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?
One of the most amazing benefits we have as a game design blog is the chance to talk with individuals from all corners of game design. When we saw an opportunity to learn more about an academic approach to game design we jumped at the opportunity.
We are thrilled to be joined by Professor Chris Hlas who has given us a chance to learn his approach to teaching game design. Chris is professor of mathematics and also teaches a course in game design. Let’s jump right in.
Games Precipice: Welcome Chris, thank you for joining us. You might be my new favorite professor, and I’ve never been fortunate enough to take one of your courses. What can you share with us about yourself and how did you get involved in board games?
Thanks for the compliment. I am a professor of mathematics education at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. My background in mathematics means I teach the typical mathematics classes (algebra, precalculus, calculus, modern geometry) and my background in education allows me to work with preservice teachers (math for elementary teachers, technology for teachers, math methods). My research focuses on motivation in mathematics classes. As such, I have turned to games for inspiration about what is motivating in the classroom.
We like to start off each year tackling the big questions in game design. This year we’re going to look at fun and specifically the ideas that generate enjoyment in games. Our challenge is that no matter how much discussion we have, we’ll never come to a consensus on a definition of “fun”; we all enjoy different things and that is part of what makes this hobby so great. Fun is in the eye of the beholder and we won’t try to disturb this reality.
We still think there is an opportunity to look at lesser explored areas of gratification in games so this month we’re going to look at Satisfaction. These are tasks, ideas and emotions that can provide a sense of fulfillment in gaming even if it may not lead players on the gigantic roller-coasters and thrill-rides we might ordinarily identify as “fun”.
So what is the value in satisfaction? These are some basic building blocks that can lead to fun in games. Some of the examples we’ll talk about might even be exactly what you find fun in game and this is where personal preferences chime in. More than likely, I’ll be describing some of the things that break up the monotony of games you don’t like or bring a smile to your face even if you don’t ever want to play that game again.
When it comes down to it we think this categorization has merit because whether you love or hate games, there is a middle-ground to find appreciation for a well-designed or aesthetically pleasing game even if you and I don’t find it to be fun in any traditional sense.
What is Satisfaction?
When I think of satisfying tasks both inside and outside of gaming I think of completing a big project like a large area in Castles of Burgundy. I think of checking items off a list like developments in Roll Through the Ages. I think of barely pulling off a risky proposition like completing an entire column in a single turn of Can’t Stop.
These things don’t necessarily fill-up my metaphoric Fun-O-Meter on their own, but they are some of the little things that add to my appreciation for these games and contribute to my willingness to play again next time. Whatever the end result is, I can point at something and say “I built that“. Sometimes “that” ends up being my eleven tile unfinished city in Carcassonne, but still, it’s about the little things.
To finish out 2014 we’ve been examining dependent characteristics of games: Downtime is driven by the number of players and length of a game and Pacing is determined by the length and complexity of a game. These are typically secondary considerations of game designers but they deserve attention since they are quite often the primary consideration of players when we reflect on how much enjoyment we find in a game. Our third dependent characteristic encompasses a factor that shows up in many gaming complaints; how much control do players really have over a game?
“There is too much luck involved in that game.”
“I hate how this game always leads to kingmaking situations.”
“There was nothing else I could do that turn.”
In one form or another we probably have said, thought or heard at least one of the above phrases. While each thought comes from a different cause, they all lead to the same effect: a player feels marginalized in their role. Games are usually played to make interesting decisions and achieve some sort of result. It is this cause-and-effect that can be a motivation for some types of gamers and this can be a decisive factor for how much enjoyment players find in a game.
But when a player doesn’t feel like they have any control over their surroundings their experience diminishes from playing a game to observing an activity. Player control is at a crossroads of old and new for us as we’ll touch on some new topics like luck and skill and revisit some old ones like positional balance and player engagement. Player control is an intersection of a plethora of ideas and it also functions as a subset of player interaction, another topic we’ll look at in the future.
Do players really hate luck in games? A good design offers opportunities to mitigate risk or effectively manage risk so I don’t think this is even what they mean. Players simply don’t like the idea that randomness exerts just as much or more control over their final position as they do. Who wants to feel disempowered in an activity you’ve spent the last hour participating in?
This year we’ve had a lot of fun writing about game design, exchanging ideas with designers and conversing with the board game design community. We’ve been thrilled with the response we’ve received over the past year and we’ve received plenty of great comments, criticism and questions. As part of our year in review we thought it would be fun to look back at some of our favorite interactions.
Games Precipice: Evaluated by a jury of our peers.
We were hoping for a lot of feedback and criticism in 2014. Game designers are by nature our own greatest critics. It turns out that when you write a game design blog you find out game designers are everyone’s greatest critics. Fortunately a few of our readers have a great sense of humor and engaged us in some valuable discussion. 2014 was a year of trial and error for us and so I present to you our favorite responses this year:
I love the examples! I’ve been reading your blog over the past month and I enjoy reading about these games the most. I’ve noticed you tend to use several favorites as examples. What would you say is your favorite game and why is it Power Grid?
Games Precipice: We had several readers who noticed Power Grid was our go-to example. One of the challenges in our writing is citing attributes in popular games alongside games that demonstrate really strong examples of an idea. Power Grid seems to be a little of each.
To be fair I’ve only mentioned Power Grid in 17% of relevant articles. On the other hand Matt has mentioned Power Grid an astounding nine times over the past year. In fact in articles posted on a Sunday after 4PM, Matt has an astounding 1.89 PGMPTW (Power Grid mentions per thousand words) which ranked #1 among bloggers over the month of August. Gamermetrics would be proud.