Fail Better

Gil Hova designs and plays board games

Gathering of Friends 2014

I first heard about the Gathering of Friends about thirteen years ago, when I first got back into serious boardgaming. Three years ago, I realized that I knew enough people over there to have a shot at attending. I finally made it in this year; one other new attendee said that he had an easier time getting into college!

All this to say: I don’t want to gloat or boast, but I did have a tremendous time, and I wanted to write out a few thoughts about the event.

(Oh, and if you want to know about specific board games I played, check out my GoF 2014 GeekList. I’ll keep this post to general impressions.)

Stress-testing

The most amazing thing about the convention is that I could playtest one game repeatedly with a bunch of really sharp gamers. I played Prime Time 12 times in all over the ten days of the convention. The first few plays revealed that its economy was too loose, and players had so much money that they wanted money to have more meaning.

Interestingly, they suggested things like “I should be able to spend my money on bigger endgame events” or “I should be able to open up a new timeslot.” But having seen how the game worked in the past, I knew that they were really saying that they found money meaningless at the end of the game. I scratched out a bunch of text on the cards and sloppily wrote some new numbers in. I occasionally crossed out out replacement, writing out a second replacement, then crossing out that second replacement and writing a third replacement that matched my original value. Game design!

This kind of testing meant that I could iterate faster than I ever could before. Prime Time is now really close to done. I know, I’ve said that before…

Contrasting schools of thought

I playtested Prime Time with a bunch of razor-sharp game designers from Maryland, like Dave Chalker, John Cooper, and Jacob Davenport. They subscribe to an ethos of elegance in game design, which I find admirable and shrewd.

But while elegance is an outstanding goal to shoot for, it is not the only way to design a game. A few tables away, CGE were testing their newest games. CGE games aren’t exactly Advanced Squad Leader in terms of complexity, but they are usually complex games. CGE feels that if a rule supports the game’s theme and is fun, it should be in the game. This winds up with games that are occasionally tough to teach, and CGE is usually careful to include well-written tutorials in most of their products as a result.

But I feel if the Maryland folks had gotten to games like Galaxy Trucker or Last Will during development, they usually would have struck out half of the rules during playtesting. This is not a criticism of either school of design, of course! There is room in the world for many different kinds of games. It was fascinating to see so many contrasting approaches in the same room.

Networking

I printed out about 25 business cards before the convention. I figured I’d only hand out a few, but better too many than too few, right?

I wound up using almost all of them! I got to introduce myself to a few designers, publishers, and bloggers I’ve only known about by reading their posts or playing their games. They were all modest, approachable, and friendly.

There were a few other people I had not seen in over ten years. Catching up with them was downright beautiful.

A question I’ve always wanted to ask

I mentioned elegance versus complexity before, and how some designers and publishers are more eager to embrace complexity (assuming it serves the theme or gameplay) than others.

My home playtest group trends towards elegance. This has made me a better designer, and my games are the better for it. However, I have a confession to make: there are times when I play a game like Terra Mystica, and I wonder how those designers get away with it!

So I got to ask Vlaada Chvátil (Through the Ages, Galaxy Trucker, Space Alert, Dungeon Lords, Dungeon Petz) and Jeroen Doumen (Roads & Boats, Antiquity, Indonesia) how they got away with it. It turns out that they just have playtest groups who have settled on more complex games, and they’re okay with accepting a certain level of rules density. Although Chvátil admitted that sometimes when he works on a game, he wonders if he’ll be able to get away with it this time…

Sid Sackson and me

One of the highlights of my time at the convention was going on a tour of the board game collection at the Strong Museum of Play in Rochester, NY. They have a collection of vintage board games (and an impressive collection of well-maintained classic video games as well!), and my group was lucky enough to be allowed behind the scenes to view the games in storage. It was amazing to see stack upon stack of classic 3M and Avalon Hill games.

Even better was going to the archives and viewing Sid Sackson’s diaries. Sackson was a monumental game designer, creating classic games like Acquire and Can’t Stop decades before the age of the Euro. He kept diaries of all his gaming-related activity, from sales of his games to communications with other influential gaming figures of the time like Bob Abbott and Martin Gardner.

