Short-Term Goals

Short-term goals are important in life and in games. In my experience, people are extraordinarily bad at long term planning and “seeing the big picture”. Perhaps it’s an evolutionary hold over from the immediate need for survival. For whatever reason people can get lost if the goal is too far away or too immense to fathom. In games this can lead players to become disengaged, take excessively long turns, or just be confused.

If your game is short, then winning can be the short-term goal. But if your game goes on for more than 30 minutes, I think you would do well to have some intermediate goals for your players. These give them something to work towards without overtaxing their ability to plan.

Short-term goals offer a few benefits in your game. They can allow a player to build their strategy over time. If players need to think over their entire game plan at the start they will need to take some time to do that. However if they only need to plan to their first short-term goal it is much more approachable.

They allow new players to get into the game more easily. Especially if the initial goals are straight forward. They don’t need to understand every rule yet, just the few rules that let them get to their first goal. Then they can learn more to get to their second goal.

They allow players to roughly gauge how much progress they are making in the game. While a lot of games keep who is winning intentionally nebulous, knowing how many goals you’ve completed compared to your opponents can give you a rough idea of how you are doing in the game. Though goals do not have to be equal, 3 goals for one player may be more than 5 goals to another.

A variety of short-term goals can allow a player to map out their strategy. This is how many tech trees work in games. If I want to be able to use lasers, I have to first learn optics and electricity, but I can ignore cooking and gambling. Again, this can simplify an otherwise overwhelming game by allowing players to ignore sections of the game and focus on their strategy.

Having multiple paths of short-term goals to win a game helps the game to be more replayable. After wining one way players can try and win in a variety of other ways.

Give your players many things they can work towards and achieve in a game. Even if they don’t win, they will have a sense of accomplishment from completing short term goals.

Auction Mechanics

I’m currently working on 4 games with auction mechanics. This wasn’t intentional. After getting Plutocracy complete enough for the Cardboard Edison Award I started working on getting things ready for UnPub. My focus lately has been finishing games I’ve already started designing instead of following shiny new ideas. The 4 games I’m working on were all started at different times and coincidentally all have auction mechanics. So auctions have been on my mind a lot.

Auctions can be a tricky thing to design with because they give a lot of power to the players. If you have a very open auction where players are bidding on things that they do not know the value of, the results can be very lopsided. Even worse is when one player does know the value of things, they can easily get things cheaper than they should.

If the things being auctioned are very integral to gameplay and a player’s ability to win, it’s important that they understand the relative value of things before the auction. This could be as simple as listing the rarity of each item, so players know to bid higher to get the rare piece they need. Or having enough auctions in the game, so that messing up on a few will not ruin your chances.

Another consideration for auctions is how much you allow players to ruin their own chances of winning the game. If players can bid any amount of money on an auction, they can easily over pay and be out of the running. This can be held in check by giving players specific amounts they can bid.

The type of auction also has an impact on how much players can sway the game.

A once around auction gives players more information to use the later they are in the bid order. So earlier players will have to bid higher to try and win an auction if they think a later player also wants it. While the last player knows exactly how much they need to bid to win. It’s important that bid order changes in a game with once around auctions.

A blind auction can have a similar feel to a once around auction, but everyone is going first. So no player has the advantage of information before their bid. For this reason you can get a lot of higher bids if players think they are competing on an auction. You also need a way to deal with ties in a blind auction.

A continuous auction allows players to always outbid someone else. So prices can get much higher if two or more players are fighting over something. These auctions can take a lot longer, especially if players are allowed to make small incremental increases. This removes a lot of the player order advantage found in a once around auction. It can also incentivize players to bid on items they don’t want just to force another player to pay more. This can introduce a push your luck aspect because they must be careful not to get stuck paying for the item they don’t want.

Whatever type of auction you use, try to establish some boundaries to control the players. These could be visible boundaries like predetermined price limits or invisible boundaries like a very tightly controlled economy that doesn’t allow any player to be too far ahead in cash for an auction.

