Jake Alley has cut the price of his self-published board game, The Massive Vs. The Masses, down to $25. Go buy one while you still can! Especially if you're looking for a present for that person you know who loves board games but seems to already have everything.
I was heavily involved in the playtesting, so I'm far from unbiased, but I do believe it's a good game. It's a quickly paced, 2-player card-driven wargame that is dripping with theme, is well-balanced despite having two sides with completely different play styles, has a good amount of tactical depth, and shockingly high production values for a self-published game. (You just have to ignore the ugly yellow box.)
The kingmaking problem
I had a bit of a birthday party tonight (I just turned 30). Played some Illuminati (the non-collectible one) with Dave, Aaron, and Atul.
Illuminati is fun for a while because the situations it creates are so inherently amusing. You can't even announce your basic actions without saying something that makes the people overhearing you say "WTF". I like to add a layer of role-playing and come up with elaborate justifications to explain exactly what, say, the Phone Phreaks would be doing to help the Bermuda Triangle take over Texas, or what Convenience Stores controlled by Libertarians would be like, or why Kinko's is the only thing that stands in the way of Cthulhu rising agin.
But Illuminati has a really serious problem as a game design, which is this: it's nigh impossible for the game to ever end. As soon as one player is within striking distance of any victory condition (always public info btw) all the other players will gang up to stop the decisive attack. This happens in lots of games, but it's especially effective in Illuminati because any player can spend money one-for-one to increase or decrease any attack. No matter how much money one player has, there's going to be N-1 other players (so in this game, three) with roughly equivalent income, so they can always outspend the attacker three-to-one and make the attack fail.
It's not even a negotiation game at that point, because there's nothing to negotiate: there's nothing you can meaningfully offer another player in exchange for them letting you win. Nothing internal to the game, I mean. Maybe you could offer them another slice of cake or something. So basically you go around blocking each other's attacks until somebody gets bored of the game and gives up. The best chance to win is usually to talk everyone else into throwing all their money into stopping an attack on the turn right before yours, so they don't have enough left to stop you after you get your income on your turn. But that gambit's easy to see coming, so eventually (after many tedious turns of no progress) it comes down to deciding which other player you would rather stop from winning.
Kingmaking: The situation in a 3-or-more-player game where you know you can't win, but you can decide who does.
Kingmaking is a problem in game design because it ain't fun. It's not fun being the guy who decides, and it's not fun winning or losing just because somebody else made an arbitrary decision for or against you.
Illuminati is all about kingmaking in the end. So is Munchkin, and it's one of the main reasons I don't enjoy Munchkin. Actually I think every Steve Jackson game I've played except for GURPS has been all about the kingmaking. Maybe Steve doesn't recognize it as a problem, or maybe he enjoys the kind of wheeling-and-dealing that it leads to.
Other kinds of negotiation in a game are fun, like when you offer another player some sort of trade of favors or resources or put your heads together to plan an attack. Sometimes the politics overwhelms the actual game part of the game, which is frustrating, but used judiciously the possibility of negotiation adds a layer to gameplay that I really like. (It's one of the things missing from most Eurogames, which often eliminate kingmaking as well as politicking by severely limiting your ability to directly affect other players).
What's the difference between negotiation and kingmaking, though? What makes negotiation fun but kingmaking not fun? A conversation I had with Ben a while back about Settlers of Cataan gave me the answer. In a kingmaking situation there is no rational in-game reason for making one decision over another. In a proper negotiation you can weigh what you're giving up vs. what you're gaining and think about how it affects your plans and your chance to win. But in a kingmaking situation you've already given up on your chances to win, so there's nothing to measure your choices against. You have to decide based on out-of-game factors. Like being bribed with extra cake. Or social factors, like deciding which player you like more. (And this is how game design contributes to wrecking friendships. Thanks game designers.)
Ben pointed out that most game groups eventually settle on some sort of social rule for making decisions in kingmaking situations. The social rule is an unspoken assumption that gets applied not just to a particular game, but to every game that group plays. The most common social rules are:
- You must attack the player in the lead
- You must help the player who helped you earlier in the game
- You must play to improve your own score whenever possible, even if you can't win
I've played in a lot of groups that do "attack the player in the lead". Many people have tried to convince me that it was, like, a moral imperative that I attack the player in the lead. Even in, like, Mario Kart. There's a little logic to this, I guess, in that attacking the player in the lead stops the game from ending and thus extends my infinitesimal but theoretically non-zero chance of winning. But, meh. That argument is only persuasive if I want the game to go on forever. Which I generally don't. I'd rather get it over with and play something else! But people who play with this social rule tend to get mad at you if you "throw the game" by letting someone else win when you could have stopped them.
