It’s easy to simply shrug, thrown in another type of unit, another element, another dude with spikes on his huge shoulder pads. Sometimes it works. Mostly it doesn’t.
Antoine de Saint-Exupery, author of, amongst others, the children’s classic “The Little Prince” said: “A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”
It’s a wise way to look at it. Not what we can add, but that we can subtract. And the way to learn how to do that is to look for good archetypes, games where there is little, if anything, to subtract. And in the tabletop game industry paring down has been the leading star for the past 20 years (or thousands – see the end). So here, without further ado, are five tabletop games that every designer should play at least once.
Hanabi Amazon is a small, simple, cooperative card game with a twist: you play with your cards facing outwards. So everyone else knows what cards you have, and you know what they have, but no one knows what cards they themselves have. Together you have to build a fireworks display by stacking colored sets of numbered cards in order. On your turn you can either:
- give a clue to another player, pointing out all the cards of a certain color or value they’ve got. This uses up one of a limited set of clue tokens.
- discard a card from your hand, gaining you a clue token (clues are shared amongst all players) but running the risk of discarding a card that blocks you from completing the fireworks.
- play a card. If it’s legal (being the next number in a color) it’s played and everyone breathes out. If it’s illegal (for example playing a blue 4 when a blue 3 hasn’t been played) you have to discard one of the three fuse tokens in the game – if there are no fuse tokens left the game ends in failure and everybody loses.
Playing Hanabi feels a bit like bidding in competitive bridge cross-pollinated with a simple children’s game. There is no memory element (you can always ask the other players what you know about your cards based on clues given) and the cooperative game play removes competition. And yet, there’s plenty of opposition and difficulty. You need to figure out what to do in any given moment, and what clues to give, in order to move play forward.
Players are, in effect, trying to jointly solve a complex, ever shifting Venn-diagram in their heads. It’s a mathematical problem which is at the same time very simple and very complex. But that’s not what makes Hanabi truly interesting.
No, if you get the chance, try introducing Hanabi to a completely new group of players and watch what happens. I predict that the game will start off with confusion but pretty soon players will start to jointly develop heuristics for what any given clue means. Together they’ll be creating a language that will enable them to play more efficiently, to communicate using less bandwidth and to cooperate across the imposed restraints. They will be developing a group-unique, emergent social dynamic, and they’ll be doing it in a comradely, friendly and helpful atmosphere where everybody’s input tends to count – even though the tension tends to mount as pressure increases in Hanabi, I’ve yet to see someone get mad at someone else.
Oh, and the game is insanely tough. One wrong clue, one wrong card and you can scuttle the entire game for everybody. Without a working understanding of a common heuristic there is no way the players will be able to complete the entire set of fireworks. And that heuristic will change between groups – move one player from one group to another and you’ll see how heuristics will clash, forcing the players to consciously adress underlying assumptions before they can work together.
Hanabi is also a great example of how cooperation is dependent on limitations, but that’s a discussion for another day.
Love Letter Amazon is the diametrical opposite of Hanabi. It’s a small (only 16 cards) game where your goal is to eliminate every other player. You start with a card in your hand and on your turn you draw a card then play one of your two cards, carrying out its effects.
Some cards let you look at another player’s card. Some let you compare cards with another player, knocking the player with the lowest value out of the game. Some cards knock you out if you have them in combination with some other card, and the most powerful card, the princess, simply states “if you lose this card you lose the game”. Oh, and the most common card lets you accuse another player of having a certain card, eliminating them if you’re right.
Love letter is very, very evil. You’re out for blod, there’s no room for cooperation or collaboration, there’s nothing in the game except to eliminate the other players. It should breed anger, envy, possibly resentment.
And yet it doesn’t.
Love letter hits that incredible sweet spot where doing bad things is just painful enough to be felt but not painful enough to actually hurt someone. Since the game is so short (I’ve played rounds that were over in less than a minute), the play so fast and the ability to make mistakes so large the effect on players is very pronounced.
You start out slightly unsure and possibly embarrassed at doing something that usually is not OK (hurting someone you’re in a direct social interaction with). Then, as you keep playing, mistakes are made, cards are drawn and discarded, and players start to realize that it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if you’re eliminated. It doesn’t matter if you play optimally. And then something interesting happens:
Players start to laugh.