Plutocracy Continues

I’ve been working on Plutocracy a lot lately to get it submitted to the Cardboard Edison Award. With the changes added last week it really seems like the major design portion is complete and now it needs development. I’m happy with the game arc, the player incentives, the timing, even the theme has become more specific.

I just found my first design document for it, which I started on December 13, 2016. The very first line of my design notes is “Currency manipulation 4x ish political intrigue.” That was the core of what I wanted the game to be.

It began life as an action card drafting game with a modular board. Players manipulated 4 tracks; economy, military, technology, and culture, for 3 kingdoms. It was supposed to have a lot of area control to push combat, but the economy manipulation was so rewarding no one did anything else. From that first design through player decks, rondels, static and modular boards, and buildings I’ve come to the current version which is still very much the “Currency manipulation 4x ish political intrigue” idea I had back then. Though the currency is influence and the political intrigue is very high level inter-faction conflict, it is more solidly a 4X game.

Games can change drastically during design. When you start a design, make one simple, solid guidepost. Use that as an idea to build everything else off of. In a creative endeavor that can easily circle back around on itself it’s helpful to be able to see where you started from.

That guidepost can change, but if the guidepost changes I would say you are designing a different game, which is fine. Sometimes one game design is the inspiration you need for another game. But always check what your game has become against that original idea.

Here is some Plutocracy stuff, since I worked so hard on it.

Plutocracy Rules

When Things Work

It’s nice when a design finally clicks. The pieces come together and it can start to handle the pressure of players pushing the game.

Last night I had two play tests of Plutocracy. In the second game one player kept completing missions. Completing a mission gives you a point and expands your abilities for the future. My thought was that players would complete a roughly equal number of missions each game.

While this player was grabbing up all the missions I was worried that it would break the game and I would have to find a way to fix it, again. But in the end he lost by 2 points. While this is only one instance and the game will need to continue being stress tested, it was nice that it managed to pull through without a runaway winner.

The reason it held together was that missions have diminishing returns. They are always worth 1 point but the extra actions you gain from them become less useful as you get more. And there are other parts of the game that will earn you more points than the missions as the game progresses.

You probably have an idea of how you want players to play your game, and if you have good incentives, players should generally follow your plan. But be aware of other things players could do and if those things would be a dominant strategy.

The Mines of Mi Otal

Topic suggested by CM Perry (@BHFuturist).

The Mines of Mi Otal is a worker placement game that I started designing for The Game Crafter Worker Placement Challenge which was due the end of May 2016. So I probably started it a month or two earlier.

Thinking back on it, this design and contest were responsible for me meeting a few designers. I started talking to the judge for the contest once my game made it to the finals. Since then he has been on my podcast a few times. And months after the contest I met the contest winner at a local convention. It turned out we lived pretty close to each other and he was looking to start up a play test group. So I’ve met a great group of people through that who I may not have met if I didn’t design this game.

As for the game. This was my first attempt at designing a worker placement game and at the time I hadn’t actually played many. So I wasn’t so familiar with the variety of ways it has been done.

The initial idea was inspired by the game Ryu. I’ve never played Ryu,but I heard a review of it on a podcast. If I remember correctly a mechanic in Ryu was drawing cubes from a bag and hoping to get the right color for what you wanted to do. That’s what I took away from the description anyway. I thought that this mechanic would fit well with a building theme where you would try to gather a resource, say stone, and would get to pull some number of cubes from the bag and keep all the stones. The rest would be treated as nothing for that pull and go back in the bag. This first version was focused on using the resources to build new buildings and locations that let you pull more cubes or trade cubes and generally mitigate the randomness of the bag pulls. Another important aspect was the rarity of different resources in the bag. You could easily pull wood and stone, but gold was much harder to get.

The first version made it to prototype, but it wasn’t ever played. This was before I had joined any play test groups. So it sat around unfinished. Then the worker placement contest came along. I hit on the idea of mining as a theme and crafting items with the different resources.

