Friday, September 19, 2014

Every Game is Broken

Recently I have mentioned A Few Acres of Snow more than once, using it both as an example of an innovative design, as well as a tragically flawed one. Indeed, a specific, flawlessly executed strategy will win the game for the British pretty much every time. There seems to be no doubt that the game is broken – so broken in fact, that it has been given as a single example of a design that is beyond repair. Is it however as lonely in its misery as we grew to think?

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The answer is simple: it is not. There are many games from less known designers that would also quickly turn out to be subpar, with either a single strategy being prevalent, or a specific swing of luck being the force that is most influential when tallying the final scores. Nobody seems really surprised when an unbalanced game published by a smaller company hits the shelves. We do seem to expect, however, that the biggest and brightest will always deliver a product we will not be able to break.

The truth is that deeming a game broken is a somewhat fuzzy process, dependant on a variety of different factors. Is Munchkin broken? Is Fluxx unplayable? Many people might say that they are, but what they are in fact expressing is their dislike of the genre those games represent. Those games were never meant to be balanced, the design goal was not to give all players equal chances, to provide them with a catch-up mechanism or to ensure there is more than one way to victory.

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The problem gets even more complicated when we take a look at some of the German style games, especially those simpler, family oriented ones. Take Coal Baron for example – a rather light game with a simple and straightforward path to victory and a few interesting mechanisms, that can still be taken apart by a player able to optimize their every movement. How about Russian Railroads? It is a seemingly more complicated design that can still be played according to a very simple algorithm that, if used by one player, will make them the victor every time or, if executed by more than one person, will hand the victory to whoever made the first move.

The problem is that the same may be basically said about chess. It is a perfect example of a game that, when played by opponents perfectly executing the best strategies, will always end in white’s victory. Does it mean that chess is broken? Again, based on their dislikes, some people would probably say that it is, but it is not true.

Now, the problem with A Few Acres of Snow is a slightly different one. Due to its asymmetry, the design favours only one side of the conflict. It still requires perfect or near-perfect execution of the winning strategy, but with two equally skilled, experienced opponents, winning the game might as well be determined at the stage of randomly assigning who gets to play the British. This, again, is not a very unique problem.

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A similar one is easily found in the previous editions of Twilight Struggle, which seemed to favour the Soviets (and, by some accounts, still favours them, regardless of the fix offered in an early errata and then incorporated into the deluxe edition). Some wargame designers are even conscious enough to offer a simple balancing mechanism, with opponents bidding to play a specific side of the conflict. The last game I came upon this in was Red Winter – and nobody even suggests that it might be broken.

Again, A Few Acres of Snow seems to be further down the path of broken, as its structure makes the bidding pointless. The winning strategy is not based on victory points, so the players would just be buying a victory before the game starts, provided they know what to do exactly to win the game. But to know that means to either find out by visiting the game’s BGG profile or to be smart and determined enough to actually discover the strategy and perfect its execution, so that any semblance of game balance is irrevocably lost. Still, if you do not simply use other people’s experiences, there is usually a lot of game to be had before you are able to deem A Few Acres of Snow broken. And for most players that will mean playing the game about as many times as one plays any other game in their collection – especially if the collection is at least fifty to a hundred boxes strong.

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The amusing conclusion here is that games are not broken by finding an outstanding design flaw – they are broken because people who are too smart or too determined play them. If not for the great following, A Few Acres of Snow would probably still be considered a flawless design. If not for a disturbingly inquisitive presence at my gaming table, I would probably still be able to enjoy Russian Railroads, oblivious of the way it can be played to win every time.

It may, thus, seem that the biggest plight of designer board games are the people who seem the best gamers: the smart, analytical minds, able to pull a design apart and utterly annihilate the illusion that there are many equally viable strategies to play and win. And it may also seem that there is no game that is not broken – and that it is more a matter of how broken any given design really is than if it is breakable at all.

From a design standpoint, however, the player that is much smarter than average is not as dangerous as the average player that, for whatever reason, decides to assume the mantle of the village idiot. This, however, I will analyze next time – for there is even more to consider here, as not all of us gamers can be exceptionally smart all the time, but we can sure act like half-wits whenever we damn please. And we do, more often than we would like to admit.


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Perfect to a Fault

Last time I talked about how most games can be at least partially broken by exceptionally smart players. And although it may seem that it is the geniuses game designers should aim to please the most, the truth is that they are not the biggest threat to how we perceive games. On the contrary, it is the idiots that should be feared.

