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.
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.
Innovation – Building Game Defining Concepts
The Evolving Role of Card Play (Lewis & Clark): Every great expedition requires adapting to the equipment, personnel and the current needs of the journey and the card play in Lewis & Clark is very cleverly reflective of this journey. While everyone begins with the same set of basic cards, players will gradually add more cards that will help shape and define a strategy. These additional cards offer a variety of specialized abilities that can help generate resources or advance the expedition.
These specialized abilities often mean that some cards have a highly situational value. For instance, if you’re navigating river spaces, an card action that allows you to advance quickly through the mountains has little to no value. The strength requirement that presses players to forgo or “discard” a card seems counter-effective early in the game, but is actually an extremely elegant way to minimize a drawback of cards that fluctuate from highly effective to relatively useless and back again.
I’d dare to speculate that the variety of highly situational cards spawned the idea to play a card + discard another card to power it. It’s a clever way that Lewis & Clark manages to merge standard card play with the ability to clear unhelpful actions from your hand (being stuck with a hand full of useless cards is a potential area of dissatisfaction it did well to avoid). Once cards no longer appear useful, they can continue to provide a necessary role in your hand as a source of strength.
Merging Essential Ideas (Concordia): Concordia’s most impressive attribute might just be the natural consolidation of actions and scoring. Typically these are two essential ingredients with a loosely connected relationship that players attempt to interpret. The cards in Concordia drive the primary action selection and also function later as the centerpiece of endgame scoring. This is impressive as it closely ties together player actions and player outcomes since a player can acquire a card, use it several times during the game, and then grade their intended strategy by scoring with the same cards at the conclusion of the game.
Theme – Thematic Execution
Supplementary Theme (Concordia): In our exploration of the subject, we broke down the theme into areas of value which add to the player experience. Concordia would be best classified into what we call “supplementary theme” which is an approach that creates context of player actions. The game uses terminology and artwork to associate relationships between objects and their importance. We often write about building around the core of a game design and Concordia is a game of strong mechanics and structure.
As with many other Eurogames, there is still great value in Concordia’s theme; it provides an opportunity to establish a simple context of the game’s actions and allow it a bit simpler to follow. Concordia could have been an an abstract game about building factories where players produce widgets, thingamajigs and whatchamacallits. Rather than trying to educate players on the differences between gizmos and doohickeys, it is more pleasant and less abstract for players to be producing the cloths and wines of Ancient Rome. As it was published, the game of Concordia could have taken place on nearly any map and in any time period and it probably wouldn’t matter; theme is not the central focus of the game nor should it have been.
Persuasive Theme (Lewis & Clark): As a comparison, Lewis & Clark falls into an area of our spectrum labeled “persuasive theme” as it is thematically convincing and the experience of playing reinforces the strong application of theme. Lewis & Clark uses artwork, historical context and even the endgame condition to apply the theme to actions of the players. In a similar vein, Lewis & Clark could certainly have been a different theme with some modifications, but it was implemented very successfully in a manner that added to the player experience without becoming a distraction or detriment. Where L&C does sacrifice in theme or historical accuracy, it abstracts ideas for the benefit of the overall player experience.
Theme – Integrating Theme
There are a plenty of approaches game designers can use to depict a game’s theme to its players, but one factor for success is simply to avoid deceiving player expectations.
A simple approach Matt & I frequently use to council theme-first game designers in rendering theme is to brainstorm potential expectations a player might have for your theme and later analyzing where your game matches up. Let’s apply this exercise, what do you think about when you hear Lewis & Clark? Here is an example list:
In the case of Lewis & Clark, designer Cédrick Chaboussit managed to touch on many of the ideas that come to my mind when thinking about the theme. If we extend this exercise further along the lines of mechanics and gameplay, one could also brainstorm possible starting points for mechanics to illustrate these ideas in the image below:
As far as great thematic implementations in the published game, there are plenty; resource swapping using the worker placement mechanic in the village represents some trading aspects players might expect. Players can also recruit new characters and natives on their expedition and many of those characters are tied to a real figure in history or at least appear plausible (Although I want to learn more about the guy that turns one canoe into two canoes).
Perhaps the best mechanically-enforced element of theme surrounds the coordination of your expedition: carelessly acquiring too many resource tokens, natives and character cards can cause inefficiency and your camp to move slower, while acquiring and using the right mixture of these things together can allow you to progress very effectively.
The only thing that might not match thematic expectations is a racing objective among multiple competing expeditions. I find it pretty excusable considering the published game is likely better than any cooperative outcome I can imagine. Lewis & Clark is a clear success on thematic flavor and it made sacrifices in the right areas.
