Player Incentives

If the rules of your game are the stick, player incentives are the carrot.

Player incentives give the player a reason to do something. Without any incentives the player has no reason to play. Every game needs at least the incentive of winning. Without a goal, you don’t have a game. In shorter games this single incentive can be enough. But as you add complexity to a game you also need to add player incentives.

I believe, to a degree, incentives naturally appear in a game design. If you have a 2 hour strategy game with complex, interacting mechanisms, players will naturally come up with mini-goals, even if they are not intentionally designed.

A player will segment their path to victory to easier to comprehend milestones. Step one collect 10 stone, step two build a mill, etc.

However, if you intentionally build incentives into your game, you can increase their value for player engagement and manipulate players to follow the paths you intended.

As a player, I don’t like being told I can’t do something. In many cases it can feel artificial, like when you hit the invisible wall at the edge of a video game map. But with the proper use of incentives you don’t need to tell players what they can’t do, just reward them for what you want them to do. Don’t say “you can’t open the airlock and get sucked into space”, just say “their are 5 crystals and food in the next room”.

There are obviously limits to this. Your rules must prevent the game from breaking, even if a player decides to do things that are terrible for them. Let that player throw the game for themselves, but not break it for the rest of the players.

Besides feeling more natural, player incentives can give your players the feeling of having a variety of options while actually keeping them pretty close to the narrative or play arc you want them to follow.

If you want players to build buildings in the early game so that the mid game is a complex interaction of various buildings, you don’t need to require that they build a building every turn. Just make it clear that if they build a building they will collect needed resources.

Player incentives can also help get new players engaged in your game. If they start the game with a lot of options and no clear goal, they can feel overwhelmed. Or they can make random decisions that they later regret when they find out they were not optimal. If they are given an initial goal or player power that incentivizes certain actions, they can use that to inform an initial strategy.

In the design I’m currently working on, Plutocracy, player incentives have been very difficult to craft. Plutocracy is a 4X space empire game that primarily focuses on economic manipulation. The core concept of the game is that players do not control their own empire. Instead, they use their influence to manipulate all of the empires.

This concept has been great at creating interest in playing the game, but when players aren’t attached to any set aspect of the game they struggle to see the point in performing any actions.

My goal of the game was for players to have the empires explore the board, gain resources from the discovered areas, grow empires, and have them battle each other. What actually happened was players just maximized their currency exchanges. I had made a rather uninspired stock market game with a lot of extra mechanisms that no one used.

Because players didn’t control an empire, they were not invested in wether that empire won or lost a battle. And if no one cares if any empire wins or loses battles, they just don’t have battles. The same was true for exploring, empires gaining resources had no benefit to the players, so they didn’t waste their actions doing it.

The first step to getting players to explore was to add a player reward. Whenever a player had an empire explore, the player would have a chance at a random reward. The player earned some influence and the empire grew their economy.

Once players were rewarded for exploring it was immensely popular and became the focus of the game since it was the quickest path to gaining more influence. But combat was still largely ignored. It was the only way to lower an economy, but players focused on growth and it became more a game of who could get the most value the quickest.

So, again, I made the mechanic I wanted to happen more linked with the mechanics players were using. I reduced the number of spaces on the board, so if an empire wanted to expand it would have to take that area from another empire.

Now, there is no shortage of exploration and combat. However, I ran into another incentive issue related to how much a player can do on their turn. Early on I kept player turns to a single action so the game would move along. The problem was that anything they did could be undone or changed before their next turn. This gave the game a very random feel and players were not incentivized to build anything up out of fear of an opponent getting the rewards.

To counteract this issue I allowed players to do as many actions as they wanted and could afford. This made each turn feel very significant and allowed players to follow through on strategies. But because each turn was so significant, the board state was very changed by your next turn. So while each turn was strategic, the game as a whole was not cohesive.

The answer seems to lie somewhere between 1 and unlimited actions. Future iterations will focus on finding the number that incentivizes players to make progress but also feel like they can set up later game actions.

Incentivizing players to do the actions you want is important to build engagement and to move the game forward in the way you want. Think of the core goal of your game and give your players obvious rewards for doing those things.

