Monday, November 23, 2015

Subterfuge Gold Medalist!

In the podcast recently, I reviewed a game that we all played called Subterfuge. Subterfuge is a real-time combat, resource management, and negotiation game played over the course of about eight days. It's reminiscent of games such as Neptune's Pride and Diplomacy, where you must expand your territory, develop armies, and carefully build or betray alliances to make progress and win the game. I would imagine the main innovation is the fact that it is played with your phone or tablet, and thus, you can make moves and discuss options with your allies and enemies anywhere, anytime.

The game's website/rulebook explains how you can win: be the first player to accumulate 200 kilos of Neptunium (Np). You can transform any of your outposts into a mine, and a mine generates one kilo of Np each day for each outpost you own, and thus, the more outposts you have per mine, the faster you will accumulate it. Simple! But then the rulebook splits an infinitive for emphasis: "How to really win - Diplomacy." You can accumulate the Np on your own, but acquiring and protecting the outposts so that they will generate Np requires talking with the other players, making deals, negotiating borders and exchanges... more than anything else, it is a social game about manipulating the other players.

I have won both games of Subterfuge that I have played. Not simply placed well; although you can get gold, silver, and bronze ranking depending on how much Np you have when the game ends, I have somehow managed to get the gold ranking both times. Am I an expert? Not necessarily. Luck definitely played a big part in my wins. But I would like to think that I had a solid, flexible strategy that was neither too aggressive or too weak, and I was asked by almost all of the players (both seriously and facetiously) how I managed to trick everyone into letting me win both times. So I have spent a couple of weeks thinking about it.

I love negotiation games. If I was made at gunpoint to single out an atomic rules mechanism that I called my favorite, "negotiation" would be it. And perhaps it is the practice that these games have given me that helped me so much in Subterfuge.

Out of the more than 200 board or card games that I own and play, I have only given four a rating of 10 on And one of those four is Intrigue, unquestionably one of my all-time favorites and an unbelievably good negotiation game. Playing well almost entirely revolves around discussion and negotiation, since the game is simply five rounds of asking for people to give you income, and accepting bribes when people ask you for income. And it avoids the problem of heavily "mathing out" the situation, because even if you calculated out income and bribes, you never know when someone is going to betray the situation to get ahead themselves. Every time I play Intrigue, I enjoy it, even those times where I have to openly weep to convince someone that I deserve the spot of income that (unbeknownst to them) will not simply allow me to win, but also maintain my lead and decisively hand the game to me.

Similar, but markedly more complex, are the twin FFG games Cosmic Encounter and A Game of Thrones: The Board Game. The former is a complicated, messy game from the 70s where players take on the role of an entire alien race, and try to conquer five foreign worlds. You are randomly assigned a target player each round to assault, and then the game enters a phase where both attacker and defender call for allies, rewards and exchanges are negotiated, and then combat cards are flipped to resolve who gets what... and sometimes, who has pulled a dirty trick and soiled everything for everyone but themselves. It suffers a little from its design pedigree, but not so much that I can't look past the vestigial bits and enjoy the negotiation. In A Game of Thrones, as you would expect if you have any familiarity with the books, you play one of the great houses of Westeros trying to claim enough power and support to take the Iron Throne, and the deal-making and backstabbing can quickly get out of hand. Even simpler games like Article 27, a game about UN Security Council members voting on issues, and Bohnanza, a game about farmers growing and trading beans to make money, are some of my favorites.

The appeal of being able to short-circuit the regular rules process to gain an advantage with nothing more than a plan and an appeal is a great attraction to me. These games are massive fun, but absolutely exhausting. Each of them has their own mechanical series of rules which necessitate tactics and strategy, but they combine rhetoric, persuasion, psychology, negotiation, economics, improvisation, and composition into that vast world. Take every topic I am interested in reading about, every cool non-fiction subject I love, and whirl them together in a game? I'm in.

But let me say this: I am not a master negotiator. I don't always win these games, and I don't always love how brutally downtrodden I can get when negotiations go sour... at least not in the moment. However, I do have a tendency to do well. Perhaps, very well. Yesterday, I was playing a very small game of Intrigue, and one player was in a situation of choosing to either favor me by doubling my income, or favor an opponent by bringing his income back into line with the rest of ours. And remarkably, I was rewarded with the job. You would honestly think that repeatedly making out like a bandit in games where the other players have such direct control over your success would be difficult. And you would not be wrong. If everyone bands together, they can very quickly and easily take down the leader. The real trick, as you will see when I get to my strategic discussion of Subterfuge (a few thousand words from now), they have to have the skill to negotiate and trust one another entirely, or the plan to take the leader out won't work.

One last aside before I get to Subterfuge: David Sirlin, designer of Yomi (one of my other BGG 10s), has harsh words for people who complain about players using a game's rules to their best effect. In competitive fighting games, there are people who complain that a particular character's moves are "cheesy" or "broken" when, in fact, they simply don't have the skill to win against them or the commitment to learn that skill. Those people are affectionately called "scrubs," and they are mocked mercilessly for setting up their own "proper" way of playing that involves implied rules of behavior that have nothing to do with the game. Is that move cheesy and unbeatable? Then why don't you use it? Because you have some sort of "honor system" that prevents you from using it? Well, welcome to being a loser.