Game designers: Please don't be like Steve Jackson. Design your game to avoid kingmaking situations! It's not impossible. Figure out your victory conditions so that the game can't be dragged out beyond the point where the winner is obvious! Make it so that even if you're not going to win, you can at least play to improve your own score for the last few turns! Include some kind of turn counter or limited supply that forces the game to end in a finite time! Just do something other than leaving it up to a kingmaker.
The Generic Eurogame
Played a whole bunch of Agricola and a bit of Dominion lately. I like Dominion's fast play (turns are very short) and its customizability. I like Agricola for the way the options gradually increase as the game goes on, for the scoring that emphasizes getting a variety of crops, and for the "you want to grow your family but not faster than you can feed them all" tension.
They're both fun games, but beneath the novel mechanics they both feel a little bit too... familiar.
You've got a menu of options in front of you for stuff that you can buy using the limited number of resources you have every turn. Some of these options increase the efficiency of your resource-producing economic engine and therefore have expected future payoff. Others don't help you increase efficiency but are worth the victory points you need to win the game, so you need to balance between building up your engine and preparing to be ahead in victory points when the game ends. Interaction with other players is extremely limited - except for a very few special cards, basically the ONLY way you affect each other is by competing for similar resources, i.e. if I take thing X then it means you can no longer take thing X, or you have to wait until next turn to take it, or thing X costs more for you to take.
What game does that paragraph describe? Besides Agricola and Dominion, could it be Puerto Rico? Race for the Galaxy? Power Grid? Probably lots more Eurogames I'm forgetting at the moment?
Sometimes I feel like these are all minor variations or reskins of essentially the same game.
The main strategy in all of these games revolves around estimating when the game is going to end and picking the right time to switch from a focus on boosting your own efficiency to a focus on grabbing victory points before the game ends.
That's why variable game-ending conditions are so important in these type of games - they make it harder to guess how many actions you have remaining and therefore make the trade-off between VPs now and VPs later into more of a judgment call. There's fixed number of turns but with variable actions in each one (Agricola), there's depletion of shared resource pool (Puerto Rico, Dominion), and there's end conditions that a player can unilaterally trigger by passing some threshold (Race for the Galaxy, Puerto Rico, Power Grid).
The essential similarity is obscured by a whole lot of different types of currency and resources and efficiency synergies and secondary mechanics that alter the value of various goods - Coal! Uranium! Corn! Sugar! Gold! Provinces! Cattle! Stone! Oh look if I get the basketmaker's workshop than I can turn reed into victory points, and nobody else is getting reed so lots of it is available cheap! Oh if I build this Galactic Empire card then all these military planets will be worth more VPs! Do I have enough cash to buy this power plant AND expand to more cities? Do I have enough people actions to build a room in my house AND feed everyone by the harvest?
The main differences are in the details of the actions that you use to make resource transactions - e.g. when other people take an option does it block you from doing the same (Agricola), help you do the same but not as well (Puerto rico, Race for the galaxy), make it more expensive for you to do the same (Power Grid) or have basically no effect on you (Dominion)? Can you get the ability to make more transactions per turn (having babies in Agricola, extra buys in Dominion)?
Also, each game has its own way of adding uncertainty and variable cost so that the game is not completely solvable. Power Grid has the auction element, Dominion and Race for the Galaxy have the randomness of the deck shuffle, Agricola has the uncertainty of which action will become available next, and Puerto Rico has the shuffled plantation tiles. Agricola, Puerto Rico, and Power Grid all have resources that accumulate turn after turn, making a transaction more efficient the longer it goes unclaimed. Every game has options that give you bonus resources for certain transactions or otherwise decrease the cost of other options.
I'm not saying that these are completely trivial differences, but generally the skillset and thought process for evaluating potential moves are very similar across all of these games.
I enjoy these games. There's often a lot of cleverness in the details which is fun to puzzle out. But they often feel kind of like multiplayer solitaire and leave me longing a game with more direct player interaction, more uncertainty, more bluffing, or some kind of geometry to the board that enables positioning tactics. Something extra beyond just resource management that elevates it above the Standard Eurogame Template.