A couple of people came across his playtest notes for Acquire, and dove headfirst into them. There were a bunch of gems in there, like alternate rules Sackson tried (like awarding extra shares for a merge), and his playtest notes for the extra powers he included in a later version of the game.

Getting in touch with this figure from the past was extraordinary. It was easily one of the highlights of the week.

Artemis!

And of course, there’s one of my favorite video games, Artemis! This is a spaceship bridge simulator that is really a social game in disguise. It takes up to six players. Five of the players have computers, with each computer showing the different stations of a spaceship, like Helm, Comms, Science, Weapons, and Engineering. One player does not have a computer; this player is the Captain, and will order the other players around.

This means that each player has a tiny amount of information and a tiny amount of control over the entire game state. Science has perhaps the best perspective on what is happening, but cannot actually change the game state. Weapons can shoot other players, but cannot fly the spaceship. Helm can control the spaceship, but has no idea where to go without Science’s input. Engineering has the ability to preserve valuable energy on the spaceship, but may deprive some stations of energy at a critical time. And the Captain has full authority over the crew, but without a workstation, can only issue orders verbally.

It is a marvelous game. I was excited when someone suggested setting it up. As a first-time attendee, I was forbidden from officially running the event, but I acted as an (ahem) “advisor”.

We only ran for a few hours; most of the crew were morning people, it turns out. But I got an idea of how the game fits in with the Gathering crew, and I will most likely run it next year.

This was my first time playing Artemis with multiple spaceships, and it was amazing. I loved seeing how the two ships could work together, even if they technically were not allowed to communicate. We could have also gone for a deathmatch, but opted not to. Maybe next year?

Dropping out of time

One of the most amazing feelings at a convention is the sense of “con time.” It’s almost like dropping out of time, and living outside the world for the length of the con. Until the Gathering, the longest I’ve gone was 5 days at BGG.CON. But being able to drop out and live in the world of games for 10 days was beyond extraordinary.

Man, I hate to sound this gloating or pretentious! But I hope that all board game designers one day get to experience the Gathering of Friends for themselves.

How so-called “lazy themes” actually help some games

(Note: This post is adapted from a comment I made on Oakleaf Games‘ fine blog. Go follow it, then come back. I’ll wait!)

I’ve seen a few references to “lazy theming” in board games lately. Anyone familiar with board games knows what this usually means: trading in the Mediterranean, bloodless colonization, building a city/church/castle to curry favor with royalty, and so on.

There seems to be a view that these common Euro themes are just an example of a designer and a publisher not applying themselves to think of a really cool theme for their game. If only they spent some time thinking about a really cool theme, maybe they could have come up with something really cool!

I agree that these themes are tired and cliché, and I’ve already decided that I’ll never design a game using them. But those well-worn themes have a purpose: they inform players that the focus on the game is not its theme, or its theme-mechanism integration, but some new and interesting mechanism.

Dominion is a perfect example. When it came out in 2008, there was nothing like it, other than CCG deckbuilding, which is technically “outside” the CCG. Dominion’s almost-absent theme of medieval territory-building informed players that its theme wasn’t important, and encouraged them to focus on its mechanism, which was unique at the time.

Stefan Feld’s games are also excellent examples. They’re pretty polarizing for a few reasons, but most of his games have the lightest of themes. This seems very deliberate to me. Trajan is not about Roman politics, it’s about managing your mancala-like board. Amerigo is not really about colonizing a new world, it’s about trying to best take advantage of cubes coming out of the tower. He has some games with slightly more applied themes, like Notre Dame or In the Year of the Dragon, but even in those, the emphasis is more on the mechanism than the setting. I completely understand disliking Feld games because of their lack of theme (or because there are so many ways to win them that it can feel arbitrary, but that’s another story), but as a philosophy teacher once told my class, “I’m not asking you to like it. I’m just asking you to understand it.”

I think if you have a mechanism-first game, and it’s not tied to any specific theme, it’s better to give it a light, familiar (albeit tired) theme than to try to force a gaudy theme onto it. Of course, it’s better to tie it to a specific theme, but that’s riskier than it might seem.