Our exploration into downtime focused on factors that can encourage slow decision-making, players to experience increased psychological stress and frustrating outcomes that can lead to buyer’s remorse when we make a less than foreseeable mistake. Many would simply summarize these factors as “Analysis Paralysis” and both games display similar approaches to handling complex decisions.
Fluctuating Levels of Complexity: A common approach to managing downtime is to start simple and gradually ramp up additional choices and complexity as the game moves forward. The thought process here is that players can become comfortable with recurring variables (such as your 10-card starting hand in Dominion) and new information is introduced steadily, so as not to paralyze a new player with a bountiful array of options they must consider at all once.
Lewis & Clark and Concordia take slightly different approaches to handling complexity that achieve similar outcomes. Players start with a handful of options which dwindles with each card play so that the next turn is often a simpler decision than the last. Eventually players acquire new cards and “reset” their hand, returning it to a more complex decision point. As maximum hand size (and average turn complexity) increases over the course of the game, this is typically offset by familiarity with the game and a player’s new found experience.
Branching Out – A Decision Tree Comparison: Card play and hand-building are the areas of greatest resemblance between Concordia and Lewis & Clark; play a card, take an action.
Concordia uses a more traditional discrete decision tree; regardless of whether you play the Architect or the Mercator, the resulting action takes place in relative isolation of any other cards in your hand. Concordia’s decision points are also card bound and player centric; the information you need to consider is largely confined to the cards remaining in your hand. If I don’t have the Senator/Consul card available I can’t acquire any additional cards on my turn. As such, I won’t need to spend time assessing the value of all the various card purchases for my upcoming turn.
The value relative to downtime is that Concordia’s decision tree can help to reduce the tendency to overanalyze among gamers who are especially prone to Analysis Paralysis. Concordia has several areas of player interaction, but in terms of card play, only the diplomat is directly dependent on anything the your opponents are playing. You might play other cards based on what your opponents have done or might do, but the vast majority of your reasoning will be constrained by your cards, rather than those played by your opponents.
Arriving at a decision in Lewis & Clark is not quite as simple, especially in the first few turns for a new player. The more complex decision making process is largely responsible for why L&C can be especially paralytic, but it also opens up strategies that give the game significantly more depth. For sake of comparison, Lewis & Clark card play requires a player to use another resource to provide the necessary strength to perform the previously selected action. This strength could be provided a meeple, but more often it will be derived from forgoing a second character card – the area of emphasis we’ll look at for the Lewis & Clark decision tree.
The principle reason for downtime in Lewis & Clark is that a decision involves more steps and has arduous consequences if you fail to plan well in advance. The game can be unforgiving and if you play it enough you’ll eventually make the painful realization that a card you didn’t think you needed three turns ago is now simultaneously the most important link in your chain and taunting your decision-making from the table in front you. Its the type of realization that keeps you up at night, or if you’re like me, compels you to write a few sentences about it.
Picking a card to play in L&C has a number of steps as not only do you need to consider what you want to play, but which card you don’t need in the near future and which cards you’ll be building around next turn. The opportunity cost and the sheer number of permutations you can end up with can be a little overwhelming but fortunately the situational value of cards we discussed earlier can help you narrow decisions very effectively.
Finally, in Lewis & Clark players also don’t have the boundaries of purchasing cards each turn as we saw in Concordia, so its something players need to consider almost every turn. Players can also use the worker placement actions in the village in place of playing a card entirely, so weighing this option in your future plans can add yet another thing to consider.
Dimensions of Games – Pacing
More than any other area, I find pacing is the single most interesting trait these games have to offer and a lesson in design excellence. Despite radically different styles and victory conditions, both games manage to keep the game interesting with short-term developments while keeping the progress moving long-term.
Turn Variance: In games of this weight and length, players want variety between turns. We want to change the board in front of us using the decisions given to us. Both games use the fluctuation of hand size to help differentiate turn weight and importance.
I was actually really impressed with how different consecutive turns could seem in both games considering how many choices overlap. I’d imagine this is because both games manage to keep a focus on material acquisition; we constantly need to get more cards, generate more resources, advance further/build more cities. All these things help ensure that the current situation doesn’t feel quite as stale as it probably could be.
Acceleration: One of my absolute favorite things is when a game appears to progress more quickly as it goes along. Nothing can bring light to all the flaws in a game faster than feeling like you’re spinning your wheels from one turn to the next with micro-advancements in the way of progress.
One of the most common ways to give players this feeling is by using resource management, a tool used in both of these games. Early on in each game, you’re doing everything possible to maximize your resource gathering, but by mid-game your player area is an overflowing cornucopia and you’re willing to throw these same things overboard in an effort to make more room for something else you need more.
