Ties, Damn Ties, and Statistics, Part 2

Our last column looked at ways for tied players to share points.  Many situations do not lend themselves to sharing.  Sometimes, sharing is completely inappropriate.  Sometimes, it is simply unsatisfying.  When faced with such a case, the intrepid designer can employ a variety of tiebreakers which I have divided into three broad categories.

Elimination Tiebreakers

Elimination tiebreakers remove all tied players from consideration.  They receive no credit whatsoever.  The elimination approach is often seen in simultaneous blind auction games.

Example: Our subjects from the last column–Ava, Bette, Carlos  and Derek–are back.  They are currently bidding for a house in a land development-themed auction game.  This is a simultaneous auction.  Ava and Bette each bid $50,000.  Carlos bid $35,000 and Derek bid $20,000.  Since Ava and Bette are tied, their bids are eliminated.  Carlos’ bid moves up to first place and he gets a lovely $35,000 house.  Ava and Better look on angrily and Derek just watches.

Locking Tiebreakers

Locking tiebreakers take the ostrich’s approach by burying their head in the sand and refusing to acknowledge the tie.  Wolfgang Kramer’s Forum Romanum uses this to amazing effect. So long as two or more players are tied for majority control of an area, that area will not score.  Since workers are a finite resource in Forum Romanum, this leaves players with the deliciously painful conundrum of either abandoning contention for an area or trying to get by with fewer pieces than her opponents.

Second-Factor Tiebreakers

Ties can be broken by invoking a different element.  This method of tie breaking is extremely common when determining who should start a game.  These tiebreakers can be wholly random as in the case that the first dealer in a card game is the player who draws the highest card.  They can also be completely skill-based as the pool tradition of choosing the break by shooting for it.

In the late 1990s and early 200s, it was fashionable for designers to include amusing but trivial mechanisms for breaking the tie to set start player.  Reiner Knizia’s Vampire for instance let the player with the longest canines start.  Ted Alspach took this trend to its logical conclusion by releasing a set of cards and then a smartphone app entirely dedicated to the job by featuring tiebreakers like “the player with the longest email address is the start player” and the “player who has most recently purchased games online” is the start player.

Second-factor tie breaking is also a common tool for determining the sole winner of a game.  As you might imagine, players are not likely to tolerate a wholly random tiebreaker for the win but skill-based ones are quite common.  If two or more players are tied at the end of Power Grid, the winner is the player among them with the most game cash in hand.  Since cash reasonably represents a player’s performance in that game, the approach is generally acceptable to most players.

Second-factor tiebreakers also make regular appearances in games which offer an in-game reward that cannot be subdivided.

For instance, many basketball tournaments feature the alternating possession rule.  The ball obviously cannot be divided between the teams and must go to one team or the other any time play must resume.  The alternating possession rule holds that the ball goes to the team which lost the jump ball (opening tip off) at the beginning of the game.  If play stops and later restarts in the same game, possession would then go to the team that won the jump ball and so on.

Games with more than two players/teams can achieve a similar alternating possession effect by awarding a marker to one player which moves around the table each time it is used to break a tie.

Alternating possession can be made even more meaningful by holding the tie breaking marker in place.  I particularly like this approach when players also have the agency to take the marker for themselves.  I have played several worker placement games that favor the start player in all ties and offer an action to become start player.  Adding such layers to the decisions in a game can be immensely satisfying.

A vicious version of second tier tiebreaking enables the favored player to win every tie, even ones that the player isn’t actually in!  Ministers win ties for titles this way in Confucius.  In a game like this, it is to the possessor’s clear advantage to encourage ties in multiple areas.  This can add another layer of tension to an area control game.  I think this would be doubly exciting in an area-majority game that allowed players to move or replace one another’s markers.

Elimination, Locking and Second Tier are the major categories tiebreaker I’ve encountered.  If you’ve seen others, please add them to the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, please subscribe to this blog.  It makes a big difference.

In our next installment, we spend time with the mathematics of victory points.  See you Tuesday!

Ties, Damn Ties and Statistics, Part 1

Many modern games offer multiple opportunities to score throughout the game.  In many of these games, points are awarded to multiple players at the same time. This approach creates the possibility of ties.  As a designer, you must be prepared to address those ties.

One way to address tied players is by a divvying-up scheme that shares the points equally among all tied players.  For any designer who’s decided to go with this approach, there are still several different ways to go about it.  Today’s column will focus on these divvying-up schemes.