A great example of a mechanism-first game with a poor theme is the Reiner Knizia tile-collecting game Zombiegeddon, which is just Knizia’s tile-collecting game Jäger und Sammler with a zombie theme. It’s proof that you can’t just take a dry, mechanism-first Euro and just slap on an engaging American theme. JuG is about its mechanisms, not about its theme, so Zombiegeddon just never feels right. It just doesn’t feel like a zombie game. It’s about moving pieces, not about survival.

A personal favorite example is Monkeys on the Moon, a wonderful bidding game that new players tend to struggle with because its cool, unique auction clashes with its gaudy theme of civilizing lunar monkeys and shooting the most cultured ones back to Earth(!). I really like the game, but it’s a tough sell to new players because the theme and the mechanism just don’t work together. If its theme was about, yes, trading in the Mediterranean, it would go down much easier.

I wrote about this a few years ago, and my feelings haven’t changed since then. Of course, a few years after I wrote that post, I ran into a theme/mechanism issue with the game that eventually became Battle Merchants. It’s why I’m sensitive to the notion that simply slapping a more “interesting” theme onto a game will improve it. Theme/mechanism integration is hard, and if the point of your game is its mechanism, I don’t believe there’s any shame in using your theme as a frame instead of as a core element.

So those boring Euro themes serve a purpose. It’s completely understandable to not like them, and seek out games with a stronger theme-mechanism integration. As a designer, I try to avoid using them in my own games. But they’re not “lazy” themes; their use is quite deliberate.

Gil’s Game Design News

I’ve met a lot of people who want to know when my games are available and how they’re doing, but they’d rather not keep up with the constant stream of information from my blog and Twitter.

To that end, I’ve set up a mailing list. I’m going to post to it every month or two, keeping people up-to-date about when my games are coming out, where they can demo them, what’s in the pipe, and so on. In the next few months, I’ll be updating it with news about Battle Merchants’ upcoming release, its release party, and its tournament at Gen Con. If I get any good news about Prime Time, or if I finally get a chance to make a mobile version of Prolix, you’ll get to read about that on the mailing list as well. (Of course, I’ll announce that sort of thing here on the blog too, as well as my Twitter.)

To get on on this list, simply click here and enter your email address. I promise to not do anything naughty with your email.

Thanks for playing my games!

Competitive Imbalance: The invisible board game group killer

Board game groups are fragile things. There are lots of things that can cause a game group to fall apart: problems with the venue, people moving away, personality conflicts, romantic breakups, and so on.

But there’s one thing that destroys game groups, alienates new players, and causes people to ignore certain games for the wrong reasons. And I don’t think anyone’s really pinned it down now until now. It’s competitive imbalance.

Competitive imbalance happens when you mix casual players with intensely serious players. Casual players play for the social interaction. A casual player will joke with the other players, immerse himself in the game’s theme with some light roleplaying, and generally accept making a possibly suboptimal decision if it means not taking a long time on his turn. A serious player will calculate her options carefully, only focus on the mechanisms of the game relevant for her best possible performance, and only finish a move when she is certain it is the best one she can make.

Casual players can annoy serious players in many ways, so many ways that I think I’ll codify them.

  • C1: Talking about subjects other than the game when it’s not his turn (and sometimes when it is).
  • C2: Being so distracted with social matters when it’s not his turn that he has to be reminded that it’s his turn, and then he has to take a long time to figure out his position because he wasn’t paying attention to what the other players did.
  • C3: Over-roleplaying in the game’s theme, and expecting that everyone else do the same.
  • C4: Accidentally making a clearly suboptimal move that inadvertently but clearly throws the game to another player.
  • C5: Intentionally making a clearly suboptimal move to allow a friend or loved one to win.
  • C6: Allowing, asking, or expecting other players to make his moves for him.

And of course, serious players can annoy casual players too.

