I’ve been playing a lot of X-and-Write games lately, from abstract Roll-and-Writes like Ganz Schon Clever, to spatial Flip-and-Writes like Cartographers, and a highly complex euro game in the form of Hadrian’s Wall. I have even tried my hand at creating a Roll-and-Write in with Microll Dojo (still a work in progress).
When considering X-and-Write games, I’ve noticed some common trends and features. Whilst new games do need to innovate, they also need to have some familiar elements to be accessible, and so I present a basic recipe of features for an X-and-Write.
Perhaps due to the disposable nature of the format, X-and-Write games tend to be lighter weight. This means things like simple mechanics, shorter turns, shorter play time, and usually a smaller footprint (making them suitable for travel). This also correlates with lower prices, with games coming in the $10-$30 region.
A game time of 20-30 minutes, with quick (or simultaneous) turns, seems to be the expectation for most X-and-Writes. This short play time combined with a simple gameplay loop is what often leads to us playing ‘just one more game’ of Ganz Schon Clever or Railroad Ink.
X-and-Write’s don’t have to be lightweight, but they are more challenging to market when they’re not. Hadrian’s Wall is a fantastically successful heavyweight game, but a common perception is that it is expensive at $60 for ‘just’ a flip-and-write.
Work with what you’ve got
A lot of X-and-Write games have a phase for generating resources that is shared by all players. In this way X-and-Writes set a puzzle for players to solve, which is to make the best of whatever resources they have. When the resource generation is shared by all players (such as in Cartographers) then the game becomes a true test of skill, as all players are provided the same inputs and the winner is the one that makes the most effective use of them.
For this reason, X-and-Writes tend not to have ‘bad’ resource events (where there is a direct failure or loss). In other words all resources will benefit the player, but how much benefit can be derived from it depends on the the current state or time of the game . There are no fundamentally better or worse terrain types in Cartographers, or good and bad workers in Hadrians Wall, but the ones you would want depend on your strategy at the time.
As a side effect, this shared input also allows these games to scale to almost infinite player count. When all players have the same input, turns can be taken simultaneously, preventing larger player counts from taking a long time. Even when there is player interaction it can be restricted – the sphere of influence for both Cartographers and Hadrian’s Wall is limited to your adjacent neighbours only.
One of the most satisfying moments of playing a game like Ganz Schon Clever comes towards the middle of the game, as boxes start to get completed, and multiple bonuses can be strung together in a chain. This mini puzzle which takes place over the course of a single dice choice provides a game within the game, as players try to sequence their choices to maximum effect. If I take this blue dice then I complete a row, which lets me cross off a yellow box, that let’s me put a 4 in my orange box and unlock the +1 bonus to…
X-and-Writes often have bonuses for covering certain spaces (even if they just offer extra points like the mountains in Cartographers or the middle spaces of Railroad Ink). In euro style games this would encourage specialisation in a certain strategy, but it works fantastically in points-salad games where proper sequencing or timing can allow players to push a collection of their points scoring categories higher with only a single move.
Even with the explosion of X-and-Write games in recent years, I still think there is some new territory to explore for designers.
Most X-and-Write’s give players individual sheets as their own personal ‘board’ to draw all over, but few have players play on a shared board or sheet.
A shared board lends itself well to area control games (something that X-and-Write’s can do well with the permanence of ink), and during development of Microll Dojo I started to lean into this aspect more heavily. However, a shared board also allows some of the common aspects of worker placement games to be realised, such as competition for spaces and limited resources.
A shared board not only allows players to compete for space, but also to cooperate. A lot of X-and-Write games have players working on their own player sheet or board, perhaps with common resource generation, but few have players working to a common purpose. Both a shared board and cooperative X-and-Write games are areas that I believe are still to be further explored.
Dry-erase boards and markers are provided in some X-and-Writes (such as in Railroad Ink), instead of paper player sheets. This can add to replayability, since a dry erase board doesn’t ‘run out’ like a pad of paper as well as reduce waste. Some players also prefer to keep their papers for posterity, reviewing old scores or maps.
Aside from these cosmetic differences between paper and boards, most X-and-Writes don’t take advantage of the major difference which is the ability to remove or change marks during the game. The possibilities for erasing marks makes area control games more possible, as well as the ability for players to interact more by removing each other’s marks. There is a danger that an X-and-Write that leans into this too heavily could have just been better achieved as a ‘regular’ board game, with tokens and pieces to represent changing resources or movement, but I think there is still room for games to explore the mechanics that erasable boards offer even further.
I think that almost any game could be adapted to an X-and-Write format – I even brainstormed what Pandemic would look like as a Roll/Flip-and-Write. However, whilst a game can be presented in this format, the core elements of the game may just perform better as a ‘regular’ board game.
To really be successful as an X-and-Write I think a game needs to hit most of the elements above, but importantly it really needs to make the Write part of the game the irreplaceable part of the experience. There is something primally satisfying about leaving your own personal mark on something, as many players of Cartographers can testify.