I’m a recent convert to Onirim, a fantastic solo card game by Shadi Torbey, recently converted to a mobile app by the fine folks at Asmodee Digital (currently iOS only). I wanted to discuss something they included in a recent update, because I find it fascinating.
Disclaimer: what follows is not a review. It shouldn’t tell you whether or not to buy the game. Rather, I wanted to critically study the digital implementation’s new scoring system, which as far as I can tell, is absent from the tabletop version of the game.
(Would you like a review? Here’s a short one: Onirim’s good. Buy it.)
Also, this digital app is really, really good. I’m going to be fairly critical of its scoring system, but all other aspects of the app are extremely strong. Again, the point of this post is not to review the game or the app, but if you’re a fan of games, it’s definitely worth your time and money.
Overview of the game
In the tabletop version of the game, you have a deck of cards, from which you draw a hand of 5 cards. You are trying to extract 8 Door Cards from the deck before it runs out. If you get all 8 door cards, you win. If the deck runs out, you lose.
There are 4 suits, so there are 2 Door Cards of each suit. There are a bunch of other cards in the deck, each in one of the 4 suits. When you play three consecutive cards of the same suit, you get to dive into the deck and extract a matching Door.
Each card also has a symbol on it, mainly Stars and Moons. You may never play a card with the same symbol as the card before it, regardless of color. That constraint is vital, because it makes the game very interesting.
There are also Nightmare Cards, which you don’t want to draw, because they force you to do bad things like discard and redraw your hand, or discard the top 5 cards of the deck (both of which get you closer to the loss condition). And there are Key Cards, which do valuable things like get you to discard one of the next 5 cards on the deck and rearrange the remaining 4 in any order (a nice way to get rid of Nightmares).
My own primitive scoring system
There’s a bit more to the game than that, but it’s enough to get us started. I’ve been playing the game ceaselessly for the past month, and it’s my current go-to game if I need to take a break from things. Each game presents its own set of challenges, and I enjoy the puzzle of having to work out how to avoid the Nightmares to get to my Doors. If I won, I won, and if I lost, I lost. When I first got the game, I liked the casual, easygoing feel of the game, and that I didn’t need to race against the clock to make my decisions. (In writing, we would call that last sentence foreshadowing.)
The app didn’t have a scoring system, other than recording how many cards remained in your deck at the end of a game. I toyed around with a casual scoring system: 100 points for every played Door, 1 point for every card remaining in the deck if I won. So 800 would be the minimum winning score. (For you persnickety folks, when I started playing with the Glyphs expansion, which adds 4 new doors, I subtracted 400 points from every score.)
This was a nice, simple, manageable scoring system that I could tally in my head. The game kept a record of the most cards I ever finished with in my deck, so for a long time, I knew my best score was 827. And I could rank failed games next to each other.
Back to my mantra
Let’s take a step back and take a look at my personal game design mantra: Incentivize Interesting Behavior. This is what I think all game designers do, or at least, should be doing. And it’s naturally what a scoring system will do.
My personal scoring system reinforced behaviors that the game already encouraged: try to find all the Doors. It gave a small bonus for finishing with cards in the deck, which isn’t canonically part of the card game. That technically is incentivizing a behavior that the base game doesn’t really incentivize. But since that behavior tends to emerge naturally during gameplay, it feels like a regular fit.
The new scoring system
So this gets us to the new scoring system in Onirim. Let’s go through it, and then discuss the behaviors it incentivizes:
For every series of 3 like-colored cards (that extracts a door):
Stars: 10 points
Moons: 20 points
Keys: 50 points
If you play consecutive series of 3 like-colored cards, with no extra colors in between (like RRRBBB would be 2 consecutive series, whereas RRRGBBB would not because the G gets in the way):
Second series: 100 points
Third series: 200 points
Fourth series: 300 points, and so on.
If the consecutive series above are of the same color (like GGGGGG for 2 consecutive series), you get additional bonuses:
Second series: 100 points
Third series: 200 points
Fourth series: 300 points, and so on.
Unlock a Door with a Key: 100 points
Use a Key to discard a Nightmare: 200 points
Endgame points, if you win the game:
Time Bonus: for every second remaining under 20 minutes (1200 seconds), you get 1 point. So if you finish in 5 minutes (300 seconds), you will have 900 seconds remaining, which is 900 points.