  • S1: Taking an incredibly long time on her turn to crunch through the strategic and tactical possibilities.
  • S2: Getting snappy, sore, or unpleasant at the possibility or reality of losing.
  • S3: Intentionally giving misleading advice to gain a competitive advantage.
  • S4: Taking over another player’s turn and giving unwarranted strategic player (or, in a co-op game, trying to control everybody’s moves.)
  • S5: Convincing all players to gang up on one particular player for her advantage.
  • S6: Being hostile to players new to the game (e.g. not allowing a new player to take back an easily-undone move, or not warning a new player of subtle, easily-missed implications of his actions).

(Note that there are two other kinds of players you don’t want at your table. First are cheaters, who clearly try to break the rules of the game to win. Second are spoilsports, who play sub-optimally or outside the spirit of the game, simply to grief the other players. I’m considering “serious” players as players who will follow the letter of the law and still try to win the game.)

Serious players play to get the best possible outcome of the game. Some serious players can adjust their style to play with casual players; some casual players can adjust their style to play with serious players. But I’ve seen a lot of players who can’t, or don’t, change their style. In fact, they don’t even acknowledge that there’s any other valid way to approach a game but their own!

Neither side is “wrong” in the way they approach the game. As long as everyone at the table agrees to play seriously or casually (or any of the degrees in between), then the players should have a good time. If everyone at the table is playing overly socially and not really concerned about being competitive at the game, it can be memorable and fun. On the other hand, if everyone at the table is intensely focused at winning the game (perhaps even implicitly and unanimously agreeing to table talk and metagaming being in bounds), then it too can be an amazing time.

The problem happens when you have a mix of players, and they don’t recognize that there are others at the table that don’t enjoy their style of play. The casual player in Puerto Rico who keeps picking Craftsman (C4). The serious player who takes over a game of Pandemic (S4). The boyfriend who will only ever trade with his girlfriend in Settlers of Catan (C5). The cousin who ruined childhood games of Monopoly by throwing a temper tantrum (S2). The father who kept winning at Chess, but never showing exactly what his child did wrong (S6).

And the thing that amazes me, is that people blame it on the games! Pandemic, and co-op games in general, have developed a reputation for allowing an alpha player to take over, when in reality, you don’t see the problem when playing with a healthy group! There are people who refuse to play Puerto Rico because a new player can so easily throw the game to another player. There are others who will never try a game of Race for the Galaxy or even Dominion because the abilities of a seasoned player are so much greater than a new player, that they do not want to take the lumps of going through a learning curve.

So what do we do about this?

Curate your fellow players

The best way to avoid competitive imbalance is to make sure that any game you play has players who all agree to similar styles of play. People who play roleplaying games have learned whether they enjoy storytelling or number-crunching in their game (or some specific mixture of the two), and most modern RPGs are clear about whether they’re games with a narrative or a numerical focus.

We don’t have to be so specific with board games, but if you’re having a board game night, try to invite people whose play styles are compatible. You don’t have to stick to only competitive or only social players; remember that some competitive players are comfortable shifting gears to play with social players, and vice versa. But be sure you invite people who will enjoy whatever play style you expect for that event.

My personal game days are small; I only invite four people at a time. This allows me to have a lot of control over mixing and matching the group for any given day. If I have social players who get flustered with difficult, competitive games, I can pair them with players who can lean back and laugh. If I have competitive players who don’t talk or crack jokes during their games, I can pair them with players who have a similar goal-oriented nature. Neither style is “wrong”, but they can be incompatible.

Speak out

So what if you’re at a convention or a game day that someone else is running, and you have no control over the curation of the players? If your opponents are whomever shows up at your table and you see that there’s a competitive mismatch, try to call it out, as gently and firmly as you can.

This one is hard, but you have to do it sometimes. Surprisingly, most people are receptive to your feedback. They usually have the feeling they crossed a boundary, but if no one speaks up, they’ll think it’s no big deal. It is up to the others to ask that player to mind the style that the rest of the table wants to play in.

I recently noticed one player in a game giving his girlfriend misleading advice that would help him more than it would help her (S3). I immediately pointed it out. When he joked that he didn’t want me to say that, I asked him politely that if he gave advice, to give real advice that genuinely helped. He’s a smart, friendly guy who is relatively new to gaming, so he quickly understood that trust is important at my table. Help should be genuine help. He continues to be an awesome gamer whom I love to play with.

