Rolling Realms: Micro Dojo

You’ll know from my one of my recent articles that I’m a big fan of Roll-and-Writes games, and just recently I picked up Rolling Realms – a Stonemaier (meta)game that distills elements each of the publisher’s games into various ‘realms’ that make up the game for a unique experience each time.

A ‘research’ session in progress

One of the exciting aspects of Rolling Realms is the idea that more realms, including crossover games from outside of the Stonemaier games catalogue, can be easily added in future. In fact two additional realms have already been announced. Whilst playing the game I couldn’t help but put my game designers cap on! I found that it has a fairly balanced framework that can be used to derive several principles with which to create and benchmark new realms. As well as digging in to the numbers, I used this to create my very own Micro Dojo realm to fit into Rolling Realms.

If you want to skip straight to the Micro Dojo realm you can go to the end of the article. For more details on the analysis of Rolling Realms and how I used that framework to build the Micro Dojo realm, continue on below.

Disclaimer: This is not an official Stonemaier product. This is fan-made content for personal use, and printed versions cannot be distributed or sold. More info on Stonemaier’s fan content policy here.

Realm Thematics

Stonemaier games tend to have fairly unique mechanics, or combinations of mechanics, that make them recognisable. Rolling Realms abstracts those mechanics, or typically just one of them, into a very simplified form that is still reminiscent of the original game.

In the Scythe realm for example, the core mechanic of gaining a resource with a top action and spending a resource to gain an additional bottom action is captured in Rolling Realms. The area control, resource management, and scoring systems are far too complex to capture in Rolling Realms, but it is still recognisable to anyone who has played Scythe.

Realms: Scythe and Between Two Cities

In Between Two Cities, the concept of your score being based on the lower of your two cities is captured by your realm score being dependent on your other two realms. Euphoria evaluates dice ‘totals’ in an area when placed. Tapestry has you fit objects to fill a 9×9 grid. Viticulture combines multiple objects to create a final product…

To create a Micro Dojo realm then, it’s necessary to catalogue the key recognisable aspects of the game. I consider this to be simplified to:

  • Move workers on a 3×3 board
  • Spend resources to purchase buildings
  • Score predetermined objectives

The worker movement aspect is the core of the game experience, and in particular the tension with your opponent that it invokes, so a 3×3 grid is a must in the Micro Dojo realm. Gaining resources and then spending them to obtain an ability or score points is also something that is easily abstracted into the Rolling Realms format. All of the objectives in Micro Dojo rely on player interaction to evaluate which player scores points, and since there is no player interaction in Rolling Realms this was part of the game that didn’t make it into the realm. So now there is an outline in place for the Micro Dojo realm – a 3×3 board, and possibly with 6 available buildings.

Realm Balance

Rolling Realms’ has two (maybe three) great advantages that make adding and balancing a new realm very simple.

Rolling Realms’ modular approach, where 3 different realms are chosen for each of 3 rounds, means that two games won’t be the same (with around 90,000 unique combinations). This modular approach means that realms can be designed and balanced in almost complete isolation. Unlike complex euro games with unique interactions between abilities, each realm is effectively independent and linked to the other only through common resources. As long as the realm is internally balanced (i.e. in line with the framework detailed here) then it will fit well within the Rolling Realms…realm. The exciting thing about this from a game design perspective is that it makes the game easily extensible, as already demonstrated by the official Terra Mystica promo pack and the very meta Rolling Realms realm.

Rolling Realms Terra Mystica (Credit: Stonemaier Games)

Secondly, Rolling Realms uses shared dice and a shared set of realms (like X-and-write’s such as Welcome To or Railroad Ink) as opposed to personal or semi-shared resource like in Ganz Schon Clever or Hadrian’s Wall. This means that, since all players have access to the exact same resources, it becomes a game that rewards the most skilful use of those resources. More importantly for balancing purposes, it allows for somewhat imperfect balance without affecting the enjoyability of a game. Internal balance issues in games typically cause frustration when they favour one particular player (e.g. they drew the ‘broken’ card or got the ‘best’ player character) and usually when this is a result of random chance. If one particular realm is viewed as stronger or easier to complete than the other, then all players have an equal opportunity to exploit that realm. Whilst a totally overpowered realm would be undesirable, it does mean less overall playtesting is required to create a suitable realm. This analysis should go a good way towards creating a balanced realm.