It can be helpful to have a specific example in mind as we look at each scheme.  For our purposes today, assume that you are creating a tactical area control game.  Players take turns adding pawns to different areas on the game board.  When an area is full, it immediately awards 10 points to the player with the most pawns in the region.  Second most gets 6 points. Third most gets 2 points.  Fourth place gets 0 points.


Superfriendly Ties Scheme

In the superfriendly ties scheme, all tied players earn the full points for their position AND trailing players move up into the “unoccupied” positions.  This approach to tiebreaking works best when your intent is to create a particularly friendly game or one which encourages collaboration.

Example: In a scoring region, Ava has 4 pawns, Bette has 4 pawns, Carlos has 3, Derek has 2 pawns.  Ava and Bette are tied for first and get 10 points each.  Carlos is treated as being in second place and gets 6 points.  Derek is treated as being in third place and gets 2 points.

I have also seen this system applied to great result to awarding bonus points to classrooms that employed a gamification model.  Superfriendly ties reinforced the collaborative belief that all students could win together.


Friendly Ties Scheme

Friendly ties schemes give all tied players full points for their position but trailing players do not move up into the “unoccupied” positions.  This approach is useful in games that wish to represent friendly rivalries.

Example: Just as in the previous example, Ava has 4 pawns, Bette has 4 pawns, Carlos has 3, Derek has 2 pawns.  Ava and Bette are tied for first and get 10 points each.  Carlos is treated as being in third place because he is behind two players.  Carlos therefore gets 2 points.  Derek is in fourth place and gets no points.

Clever designers have also employed friendly ties in games that feature a backstabbing element.  Imagine a game which gives 10 points to the player with the most pawns in a region and offers friendly ties but awards nothing to players in any position other than first.  I might well find myself exclaiming “Hey! I thought we were going to share that region!” right after you slip an extra pawn in at the last minute, taking the lead and all the points.


Compromise Ties Scheme

In a game that employs the compromise ties scheme, tied players split the points for all the positions they inhabit.  This is easily the most democratic of the divvying-up schemes.  This is the scheme I use least because it always seems to lack drama.

Example: Again we have Ava and Bette with 4 pawns, Carlos with 3, and Derek with 2.  Ava and Bette are occupying first and second place.  They each get (10+6)/2 = 8 points.  Carlos gets his 2 points for solely occupying third place.  Derek is still in fourth place and still gets no points.

Example: Suppose instead that Ava, Bette and Carlos each have 3 pawns, and Derek has 2.  In this case, Ava, Bette, and Carlos collectively occupy first, second, and third place.  They each get (10+6+2)/3 = 6 points.  Derek is still alone in fourth place and still gets no points.

Unfriendly Ties Scheme

Unfriendly ties schemes give tied players the lesser points for their positions.  This scheme is particularly well-suited to cutthroat games and to games that encourage tactical action.

Example: We return to Ava and Bette with 4 pawns, Carlos with 3, and Derek with 2.  Ava and Bette are occupying first and second place.  Under an unfriendly tie, Ava and Bette each get the second place award, 6 points.  Carlos gets his 2 points for solely occupying third place.  Derek is still in fourth place and still gets no points.

These are what I perceive as the major ways of divvying-up points among tied players.  If you’ve seen others, please add them to the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, please subscribe to this blog.  It makes a big difference.

Next time, we will look at award schemes that DO NOT split up the points.  See you Friday!

Finding and Serving Your Core Engagement, Part 4

Learning to identify and serve core engagement is relatively recent in my journey as a designer.  For the first several years, I didn’t even know what it was.  I pushed game bits around and fiddled around with rule systems like most freshman designers do, hoping to “find the fun.” I took detailed notes at every playtest session, listening for those key phrases “I like ___ because ___,” and “I don’t like ___ because ___,” then ran back to the workbench to add more of what the players liked, chip away what they didn’t.

This approach often ran into dead ends.  Hours were spent looking at rules which should have been invested in experience.

When a player says “I like/didn’t like ___ because ___,” this should be the beginning of a conversation, rather than its end.  This is an opportunity for you as a designer to ask the key follow-up questions.  Two columns ago, I directed you to identify the core engagement in your game.  Make that knowledge work for you.

When your playtester gives his general impressions of an alpha prototype, you will be prepared to immediately follow with “how did you feel when you were playing?  You said that you liked ____.  In what way did you enjoy it?”  Identify where his strongest responses were.  These are the stars that will guide you to the game’s core engagement.  Finding this first accelerates all the work which must follow.