Why do I bring this up? Well, after having won the latest game of Subterfuge, I was confronted by one player who accused me to doing evil things like tricking people when playing. And I was genuinely confused; the game is all about manipulating the information and alliances in the game to great effect. Sometimes you need to lie or deceive in order to get an advantage, and that is an understanding that everyone in the game should have. Same for Intrigue, Cosmic Encounter, Diplomacy, and many, many other games. If this player set up an imagined system of rules in his own mind about how people should play, and I broke it, that is no one's problem but his. Even if everyone else in the game had this imagined honor system, the game still allows and promotes behavior that is not a part of that system. Scrubs use this tactic to prove that even though they lost or did badly, they were still the better player because they were following special rules. Thumbs down, scrub. Thumbs down.

Okay, now finally: How to Win at Subterfuge! Sorry it took so long, and I thank those of you who are still with me.

  • First, and most importantly, start a good relationship with everyone, even your distant opponents. They won't be distant forever, and even if they are, they can (and often happily will) serve as a distraction for your nearby opponents, harrying them on their opposite side. How do you start a good relationship when you can't know what your opponents' plans are? Be friendly! Be compromising! Be honest! Be trustworthy! You must start the game by taking actions that will get you on that player's good side. Take a chance in moving away from your shared border, and make sure they know you are doing it to show them you are trustworthy. Give them gifts to help them against other players.
  • Which leads to a second big tip: don't attack your new friends. Help them attack others. I know it is easy to think "I just convinced that dumbass to move everything away from me, and now he's got all of these outposts just sitting open." I can promise, it is far more useful in the long run to have a person who feels good about your relationship and have fewer outposts than it is to have a permanent enemy and more outposts. A friendly player will continue help you, even when you are obviously winning. People continually asked me why no one would attack me even though I sat in first place for more than half the game. Here's part of the answer.
  • Tip three: Use the fog of war to your advantage! You can only see so much of the board, but so can the other players. They do not know what is happening on the opposite side of your territory. So, as far as they are concerned, what is happening is what you tell them is happening. "I'm attacking red! I can't commit to helping you with Teal! So sorry!" I'm not saying lie. But, you know, consider the benefits when the only player who can contradict them is a friend, because you aren't, in fact, attacking them. Also, sell information if you can. People will be friendly to someone who tells them anything they don't know.
  • Tying into my first tip, you should volunteer to help other players whether it helps you or not. I don't mean "whether it helps you or hurts you." I mean play the role of a negotiator. If you don't have a dog in a fight, the players who do can be convinced to see you as a neutral party to can help them resolve their issues and focus their efforts in more effective directions. Not only that, but you were so generous to do so that they will now both consider you a friend and tend to be helpful, if not by giving you actual help, at least by hindering your enemies.
  • Implicit in that is tip five: anyone who attacks your opponent is helping you. If you expand that all the way out, that means everyone in the game is helping you. If you can think about your territory as being surrounded by allies instead of being surrounded by enemies, you can imagine a huge number of ways to progress in the game, to help those allies, and generally be a force for good in their eyes no matter what else is happening... even if you are helping their opponent's as well. This seems weird, but it works - no one refuses help. As one point, I was obviously funding multiple players who were attacking one another. Neither would complain for concern that I would withdraw my help and allow their opponent to overrun them.
  • Always be helpful, but never be too helpful. You are always vulnerable, you know it, and everyone else knows it. So when you can't risk helping, or you simply don't want to, paint a picture of how you really can't afford the drillers, you need to reorganize in the distance, or your subs are all tied up. If you look like a hopeless, confused ally, very few people will consider attacking you. "Just help when you can."
  • Keep your position and outposts so that it is always easier to hit someone else. This one is tricky, and requires a strong mastery of the mechanics, but it is possible: maintain defenses enough on your border (and defending is easier than attacking because of shields) while also offering help to your neighbors to attack one another. They will see the relationship triangle as a conflict between the two of them, where gaining your help is what will turn the tide, rather than the possibility that they should join together and nail you to the wall.
  • Lastly, and this is more of a mindset than a pro-tip: Even if you are a master of negotiation, you can still lose. As I said when discussing Intrigue, in a social, negotiation game, if everyone colludes, they can take you down very easily. I hope that doesn't happen, but it can. And keeping that in mind will keep you thinking about the game and your alliances in the proper way. They are absolutely essential, and you must protect them.

