First Last Most: The Three Types of Games

There are only three types of games; games where you want to do something first, games where you want to be the last one left, and games where you want to have the most of something.

Being aware of how these different goals can direct your game is important to achieving the feeling you want your game to have.

First

These games are typically described as a race. The player is trying to achieve a goal before anyone else can. Sometimes it is a literal race and players are trying to cross the finish line first. Or it could be building ten buildings or getting to a certain score. The goals can even be asymmetrical.

This category also includes a lot of cooperative games where the players are trying to complete their goal before the game completes its goal.

This type of game tends to focus players on their singular task. Since the only thing that matters is achieving the goal first, players are more willing to make sacrifices to achieve that goal.

This obviously works well in a race game where a player is incentivized to use up all their resources to push across the finish line first. Having anything extra at the end of the game is probably a sign that you wasted some effort obtaining it.

It would not work well in a game where you want players to build up multiple systems and have a sense of expansion.

These games usually don’t have to worry about ties. Depending on how progress is measured it may not be obvious how players place after the winner.

Some Examples:

Universal Rule

Hive

Can’t Stop

Codenames

Forbidden Desert

Xia

Last

These games have players trying to be the last one left. They rely on player elimination to achieve the end game. This player elimination could be complete, where a player is out of the game, or partial, where they still get to play some function, but can not win.

The two primary ways we see this type of game are combat games where players try to eliminate each other and survival games where the game tries to eliminate players.

This type of game works well when you want to inspire player interaction. Though, with multiple players there can sometimes be an imbalance in that interaction. If two players are fighting each other, a third player can easily wait it out and only have to deal with the winner of that battle.

When the game is eliminating players, it could be used to inspire teamwork where competing players come together to outlast another player. But if there can be only one winner, it will lead to breaking any temporary alliance.

Because of their reliance on player elimination these games can be problematic if you have a long game that not all the players can enjoy to the end. Modern games that are going for this feeling of conflict tend to add an artificial end point and use one of the other two game types instead.

This type can still work well in 2 player games and short games where being eliminated isn’t as problematic.

These also don’t have to worry about ties in most cases. Player standings can usually be determined by who lasted the longest.

Some Examples:

Bausack

Star Realms

Tsuro

King of Tokyo

Love Letter

Loopin Chewie

Most

These games are probably the most prevalent. At the end of the game the player with the most of something wins. Usually this is points but any countable game object works. This category also includes games where you are trying to have the least of something. In that case, the things you collect can be seen as negative points.

This category includes a lot of economic games where players try and collect the most money. They have multiple strategies they can employ and mix. They usually have a sense of growth. As players build systems they gain a greater return.

In these games there is often some sort of artificial end condition. This contrasts with the other two types of games which have very definite end points.

In games where you are trying to collect the most of something players could often continue playing indefinitely. Because of this, players can sometimes feel like they didn’t get to “finish”.

Sometimes this causes players to want to play again to continue the enjoyment, but it could also make them feel like the game was a waste of time.

Because they lack the linear progress of the other two game types these games can feel repetitive if their isn’t enough of a change in the systems.

This type works well for building games. Players can often get a lot of enjoyment out of the process of the game, even if they don’t win. Because it works well with multiple systems players can enjoy exploring new strategies and as a result they can have a lot of replayability.

Because this type relies on counting something in the game, there is a lot of flexibility for the feeling of the games scale. Players could end with scores in the tens or in the hundreds.

Using a variety of systems can help obscure the leader and give everyone a feeling that they can win.

End game scoring can be complicated in games that use a variety of systems. But once scored players can have a very clear idea of how close the game was.

These games can also end in ties, especially with a smaller end score. You’ll usually want at least one tie breaker to decide a winner.

Some Examples:

Chinatown

Eclipse

Lost Cities

Sheriff of Nottingham

Ticket to Ride

Tzolk’in

Conclusion

Some games can combine aspects of the different types but in the end they only have one goal. For instance in a race you may be able to eliminate players, but it’s still winning the race that is the goal, even if the game is cut short when all the other players are eliminated.

