concepts in a creative and novel way, and ultimately what makes it great. Keeping in the theme of our Mechanic Archetypes, I’ll be taking a closer look at Keyflower, a worker placement game (and then some), and Alex will follow up with a pool builder.
Keyflower is a few years old now, and it isn’t particularly difficult to get ahold of, so it might be familiar to many of our readers. For a quick introduction in case it’s not: Keyflower is a tile game that takes players through a year of growing and managing a fledgling village, with the game playing out over four seasons and having the in-universe goal of building up enough resources to survive through the winter. Its most notable feature is its clever approach to worker placement, where workers can be used either to perform actions or as currency to bid on improvements to the village. It won or was nominated for a handful of awards from 2012-2014 and maintains a strong presence as a top-20 strategy game at BoardGameGeek since its release in 2012.
To wrap up our mechanic archetype series on pool builders, I’m going to trace a history of builders and try to hit the highlights of some of the most important developments in builders. Naturally, it’s impossible to describe every single strategy game that has ever used a builder mechanic, but I’ll aim to analyze the modern builder lineage and try to anticipate some innovations in the future of the format.
Origins of Deck-Builders
The most important and far-reaching mechanical innovation of Magic: the Gathering was that it introduced both variance and a means to mitigate that variance in the same mechanic. In any format of Magic, you’re responsible for creating a deck and drawing cards at random from it during the game.
It was the original prelude to deck-building: the genius of Magic is that randomness is a core part of the game (as it is with any game where drawing cards is involved) but because you can decide what cards go into that deck, you control the likelihood of drawing any given card. Indeed, the biggest variations in how Magic is played even today come from how that deck is assembled, whether through a draft or sealed packs or your own invention at home.
Like poker (which shares an enormous overlap with Magic’s audience), Magic inhabits a fertile middle ground between perfect information games like chess and perfect randomness games like war, where dealing with variance is an important part of the game’s skill. Again, success in Magic comes not necessarily from being able to see six moves in the future or from how to react to a surprise card draw you didn’t see coming, but from thinking through how to manage the randomness and optimize your chances of coming up with the exact card that you need.
It might be trite to describe Dominion’s brilliance as “Magic in a box,” but that’s exactly the innovation that it brought to strategy gaming. Magic’s brilliance as a business model and source of frustration for many a potential player is the financial commitment required to play it competitively. We tend to focus on mechanical design in this blog, but the democratization of the deck-building model into one box from which all of the players can build their respective decks, rather than having to invest time and money to bring their own decks to the table, is surely one of the many reasons for Dominion’s strong following. In this sense, Dominion is a fantastic example of how collection value is every bit as important as balance or approachability in making great games.
We launched a new series over the past year of what we call “Mechanic Archetypes”, an opportunity to examine mechanic-by-mechanic what differentiates successful game designs from the rest when we’re thinking about ones that fall under a label, such as Worker Placement.
Recently we’ve been thinking about “Pool Builders”, a collection of related mechanics like Deck Builders, Dice Builders and Bag Builders that are worth exploring side-by-side as they tend to share quite a few characteristics. In this segment we’re going to step back and examine games that fall into this mechanical category as a group while covering some broad observations as to their strengths and weaknesses. Our goal is that these observations may assist game designers stepping into this growing genre.
Pool Builders – The Algae of Game Mechanics
Since the concept of Pool Builders emerged on the tabletop scene, it has been a popular choice for designers and that popularity doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon. Depending on who you’re willing to debate with, the origin of Pool Builders could go back seemingly as far as you’d like it to, but the approach we’re familiar with today likely began with either Starcraft: The Board Game (2007) or Dominion (2008).
Last Saturday we were exhibitors in the Tabletop Showcase at the Boston Festival of Indie Games. It was a terrific experience and we met so many great people, a special thank you to everyone who spent time at our booth. Among our highlights; we were able to demo our current game design, Unification of China for attendees and by the end of the event, we had a lot of visitors excited by the direction of the game (which is now in its later stages of development).
Many awesome visitors sat down and played a few turns of the game with us, and it often led to some great conversations about their favorite board games. More amazing visitors were as fascinated as we are by the history in this era of Ancient China (the time period and theme for the game) and of course we’re always thrilled when people approach us and talk game design, .
It was a busy time summer for us, as we spent it preparing for the event and playtesting a lot of games, including our own. We will be returning to our normal article publishing cycle next week with the next segment in our Pool Builders series, but we wanted to share six key things about this really exciting moment for us in gaming.
2-6 players, 90 minutes, ages 12+.
Unification of China is designed to support its entire range of player number without requiring any fiddly rules variations or creating virtual players. Smaller player counts might be associated with a relaxed and epic game, where each player can amass great influence in each region and project, while larger player counts might feel more frenetic and territorial, requiring players to specialize carefully. We enjoy playing it regardless of the number of players, and we hope you will too.
The game takes place over 6 rounds that last around 15 minutes each, for a total of about 90 minutes. We recognize that there are a lot of great games out there, so we worked hard to create a game that gives a full Euro-style strategic experience without monopolizing your entire evening.
There are enough novel ideas and mechanics in Unification of China that the game might be a little tricky for our younger gamers to appreciate. That said, there are no adult themes or explicit content, and we consider the subject matter appropriate for all ages.
Our latest topic is “Pool Builders”, a collection of related mechanics like Deck Builders, Dice Builders and Bag Builders that are worth exploring side-by-side as they tend to share similar strengths, weaknesses and approaches to game design.
The most visible difference between these categories is the components they use, so we’ll often use terms like tools, resources and objects to collectively refer to the various components that comprise a player’s deck, bag or dice pool.
In this article I’ll introduce many of the key traits we can find in games that are described as pool builders and in our following articles we’ll explore the key strengths and weaknesses of the group of mechanics. In our concluding segment we’ll finish up with our observations of dozens of pool builders, showcasing some of the most innovative and brilliant ideas we’ve seen in game design that incorporate these mechanics.
What are Pool Builders?
At a high level, our ongoing exploration of game mechanics has developed into its own rank-based taxonomy. If Dominion or Ascension were considered species, their genus would be Deck Builders and their family rank would be Pool Builders in a classification hierarchy. If we’re being completely accurate, “Pool Builders” would probably also go by a fun Latin phrase like “stagnum aedificantes“.
When we explored Worker Placement, we thought it was worthwhile to revisit exactly what the mechanic is, since games that simply use the term “workers” (Terra Mystica, Puerto Rico) and games in which you add or remove meeples (Carcassonne, Five Tribes) are often curiously grouped into the definition.