I'll close with a bibliography of sorts, for people who are interested in learning more about the subject from scientists, psychologists, and experts... after all, I'm just a guy who plays a bunch of games. There are people who devote their entire careers, even their lives, to understanding how the human mind works, how it is tricked, and how you can make sure you don't get caught in those tricks. The quintessential book here is Influence, by Robert Cialdini. It explains the ways in which people are pliable, how we get convinced of things, and shows you how to make sure you don't get sucked in. Similarly, Predictably Irrational, by Dan Arriely, is about how people are tricked even when we know there is a trick happening, and how even the decisions we make that seem irrational (e.g. all of the other players in the game not attacking me) are really very predictable. You also can't go wrong with The Big Con, by David W. Maurer, which was research done into both large and small confidence games, and was the basis for the movie The Sting. Lastly, although I haven't read it yet, it is next on my list: Thank You For Arguing, by Jay Heinrichs, an in-depth look at how to get a point across and -- the most essential skill in Subterfuge and just about any other negotiation game -- how to make people believe you.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Chronicler: Not really a civilization game, not really fun.

I managed to go to Essen Spiel this year, and I had a huge list of games I wanted to try out. Unexpectedly, about 30% of them were "civilization" themed games... you know, you start with a small city, develop technologies, scout and explore, build armies, use resources to gain strength, clash with other civilizations, etc. Turns out that I like that sort of thing.

One of these civilization games was way in the back of the halls, hidden in the part of the convention center with what was easily the least foot traffic, a little 20-minute card game called Chronicler. I got the attention of one of the guys at the booth, and sat down with a German couple to try out the game.

In Chronicler, you are given a set of numbered cards, which are labeled as different technologies, and almost exclusively have a requirement of five tech points to play. (This is where I first got the sense that I wasn't going to be scratching my civ itch with the game.) You start at the lowest level, 1, and as you and your opponent's play 1s, the entire group of players is able to move up to playing 2s. Each card I have in front of me counts as two tech points for the level above it for the purposes of playing my cards, and each card an opponent has counts as one point. It may sound a little confusing, but in reality, it basically boils down to everyone staying fairly close in terms of tech level, since I can leach enough from the rest of the players if they pull ahead to try and catch back up.

So what do you do with the handfuls of cards that you can't play yet? They go from 1 to 9, so when you begin, you are limited to small portion of the deck. Well, any card equal to or above your highest card you can discard and then redraw. So... not much, actually.

So far, all of this card play, which feels remarkably like Solitaire (look for a specific card, play it if you find it, dump and redraw if you can't), is explained as "research" and "development."

But, thankfully, that is not all there is to the game. You can also build "structures"! These allow you to dump cards equal to your current tech level or below in order to score points or get a little bonus to your tech points and proceed down the Solitaire road in a slightly quicker fashion. As this mechanism was explained, I thought "Oh, that's interesting, you can use your cards for this or that, so you have a choice as to what is going to help you the most, or help your opponents the least." Unfortunately, once play began, I saw the reality: you rarely have much of a choice. If you can play a card as tech, you probably should. It's worth more points and it helps you get to higher levels that are worth even more points. I'm not a tactical genius, but the structures often felt like a waste of a turn. And I was not alone in feeling this. The other players questioned the move's value as well.

The game goes on like that, with players taking turns that consist of dumping unplayable cards to find playable cards and then making the most obvious decision about how to play them, until the deck runs out a few times or someone reaches the 9th tech level. Then points are totaled. I suppose this could feel like a climax, as you want to make sure that you don't reach the end of the game when other people are scoring points, but it doesn't. You know the scores, you know if playing the last card will cause you to win the game... and if it won't, well, don't do it.

In all of this, there is a military option. But not really.

You can use one of your actions as an attack, and place a low card facedown over another player's tech. And then on their turn, they can use an action to remove that card. Each of you took one of your actions, and now you are back to exactly where you started, minus a card that you could have used for points... while other players took actions that perhaps helped them build or get ahead (but, honestly, more likely involved them discarding 8s and 9s and then sighing when they still didn't draw the 5 they need). There is a structure that you can spend a few turns building that allows you to make your attacks slightly more effective (hitting two cards at once), but that's still not a huge draw for the cost.

Overall, the game isn't very exciting. The theme is poorly represented, the options aren't compelling, and far too often you sit, unable to do much at all because of bad card distribution. On the other hand, the game sold out at the convention. When my wife and I walked by the next day, they had a sign up letting everyone know how popular their game had been! It's a real possibility that I missed something that would take this from a mediocre game to a great game, but I don't know what it would be. As it stands, I would be happy never to play Chronicler again, and I am glad I had a chance to try it before I made a mistake and bought it.

(Also posted at

Playing to Win vs. Playing "Competitively"

I've played a couple of games recently where something very... mathematical... occurred to me. And I wanted to talk a little about it, because this kind of idea is important for playing competitively.

I don't play many games "competitively." I play to win, sure, but I also play to enjoy the process of playing. I think most people fall into that range; they aren't there solely for the purpose of making sure that they win, but they do want to win. And that is important! If winning has nothing to do with you playing a game, you aren't playing the game that everyone else is.

Playing to win isn't the same as "competitive" in my mind. When I write those scare quotes around the word, the implication is that you are competing not only with the people around your table, but also with everyone who ever has played the game, you are trying to achieve high scores and prove your skill, you are trying to participate in the unspoken world-wide tournament that is "people who have played, are playing, and will play." Or, even more literally, you are playing in a tournament and the only important goal is to win, however that needs to happen.