Both games keep resource management interesting by retaining scarcity in the form of inventory management. Concordia uses a spatial restriction to keep resources moving and it can be punishing to lose out on resources by going over capacity – a real possibility as players spread into cities and provinces and resource produce increases. Lewis & Clark presses players to maintain resource efficiency, as players receive heavy progress penalties if they don’t carefully regulate their level of resources within their ever-evolving strategy.
Lewis & Clark has an additional sense of acceleration in terms of engine building and the racing objective to Fort Clatsop. There is a charming sense of organic growth that happens as players acquire cards during the game. Players might only progress a few spaces over several turns early in the game but gradually the river around them seems to flow just a bit faster and the mountains become a little bit easier to traverse. As players build their engines, the game grows more interesting as your neighbors you haven’t seen since St. Louis become a real threat to spring 10 spaces past you and set up camp downstream.
While we’re on the subject, its worth mentioning how great the scout/camp mechanic works as players compete along the same path. Lewis & Clark’s pacing of player progress strongly resembles the ebb and flow of scoring in Cribbage; you can’t really impede your opponent’s progress and the lead can go back and forth between players several times during the game. Small factors like the inability to share a space can be a neat factor of timing to allow a player coming from behind to gain a small edge, even though it doesn’t happen often.
Endgame Conditions: We should at least touch on the interesting situation that shapes the conclusion of these two games before moving on. Let’s look at contrast of endgame conditions and their key success factors:
Lewis & Clark is an all out race determined by resource efficiency.
Concordia is a competition in efficiency (victory points) determined (in part by) racing to unoccupied areas.
The endgame condition in L&C is actually is an interesting problem in itself; it isn’t simply who can break the tape but rather who can step over the finish line successfully. It isn’t uncommon for players to stutter-step in their last few turns just to ensure they can clear Fort Clatsop by enough spaces while accounting for penalty days. It reminds me of a scene in the film Memphis Belle where the protagonists are throwing excess weight off the airplane just to ensure they can make it to their landing zone. Players end up trashing excess cards and burning off resources just to avoid floating backwards down the river.
Concordia has an unusual pair of endgame conditions; one that is player specific (placing all your city-markers) and one that is collectively driven (when any player purchases the final card). These two conditions tend to conclude around a similar time frame if at least one player is building cities aggressively.
The difference between them I enjoy is that attempting to build 15 cities provides some additional flexibility to that specific player to end the game on their terms. The cards usually manage to take care of themselves; acquiring cards is probably the easiest method of increasing your score and getting the 7 point bonus for purchasing the last card can be a deciding factor.
Dimensions of Games – Player Control
This category of topics might seem like a random collection of ideas, but player control is our examination of how games provide (or fail to provide) players control over their performance in a game. Neither Concordia nor Lewis & Clark have any significant flaws in this arena but our primary purpose is to highlight good game design.
Player Interaction – Card Acquisition: Whether its the worker placement in the village area of Lewis & Clark or the costly expansion of cities in Concordia, there are plenty of areas of direct and indirect competition in these games. In terms of the problems we identify with player control, most are tied to the cards.
Let’s talk about the cost of acquiring a new card, an area of great similarity between the two games. The cost of a card has a fixed cost representing some type of assessment on its value, as well as a variable cost tied to the age or availability of the card. This variable cost is represented by an increasing amount based on the number of cards preceding it in the card queue.
Basically, as a card appears on the board, it priced at a premium and slowly goes on sale until bought or cleared. This approach makes the newest cards costly in a first-come, first serve format; an effective measure so that either everyone gets a chance to purchase or a player who does pays a premium to do so. Giving everyone a fighting chance at a pretty key item in the game is simply good game design.
Bashing-the-Leader Concerns: Another concern of player control is when a group of players team up on the leader simply because he or she appears to be ahead at the moment. This might be intentional in a game that relies on bashing-the-leader to keep players in check, but it can be a slippery slope when applied to games like Concordia or Lewis & Clark where identifying the true leader can be deceptive. The chief concern here would be multiple players purchasing cards simply to keep them away from an opponent who seems ahead but in reality has the worst future potential.
This isn’t as big of a concern in Concordia, mainly because its hard to gauge a winner until the final scoring after the game is over. Scores in Concordia are often relatively close and there isn’t much you could do to slow down an obvious leader in the game anyway. Cards in Concordia can never really be useless since they are worth at least a few points outside of very extreme situations. Purchasing a card primarily to prevent an opponent from getting it actually has a self-serving benefit that any opponent will understand.
