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.
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 our first article of the month, Alex introduced the topic of Satisfaction and concluded that we’re satisfied when games appeal to our senses of power, achievement, and affiliation; working within the constraints of “smart restrictions,” including having games creatively limit our options and end at an appropriate time, tends to provide the greatest satisfaction. The other side of the coin is figuring out what isn’t fun or denies satisfaction. This article looks at some common sources of dissatisfaction and identifies what designers can do to avoid them.
To give a quick idea of what we mean by “dissatisfaction,” let’s turn to a (fortunately) fictional game called Crazy Chase. If you’re unfamiliar, take a look at the Whitest Kids U Know explaining the rules.
The poor kids who got suckered into playing Crazy Chase are clearly dissatisfied with the game, but what does that imply about the game’s design? What do those kids find so dissatisfying?