Realm Action Economy

First let’s take a look at the action economy in the game. There are 9 turns in each round, with two dice being placed each turn, and as each realm can only be activated once per turn, this ordinarily means that 9 spaces is the maximum number that can be completed.

RealmAction Spaces
Between Two Cities9
Between Two Castles10
My Little Scythe12
The Society9
Number of Action (dice) spaces available by Realm

As mentioned above, 9 is the maximum number of dice that can normally be placed in a realm, so Between Two Castles, Charterstone, Euphoria, (My Little) Scythe and Pendulum are immediate standouts . Most of those realms manage this by offering ways to place additional dice; Euphoria allows doubles to placed for ‘free’, Charterstone allows all matching crates to be crossed off at once, and Scythe allows extra spaces to be crossed off by spending resources.

Realms: Between Two Castles and Euphoria

Another aspect to look at here rather than the number of available spaces is how many dice are required for a maximum score. A lot of realms require every single box to be complete in order to score the maximum 6 stars (see the section below on scoring) however Pendulum and My Little Scythe do not. This means that it is possible to score the maximum 6 stars even with no (intrinsic) way to obtain place additional dice and more than 9 available spaces. The only realm that seems like an outlier here is Between Two Castles – it requires 10 dice for a maximum score and no method of placing an extra dice without spending 3 Pumpkins.

The Micro Dojo realm would need to have 9 available spaces at least to fit the 3×3 grid that is the central playing area of the original game (or perhaps 5 if ignoring the starting corner spaces). If the available spaces go beyond that, some method of placing additional dice would be required.

Realm Scoring

Obviously, it should be feasible to score all 6 stars for a realm, so I wanted to look at the minimum possible dice needed , assuming optimal dice rolling. The table below shows the minimum number of dice needed, and whether that also leads to a ‘complete’ realm.  (If you have a better Tapestry solution do let me know!).

RealmMinimum Dice for 6 StarsRealm Complete
Between Two Cities6No
Between Two Castles10Yes
My Little Scythe0No
The Society9Yes

Aside from Euphoria and My Little Scythe, all of the realms require at least 6 dice to score 6 stars. In fact, the average minimum number of dice needed to score 6 stars is about 6.6 across all the realms. This is the best case scenario but does give a good minimum for the number of dice needed to get the maximum score in the Micro Dojo realm – at least 6.

Of course scoring 6 points in all 3 realms is challenging, if not impossible in some realm combinations, but I was curious to dig further into this scoring pattern. The chart below maps how points are delivered per dice, assuming an optimal path to 6 points. Some realms offer points at a fairly even pace (Scythe for example at a rate of about 1:1). Some realms require a heavier investment up front to begin scoring (such as The Society and Tapestry). Others deliver their points in chunks (such as Viticulture, Pendulum and Wingspan).

In the games that I have played, I’ve scored an average of 13-14 points per round. Some outlier situations resulted in a round score of around 16 (thanks, Between Two Cities) or lower scores of around 10 (thanks, dice gods), but an expected score of 13-14 per round means an average score per realm of about 4.5 stars.

Realm Resources

As a general rule across the realms, placing a dice seems to lead to 1 resource generated (whether pumpkin, heart or coin). This assertion is instinctual given that, on their own, few spaces do ‘nothing’ and few spaces provide two resources. Let’s have a look at the numbers in more detail by seeing how many resources are available and how many dice are needed to obtain them:

RealmPumpkinsHeartsCoinsTotalAction SpacesRatio
Between Two Cities4441291.33
Between Two Castles3339100.9
My Little Scythe6*6*6*18*121.5
The Society333991
Micro Dojo
Resources to action spaces ratio

Firstly, and rather unsurprisingly, resource are equally spread across every single realm. That is the number of Pumpkins, Hearts and Coins available are the same in any given realm. Though it seems like an obvious point that realms should have equal internal balance as well as overall balance, it is reminder that the Micro Dojo realm should also have equal resources (and that these resources are about equally accessible, with no one resource harder or easier to obtain than another).

Secondly, my assertion above that placing a dice leads to 1 resource generated is about right, at an average of 0.97 per dice. However, this average is calculated on the basis of a fully completed realm. Since scoring points is the ultimate goal of the game, and resources simply smooth the way to get there (the 0.1 points per resource being fairly nominal), it is also interesting to look at how many resources are generated when following the optimal scoring path.

