Our latest series comprises what we consider to be “Early Game Structures“, some of the foundational elements visible at the beginning of many great games. As we talked about in the introduction of the topic, the underlying motive of Early Game Structures is building replay value; you’ve got your audience playing, now what can the game do to bring them back next time?
This week we’ll look at decision points; the opportunities for players to make the interesting choices that drive the progression and outcome.
Evaluating Great Decision Points
Over the years we have continued to refine a list of characteristics that can lead to interesting decisions. Our list is made up of four equally valuable traits which will help us address what forms great decisions in games:
Of course, no discussion of early-game structures would be complete without talking about who gets /he first turn, and with it, we’ll take the chance to explore how turn order is decided in strategy games–and whether it really matters who takes which turn.
How is the first turn decided?
Perhaps surprising in a genre notorious for its thick rulebooks and considerable strategic depth, plenty of Euro games are completely silent on who goes first. Mainstays like Dominion and Power Grid don’t specify a way to determine the starting player at all; popular house-rule methods like “whoever gets the gold from this deck of copper goes first” or “if your house drops out of my hand first, you go first” get the job done but are completely arbitrary.
Other games use the “first turn decider” as a chance to inject a bit of levity into the rules: the first player in Small World is the one with the pointiest ears; in Pandemic, the one who was most recently sick; in Terra Mystica, the one who most recently planted something in a garden. The designers of these games are giving a wink and a nudge to the players, giving an objective way to determine the starting player while telling them that whoever goes first doesn’t really matter at all. (We’ll discuss the validity of that assumption in the next section.)
This month we’re talking about game structure, a potentially intimidating but universally helpful topic in game design. Modern tabletop games more and more often spawn from a flurry of exciting ideas followed by the practical mantra of “make a prototype and playtest, playtest, playtest”.
Our motivation with this topic is to help organize several important design checkpoints and key considerations for designers. Hopefully this series of articles can help you nail down specifics, reach conclusions and be able to iterate more quickly. Many of the implicit choices made early on in game design can lead to some natural objectives and areas of concern later on and we intend to address several of those over the next month.
What are Early Game Structures?
Early game structures comprise the first phase of a game’s timeline or game play. The principle value in breaking down a game’s structure into multiple segments is that each corresponds to a specific area of value for players.
We’ve been comparatively quiet this year at Games Precipice but we’ve been as busy as ever. We recently wrapped up our second series of topics by diving into Twilight Struggle, Bohnanza and Concordia/Lewis & Clark.
In February, Matt and I contributed to Game Nite Magazine with an article about Variation in games; randomness, hidden information, replay value and the differences between internal and external variation. You can read the full article and the entirety of issue #2 here.
In March, we managed to get our logo in place and in the past month we’ve launched a Patreon campaign to further our efforts this year as we’ve been structuring a host of new topics we plan to cover in the months to come.
The emails thankfully haven’t stopped coming so let’s get to it:
I enjoyed your Lewis & Clark commentary [design analysis of Lewis & Clark]. It isn’t the only game where a player can paddle in circles at the beginning of the game and run aground before the finish line. I thought you might enjoy this.
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Games Precipice: I’m only slightly upset that I didn’t make this connection while writing the article but I’m so glad I got to see this, especially considering Mario Kart is a favorite pastime and one of the best examples we used while talking about catch-up mechanics, rubber-banding and positional balance. Lewis & Clark really does give that same vibe of “getting Mario Karted” in a self-inflicted I-can’t-believe-I-hit-my-own-banana-peel kinda way.
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.