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.
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:
Degree 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.
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.
Today 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?
Dominic: 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.