Note: The below was written to a friend just starting out with an 18xx design project. I’ve copied (and lightly edited) it here for preservation.
More directly, I think you are losing sight of the game, or at least where the game lies within the larger system.
The 18xx are fairly simply structured from two and a half almost-complete games bolted together. There is a spatial route building game and a stock market game, and they are glued together with a creative destruction technology race to make one complete game. Each of those components is damn near a standalone game in its own right, and certainly other games have been made from just those subsystems (Greentown, Lokomotive Werks, etc), but at the end they are just mostly-isolated subsystems with the actually interesting bits in their connections to each other (the players sit in the connections).
The internal structures created by that glueing process are also boldly simple:
There’s an evaluation function which each company uses to generate a number using as inputs the network on the board and the trains in the company, and we call that evaluation function “running trains”. You can get all sort of complicated here about the details of track and tokens etc, but at the end of the day there’s just a function that does something and returns a number that is input into the stock market game. All the rest is internal implementation details. Sometimes the number is a bit special in that it expresses a liability for the president (emergency train buy), but it is still just a number communicated from the evaluation function to the stock market game.
The stock market game takes the numbers that the network game generates and thence changes its own numbers in well known ways.
And, as a back-flow, the stock market game moves some of its numbers back into companies (withholdings, etc) via the creative destruction technology race glue to change the inputs to the network evaluation function (train purchases and rustings).
And thence of course those new numbers go into the stock market game and so forth.
And so we have a triangle: The network game informs the stock market game which informs the technology game which informs the network game which…etc. And the players sit in the middle fiddling with the dials in all three sub-games: moving the numbers around in the stock market game (shares), moving the numbers around in the technology game (trains), and moving the numbers around in the network game (building/changing routes), all while the loop keeps cycling as a feedback loop, round and round and round.
Which I assume you already know — there should be no surprises there — but you might not have articulated in such a stark format. More usefully and more to my point, what this really basic deconstruction does is to highlight where the game is. The game is in the players fiddling at those three key junctures in the triangular feedback loop while the game spins underneath them:
Players can fiddle with shares
Players can fiddle with technology
Players can fiddle with the evaluation function inputs
And that’s pretty much it. Everything else is in the feedback loop orchestrated by the rotating sequence of SRs and ORs stepping around and around the feedback loop and relentlessly driving the game forward.
What this means however as a game designer, is that it outlines where your interests and activities lie. In order to do something interesting in the 18xx world you have to either alter one of the three interaction points (shares, technology, evaluation function) in a way that substantially changes player concerns, or you have to alter the properties of the feedback loop itself (1880 did this latter with its new intertwingled OR/SR model; 1846 did this by fundamentally changing the feedback loop of money with how its incrementally capitalised companies work; 1860 did this by allowing entities to enter, leave, roboticise and re-enter the player interaction-space, etc etc etc).
My general sense is that at the litmus-test level, in order for any change to be interesting, it must substantially affect at least two corners of the triangle in ways that provide both substantial opportunities and problems for the players to address. Just touching one corner isn’t enough, as that’s almost instantly an internal implementation detail rather than anything materially interesting. And so you need at least two player touch-points to change in a way that’s substantial and different and interesting.
But more usefully (I hope), that deconstruction provides a set of analysis tools and litmus tests for your candidate changes. You can look at any candidate change and ask how it affects those three contact points, how that change to those contact points significantly alters the three stages of the feedback loop and thence how it changes the player’s competitive lives. And if you come up with a good answer, your idea potentially has some good legs under it, and if you don’t come up with a good answer, then your idea is more likely just shuffling the deck-chairs around.
And, shrug, I find that useful, as it sure weeds out a lot of options that fiddle little numbers inside one of the touch points without actually doing anything structural. Oh look, now this little internal number that isn’t actually a primary contact point is a little larger or smaller or different or has little brass bells and is painted red…but everything else is exactly the same…and…this…is…interesting…WHY? I do that a lot, and then I slap myself on the back of the head, say “Doh!” and move on.
PS BtB this deconstruction has an amusing side effect of also dropping out the four basic types of 18xx by extrapolation — which is kinda cute and unexpected (by me).
The concept of the poison train is common in 18xx games. Commonly it is the poison 4-train: the last train before the permanent trains, and might never run before it rusts, and almost certainly won’t run for long. From a design-perspective, how bad can that poison train be before it becomes unreasonable?
In the particular case I’m looking at, the poison train is a little worse than the poison 4-train in say 1830 as there isn’t a nice cheap permanent train on the other side. Instead…there’s another poison train right after the first poison train. Oy vey.
Some explanation is in order. I’m looking at a fairly standard extended train roster: 2/3/4/5/6/7/Diesel. The 4-trains rust the 2-trains, the 6-trains rust the 3-trains, the 7-trains rust the 4-trains and Diesels rust the 4-trains and 5-trains (both). Yep, 5-trains aren’t permanent. Also, both the 7-trains and the Diesels become available for purchase immediately after the first 6-train has been purchased. What this usually means is that after the first 6-train is bought, the very next train bought is a Diesel which rusts all the trains in the entire game, outside of that first permanent 6-train. It is fairly dramatic.
The problem with this pattern is that nobody wants to buy the last 5-train, as it will get to run no more than twice and probably only once before it rusts, if that.. So, I copied a page from Lonny Orgler: At the end of each set of ORs the government/foreigners buy a train from the supply. Thus, even if the players pause, the trains keep moving and the game advances. The twist I’ve added is that if the government buys the last train of a rank, thus making a new train-type available, then they also buy one of those (with all game phases changing as appropriate). Thus, for instance, if there’s one 2-train left, then the foreigners buy a 2-train and the first 3-train, thus putting the game into the green-phase. Or, more topically, if there’s one 5-train left, then the foreigners buy it plus the first (permanent) 6-train, thus rusting the 3-trains and starting the rush for the permanent trains. So far the form in our games has been that the foreigners take the first 6-train at the end of a set of ORs, and the first first company to run after the Stock Round buys a diesel, thus causing every other company in the game to lose all their trains. It is, as they say, dramatic.