Diligent playtesters will offer up a great many suggestions throughout your game’s development cycle.  Listen carefully to each.  Then let your understanding of your game’s core be the ruler by which they are measured.  Your guiding question will always be does this change enhance my game’s core?

As your design matures, so will the questions you pose to your players. End your beta playtests with questions like “this game is meant to make you feel like _____.  Did your experience fit that description?”
Case Study: Burger Shoppe

Len Stemberger is a designer in the North Houston design group. A few months ago, he brought the first prototype for Burger Shoppe. In Len’s words, the concept was “Diner Dash as a tabletop game.”  In its first incarnation, players ran competing fast food restaurants and tried to serve the most customers, fastest.

The prototype had promise. We gave our feedback and bounced ideas around for about an hour.  Some ideas were minor tweaks.  Some ideas would completely overhaul the nature of the game.  This sort of brainstorming is standard for our group.

Because the game was very young, Len hadn’t yet decided on the game’s core engagement. Because Len is new to designing games, he failed to make his first priority the identification of that core.  The result of this was that the next version we saw was a wholesale Burger Shoppe rebuild. Len had fallen for the greatest game designer trap–he’d tried to incorporate all our ideas into one box.  He did not have core engagement as a guide to filter our input.  Much as I had many times in the past, he had fixated on rules over experience.  Burger Shoppe would undergo several equally drastic overhauls in the months to come, all because he still had not identified its core.

I am ashamed to admit that I didn’t see what was happening.  It took another member of our team to do that.

During one particularly reflective design session, John Eyster led an extensive evaluation of the game.  We probed its theme, mechanisms, intent.  Together, we were able to identify why the game’s design had lacked focus.  Quite simply, Len was not sure what Burger Shoppe was meant to be.

Len’s story has a happy ending.  A few weeks ago, Len brought a brand new prototype to the table.  When this game was being alpha tested, his questions were clearly focused on identifying the game’s core engagement.  When he revised the game and brought it back, it was also clear that each change was made to better serve his identified core engagement.  Revisions are happening faster and cleaner.

And with that parable, we conclude our series on identifying and serving core engagement.  This will undoubtedly be a topic to which we regularly return.

Before we depart, please join me in thanking Len Stemberger for allowing us to use him as a case study.  It is difficult to have our successes and failures dissected for the world to see but he gave his blessing regardless.  Thank you Len.

Meepletown Takes On Games For Non-Gamers

One of my first blog posts took on the issue of games to play with non-gamers.

My first criterion was that the rules needed to play could be taught in three sentences or fewer.  I knew this would be a contentious statement when I wrote it.  Proofreaders warned me that it would be contentious and that the restriction should be loosened.

To see some of the debate my criteria sparked, head to this link.  As I’ve said before, debate is crucial to refining ideas.  Contributors on both sides of the debate made solid points.  Were I to rewrite the post, I would certainly modify my position to acknowledge the best of these.

https://i0.wp.com/meepletown.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/staff-derek.jpgDerek Thompson recently brought his own spin to this concept in his column Meepletown–Challenge Accepted: Rules in Three Sentences.  Derek essentially modified the criterion to ‘75 words or less’ which I would say is a perfectly acceptable change.  The point of this restriction had always been to drive home the difference between “rules needed to start playing” and “every rule,” that some rules could wait until the game is underway.  In his approach to this concept, Derek has certainly exceeded me.

It’s certainly gratifying that Derek largely agrees with me but it’s even more gratifying to see the ideas being taken further.  Thank you for your contribution, Derek.

Finding and Serving Your Core Engagement, Part 3

In our last column, we looked at several categories of core engagement.  Now we begin examining how to apply these principles to streamlining your design process.


Case Study: duck! duck! GO!

Core engagement in duck! duck! GO! comes from mechanism and tactics.  Players must plot their movement across the map.  To do so, they must manage their hand of movement cards while also avoiding (or hampering) their opponents. They are forced to reassess their hand of cards after each round of play. Is someone in my way or do I have smooth sailing?  Could I get in someone else’s way?  How does the card I just drew fit into my plan?

Once the core engagement was clear, other design decisions came more easily.

ddG began its development as a race to a fixed finish line.  Game designer Gil Hova tried a beta version and suggested that the game could be a circular race to certain way points.  This change meant that players had more choices about where to start and more choices about their path! Gil’s suggestion was quickly adopted because it enhanced tactical decisions in the game.

