We’re excited to return to our ongoing series titled “Game Structures”, a series of topics we’ve organized to help understand the foundations of successful game design. Our initial run of articles covered “Early Game Structures”; aspects of games such as initial starting positions and resources, the value of turn order and key decision points that help to generate replay value and keep players coming back time and time again.
Our follow-up titled “Mid Game Structures” focused on prolonging player engagement the core of the game experience. We covered topics like player ecology to help drive player motivations and player interaction and player strategy which allow player choices to pivot and create new and interesting decisions during games.
During the next few months we’ll be tackling “End Game Structures” which help to drive player satisfaction and help to bring players back to the table again and again. As part of the series we’ll be looking at end game conditions, scoring methodologies and otherwise satisfying elements of game design we’ve encountered in games. To help guide us, we’re going to look at two key questions, how do players factor into the end of the game, and how do the ending conditions of the game factor into the game’s design? Let’s get started.
Question #1: How do player’s factor into the end of the game?
Longtime readers of Games Precipice might have noticed my enthusiasm for mapping design problems to a couple of orthogonal dimensions, and I think the same sort of analysis is useful here. The first axis might be the more obvious: to what extent can the players control when the game ends?
Players have No Control
No Control: Players take the backseat while the game grabs the wheel and drives to the final destination. The “Uber” of end game conditions.
Games at this end of the axis end when they end, and the players can’t do anything about it. The most common way to implement this condition is to have the game last a fixed number of rounds or turns, then the game ends, and a winner is crowned. Terra Mystica lasts six rounds, period. Small World lasts between 8 and 10 rounds, depending on the number of players. Of course, this doesn’t mean that players have no control over the flow or pacing of the game: each player may accomplish a different amount of stuff each turn, and each turn may last a different amount of time. But each player gets only a certain allotment of turns to accomplish their strategy.
“No control” may sound like a bad thing given how much we’ve focused on player control as a per se good in game design, but there are a lot of advantages to having a mechanically enforced end point over one that the players can control. First, it’s completely objective and happens the same way every time, so it will not come as a surprise to any players (assuming you remember to slide the round marker down the track). This means there are no “mah jong” moments where one of your opponents suddenly fulfills a victory condition that you thought was at least three turns away, abruptly ending the game for everyone and creating a lot of satisfaction for one player but confusion for the rest.
We’re diving into one of our recent favorites this week as Orléans was our top “new to us” game on the site for 2015. Since then, our opinions have drifted in different directions and we thought it would be fun to look at how the game has aged for us only a few years later.
If this is your first time visiting Games Precipice, our focus is on game design theory and ideas that can make games great. In writing about Orléans, the large majority of our conversation is a deep dive into this brilliant game applying the game design frameworks we’ve been writing about recently. To help frame the discussion, this is more than just a write-up about Orléans; this is an article about Orléans in the greater conversation of pool building games. So let’s jump right in.
Orléans is best classified as a bag building game and it shares a number of familiar concepts with a deck building game like Dominion or a dice building game like Quarriors. We recently covered these various mechanics collectively in a series on pool building games.
Despite the similarities on the surface, these games can be tricky to break down as a group. One approach we’ve taken to look in-depth at these mechanics has been to identify the common skills and tasks players are carefully considering while building their deck in Ascension or filling their bag in Orléans.
In Pool Builders… players manage long-term efficiency
A common bond among pool building games is that these mechanics relay a marathon mentality to players. Orléans is a game of putting one foot ahead of the other in order to string together a strategy over the long-term. By the end of the game, a player will rarely be able to pinpoint the exact moment or turn that pushed them toward victory, since each turn the player moves the needle forward just enough to see observable progress in a race of efficiency.
As the clock struck midnight and we transition into an exciting new year of board games, there is something unsettling abound. True, I’m still writing 2016 on every document, but no, that isn’t it…
“I’d like to collect on a debt on behalf of your readers. You’re overdue for a mailbag.”
As I’m still trying to settle on a New Year’s Resolution, I take a moment to catch up on some email…
“If you’re looking for something to do over the holidays, maybe you could get around to publishing some of those emails.”
-Alex’s To-Do List
Out of no where, a crowd suddenly forms; torches and pitchforks in hand. The chant begins:
“Mailbag, Mailbag, Mailbag”
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).