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.
The underlying motive of early game structures would be to build elements of replay value. In the context of this topic, we’ll emphasize replay value through only a few of its interpretations; generating variety between one game and the next and encouraging interesting variety between players. A few key objectives we’ll be covering in the articles to come:
Diversify player decision-making.
We want to avoid repetitiveness and motivate players into a different schedule of actions or to attempt different strategies which is an interesting environment. Who wants to play an hour long game where everyone does same actions in the same order to achieve the same result?
Understand mechanical attributes like turn order and first-player advantage.
As strange as it sounds, there are games that put a great deal of emphasis into an intricate turn-order method that actually just adds more complexity than benefit. In contrast, a simple pass-to-your-left approach can lead to design flaws that heavily favor one player over another for no other reason than seating position. We want to understand how much of an advantage is gained by taking the first turn of a game and we’ll look at this in greater detail in our next article.
How can we use resources and information to create natural objectives and interesting environments?
This week we’re going to jump into several interesting areas like the initial resource distribution to players and how the level of information present in your favorite game can drive player actions and strategies.
The Initial Resource State
The further back you look in the history of games the more you will find two distinct characteristics: equality and transparency. Games offered perfect symmetry in the starting position of players, and perfect information in how the game was conducted. You’ll also frequently find the two extremes of the resource scale:
Games like Chess and Backgammon use a maximum resource state in which players are provided all of their physical resources in play at the beginning of the game. This typically is followed by a sequence of play in which these resources are used up or lost of the course of the game.
At the opposite extreme, the game of Go is example of a minimum resource state in which players begin with zero physical resources in play and typically will grow or increase their board position during the game.
There tends to be a lot of value in looking at some of the natural strengths and weaknesses of these approaches and many of the variations in between:
Maximum Resource State
After every peak comes an inevitable descent and it can elicit a very specific set of behaviors in players, from extremely defensive to carelessly aggressive. We are effectively giving players their entire inheritance and observing how long they can hang on to it.
- It generates natural objectives. Distributing all resources to players works intuitively with with several common victory conditions in games: Survival objectives, such as games where you attempt to outlast opponents or reach an extraction zone (Survive! Escape from Atlantis, Liar’s Dice or Memoir ’44). Similarly, an objective such as a race to place or use up of all of your resources (Blokus, Qin, Backgammon) can also work very well.
- A large range of outcomes. In theory, a consistent set-up using this method would generate the maximum number of permutations, or be the starting point that could maximize variety in how a game could play out. As for how noticeably different many of those games would feel – well this method probably wouldn’t generate as much replay value as it would initially seem.
- It creates attachment to resources. One way to create a bond between players and their environment is through ownership and if you give them resources, you might establish an attachment to it in a short period of time. We want our audience to care about what is going on. Fear, or more specifically, loss aversion is a powerful motivation, and one within view here.
- It’s all downhill from here. Usually starting with everything comes with the assumption of resource attrition over the course of the game; you’re trying to retain all your pawns and checkers while your opponent tries to destroy them. Asking players to take control over a crumbling situation while holding onto as many things as possible can strike some players as distressing rather than enjoyable.
- Thematic trouble. Starting players at a maximum resource count isn’t particularly common outside of abstract games as relatively few themes truly make sense beyond some sort of military or warfare theme.
Random Initial State
An alternative to beginning at the peak of resources only to decline over time is having a constant number of resources. It remains up to the player to make sense of them. This idea is common in games that intend to be structured as more of a puzzle, or card games that conclude with a similar situation that they began.
Allow player’s to unravel a puzzle or solve a mystery. The urge to solve a problem can be an engaging case to offer players other than just “get a lot of points”. When I think of games that fall into this category, they tend to involve some sort of mystery or important question of identity such as in Clue, The Resistance (basic rules), Inkognito and various version of Werewolf, most notably One Night Werewolf. In these games, players maintain a constant number of tangible resources, but will typically acquire intangible things like information during the game.
A simple, predictable turn process. An extension of this situation could involve traditional games like Scrabble, Mahjong, or Rummy. Plenty of games follow the idea that you should always have X number of tiles or cards in front of you, often resulting in a play + draw turn resolution. It’s easy to overlook how straightforward this type of turn can be for players who are familiar with traditional card and tile games. It can be a familiar sequence that can lead to a reduction in downtime as turns are fast and efficient.