Card Bonus: for every card you have left in the deck, you get a certain number of points. This point value is unpublished, but seems to be roughly 10-50 points per card. It’s unclear exactly which cards are worth extra points.
The good, the bad, and the ugly
Now we get to the interesting part! There’s some stuff in this scoring system that works, some stuff that incentivizes behavior that seems odd, and some stuff that’s just plain weird.
Let’s start with the series bonuses. I’ve found the 100/200/300 point bonuses to be enormously significant. You need these for a high score. If you can play, say, RRRRRR, or even RRRRRRRRR, you can start racking up some big-time points.
This sort of behavior is not at all existent in the tabletop version of the game. It makes no difference whether you go directly from one series to another, or if you buttress multiple series with “bridge” cards in between.
Let me explain that last bit. There are Sun cards and Moon cards in the game, but Sun cards are much more plentiful than Moon cards. So an SMS combination is much easier to pull off than an MSM combination.
So let’s say I have a Green Sun, Green Moon, and Green Sun combo. I’ll abbreviate that GsGmGs. I have the cards after that to play BsBmBs. The problem is, I can’t put the Gs and Bs next to each other. So I may play, for example, GsGmGsRmBsBmBs.
The Red Moon in the middle is a “bridge” card; it lets me connect the two series together. Here’s the interesting thing: these bridge cards are excellent in the tabletop game, because they get me closer to winning the game. But they’re marginal in the digital game, in that they will cost me possibly thousands of points!
This is an excellent example of how a scoring system can incentivize or disincentivize behavior. I’m now generally disincentivized in the digital game from playing bridge cards. Is this a good thing or a bad thing?
It’s certainly more challenging to play this way, in that a good weapon in my arsenal is now neutralized. But it also removes an interesting tactic for me; I have one fewer path to victory. So I find this element of the scoring system a little blander.
The incentive pushes players along in another noticeable way. You get points for series, whether or not it gets you a door. So (assuming we’re playing the base game) if you’re at two doors of a color already, and you play a series of that color, you’ll still score points for it, possibly a lot of points, even though you’re no closer to victory.
This is an especially fascinating case. Here, the scoring system is incentivizing us to do something the tabletop game provides only a tiny reward for (a reshuffle, which in many circumstances, doesn’t really change much). So we now have a much larger incentive to do something that previously was just a bit of a time-waster. Very different than the original game.
The black box
Let’s move onto the remaining cards bonuses. This is a weird one. On one hand, it’s nice to have a bonus for remaining cards when winning. But the problem is, I don’t know any of the card values! Is it good to have Nightmares left in the deck? Or is it better to discard them using Keys? Or is it the same thing? We have no idea!
And because this is unknown, we wind up not actually changing player behavior. We still want to finish with as many cards as possible, but their values are now effectively random numbers.
This is a trap a lot of video games can fall into. In a digital game, the computer can handle scoring without the players’ involvement. This reduces fiddliness greatly, but at the cost of opacity. A scoring system that can’t give us specific feedback to tell us exactly why we scored the way we did is a scoring system that does not have any meaning to the player.
To be honest, this isn’t so much a fault with the scoring system, as much as it is with the documentation. As such, it has a simple solution: just tell us what each card is worth! That may be more overhead, but as players get the hang of this intricate scoring system, we can work to maximize our scores.
The next version will include a grabbable totem
This gets us to the last, and to me, ugliest change: the time bonus.
If we win, the computer looks at how long it took us to win, in seconds, and subtracts that from 1200 seconds (15 minutes). So the fact becomes inescapable: Onirim, which I’d previously enjoyed as a game where I could take my time and weigh my decisions in a relaxed manner, is now a real-time game where every second literally counts.
In other words, one of the things I liked Onirim is dashed against the rocks in the name of high scoring. I’m now punished for taking my time and smelling the roses.
Worse yet, the recorded time accounts for animation time. Like most digital implementations of card games, every time you draw, play, or discard a card, you see it move from the deck to your hand, and then from your hand to the play area or discard pile. In the most recent update, this animation speed was sped up, but it still takes some time.
That wouldn’t be so bad either… except players now have the option to skip the animation by clicking on the screen. And I’m not kidding here, if you click on the screen through the whole game, you could gain 100 or more points by the end of the game; you’re literally saving a minute or two of animation.