So the version of the game I submitted to the contest had a bag of chits that were iron, silver, gold, and diamond. Each had a different rarity. Players would place a worker on a specific mine space, for instance the silver mine, and pull 6 chits from the bag. They would keep all of the silver and put the rest back. So players could go to the iron mine and have a good chance of getting some iron or try for the diamond mine and often get nothing. In addition to these mines were some mine spaces that had a random assortment of resources that you could see. Placing a worker there let you take any two resources, but once they were empty they stayed empty.

After collecting enough resources a player could put a worker on the forge and trade resources in to forge an item. Each item required a unique combination of 3 resources and could be sold for double the value of the original resources. Resources could also be sold at the market to get some quick money if you needed it.

Money was important for the other main mechanic in the game. Every round you had to hire your workers. Each player had one worker they kept to prevent them from being totally locked out but, any additional workers had to be hired from a worker pool at the start of the round. The pool only had 8 workers available, so if the players before you hired all 8 you were out of luck. So going first could be important. However, the more workers you hired the more money it cost per worker. So you could hire a single worker for 2 coins. Or, you could hire all 8 workers for 44 coins. This would give you a huge advantage of actions in the round but at that cost you were almost certainly throwing away the game. The more tense situations came from the middle ground where the last player could be blocked out of getting any workers if earlier players spent enough. But money could be very tight, especially in the early game.

The game played pretty well and got some interest from various people I tested with. But I abandoned the design not too long after the contest to start working on other contest submissions. But I eventually started thinking about the game again and ways to improve it. I reworked the hiring mechanic into an auction for my game Vanilla. So the basic concept of having to pay more to hire more workers was there but as an auction players could more freely choose how much they were willing to pay but the highest bidder could still take all of the workers for a round.

I plan on focusing on The Mines of Mi Otal once I finish up Plutocracy. The original design was very limited by the contest’s price constraint. So without that I’m thinking it can be a larger game with each player being able to upgrade their forge and workshop. One of the complaints with the last version was how random the available items to craft could be. Sometimes players just got lucky having the right resources. I’m thinking private contracts, similar to tickets in Ticket to Ride, would be better than a public row of items that players raced for. The changes to hiring workers I used in Vanilla have been further refined and I think it will work really well in this new version.

These new ideas have me really excited to get back to work on this design after such a long break. Only the fast approaching deadline for Plutocracy getting into the Cardboard Edison Award is holding me back. So once that’s done you’ll probably see a lot of posts from me about The Mines of Mi Otal.

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For more game design discussion listen to The Board Game Workshop.

Why I Back

I wasn’t sure what to write about this week so I asked the wisdom of Twitter and got a lot of good ideas. I’ll start with the first one from Odin Phong (@PhongOdin). What makes me back a Kickstarter?

I’ve listened to a lot of podcasts about good Kickstarter creator practices and how to get people to back your Kickstarter. But I never really thought about why I personally back a Kickstarter.

The first game I backed was Tiny Epic Galaxies back in February of 2015. I had only been active in the board game hobby for about 10 months at that point. I was hesitant to back a Kickstarter because of stories of projects that never delivered or had long delays. Tiny Epic Galaxies was only $26 with all the extras and shipping from a company that had delivered Kickstarters before. So it seemed like a safe bet. Also the theme was interesting and it seemed like a fun game.

Once I backed that first project it was easier to back more. Next I backed Vault Wars because I used to watch Storage Wars and it seemed like a fun theme. I paid the extra for the metal coins because I didn’t want to miss out on anything. Fear of missing out will be a reoccurring theme here.

I backed some games because I liked previous games by the designers and they weren’t that expensive. Everything I backed was from $10-$30 with a few times I backed $1 to friends’ projects.

So I would usually back a project if it was less than $30 and seemed fun. I started backing Button Shy wallet games when I entered their first design contest. As I become more involved with Button Shy and the other designers my reason for backing shifted from “It’s an interesting game for a few bucks” to “supporting friends who have an interesting game for a few bucks”. Now on top of that there is an element of collecting involved and I have to make sure I get every interesting game for a few bucks made by friends.