When we added powerups, we kept only those that enhanced movement or allowed players to adjust their hand of movement cards.  Every powerup had to influence tactical thinking or movement.  Any powerup which failed to enhance these elements was cut.

Start spaces were meaningless once the race began.  This is a waste of good real estate.  When we decided to give start spaces a new effect, we again looked for ideas that could enhance the game’s core.  What might give player new movement options? What might create new tactical opportunities?  We tried several variants before homing in on its final form–a “jump to another start space” effect.  This rule empowered players.  Now they could plot paths across objectives and directly into start spaces for a free trip across the board.  The rule had won its place in the game.

Notice how focusing on ddG’s core engagement simplified every decision in its development.  Ideas which serve the core engagement are kept.  Ideas which do not are cut.  Enhancing core engagement was the target we constantly shot for…

…or that’s how I wish it happened.  The reality of the game’s development was a messy affair.  Although all the final design elements do indeed reinforce ddG’s core engagement, I did not yet have any firm concept of core engagement. The result of this ignorance was that I stumbled around quite a bit.  I pushed game bits around and fiddled around with rule systems like most freshman designers do, hoping to “find the fun.” I took detailed notes at every playtest session, listening for those key phrases “I like ___ because ___,” and “I didn’t like ___ because ___,” then ran back to the workbench to add more of what the players liked, chip away what they didn’t.

This approach often ran into dead ends.  Hours were spent looking at rules which should have been invested in experience.

It’s a natural growing pain for designers.  I came through it and every aspiring designer reading this column can too.  With any luck, this series has already enabled many readers to bypass some of that wasted effort.  And we still have a great deal to talk about.

On Friday, we return to look the work of an aspiring designer from the Houston design group. He has generously agreed to share his experiences to further our understanding of design.


Finding and Serving Your Core Engagement, Part 1

You had a game idea.

You threw some bits together to make a prototype.

You shoved these bits onto the table in front of your victims (i.e. playtesters) and ran a test play.

Because you’re lucky, they identified a number of good aspects in the game.

Because they’re honest, they identified a number of weak aspects in the game.

Because they’re helpful, they offered a number of tweaks and variants for you to try out.

Now you have returned to your design workbench–for many of us, the dining table–and begun to sort through the feedback you’ve received.

And that is when you realized you have a problem.

Your playtesters’ suggestions are good but incompatible.  You cannot use them all.  You must determine which ideas to try and which to set aside.

To do that, you must be in touch with your core engagement.

My formal introduction to the concept of core engagement concept came from the Extra Credits videocast.  Understanding this concept directly led to a quantum evolution in my design process.  I urge you to subscribe to their videocast and to review their back catalogue.

Serving core engagement will be a recurrent theme throughout this blog.

Understanding a game’s core engagement addresses the macroscopic questions of design: what do players do in this game? Understanding core engagement also addresses the microscopic: does this specific rule improve the game?

Some designers call this process finding the fun. I suggest that core engagement is much bigger than fun.  Core engagement can be fun but it can be other aspects of play as well.

For my purposes, core engagement comprises the activities players carry out and the sensations these activities provide.

Consider chess.  Modern play of this game seems to me to involve very little fun.  Fun is therefore not part of Chess’ core engagement.  But it has to be, right?  Chess is a game and games exist to be fun, right?  No.  Not right.  Games can offer a greater range of experiences than just fun.  Chess offers player satisfaction by matching intellect against intellect.  Chess offers satisfaction by demonstrating knowledge of classic moves and strategies.  Chess offers perceptual satisfaction by challenging the player to take in as much of the game state as possible, all at one time. These elements make the core engagement of chess.

How about Bridge?  The core engagement in modern Bridge lies primarily in communication through the bidding mechanism–my partner and I must correctly understand each other’s clues. I need to read my opponents’ clues.  We’re losing this hand and must bring the bidding to a close before the opponents get to fully communicate. Bridge also offers the satisfaction of skillful trick-taking card play–making your contract, setting your opponents, leveraging a Queen.

Now consider a modern game. 2013 Spiel des Jares award winner Hanabi by Antoine Bauza offers core engagement of in the same sort of clue-parsing as Bridge–I must give the most informative clue.  I must gain all I can from other players’ clues.  Hanabi also offers the communal satisfaction of a cooperative game–everyone wins together!

Now try a few yourself.

How about Yahtzee?

How about Twilight Struggle?

How about We Didn’t Playtest This At All?

How about your personal favorite game?

While you consider these games and catch up on Extra Credits, I’ll be back on Friday to look at identifying the core engagement in your own designs.