In Defense of Fluxx

Fluxx has a lot of detractors who feel it is too random. I enjoy Fluxx, but I didn’t disagree with people when they said that there isn’t much strategy and it’s a bunch of randomness.

But lately I have been thinking about Fluxx and wondering if it’s really as random as people think.

I believe part of the reason people feel Fluxx is very random is the terminology used in the game. The rules and the goal are constantly changing. Obviously a game where the goal and rules can be different from one turn to the next is very random.

But if we look at it from a different perspective, it doesn’t seem as random. If the actions are immediate effects, the rules are ongoing effects, and the goal is aligning two sets of cards (your keepers and the current goal) it seems more like a strategy game.

Some cards are strictly random, like the rule “First Play Random”. But the majority of cards allow for strategic choices to try and manipulate the game state to your advantage.

Lets look at the different types of cards and how much they add to the randomness of the game.

Keepers

Keepers don’t do anything in the original game, so they don’t add any randomness. In many of the themed sets some keepers have abilities, but we won’t get into those.

Goals

The goals also don’t have any game effects besides determining the winning game state. So they don’t add to the randomness.

Actions

Actions have an affect on the game and can be random. But the majority do a specific thing and allow a choice to be made.

Even when a player plays “Draw 2 and Use ‘Em” they get to decide the order in which they use ‘em. This can be a strategic decision if the order of those cards affect each other. For instance, if you draw two goals the second one played will replace the first one.

Some actions are completely random but they usually don’t have a lasting affect on the game.

New Rules

The new rules have the largest impact on the game. They usually stay around for multiple turns and can have a ripple effect by allowing or causing more rules and actions to be played. But are they very random?

The majority of rules control the number of cards you draw, play, keep in hand, or keep on the table. With the exception of the randomness of drawing from a shuffled deck none of these, by themselves, cause randomness.

Drawing and playing more cards allows more decisions, strategic or otherwise. Hand limits and keeper limits force players to make decisions. All of these increase the strategy of the game. Players must manage their hand and the order they play cards to gain an advantage. Playing a hand limit 0 card to force your opponent to discard their entire hand, then replacing it with a hand limit 2, so you get to keep cards is a strategic move.

Some combinations of these rules can cause the game to become purely random. If players have a hand limit of 0 and only draw and play 1 card per turn, there can be no decisions until that game state is broken. This situation is unlikely to occur unless a player decides to make it happen though.

Some of the new rules are truly random, like “First Play Random” and “Mystery Play”. These could lead to a more random game state or end up removing themselves and making a less random game state. But even these random rules are usually played by choice.

So is Fluxx Too Random?

The majority of cards in Fluxx do not remove player agency. A few are truly random and some combinations of cards can cause situations where players make no decisions.

In very rare instances an initial random event can cause more randomness, but usually there are player choices along the way to limit or continue the randomness.

I don’t believe Fluxx is too random. I believe it actually has a lot of strategy for a light card game.

However, what it does have is the ability for players to have a major and sudden game changing affect on their opponents.

I think what people actually are bothered by in Fluxx is a lack of control. They attribute this to randomness, but it is more likely caused by their opponents having such a strong impact on them.

But really, how much control can you expect to have when the game is constantly in flux?

What do you think? Is Fluxx just a random luck fest, or a light strategy game that utilizes randomness to build tension and excitement?

Designing Elegant Board Games

Elegant – adj. – Pleasingly ingenious and simple.

When gaming, a player uses two types of thinking: Fun thinking and work thinking. Fun thinking, the type we love using when playing games, includes; planning strategies, solving puzzles, and basically trying our best to win.  Work thinking, which is the kind of thinking that takes away from the gaming experience, includes; remembering complex rules, maintaining the functions of the game, and tracking the elements of the game so it works.

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Prototyping Cards

I design a lot of card games. They are pretty easy to prototype so I end up making a lot of prototypes. This increased volume makes any streamlining of the process quite useful.

On the card layout side I’m not really doing so well at streamlining. I don’t know or have Adobe InDesign and don’t feel like I can justify the subscription price. I use a Mac so nanDECK isn’t really an option. Paperize.io is nice and easy, but restrictive for designs that require specific layouts. I’m not familiar enough with Ruby to use Squib. JT from TheGameCrafter.com has talked about a program he has been designing that could be the solution for all of this, but it may never be released. Occasionally I’ll write a program to design my cards in Processing because it’s the only language I know, but that is rarely worth the effort.