The game has become play. There are still rules, there is still a goal, it’s still a game, but since the goal doesn’t matter for more than a few seconds the consequences of doing forbidden things are null. You get away with everything. It’s like watching children tease each other. One kids goes “nyah, nyah, nyah” and the other chases her around the table. Except that in Love Letter there’s only the “nyah, nyah, nyah” part, here is no anger. You’re breaking social norms without consequences.
Once could argue that any game with direct interaction is like that: you’re attacking someone, hurting people is not OK, so you’re breaking social norms.
Sure. But in most games you’re ruining someone’s chances to win, wasting the work they’ve put into getting to the point where they’re at. You’re PKing or Team killing or simply making the game less fun for someone (no one likes to see their kingdom razed, right?). In Love Letter, the period of elimination is over so swiftly that it creates bonding through embarrassment.
And that’s a very liberating feeling.
Dominion Amazon is a deck builder. You start out with a deck of cards then use those cards to purchase more cards, swell your deck (decks cycle) and increase your chances of buying more cards. It’s a rather simple idea: Magic the Gathering in reverse coupled with engine building.
What makes Dominion interesting is not the cards available (there are some 500 different types of card) but rather that some cards are clearly better than others – and it’s all right.
See, every game of Dominion starts out with 10 different card types available (plus some standard cards). That’s something along the lines of 37 million billions of possible setups. No way to test all the combinations. So in each game you will have some cards that are clearly better. You will have some combinations of cards that are clearly better, and they may even be cheaper than other, inferior, combinations.
And it doesn’t matter.
That’s the kicker. Since players are using a communal pool of cards, and each player knows every card that’s left in the pool, can get the exact card he wants, and can know every card that every other player has in their deck, the game stops depending on balance. Instead the game becomes about finding the most unbalanced play in the given set and exploiting it to the max. What would make other games broken becomes the core of Dominion due to the fact that every player has access to the same resources.
If one player starts taking a certain type of card the other players see that, they see the amount of cards left, they know what the first player will be able to accomplish, and they adapt. In (almost) every game of Dominion there is a dominant strategy and the key to playing the game is to be able to find that dominant strategy before the other player do. And as cards stacks available for purchase deplete some strategies will stop being dominant – buying cards that seed your opponents’ decks with junk is great as long as you’re the only one doing it. If everybody does it you don’t gain anything.
Which is another interesting twist with Dominion. You’re playing a distributed zero-sum game.
Normally a zero-sum game is played between two sides. But attack cards in Dominion are set up in such a way that you attack all opponents at the same time, meaning that you don’t act as a kingmaker in your attacks (as is usual in direct interaction games with more that two sides).
In a long game the race for a dominant strategy would be devastating. Imagine playing a game of Monopoly where you realize that buying properties is the way to go after having played ten turns and all the properties are gone. But in Dominion the end game comes so rapidly, once a player starts to rev up her engine, that the game is over without the other players needing to sit out a long, drawn out destruction of their hopes. And since you’re likely to lose track of what people (even you yourself) have in their decks many times there is real tension in who wins – the game is over but you don’t now the winner until all the points are counted. It’s like the Florida presidential ballot every time (but in a good way).
Through the Ages: A Story of Civilization
What if you took Civilization and removed all of the things that make it 4X? No cities, no units, no terrain, in fact no map. No diplomacy, no conquering others, no direct interaction. Chances are you’d end up with an unplayable pile of bad elements.
Or you might end up with Through the Ages.
Through the Ages is a game that evokes the feeling of Civilization with very few of the trappings of Civilization. The gameplay is very dry, moving blobs from one card to another and there is plenty of down time where players have to wait for another player to finish their turn.
All Through the Ages has is engine building with thematic names. You start out with your Agricultural farm, your Bronze mine, your Religion, you Warband and you spend your turns moving a few markers representing workers or minerals from one spot on your player board to another (no player interaction here – none!).
It’s all very generic, all very bland. And yet, there’s theme galore. Not through any mechanics, nor, very much, through any advance names or resources. No, Through the Ages plays on pattern recognition and cultural heritage.
See, the game itself cuts to the essence of what 4X games are supposed to do. In a 4X game you build up your empire by weighing different ways to generate resources against one another (should I build that irrigation or that mine first?), you weight strengthening your defenses against increasing your economic might (should I build a spearman or a granary?) and you juggle limited resources (time/action cost mostly) in order to be more efficient than your competitors (even if you don’t see that until you see the results later in the game).
In Through the Ages you don’t do any of that. The military is just a set of markers on a card generating an abstract value that may or may not be enough in a conflict (in fact you can’t initiate any conflicts without drawing the specific cards). The productions is just like that, a set of markers on cards signifying your empire’s total stores of abstracted food and minerals.