Between Two Cities460.67
Between Two Castles9100.9
My Little Scythe0*0*0*
The Society991
Resources generated whilst following optimal scoring

When following an optimal scoring path (i.e. the minimum number of dice needed to obtain 6 points) the number of resources generated per dice is about 0.5. In several cases this is because no resources are generated when exclusively focusing on points, or in the case of Scythe because the gained resource is offset by a resource spent.

Realms: Tapestry and Charterstone

Finally, an approach that focuses on optimising gathering all of the resources in a realm (whilst ignoring scoring) results in an average ratio of about 1.2 per dice. Hardly enough above the baseline to warrant resource gathering over scoring points as a strategy, and so I’ve omitted it here. I also charted the delivery of resources for the optimal scoring case above (much like I charted the scoring path) to see if resources were generally delivered consistently, front loaded, or back loaded. Since the optimal scoring path is not particularly realistic however I’ve also excluded it from the analysis. In actuality, given the typical ‘1 resource per die’ finding above, I expect any deviation from the optimal scoring path (due to dice randomness) to be spent generating resources.

The real number of resources per dice is of course somewhere in the middle, as players balance the randomness of the dice rolled with the current game state whilst trying to optimise scoring. I briefly mentioned above the number of dice needed to ‘complete’ a realm, and in the case of both My Little Scythe and Pendulum, more dice are required than are available (12), so the actual numbers may be skewed slightly. Nevertheless, this gives a good guidelines for creating a Micro Dojo realm where a dice placement can be expected to generate a single resource on average, with slightly less for a scoring path that leads to 6 points.

Bringing it All Together

Bringing all of the principle parts of the framework together now gives a pretty good baseline for creating a realm. Naturally the realm could (and probably should) deviate from these principles in some areas, lest it be a distinctly ‘average’ and uninteresting realm to play with. But as mentioned above these principles can help benchmark the realm and ensure it has a reasonable fit in Rolling Realms:


  • Capture just one of the key mechanical elements of the original game
  • Use a common language, resource and object elements

Action Economy

  • No realm has less than 9 action spaces
  • Realms with more than 9 action spaces should:
    • not require all of them to be completed for maximum score
    • and/or should offer ways to place additional dice


  • It should be possible to score 6 points in a realm independently
  • A typical score for the realm should be 4-5 stars
  • Scoring 6 points in a realm requires at least 6-7 dice on average


  • Resources should be equally distributed in a realm
  • Resources should be equally obtainable in a realm
  • Resources should be gained at a rate of 1 per dice on average
  • Following an optimal scoring path should yield approximately 0.5 resources per dice

Micro Dojo Realm

I actually went through several different designs for Micro Dojo, with the one I liked best below. This realm (and one of the alternate designs) is available to download and print: (Download the printable realm here)

Rolling Realms: Micro Dojo

Starting with the idea of movement I toyed with a few methods of capturing the mechanic. First was an approach using circles and crosses to simulate moving a different meeple to the one previously. This led to a rather ‘standard’ path each game though. In the end, it occurred to me that a big part of the movement mechanic in Micro Dojo is having your opponent block spaces – this is represented by having spaces get marked off according to the other die roll. Another design also included building spaces (with the concept of spending resources for some benefit) which, whilst interesting from a play standpoint, proved complicated from a graphical design perspective (as well as balance) and ultimately I chose to go with the more simple design.

As a nod to fans of the original, I’ve also tried to distribute the resources in appropriate space on the board (with stars for Action spaces, Coins where Gold would be, Food where Food would be, and Hearts filling in the gaps).

Balancing all of the numbers to align with the principles above was actually more challenging than I expected, with resources and stars needing to be multiples of 3 (and all evenly distributed). Adding two spots to each ‘square’ (making the total 18) was much easier to balance and captured the feel of the original game more elegantly. Just like with the other realms let’s take a look at the numbers:

Action Spaces18 (9)
Minimum Dice for 6 Stars9
Resources Available15 (9)
Resource Ratio1
Resource Ratio for Optimal Score0.66
Rolling Realms: Micro Dojo vital statistics

The realm has 18 spaces which is far over what any other realm has. In reality the number of available spaces is around 9, since each time a dice is placed another space will also (usually) be marked off.

Since optimal scoring requires every space to be complete, this is a realm that could actually be quite challenging to complete fully. The resources granted for a ‘complete’ realm is a little above the average which I think is fine to offset some of the difficulty scoring points.