Why Settlers is not my favorite game
I had a very painful game of Settlers of Cataan (cities & knights expansion) on Saturday which got me thinking about the problems with the design of that game. (I also got to play a fantastic samurai-themed Burning Wheel one-shot, and a fun round of the new D&D board game, so game day was mostly good.)
Settlers is insanely popular lately; it seems to be the one board game that even non-gamers have heard of and are willing to try. It's the new "Monopoly", in a way. I've even heard that it has replaced golf as the main schmoozing game for rich businessmen in Silicon Valley. It's much less terrible than Monopoly, in that it has the fun of trading and building without the pointless board-circling, and it's possible for a game to actually end. (The Monopoly rules might as well say "play until everyone gets bored, then quit. Nobody wins.") Settlers was a big step forward in game design in 1995, almost every Eurogame since then owes something to it, and it's worth playing and studying, but it's got some big problems which lead to un-fun gameplay situations.
The Kingmaker problem: towards the end of the game, you get into a situation where you can't win, but you can choose which of the other players will win by who you choose to throw your support behind. (in Settlers: who you trade with, whose roads you block, and who you put the robber on, basically).
Some game designers might not see kingmaking as a flaw, because it doesn't obviously break anything in terms of game math. You would have lost anyway, so what? The reason Kingmaking is a problem is social: having to be the kingmaker puts you in a really awkward spot socially, especially when the leading players start saying things like "I'll give you a cookie if you help me" or "You have to help me, I'm your wife". Now you are no longer playing a strategy game: you are playing the game of popularity-via-social-leverage, and most people got enough of that back in high school.
The Bucket O' Crabs problem: I am coining a phrase here. If you put a bunch of crabs in a bucket, as soon as one is close to crawling out, the other crabs will grab its legs and drag it back down.
The endgame of Settlers can drag on way too long, because as soon as one player is close to winning, everybody does everything possible to stop that player. How often have you heard "Don't trade with him, you'll help him win!" ? And when people stop trading in Settlers, the game slows to a crawl.
People know that the leader will be targeted, so nobody wants to be the leader. Everybody's vying for second place while trying to take the leader down. This drags things out even more.
The screwed-by-the-dice problem: sometimes a string of bad rolls means you don't get any resources for ten or eleven turns in a row. This tends to happen to the player with the fewest settlements/cities meaning that the player who's already farthest behind tends to fall even farther behind. But the worst part isn't the game balance issue - it's that Settlers is insanely boring when you don't have anything to do (except offer people trades you know they don't want) for thirty minutes. That's the kind of situation where you wish you could just drop out of the game and go do something else, but Settlers doesn't believe in player elimination. I wouldn't mind losing so much if there was at least something to do on my turns while I was losing.
Another form of screwed-by-the-dice is when you have the resources to build a city, but then lose them before you can spend them because somebody rolled a 7 and you were holding 8 cards. I know this rule is in the game to discourage card hoarding, but sometimes you're trying to spend cards and you just can't. There's no skill to it, you just get randomly hosed by the dice. It happens even more often in the cities & knights expansion because there are more kinds of cards to hold and more things you need to save up for.
Setting the end conditions for a multiplayer (n > 2) game turns out to be an extremely difficult design problem, if you want the game to remain fun for all players up until the last round. Most multiplayer games have some kind of weird issues with the endgame.
Losing at Go
I've still got a bunch to write about China, so you'll see some more China posts even though I'm back in America now.
In Lu Xun park I found a spot where lots of middle-aged folks hang out and play Go, cards, and Xiangqi (a Chinese chess variant). I hung around watching the Go players until one of them asked if I knew how to play and offered me a game.
Needless to say, I received a total curb-stomping. A senseless drubbing. I was PWNED, as they say.
The match went on longer than it should have just because I didn't know how to say "I surrender!" in Chinese.
I'm used to the Japanese scoring system (where you score only the empty points you have surrounded, and lose points for stones of yours that are captured). The Chinese scoring system counts every space you surround or occupy, and disregards captured stones. It makes for a very different game. With Japanese scoring, some engagements are not worth pursuing past a certain point, because the territory you can gain from it will be less than the cost of continuing the battle. The players will fence with each other and then one of them will back off. Chinese scoring encourages more of a brutal, close-quarters, knock-down-drag-out brawl.
