I love game variants. I can’t help it; I can’t switch my developer brain off. When I play a game, I’m always curious how it could be done different or better. What could be added, or more commonly, what could be removed? What audiences could we open up to the game? How much shorter can we make it? How can we make it easier to learn?
So this will be a post about a game that’s not mine. I will not be recommending a variant of the game, nor will I be reviewing it. For this post, I’d like to take you through the mindset of evaluating a point/reward system in a game, looking at how scoring variants could incentivize or deincentivize players, and how that changes the game for better, worse, or the-same-just-different.
I’ve been playing a lot of Uwe Rosenberg’s outstanding 2-player game Patchwork on my iPhone. It’s a fantastic implementation by Digidiced, who are starting to distinguish themselves by making very good digital ports of Lookout’s 2-player line.
A summary of the game
(You can skip this section if you know how to play!)
I’ve enjoyed my plays of Patchwork, and I’m hardly done with it, even after hundreds of games! There are plenty of challenging decisions and fascinating dilemmas the game presents.
If you haven’t played, here’s the general idea. You and the other player pick up pieces of fabric. The pieces are arranged in a circle, and there’s a pawn in the circle. You may buy one of the three patches clockwise in front of the pawn. Every patch costs “buttons” (the most obvious currency of the game), which you must pay. You then try to fit your new patch in a 9×9 grid (your “blanket”), so that you’ll have as few open spaces as possible by the end of the game.
Image credit: Jakub Niedźwiedź (yakos)
Each patch resembles a tetromino (better known as a “Tetris piece”), although they vary in size from 3 to 8 squares. You can rotate or flip a patch any way you’d like when you place it.
There’s also a time track. Each patch costs time. When you buy a patch, you advance on the time track by that patch’s time value. If you’re not in front of the other player in time after you advance, you get another turn, and so on until you advance your time marker in front of your opponent’s. They then get their turn.
Some patches have buttons printed on them. At certain points on the time track, you’ll get an income of buttons based on how many buttons you have printed on the patches in your blanket. These patches tend to cost more time, though.
If you can’t afford any patches, or you don’t like any of the available 3 patches, you may pass. You move your time track to the space ahead of your opponent, and you get one button for every space you moved on the time track.
The game ends when both players hit the end of the time track. You get 7 bonus points if you’re the first to completely fill in a 7×7 square in your 9×9 board, and you get 1 point per button you still have at the end of the game. You also lose 2 points for every open spot in your blanket. The player with the most points wins, with any ties going to the first player who ran out of time.
So there are three currencies in the game: buttons, space, and time. The key is to juggle them in a way that gets you the most points. Focusing on one and ignoring the other two will likely lose you the game.
But what if…?
Of course, as I played, I couldn’t turn my developer brain off. I noticed outcomes like this:
In this game, I had 6 fewer empty spaces than my opponent, but my opponent had collected almost double the number of buttons than I did. They won by 12 points.
Or this game:
Here, I trounced my opponent, despite having 11 open spaces to their 6. I did get the 7×7 bonus, but I won by 13 points.
But this is the one that sticks in my craw the most.
I did something in this game that rarely happens: I completely filled my blanket. And I lost! My opponent (in this case, the hard AI) won on sheer button collection by a convincing 14 points.
Scoring and incentives
At first blush, this is a cool scoring system. It allows winning or losing across several different axes, and promotes two different extremes of strategy: trying to fill up your board quickly and efficiently, or spending time to get patches that will give you a large early button-income advantage. Of course, there’s plenty of room in between.
When I started playing, I tended to focus on filling up my board. I got a lot of satisfaction out of it. However, that satisfaction would get dashed against the rocks when the final score appeared, with me losing by double digits.
As a novice player, I found the core activity of the game – making my pieces fit into my blanket in the most efficient way possible – interesting and fun. But opponents were beating me by focusing on things like the time track and button income. Was this right? Was this fair?
Of course it was! I figured out some better heuristics after a few more plays. I learned to keep an eye on what my opponent’s choices would be if I bought a certain button. I learned to figure out how many buttons a particular purchase would leave me, and if that left me in a vulnerable positions. I learned about the pieces that are perhaps a little underpriced in the game (I call them The Plus, The Cross, and The Blimp), and learned that passing isn’t always a bad thing if it means I have a shot at picking one of them up. And I learned how to better manage the time track, sneaking in one or two extra turns through shrewd purchases and button management.
That’s all possible because Patchwork is a marvelously-designed game, with a surprising amount of depth beneath its twee surface. But what if it hadn’t been?
Let’s say there was a strategy to win by buying a lot of patches with high button income early in the game, placing them willy-nilly, and then just hanging on until the game ended. It’s not a hypothetical; this is how the computer AI plays, and it gets surprisingly effective results against novice players. Expert players, of course, will know the computer’s strategy, and try to force it into buying low-return buttons early, letting its poor placement hurt it.