Think about the feeling you want your players to have during your game and especially at the end of your game. If you want an open feeling of growth and efficiency go for a game of collecting the most stuff.

If you want to avoid complicated end game scoring use a First or Last system so the winner is immediately obvious.

If you want to build tension use the Last system to make players worry about their survival at every step.

What are some other benefits you can get from each of these game types?

Plutocracy: The First Dozen Versions

Last night I tested version 12.2 of Plutocracy. It went shockingly bad because of some of the changes I made. Because it went so poorly I didn’t feel bad about making a lot of on the fly rules changes to test some things out so it ended up being a very productive test. It also made me reflect on the journey this design has taken.

When I started gathering my pictures and going over the versions of Plutocracy I realized my versioning has not been very strict and some versions blend into each while others have distinct different versions within a single version number. I’m not good at this sort of organization. I’m much more interested in making the changes than properly organizing what exactly version 6 meant.

It wasn’t even until version 4 or 5 that I actually organized my files by version. Some versions used pieces from past versions, so their folder is an incomplete game. So this timeline is the best reconstruction I could come up with.

This is by far the longest I have worked on a design and the largest game I have attempted to make. Plutocracy started as an entry for The Game Crafter’s Big Box Challenge. Though the core idea of a game based on currency manipulation was something I had been trying to figure out for a few months.

From the beginning I had a few core goals for this game. First, it needed to fit the criteria for the contest, which was pretty open. Priced from $30-$60 fit in a large retail box and play in 1-2 hours. Second, I wanted it to follow Stonemaier Games’ 12 Tenets of Game Design so that I could pitch it to them if it went well. Third, it would be a 4X game with an emphasis on manipulating multiple currencies.

v1

Based on that I made the first version. v1 was medieval themed. There were 3 kingdoms. Each kingdom had it’s own currency. There was also gold, which was a universal standard currency that the others could be measured against.

The unique hook of the game was that players didn’t have their own kingdom. Instead they used influence to manipulate all of the kingdoms in an attempt to have the most valuable fortune at the end of the game.

This version had players drafted action cards to start each round. The kingdoms would be moved around a board made of hex tiles that would be discovered a steely moved. Each kingdom had 4 stats; economy, technology, military, and culture. The economy controlled the value of that kingdom’s currency against the gold standard. Technology gave bonuses to other stats. Military gave bonuses in battles. And culture controlled how many points each kingdom’s influence was worth.

Players collected influence in the kingdoms that they then used to manipulate those kingdoms into certain actions. These actions could be beneficial for the kingdom or detrimental. The goal was to maximize your personal profit.

The game did not play out the way I had hoped. Players had no reason the make the kingdoms battle, or explore. Players just manipulated the economy and traded currency. Buy the cheapest currency, boost its economy, exchange for the new cheapest currency, repeat. The game was boring and winning relied more on player position than anything else.

The issue of player incentives is something that still plagues this design. When players don’t control any pieces on the board they are hesitant to do anything that could benefit an opponent.

The positive things I learned from v1 were that players enjoyed manipulating the currency and the combat system worked well, even though players didn’t want to battle. The initial combat system had each kingdom in a battle add influence cards to a pile, then players could add additional influence from their supplies to try and sway the battle. Only half the cards from the pile would be revealed, so adding influence would change the probability of winning but often wouldn’t guarantee a win.

v2

v2

In version two I changed the theme to sci-fi and the kingdoms became empires. I just enjoy designing in that space more. The major update in this version was replacing the currency cards and influence cards with cubes that represented both depending on where they were. In the original version currency and influence were almost completely interchangeable. This simplified tracking information and cubes were easier to move around than cards. I also changed the card drafting to players having a hand of action cards since the drafting was seen as a waste of time.

This was a lot less fiddly, combat changed slightly to have cubes put in a bag since you can’t have a secret deck of cubes. But the players still lacked incentives to do anything except currency manipulation.

v3

In version three I changed the way planets worked. Players could now activate a planet to manipulate an empire’s stats. This made players start exploring so they could find the planets with the right actions. This worked, but the planet abilities weren’t properly limited, so players had chains of actions that gave them absurd amounts of influence. They could do anything, and there was no challenge.