I expect the first 3 stars to be fairly easy to score (needing only a single dice), the 4th and 5th stars to be a little more challenging, and the 6th one to be very difficult. This mirrors Tapestry in that way, and is about in line with the expected score of 4-5 points for any particular game. Having to pay attention to the other rolled dice adds some additional complexity due to the ‘spacial’ element of scoring the final 3 stars.

I believe this is a realm that is quite ‘balanced’ from a numbers perspective, but that offers a lot of flexibility early on in the round whilst getting more and more challenging as the realm gets closer to completion.


I’ll let you in on a little secret. Most of that number crunching and analysis came about after I had put together an outline for Micro Dojo. It’s true that game design is as much art as it is science, and the first stage of the design was making sure the game feels about right.

After that baseline experience was in place, all of the analysis here could be used to benchmark the realm. If the number of dice needed, or resources granted, or path to 6 points, were wildly different to the realms that already existed then the Micro Dojo realm would feel like a square peg in a round hole. Then, borrowing ideas from other realms to either accelerate dice placement (Scythe, Euphoria, Charterstone), ‘chunk’ points awards (Wingspan, Viticulture), or pump up resource generation (Pendulum, Between Two Cities), a unique realm could be created that easily fits alongside the existing ones. In effect, I had 11 mini games to use as a reference to create a number 12.

Analysing and drawing out the Rolling Realms framework was a really enjoyable process, like teasing out the hidden structure behind a musical masterpiece, or seeing the clear image pop out of a magic eye picture. It was made even more exciting by having a purpose for such an analysis in creating the Micro Dojo realm.

If you haven’t played Rolling Realms yet I urge you to consider picking it up (or trying out the Print-and-Play, or the web application). If you include Micro Dojo as one of your realms, I’d be honoured to have it played alongside Jamey Stegmaier’s creation, and even more so if you let me know your thoughts and experience with it so it can be improved!

Game Design

Recipe for an X-and-Write

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.

Light Weight

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.

Blue Player Setup
Hadrians Wall – posted to BGG by Shem Phillips

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.

A selection of Explore Cards
Cartographers Explore Cards – submitted to BGG by Keith Matejka

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…

GANZ SCHÖN CLEVER (Thats Pretty Clever!) One of our most played roll &  write games this year its been with us on all our trips away.  #ganzschonclever #rol…
Ganz Schon Clever – picture from boardgamemeeple Instagram

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.

Unexplored Territory

Even with the explosion of X-and-Write games in recent years, I still think there is some new territory to explore for designers.

Shared Board

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.

Railroad Ink: Deep Blue Edition - Components
Railroad Ink by Horrible Guild

Final Thoughts

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.

Board Game: Cartographers
Artistic Cartographers map – submitted to BGG by Maik Hennebach

Modernising Game Mechanics

It might seem odd to think of board games as having modern improvements the way a technology does – after all we’re using chunks of wood and cardboard which are pretty old fashioned as materials go. But board games have matured rapidly over recent years, and games even only ten years old can feel dated. Just like the first manufacturer that put a camera or a fingerprint reader on a phone that has now become a standard, board game designers also develop new game design features that become accepted standards.

One of the things I aim to do as a designer is spot trends in other well designed games and try to understand where that can be applied, or at the very least broaden my understanding of why a good game is a good game. With that in mind I want to share three examples of modern game design that interest me:

  • Worker Placement – Never Blocking
  • Deck Builder – Quality of Life
  • Table Presence

Worker PlacementNever Blocking

Raiders of the North Sea has a unique worker placement mechanism (something that other Garphill Games are also well known for), where the player takes two actions – placing a worker on an empty spot and then picking up a (different) worker from an occupied spot. Gugong is another game with a unique worker placement mechanism, where players take actions by placing a card (numbered from 1-9) from their hand with the caveat that the card placed must be a higher value than the one already on the space.

Both of these games are ones I would introduce to newer players as being more accessible than some other worker placement games. Often more accessible games coincides with lighter game experiences that don’t have as much to offer more serious gamers, yet these games also offer a decent depth of play .

Gugong from Game Brewer

Worker placement games tend to reward planning, sequencing, and taking advantage of opportunities (either in spotting ‘open’ strategies, or timing your actions before opponents). These things can be challenging for players that are newer to gaming, and even to experienced gamers that may be playing for the first time. As a lot of mental energy is going towards understanding what actions are possible (i.e. how to play the game), planning several turns in advance and then rapidly resequencing or restructuring that plan when an action gets blocked can be overwhelming.