But let’s say a human tries this strategy, and let’s say that it’s effective. Not broken, you can’t win with it all the time. But maybe it’s good enough that you can compete consistently with another strong player who’s generalizing or optimizing.
And let’s also say this strategy is, hypothetically, boring. Forget about the details of the strategy for a moment; let’s say the decisions in the first half of the game are obvious enough to be trivial, and the second half becomes dull.
If this were the case (and this is a good opportunity to remind you that it isn’t; Patchwork is an interesting and well-designed game, regardless of the strategy you employ; we’re talking hypotheticals here), then the scoring system would need to change. Any scoring system that allows players to do something boring and compete with players who are doing something interesting has issues.
A hypothetical variant
Again, I’m not seriously proposing a variant. But while I was trying to work out how to play the game, I couldn’t help but think of a variant that would reward my play style.
(As an aside, this might be why a lot of game designers don’t get very good at other people’s games: when we struggle, we look at ways to change the game to fit the way we play, rather than changing the way we play to fit the game!)
What if, instead of getting 1 point per button at the end of the game, only your first 20 buttons got you points, and you got nothing for buttons after 20 points? Let’s see how it would have changed those three games I posted about.
Here, my opponent would have scored 24 fewer points. The final score would have been 12-0 in my favor. It would definitely have let me win.
But of course, I didn’t lose because the game was unfair. I lost because I was focusing too much on my blanket, and not enough on my buttons. My time management was okay, but I needed to have deprived my opponent of high-value patches.
In this game, if we’d used my scoring variant, I would have lost, 8-5. My opponent’s better blanket would have won, although my 7×7 bonus would have made things close.
Again, this incentivizes good blanket-building too much. Button-hoarding is still an interesting strategy, especially when facing a skilled opponent who can recognize and stifle my opportunities.
Finally, we return to the scene of the crime:
This is the most fascinating outcome. With my variant, I would have won, 24-18.
In truth, my opponent (the AI) didn’t build a bad blanket; it had 5 holes at the end, which is respectable. And 48 buttons is a lot.
But should 48 buttons be a lot? Shouldn’t the game incentivize completely filling one’s blanket? If I have 0 holes in my blanket and the 7×7 bonus, shouldn’t the number of buttons determine my margin of victory?
This is the most interesting case here. I can see a few interesting arguments.
First, I’ll remind anyone that I don’t think the game is broken in any way, and the scoring system is fine. This result is a bit of an aberration, but it’s an edge case, and a memorable one at that. I don’t think I value the game any less, even if a player who fills their blanket can lose.
That said, I think the “minus 20” variant, while effective here, incentivizes blanket-building too much. It’s more interesting as a player when I’m trying to juggle buttons, space, and time, instead of focusing soley on my blanket.
Bump up the value of the 7×7 bonus? This isn’t necessarily a terrible idea. I realized after several plays that the 7×7 bonus is not a guarantee of winning. In fact, I got the 7×7 bonus in most of my games and still lost. Should it be more valuable, like 10, 14, or even 21 points?
This is a tricker question to answer. While the scoring system is fine the way it is, it’s a little misleading. A novice player (like I was) could overvalue the 7×7 bonus. But an advanced player knows that it’s okay to let the 7×7 bonus go if they’re doing well on time and buttons and have the opportunity to make a better play. This really does make the game more interesting, although it’s a little shocking to a new player that the bonus isn’t as valuable as it first appears.
Finally: what about an insta-win for a player who completely fills their blanket? I think of all the variants I mentioned, this is the most interesting. It’s unusual, it incentivizes a “shoot the moon” strategy, and on the rare cases it happens, it’s memorable.
But I prefer the game without it. My guess is during playtesting, the player who filled the blanket always won. My case is extreme, and would be tough to duplicate for any player. It’s such an edge case, why have a rule for it?
Richard Garfield talks about having a “complexity budget” for his games. Each game can take only so much complexity, so a lighter game needs fewer rules. Patchwork isn’t a featherweight game, but I’m not so sure a rule that only exists to address a once-in-a-blue-moon edge case is necessary. Filling the board is its own reward, and if you lose, it’ll be so memorable that it’ll spawn reaction, conversation, discussion, and if you’re really lucky, maybe even a longwinded blog post from another designer.
How this applies
I think there are a few lessons here from game designers. Of course, “learn a game before you make variants” is one. But I think the considerations here are very similar to the considerations I make when evaluating how well a scoring system is working for a prototype.
As I’ve said before, game design is all about incentivizing interesting behavior. And for a board game that’s a contest, your scoring system is your incentive.
So does your board game incentivize interesting behavior? Do your players advance towards victory when they behave the way you want them to? Are the fun and meaningful actions of your game rewarded? Conversely, if there’s potential for uninteresting action in your game, are your players properly disincentivized? Do they know that the game won’t reward them for doing something boring?
These are all big questions designers ask themselves when making games. Be sure to apply them to yours!