Combat was still not worth it and players didn’t care about changing the technology or military stats. They only cared about manipulating the economy, which controlled each currencies’ exchange rate, and the culture, which controlled the point value of the currency/influence. In this version I added diplomacy tracks for how each empire interacted with each other. No one cared.

v4

v4

In an attempt to get players to care about the technology stat I changed it from just being bonuses to allowing an empire to build different structures that gave bonuses. This was much stronger than the previous bonus system, but players only cared about the structures that affected culture and thus the value of their influence.

v5

Partially in an attempt to add a solo mode and to incentivize players to do things, I added event cards and goals. If players made an empire complete a goal the player got bonus points. The events pushed things to happen on the map  and stat tracks so players had more uncertainty and couldn’t just focus on the economy. It didn’t fix any of the problems of over powered planet abilities or make players do anything other than manipulate the economy and culture.

v6

v6

Version six had some major changes to try and deal with the issues of the last 3 versions. Planets were much simpler. They no longer had activated abilities. They gave you a bonus when discovered and that was it. I also changed all of the stat tracks to be based on building structures. When an empire built a structure to was removed from their stats track and revealed  a new value for that stat. Each additional building cost more influence to build so it stopped the board from being over run with cubes and made higher levels more difficult to reach.

The action cards were removed in favor of a rondel. Players could perform an empires next action in the rondel for free or they could pay extra influence to move further along and use the action they wanted. This made turns move quickly and pushed players to perform a variety of actions. They could no longer just manipulate the economy because the needed to explore new planets so they could build structures to change the economy. Tying the actions I wanted players to take with the actions they already liked doing was a big breakthrough for this design.

Problems still remained though. Combat was still avoided and since players only took a single action on a turn there wasn’t much control over the board state. Any advance you made for an empire could easily be undone before your next turn.

v7

v7 Board v7

Version seven was the last update before the game was submitted to the contest. It is by far the best looking version to date with art by C. M. Perry which he offered to do for free because he’s just a really nice guy who likes to help people.

Besides looking nice this version had a lot of radical changes, mostly geared towards streamlining the game. The planet tiles were changed to a static board. This allowed me to use the connections of planets to control the flow of the game, but it removed any hint of exploration in the game.

Since players never cared about the technology track or military track I cut them. And since the economy track and culture track had become almost the same thing over the last few versions I combined them into a single track. Empires now built pyramids on planets which increased the value of their influence for exchanges in game and scoring at the end of the game. Only being able to build one pyramid on most planets forced empires to expand. I added 3 more empires for a total of 6 so the board was very tight and manipulating economies required combat, and expansion.

I also removed the universal credit currency (gold in v1). It wasn’t actually necessary and just added cost to an already expensive game.

The rondel was simplified to moving, building, exchanging and taxation. There was a lot to like about this version. Whoever I didn’t get a full play test in before the deadline. Once I did get a test in I realized a pretty big problem. The end game was all the planets having a pyramid built on them. As it turned out, that was a really hard thing to do with empires fighting over space and not moving far enough out.

Plutocracy did make it to the finals of the contest and I’m still waiting on the results. But that didn’t slow down the design process.

v8.1

v8.1

I got rid of the rondel. It worked well but players didn’t have enough control. Instead, players had several actions they could do. Actions cost influence and that was the only limiting factor. Turns became very thinky in the mid to late game and it started to drag. I also added a seventh empire. Since each empire could only be exploited once a round and all empires being exploited triggered the end of round I thought this was a very clever way to create a rotating start player each round regardless of the player count.

I added an explore mechanic back in. Empty planets started with a random explore token. When an empire entered the planet they revealed the explore token and either the player got a bonus of influence or some cubes were removed from the planet. This did the trick and players pushed to explore early game.