Of course, judgment is important. If the player is a serious player who seems like she could blow a gasket if you pointed out any of his shortcomings, and there seems to be no tactful way out, you may want to grit your teeth and grind through it. Of course, when the game is over, then curate yourself the heck away from him. Games should be fun, and unless you have a personal, Pygmalion-like stake in turning this guy into a fun person to play with, you owe it to yourself to not play with him. Reclamation projects are wonderful, but they are a lot of work, and you should not be expected to do that work if you don’t want to.

I wish I’d done this more earlier in my gaming career!

Adjust your personal play style to fit the table’s

This one can be hard for some people, but if you play with strangers frequently, it is an invaluable skill: learn to play with as wide a play style as you can. If you are a casual gamer, start playing the same game repeatedly, and try to get good at it. If you find yourself usually checking texts or the internet when it’s not your turn, and you notice that people are getting annoyed with you, try turning off your phone during a game, or putting it on silent, or charging it at an outlet at the other end of the room.

If you are a serious gamer, try to let go a bit. Many people enter the hobby as serious gamers, but then learn to become “stewards” of their tables, and focus their seriousness into making sure everyone understands the rules, possible strategies, and is having as good a time as possible.

Be honest with yourself. Be reflective. When you see yourself being too casual or too serious, ask yourself why.

If you’re really focused on one side or the other, this will not be easy, and perhaps it will turn out to be more work than it’s worth. In that case, fall back on curation. Try to find a group that matches your play style. Be as honest as you can with them; let them know that you really don’t like competitive games, or that you only play to win and ask they do the same. But be mindful that as long as you can play only a single, narrow style, you will have a harder time finding opponents.

Allow takebacks to new players

Teaching games is not easy. It takes a lot of patience. Players are going to make dumb moves. Sometimes, they realize it, and want to take back that move. Most game groups allow this as long as the next player has not taken her turn.

Of course, you’ll have to make a judgment call sometimes. On one hand, if a player is abusing this privilege and taking back a move every time, at some point, you’ll have to ask him to commit. On the other hand, if the move a player missed will clearly lose him the game, you may want to show some mercy and let him make a more optimal move.

Remember that what happens at the table will color the player’s perception of the game. If you don’t allow him to take moves back, he will see the game as being overly harsh. If his move allowed another player to win, he might even be afraid of playing again. If you’re teaching the game, see yourself as a ward to the new players, and allow them to experience the game with as much freedom and flexibility as you can.

This approach also means the game might take longer than normal. Be sure to make sure you pick a game that fits in your time window. If you have four new players who want to learn Puerto Rico, but you only have 90 minutes, save it for another day and teach them something that would normally take an hour.

Don’t blame the game – match the game to the play style instead

Seriously, guys. Pandemic has no alpha player problem, but your gaming group might. If one player is consistently taking over the whole game, chances are that player has ruined other, non-co-op games for you as well. It might be time for a tough but necessary conversation.

Pandemic has no beta player problem either (you are playing with closed hands, as the rules say, to force potential beta players to speak up, right?). If that new couple is always just showing their hands and checking their phones when it’s not their turns, ask them if they really want to be a part of the group. You may have to institute a no-phone policy at your table. You wouldn’t be the first.

Auction games are hard to learn the first time, sure, but that’s not a problem with the game, merely a characteristic. If certain players are flustered that they’re not doing well the first time, maybe they’re overly competitive? Maybe they need a teacher who can guide them through better choices? Maybe they need to be more relaxed during their first play?

Deduction games can be fragile. If one player isn’t paying attention and makes the wrong notes, it can ruin the game. Should you recommend that everyone play this game if you have one player who’s a social butterfly and who won’t give the game the attention it deserves?

Okay, some games are more robust than others. Some games can better survive a wide mix of play styles. If they’re also fun games, that what makes a great game great. But at a certain point, you can’t blame a car for not being able to float. Get a boat instead.

