Categories
Game Design

Designing a Game is a Grand Balancing Act

Do you remember playing tic-tac-toe as a kid? What about checkers? Both were fun when you were young but got old just as you got old, right? That’s because both of them are solved games.

Are solved games what I think they are?

A solved game is a game whose outcome (win, lose or draw) can be correctly predicted from any position, assuming that both players play perfectly

Wikipedia, Solved Game

That’s one reason for a bland game, which results in loss of replay zest.

Then there are games that rely too much on random chance to support their mechanics. Both of these issues lead to the horrid plague of imbalance.

I’ve played Monopoly, now get on with it!

A well-designed game contains a medley of elements that prevent it from being solved and keep it from being imbalanced. I want to talk about these mechanics at their core. Note that these elements aren’t everything that you need to make a great game, but they’re four attributes that are important to think about when designing the mechanics.

Chance

This is important, but should be the smallest aspect of a game. Everyone has fun playing the odds a bit and it increases replay. Chance is also fair, as player outcomes aren’t as beholden to direct attacks from other players.

Too much chance comes with its own problems, though. It can drag some games out indefinitely (I’m looking at you, Risk) or it can make players feel like they have no control over their own outcome; like the game is pure destiny. You might as well spin around in a circle and point to the winner without even bothering to set up that game (Yahtzee, you’re only dice and paper but you’re still not worth the set up time).

Take a game like Bang! The Dice Game, for instance. There’s a lot of chance involved. But it’s balanced well with two factors:

  • The different mechanics of chance actually make the game nice and short
  • Chance doesn’t interfere with each player’s ability to take action—on the contrary—it lends to it

Attack and Counterattack

Fun games are ones that allow the players to take action against the game itself or other players (or both). I know that sounds like every single game ever made, but designing a fun, balanced attack move is difficult.

In Bang! the fun isn’t just in your ability to attack other players, it’s in what attack options they’ll have and their strategy for who they should attack and possibly counterattack.

Connected Mechanics

This is an easy idea to think about but a difficult one to continually put into practice. Mainly, because it means that you’ll need to continuously change and remove mechanics that may be amazingly fun, but don’t work well together.

Winners

I get it, this one is even more obvious. But at the same time, it’s not. The best part about winners in a fun game is that it feels like they deserve it. If the other three aspects are singing in harmony, then your win condition will be the least of your worries.

So, what did we learn?

I’ve been developing this game for a year, but designing mechanics for a tabletop game is still new to me. I’m familiar with storytelling, but my stories are always linear. I write them down, try to make them intriguing and fun, but the words on the final draft will always be in the same order.

The theme of the game (the setting, the events, and the player’s involvement), the players and the overall moves they could make—all of these ideas came naturally to me. Through trial and error, I’ve learned to make sure that attack and counterattack, connection between mechanics, and a little bit of chance make for a well-deserved winner. But if there are issues finding a winner, or that win doesn’t feel like it’s been earned—looking to tweak those three attributes allows the last one to fall into place.

Categories
Game Reviews

Jaipur and Papaya Rum Lassi: Western Cultural Appropriation at its Finest

In Jaipur, you compete head-to-head against another merchant to make phat stacks of coin and receive two seals of excellence in order to be invited to the court of the Maharaja.

Lassi is an Indian drink made from blended dahi (yogurt), spices, and sometimes fruit. Traditionally, lassi isn’t an alcoholic beverage, but this blog wouldn’t live up to its Under the Tabletop name if I adhered to that tradition.

Mango is a fruit native to Southern Asia, the pulp of which is sometimes blended with lassi to make a delicious treat. Unfortunately, I was in such a rush to get my groceries and leave that I accidentally grabbed a papaya.

How could you possibly confuse a mango for a papaya?

It was in a bin labeled “mangos” OK?! I literally didn’t even check to see if it was ripe. Look, papaya looks exactly like mango except for the size, shape, color, skin texture, and country of origin—get off my back about it!

Yikes, not going to touch that mess…Was it even any good?

Yeah! I’m not even a fan of papaya and I found it good. Full disclosure, there was rum in it. Blending rum, lassi, and ice made it into a sort of semi-sweet rum margarita.

They were actually pretty good!

I decided to pair lassi with Jaipur for an obvious reason—one is a game that contains the name of a city in India, and another is a drink that is popular in India. But for a far less obvious reason, I paired these two because I found a recipe for rum mango lassi online, which is a culturally appropriated version of the original drink…sort of like Jaipur being a culturally appropriated game.

Oh, this is one of those…

Yes, and no. I think that we should talk about these things so that we can create more inclusive games in the future. But I love playing Jaipur; I’ll probably continue to play it. You know what? I also enjoyed that bastardized lassi. (Although I think it would’ve been better if I had grabbed a mango instead.)

