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.
Today we’re thrilled to dive deep into a game with endless utility, Power Grid. In our recent readership survey, it was by far the most requested game for a design analysis, so naturally we are happy to oblige.
As our reader Rob noticed way back in 2014, Power Grid is our favorite design reference point, an excellent example of so many concepts in game design. Focusing solely on Power Grid will help us tighten our coverage and really dig deep into this pinnacle of strategy game design.
Nevertheless, we’re convinced that nobody loves Power Grid quite as much as we do, and we’ve decided to commemorate this occasion by taking a deep dive into the game and treating it to the design analysis that it so richly deserves. Unlike most of our design analysis articles, which focus on the concepts we’ve described most recently, here we’ll pick the most salient concepts that apply to Power Grid from all of the various articles we’ve written.
Power Grid is basically synonymous with positional balance, a concept that we described more than two years ago in our first article series. Positional balance refers to the in-game adjustments that a game’s mechanics enforce to prevent runaway leaders and enable players who fall a bit behind to catch up; in other words, positional balance ensures that an early lead represents a later advantage and not a path to sure victory.
Nearly every aspect of Power Grid is finely tuned in terms of positional balance. The diminishing returns of the payment schedule for powering an increasing number of cities ensures that the first player past the post of a certain number of powered cities is not automatically the winner–and it enforces an interesting choice when, later in the game, expending resources to power cities may actually be a net expense instead of a net positive.
We like to conclude each series of topics with our Design Analysis series where we can dive into some of our favorite games from both past and present. To wrap up this group we thought it’d be fun to look at two games simultaneously on topics like Satisfaction, Pacing and Player Control. Lewis & Clark and Concordia were two of our favorite games we played last year and I think you’ll agree each design makes for some interesting observations.
Innovation – Game Defining Concepts
The most conspicuous area of resemblance between the two games is the central hand-building mechanisms. In each game, actions are performed by playing cards from your hand. Periodically you will perform a “reset” action, taking all the used cards back into your hand to be played again.
Special thanks to all the incredible photographers who helped make this article possible!
A Well-Structured Menu (Concordia): Concordia exhibits straightforward card play in conjunction with its hand-building mechanism. The hand-building aspect is remarkably similar to Mac Gerdt’s earlier Rondel system which typically deters players from taking any specific action with too great of frequency.
The mechanism on display in Concordia restricts repeated actions in a very elegant manner by limiting card frequency in the starting hand given to every player. Card actions are relatively predictable early on which means the primary decision variable is simply a matter of when to play a card — a trait that allows new players to get started without much trouble.
Fascinating Opportunity Cost (Lewis & Clark): Lewis & Clark’s hand management mechanism involves playing a card and using another card or resource to provide the required strength for the chosen action. This “discard” step implicitly asks players to determine the least helpful or relevant card in their hand at any given point. This also means the same hand can play out in a multitude of ways based on perception, allowing for an interesting layer of depth in decision-making.
We like to conclude each group of monthly topics with our Design Analysis series where we can dive into some of our favorite games from both past and present. Our most recent series we covered game design topics such as Satisfaction, Pacing and Game-Defining Concepts. This week we’re going to take a look at Uwe Rosenberg’s bean trading classic Bohnanza.
Bohnanza has been around for the better part of two decades and while it wouldn’t appear to be a candidate we can learn a lot from, it does apply some great ideas that have yet to be improved upon. What can we learn from Bohnanza and what ideas have we been overlooking all these years?
A Reputation That Precedes It
Years before I ever had the opportunity to play Bohnanza I was already aware of its most defining trait; the inability to reorder the cards in your hand. Without more context this limitation sounds like a frustrating gimmick, when in reality it is the primary catalyst for tension and the driving force behind all the wonderfully agonizing moments in the game.
Of course the inability to organize your hand is just an abridged explanation of mandating a first-in, first-out (FIFO) queuing in card play. Other than a special event (such as executing a trade) cards are played in the same order they are drawn.
Realistically, Bohnanza would lose much of its character had it followed all of the tendencies and traditions of card games that came before it. The inability to reorganize your hand combined with the limited fields results in an ongoing urgency and the canvas to generate creative deal making.
We like to conclude each group of monthly topics with our Design Analysis series where we can dive into some of our favorite games from both past and present. In the last half of 2014 and earlier this year we wrote about game design topics like Theme, Downtime and Pacing. This week I’m tackling a giant in the field, Twilight Struggle, which has spent years at the apex of BoardGameGeek’s top 100 list and has even gotten the attention of FiveThirtyEight in recent months, where it was called “the best board game on the planet.”
Of course, Twilight Struggle is not a new game, having been published just about ten years ago, but when Alex and I sat down to play the game back in August, it was new to both of us. Here, we’ll take a critical look at Twilight Struggle’s design in terms of its game-defining concepts, theme, satisfaction, and “second-level” dimensions of games (downtime, pacing, and player control).
A Tangled Web of Decisions
The central idea in Twilight Struggle (and in geopolitics) is that nothing happens in total isolation. Your actions have long-lasting consequences that might not be immediately apparent but that might change your plan down the line–or might upend your opponent’s entire strategy. Twilight Struggle is defined by its innovative and possibly unique card mechanic, where any card that you play comes with a cost. Either you give yourself some resources but cause an event that directly benefits your opponent, or you must choose between causing an event that benefits you or giving yourself some resources.
Needing to balance advancing your own position without entitling your opponent to too much of an advantage might fall under both the “creating tension” and “presenting elegant resolutions to in-game issues” categories of game-defining elements that we discussed last year. Constantly assessing the tradeoffs that are inevitable when you play a card in Twilight Struggle drives the tension and competition of the game in a way that playing cards in, say, Race for the Galaxy or Seasons does not. And in addition to performing actions, playing cards is also the primary mechanic to generate points. Your opponent conducting military operations in a given part of the world might mean that he’s about to play a scoring card for that part of the world–or it might mean that he’s afraid that you will.
In the first half of this year, we’ve published article series on game balance, the “dimensions” of games, means of assessing the value of games, and approachability in games. This month, we’re doing something a little different and apply our design analysis to some of our favorite games from the past couple of years. Today we’ll look at Bora Bora, which was a Stefan Feld title released in his busy 2013 campaign. We’ll be taking a critical look at the structure of Bora Bora to evaluate its design decisions in further detail, according to the framework we’ve developed over the past few months.
A strength of Bora Bora is that there are so many methods of scoring victory points and there is always a viable option. Internal balance seeks to identify and remove false decisions and understand and regulate dominant strategies. Bora Bora offers several scoring opportunities that could be considered superior to other areas of the game when isolated but it is important to note that each scoring area in Bora Bora is balanced by at least one of three aspects:
- The Point Ceiling: The maximum number of points that is attainable in any area is capped.
- The Opportunity Cost: Pursuing dominance in one area requires sacrificing viable scoring opportunities in other areas.
- The Relative Valuation: The value of scoring in different areas of Bora Bora fluctuates entirely based on how opponents interact with that area. Adapting to your opponents and pursuing scoring opportunities they ignore will produce strong performances in Bora Bora.
These three factors combine to explain why Bora Bora doesn’t have a dominant strategy problem. A winning score in Bora Bora requires points from multiple sources and generally that player will still have to leave other lucrative scoring opportunities on the board.