So for the most part I design my cards super inefficiently in a graphics program, then put the image files into a 3×3 card grid in Pages to print them. Depending on how much control I need of text placement I’ll sometimes have the text as part of the image or use the image as a background and write over it in Pages. The latter makes iteration much easier. For very simple or early designs I’ll just type up cards in a Pages grid.

On the printing side I’ve been trying a few different things. I started with printing on standard copy paper and cutting the cards with an X-Acto knife and ruler. This worked alright, you could cut a stack of pretty much any size as long as you kept slicing, so it minimized the need to setup a new stack of paper. Drift could be a problem if the printing was off or if I couldn’t keep the stack from sliding. Also, I sliced my thumb open once and was pretty much done with that method. I tried a cheap rotary cutter, but it didn’t make straight lines and was useless. Working with standard copy paper meant I had to sleeve things or deal with very thin cards that are pretty transparent.

I was tired of sleeving so much paper so I started using exact index card stock (199gsm) and I bought a decent guillotine paper cutter and a corner cutter. This gave me pretty decent results with cards that could be shuffled reasonably well. Though they were still slightly transparent. Cutting consistently sized cards was easy with the paper cutter’s guide, drift was a bigger issue than when I was cutting by hand. Rounding the corners was a big improvement for shuffling. This is a good method. It works. You can improve it with better card stock and putting more money into a paper cutter.

But I hate cutting cards. I always saw perforated card stock for business cards and invitations and pretty much anything except 2.5” x 3.5” playing cards. It sure would be nice if I could just print my cards and rip them out while watching tv. No need to line things up or measure.

So we come to the reason I’m writing this post. I found a website that will make custom perforated paper, perforatedpaper.com. They offer a few paper stocks and you can customize how many sections the page is split into and how large the borders are. With the power of math I set up a page that would give me my standard 3×3 card page. I had it done on 80 lb Cover Stock (216gsm) which is slightly thicker than my previous card stock. The price drops the more you buy so I decided on 1000 sheets to test it out. With US shipping it costs about 1.5 cents per card. Which is about double what it would cost to buy regular card stock of the same quality on Amazon. So is it worth it?

perforated paper order

The card stock itself is fine, as I said, slightly thicker than the other stuff I was using but nothing close to actual playing cards which are usually over 300gsm and have a core that adds stiffness and blocks light. The real question is if not having to cut was worth the price.


I’ve printed one prototype so far and ripping apart the cards was much faster and easier than cutting cards. It was also nice that I didn’t need a large paper cutter, so I could be doing this pretty much anywhere that had space to put finished cards and the border scraps.


The down side is that the edges have that fuzziness of perforated paper instead of a nice clean cut. This makes shuffling not quite as nice. I also didn’t leave as much room as I usually do for drift and some images go a bit over the line, but that is my fault and not the paper’s. I used 10 sheets and only had one sheet where the perforation hadn’t been fully done, so some cards had to be folded and carefully ripped. I’m not sure if this will be a large issue with the rest of the sheets or the 1 in a 1000 mistake that I caught right away.

So is it worth it? Pros: Quicker to get from print to play. Less attention needed. No need for additional cutting equipment. Consistent size. Cons: Twice the price of regular card stock. Fuzzy edges. Some pages may not be perforated fully.

If you want to save some time and don’t mind fuzzy edges and a higher price you might want to check this out. I like it. I don’t regret buying the 1000 sheets and I’ll be using them for my future prototypes for a while. I’m not sure if I will buy anymore once I run out though. I’ll see how my work flow goes over the next few months, but it might be better to just spend my money on a really nice paper cutter.

Edit: Really useful video about card prototyping by James Ernest

Edit: New card layout software I found for Mac. Currently in Beta. Multideck

The Board Game Workshop

The Board Game Workshop will be a show about board game design. Each episode will focus on an in progress game design and its designer. We will play the game and provide feedback.
We hope to achieve three things with this show: valuable feedback for the designer, useful design information for the audience, and increased awareness of the design community.
We would like to get your ideas on the show so we can focus on what you would most enjoy.

Please answer these 4 questions.

The Board Game Workshop Questionnaire