This is where worker placement games that don’t (hard) block spaces come in. In Raiders, if that critical empty space you were planning on taking has a worker placed on it by another player, well now that space becomes your second action instead of your first. In Gugong, if another player plays a higher card on the space you wanted then you now have to play an even higher one perhaps than initially planned, or pay an additional cost to place a lower one.

Disrupting, but not blocking, a player’s plans improves the experience by still allowing the player to have agency in executing their plan. More importantly though it lowers the barrier for newer players, reducing cognitive load since plans can change in efficiency rather than being completely reworked.

Deck BuilderQuality of Life

Another area I see improvements in board game ‘technology’ is what I would call quality of life improvements to established game mechanics. Incremental changes that (should) become established norms.

Lost Ruins of Arnak is a deck builder combined with worker placement. Deck builders tend to follow a similar format, with cards (often 5) being played on a turn and then used to obtain more powerful cards. These new cards go into the discard pile to be later shuffled back into the draw pile when empty. Most deckbuilders work this way, but Lost Ruins of Arnak has you put the newly acquired card on the bottom of your draw pile instead. A small but very effective change.

Under Falling Skies and Lost Ruins of Arnak – finally in stores! « Czech  Games Edition | Boardgame Publisher
Lost Ruins of Arnak from Czech Games

Most deck builders that follow the discard and shuffle method of acquiring cards adds a negative experience in two ways. First player has to get through all the older, less interesting cards before shuffling the new one in, and secondly when they do shuffle it in it still may not show up for some time (or even at all in late game). When a player has obtained a new card for their deck that does something cool, they want to use it!

By placing the newly acquired card on the bottom of the deck, players have some level of reliability about when that card is coming, and they get to play with their new card sooner. Not only is this more fun for the player, it has an added effect of getting to the power quicker (without changing the raw power level of cards) and speeds up the game. This is more important in modern deck builder + ‘something’ type of games (Dune Imperium, Clank, etc.) , where decks are not recycled as quickly as in a pure deckbuilder. I can think of few deck builders that wouldn’t be made more enjoyable by this minor change.

Table Presence

You can’t mention table presence without mentioning the Everdell tree (pictured below). This was the thing that I saw, from the other side of the room, and made me say “what is this game? I want to play it!”. The thing about the Everdell tree is that it’s completely unnecessary for play, and the game could easily have just been a flat board. But it wasn’t, and the tree became an icon of the game. (See also the Tekhenu Obelisk, and the Viscounts of West Kingdom Castle).

Everdell from Starling Games

I would have considered myself the type of gamer that cares more about the core mechanics than aesthetics, and yet even I am drawn to games that look good or look different. The models for Anachrony and Cerebria are similarly unnecessary to play the game, but after painting them and putting them on the board they really do improve the experience! Mindclash Games also does something really interesting with these models by providing them separately (or as part of an expansion) to the base game. This really speaks to me as I like to offer gamers a choice, catering to those that want to experience the game at a lower cost and to those fans that want to upgrade their experience.

Games with table presence are now much easier to design and produce. Thanks to improved design tools, easy prototyping with 3d printers, and the ability of manufacturers to produce more complex and detailed moulds and materials. I expect to see a lot of successful games in future with components that differentiate them and stand out on the table (more than just an army of miniatures).


With Micro Dojo, it would seem that I’ve had quite the opposite of table presence, and a core aspect of the game is about tactically blocking spaces! In fact, the game has a table presence all of it’s own, attracting attention by virtue of how small it is, and being a more tactical game (with very short turns and limited choices per turn) means that disruption of plans doesn’t lead to a negative play experience.

That said, improving the accessibility of games (whilst still having depth of play), adding quality of life features for a smoother experience, and making games with a unique table presence, are all important aspects that I want to be part of my design and I will be strongly considering how to include them in future.

Game Design

Why Create a 2-Player Game

Following on from the previous articles on Why Create a Micro Game, I thought I’d share some of the things I’ve learned developing a two-player game.

Two-player games have a unique dynamic not often found in higher (or lower) player counts. Though a lot of games support 2-6 players, the two-player version of those games feels like quite a different experience than with 3+ (and in my experience, is usually a bit disappointing). I believe that games that are designed exclusively for two-players deliver a much better two-player experience, and it’s those games that I’m focusing on here. Though two-player cooperative games exist, I’m looking primarily at head-to-head two player games.

Why create a two-player game?

