There are few certainties in tabletop gaming: you should always occupy Australia, everything can use more Cthulhu and every civil discussion of theme turns into an argument between supporters of mechanics and advocates of theme. I’m not actually sure how we arrived at this point; theme and mechanics have long been blended together in wonderful games. Somewhere along the way it was decided that we need a Hatfield-McCoy feud in tabletop gaming.
A problem occurs when this debate occurs in the context of game design, more specifically a discussion of theme first design or mechanic first designs. The trouble is that these debates are probably more interesting than they are valuable. This clash of ideas gets portrayed as a binary; an either/or, a false dichotomy as a starting point for game design.
This month we’ve been exploring brilliant mechanics, elegant components and revolutionary ideas in tapletop games. We’ve titled this month’s theme “Game-Defining Concepts” to encompass the variety and scope of all these innovations. These concepts help formulate the draw to specific games and often create a “hook” that will draw in an audience.
In this article we’re going to pursue some basic frameworks that game designers can utilize as a starting point to develop game-defining concepts. There is no such thing as a comprehensive list, but I’ll look at several key areas that can often develop game-defining concepts.
Question the Status Quo
One source of innovation is simply to ask the right questions about the current climate and format of a topic. We’ve seen innovation emerge in all areas of gaming using a simple question as a starting point. One source of these questions in gaming is to re-examine the typical approach of a player. Every new mechanic or idea in games may require an adjustment from player expectations but there are usually a number of accepted conventions players can carry between games as a method of comfort. Let’s look at card games as an example:
This month we’ve looked at numerous games which show off game-defining concepts; brilliant mechanics and noteworthy ideas which share identity with a game. Later this month we’ll be looking at how to identify opportunities for creating a game-defining concept in your game and how to actually get started implementing it.
To emphasize our monthly topic we wanted to analyze one example to demonstrate how a simple solution can truly define the strategy of a game while resolving weaknesses.
This week we’re looking at one of the greatest game concepts ever created: the Backgammon doubling cube.
After some in-depth design analyses of a couple of our favorite recent games, Terra Mystica and Bora Bora, this month, we’re taking a closer look at some iconic mechanics and components and their impact on the design of the games they’re part of.
What makes a concept game-defining?
One way to think of a “game-defining” concept is as a component, mechanic, or other design element that is so closely connected to the identity of the game that it’s is inevitably talked about when the game is brought up. Well-known examples might include the “king” mechanic in checkers, the “letter tile” components in Scrabble, or the idea of a “trick” in bridge. The polyhedral dice used in Dungeons and Dragons could represent a game-defining concept in a few different ways: the idea of random variables operating under different probability distributions is central to the game’s behind-the-scenes math, the mechanic of rolling dice to resolve the outcome of an action is the single most important mechanic in the entire game, and the dice themselves are such distinctive components that anyone who has ever played the game instantly recognizes them.
In the first half of this year, we’ve published article series on game balance, the “dimensions” of games, means of assessing the value of games, and approachability in games. This month, we’re doing something a little different and apply our design analysis to some of our favorite games from the past couple of years. Today we’ll look at Bora Bora, which was a Stefan Feld title released in his busy 2013 campaign. We’ll be taking a critical look at the structure of Bora Bora to evaluate its design decisions in further detail, according to the framework we’ve developed over the past few months.
A strength of Bora Bora is that there are so many methods of scoring victory points and there is always a viable option. Internal balance seeks to identify and remove false decisions and understand and regulate dominant strategies. Bora Bora offers several scoring opportunities that could be considered superior to other areas of the game when isolated but it is important to note that each scoring area in Bora Bora is balanced by at least one of three aspects:
- The Point Ceiling: The maximum number of points that is attainable in any area is capped.
- The Opportunity Cost: Pursuing dominance in one area requires sacrificing viable scoring opportunities in other areas.
- The Relative Valuation: The value of scoring in different areas of Bora Bora fluctuates entirely based on how opponents interact with that area. Adapting to your opponents and pursuing scoring opportunities they ignore will produce strong performances in Bora Bora.
These three factors combine to explain why Bora Bora doesn’t have a dominant strategy problem. A winning score in Bora Bora requires points from multiple sources and generally that player will still have to leave other lucrative scoring opportunities on the board.
From January through May, we published article series on game balance, the “dimensions” of games, means of assessing the value of games, and approachability in games.
This month, we’re going to try something a little different and apply our design analysis to some of our favorite games from the past couple of years. Up today is Terra Mystica, which was released in 2012, nearly won the Kennerspiel des Jahres (and did win a host of other awards) in 2013, and I finally got to play for the first time a couple of months ago. We’ll be taking a critical look at Terra Mystica to evaluate its design decisions in further detail, according to the framework we’ve developed over the past few months.
Probably the most striking feature of Terra Mystica is its fourteen factions, which provide fascinating study of both internal balance (in that the factions enable and encourage different actions during the game) and external balance (in that the factions represent significant asymmetry in terms of starting location, abilities, and income). Although the factions do drastically different things, the game’s multiple currencies help to support its internal balance: one faction might be great at generating power, and another might strongly incentivize building Dwellings, but both might be paths to acquiring workers.
It is certainly possible to make suboptimal decisions in Terra Mystica, but very few false decisions plague the game. One exception might be the Fakir faction, understood to be the weakest faction and owning a victory rate a few percentage points less than the rest of the factions over a very large sample of online plays. (The Darklings, in turn, own a win rate a few percentage points higher than average.) But the rest of the twelve factions win games at nearly identical rates, suggesting that although they make use of different mechanics, each one represents a viable path to victory.