Now, of course, there is not a concrete distinction between "playing to win" and "playing competitively." It's more of a spectrum. Sometimes people are casual when they play, sometimes they are hardcore, often changing stances and positions on the spectrum in the middle of a single game. And although they aren't the same, they have a lot of overlap. And I've been thinking lately that if you "play to win," you should consider some of the "play competitively" thought processes so that you and your opponents/compatriots can sharpen your skills and always give the best challenge to one another.

On to specifics!

In Alien Frontiers, the goal of the game involves landing colonies on different regions of a planet and establishing control of those regions by having a plurality of colonies. This is how you score points, and all of the actions in the game funnel you towards this. Playing recently I noticed something. Even if you do no other action in the game, you can slowly push a colony through the hub over the course of three rounds, landing it in the third, and score one point (possibly more, if you get a majority on the region of the planet). Again, this is if you do nothing else. Without buying additional ships/dice, without maximizing the utility of your rolls, without trying to figure out how to get specific resources, you can without fail land one colony each turn.

And that means that if you are going to win, you need to make sure that you land your colonies more often.

Now this might not strike you as a revelation. Of course you should be landing colonies as often as you can! That's the whole point! But the revelation to me isn't that. It's that there is a built in timer in the game. It's that you can track your progress against an imaginary base-line player, see how your strategy progresses, and compare the progress that you make against it. You can, with very little effort, see how "competitive" you are playing, and over the course of many games, check if you are able to improve that value.

The game has a built in timer!

It changed the way I thought about Alien Frontiers. It's not just about taking a good series of actions, setting yourself up for a "two colony" turn. It's about beating the timer, and once you think of it as a timer, the options in the game become very clear.

Then the revelation began to grow. If each player begins with 8 colonies, then the game will take no longer than 24 turns. You have only 24 turns, probably fewer, to make your best effort.

But what about other games?

Ticket To Ride has a world-wide tournament scene, with pretty significant participation and prizes, including a major scandal recently when one of the champions was caught cheating. How did they catch him? Because if you do a little math, you realize that the game should take a certain number of turns; much like Alien Frontiers, each player begins with a certain number of train cars, and when they run out, the game ends. Each car requires a single card to play, and you can take 2 cards per turn. Suddenly, the game takes on a structured, race-like format! And, luckily for the people who were victims of the cheating, if someone finishes too early, or has too many cards in their hand, it is simple to see.

Video gamers, especially online games with a strong PvP component, have taken advantage of this kind of thing for years. It requires quite a bit more math, and a lot of precision timing, but if you have ever looked for a macro to maximize your damage and healing while supporting your other powers in an arena fight, while acquiring the exact gear to get your output numbers right, you know what I mean. Someone took the time to figure out the exact time line of encounters, the multi-layered possibilities of a fight, and realized that it boils down to a relatively simple measure of effectiveness.

But, to my point: Games, as fun and thematic as they can be, are often mathematical systems with a wide spread of decision-trees and outcomes. I don't like to think of them that way. But thinking that way, even a little bit, can improve your ability to play, which improves the experience for you and the people you are competing against or working with. There is a way to go overboard - we don't all have to be Esports geniuses - but there is a way to take advantage of simpler concepts to make the game in your home more competitive and more fun.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

I'm playing Fate, and you could be, too!

I have mentioned a few times in the podcast that I am playing Fate, and after the first couple of sessions, I wanted to write up my thoughts and impressions.

The group I'm playing with is a mix of players. Some have little or no experience with RPGs, some have a lot of experience with a few games (i.e. played a lot of Storytelling/World of Darkness), and some have dabbled, but I don't think any have played a Fate game before now. It was interesting introducing these folks to the system. Both experienced and inexperienced players took to the system fairly quickly. The mechanisms of the are simple and straight-forward, but the flexibility of Aspects give them a strong hand in driving the narrative forward. Aspects allow any player to use imagined information in the game to create concrete, mechanical effects; if they discover an opponent is weak in a particular way, there is a simple method of using that weakness in the rules... or, as they are discovering, to create a weakness and then use it.

Although they are still heavily reliant upon my recommendations when it comes to using Aspects and creating advantages (temporary aspects), and they haven't really engaged in any fights with lasting effects to see the utility in that, the players are starting to pick up on some of the tools that they have and how best to use them. The premise for the game helps to keep things simple. It's sort of a cross between Burn Notice and Firefly: space western with heists, cons, and super spies. That premise got the players all focused on creating very particular types of character Aspects, like what they are good at, what they are bad at, etc. I would really like to play a game where the PCs' Aspects are more like actionable goals or problematic relationship descriptions, where the players are not all working together, and the play of the game is more a map of conflicting and overlapping goals than a "here's a mission for you to complete" situation. The current game feels like a surface level concept, not delving too deep into the most dramatic ways Aspects can be used... but, that lack of depth may be good for helping to keep all of the players, new and old, coordinated and focused.