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Let me start by saying that I really do not mean to offend anyone – at least not without offending myself as well. The truth is each of us may become a boardgaming idiot from time to time due to various circumstances. In my case, I managed to come through as a complete dumbbell during my first game of Agricola.

It was a few years ago, during a convention, right in the middle of a graveyard shift I was assigned to staff the games room. We started the game around 4.30 and by the time it came to an end, roughly three quarters of my brain bailed on me, deciding that whatever usually governs breathing can hold the fort, while all the other little grey cells will go to sleep. Thus, it should come as no surprise that I scored way below zero, with a single pasture, three bags of wheat and a (probably extremely underfed) pig to show for all my heroic struggles.

I do not remember all of the mistakes I made, but I can easily recall the guy who taught me the game, as he gazed at me triumphantly, counting his precious points, thinking that I was probably somebody’s brother, who (by the looks of him) is a drummer in a thrash metal band nobody listens to, duped into doing a job no sane convention attendee would ever want to just do out of their own volition. So, in short, I was the designated idiot for that game.

So, you're the idiot that ruined that other guy's game.
The real problem with us idiots is that we are also able to break a game – as I clearly broke Agricola for one other player at the table on that faithful night. My erratic movements made it impossible for him to form a consistent strategy and between me doing random things and the game teacher performing at the peak of his abilities, that other player felt that the game structure gave him no chance to do anything significant, thus deeming it vastly underwhelming, if not outright broken.

All of that meant that by performing erratically, making really silly moves, doing what no intelligent player would ever do I transformed the game (for one player) into an excruciating experience, either by testing the mechanisms until they finally give way, or by making the game underperform severely due to my inconsistency and counter productiveness. And although it should be easy to differentiate between an experience of suffering through a game diminished by poor player decisions, and a broken design, the reality is that often it simply is not. And I am pretty certain of that, being a few times on the business end of such an unpleasant experience.

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This is exactly what happened to me with Mag*Blast, a light card game about shooting lasers and making silly noises, right after it was played with two people who decided to make it a full on strategy game, killing the fun for everyone else and proving that there was one clear way of winning the game. A similar thing happened to my wife, as she played Garden Dice with someone who decided to adapt a strategy as aggressive as humanly possible, which meant that, while having no chance at achieving victory, he made the whole game a painful slog for everyone else at the table.

Now, I would lie if I said that there is no space between the idiots and the geniuses. There is and most of us actually inhabit it on a daily basis. It is full of people smart enough to understand and play board games proficiently, but either not quite as bright as the brightest, or just never bothered to calculate and optimize everything, choosing to go with their gut for the sake of what they perceive as fun. And it is this exact group most designs should probably be aimed at.

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Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that dumbing down is the way to go, as this is not what gamers expect and, for obvious reasons, appreciate. What I am saying is that a game should strive to be fun even if not all moves are optimized, because it will mostly work in an imperfect environment. It will never be idiot-proof, as destroying a game is sometimes as simple as swapping the original objectives for a set of few arbitrary ones (like becoming “the master of all wizards” in Lords of Waterdeep, or deciding to never trade in Settlers of Catan) or just being dead tired. But a design should be able to withstand some sub-optimal play without immediately handing over the victory to whoever uses a strategy that can be countered only with a very specific response, executed flawlessly and perfectly timed.

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What I am also not saying is that games for the exceptionally smart should be immediately discarded. However, we need to remember that they have a tendency to be misjudged by gamers not willing to delve deep enough. A prime example of such a misunderstood game is The Great Zimbabwe, which has an amusing feature of becoming longer with every subsequent play. The first games will usually be surprisingly short, won by a player who manages to seemingly break the game by introducing a strategy that seems unbeatable. That might earn the game a “broken” status right out of the gate and move it from the shelf to the trade pile, without giving it a second chance.

It is only later that players discover that there is a counter for every possible approach and that the first victories are usually a matter of other players’ negligence rather than anyone’s superior performance. But that requires everyone to be willing to play The Great Zimbabwe again, and that, as my own experience clearly indicates, is by far not a given.

So what should a designer do in order to make a game that would satisfy the most people? In a perfect world, he or she should aim at the brightest, hoping the rest will see how solid their design really is. In the real world, aiming for the smartest gamer should also be acknowledged, just as much as remembering that a game should be attractive to all others – even some of the idiots. After all, we learn, we become smarter, we sleep off the wear and tear of pulling an all-nighter at a convention or we are told to stop acting like a jerk – and we become the masters of the games we enjoy the most. But for this to happen, we also need a chance to enjoy the game right from the start, even if we err on our way.