So now, we have a clear incentive to take an action that’s arguably outside the bounds of the game to gain points, in the name of scoring to play the game in a style that I don’t enjoy playing in (and I’m sure I’m not alone). This is capital-W Weird.
And here’s the worst part: The game already rewards players for playing efficiently (if not quickly) by awarding them a card bonus. There’s already a reward for efficiency, which, to me, is millions of time more interesting, relevant, and Onirim-like than raw time. So what purpose is the real-time bonus serving here, other than to attract quick-thumbed gamers and alienate those of us who wanted to relax and enjoy the game?
Of course, I don’t have to honor the scoring system. I can just ignore it and return to the scoring system inside my head. But the human brain is a weird thing; when I see those numbers, I think, “What if I’d played according to the scoring system?” It feels like a point of friction; that I’m violating the rules somehow.
Which I kind of am. By ignoring the scoring system, I’m telling the architects of the digital game that I’m not playing by their rules, but by the tabletop game’s rules.
Again, this isn’t a review, so my point isn’t to declare the digital game “bad” or “good.” Instead, I think this scoring system is a great example of how scoring systems can change the feeling of a game, or even change the game itself.
To this point, digital Onirim is a different game than the physical version of the game. It incentivizes different behavior entirely.
So we’re left with the question now of: why? Why does Onirim even have a digital scoring system?
It turns out that Asmodee Digital implemented a leaderboard for Onirim. This is a cool thing to do; even for a solo game, it’s nice, in theory, to see how your performance stacked up against the rest of the world.
The issue here is how Asmodee Digital has defined your performance. Some players may have “performed” better by skipping animations, playing consecutive series whether or not they opened doors, and having better cards left in their deck (although I couldn’t tell you what a “better” card is in that context). None of these are behaviors in the original game.
It’s not that Asmodee Digital’s scoring system is uniformly uninteresting. It’s just that they’re incentivizing behavior that’s not interesting to all players. The series thing is completely artificial, and I’m sure a lot of other players agree with me in that they don’t really care how many seconds it takes us to finish the game.
The game also records your personal high score, and compares each winning score to it. So the more you play, the higher your high score will go… and the less likely you’ll approach it in each new game. So the more you play, the less relevant the high score becomes.
This already existed to an extent before the scoring system was installed, in that the game tracked how many cards were left in your deck after you won, and told you that as your highest “score.” But since the whole game was about the binary win/loss result anyway, that was just a side note. There were no leaderboards to give emphasis to a particularly high score.
And I find my in-game decisions and behavior greatly affected by the new scoring system. I’m playing fewer bridge cards, going for more color combos, and of course, skipping animations anywhere I can. So when I end up with a final score that’s only 50% of my high score, I feel like I’ve lost, even though I’ve won. This really doesn’t feel as good or as interesting as before.
If it were up to me, I’d implement a lot of these things as achievements instead. Play 9 cards of the same color in series: achievement unlocked! Finish a game in 5 minutes or less: achievement unlocked! Finish the game with 5 Nightmares still in the deck: achievement unlocked!
I think this would have been a better model to pursue here, because it takes this behavior that’s orthogonal to the tabletop game and slightly incentivizes us to accomplish it, but not as a behavior core to the game. This way, the spirit of the digital game is much closer to the spirit of the tabletop game, with a couple of paths out to some weirder behavior if you wish to explore it.
Let’s go back to my primitive scoring system: 100 for each door extracted, 1 point for each card remaining in the deck. I still prefer this scoring system. It’s simple, easily calculated, and tells the story of your game in line (mostly) with the incentives the game provided, with a dash of human nature to help. If you move most of the incentives in the current scoring system to achievements, and install this scoring system instead, I think you have a digital implementation that feels much more Onirim-like.
This is one of the reasons game design is just as much of an art as it is a science. It’s not always obvious how to best design a game, or how to best port it over to a digital platform.
And to be clear: Onirim is a fantastic game, and other than its scoring system, its digital implementation is stellar. Again, my focus here is not to review the game or the app, but I want to be clear that this is an outstanding game that belongs in most collections. I’m certainly not going to stop playing it anytime soon.
But I think this discussion is valuable, because it shows us how a scoring system can help or hinder a game. Scoring systems are some of the best ways a game can incentivize interesting behavior. Be sure you have the right scoring system for your game!