I backed Pack O Games Set 2 because I regretted missing Set 1. Which was almost my first backed project, but waiting for months for a game didn’t seem worth it.

Karmaka was at the Boston Festival of Indie Games when I went and looked interesting so I backed it. Villages of Valeria was talked about on Going Last and sounded interesting so I backed it. One Deck Dungeon was getting some complaints because it had all female characters. Being able to support that design choice made me back it. Heroes and Tricks looked fun and I recently found out I liked trick taking games and owned none, so I backed it. Dice of Crowns and Blend Off were light dice games I like custom dice. So I backed them. All of this stuck to my under $30 and looks interesting rule.

Then Xia came out with an expansion. I had played Xia over my friends house a few times. I really enjoyed it and wanted my own copy, but they weren’t easy to come by for a reasonable price. So when the expansion went on Kickstarter with the option of getting the base game too, I backed it. This was $135. Way past my previous limit, but it was a game I knew I liked and I had to get all the extras. This entered me into phase two of my Kickstarter backing. I was no longer hesitant of spending over $30 if I liked a game. I was still more concerned about more expensive projects being delivered but I didn’t want to miss out on big games with exclusive content.

I continued backing smaller interesting games but I started getting some big ones I was interested in. Near and Far got $77 from me, I love Above and Below and also had to get the extras. Empires of the Void II also got me because Red Raven Games is good at what they do.

I regretted missing Blood Rage on Kickstarter so I was all in for Rising Sun (except the art book). Some games that fell below the $30 threshold got extra money from me by bundling older games I wanted with them. Which I regret in hind site because I had to wait months for a game that was already in retail.

Dinosaur Island looked interesting but I was starting to slow down my game buying because I had no shelf space left. But when I saw the deluxe version was a Kickstarter exclusive I couldn’t resist.

I heard so many great things about Gloomhaven after the first campaign so when it had a second edition I backed it right away.

Meeple Source got me by having upgrades for all of my Red Raven Games. Star Realms got me because I’m a completionist.

Spy Club got me because I think my wife will really enjoy the theme.

Sunset Over Water got me with Beth Sobel’s beautiful art.

After 3 years of backing Kickstarters I’ve become a superbacker and gotten more games than I can play or store. I’ve cut back my backing a lot recently and usually back for $1 to support projects but not have to find a place to store a game.

But as to why I back, I’m grabbed by an interesting theme, nice art, and a low price. Or by a big name title that I know will be worth the money. And as much as I hate it, Kickstarter exclusives can push me if I’m on the fence about a game. But early bird deals that I missed will usually make me not back at all.

Kickstarter is an interesting place to be involved with games and have some input into their development. But it can be a dangerous place for anyone worried about missing out on an exclusive. But those metal coins in Dinosaur Island are really nice.

Audience

When designing a game it’s important to know your audience. No game is for everyone. You must know the capabilities of your audience when it comes to your game. If you are designing a game for young children, it would be a bad idea to rely on text. If your audience likes deep narrative, they would be ok with a hundred page story book being part of the game.

You could make your game and find the audience after, based on who enjoys playing it, but it’s much easier to decide who you want your audience to be and design for them.

Knowing your audience while you design can help focus your work and make decisions easier when you need to cut or add features. Always ask “is this what my audience wants?” This is similar to having a design goal for your game at the start to guide you. It could even be a part of that goal. And just like a design goal you are allowed to change your target audience if you feel it will make the game better.

Part of making an elegant game is making sure your players and game fit each other.

2d6

I love dice games. The feel of rolling dice is very satisfying and they can simplify a lot of mechanics into quicker playing games. Custom dice are great. Rolling a huge handful of dice for a big attack is exciting. The many combinations of polyhedrals for RPGs is fascinating. But my favorite use of dice is 2d6. That’s two standard six sided dice.

I love using 2d6 because it provides a nice bell curve of possibilities while remaining in a relatively tight space of results from 2 to 12.