A lack of scarcity and attachment. We don’t usually think of in-game resources as our prized possessions, but there is a lot of interest created when a game makes us treat them as such. Spending money in a game where the winner is whoever finishes with the most money opens up a line of reasoning and a process for making decisions. Freely drawing or replacing cards and tiles because we used some up and need to replace them doesn’t drive much inherent interest in the resources we’re churning through.
Minimum Resource State
While a maximum state starts players out at their high school peak, a minimum resource state offers players a type of “rags to riches” story. This is common with abstract games (The game of Go, Can’t Stop) and party games, as well as several role playing games.
- It’s all uphill from here. It is extremely satisfying to build something from scratch, whether an economic engine or an entire empire. An improving resource situation is an enjoyable environment to be in as competition typically takes form in trying to grab and use the resources more effectively than your opponents rather than outright destroying your opponents.
- A large range of outcomes. Just like with the Maximum Resource State, in theory this set-up maximizes the number of ways the game could play out, while sacrificing other elements. In reality, many of those extreme outcomes would be avoided or bypassed by rational players so the end result may not lead to as much replay variety as it would initially seem.
- Repetitiveness. Starting from zero probably carries the most potential for a game feeling stale due to how the first few moves can feel very limited or routine. I would argue this is more frustratingly repetitive than the Maximum Resource State (as in Checkers or Chess) since you step into the worst situation you’ll be at in the game and spend more time trying to dig out of it.
Low-Resource Starting State
Starting players with an absolute minimum of resources typically isn’t advisable in game design without a very specific reason in mind. Modern games tend to find a middle ground and now, more often than not, start players with an initial gift or subsidy of resources. The vast majority of games do so for at least one of these four reasons:
A quick start: Eliminate routine openings, save time and push players into more interesting decisions in a game. If at the beginning of a game, players need to acquire more workers and more food, giving players an initial distribution of those resources can keep the game from being bogged down around these lifeblood resources and prevent new players from derailing their chances because they overlooked these early needs until it was too late.
Asymmetrical wealth: Avoid sending players on the same journey with an identical itinerary. It is natural for players to want to optimize the first few decisions in a game. By providing a different starting resource composition to each player, designers can reduce the constants factoring into these “dominant opening strategies”. Not only does this cut down on “automatic first moves” and crowding around specific actions (like acquiring more workers), it also creates an interesting fluctuation to early decision needs and priorities. You can see examples methods of this in Tzolk’in‘s starting resource cards and Agricola‘s Occupation/Minor improvement cards.
As pocket change: Some games need to give players resources out of necessity just to open up many of the initial options in the game. It’s easy to forget that in a game like Small World that if you didn’t start with five coins your first race would be confined to the first choice available. Similarly, it makes sense to start players with a few coins in 7 Wonder‘s so that they can interact and procure resources from their neighbors.
To balance first turn advantage: Give later players an extra resource allocation just to counter-act the advantageous situation of the player who happens to go first.
Resource Exchange State
There are actually several more resource states that I don’t have the space to cover here, but one that should look familiar that I want to cover before moving on is actually a mashup of several of the above ideas. An example might be an auction game like High Society where you start with all your money and zero points and end up exchanging one for the other over the course of the game.
- A simplified economy. Gateway games do a really effective job of using this situation to engineer a logical train of thought for players. In Ticket to Ride we place as many trains as we can to acquire as many points as we can. It is a lot of fun to place a worker or play a card and get a bunch of free stuff, but in reality it makes more sense that a person would be trading something away (turning in cards) or losing something (placing trains on the board) in order to progress in score.
The Information State and Intangible Resources:
The second area we’ll look at is the information available to players and how it affects the set-up of the game and alters player behavior.
Perfect Information Games
In game theory (a branch of economics in the study of decision-making), perfect information games encompass games like Hive or Hey! That’s My Fish! where an active player has access to all relevant information, past and present, in order to make a decision. This is contrary to games like Poker where there is hidden information (a player’s hand) inaccessible to some or all active players. This is a bit oversimplified, but a functional definition to use for the intended point we’re about to make.