How does Jaipur work?

There are five resource and/or camel cards available for players to potentially collect on their turn. The goal of the each round is to have the most coin. Strategies for getting the most coin include:

  • Collecting a lot of combo chips (sell any set of the same 3, 4, or 5 resources)
  • Selling any one resource first (the top resource chips have a higher value than the bottom ones)
  • Having a shit ton of camels (there’s a special camel chip which gives you 5 coin)

The combo chips have a varying range of worth to reflect the constant change of the market—but if you’re able to collect a 5 combo chip, it can be worth up to 10 coin at the end of the round. Combos are difficult, as players are limited to having up to 7 cards in their hand.

What makes the game challenging, though, is that you can only either sell one type of resource on your turn (discard cards from the same resource and take that amount of chips and the respective combo chip), or collect resource cards on your turn.

The number of resources chips are limited and the person who can sell one type of resource first gets the highest values for that resource…the more players sell, the more a resource depreciates in value. (Except silver, silver is always a cool 5 coin.)

There are also camel cards, which are great to collect just so that you can trade them for resources. (They don’t count as a part of your hand, so you can collect as many as you want!) If you happen to have the most camels at the end of the round, you get a bonus of 5 coins—but I wouldn’t bet on that as your primary strategy.

When three resources have been drained of all of their chips, or the resource card deck has been drained, that round is over. Flip over all of the chips and add the values on the back. The player with the highest value wins the round and collects a seal of excellence. Two seals of excellence, and you win!

Give me the fun stuff first, then hit me with a dose of reality

On Jaipur

Jaipur, in my opinion, is one of the most well-designed games I’ve ever played, both mechanically and artistically. The game comes in a beautiful, compact box that reflects the colorful tapestries, spices, precious metals, and gems that you must trade in order to be a well-respected merchant.

Jaipur checks all of the boxes for me:

  • It’s two player only, which is a harder type of game to come by
  • It’s quick (~30 minutes)
  • The rules are easy to pick up
  • The artwork is beautiful and easy to decipher
  • It’s compact (only cards and game chips)
  • There are multiple rounds, so if you didn’t do well in the first round, you have an opportunity to be the comeback kid
  • Once you know the rules well enough, you can play in near silence (it makes you feel like you’re at a silent auction)
  • The game is well balanced
  • There’s a fun element of chance to the game, but it’s not so overwhelming that you feel like you’re getting the shaft if luck isn’t in your favor
  • If luck isn’t in your favor, there are several plays that you can make to come out ahead

What makes Jaipur fun is in your ability to remember what actions your opponent is taking and to be able to make counter plays to those. For example, if you notice your adversary taking a lot of gold cards, they’re probably going for a combo. If you have at least two gold cards, you can sell on your next turn and take the top chips, which are worth more than the chips underneath them.

On the Mango Papaya Lassi

Lassi is an interesting drink. Popular in India and Punjab, lassi has many variations. Traditionally, lassi is savory but more recently has been made with sweet fruits. There’s even a Bhang (cannabis) lassi that some Hindus drink during certain holidays, like Shivatri (a holiday for the goddess Shiva) and Holi (where they throw all of the bright colored paint at each other). Apparently, the Bhang lassi tastes like trash.

The last words that came out of the English backpacker’s mouth were, ‘Make mine extra strong.’ Well, that and, ‘Ugh, it tastes like the bottom of a garbage bag.’

Vice, circa 2015

I opted for the sweeter, non-get-you-high lassi. Mango, being a fruit from the region, seemed like a good idea but the accidental papaya version wasn’t a bad alternative. It was not as sweet as a mango lassi would be, but I think the rum made up for that.

Here’s the recipe that I used, try it for yourself!

You can pick up most of the ingredients at your average grocery store, except the ancho chili powder.

Allow me to throw in a plot twist—I made a vegan version of the lassi drink:

  • Rum is naturally vegan
  • There’s a cashew substitute for Greek/honey yogurt (I found a great one called Ripple at my local grocery store)
  • All of the other ingredients are already vegan

Great! Now’s a good time to end your blog without talking about any cultural appropriation

Nice try. Look, as a white person, it’s not really my place to delve into the aspects of appropriation of a culture that isn’t mine whatsoever but I think that it’s important for me to think more inclusively about aspects of my “culture” if it can even be defined as such—tabletop games.

Jaipur is one of many tabletop games that take the great mechanics of a resource and market management game, then slap a stereotypical Indian or Arab bazaar trade market theme on it. Jaipur, Istanbul, Taj Mahal…they all have this type of theme and all are heavy on allowing players to set markets.

Furthermore, Jaipur is make by Gameworks, a Swiss company.

