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Designing Contradictory Choices

Patchistory gameplay“The most interesting gameplay comes when the player’s goals are somehow contradictory”
– Raph Coster

I recently got my hands on Patchistory. It’s an interesting concept: you build your civilization out of cards with 4 slots on each card were each slot (or slots) contain some sort of resource. As you place your cards you must place one of the slots on the new card over a slot on an old card, potentially removing your old resources. So you’re building an engine by removing parts of your old engine.

This goes against the good old adage of “improve and increase” that’s common in engine builders. In a way it reminds me of Nations “tear down all your workers” mechanic. Except that in Nations you still have an upgrade path. In Patchistory you are often left with a tile that you can’t place, or that you can’t place optimally. It’s like building a puzzle where you’ve got to throw out some pieces.

Patchistory coverI’m not saying that Patchistory is a great game (it’s too fiddly for what it delivers) but it does have this very interesting conflict between building new resources and retaining old ones which isn’t present in most historically themed engined builders. Even in Through the Ages, where you can replace an old leader with a leader from a new age, the new leader is often better in some way than the old leader. In Patchistory the new leader can be worse than the old one, and can have slots on its card such that you can’t build it in any reasonable way – and then you’ll have to discard it.

Conflicting goals generate interest

That’s something that makes games interesting, to have several conflicting goals. You want to build your military but you want to build your civilian engine that will keep that military going. You want to go for a VP victory but you want to go for the Tech-victory as well. You want to build a new building but you want to save money for a better building later.

Yes, that’s all obvious. In games where you don’t have multiple goals you won’t have interesting choices. You might as well just roll the dice and see who wins.

But the point here isn’t to have multiple goals, it is to have goals that actively contradict one another. You can’t be able to achieve all of them, and they must be so good that you’ll want to achieve them all.

At the same time you’ve got to balance the goals against the frustration a player would feel if he’s thwarted in choosing what goals to pursue.

Find the right conflicts

Imagine that you’re playing the GiantBig CivGame. You’ve got an army that’s decent. You’ve got a fair amount of resources. But your opponents are engaged in a fight and you think that you can backstab one, or both of them and get more resources for yourself. But should you do it now, while they’re fighting, or in a while when you’ve built up more? Or should you build now, paying a higher fee, in order to attack sooner? And what happens if they see what you’re going at an ally against you?

Lots of goals. Lots of choices. You want this, you want that. And if you’ve got too many choices, a too complex web of paths to your goals, you’ll end up feeling overwhelmed. Your choices will either be too limiting (“I want to do all that but I can’t”) leading to frustration or too confusing (“I don’t know what’s the most important”) leading to a situation where the player will simply shrug and say “bugger this” and choose at random (i.e. the tension is gone as they no longer have the energy to care about the choices).

So I guess the takeaway from this rant is: make sure you know your players, or you’ll present them with the wrong set of conflicting goals.

Which Patchistory does for me.

Dreams of Futures Past Book Cover

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