In Lewis & Clark, there is always a leader since players never share the same space after leaving St. Louis. Cards are multi-purpose and grabbing that one card that fits perfectly into your strategy has the benefit that I can use it simply for its strength value in my strategy. Overall there isn’t much concern for a player being targeted in L&C but its important to realize why that is: cards have multiple purposes and provide value in different areas. If cards in Lewis & Clark were limited to a single ability or purpose, players could routinely beat each other down to a point of inefficiency and the game would be a disaster to play.
Player Interaction (Positive Externalities): Both games build in player interaction in methods of accumulating resources. In Lewis & Clark resources are collected based on the medallions of cards played on the table in front of you and your neighboring players. This can lead to really important matters of timing where you’re setting up a turn to get equipment and the player right before you in turn order makes camp and picks up all those beautiful grey equipment medallions right before you can act. Your opponent on the other side of the table might be overflowing with resources because they gained from the fortunate timing of cards. Usually this timing will even out and it can even be anticipated by players, but undoubtedly there are extended periods where players get stuck in a rut and they’re effectively eliminated long before the end of the game.
Concordia’s resources are generated primarily through the Prefect action which activates regions and active players in that city gain some of the output. There is an interesting balance here as heading off in your own direction can lead to tremendous harvests in isolation, but building cities in regions with other players can generate resource byproduct from the prefect actions of those players.
I haven’t observed any dominant competitive advantage in either of these methods and as players expand they tend to grow towards each other anyway. The first mover to a city gets the lowest cost to construct and an increased cost tends to mitigate the benefits of anyone trying to leach off your cash crop region providing you resources.
Card Flexibility: We’ve looked at a few ways that Lewis & Clark mitigates the negatives of situational cards stuck in your hand. Lewis & Clark offers the useful ability to cut the fat from your hand and discard a card for partial value toward a new card. This is a great way to extend a greater sense of freedom in the game as a new player may acquire something that looks great but later realizes it doesn’t fit with anything else and needs to drop it.
Satisfaction – Generating Satisfaction
Appealing to a Need for Achievement: One aspect of our look at satisfaction in games centered around the idea that we like to accomplish things and it can be incredibly gratifying to get that one special thing you wanted to put your whole plan in motion. Both games have moments that can make the experience satisfying. Here are are a few of the moments I really enjoy in each game.
“The final puzzle piece” (Both): Almost any card has value in these games, but getting that card you want that fits perfectly into your existing strategy has a special feeling. It’s not unlike when the perfect piece comes up at the perfect time in Tetris and you get to clear several rows all at once.
“It practically fell into my lap” (Both): Getting a card you want is great, but getting it for the lowest possible resource cost is even better. Who doesn’t like to go into a store and find out what they were looking for is on sale?
“The payoff” (Both): It might take some time to set-up a strong resource generator but that turn that you put it into motion and fill up your area with a bunch of resources is such a good feeling.
“Down to the last card” (Both): There are in-game benefits to playing all your cards and then making camp/playing Tribune at the very end of a string of great turns. But there is also something intrinsically rewarding about that sense of efficiency.
“Check out my new speedboat” (Lewis & Clark): That 10-12 space jump in one turn. That look on everyone else’s face. Worst to First. Oh. So. Good.
“Rome wasn’t built in a day” (Concordia): Any time I can step back from the table at the end of a game and observe my final creation, it can be a very fulfilling moment. Building a network of cities in Concordia is a fairly simple and achievable task, but I find it extremely rewarding every single time.
Satisfaction – Avoiding Dissatisfaction
Our look at Dissatisfaction in games is just the opposite; how do games detract from our experience with unnecessary frustration and roadblocks or dead ends that leave players in rough situations that take away from our enjoyment.
No False Decisions: Neither game has any sort of “correct” first move or something you must do to begin that game that would be less than obvious if you haven’t played before. One thing I enjoyed about Lewis & Clark is that the worker placement aspect of the game is one of several different mechanisms. One area that worker placement games often fail to manage well is when your first action should always be “get more workers”. Not the problem in this case.
Net-Positive Satisfaction: If we both really want card X and you buy card X before I can, I’m only slightly disappointed because there are so many other things I can do on my turn instead. On the other hand, you’re highly satisfied because you grabbed that awesome card you planned on getting.
These games go a step further to mitigate the exclusivity of actions or abilities. Concordia offers the diplomat card so when you play super cool card X I can mirror its ability on my turn. Lewis & Clark offers a space in the village that enables the use of a card on the table in front of any player. I believe L&C also has a card with a similar ability players can acquire.