What this all means is that not only is the last 5-train a poison train, but the penultimate 5-train is also a poison train. If a company buys the penultimate 5-train, then the foreigners will buy the last 5-train and the first 6-train and VOOM! the game is moving fast and that 5-train the player bought is about to rust very soon now. Ditto of course for the last 5-train.
But…if someone doesn’t buy the penultimate 5-train, then there’s another set of Operating Rounds while the foreigners/government whittle away the penultimate 5-train, and then at the end of the next set of ORs the foreigners take the last 5-train and the first 6-train — which means that the first 5-trains probably get to run 5 times, which is pretty good, and maybe too good.
And there lies the rub. Having a company buy the penultimate 5-train is essentially throwing money away, in this case $4001. Who is going to buy it? The only player that has any incentive is the player that’s losing. They are losing, so they have to change something to have any hope of changing their position — except that in this case the only thing they can do also comes with a $400 fee. Ouch.
And yet players buy the poison 4-train in 1830 all the time. It hurts, they know it is poison, but they also know that if they don’t they’re really sunk. So they bite the bullet and buy the 4-train…and usually the first 5-train immediately after it (which softens the blow a little). And that’s fine, except that I don’t have any nice permanent train immediately after the poison train, just another poison train…
There are three basic cases:
1) The “losing” player buys the 5-train because if they let the non-permanent trains continue to run they will lose, but if they bring out the permanent trains then they’ll win (presumably because of their better diesel routes) Of course in this case they’re not really “losing”.
2) The losing player buys the poison 5-train because if they let the non-permanent trains continue to run they will loose massively, but if they bring out the permanent trains, then they won’t lose as badly. Thus buying the poison train improves their position.
3) The losing player buys the poison 5-train, brings out the permanent trains, and thus loses even more badly than if they had let the non-permanent trains continue to run.
The first case is ideal, and not a problem from a design-vantage.
From a design-vantage the second case is also fine and even somewhat ideal. However it requires unusually perceptive players in order to distinguish between the second and third cases a 3-9 Operating Rounds before the end of the game. That’s a pretty high competency threshold.
The second two cases are the more likely to happen in real games, and in those cases it may seem that the game-system is punishing the losing player by $400, and it is punishing them because they’re losing. They’re down, so the game kicks them. Worse, I suspect that many players will see everything but the first case as being the third case, and then they’ll often see that in the worst possible light as punitive punishment of the already destitute.
I don’t think that perception matches reality. The reality I’ve seen in games with players of mixed skill in our local 18xx group is that the first not-really-losing case is far from common (and is absurdly hard to detect), the third going-to-lose-even-worse is also not common and usually only happens after the game has spent an extended period in the already-losing-but-will-lose-by-less middle case, and the already-losing-but-will-lose-by-less middle case is actually the significant majority of all cases.
But, detecting that the middle case is actually the most populous case rather than the third case, requires a skilled and perceptive player. Just how high can, should, I set the bar of required player-skill for an already-losing player to make the Right Decision? It seems a significant question. I don’t want to design a hand-holding game for perpetual novices, but I also don’t want it to only be effectively playable by world-class players. Gah2.
Which, even ignoring that more interesting question, puts me right back to the initial question. How bad can that poison train be before it becomes unreasonable? If the poison train cost $10,000 it is clearly too expensive to ever bite the bullet. If the poison train cost merely $1, then nobody would even blink at buying all of them. Somewhere in the middle is the this-hurts-but-I-have-to-bite-the-bullet point that also provides for the most interesting game decisions, and I have very little idea how to determine where that point is. For now I’ve picked $400. It is as good a number as any and better than most (and perhaps worse than a few?).
There has been some delay since I opened Muck & Brass to external playtesting. The delay is because I’ve been thinking about how I’d like to receive and collect feedback.
Historically I’ve used a mixture of email and BoardGameGeek geekmail. That worked fairly well but was also less interactive than I would have liked. In particular the feedback was always private (I’d prefer public feedback) and there was never any cross-discussion among the different groups (a side effect of privacy). (I think) I’d like a more facile system which not only more easily supported discussion between playing groups as well as between the groups and me, but also allows photographs and other non-textual elements to (more) easily accompany the discussion.
There is also the very small question of how to distribute the game files in the first place. The rules, shares and tracks sheet are already freely available. All that’s left is the map image. I’d like to know where the files are going and to track who has them. I can’t do that perfectly of course, but I’d like at least a good notion.
Email works well except for the privacy problem already noted. For large photo or movie sets which were clumsy to send via email1, I’ve provided an FTP site where they could upload the images and then reference the upload in their email. That worked well but the disconnect between the email and the FTP upload was occasionally jarring. I’m a habitual IRC user and am on #bgdf_chat pretty much 24/7/365. IRC is great for discussion and could be used for the file distributions via DCC SENDs, but it has concurrency and ephemeracy problems. I’m likely to have playtest groups scattered about and would like them to be able to communicate to me and each other asynchronously and IRC just doesn’t do that. Another option is to use the comment system built into this blog (WordPress). Groups would post their feedback as comments. This WordPress installation currently doesn’t support attachments to comments, so media components would still have to posted via FTP and I’d have to come in later to attach them more directly to the blog. We could also create a game entry for Muck & Brass on BoardGameGeek and have the reports posted there as standard session reports. That seems like an abuse of the system to me but others clearly have different views on that area. BoardgameGeek session reports also don’t come for free as supporting images couldn’t go through moderation, thus requiring them to be either hosted off-site or in contributor’s individual galleries, both of which solutions have their own ephemeracy problems. Movies and other media forms are also not supported by BoardGameGeek unless hosted off-site (YouTube et al), introducing yet other dependencies and problems.
I suspect there is no good easy answer, but I’m still thinking about it. I suspect I’m going to end up doing all of the above while encouraging the combination of this blog and #bgdf_chat as the default venues, the FTP site being used for asynchronous media. Perhaps.