A common approach taken to create variety between games, particularly perfect information designs, is a variable set-up: a randomly distribution or ordering of objects on the board as seen in Through the Desert, Patchwork, or the aforementioned Hey! That’s My Fish!
There are plenty of reasons why you may want to deviate from a perfect information, obscuring information from players. Perhaps that reason might be to reduce analysis paralysis issues, obscure the final scoring situation or to generate our second objective of replay value; diversifying player actions.
Public and Private Objectives
One interesting method to obscure the end result a bit is to provide some scoring bonuses to players that aren’t resolved until the conclusion of the game. Private objectives are common as in the route tickets of Ticket to Ride which are hidden from opponents until final scoring.
Public objectives can come in many forms such as end of round bonuses that award player’s who have retained the most of a resource as in Lords of Xidit. Public bonuses might also come in the form of a “first player to complete” style objective as in building a specific color tower of a certain height in Firenze or completing one of the “ancient personality” achievements in Antike.
There are a few reasons you might want to include goals or bonuses:
Answer the question of “What should I be doing right now? Provide players direction and help when trying to prioritize actions.
Provide a guide or measure of success for new players. In a game that may be difficult to assess how I’m doing, it helps to know if I can look around and tell if I’m in the running for most of the objectives (and doing well) or not in the running (and won’t be shocked that I’m doing terrible when final scoring rolls around).
Present a source of player interaction. In a game that might otherwise feel very isolated, scoring objectives are an easy (albeit often superficial) solution to that problem. Let’s take a closer look…
We’ve arrived at a great opportunity to discuss one of our core ideas this month: encouraging specific player behavior.
Objectives or events that drive convergence encourage players to move towards one another, compete and generate conflict. This frequently spawns from the variable set-up of a game like In the Year of the Dragon where players attempt to satisfy a large number of known demands that have been shuffled and randomly ordered before the game. Players will generally take different paths to succeed, but those paths will largely collide or overlap and generate spikes in demand for certain resources or action spaces.
Objectives or events that drive divergence achieve one of our motivations in replay value; to encourage players to use different paths and strategies. Games like Strasbourg and the Staufer Dynasty deal players several hidden objectives or formations they can try to achieve during the game for additional points. The side benefit to divergence is that it may help reduce common areas of competition and “open up” the game a bit in terms of viable options.
Divergence is valuable as one of the reasons a game can be interesting over many trials is to attempt different strategies and compete with players in different areas. It is one of the reasons why a game like 7 Wonders can be so interesting; players are pursuing different strategies in the same competition.
So how should we use these ideas?
Public goals are best used to drive convergence. Private goals are best used to drive divergence.
Some of the best examples of these ideas are used by Ted Alspach in both Suburbia and Castles of Mad King Ludwig. These games are a bit unorthodox as they manage to incorporate both public goals and private goals simultaneously.
Public goals: During set-up, a random selection of end game bonuses are dealt openly onto the board that provide some potential scoring bonuses as motivations to players and drive convergence with areas of increased emphasis and competition during the game.
Private goals: Players are given several private goals of which they can choose one and keep it hidden during the game. This is one factor that can encourage a player to favor one tile over another, or determine an entire behavior (like entirely avoiding a certain type of tile in Suburbia).
There are two great principles used that can’t be overlooked in this public goal + private goal format:
- The private goal cards feature diversity and no duplicate objectives. If two players secretly select the same goal we suddenly put those players on a collision course of competition while every other player in the game can pursue their goal without all the extra competition. This would be convergence when we wanted to create divergence.
- The players can choose between private goal cards, discarding one and keeping the other. This gives players at least a chance to avoid an obvious conflict with a public goal.
As for the execution, I tend to think the scoring bonus goals of Castles of Mad King Ludwig works better than the “have the most/least of a tile” -style of Suburbia. I think Suburbia’s is more interesting in terms of game play, but it can punish a person for something out of their control when another player just happens to do or not do something very extreme during the game.
One of the best ways to solve any problem is to use a structured approach and break a big question into smaller, more manageable pieces. That’s what we’re trying to do in this game structures series and we hope you’ll follow us along with your game, your ideas and your experiences. Matt will join us next time on the deeper implications of turn order in games. Thanks for reading.