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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).

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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).

Summary

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.

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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