So if you have a group of rowdy kids who like one-upping and trash-talking instead? Go for a social game with possible betrayal, like Cosmic Encounter or The Resistance. You have a quiet couple new to gaming? Show them a gentle Spiel des Jahres winner, like Zooloretto or Dominion. You have a smart, intense group of competitors who play to win? Go big, like with a heavy game with lots of meat to it, like Eclipse or Terra Mystica.

It’s okay to sit out sometimes

So, there’s two tables of games. One is an hour away from finishing. The other is just about to start, and you know that the way they’re going to play is going to bug you.

If they have enough people to play, tell them that it’s okay, to go ahead and play. Try to make it clear that you’re not passive-aggressively expecting an invite. If they insist, insist right on back. They don’t control you.

If they don’t have enough people to play, that’s a tougher situation. If you know these people well, and if there will be fallout from you declining, and if the game is quick, maybe then this is a bullet you’ll have to take.

But remember, no one should force you into a bad time. If there’s another game they can play without you, suggest it. It’s okay once in awhile to swallow your pride and play something you don’t enjoy, but if it is a habit, you may want to look at things again. Gaming should be fun. If everyone else is having more fun than you, maybe there’s another game group more closely aligned with what you enjoy in games?

Competitive imbalance is a tough thing. If you’re in an area with few local gamers, you may not have many options; in that case, honesty and forthrightness becomes crucial to a future where you can enjoy yourself.

If you’re in an area with many local gamers, you’ll have an easier time. Find gaming groups. Find likeminded people in those gaming groups. At some point, you can stop playing in public places and start playing in curated game nights where the players are more likely to have an aligned play style. At the same time, try to adjust your own play style so you can fit into as many groups as you can.

It’s not easy, and it takes time and effort. But the reward is the luxury of never having to deal with a so-called “alpha player” or someone too preoccupied with convivialities to pay attention to the game. It’s worth it.

Vision Quest: Transparency vs. Opacity in a board game

One element of board game design that I’ve recently felt I’ve had more control over is the visibility of the game state’s future. Put simply, it’s how possible it is for a game’s players to figure out what will happen next.

If it’s possible for players to figure out what will happen next, it’s transparent. For example, chess is a perfectly transparent game. There’s no hidden information or randomizing mechanisms to veil the game’s future, and each player only has to account for one player’s actions. Therefore, it’s possible (albeit difficult) for a player to work out how the next few turns will go, especially if she understands her opponent well. In fact, one of the things that makes a good chess player good is the ability to exploit chess’ transparency.

If it’s impossible for players to figure out what will happen next, it’s opaque. For example, poker is an opaque game. Looking at Hold ‘Em as an example, at the start of each hand, players only have two cards and their opponents chip counts as information. Information only appears in small increments: players ante, raise, and fold, and the players see the flop and the turn. By the time the river comes out and the game becomes perfect information, the hand is over. What makes poker challenging is that it forces players to calculate odds and read their opponents to make the most advantageous move with their limited information. Just as transparency defines chess, opacity defines poker.

So neither transparency nor opacity is inherently a bad thing. They’re both tools a good game designer will use to make the best possible game. But it’s quite possible to make a crappy game if you’re not careful with opacity or transparency!

There are many games – race games, especially – where the game’s winner is blindingly obvious in the last few rounds. This isn’t a showstopping problem; many good games can have this problem. But it’s an indication that there’s too much transparency in the game. 

There are other games where what will happen next will be a complete mystery. While this is good in small doses, if you have too much of it, players will have no idea what effect their actions have on the game. This is frustrating, uninteresting, and Not Fun. Some early games of Battle Merchants ended with the sentence, “Wait, how did he win?!” It took some time to work the game into a condition where players could understand why a given player did better than another.

Adding opacity

There are four elements you can add to a game to increase its opacity (and of course, you can remove them to increase its transparency).