The 2 and 12 are exciting rarities, each occurring less than 3% of the time. While a 7 is common, occurring almost 17% of the time. The numbers in between are easy to estimate while playing. The closer to 7 the easier it is to get.

In Catan players can easily see which resources will hit more often and use that knowledge to value their trade potential.

Can’t Stop uses 4 dice that then must be paired to make two 2d6 results. Choosing how to pair them gives you some choice in the game. And the board layout balances the difficulty of rolling certain numbers with the length of the path for those numbers. So you could try for the easy 6, 7, and 8 but you will need to hit them a lot more than taking the shorter but riskier 2 and 12 paths.

Machi Koro lets you choose which buildings to build that will trigger on different numbers. You can build a lot of things to trigger on common numbers or spread out your abilities so you always get something.

Even Monopoly uses 2d6 creating a somewhat predictable pattern of movement which you could study to improve your odds if you felt like investing the time.

2d6 provide an interesting design space where you can be somewhat sure of the results over time as opposed to the pure randomness of a single die but not have to deal with the more complex math of larger amounts of dice. For me, it’s the perfect balance of chaos and control.

Dead Ends and Going Back

As you work on a game design you identify problems, formulate solutions, test, and repeat. Sometimes the solution is right and you move forward, other times the solution is wrong and you try something else.

However, sometimes several successful iterations can hit a dead end. In these situations trying to fix a problem and move forward can be impossible. You can waste a lot of time and energy trying, but the only solution is to go back and take a different path.

Sometimes you’ll have to go back several iterations and this can feel like all of those versions were a waste of time. But any thought put into a design is not wasted. You either learn something that works or you learn something that doesn’t.

Things that you incorporated while on that dead end path could still become useful on your new path. Lessons learned can still apply and things that didn’t work before may have a new chance to work.

I recently went down a dead end path with Plutocracy. I’ve written before about my idea to add player pawns to give players a more definite sense of who they are in the game. While this solution did exactly what it was intended to do, a side effect was that it changed the feel of the game.

Player interaction was almost entirely lost. Economic manipulation was no longer a thing. Combat was never entered intentionally. Even though the core of the game is about not being tied to a single empire, players usually chose one empire and just worked with that one. Each exploring out in a different direction and gathering points until the game ended.

I was very tempted to move forward and fix the problem. I started working on grand design changes that would essentially make a different game. Then I stopped. I realized my solution wasn’t really what I wanted this game to be. So I’m backing up a few steps to before players had pawns on the board. I’m incorporating some of the things I learned along that path and trying to fix the original problem of player incentives in a different way.

Game design isn’t a linear path that you travel down from idea to completion. It is an endlessly splitting labyrinth with many dead ends and many possible exits. Don’t be afraid to back up and try a different path.

How Small Can A Game Be?

This is a tough question without some parameters. First, when I talk about a game’s size I’m not necessarily referring to its physical dimensions. Anything can be made pretty small. So the more practical question would be what is the minimum number of pieces needed to make a game?

The answer to that is zero pieces. Many games exist as simply a physical or verbal act. Some of these are even based on rules that are remembered instead of written. So there are no pieces at all.

But let’s say we want to sell a game with very few pieces, but more than zero, because people are hesitant to pay for nothing.

What are the fewest pieces we can make a game with where the pieces add value to the game experience that could not be achieved without them.

I want to say the answer is one. I tried making a small game a while back. I tried working with a single die and a single card. It didn’t really work out for me. Then I worked towards using a single tile. I made Flipped. Game play consisted of flipping the tile and then performing the challenge that was pointing at you. Each challenge involved using the tile to perform some dexterous feat. So the game was all about this one integral piece. Except that it needed a rules sheet to explain what all the challenges were. And since players earned points, you really needed to keep track with some coins or tokens. So 1 tile, rules, and a handful of tokens. Not the single piece game I hoped for.

There are a lot of small games out there. Many are a single card, but they also require some tokens or dice. Or the card is really just a set of rules for a game that needs no pieces.

When you add a few more cards or pieces, the world of micro games opens up. But I’m going to continue trying to make a single piece game.