- I’ve had groups sending turn-by-turn pictures of their entire games or even movies of several turns or some of the debates or discussions among the players which happened during or as a result of the game (both were highly appreciated) ↩
I suspect that ultimately I will have designed one game, just one game, but it will be a game which has expressed itself in multiple published games, each one a different view onto that one core ur-game. That’s fine. My game design and development activities circle that ur-game, poking at it, extracting and applying ideas, working out various expressions of that ur-game in various splinter games. Some work out, some fail and whither, some meld back into the ur-game and disappear waiting for a more suitable splinter, and that’s all pretty much what I expect of the progression.
An odd idea, not yet fully enfranchised into a game. Consider a (relatively standard) climbing game, perhaps along the lines of Mu, however rather than players playing cards in sets they would iteratively play them one at a time until everyone passes1. The key element would be that rather than a player’s played cards forming the sets within themselves, they would instead form sets within the space of all cards played for that “trick”. For instance:
- PlayerA: Leads an Ace.
- PlayerB: Follows with another Ace and is therefore winning with two Aces.
- PlayerC: Follows with an 8.
- PlayerD: Follows with a pair of 8s and is therefore winning with three 8s. …etc.
- Determining who is winning the current “trick”.
- Requirements for following.
- How points are assigned
- Method required to denote who is currently winning the trick
- 5 suits (perhaps a Sticheln deck)
- Do not need to follow suit
- May play any number of cards so long as the total number of cards played by that player in the trick is no more than one larger than the total number of cards played by the previously card-count leader 2
- Suits are circularly ordered with the lead suit high and the others following in a constant rotational order
- Standard meld definitions including Tichu’s stairs.
- Each meld in the taken trick scores the value of the highest card in the meld, with arrangement of melds organised so as to minimise left over cards
- Left over cards and singletons don’t score
Friend: Which is more important: that a game be interesting or fun?
Me, in instant response: Interesting of course!
Friend: Well there’s the problem.
Attempting a taxonomy of player interaction along a scale of increasingly personal relations:
The simplest form: there is simply nothing the players can do to affect each other and thus no form of profitable reaction to another player’s choice or inversely, prompt a player to change course in reaction to your choice. Games absent interaction are the poster children for Multi-Player Solitaire.
There’s no requirement for understanding or predicting the other players, merely recognition that they exist and have potentials that may affect the results of your game. Dominion (usually) falls in this camp (there are small exceptions). Knowledge of the specifics of the other players is rarely if ever useful, but an overview of the gestalt of all the other players en masse is useful. Do any of them have any of XYZ cards? What is the rate of consumption of the QRS card stack across all players? The answers to such questions can profitably inform play choices.
Ahh, the first tremblings of mutual-perception! The question isn’t what effects a player may enforce on another, but rather how correct choice-prediction (and thus correct counter-counter-counter-counter–ad-infinitum-choice-prediction) may be translated into an advantage. The classic recent case is Race for the Galaxy; a game in which there are significant efficiency gains for drafting on other player’s choices. Predictive interaction is a slippery beast as it has a strong harmonic in Personal Interaction and a weaker harmonic in Personal Direct Interaction.(see below).
Players intimately affect each other, contructively, obstructively and destructively. They may help each other’s success, obstruct success, or directly destroy or foul each other’s success. I sank your battleship! The effects can range from the relatively subtle taking of a limited resource another had planned on taking themselves (eg roles in Puerto Rico, actions in Age of Steam, station markers or track tiles in the 18XX) to the very direct destruction or removal of player value (eg stock trashing and loot’n'dump in the 18XX, conquest and possible elimination in Risk, dumping a high point pain card on an opponent in Sticheln, or almost any player-interaction in Diplomacy).
Direct interaction can be sub-divided into Impersonal and Personal types
Personal Direct Interaction is the targeted subset of Direct Interaction and a weak harmonic of Predictive Interaction (due to the requirement of accurate player incentive/value prediction in foiling player’s personal success). The qualifier is that the subject is explicitly and deliberately targeted. Something isn’t done to all players or to any random player, but specifically to specific player with deliberate (ill) intent for that specific player’s success. Settlers of Catan‘s monopoly card card (all other players give the player all their resources of a given type) and calling time in Galaxy Trucker are usually Impersonal Direct Interaction as they are indiscriminate effects. In contrast encouraging a large bribe in Intrigue and then reneging on the implied or promised deal, building walls in another player’s presumed territory, using “their” resources” to cut them off from “their” buildings, or simply conquering a player’s temples and territory and annihilating their military and conquering their territory in Antike is Personal Direct Interaction.
The return of subtlety. Here the ticket isn’t to recognise or even so much to predict, but to comprehend the player(s) intimately. The challenge is to not only predict their immediate choices, but their patterns, their strengths and weaknesses as players, their intersection of character and individuality with the game and by the advantage of exploiting that intimate and intensely subjective comprehension, to beat them. Personal Interaction is a strong harmonic of both Predictive Interaction and Personal Direct Interaction (see above).
It is worth noting that the above divisions aren’t quite linear or evenly spaced along the not-quite-a-scale. That’s a problem with the soft-sciences: straight lines aren’t. Most noticeably Personal Interaction is variously orthogonal to both forms of Direct Interaction and the line between Subjective Interaction and Direct Interaction isn’t quite straight through Predictive Interaction.
Apocryphally, women as a gender are commonly said to dislike the destructive sides of Direct Interaction. I’ve not noticed that gender bias but several of the players I commonly play with (mostly male FWVLIW) share that trait: they are only interested in constructive positive-sum games. Additionally different players have various detection and preference ranges for the interaction levels they prefer. While I can detect the inter-player interaction among players of Race for the Galaxy it is too diffuse and impersonal to appeal to me. Similarly Impersonal Direct Interaction has little appeal for me. In contrast one of the chaps I play with1 simply isn’t comfortable with any form of Personal Direct Interaction where-as another chap pooh-poohs and avoids anything which doesn’t operate at the deepest level of Personal Interaction.