The action in the game is a lot of fun. For the last session, I set a problem in front of them. A strategically important planet was on the verge of handing itself over to the enemy Alaran Empire, but a civil war was causing problems with the president's control. The PCs were to take advantage of the scuffle, prevent unification of the different factions, and postpone the turnover indefinitely so that their United Federation would have a chance to come in. Basically, it was a massive destabilization mission, in which assassination was essentially off the table, because a martyr would serve as a unifying force. The players broke into three small groups and each took a different tactic. One group strove to break up the political marriage of the president with a princess of the ethnic minority behind the civil war, another sought to break up the cohesion of the rebellion by implicating its leadership in unacceptable war crimes, and the third conspired to make it appear that the Alaran Empire had installed secret agents who were making a mess of the world, turning public opinion against the turn-over.

The plots and plans intersected in different ways, and the players were really creative with their approaches and how they could work together. There was a bit of a problem on my end, though, which took away from the players' enjoyment. I ended up using a high-level resolution for employing dice; we would discuss what was happening in a scene and role-play it, maybe with a couple of very significant rolls, and then it would be over. So much was happening in the game, in so many different areas, that I needed to keep bouncing around to different players, and none of them got enough of the spotlight. It occurred to me that I've been playing a lot of games that sort of abstract scenes, arguments, and battles down to a couple of rolls, and that takes away from some of what makes Fate so good. If you focus on individual actions and goals within a large conflict, like a debate, there is a lot of fun back and forth of tagging Aspects, creating advantages, changing approaches... and lots of opportunity to play-act as your guy, which is fun. I'm going to go much more specific with the rolls next time, so that intense conflicts get all the focus they need.

One thing I will note, though, is that the problem may have stemmed from there being a few too many players. I prefer games I run to have four players: myself, and three others. That's the perfect number for me. Everyone gets a lot of "screentime," the story moves quickly, each person gets proportionally more input. With the seven players (including myself) of this Fate game, there just isn't time for any one player to be the focus, and it's incredibly easy to accidentally leave someone out. With so many ideas and plans being proposed, enacted, altered, and revised, there was very little time for any of them. I may also have put too much situation into the mission. There were three big factions, and several NPCs to connect various factions, so there was a lot to try and accomplish. Perhaps if I focus the mission down a bit, the players will be able to focus as well, and the game will be much tighter as a result.

Overall, though, the game has been fun. It's inspiring! I have a dozen ideas for missions that I think I could flesh out, and a dozen more ideas for campaigns using Fate... High fantasy adventure! Intensive space opera politics! Gritty superhero drama (i.e. Arrow, Daredevil)! The players have so far managed to avoid relying on the traditional "nuke 'em all from orbit" method of approaching problems in RPGs, which really speaks strongly to Fate's applicability to dramatic premises. I'll have to see what I can do with it next.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Intrinsic and Extrinsic Balance, or "Why Cosmic Encounter and Through the Ages Are The Same"

Balance in games is a tricky thing with shifty meaning. For some people (or games), "balance" means offering each player the same opportunities to gain advantages and win. Everyone gets the same pieces and initial starting situation, and from there what matters are the choices the players make. Abstract games like chess tend to feature this kind of balance; if one side got more queens or even pawns, the game wouldn't be "fair," right? Even if there are random elements, like a series of cards that could come up in an order that favors what one player did over the others (say, the actions available in Agricola), it would still be fairly easy to call such a game balanced because everyone began with the same circumstances and ability to set their plays up to take advantage of such a situation.

For other people (or games) balance means that even with different opportunities, the players still have an equal chance to win, although they may go about it in different ways. Even subtly different starting situations can creating significantly different strategies by forcing the players to evaluate the next available options differently. In TtA, if I have a single cards that once allows me to build a cheap/free farm, I might begin valuing expansion more than other players because it will essentially be cheaper for me to do so, which means needing to worry about my civilization's Happiness before the other players... and I'm sure that tomes could be written about how the goods and buildings and actions that players compete over in Puerto Rico are all affected by whether you start with Indigo or Corn. Big changes cascade out of small changes.

Either way, these games are still "balanced," but the further that you stray, the more significant that these differences are between the initial player set-ups and rules that they must follow, the more likely there is to be some sort of wild imbalance.

If there is a word with a trickier implication than "balance" in games, it has got to be "imbalance." So many times, the first thought that players have upon seeing something that is obviously strong or advantageous is to label that particular thing "imbalanced" (perhaps using a less kind synonym such as "broken" or "bullshit"). I'm just as guilty as any other player of doing this, because, to be frank, sometimes those obviously strong or advantageous things are imbalanced. No matter how much effort or play-testing a game designer puts into a game, there is a chance that a number will slip by that is slightly too big, or a single space on an assymetrical board will give Player A a huge advantage over Player B... Take a look some time at all the hand-wringing discussion online about whether chess is "imbalanced" because one of the two players (white) goes first.

That said, I'm not trying to argue that because imbalance is unavoidable, game designers and players shouldn't care at all. Getting the options in a game as balanced as possible is probably one of the main goals of creators, one of the reasons that they spend so much time on rules and processes, and that tends to make for better, more enjoyable games. What interests me for the moment, is not simply that imbalance is inherent and can be minimized, but how it is minimized.