Accessibility. Getting together with a group of people for board game night is great, but the higher the (optimal) player count the more challenging actually getting your game to the table becomes. Two-player games are far more likely to come off the shelf for an evening in playing games with a partner, friend, or housemate. At busier board game nights the same is also true, where two-player games can be played as ‘fillers’ (just watch the length) whilst waiting for a group game to start.

Rewards Skill. One of the things I love about well designed two player games is that they tend to reward the person that played better. Simple. You may think that is true of all games, but larger and more interactive games can allow players much less individual agency over the end result (for example, the Kingmaker effect). Whilst taking advantage of these the social elements might be considered part of ‘playing well’ in larger games, in a two-player game this is stripped down to the purest form of competition against your opponent.

Competitive Environment. Some of the most popular long running games (or franchises) are those that are played competitively. Card games like Magic: The Gathering or wargames like Warhammer are great examples. Their primary mode of (competitive) play is one-on-one. A game that supports competitive play, with an active tournament or organised play scene, can have huge longevity through regular updates and content-tweaks. This scene tends to promote lots of online discussion and social communities, as well as in-store presence, that drives more growth for your game.

Easier Playtesting. For higher player count games it can be a real challenge to find enough people to test (or even play) the game, and gets exponentially harder the higher up the numbers you go. With two-player games you only need to find one other person at least (and only one more after that at most) and you have a game! I’d be willing to bet that there’s a pretty strong link between the number of playtests completed and the final quality of a game, and so the easier you can get the playtesting sessions the quicker you can bring a higher quality game to market.

Why (not to) create a two-player game?

Creating a two-player game also comes with some challenges you’ll need to overcome:

Balance. In multi-player games the players themselves will provide a good amount of balance. This is much stronger when the level of interaction in the game is very high, or when the players are closely matched in skill. In two-player games, all of the balance has to be provided by your game. More interactivity doesn’t necessarily add balance like it does with higher player count games since the game is effectively zero-sum – a gain of one point is the same as the loss of one point for the opponent.
Solution: Playtesting over and over is good advice for any game designer, but especially so with lower player count games. Luckily, see above how much easier it is to playtest two-player games. A good exercise for balancing, and understanding, a two-player game is to change the perspective of the actions you have and see how it affects the game (e.g. instead of ‘Gain 1 item’ what if your opponent loses 1 item?).

Value for Money. Simply put, a game that only plays two players provides less value for money than a similarly priced game that seats more players. That’s not to say that you can’t provide great value, but you’ll find fewer customers willing to invest in a $100 game that will only provide entertainment for themselves and one other.
Solution: Starting with the end goal in mind can help focus your design, if you plan to create a sub-$40 instead of a $100+ game from the outset. If your design is already large, it could potentially be grown to accommodate extra players in a way that doesn’t disrupt the two-player dynamic (Cerebria by Mindclash Games does an excellent job of this and is a favourite of mine from a design perspective). A final option is to increase the player count but create a separate, smaller two-player version that captures the spirit of the original (such as Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small).

Timing. A counter to the point above about accessibility is that, though it is much easier to get a two-player game to the table, a lengthier (60min+) two-player game is likely to be less successful than a shorter one. Two-player games are great as ‘fillers’ at group game nights whilst waiting for the next game, with a companion whilst travelling, or for spending an evening in at home. Though lengthier two-player games do exist, it is more common for a small group to commit time to a lengthy game than it is for two individuals to do so. Like the Value for Money challenge above, a lengthy two-player game will have to be that much better to attract a large audience.
Solution: Again, starting with the end in mind consider whether your game can be 1 hour or less. If your epic two-player game clocks in at 2-3+ hours and can’t be shortened without compromising the design, it may be worth examining the player count and turning it into a multiplayer game.

Games to check out

Two-player games offer a unique experience to higher player count games. Designing a good one also has some unique challenges, but when a game does this right it is extremely satisfying to play. If you’d like to check out some of what I think are great examples of two-player game design check out the following:

Onitama – Pure elegance of design. When I hear ‘easy to learn but hard to master’ I think of this.
Province– A micro game that was a big inspiration to Micro Dojo
Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small – Captures the spirit of Agricola in a two-player package
Android: Netrunner – Asymmetric game that incorporates multiple facets of play, and a good competitive format CCG to look at that isn’t Magic: The Gathering.
Cerebria (honorable mention) – Not strictly a two-player game, but increasing the count to 4 players adds more bodies at the table without changing the two-player dynamic