But Through the Ages does one 4X thing fantastically: it focuses on allowing you to weight different strategies utilizing a pool of very limited resources in constant competition with the other players. It is like starting a game of Civilization without the entire buildup phase where you settle your first city and peacefully explore the surrounding lands. Instead you’re thrown right into the middle of a desperate struggle from the start. Imagine playing Civilization on a very small map with every player in sight of one another and able to steal resources from one another from the start. And then throw in barbarians and disasters into the mix.
The result is a constant balancing act on a knife’s edge. Through the Ages is very unforgiving. Fall behind and you might never get back up. But here’s an interesting aspect of player psychology: in Through the Ages it is very hard to determine how well people are doing. Do you look at the amount of points they have? Might not be enough, as they may have a great resource engine and will be able to score hugely later. Or they may have lot of points but lack the combination of cards that they’ll need to stay in the running. And you can always get a lucky draw, letting you block your opponent’s access to needed resources or even steal them outright (if the preconditions are met).
This difficulty to determine who’s winning means that even when a player is losing he still feels like he’s in the running. The point at which a player sees clearly that he’s out of the game is far enough removed from the actual events that people keep trying even though, from an objective standpoint, they should throw in the towel and feel like they need to sit out a predetermined game so they won’t disappoint their friends.
There’s another curious effect here: since its so very hard to do well in Through the Ages, and since you rarely have moments where you feel that you are doing great, those moments become very rewarding. Rewarding enough to make you keep playing even when you’re losing, something that is rare in 4X games. Imagine seeing hordes of NPC units swarming into your lands and knowing that there’s little, if any, hope for you, and yet finding the game fun.
Sure, some games are like that (Playing any WWII Barbarossa campaign as the Russians for example) but the standard 4X fare is eXpand and eXterminate, not shrink and die.
And yet, it is fun in Through the Ages.
My personal belief is that it’s a Flappy Birds effect: since Through the Ages has a lot of tactical decisions, and the conditions upon which they’re made differ widely from turn to turn, there is a feeling that you can always optimize what you’re doing. You don’t need to start over from scratch, you don’t need to play a new game, you don’t need to revert to an earlier save, you can keep playing and still get new, meaningful problems to solve. Through the Ages is an exercise in repeated, non-repetitive optimization containing enough pattern recognition to make players feel that they’re learning and enough randomness to make each situation feel new. Which means that emotionally each turn is a whole new game. You’re in effect starting over with different preconditions each round.
So Through the Ages allows players to both build an engine over time and exploit it in discrete intervals. And this leads to a feeling of challenge and fun.
There are only two rules in Go (or 5 or 7 depending on how you split them up):
1. You place stones on intersections of a 19×19 grid and if a stone or a chain of orthogonally adjacent stones does not have a free grid point next to it, it is captured and removed from the board.
2. You may never play in such a way that you repeat a previous arrangement of stones.
If you’re interested, there are tutorials and free Go clients (both offline and online) galore.
Go has a tremendous amount of possible games, 10^761 (that’s a ten followed by 761 zeros, compared to about 10^120 for Chess), and no computer has managed to beat a professional Go player – the best computers play at amateur dan ranks, or junior level tournament player; a trained 15-year-old can beat the best Go software. (OK, that’s a simplification; in 2013 a distributed version of the Zen19D program running on a 28 core machine managed to beat a 9th level professional dan Go player with only a 3 stone handicap, where one stone’s handicap is valued at about 3-4 pro Dan levels. But I digress.)
What’s special about Go is the amazing Aha! moment you can get from it. Try to find a Go club and learn to play on a small (9×9 or 13×13) board. After 3-5 games you’ll start to realize what you’re doing. After 5-8 games you’ll start to realize that you’re seeing patterns that aren’t there yet, you’re recognizing where things will go, how the territory will lie.
And that’s a take away, that human players will spot patterns that a computer will completely miss. That we’re pattern recognition animals and will spot patterns even if there are no patterns there (researcher bias anyone?). And that recognizing patterns is something that is pleasurable to humans.
That’s a key point. Humans like to spot patterns. We get excited when we think we’ve spotted a pattern and we feel rewarded when we can confirm a pattern we’ve spotted (leading to synchronicity bias). If you understand that point on an intuitive, gut reaction level, you’re likely to be able to spot (pun intended) opportunities for such design patterns.