There seem to me to be two kinds of balancing mechanisms in games. The first kind is what I've been discussing above: intrinsic in the rules are painstakingly crafted options which, even when they provide players with different starting conditions (assymetry), those conditions are tested against one another to provide for as fair a competition as possible. If suboptimal decisions are made, a player will lose, but it won't be because they didn't have access to the more optimal decisions. Even a game like Yomi or Blue Moon, where the players each have an entirely different deck of cards, the players can be considered to be playing a game where there is intrinsic balance; I may not know how to beat someone playing the Midori deck with the Jaina deck, but that doesn't mean it can't be done.

The other kind of balance, then, is one where despite wildly varying options, some of which could easily be labeled "imbalanced" aren't limited by the rules of the game. Instead, the players of the game, who have some amount of skill with the rules and options, can assess the ones that are "broken" or "bullshit" and work with the other players to limit the effectiveness of those options. Essentially, the rules not only provide a framework for playing the game, but also a framework for reining in outliers and extraordinarily strong combinations or plans. In contrast to the above "intrinsic" balance, let's call this "extrinsic."

Some examples are in order.

Cosmic Encounter is game that has been a constant struggle for me. The basic rules and processes of the game are right in my wheel-house. It's negotiation heavy, and relatively straightforward (i.e. "do this to score a point, do this to draw cards, etc) so that the negotiation and deal-making can be the main focus of play. There is direct conflict without it being spiteful, there are reasons to create and break alliances, and you can actually choose to share the win with helpful players (or stab them in the back at the last second).

Where CE has always baffled me, though, is what made it unique when it was first published over 30 years ago, and what makes it so often imitated, is that each player is given a special ability that breaks the rules in one way for them only. Because the game has existed for so long, there are hundreds of official powers, and probably thousands of fan-created ones. This one thing in the game has been a massive inspiration to many, many players and designers... I want to say that even Richard Garfield, designer of Magic: The Gathering, has credited CE with being one of the main inspirations behind his most well known game (but I can't give you a source on that, so don't ask).

It's obviously something that people really like, but the first couple of times I played the game, I didn't understand. Some of the powers are interested, but some of them are absolutely, undeniably more powerful, to the point that I couldn't understand why they were ever included. Take the Virus power. Normally, I add the number of ships on my side to my card, and you add the number of ships on your side to your card, and the highest total wins. The Virus doesn't add. The Virus multiplies. And so, with the vast majority of cards (even uselessly bad ones), can simply and flatly win any battle, even if all the other players oppose them in a single effort. Sounds strong, right?

Well, it is. And there are countless other similarly powerful abilities that players can use in the game. The key thing that I was missing was that the Virus is not just powerful. It's supposed to be powerful, and it's supposed to be obvious to everyone that it is powerful. And once all of the players recognize how powerful it is, that's when the "extrinsic" balance can come to life. The true beauty of the mechanisms in Cosmic Encounter is that they allow all of the players to gang together to deal with the problems that the Virus presents. As a team opposing the virus, we can simultaneously work to score points, exclude the Virus from extra scoring opportunities, eliminate the points they have, reduce their effectiveness, and if I'm really sneaky, I can actually sneak in the back door, help the Virus player, and we can share the win together.

So, where the rules give one player an obvious "imbalance," they also provide a way for attentive players to deal with that imbalance. It changes the dynamics of the game, making it an almost entirely different experience.

While Cosmic Encounter is one of the best examples of this kind of "extrinsic" balance, there are others. Through the Ages features something that I feel is similar, but far more subtle. In this game, players compete to develop a civilization with strong economics, technology, population, culture... and military. But something that often happens with new players is that one player chooses to develop a strong military, leaving their infrastructure to waste away, barely advancing anything on their board. This player can then use the massive power differential to sweep in and take whatever they want from the other civilizations without fear of reprisal, even to the point of causing 100 point swings (or more) in the last turns of the game.

In other words, while everyone else is building and developing, worrying about keeping everything running and generating the points they can, one player is running around smashing it all with a hammer and they come out the winner. It's almost as if they've played a different game than the other players.

Now, obviously, the solution is for someone else to build military strength. But then they are sacrificing the science, food, happiness, and points that they could be getting to do so. Their effort to stand up to a monstrous army lead by Napoleon means that both of those players are unable to get ahead, and then another player wins. I think you can probably see where this is going. Those players with a strong military will always prey on those players without, and in doing so, perhaps even the field. But if one player gets ahead, they will start wrecking everything...

Some people don't like the way that it works. Some people don't like Cosmic Encounter. I can understand in both cases why. The intrinsic mechanisms of the game, the rules as they are written, suggest that Through the Ages is an economic engine building game. You take a small number of resources, spend them to develop your production, and use the increased output to improve production even more, branching out, diversifying, and scoring points along the way. But then there is this guy with the military hammer... it's not fun to have something you've built wrecked, and the game is hard enough without that sword hanging over your head.

But is it? The imbalance created by one player being able to hoard military strength and unleash it to devastating effect can only be balanced in Through the Ages by the players interacting with one another in ways that deepen the experience. And once the full cycle gets running, of keeping military strength close, tackling people who sacrifice too much of it to get ahead, implying dangerous outcomes for other players, the game flourishes. It is an aspect of the game that runs parallel to the rest, forcing players to learn and alter their play, instead of simply crouch over their personal board and ignore everyone else. It's quite a thing.

Does it belong in every game? Obviously, no.

A great many games are good because they are simply balanced, with rules that provide depth and challenge, and the "intrinsic" balance forces the development of certain skills. And of course, a game that would appear to have "extrinsic" balance can in fact simply be poorly designed and play-tested, without a fully developed system to allow for extrinsic balance; the obviously powerful thing is the obviously powerful thing, and whoever gets it first wins. It seems of great importance for players and designers to consider this aspect when assessing a game, either for their own enjoyment or for the enjoyment of others.

On a final side note, I think there is a fun middle ground, where a precision balanced set of mechanisms, like those in En Garde or Schotten Totten, have a small number of significant but "imbalanced" abilities or cards (like Flash Duel or Battle Line) that greatly increase the depth of the game. I have a lot of fun finding the perfect moment to use a seemingly minor one-time-use power to maximize its effect and turn the game around (or simply send myself well into the lead). That kind of positive feedback for creative use of the game's options is always a memorable moment.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Come for the air, stay for the games!

About a week before I came to Beijing, I went on Board Game Geek and asked in the appropriate sub-forum about gaming groups and stores that might be around in the city. Unsurprisingly, I got a few replies, and more surprisingly, I've already had a chance to meet some new gaming partners and visit one of the places that was recommended.

Closer to the middle of the city, a short walk from the Dongdaqiao subway station, is what I can only describe as a strange sort of mall, filled with storefronts and restaurants, all at weird angles to one another. On the fourth floor, just at the edge of a sky-bridge to another tower of the building, is Empire Penguin Games... or, what translates as "Empire Penguin Games" in Chinese. I'm not entirely sure why it's called that, but I suppose I'll get around to asking the owner at some point.

It's not a big space. In fact, it's packed so full of games and tables that when they open on Sunday afternoons to make space for gamers, everyone spills out into the hallways around the shop. Yesterday, there must have been at least 40 people, all trying to game in an area about the size of a living room... I'm told the store doesn't normally attract so many people. I've also been told that the handful of security guards that forced everyone to rearrange and cram together don't normally come by at all.

Despite the compactness of the place, there are a staggering number of games available for purchase or for play. Most of them are Chinese language editions of games, but for things like Carcassonne, The Resistance, or CV, language barely matters anyway. Along the back wall, behind the counter where the owner makes transactions, is a precarious stack of games that are so well-played the cards and tokens have been rubbed to an almost unreadable state. One corner of the store has a couple of plush couches around a low coffee table, and there are a dozen or so small folding tables that are pulled out and set up more or less anywhere there is room when people come to play.

I've been in game stores before where people came in to play games. In fact, one of my (formerly) favorite stores had a huge back room with tons of space... Friday nights were for Magic players who might have needed a bit more familiarity with deodorant than they had with white instants that clear out their opponent's enchantments or black sorceries that force unpleasant discarding. I say it was "formerly" one of my favorite stores because the owners really didn't sell very many games, and eventually went out of business. When we talked to them about the space and how many people came in all the time to use it, they said they didn't want to charge a cover fee because they wanted to foster a community. I guess that's one way to run things.

Well, Empire Penguin does charge a cover. Ten RMB per person per hour, up to a maximum of 40. That's not much money at the current exchange rate, but he seems to be doing fine. Being able to play games with a variety of people, to try things out without having to make a purchase, and to feel comfortable... that's worth $1.50 an hour. Probably more.

We've been twice. The first time, most of the English-speaking regulars were out due to a variety of reasons, but we did manage to get an extra-long game of Small World in. The second time, I was a little overwhelmed with the number of Mandarin and English speakers, and I learned to play Keyflower, which Susie sat in on a game of Le Havre. Other goings-on included a raucous Battlestar Galactica game with many accusations being thrown around in Chinese, a couple of learning games of Lords of Waterdeep, Ticket To Ride (another language independent game), and a few things I didn't recognize.

We'll definitely be going back. Staying so long in isolated places, you almost forget that people get together in stores/cafes like this. I'll take advantage while I can.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Fighting to the Death in RPGs

The last couple of times I've been to Athens to hang out with my co-hosts, we played at least one session of a Star Wars RPG.

The first was a quick side-adventure where my traveling negotiator for a crime syndicate needed transportation, which used the Edge of the Empire game from FFG. I've discussed previous podcasts what about the system I liked and didn't (mostly, didn't), but there was something unrelated to the system that happened in the game. As the plot progressed, we were attacked by a bounty hunter who was trying to find my character (presumably to get rid of him since it was only a one shot, and I wasn't going to be around to play him again). The situation devolved, become a fight, then devolved further into a fight to the death... that is to say, at least one character on each side was on their last leg, and no one was going to give up, even if it meant dying.