- Names withheld to protect the guilty (of course) ↩
On BoardGameNews Kris Hall posted an article entitled What would Knizia do? which asides from discussing Nefertiti, also suggested Reiner Knizia as a paragon of game-design sensibility to aspire towards. I took mild exception, describing my goals for game decisions a little differently to those perceived for Knizia’s designs (see below). This resulted in the following comment sequence in the ensuring thread. I’ve concatenated the three comments below as they parse reasonably as a single argument:
My most common internal question during design is: How can I make this decision point more nuanced, more subtle and less obvious? Obvious decisions are non-decisions. Early decisions should only make later decisions more difficult and less obvious. Ideally every decision in the game should be a challenge, a challenge both to determine that the decision is present in the first place as well as to decide on a good answer for that decision.
I’m not interested in making it less obvious that a decision is to be made. The game says to build something, you build something. That’s fine. I am interested in players not being sure what their decisions really mean for long-term implications. I’m interested in making the decisions have many facets, have implications in multiple areas over multiple time scales and for those implications to be soft-edged, un-obvious and un-intuitive, for many of the things decided by implication to be unclear in prediction but obvious in retrospect.
Yeah, I know the classic pattern is “have to do N things but can only pick one”. That’s not my favourite pattern. I’m not so fond of the “I have to do XXX but I don’t really want to!” pattern (eg Ra). I much more like decisions which all seem variously reasonable, where it seems reasonable to do any one of them and to not do the others, but they are in fact all importantly different in many different ways.
Yes, there is a danger is that decisions are so indistinguishable that they are insignificant. So far I’ve dealt with this in terms of commitment, decisions committing players to directions they can’t fully comprehend at the time.
Of course as the game comes to a close the effects of decisions become more obvious, intuitive or calculable as their lifespan and range becomes obvious. However earlier in the game the idea is for the decisions to largely be attempts to assess and influence the similarly cloudy decisions of the other players. each player committing to a suggestive posture in attempt to influence the other players to commit to resonant postures, thereby communally setting a larger direction for the game as a whole.
That last paragraph is poor. I don’t yet know how to clearly articulate the concept I’m attempting but it has to do with the goal of games not being mechanical exercises, not discretely calculable sequence models, but densely flavoured organic [[melanges|melange]], [[gestalts|gestalt]] that more emerge from among the player’s intersections than being a discrete logic system that the players externally engage as manipulating clients.
I taught Wabash Cannonball to three new players this evening. It was an interesting game that ended on the 8th dividend, with me being high cash and high income for the last 4 dividends! In short the other players manipulated turn order to ensure that I never got a chance at a capitalisation action in order to sell a share to end the game. Additionally as I only owned shares of two companies (2 PRR and 2 C&O, both already in Chicago), I had no way to drive the game closed via track or Development cubes. It was most annoying. End-game scores were $187 (me), $166, $162 and $159. However that was not the interesting part.
At the end of the game the $159 player said that he thought one rule should be added to the game:
If all the players end the game with more than some amount, say $150, then they should all be declared winners. We’re all filthy rich and thus gloriously happy; we should all be winners!
Without commenting on the equation of wealth and happiness, this really isn’t such a bad idea. Really. What it actually provides is a strong incentive for the players to drive the game to a close rapidly so that there is the opportunity for a single unambiguous winner. Conversely it also gives the behind players a strong incentive to drive the game long to push the cash holdings to break the $150 ceiling and thus also win. It puts the collusive base of the temporary emergent alliances on a new footing as the end-game approaches, making what are otherwise fairly straight-forward e(V) calculations not so necessarily calculable any more. Now the game is potentially one-against-all as the winning player attempts to drive the game closed before the other players push their cash holdings over the threshold.
I find this clever: a simple, trivial, change which allows players to collude to their own self-interest to invert the scoring system of the end-game to their advantage.
The variant is unnecessary for Wabash Cannonball as this odd corner case is so unusual as to not require a special rule. If I’d owned shares of more than two companies (I’d have ended the game on track cubes much earlier). However as a base mechanism for other games it has me thinking. Provide an inversion cap on scoring that suddenly declares that all the players win and thus create a massive selfish competition in the end-game of one against everyone for the solo-win. Oh, what spice! Neat!
I posted this as a comment/reply on BGN, but it seems worth preserving:
My most common internal question during design is: How can I make this decision point more nuanced, more subtle and less obvious? Obvious decisions are non-decisions. Early decisions should only make later decisions more difficult and less obvious. Ideally every decision in the game should be a challenge, a challenge both to determine that the decision is present in the first place as well as to decide on a good answer for that decision.
Attempting a taxonomy of negotiation:
Free-form done through conversation and persuasion. Open Negotiation is unbounded/unconstrained and is frequently only incidentally related to direct/current in-game concerns (what tokens are where, what permissions are granted etc) and is generally much more interested in establishing consensus on mutual policies and long-term collusive patterns. Diplomacy is perhaps the titular grandfather of Open Negotiation in game design. The key elements are primary focus of the negotiation is to persuade another player to pro-actively collude (Will you do XYZ for me?), and while the focus of the negotiation is informed by the game, the majority of the negotiation content is meta to the game details.
Frequently tactical and usually directly informed by and concerning current game specifics and the disposition of specific game tokens. The most common forms are simple requests for permission or abeyance. May I do QRS? or If I do ABC will you not attack me? The key element is direct focus on and discussion of game particulars (and thus a rather tactical focus). Questions of policy and long-term collusive patterns are not part of Simple Negotiation.
In short, where moves are offers. Moves, independently arrived at by the players, without discussion, for negotiative patterns due to common understandings of collusive self-interest which emerge from the game-play. Gun-boat1 no-press2 Diplomacy is the great-grand-daddy here. More recently Wabash Cannonball has epitomised this model3.
I am generally not a fan of Open Negotiation in games, rather like Simple Negotiation as (exemplified by such games as Lords of the Spanish Main, Quo Vadis and Traders of Genoa) and adore Implicit Negotiation (eg Wabash Cannonball, Pampas Railroads, or King of Siam).