A week or so later I had another opportunity to play, with a middle-aged woman who spoke decent English. At one point she said "That was a good move." I said "Thanks." She said "I meant MY move, your moves are bad." Ouch.
Trying to make conversation, I complemented her English and asked where she had learned, but she got offended. "When someone speaks English as well as me, you SHOULD ask: where do you TEACH?" she reprimanded me. Yeah, she was an English teacher. Later she lectured me that since all Shanghainese learn excellent English in school, it is "not proper" to ask someone how they learned.
After she had finished kicking my ass at Go she said that if I knew any good players, I should send them her way. She was one of the most arrogant people I've ever dealt with. It was a weird experience.
I played one more game with Sushu's cousin Kai-kai (aka Kevin). He was not as far above my level as the denizens of Lu Xun park, but he was still better than me. For a few minutes I thought I had him, but then his trap closed around me.
Go is an amazing game, probably the deepest non-random full-information strategy game ever devised by humans, but it demands insane amounts of dedication. It's also no fun to play against someone way above your level. Go is not a game you can just play casually once in a while. It makes me sad to admit this, but I'll probably never be good at it; it's just way more of a commitment than I want out of a leisure-time activity.
Channel A is a fantastic game
My friend Ewen invented a card game called Channel A where you make up pitches for anime series. We played the new high-quality-printed prototype on Sunday. It is a ton of fun!
Each round, one player takes the role of a producer of a TV station. They choose two premise cards to make a bizzare genre/setting combination. Like "Cyberpunk dystopia + Time travel" or "Space Opera + French Revolution"; this is they type of cartoon that the TV station wants to add to their lineup. Everybody else is making up a show to pitch to the producer. They have a hand of word cards that they can choose from to create a title for the show, and then they explain to everyone what their show is about and how it fits the desired genre.
Of course your hand is full of crazy words that don't go together, so inevitably all the titles imitate the over-the-top word-salad style that anime fans know all too well. Your show is probably called something like "Keichi 120% Lucky Lingerie" or "Super Fighting Fight Fighters EX"; how are you going to convince the table that "Future Vampire Ultra Peach" is not only a show about "high school romance" and "race car drivers", it's the best freakin' high school race car driver romance they'll ever see? An ability to think on your feet and spout ridiculous bullshit with a straight face is essential.
I was surprised that I like this game so much, since I generally hate "LOLrandom!" party games. Channel A is almost identical in form to the game "Apples to Apples". But Channel A is lots of fun for me, and Apples is painfully boring. What makes the difference?
Here's my theory: the reason "zany" party games make me bored is that it doesn't matter what I do. In Apples to Apples I don't do any better if I carefully choose cards than I do if I choose cards at random. (Same goes for Fluxx and Munchkin.) I find that boring because it feels like there's no reward for effort or for paying attention to the game. I'm not hyper-competitive; to enjoy a game, I don't have to win, but I do have to try my best to win; that's where the fun comes from, for me. Games where trying harder makes no difference don't keep my interest long.
But Channel A works for me because it rewards effort - creative effort. The cards are just a prompt; over and over I saw the player with a more genre-appropriate title lose to the player who improvised a better pitch.
Channel A reminds me of Baron Munchausen, in that neither are role-playing games but they exercise a very similar part of your brain to role-playing. There's a similar performance anxiety when your turn comes around. Improv is a demanding activity!
I was amazed at some of the pitches people came up with during this game. With only seconds to think about it, they pulled the most fascinating stuff out of nowhere. Sushu joined our game halfway through and after about ten seconds of explanation she was winning hands with her pitches for "Little Monkey Bride" (Chinese mythology + catgirls) and "Ninja Hearts Z" (tournament fighting + shonen ai), either of which I would totally watch if it was a real show. I was also hella impressed by Ewen's ability to make up appropriate anime names for every character in his pitch without skipping a beat.
I like to think that I have especially creative friends, but I think the structure of the game and the words on the cards did a lot to pull our creativity to the surface. I felt like we could take any of the winning pitches from a Channel A game and turn them into role-playing campaigns or webcomics.
Anyway I highly recommend this game. Whenever the final version comes out I'm going to buy a couple sets to bring to anime conventions with me.
Channel A kickstarter
My friend Ewen's anime-series-concept-pitching game, Channel A, which has been a ton of fun every time I've played it, now has a Kickstarter which maybe you should think about funding!