Games dragged and it was hard to reach the end game of filling every planet. Also the scoring system left something to be desired. Players needed to collect enough influence cubes from an empire to equal 1 point. This was based on the number of colonies (formerly pyramids) the empire had built. at its best each influence equaled 1 point. At its worst it took 5 influence to equal 1 point. Since any remainder wasn’t counted players ended with scores in the 5-8 range and a lot of wasted cubes.

v8.2

v8.2

I removed some planets from the board to speed up the game. It now played in a good time and ended just as players were running out o things to do. I changed the currency system so instead of ranging from 1/5 of a point to 1 point currency started at 1 point and each level doubled it. This made it possible to do any exchanges between currencies without needing to make change and had players ending with scores that felt like they had achieved something with no wasted cubes.

v9

v9 Empires

v9 Board

Since v8.2 was working pretty well I decided to start adding in some features to make the game more interesting. Each empire had a unique technology that helped them in some way and players could buy technologies for other empires to increase their power. This worked but the way I implemented it was hard to track and it slowed play down. Also the technologies were not balanced so only a few were actually bought.

I added asteroids to the board to complicate movement and make more tactical decisions and added the option of alliances to help empires grow and also a penalty for breaking alliances so players had a way to really ruin an empire by making them attack a friend.

Exploring was changed from tokens on planet to a deck of cards just to be easier to adjust the probability.

Because of all these added systems each empire had its own board for tracking its stats. Th game took up a lot of space.

v10

v10

Version 10 was a minor change. I modified the board layout a bit and changed the technology to cards that were easier to see what empire had what technology.

v11.1

v11.1

I was tired of redesigning the board every version to balance game play, so I changed it back to  modular tiles. Except it had 3 planets per tile and the board was setup ahead of time instead of drawn as it was explored. I did a solo test o this version an dated movement was too difficult. The layout and asteroids were just too punishing.

v11.2

v11.2

I changed to hex tiles with 4 planets on each. This made a much nicer board with a lot of variable setups. I added some wormhole tiles for extra mobility and some special tiles with riskier but lucrative explore abilities. I also changed the explore cards to a more complicated system that I though would push players to explore with more than one cube. It turned out to be much too punishing and nearly wiped out the board from exploring.

v12.1

v12.1

Version 12 was focused on streamlining the game again after it had become bloated with technology systems and explore decks.

The technology was placed on the tiles, so having a colony on a tile gave an empire that ability. No need for players to purchase technologies or track cards or chits. It was much simpler. Instead of player shaving to go through all 7 empires exploit action the round reset after each player had 1 turn. This was to fix a complaint about uneven turn counts. It also helped with the issue of turn 7 usually being very bad for whoever got stuck with it.

I changed the explore system to dice which were much easier to deal with than the cards and allowed a constant variety instead of players being able to card count their chances. However I made the dice way to friendly to the players and they just kept collecting more and more influence from exploring. This made turns take a very long time and caused a broken strategy of constant exploration.

v12.2

v12.2

To further streamline the game I added the empire boards onto the planet tiles. So everything was condensed. Also since the 7 exploits per round system was removed, I decided to remove the exploit each empire once per round limit. I wanted to free up players from restrictions and instead added an action limit per turn. So instead of being limited by their influence players could only do 4 things on a turn.

And since we didn’t need 7 empires to create a rotating start player the number of empires in the game became variable based on player count. And the entire round structure was removed so the game was just continuous turns. It moved along much smoother than previous versions.

I also made the tiny change of making players pay to build a colony. Previously they just removed an influence from a planet to build. This broke the game. No one wanted to pay to build. Players just exploited as much as they could. in a few turns the board was wiped out. Players were forced to make plays they didn’t want in order to move the game forward.

To salvage the play test I made some changes on the fly to test out some things. It was very useful and pointed out some very important and fragile parts of the game.

The major struggle with this design remains player incentives. It is a very tough thing to balance when any benefit to an empire could help your opponents.

Moving Forward

Over all the game has made great progress in the last few months. It’s getting to a point where I like a lot of the mechanisms. It’s just a matter of balancing them so they are powerful enough that players want to do them, even if it helps an opponent, but not so powerful that they allow someone to run away with the game.

Next up is lucky version 13. My plan is to fix the issues that ruined 12.2 and then keep balancing.

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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