Mitigating Downtime: Neither game really features anything compelling for me to do on your turn except to plan my own turn, and that plan might not come to fruition if you take the card or action I was about to do. This isn’t a problem specific to these games and they aren’t really terrible offenders, but downtime is a topic we’ve been talking about recently and it is certainly relevant here.
Negative Progress: Lewis & Clark has the unfortunate situation where players can inevitably make a single mistake that sets them back heavily. It is a challenging and rewarding game but I can’t even spin this into a neutral. Sure, there are strategic choices that can be made that minimize early progress in favor of building an engine — but that isn’t what we’re talking about. This game always has the chance of becoming a frustratingly bad experience for new players and in the wrong circumstances the game can really pile onto someone having a rough time.
Years ago I experimented with writing a few multi-game reviews under the proposition of “Resemblance Reviews”. The similarities between games ranged from common mechanics to games with a similar “feel” when playing. I always liked the idea of looking at two unaffiliated games and breaking down similar attributes and interesting differences. When I had a chance to play these two games over a short time frame early last year it struck me as an alluring chance to dig into two games at once if I ever had the chance to do so.
I’ll admit my original intent was to throw out our review phase of the conclusion and remain neutral on these two games. But who was I kidding? We write on this blog because we love playing great games and undoubtedly we’ve formed some personal preferences as we’ve dissected these games. I want to keep it short as we really want to hear your thoughts on these games in the comments: Are they comparable? Which do you prefer? What else can we learn from them?
Aesthetics: I’m a sucker for anything Roman history, and I loved seeing Latin incorporated into the visual design, but Lewis & Clark integrates its theme better into its design. The art on both games is quite nice, though Lewis & Clark’s is more distinctive, and both feature useful, intuitive iconography.
Fun per time: Concordia is a bit shorter than Lewis & Clark and delivers about the same amount of enjoyment, although neither are real emotional thrillers. Concordia’s experience is more even throughout, while Lewis & Clark can either ratchet up the intensity if the race is close at the end–or anticlimactic if it becomes clear who’s going to win.
Strategy: The strategic depth of both games is in the same ballpark, though Concordia manages to get there with a slightly simpler set of rules. Neither game presents new players with false decisions. Concordia has the advantage of the worst result of a turn being “nothing happens,” while Lewis & Clark occasionally sticks you with negative progress.
Mechanics: I found more opportunities for clever synergies among Lewis & Clark’s cards than Concordia’s. The multi-purpose card mechanic in Lewis & Clark takes a little getting used to and can cause spells of analysis paralysis for new players but is ultimately a clever way to keep resources around even if you don’t have an immediate use for them.
Matt’s Verdict: For me, drawing a meaningful distinction between Lewis & Clark and Concordia comes down to one of our favorite concepts in design analysis, the depth-to-complexity ratio. The strategic merit to both games is similar, but Concordia does it with a slightly less weighty apparatus behind it, so Concordia edges out Lewis & Clark in terms of overall quality.
Originality: I’ll probably never get over how much I enjoy Concordia’s card alignment of actions and scoring, I think it is the best single idea in either game, but Lewis & Clark has tremendous originality in its theme, tone and execution. I’ll always have a soft spot for victory points but the race objective in Lewis & Clark was a breath of fresh air and for that ironically I’ll award it the victory point here.
Replayability: Nothing eliminates a strategy discussion faster than being unable to start the game with an existing strategy. Both games press players to adapt to whats going on and form a competitive advantage on the fly. Concordia is a little more straightforward since a player is going to have a tough time winning without buying some additional cards. Anything goes in Lewis & Clark and I’m still impressed by how many much card synergy players can pull together in a single game.
Scalability: Close call and one I’m not sure I can make. I appreciate the variety Concordia offers in different maps to accommodate varying player counts. Lewis & Clark is built to handle 1-5 effectively even if a few card abilities swing significantly in value based on the number of players.
Parity: Appropriately, this is another close call. I’m never completely sure who’s won in Concordia because the game is positioned so that everyone is capable of getting a few cards and if they don’t get many, they can use those non-card buying turns to increase their score in other ways. Perhaps it is just the people I often play with, but I’ve found Lewis & Clark to usually be a pretty close contest, with at least 60-75% of players being a turn away from winning at the end of games.
Verdict: I love both these games but if for some reason I was teaching a person who would only ever play either game once I’d definitely teach them Concordia. It was my initial preference since I found it less quirky and frustrating and the game has always been a crowd-pleaser in all areas except theme. The more I play Lewis & Clark, the more appreciation I’ve gained for the variety in strategies it offers.
The two of us are at a standstill, so let us know in the comments what you think: