A Man’s Got To Know His Limitations

I borrowed that from Dirty Harry.  But it’s a good piece of advice when approaching the design of a board game.  It might be better to rephrase it as a designer should know his medium’s limitations.  This is especially true when you are moving from computer game design to board game design.  Now, I’m not saying that board games are inferior or that computer games don’t have their own inherent limitations.  But before I started designing my debut game, I tried to first go over some pitfalls that I might encounter switching gears. Now I have actually putzed around with board game design for a long time but never with the intent to have it result in an actual playable board game.  Believe me when I say that I have notebooks full of unpublished proto-types.

So here are three big things that I thought I needed to consider.

1) Computers are great at house keeping, book keeping and data management.  Board games not so much.  As much as I loved setting up Avalon Hill’s Rise and Decline of the Third Reich when I was a teenager, I don’t think I ever actually finished a game.  There was that time when I spent a week planning my move through the Low Countries and the die rolls went to hell and I threw the board game up.  I should actually apologize to my younger brother for that.  But beyond that, the counters, tables, brp management etc. where a huge issue in finishing turns.  For a teenage kid there were a lot of moving parts and I remember reading the rules over and over until the paper pages were disintegrating.

There are probably much better examples, but in my mind RaDotTR was a game that had a lot of book keeping.  I remember an old SPI game called War of the Ring that we set up when I was 10 years old during the course of an entire night until 3 am and then we fell asleep before we could play. The game seemed overwhelming.  My point is that computers can facilitate playing huge hex and counters games to an amazing degree.  Automating things like supply, difficult rules, large numbers of playing pieces etc. I can say that I have actually finished Gary Grigsby’s Second Front/War in the East games several times, to the point where I had vacation homes in the Urals.

Now there is a place for mega hex and counter games in everybody’s collection but in general I think the modern designer has to limit the number of pieces in the game space.  Since the dopamine seems to be activated mostly by having players manipulate distinct cogs in meaningful ways i.e. tough choices, decisions etc., keeping the number of cogs/agents within a manageable scope is a probably a good idea. It’s also easier to manage the data for those limited agents in a board game space.  5 Dreadnought’s with individual cards tracking weapons, armor, ecm, life support and damage control is going to be a lot more manageable than 10 plus 20 battle cruisers, and 5 destroyer support squadrons.  Plus you have to consider physical space on a table.

In short, I resolved to keep the moving parts of the game limited in scope if at all possible.  I still ended up with some mission creep but in the end I was able to keep a handle on the amount of data that players needed to keep track of if they didn’t have mr. computer to do the heavy lifting.

2) Computers can present data in clever, informative or helpful ways. Even a simple thing like attaching a weapon card to a player card can benefit from a computer’s processing ability.  Poof.  The new +1 attribute for the magic sword is now displayed on top of the character’s combat attribute.  With a board game you always have to remember to add the +1. How many goblins have escaped death because a computer wasn’t around to add the +1? Or what if you have a card that says something like change a combat icon of your choice into a stealth icon.  You play the card and Poof, the computer changes the icon from a sword to a cloak and dagger.  In the board game world, you play the card, sing the imagination song from South Park and tell everybody that the icon is now a cloak and dagger icon.  Just take care not to forget that if you somehow end up back on that icon at a later point in the game.

It’s not an impossible task but the designer needs to keep these changes in game state data in mind when coming up with all the fun rule breaking cards, tokens, dice etc.

3) Computers make hidden information very easy to implement.  As an impartial judge, a computer can show some players pieces on the board and hide that information from others.  It can even present false information.  This was something I really loved working with when I designed Solium Infernum.  Stealth is so much easier to work with in a computer game.  The computer can process the visibility data and then present it to whichever players can see it.  When I worked on Armageddon Empires I had a lot of fun building the stealth systems.

Now board game designers have some tricks that can be used to hide information, show false information or permit bluffing.  But in general it’s a lot more difficult.  Playing a card face down is a start but unless every player plays a face card down into a pile (blank cards provided for passes) and the pile is shuffled, there is still vital information being conveyed about who is messing with you via the face down card.  In other words providing the anonymous screw you card takes a bit of work.

I’ve implemented some hidden information mechanics in my upcoming game.  Among other mechanics I have a bidding phase at the end of a round once every player has taken their turn for the round.  You can spend gold to buy important cards that provide both Influence Points (Victory Points) and passives on the cards that can be very beneficial. Each card has a minimum bid number that must be met.  Players bid by using a 20 sided die and holding their hand over the die.  All bids are then revealed simultaneously and the highest bidder wins with special rules for ties of course.  The number of auctions is always 1 less than the number of players. You can always see how much gold each player has in their stockpile but there are still tons of fun interactions to be had and bluffing and verbal cues and harassment can be very effective. Trying to figure out what your opponents strategy is also plays a part.  How badly would they want that card  Does it synergize with other cards they have showing? How much gold will they need on their next turn to accomplish their goals.  Wheels within wheels.

So to recap.  I’ve approached the design of this game acknowledging that moving from computer games to board games means changing my mind set a bit to avoid some of the obvious pit falls.  I hope that as you see more of the design you will agree that I’ve managed to avoid the lethal traps at least.

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