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.
Of course, no discussion of early-game structures would be complete without talking about who gets the 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.)
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:
We’re re-lighting our lantern to go deeper into our game structures series where we are headed toward mid-game structures to look at how games change their environments to keep the experience engaging.
What are Mid-Game Structures?
Mid-game structures comprise the median phase of a game’s timeline or game play. The underlying motive of mid-game structures would be to build elements of player engagement. By this point in a game, players have likely figured out their purpose, organization of play and their own approach to decision-making.
Now is our opportunity to shake up the formula. We’re still building the replay value we initiated in Early Game Structures, but it’s now a secondary goal. By engaging players with changing objectives and key transition periods of strategy, we can ensure the novelty of innovative mechanics also has substance and longevity behind it. Basically, we don’t want the game to get stale once players have gotten into the meat of the game.
The next stop on our tour of mid-game structures involves player interaction. Of course, player interaction is not strictly limited to the middle part of a game–in some games, every single turn involves some measure of interaction with the other players. But we thought our series about the pivot points and decision crossroads was the perfect place to discuss interaction: the outcome of so many games can hinge on whether you choose to attack your opponent or leave him alone, trade or embargo, call or raise, claim the action that’s best for you or impede on what is best for him.
In the next two sections, I’ll propose a two-dimensional model of interaction that considers both how interactive a game is and how antagonistic it is.
First axis: degree of interaction
The first axis of interaction describes the degree (or intensity) of the interaction that exists in the game. I’ll discuss this axis as if it encompasses three distinct categories, but like every other topic in game design, it really exists as more of a continuum.
This dimension spans from games that have literally no interaction with the other players to games where every action depends on someone else’s and in turn affects someone else’s. And like most continuums in game design, most games fall somewhere in the middle.
No interaction “You do your thing, I’ll do mine.”
In games with no interaction, a player can’t affect either the game state or the strategic options/available actions of the other players. Fans of games with extensive player interaction might derisively refer to a game as “multiplayer solitaire” if they perceive it as having too little interaction. But true multiplayer solitaire would literally confine each player to his own corner, doing his thing without paying any attention to what anyone else was doing.
It’s difficult to think of real examples of games with no interaction, so I’ll use a few nontraditional or incomplete examples to get the point across. Something close to a true no-interaction game is a crossword competition, a contest of skill with an objective scoring system that you can definitely win or lose, but where your success and strategy have no bearing on what anyone else is doing.
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.