- Diplomacy where the identity of the players is known only to the GM/Judge. ↩
- Players can’t communicate with each other, they can only write orders. Much negotiation still occurs, but via orders which suggest cooperation between players. The most frequent form of such a move-as-offer are support orders which suggest a future move or alliance to a potential ally. Support into/or around Switzerland are the most famous in this regard. ↩
- eg Capitalisation actions are usually either (mute) requests for a partner or an attempt to sunder a too-successful partnership. ↩
A while back Jacob Butcher finally categorised me, You like negotiation games! He’s right of course and I especially like them when the negotiation is implicit instead of explicit, or to quote a more recent conversation with another friend, Where your moves are offers.
I love that idea. Moves are offers. Adorable. Juicy. It is likely that single characteristic, married tightly to a raw game theory core1, is what has so attracted me to Wabash Cannonball. Moves as offers.
So I’ve been thinking for about a week now, mulling around ideas surrounding moves as offers and trying to see what sort of game could be wrapped on that skein. The working concept, which is weak, is a game in which each player has 1/Nth of a limited resource in the game and every move they either offer (partial) access to their stock to one or more other players, or exploits the access that others have offered while also offering access in return. All terribly vague, but the core sense is a sort of dance of offers and engagement and commitment and perhaps even betrayal. The obvious comparables are So Long Sucker and Intrige, but I’d like something far more implicit than those fine stalwarts, as well as far more implicit than explicit.
So far I’ve come up with…nothing. Which is fine for this stage as the thought toy has been delightful, but I’d would like to tangible realise this idea. Sadly inspiration has fled. Still, the thought toy is so charming, so very Mary Poppins in every possible very nearly perfect way.
In talking about Muck & Brass recently I mentioned that there were no tiebreakers. Your net worth was your score and that was it. This was not popular. The general response was that tie breakers were necessary and required, that there always had to be, if at all possible, a singular clear winner. Examples such as money in Power Grid, track in Age of Steam, and the ever so many layers of tiebreakers in King of Siam were given as the Way It Should be Done
Other’s more public comments on ties (in no particular order):
- Tie Breakers — Shannon Appelcline
- Ties — Ekted/Jim Cote
- Ties and Tiebreak Rules — Seth Jaffee
- Tie breakers — Sensei/Go
- I Hate Ties — Osiris Ra/Boardgamegeek Forum
Shannon offers three acceptance criteria for tiebreakers:
- unique (ideally)
Which on the face of it is reasonable. If you are to have a tiebreaker then by the Principle of Least Surprise and be obvious and fair as anything else would be potentially surprising. The uniqueness requirement merely prevents a chain or cascade of tie breakers, with satisfies both Occam’s Razor and the general rules of simplicity. However Shannon doesn’t really attempt to justify the existence of tie breakers behind the somewhat circularly self-justifying:
Either the game explicitly says there is no tie-breaker, or else just doesn’t mention one. Besides being anticlimatic, it feels lazy on the part of the designer. I think some game designers feel like they can get away with it because you earn enough points that a tie is pretty unlikely … but they will come up sometimes.
I’m less convinced that tie breakers are either an automatic default design assumption or default requirement.
Two quotes appear to sum the brunt of Jim’s arguments:
Why? Is it really a further test of skill to have a sudden death? Is it really a test of skill in a board game to have a tie breaker that has nothing to do with the normal goal of the game?
Yes and no.
The obvious answer is that since the rules of the game include rules for breaking ties, then players must account for any and all possible outcomes. This affects their choices during the game. It is a skill to be able to win by rule A, and if not then to win by rule B, etc.
But at some point–in some games–it seems like the rules go to great length to pick an arbitrary winner from the set of those players who tied. This really doesn’t interest me. Might as well roll a die to see who wins. Might as well just share it.
…I do feel in many cases that tie-breakers are thrown in at the last minute. They have no relationship to the flow of the game, have some player order bias, or are simply based on luck.
This appears to be a rephrasing of Shannon’s arguments around obviousness, fairness etc.
Seth Jaffee argues two sides: first that ties and ties breaks are a reasonable form of measurement of the accomplishment of the player and second, that one player should win the tie breaker because they took a more difficult route to the tie, or somehow accomplished more or accomplished it more efficiently.
The accomplishment measurement argument for tie breaks is reasonable. It makes sense from the view of game scoring as a measurement of the incremental solution of the central game problem but in doing so it unflatteringly reveals the weakness of the original game’s scoring method. Seth argues that some measured incremental items are worth more than other such items; ie doing X which is rewarded with 2 VPs is somehow worth marginally more than doing Y which is also rewarded with 2 VPs. In which case, why isn’t X worth 3 VPs or the whole scoring system scaled so that X is worth 2,001 VPs and Y worth 2,000 VPs or some other such disambiguation ratio?
Such combinations of large/small values is fiddly and annoying to score as well as rather distracting for the players. I just got 37,000,000,000,003 points for building that bridge and you only got 37,000,000,000,001 for that redoubt! Ptui. Clearly such a scoring method is inconsiderate and incompletely designed. Or is it? Having X be worth 2+epsilon VPs and Y be worth 2 VPs really just establishes that there are two ranks of scoring: the big important values (whole VPs) and the tiny details (epsilon) where the epsilons don’t matter unless the items need to be sequenced in value order. The assumption is that players will rarely need to sequence order and that the primary focus is on broad score patterns and not epsilon details. Fair dinkum.
Seth’s second argument is where I think the argument begins to break down: that one player should win the tie break because they took a more difficult route to the tie, or somehow accomplished more during the course of the game or accomplished it more efficiently. At a simple level this is just another case of the epsilon argument discussed immediately above: there are primary scoring items and some of them are accompanied by epsilon scoring riders where the epsilons are only calculated in the event of a tie as they are otherwise negligible. At that simple level I have no over-riding problem with such tie breakers though I find the extra layer of epsilons annoying and almost certainly unnecessary.