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Thursday, September 11, 2014

Something Gained, Something Lost

I know it has only been three weeks since I last wrote about deckbuilding, but I would like to revisit the topic. This time I will not be delving deeper in the past or musing on the future of the genre, but discussing the two main types of vanilla deckbuilders present on the market: the ones where a constant pool of purchasable cards is created before the game, and the ones where cards are acquired form a changing central row and replenished whenever one is acquired by drawing from a face down deck.

Dominion, the first deckbuilder, used a method that randomized the cards before the game. Players would randomly draw only once to establish for the whole game which cards would be available for purchase. A number of face up stacks where then placed in the centre of the table – with a few “always available” stacks added to the mix – and the game would begin. Now, before I go into the second method of randomizing the available cards, let me first take a look at what this option has to offer.

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When playing Dominion (Nightfall, Thunderstone, Arctic Scavengers, Eaten by Zombies! or Trains – which offer a similar method of randomizing available cards before the start of the game and then locking the pool until points are scored), a player can – and in actuality should – create a strategy right from the first turn. After all, every option is in plain sight and the only two things that change from turn to turn are: the composition of the random hand a player draws, and the more occasional depletion of some of the stacks.

Consequently, a game of Dominion is a game of strategy – one a player needs to shift only if and when it turns out that the opponents had the same idea, and the cards stapling the deck-engine become available only in a number too small to make the original design work smoothly. Such an occurrence influences the player tactics or makes them recalibrate their strategic idea, but even this can be circumvented (which anyone who ever went for Big Money in Dominion should probably know).

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The situation is very different when playing Ascension (Lord of the Rings, DC Comics, Legendary, Star Realms, Dark Gothic or any other of the many, many more that are now available on the market), where the pool of available cards is modified almost every turn. While it is still possible to have an overarching strategy, executing it is very much dependent on what cards are actually present on the centre row, with the ones essential to the player’s plans phasing in and out of availability on not only a random basis, but also on a whim of other players. After all, one does not need to acquire eight identical cards to thwart the plans of their opponent – with the centre row mechanism buying one will usually suffice.

The above obviously means that Ascension is much more tactical and executing a carefully laid out strategy is only possible if the random draw favours the player. What is more, the random distribution of cards in the centre row also has the potential to make or break somebody’s game, because a player not only struggles with their own deck, but also tries to have enough currency when a specific card is available, effectively having to deal with an extra layer of randomness – and one that they have very little (if any) influence on.
At first sight, it seems that the Dominion style deckbuilders have much more going on for them: they are at least as strategic as they are tactical and they seem to more consistently reward solid planning and near to flawless execution. They are also much less prone to wild swings that can favour some players, while severely hampering others. Why, then, do we get more and more of the “centre deck” ones? Well, there are two reasons.

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Firstly, there is the matter of replayability. To make Dominion replayable, the base game had to come with over five hundred cards and a rather tedious setup procedure (which Nightfall tried to change into a sub game in its own, without great success) – and still, the presence of some of them during the game determines the strategy for the more experienced players much more than the presence of others (to give a simple example: Laboratory has a much more significant influence on the strategy than the Smith – at least in the base set). That influences how often the game becomes repetitive.

On the other hand, the first set of Ascension came with only two hundred cards, and still seemed at least as potent when it came to replayability – although some people claim that it was only a smart illusion. The fact is, however, that games played out differently without the laborious process of randomizing and setting up stacks of cards. It was (and is) enough to just shuffle one deck to be ready to play.

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Secondly, the fact that one can have a replayable deckbuilder with either five hundred cards, or one with less than half of it, did not go unnoticed by the publishers. The math here is quite simple and the popular saying “less is more” seems to not only mirror the overall feel of the changing gameplay, but also the profit margins. The reasons for “centre rows” being all the deckbuilding rage these days become even more transparent.

From the gamer perspective it all boils down to a few simple decisions. Do I like the cleaner, more fair game of Dominion, or do I like the more swingy nature of Ascension ? Do I want to always win when experience is on my side, or do I want to stand a chance against an expert, even if I am an utter newbie? These are the questions every deckbuilder fan should ask themselves, before deciding which way they want to go. I personally choose both, although it seems I actually might be on the Ascension side, which I simply play much more often than Dominion these days.

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BoardGameGeek
Introducing the centre row gave us a few new things to toy or cope with (depending on your attitude). It gave us faster and much less scripted game play, forcing us to sometimes make excruciating decisions and commit to a more tactical mode of playing the game. What it took away is the ability to control the game environment to a near absolute degree, which should come as no surprise, since more randomness makes for a less predictable and controllable experience.