Fun themes that are also identifiable to players are important components in artwork and design. I would argue, that theme is the most important aspect of a tabletop game. If your theme (including your artwork) is uninteresting or disjointed, your game won’t be fun to play, regardless of how awesome your mechanics are.

To reiterate, I love Jaipur and will continue to play it. I would like to see more games with a unique theme and the market setting component.

Categories
Game Design

Game mechanics are about quality, not quantity

In my game, players compete to overthrow the current government of Rome and become its first ruler. They do this through passing policies to resolve various crises that Rome faces. Players play against the game itself (similar to a game like Pandemic), and they also play against each other.

Neat, so how has it worked out so far?

In my first iterations of the game, the general flow was such:

  1. When Rome isn’t facing a crisis, a player draws a Crisis Card
  2. Players take actions based on the Crisis Card (for example, if it’s a Military Conflict, Rome loses soldiers and population) that requires an excess of a resource to be resolved
  3. Players then take turns passing policies that take an input of resources and have an output of some kind in order to resolve the crisis
  4. The policy cards are types of action cards—their output gives players a small amount of a resource or allow them to construct buildings which let them build the resources without needing to pass policy
  5. Each player has their own win condition to become the first Emperor of Rome—typically by creating an excess of a resource (population, money, military, etc.)

Sounds fun, right? Wrong.

Tell me more about how awful your game was…

I had this idea in my head that adding more elements to a game would make it more engaging, more challenging. What I found was that I was putting in arbitrary obstacles which caused players to not worry about their real threat: each other.

Ore mining card from Alpha 4 (leftmost) and its Alpha 5 replacement. Clay tokens on the right.
Structures that players built once the right policy, money, and resources were in play.

My game ballooned into a tangle of passing policy to build structures which allow you to get the resources that you needed to keep Rome afloat—and you needed a lot of resources. There’s challenging, and there’s bullying. I created a game that was bullying the players into cooperation. What I wanted to make was a game that gave players the opportunity to bully themselves.

Smash it! Smash it! Smash it!

I got rid of the structures as a game mechanic altogether and moved to a simpler one of people passing policy to result in a direct cost/gain of resources.

I faced the Philippa Foot Trolly Problem—I had to kill one mechanic to save the herd [of mechanics] within my game.

At first, I was worried that I had just reduced my game to the likes of Uno…a game with simple action cards and annoyingly simple outcomes. But then I realized that I was just clearing out the clutter. There were fewer fiddly bits (that’s a real term, by the way) and people could focus on the meat of the game.

Sounds like it all ended perfectly then…

Not quite. I’ve been developing this game for a whole year. Even when I had win conditions for the players, I had major balance issues with the game.

Categories
Game Design

So, I’ve been developing this game for the past year or so and…

I’ve started this blog a bit late in the game but as a wise person once said, “better late than never.”

…for bet than never is late.

—Chaucer, The Yeoman’s Prologue and Tale

That’s nice, but enough about you…what about your game?

My game puts you in the hot-seat as a Roman Senator at the time of the republic. It’s your duty to maintain the population, food, water, military power, and treasury of Rome through various crises that face the republic—all the while trying to pass your own policies that eventually strip the republic of its power and turn you into the first Imperator of a new Empire.

This was at the early stages of my development, although I had already been jotting down several ideas for this game. After one jam-packed game night of playing Bang!, Secret Hitler, Munchkin, and Bohnanza—my inner dialogue went something like this:

“That was a fun night, so many great games!”

“I can’t believe that I lost that game of Munchkin…I really just wanted the game to end and didn’t want to use my curse card to stop someone else to drag the game out even further.”

“It would be neat to play a game that combines some of the themes of Munchkin with that of Bohnanza…what would that look like?”

Please don’t make me read your inner monologue…

Fine. I went on like this inside my head for hours until I came to the conclusion that what I really wanted was a game that:

  • Forced competing players to work together to solve a collective problem.
  • Created situations where players had to choose between working together or breaking from the pack so they could win.
  • Caused a lot of negotiating and bartering between players.

I thought of my game as a type of Pandemic “lite” with only one player being able to emerge as the winner. Imagine a version of Pandemic where you’re all competing to be the top scientist to cure all of the viruses for fame and glory…would you let parts of the world suffer if it meant that you’d come out on top in the long run?—At the heart of it, I was attempting to invoke the best AND the worst in people within the span of one game.

Sounds intriguing, but how’d you get started?

After realizing, even on an abstract level, what the “goals” were, I had a basic formation of win conditions. Then it hit me like a bolt of lightning from Zeus Jupiter himself…what if all of the players were senators in the Roman republic that were trying to steal all of the power for themselves? It just fits.