On the gripping hand outside of the epsilon argument, the implication that there is some sort of should, that somehow the players morally deserve to win the tie breaker because of in-game activities is preposterous. The game defines a win-metric. The players either accomplish that win metric or they don’t. It is a binary condition. There is no place for external morality in gaming or win-determination — the game rules define the only morality measured in the game.. It is a simple question of logical definition: the win-condition is XYZ and they either meet that criteria or they don’t. If multiple players meet the win-criteria then multiple players win. Each of them, individually, satisfies the win-definition defined by the game, ergo they win. At this level the win-criteria trump and there are no other discriminating or disambiguating factors. Whether the racers ran uphill or down hill before crossing the finish line is irrelevant: did they cross the finish line first? The finish line –that’s the only metric that the game’s win-condition supplied and thus it is the only thing measured. Of course if the designer deigns to provide additional criteria the situation is different because the win-conditions are different.
Sensei’s wiki/blog discusses a number of tie-breaker methods, albeit with a rather Go-centric focus (please see the source page for links to the discussion and more detailed evaluations and definitions):
Rematch: Breaks ties by having the players play extra rounds. Also known as play-off. This is generally considered a good method, but its use is often not possible due to time constraints.
Direct Comparison: Often used in a tie between only two players, considering the match between these players as a substitute for a play-off. Called “Face to Face Result” by the AGA. Not widely implemented in software.
SOS: sum of the opponents scores, also know as Buchholz or Solkoff in Chess. Several variants exist which attempt to eliminate noise by discarding some results (eg: SOS-1, SOS-2, Median or Modified Median). Does not work for round robin.
SOSOS: sum of the opponents of the opponents scores. Generally only used as a secondary tie breaker after SOS.
SODOS: sum of the defeated opponents scores, also known as SonnebornBerger in Chess. Is adviced against in McMahon tournaments, because players with the same score do not necessarily have the same number of wins. Often used in round robin tournaments.
CUSS: expected average strength of the opponents, also known as Sum of Progressive Scores (or, simply Progress) in chess
ROS: expected average strength of the opponents with extra bonus for winning more games
IROS: inverse ROS, see ROS-Page
SOP: (theoretical) sum of placing of opponent (nickname suposition)
SOR: (theoretical) sum or ranks
Maximum Likelihood: a mathematical method to determine the player most likely to win, not easily calculated by hand.
Random tie-breaker: tie-breaking at random, used as a last resort.
OOF: Order of Finishing
A nicely thorough list.
What is more interesting is that the list is almost exclusively phrased in terms of tournament ranking systems (and he’s not the only one to take that focus). There is also some discussion that none of the the listed tie-breaker methods are ideal; they are all compromises. This should begin to ring bells and prompts my observation that:
Tie breakers are tools to disambiguate and order members of a set in a “fair” way based on subjective evaluation of supposedly objective criteria.
Yeah, functionally tie breakers are voting or election systems. Tie-breakers order members of a set by previously established preference criteria. Hang on, so do voting systems, just with the addenda of polling/metrics gathering and also with all the same systems-gaming that tie-breakers have. Happily voting and election systems are a well-known field. What’s most useful about this observation is that, simply, there are no fair and equitable voting or election systems. Without exception they all have weaknesses, weaknesses that their counter-representations in tie-breakers also share.
A few key quotes:
In a number of games I own there is no provision made for what happens when two or more players wind up with the same score. The creators of these games either imply or outright say that both players are winners. Now this does not sit well with me. I want clearcut rules of victory and defeat, with each player knowing where they stand at game’s end and why.
This is not simply an ego issue (“me better than you; me win”). But in running games at cons, there are often prizes that ride on wins and losses. When I look at games that do have good rules for resolving ties, I place these into my “con-friendly” list.
I like ties, as long as they aren’t too frequent. It’s a matter of taste as to what counts as “too frequent”, and probably depends on the game.
I actually like games that can end in ties, and in fact tend to feel that roughly 25-30 percent of a game’s outcomes should be ties. I also find it particularly annoying when a game includes tie-breaker provisions that are clearly arbitrary add-ons to the game (rather than carefully thought out design elements) in order to cater to the hard-line “there can be only one” crowd.
Then you don’t understand the real problem–a tiebreaker should not be arbitrary, but somehow naturally flows from the flow & goals of the game. If not, then you are not playing the to be the best player of the game, but of some unplaytested variant.
I dislike the possibilities of a tie. There should, in my simple dualistic mind, be only one victor. This is, again, fairly important for those of us who run tournaments. But I also walk away dissatisfied when there are multiple winners in a game — unless it’s a co-op.
How about a disclaimer stating that this game is prone to ending in ties and that if the tournament ends in a tie, that the winners will be splitting the prize equally?? (i.e., assuming it is a cash prize).
I think we are solving the wrong problem. I don’t mind a tie score in a game, if the game play was even. It is playing in a tournament that is the problem!
In short these sum to two [[dialectic|dialectic]] pairs:
- Ties are utterly unacceptable, there must be only one winner and some number of losers, always
- Ties are acceptable and even desirable as long as they’re not too frequent (by some subjective evaluation)
- Tournaments require unambiguous winners, thus ties are unacceptable in tournaments
- Tournaments could be (re-)defined to accept and respond appropriately to ties
The first dialectic pair is a preference statement. It is undebatable. That is what they prefer for unquestionable internal reasons. Whatever logic may be externally applied to it, their emotive bindings are set and thus unquestionable.
The second dialectic pair derives directly from the first and is thus also undebatable. If there must be only one winner of a game then by logical extrapolation, given that a tournament is merely a meta-game, there must also be only one winner of the tournament. This also works reflectively. Given that there must also be only one winner of the tournament meta-game, none of the component games may result in a tie as that would ambiguate the meta-game results. After all, were the tied component game resolved to an unambiguous winner, it could change the win-determination of the tournament. Clearly however there is nothing inherent in a tournament-definition that requires a single-winner determination. Tournaments could allow ties just as easily as their component games.
Much as I dislike tournaments (in sympathy with Tradewinds Ted above), it would be interesting to attempt a well-defined tournament system which both accepted ties in component games and attempted (or demanded) a single-winner determination for the tournament meta-game.
