Mechanic Archetypes – Pool Builders

Written by Alex Harkey

poolbuildersOur 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.


Mid-Game Structures – Player Strategy

Written by Alex Harkey

Earlier this year we launched our Mid-Game Structures series; a few perspectives of how games change their environments to keep the experience engaging. This article is part of our ongoing series titled Game Structures in which we continue to build on a foundation of game design concepts.

Building on Concepts: A Quick Review of Player Interaction

When we last left off, Matt looked at Player Interaction in games, which used a multi-category approach to help define the type and significance of interaction between players:

thedegreeofinteractionDegree of Interaction: This is an assessment of the degree of overlap or intensity players have with one another within the game environment. It creates spectrum ranging from No Interaction (which is akin to individual players quietly working on puzzles in opposite corners of a room) to Direction Interaction (which would be more like if the players needed to steal pieces from one another in order to finish their own puzzle).

Our topic today is Player Strategies and we’ll be pairing this axis with a second criteria to help us categorize how games influence the starting strategies of players. Let’s look at that second criteria:

What is a player’s time horizon to plan actions?

The next thing we want to examine is how short or long-term oriented player decisions tend to be in a given game, or what we call our Time Horizon. If you’re more comfortable with it, you can think of this as our comparison of Tactics vs Strategy; strategy being the large scale focus or objective(s) needed to achieve success, and tactics being the specific steps or tasks you need to perform to implement your strategy.


Game Design Analysis – Power Grid

Written by Matt Pavlovich

pgprecipiceToday 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.

Balance – Positional Balance

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.


March Guest Interview – Dominic Crapuchettes

Written by Alex Harkey

Wits & WagersToday we’re thrilled to be joined by Dominic Crapuchettes of North Star Games. Almost ten years ago, my introduction to Wits & Wagers was one of the key experiences that unlocked my own pursuit into the mystical world of modern board games. I’ve had the chance to learn a lot about Dominic over the last few weeks, but I’ll let him describe his own journey as a board game designer and publisher:

My family did not watch much TV.  We played board games instead.  I still have a copies of several games I designed when I was 11.  When I was 13, one of my games (Kabloogi) was banned from school because too many students were playing it during class.  My final project in high school was a business plan for the game company I dreamed of starting.


I became addicted to Magic: The Gathering in college, but after taking home $15k from the 1998 New York pro tour, I realized I was more passionate about creating games than playing them.  So I jumped ship as the captain of an Alaskan salmon fishing boat and started North Star Games.  I’m glad I did – our three most popular games (Wits & Wagers, Say Anything, and Evolution) have sold over 2 million copies combined.

North Star Game’s latest project, Evolution: Climate is fully funded on Kickstarter and currently knocking down stretch goals at it approaches the final days of the campaign. Dominic sat down with us to answer our questions about his latest design work, game development and his thoughts on trends in the industry:

Games Precipice: Welcome Dominic, thank you for joining us! For those of us who may not yet be familiar with it, what is Evolution and how did its ideas hatch into a game?

evolutionDominic: Evolution is a family of games that builds upon the ideas of a Russian biologist, Dmitry Knorre.  It has made a name for itself in the scientific community because of the vivid way it simulates an ecosystem.  An article about Evolution was recently published in the journal Nature, the world’s most prestigious scientific journal.  It was written by Stuart West, a professor of Evolutionary Biology at the University of Oxford, who is currently using Evolution in one of his classes.

Previous attempts at evolution-themed games have approached the subject by applying mechanics from one of two genres: area control wargames, or civilization games with tech trees.  Both of these frameworks don’t quite work for evolution.  The heart and soul of Evolution is an ever-changing ecosystem where players continually adapt in order to survive and thrive.


Mid-Game Structures – Player Interaction

Written by Matt Pavlovich

The next stop on our tour of mid-game structures involves player interaction. Of course, player interaction is not strictly limited to the middle part of a game–in some games, every single turn involves some measure of interaction with the other players. But we thought our series about the pivot points and decision crossroads was the perfect place to discuss interaction: the outcome of so many games can hinge on whether you choose to attack your opponent or leave him alone, trade or embargo, call or raise, claim the action that’s best for you or impede on what is best for him.

In the next two sections, I’ll propose a two-dimensional model of interaction that considers both how interactive a game is and how antagonistic it is.

First axis: degree of interaction

thedegreeofinteractionThe first axis of interaction describes the degree (or intensity) of the interaction that exists in the game. I’ll discuss this axis as if it encompasses three distinct categories, but like every other topic in game design, it really exists as more of a continuum.

This dimension spans from games that have literally no interaction with the other players to games where every action depends on someone else’s and in turn affects someone else’s. And like most continuums in game design, most games fall somewhere in the middle.

No interaction “You do your thing, I’ll do mine.”

nointeractionIn games with no interaction, a player can’t affect either the game state or the strategic options/available actions of the other players. Fans of games with extensive player interaction might derisively refer to a game as “multiplayer solitaire” if they perceive it as having too little interaction. But true multiplayer solitaire would literally confine each player to his own corner, doing his thing without paying any attention to what anyone else was doing.

It’s difficult to think of real examples of games with no interaction, so I’ll use a few nontraditional or incomplete examples to get the point across. Something close to a true no-interaction game is a crossword competition, a contest of skill with an objective scoring system that you can definitely win or lose, but where your success and strategy have no bearing on what anyone else is doing.


January Guest Interview – Dave Burke

Written by Matt Pavlovich

karmakaLast September, I attended the Boston Festival of Indie Games, a regional gathering of developers of both tabletop games and video games. The highlight of the experience was being able to play games in various stages of development at the Showcase, and one of my favorites was Karmaka from Hemisphere Games. Evidently, the wisdom of the crowd agreed with me, and Karmaka took home the Best Artwork and Best in Show awards in the tabletop category. Karmaka is in the middle of a Kickstarter campaign to fund its first printing.

Our current article series, Mid-Game Structures, is all about the mechanics and other design elements associated with the transitions and turning points in games. Karmaka’s design centers around moving up the karmic ladder, where each rung represents both reincarnation as a higher life form and a new phase of the game, so we thought it was a perfect fit for our Mid-Game Structures series. Today, we’ll be speaking to Dave Burke, one of the developers of Karmaka, about his design.

Games Precipice: Welcome! Thanks for taking some time out of your busy Kickstarter schedule to talk to us. Before we dig deep into the mechanics, I wanted to talk about your theme–how did you decide on something as ambitious as reincarnation?

Dave: The idea of karma has long-appealed to us (co-designer Eddy Boxerman and I) as a thematic idea to build a game around, particularly a card game.  “What goes around, comes around.”  “You reap what you sow.”  “An eye for an eye.”  That kind of stuff.  Conceptually it’s a really straightforward economy: what I do, comes back at me.  So from a design perspective, it’s simple, everyone understands it and so you’ve got a theme that people can grok quickly — you have only to mention ‘karma’ and the light bulbs start switching on in people’s minds.

karmakacards3So how to take it further?  What else does karma evoke that could inspire a mechanic in a game?  We’re not very well versed in eastern religion, but the high-level idea of living multiple lives and reincarnation maps really well onto a card game, where each life is a round of cards, say.

Or even more interestingly, what if your life ended when *you* are out of cards — but other players could play on if they still have cards.  And so everyone’s life ends at staggered times, depending on when they run out of cards, how quickly they play, etc.

And so on.  But it started from that “what goes around, comes around” pop-culture notion of karma as a simple economic model, and went from there on towards reincarnation, the Karmic Ladder, etc.