I went to town on creating as many assets as I could think of—no, that’s not true. I extensively researched different aspects of creating a game. There’s not a lot out there on creating a tabletop game, specifically, but there’s plenty on creating a compelling video game. Buzzfeed title formation aside, I realized that there were five core elements to consider when creating a game—the last one will shock you! (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

In no specific order, these tenets are:

  1. Create goals that the players must meet to win the game. (For example, players must obtain Object Z to win.)
  2. Create the mechanism for how they meet said goals. (Players must collect enough of Token X before they are able to obtain Object Z.)
  3. Put obstacles in the way of the mechanism. (Players mustn’t collect Fiddly Bit Y as it makes it more difficult to obtain Token X!)
  4. Do everything that you can to keep the player informed about the conditions of the game, including cutting elements that are too complicated to remember or fathom during gameplay. (Players should understand that Fiddly Bit Y is made up of 5 other Fiddly Bits noted Y1 – Y5. Each of these is collected based on 10 different rules that are clearly on this one reminder card so you should know to follow them all…I mean they’re on the card!)
  5. Tie all of this amazing stuff together into one beautiful theme. Theme is concept, setting, story, and emotion. Theme is artwork and mechanic, players reacting to other players and reacting to the state of the board itself as the game progresses.

I knew, personally, that if I could master these 5 tenets in a tabletop game, that I’d have a game that wasn’t just a cool idea; I’d have a game that made people not want to stop playing it.

That’s cute, but I already know that stuff. Stop patronizing me and get to the—

Look. Although this all may seem like common sense, typically when you get into the weeds of designing the ecosystem of a game, you may forget or misunderstand one of these five commandments. If you’re interested in traveling up the same river that I am, you’d do well to understand the basic navigation points.

Always refer back to these as your North Star. When you think about developing some cool thing about your game, think about whether it really fits within those tenets.

Tell me the truth, which of these 5 commandments did you break?

Number 4, on multiple occasions.

Thou shalt not make your game unnecessarily complicated.

The first alpha-version assets of my game were hand written on index cards. I had this concept of population, food, water, shelter, soldiers, navy, health, and money—different types of resources that players would need to keep afloat on their path to becoming emperor of Rome.

These resources changed when facing a crisis. Crises are presented as cards from the Crisis Deck, each crisis having “action card” type attributes that affect these resources:

  • Type of crisis (population, military, food, water, shelter, financial)
  • Effects of the crisis when the card is drawn (destroy 10 population, destroy 5 military, etc.)
  • Additional effects each turn that the crisis remains unresolved
  • What you can do to resolve the crisis (make population equal to water, train 10 new soldiers, etc.)

The way that players balanced those resources was through passing policy cards, to which players had a hand of at their disposal.

It worked. It worked well. “Too well,” I thought. And so, I made it more complicated.

That’s right, I didn’t make it more difficult, I made it more complicated. Violating #4, that’s a paddlin’.

These photos are of the first designed and printed version of the game. I took the simple “policies and resources and disasters, oh my!” to a thick turn-based-strategy-resource-management-player-against-game-player-against-player catastrophe.

Let’s open the vault…shall we?

Here’s a brief peek into the archive folder containing my first print ‘n’ play version of the game:

IMG_0451
Let’s open the vault…

Each shred of paper represented everything from:

  • Policy cards
  • Special policies (your win conditions)
  • Resources (military, shelter, water, food, health, population)
  • Buildings that helped you grow resources (farms, aqueducts, barracks, trade posts, quarries, mines)
  • Crisis cards (these were actually hand drawn from my brainstorming phases)
IMG_0452
My Latin skills need some work

Here’s an image of some of the Crisis Cards that I had. These were early mockups that I had from brainstorming in a perforated sketchbook.

IMG_0453
Mithridates VI

It may be difficult to see from the photo, but that fellow with the wolf cap on is Mithridates VI of Pontus…one of the greatest kings of Pontus and the Greco world. He was, unfortunately, no match for the generals of Rome at the time, but he did play a part in their history. As such, I thought it fitting to make him a minor threat to Rome in the game.

Other sketches include a Trireme ship, and a statue of the Etruscan chimera in a crisis titled Last Stand of the Etruscans.

All of this was fun to develop but painstaking to actually play. Due to the many complications of buildings and a crisis begetting more crises, I lost sight of my #1 and #2 because of all of the #4 sins I had racked up.

OK, what did you do to fix that?

I’m going to pull a line inspired by the “I wrote myself into a corner” AND/OR “I’m too lazy to provide an explanation for this legitimate question” types of story writing and say this:

That’s a good question. But one for another time.

Thanks for reading—until next time!

Categories
Game Design

The Journey Begins

Thanks for joining me!

Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton

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