It struck me as a weird situation, made weirder by the fact that later on, it basically happened again. Some of the other players began an assault on a highly, highly secure facility, and it never seemed to cross anyone's mind that dying was a likely outcome. Or maybe it did, and they just didn't care. Their characters were shot up, blown up, tossed around, and they just kept running at the problem head-first. Every challenge turned into a fight, and every fight was a fight to the death. Weird?

The second Star Wars game was an adaptation of Ghost/Echo (pdf link), a game I put together sort of a reaction to the way that the previous game had gone. The scenario had some opportunities for fights (Star WARS, right?) but the game works in such a way to encourage creative thinking and throwing obstacles into your own way to make the story more interesting. I hoped that, despite the fact that there weren't explicit rules for dying, the players would react to challenges and fights without a traditional RPG "crazed berserker" mentality. It went alright, but there were still hints of the attitude that if there is a fight, it is to the death.

I don't know if this is a common experience or attitude, but it sure seems that way. I've played in many D&D games (and Hero games, and Exalted games, et al) where the players behaved as if there was no possibility of retreat. I'm not really sure why. Was there actually an assumption that every fight was a challenge that could somehow be won, no matter what the apparent odds against the players's characters? Does character death even matter? I know for sure that injury never seems to. In part, that's because having penalties and being on the edge of death all the time isn't much fun, so a lot of games make healing or recovering easy, but maybe that ends up devaluing the characters' lives. Maybe?

There is a definite possibility that other methods of dealing with fights and encounters were undervalued or not even considered. The assault on the highly, highly secured facility was guaranteed to fail, but no one had even considered coming up with a plan, using tricks, diplomacy, money, allies, or any other resource besides ammunition and HP. The only reason I did was because, being unfamiliar with the system, I accidentally made a character who didn't have much in the way of combat ability or utility. If he had, I likely would have fallen right in line behind the "shoot everything, or die trying" folks.

Fighting to the death in RPGs isn't just weird, though. In my mind, it's an actual problem. It isn't just a quirk of habit, it genuinely limits tactical approaches (for people who are interested more in stepping up to a challenge) and it genuinely limits fictional outcomes (for people are interested more in improvising unexpected stories). Realism or "genre-appropriateness" is right out... characters in movies and books only "fight to the death" when everything (EVERYTHING!) is on the line. Most of the time, they try to avoid that sort of scenario, if for no other reason that they might lose.

Say your RPG is about sneaking down into underground ruins, clearing out the monstrous inhabitants, and gathering whatever treasure you might find in the meantime. If every challenge is a fight, and every fight is a fight to the death, you'll have an undeniably boring game. That's true even if the rules and systems for fighting would otherwise be interesting. First off, there need to be other stakes, other possibilities that could result from two war-ready parties encountering one another. With no reason for the fights other than "you want to kill the other guys," there is nothing of interest to do but try to kill the other guys while being killed in the process. Make the fight about chasing someone away, rescuing someone, capturing a creature, securing an important area, or distracting the enemy while someone else infiltrates... make the stakes about lasting damage to the characters (lost fingers or eyes!), the death of bystanders, or the loss of important resources (that map or key they need). There are so many specific situations that can create interesting fights that fights which are only about the relative HP of the players are clearly inferior. Yeah, clearly. I said it.

Second, and probably more importantly, every challenge need not be a fight. Even when one group characters seem entirely at with another, there may still be some interest shared or some exchange of goods or services to be made that could present non-fight-based challenges that are still fun and engage the players' tactical minds. Instead of storming the well-guarded base with automated sentry guns to rescue a kidnapped PC, the players could try to draw the kidnappers out with their victim, but do it in such a way that they don't expect and are unprepared for a fight... or maybe even con them into handing the prisoner over without ever realizing what they had done.

And frankly, if the players don't approach the game as though it were all about a challenge to their skills as CharOps magicians, with fractional bonuses and sandbagged power combos, that can't hurt either. Some games lend themselves better to highly confrontational challenges and tactical advantage-seeking, and other games lend themselves better to internal struggles (within the group or within the individual) or exploration... In the podcast, we often talk about how flexible RPGs are compared to video games or board games, and this case is no different. RPGs can be about investigation, exploration, planning, discussion, power, relationships, curiosity, confusion, unrequited love, unrequited hate... pretty much anything. If the game is too much about fighting (especially fighting to the death), maybe getting everyone on-board with the other possibilities can change that.

I think a key here may be expectations. If the players expect deadly fights, then that's what they'll play. If they expect and have available more options, then they will use those. To make sure the expectations are clear, talk about them before the game starts. When you want the other players to consider the options, nothing goes as far as saying "Hey, you/we will need to run away from some fights, and avoid others entirely. Think differently." And when you want the other players to focus on the struggle between power and corruption, nothing goes as far as saying "Let's play a game where you can have power, but it comes at the cost of what makes you human." I've seen some fantastic, genuinely emotional ideas come from the same group of players who always make death-seeking combat-monsters, and all it took was a bit of discussion of what we were doing before hand.