  • Randomizing mechanisms. No one knows exactly what the dice will give you. If a game is feeling too transparent, forcing a player to roll successfully or draw a particular card from the deck will inject some uncertainty into the game. Or, you could have the random element appear at the start of a turn, and force players to deal with its consequences. Either way, you draw a veil over the future of the game and force players to work out what’s happening.
  • Hidden information. Perhaps one player is holding onto a card that will catapult her into the lead. Perhaps another player knows where the MacGuffin is from one of his tiles, and isn’t telling anyone. Eliminating perfect information means that players have to guess what the other players’ capabilities are.
  • Player interaction. This is the most organic “randomizer” of them all. Sure, you know the player to your right should ship her goods, but will she? Will she do something suboptimal? Will she do something that seems suboptimal at first, but turns out to be an ever better move than you expected? Furthermore, if players can interfere with or attack each other, you now have to work out how you can achieve your plans with a reduced ability.
  • Complexity. This means that some players will be better able to predict the future game state than others. While chess’ perfect information is a model of transparency for the experienced player, it is difficult to grok for a new player, and a rookie unable to read his position will flounder in a scenario where a veteran will deal with easily.

Complexity is an interesting issue that deserves a couple of more paragraphs. You see it in other games as hidden trackable information (HTI), like hidden victory points that are theoretically countable if a player records it, but are too burdensome for most people to remember. Or card counting in a trick-taking game, which some players can easily do and others not at all. Or eliminating turns and going real-time, which means players can’t take forever to figure out the game state.

These mechanisms are polarizing. Some players detest HTI in games, and insist on playing with those elements open. Others will not play a game that encourages card counting. Real-time is a definite turn-off for a bunch of players. If you put these things in your games, be prepared to defend them!

Complexity gets Really Bad if it obscures exactly what a good play is. In early versions of Battle Merchants, I recorded the losing race of each fight. The races that did worse in battles grew desperate and tended to pay more than races that did well. 

It turned out to be one of those highly-thematic mechanism that worked out better in theory than practice! Players had the opportunity to make one race do better than another, but had to go through a series of numbing calculations to figure out if it was worth it, and the end result turned out to not be significant enough to make a difference. It was theoretically transparent, but only with a slide rule. It was awful, and when I ditched the mechanism for something less thematic but easier to track, the game improved by leaps and bounds.

Adding transparency

On that note, let’s talk about increasing transparency in a game. If your players are struggling to figure out the implications of their actions, and finally leaning back in their chairs and saying “Screw it, I’ll do this move because I don’t care”, then you’ll want to introduce transparency. Here’s how.

  • Reduce opacity. See those four things I listed them? Cut them out. Get rid of randomizers, hidden information, player interaction, and/or complexity. It will streamline your game. Of course, you don’t want to eliminate too much. There tends to be a baby among all this bathwater.
  • Eliminate minor endgame scoring. This is a recent realization of mine that greatly improved my current design, Prime Time. I used to award one point at the end of the game for every $10 a player finished with. But that seemed fiddly and anticlimactic; players were putting a lot of time and energy into decisions that only resulted in a delta of a couple of points. I tried awarding 5 points for the player with the most money at the end of the game, but that lacked pop too. Eventually I pulled out scoring for money at the end of the game altogether, and suddenly the endgame scoring got a lot more dramatic.

Why? Because without those small scorings, the game got a whole lot less opaque. Everyone’s scoring marker moves once for big endgame scoring, and a small amount for a mechanically important minor endgame scoring (unattached Stars). It’s much more transparent, more final, more dramatic, and more fun. It also incentivized players to spend money during the game and walk the razor’s edge, which ends up more thrilling for everyone. 

  • Make players’ performance easily audit-able. That’s big game-designer-speak for “put in a scoring track”. Put as much scoring as you can on that track. The recent game Francis Drake does some interesting things here; most scoring is recorded on a scoring track, and that drives turn order from one round of the game to the next. But one scoring mechanism is HTI that only gets scored at the end, meaning that players who score that way aren’t punished in turn order. It’s a nifty blend of transparency and opacity.

This is a good time to mention as any: do you have a scoring track in your game? Good. Please follow these two simple rules: Make it a circuit instead of a serpentine (people will always move a marker the wrong way), and if you loop it, loop it on a multiple of 100. You can loop on 50 or maybe even 25 if you must, but never an oddball number like 80 (Bruxelles 1893, hem hem, or Alhambra, which loops at 120 and serpentines, cough hack). This will make player performance audit-able at a casual glance.

How about you? Do you have any experience with opacity or transparency in your games?