The 10 Best Mechanisms You Aren’t Using, Part 6

And here we are.  Today, we consider the most neglected of my top 10 underused mechanisms–roll and move.

1.   Roll and Move

File:Snakes and Ladders.jpgThe quickest way to get a gamer to disregard your work is to tell him that it utilizes a roll and move mechanism.  You can hardly blame him.  Roll and move conjures up the worst childhood memories from endless games of Monopoly or completely decision-free racing games like Snakes and Ladders.  Hours of his life he will never get back.

It is the sense of having no meaningful decisions which so sours players to roll and move games. We designers can rescue this mechanism by ensuring that meaningful decisions remain.

I have so far identified two different ways this can be achieved.  I continue to seek others.

Single Die, Multiple Pawns

File:Pachisi-real.jpgIn a multiple pawn roll and move game, the player first rolls the die and then decides among multiple pawns which should move on the roll.  All games in the Pachisi family share this trait–Trouble, Sorry!, Tuchulcha.  This approach also makes an appearance in Werner Schöppner’s Malefiz/Barricade.  By giving the player multiple uses for the movement roll, decisions are still present and the player remains engaged.

The most impressive application of the multiple pawn approach is found in Michael Keisling and Wolfgang Kramer’s Verflixxt!/That’s Life!  This fine game puts itself away as you play.  The track is made of cards.  Each card is valued anywhere from -10 to +8.  If your move takes the last pawn from a card, you also claim that card.  In this way, you score points and also shorten the track for any pawns which follow.  This simple gameplay leads to an impressive number of decisions.  Should you rush one of your pawns ahead, hoping to land on and quickly claim a high-valued card?  Should you keep them in a pack? How long can you afford to leave a pawn on a positive card, shortening your options but hoping that you’ll get to claim the card?  Can you afford to drop your pawn on a negative card, hoping to jump off before you can be abandoned there? Should you jump from one negative card to another negative card if doing so abandons another player on the first card?  Great stuff.

Single Pawn, Multiple Dice

In the first decade of the twenty-first century, I encountered several designs that allowed players to roll multiple dice and then decide how to allocate them.  As a quick simple example, your character might be a gladiator and roll 3 dice, then assign those three dice to attack, move, defend.

In 2008, I set out to apply this concept to racing games.

In addition to the multiple pawns mechanism discussed in the previous section, VeloCity also utilized a multiple dice mechanism.  Players could freely choose which mechanism to use each turn.  If you chose the multiple dice mechanism, you were required to announce which bicycle you’d be moving.   You then rolled a die for every player with a bicycle in that space.  You then had your choice to move with any of those dice. As an added wrinkle, if you chose another player’s die, their bicycle made a free move along with yours.  In this way, the player has multiple choices about where to move after the dice fall.  Player choice was preserved.  I cannot claim that the game was perfect but I do feel it brought something new to the roll-and-move toolkit.

Closing Thoughts

Response to this series has been extremely rewarding.  Several spirited debates have appeared on Facebook and BoardGameGeek.  Some readers agreed with my assessments while some thought I was a fool. It is easy to welcome the praise, of course.  I also welcome the dissent.

“If everyone is thinking alike, then no one is thinking.”

–Benjamin Franklin

The goal of this blog has never been to impose assent but rather to get folks actively talking and thinking. In that, these columns have been a complete success.  Thank you for being a part of this journey.

Please continue to add your thoughts and comments.  I will be back on Tuesday with our next topic: finding a game’s core engagement.

The 10 Best Mechanisms You Aren’t Using, Part 5

As we get closer and closer to the top spot, we take on increasingly maligned game mechanisms.  Today, we look at two mechanisms with particularly poor reputations–fetch quests and player elimination.

3.   Fetch Quests

A fetch quest looks something like this: You need a screwdriver.  Merchant A has a Screwdriver but you’re broke.  So Merchant A says you can have the screwdriver if you see can get a new set of earrings for daughter B.  You go to jeweler C and ask for earrings D but since you still don’t have any money, jeweler C will let you have earrings D if you can eliminate the rats E that have invaded his shop.  So you eliminate rats E and get earrings D from jeweler C which you give to daughter B so merchant A gives you the screwdriver–whew!

Fetch quests are quite common in computer roleplaying games.  They are a handy tool when plotting tabletop roleplaying games as well.  They can be a quick, slick way to wrap a bit of plot around the core roleplay experience.  They can also serve as a nice way to introduce new characters into the setting.

Fetch quests are also derided so much so that when I mentioned to my friend Jenny Gracin they were to be featured in this article, she snarled and spat.  Clearly some folks have had bad experiences with them.  And that’s fair too.  Much like memory, fetch quests can enhance or destroy a design depending on how they’re employed.  At their worst, fetch quests in a CRPG can be little more than an evening scrolling through meaningless dialogue boxes until all the appropriate points have been hit.  tsk.

Appropriate use of fetch quests in RPGs requires that the fetch quest enhance the roleplaying experience rather than replace it.

Appropriate use of fetch quests in tabletop board games requires that Merchant A and Jeweler C be players at the table.  When it is other players who have what you need, these fetch quests drive you to interact with them.