Tie-breaker justification — J C Lawrence
None of the above directly addresses the justification of tie-breakers as design components in the first place. Are tie breakers a valid component in game designs? From the emotive aspect of the dialectics just discussed they are clearly valid — some players demand them as part of the emotional coherence of the game definition. From a more mechanical vantage however they don’t seem either required or necessarily justified in the general case.
Mostly, I view tie-breakers as clearly visible and even flaunted flaws in their subject game designs.
There are of course exceptions. I’ll discuss one below.
Tie-breakers suggest a few things:
- Ties are common
- Ties are hard for the players to prevent/beat
- Ties should be avoided.
That last one is of course a doozie. As there’s no reasoning with it I won’t attempt to reason with it. To ape the great Bugs Bunny, It is a maroon.
The first two are more interesting. Some games inherently encourage ties. In fact a few games, such as King of Siam, are explicitly based on the premise that the game will naturally tend toward ties. King of Siam has an extensive cascade of tie breakers and during the course of the game the players attempt to wield that cascade of tie-breakers offensively in a massive iterated game of Chicken, putting the system into un-tied win-conditions for themselves and at other levels back into a tied lose-condition against the other players (King of Siam is an unusually clever game) at different levels of the tie-breaker cascade. Clearly such a game depends utterly on the manipulation of tie-breakers and thus must have those tie-breakers merely to function. By definition tie-breakers are a valid design tool for such games. But, most games aren’t so focussed on tie-breakers. In most games, ties are rare and it is the rest of the field I question.
Most of the apparent need for tie-breakers appears to be emotional. I won’t address that. However what do tie-breakers offer game definitions and thus what do they offer game designers? Seth Jaffee again:
A tiebreak rule can be used to subtly counterbalance a favorable (or unfavorable) starting position, much the same way that the first player in some games starts with fewer actions in the first round, fewer points, or less money than the later players. Nobody complains about those rules being arbitrary.
Tiebreak rules can be used to reward a player for accomplishing the game’s goals more efficiently than another player – to finish with the same score, but with resources to spare.
Tiebreak rules can also be used by a designer to show a preference for a particular strategic path – be that for thematic reasons, or because that path was the one the designer thought most interesting.
- Tie-breaker as a game-balance factor
- Tie-breaker for efficiency
- Tie-breaker as incentive toward desired play-paths/patterns
The efficiency argument and even the game balance factor are a restatement of the epsilon argument addressed above. The game balance point is perhaps a little more subtle, but in essence is the same as the many majority/plurality games which state that the first one in is the default winner of the contest (eg Medieval Merchant, Die Neuen Entdecker, etc): another phrasing of epsilon.
I’m not aware of any games which use the incentive argument in their designs. It also isn’t compelling. The concepts of the right way to play game or the spirit of a game or the significance of the designers intent for the game are all external valuations that don’t bear on a game’s definition:
A game is an isolated self-defined logic system that consists of a number of goals, defined abilities that may be used to accomplish those goals, and barriers that hinder accomplishment of those goals.
Everything else is post-definition subjective evaluation.
A game is a goal-focussed system for players to manipulate in a laissez faire manner within the constraints of the game rules.
There’s no style or spirit of designer’s intent there, just goal-based player self-interest. To quote the immortal Michael Lawrie:
Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law. I am the law!
The game rules are the law and that leaves the mechanical value of tie-breakers (for most games) as epsilon systems, and much more interestingly, as epsilon systems whose simplest and clearest definition is null! If a player wants to unambiguously win a tie-breaker-less game they must end the game without a tie.
A game without a tie-brekaer offers a tri-state:
And that is the challenge: The winner must clearly exceed the other players, ergo they must provide their own disambiguating epsilon to give themselves the clear win or risk losing the tie. A designer-provided tie-breaker removes that challenge and arguably to that extent weakens the game definition and the required quality of play. It also makes the game more forgiving: players can win without unambiguous excess and for some games and designers that may be a desirable game-quality. Those qualities of forgiveness and weak/gentility are simply uninteresting for me and my designs. I don’t want to design either weak or forgiving games, I’d rather design games that punish and stress-exercise their players, and as a result I do not expect to use tie-breakers in the final scoring methods of any of my games unless the base game is explicitly tie-focussed.
As always, you get to pick. Pick wisely.
On the one hand I’m fond of proclaiming that all games are abstract and that theme is merely a convenient source of nouns and verbs used to explain or visualise a game. Both statements are of course technically and logically accurate. I’ve also often said that I don’t care about theme, and that the first thing I do when playing a game is to remove the theme. Thus I was bemused to note how many times I referenced theme and historical or thematic accuracy in the design notes for ‘Ohana Proa and Muck & Brass. My playtesters have also commented on the thematic depth and accuracy of ‘Ohana Proa, which caught me a bit by surprise.
Why, when I approach a game design quite abstractly, do I keep colliding with historical reality and thematic accuracy?
I’m not sure, but I have a notion which if accurate is both rather neat and a useful feedback loop to employ deliberately as part of the game design process. I suspect that if a theme is selected which sufficiently accurately represents or epitomises the core logical problem of the game, then as the game design increasingly focuses on that core problem the more its natural game patterns will begin to model the actual historical processes which occurred. In short, the better the game isolates and models the problem, the more the problem solutions will begin to model historical precedent.
Which is both scary and cool. It provides a possible measurable feedback loop for game design:
The more your design emergently apes historical reality, the closer your game is to the problem you’re trying to focus on.
For ‘Ohana Proa I started with the core idea of a gift economy and the logic problem of How to win if your primary activity is to improve other player’s positions?. As the most well known gift economies were in the Polynesian Islands (eg Trobriand Islands) that seemed a reasonable place to start. Considerable reading later on the economic theory and historical precedent for gift economies (kula. open source software, potlatch, tithing etc) and I was off trying to design a game around those principles. The board was just an atlas image grabbed from the Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection with nodes thrown on the bigger islands, edges put in the obvious places to make an undirected graph with a few small hints added from the historical migration paths of the islanders. All subsequent work was then centred around How to make an interesting Gift Economy game?