The more random, Ascension style deckbuilders are the once that gained some variety and unpredictability, but lost some of the strategic brilliance of Dominion. Randomness fought agency once again and from the sheer numbers and popularity of the “centre row” deckbuilders it seems that it is currently winning the hearts of the player base.

So, maybe, this is the real future of deckbuilding?





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Thursday, September 4, 2014

The progress of ... Progress

When we started our first Kickstarter project in June 2014, we assumed very bold deadlines, some considered by many almost impossible to keep. Today we are proud to announce that we have managed to abide to our promise and we have already moved past the most difficult of all deadlines - the end of the production process for Progress: Evolution of Technology.

The sleepless nights adding up to many week of hard work have finally paid off. It wasn't only the NSKN Games team who contributed to this first major milestone on the road to a successful board game, it has been a group effort of almost 2000 people.

The first we would like to mention are our amazing Kickstarter supporters who have turn making Progress: Evolution of Technology into a great experience, the manufacturer and their team who kept strict deadlines and showed great professionalism, our artists, play-testers and friends who showed us a great deal of support since this board game was a just a concept.

With the first copy in our hands and, trembling with emotion (this is why some of the pictures are a little shaky) we opened up the game and took photos. Here is the outcome...



Progress: Evolution of Technology in shrink

Shrink torn, uncovering the game components

Box, lithograph, punchboards...

Everything but the cards and cubes, spread on the table

The components of Progress, waiting to be unpacked and punched out

275 cards surrounded by other game pieces

Decks of cards: Ages I-IV, Personalities, Milestones, Info cards

Age I technologies


Age II

Age III

Age IV

Info cards (sides), Milestones (top), Personalities (bottom)

Knowledge tokens, very easy to remove from their punchboard


Action tokens and VP tokens - KS exclusives in and out of their punchboard


Fresh boards

Just as easy to punch out as the rest of the tokens

100 wooden cubes ready to take their place on/in the player boards


The tech tree (front and back)

Inside of the rules

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Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Agent and the Narrator

According to an old joke about Talisman, the first prototype of the game was actually a single six-sided die. The players would sit down staring at it for four hours, and then roll off to see who won the game.

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Obviously, the joke is still being told by the people who do not enjoy the overall experience offered by the cult classic. They seem uninterested in the heroic stories created by hours of rolling dice, moving around the board and then either drawing a card, or... rolling more dice. And it does not necessarily mean that they hate wizards, dragons and magical swords (although some of them actually do). What it does mean is that they are unsatisfied with the level of agency offered by the game.

Last week I said that a certain level of randomness seems to be a required element of any adventure game. I think we can agree now that if everything can be weighed and measured before the game, there will be no adventure – only an exercise in optimization or, in other words, a German style game. Randomness is, obviously, not only an element of an adventure game. Even Agricola randomizes some of its elements, but only up to a certain extent. The players are first treated to a random distribution of cards, and during the game they have to take into account the fact that the appearance of some action spaces is random – although this randomness is also very limited.

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It is actually quite easy to get randomness right in a Eurogame. Just remember a simple rule: randomness first, decisions later. Shipyard introduces this element by giving players scoring tiles before the game, just like Lords ofWaterdeep which – although plagued with the quest cards random draw which felled many a strategy – supplies each player with a lord card that tells them what they will score points for.

Adventure games are, however, slightly more difficult to calibrate. In optimization games agency is king – but it is narrating a story that adventure games are all about. And here, it seems, erring on the side of caution means that it is better to make a game more random, than one that can be fully planned from the first turn and then flawlessly executed. Does that mean that all adventure games will inevitably boil down to, more or less, Talisman clones?

Certainly not, as some designers have already proven – with Mage Knight being the most recent example of an adventure game that really puts the player in the driver’s seat, while sometimes heavily taxing their little grey cells. What is important to take note of here: randomness is not gone, but it still precedes all decisions made by a player on their turn – just like in many Eurogames.

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As a fan of games with a clear narrative arc, I enjoyed my time with Mage Knight, just as much as I enjoyed a few dozen games of Lord of the Rings: The Card Game, where a random card draw created challenges for players to deal with using their custom made decks and (on a more turn-by-turn basis) their hands of cards. I was, however, surprised that many adventure game fans had a completely different view of those two games, finding them dull, too complicated or simply “not really adventure games”.


All in all, getting an adventure game design right is not only about creating a set of working mechanisms, but about (and perhaps even more so) balancing the player agency and the game’s narrative aspect. It is obvious a single design will not satisfy every gamer, which makes this balancing act, ever interesting from a design standpoint - and exciting for gamers open to experiencing new ideas within their favoured genre.

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