In the case of Muck & Brass I started with the concept of a share dilution game where shares could also aggregate. As the background intention was an obvious derivative of both the Prairie Railroads and Riding Series, a train-game presentation/theme was assumed. England was selected purely on the basis that the railway history of the Isle of Wight (a dreadfully small and yet railway-rich location as 1860: Railways on the Isle of Wight has shown) was probably representative of the rest of the country. I’d already selected mergers as the share-aggregation vehicle of choice, so the long history of mergers, more mergers and acquisitions in England worked perfectly. A map quickly grabbed from the Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection provided both a map of England/Wales/Scotland and the paths of the primary railway lines. A few nodes thrown on the major cities (informed by my British education) with connections drawn to parallel the primary railway paths later and the first map was done! All subsequent work was then centred around How to make an interesting share dilution/aggregation game?
So for ‘Ohana Proa I focussed on gift economies and kept working to make the gift economy aspects of the game stronger, more interesting and more central to the game. How to build a pattern in which gift-giving was critical to good game play and yet perilously close to a losing strategy? The result was kula, kahuna, the most recent reciprocal giving proposal, fish and shells and their value ratios etc. And a game in which suddenly the movements of markets and player routes started aping historical migration paths, and the patterns (and supporting justifications) for gifts etc started to directly model the social structures of the Trobriands and other islanders. What? Yup, the logic and value structures and flexure patterns the players build in the game start to resemble those that formed the basis of the gift economies in Polynesia. Really, the players start to build simulacra of the value systems the islanders used! Whoa — all I tried to make was a gift economy game, not a historical simulation!
For Muck & Brass I focussed on company foundings and mergers of railway companies. How to build a pattern in which mergers happened in a player-controlled and yet interesting fashion? Next thing you know I’m fiddling with track distances and build costs and finding that the emergent value patterns are suddenly paralleling the historical company merger patterns. The NER formed here with this route being particularly significant, the GWR drove there with these areas dominating its early founding and petitions etc — and the same patterns and key routes are emerging from Muck & Brass as well.
The Muck & Brass case is probably less surprising as the routes I picked were all based on historical precedent so the stage is already set for the same routes that were historically key to also be the centres of focus in the game. But I don’t care. The game is starting to demonstrate historical fidelity and that suggests that I’m getting on the right track for the core logic problem of the game — and that suggestion is both very pleasing and and a wonderful acknowledgement of the design process and core logic problem integration.
Image a multiplayer game. Turns are simultaneous. Players move their pieces about a (relatively small) board in accordance with the current game phase. each player may have half a dozen or so pieces to move on the board in each game phase. Two player pieces may not occupy the same location. This poses two questions:
1) How to resolve when two players want to move their pieces to the same location at the same time?
2) How to resolve multiple simultaneous conflicts in which not only do multiple players have multiple discrete conflicts, but each player has a different desired order in which they want those multiple conflicts resolved? eg If Bubba wins that conflict then I really want to win this conflict, but if Boffo wins this other fight then I absolutely have to win this conflict but otherwise I really don’t care etc.
There are several classic resolutions such as Zoosim’s flag/precedence hierarchy and Roads & Boats similar system along with resolution order dictation etc for the first question. I don’t know of methods that specifically address the multiple simultaneous conflict order resolution problem (tho Roads & Boats makes a nod in that direction).
A conversational comment to David Boyd about arc in games, “Right, the optimal funnel should narrow and the variance of potential gains should increase,” got me thinking. Sometimes I type faster than I think. In this case the clear implication is that the special powers and roles should, nay must have limited use lifespans. Doh, of course!
What function do special powers or roles (SP&R) serve in game designs? They’re fairly commonly used, examples including Citadels characters, To Court the King cards, Puerto Rico buildings, genes in Ursuppe etc, but what common abstract design problem(s) do special powers and roles address as a game mechanism, and what problems do they also encourage?
I came to this question when I complained to a friend that one of my designs simply lacked arc; there was no change in tempo, narrative, dramatic structure or even the primary problem space during the course of the game and I thought I might want to change that. His immediate answer: “Oh, you need special powers and roles!” This caught me by surprise. Why do special powers and roles necessarily generate arc? Certainly there are plenty of games with developmental, dramatic, narrative or whatever type of arc which don’t have special powers and roles. But every special powers and role game that I’ve thought of certainly doesn’t lack for arc.
SP&R seem to do a few things:
1) SP&R add a developmental complexity curve, err, arc. The game starts either without SP&R or with the value definitions for the SP&R largely undefined yet. During the course of the game SP&R are acquired and their relational values manipulated by the players, creating an increasingly complex problem space. The game starts with a simple value space which becomes increasingly complex during the course of the game: an arc.
2) SP&R encourage player investment. Having invested in SP&R, players are to that extent committed to the matching strategic path. Presumably the paths are (somewhat) different, thus supporting developmental complexity. The investment can be both analytic and emotional, and the development of those investments arcross players and their associated values can provide arc.
3) SP&R can generate tension in games which require SP&R combinatorials and where specific SP&R are of limited supply. Having committed to one selection, the challenge is to also acquire the desired combination of other SP&R, possibly within a timing constraint. As each step is made, or failed and a contingency taken instead there are tension arcs, one arc for the entire strategy, and smaller arcs for each SP&R step.
4) Designs which support combinatorial SP&R and have a large viable permutation space will have a high(er) variance in game patterns from session to session. While not really in-game arc, the session variance may be viewed as a subjective familiarity arc.
5) Combinatorial or time-phased SP&R encourage emergent discovery arcs. The discovery process of learning which SP&R combine well, in what order, and how to best exploit the prime intersections. The ar in this case does not occur within the game, but within the player’s understanding of the game wboth with a single session and across sessions.
…more to be added as I think of them.
The problems caused by abuse of SP&R seem to all fall in the same camps of chaos, complexity, and unbalanced intersections.