Players in Uwe Rosenberg’s wonderful Klunker sell gems to one another, working to collect sets.  The game plays in alternating phases. During phase A, you must put gems into your window that other players will want to purchase. During phase B, you attempt to buy the ideal set of gems before someone else beats you to them.  Rosenberg’s approach uses these fetch quests to keep you constantly working to read the other players.

Players who wish to build rail in the second half of Martin Wallace’s Brass must first find a connection to a coal supply.  You are allowed to supply your own coal but more often you will be fetching it from another player’s coal mine. Because coal must be shipped along a rail line, you will often find yourself building rail to destinations you don’t particularly care about, just to establish the fetch line you need for the coal.

Again, the key to good use of fetch quests in tabletop board games is that these quests must enhance player interaction.


2.   Player Elimination

Player elimination is the red-headed stepchild of game design.  At best, it is dismissed as a useless residual from the bowels of American game design.  More often it is spat upon, beaten and kicked across the message boards.

Working from this attitude, most modern Werewolf-type games focus on eliminating player elimination.  This has led to some great designs–Resistance Avalon is a personal favorite.  Even wargame design has been similarly restrained by either banning player elimination or terminating the game at the moment a player is eliminated.  The era of player elimination seems to be over.

Two years ago, I realized just how limiting such an attitude can be.  A group of teenagers was being introduced to Werewolf and it was my job to narrate. Even though the “dead” players were forbidden from speaking or interacting with “living” players in any way, they remained and observed with great intensity as the game played out.  Even though they had been eliminated from the game, they were still highly engaged in its outcome.

This was the day I discovered the depth of my misunderstanding.  Player elimination does have its place in the game designer’s toolbox.  Proper implementation simply hangs on whether players can be kept engaged beyond their participation in the game.

Yatsutaka Ikeda’s Shadow Hunters–another Werewolf game–makes this approach completely clear to players.  You win if your team wins.  It doesn’t even matter if your character is dead. Because of this emphasis on the success of the team, the game allows opportunities for deliberate sacrifice. A player can remain engaged to the end of the game, waiting to see if her sacrifice brought victory to her team.  Ikeda made player elimination an asset rather than a liability.

Terry Goodchild’s Formel Fun is a racing player elimination game which is extremely popular among my gaming group. Each player has a team of cars.  At the end of each lap, the rearmost car is eliminated and the race resets. The race has a heavy hand management element that makes it necessary to sacrifice one of your cars to preserve the other members of your team. Even when their last car is lost, players tend to remain in the audience, eager to see who pulls the victory and how.


Have you seen any great board games with explicit fetch quests?  What’s your position on player elimination?  Add your comments below!

I’ll see you Thursday for the top of the chart–roll and move!

The 10 Best Game Mechanisms You Aren’t Using, Part 4

My last column included the assertion that I’d only been able to locate one example of each mechanism. Astute Facebook commenter Clark D. Rodeffer rescued minigames from obscurity by pointing out that the GIPF (web) series features them. The series includes pieces called “potentials.” These pieces have special abilities which make them stronger than the rest. To bring a potential into play, you must challenge and defeat your opponent in a different game. That’s right. The game you’re playing pauses while the two of you go play a quick spot of chess or box three rounds or play tiddlywinks or what have you. Darned clever and ashamed I didn’t remember it myself. Well spotted Clark.

5. Changing Roles

Cooperative games have been in fashion for several years now. One flaw many suffer from is a tendency not of the game but of the players themselves: the tendency for one player to take over and organize everyone else. This is natural human nature; we’re a herd species. Unfortunately, few folks sit down at the game table for a round of Being. Told. What. To. Do.

Many cooperative games have addressed this issue with the inclusion of a traitor. You certainly don’t want your enemy bossing you around!

Some players don’t like the traitor solution. They want a fully cooperative game but also want to make their own decisions.

The Engelstein’s Space Cadets addressed these issues in several clever ways. Firstly, the game is played on a timer–no room for analysis paralysis! Secondly, multiple roles must be carried out simultaneously–no time for you to micromanage me, take care of your own business Mister Armchair General! Thirdly–and this really is the best bit–sometimes you have to switch roles.

It is pretty much inevitable that the ship everyone is trying to crew will take damage. This damage sometimes involves changing jobs with another player. So every time you didn’t have a job to do, you had better have been studying the jobs of your neighbors. This game is frantic and nerve wracking without any need for a traitor.

For those of you interested in a similar experience while still providing an opponent to whom one might firmly extend a middle finger, the Engelsteins have also brought us Space Cadets Dice Duel. While I haven’t yet had a chance to play, they were nice enough to give me a quick walk-through at GenCon and it looked great.


4. The Box

It’s remarkable how the obvious can sneak right past us. We talk at length about game components and miss the opportunity to utilize the component every one of our games shares–the box.

Many game boxes are nothing more than a device for transporting the game or clutter during play. But some designers have found ways to make the box part of the experience.

The Little Prince: Make me a Planet uses the box as a scoring track.

Family Business and Tier Auf Tier: Jetzt geht’s rund! use the box as play space.

The game which best exemplifies the box as game mechanism is Thomas Liesching’s Niagara. In Niagara, the box defines the height of the falls and actively participates in the play experience.


How about you? Seen any great box-as-component games lately? Or games with changing roles? Let us know in the comments below.

I’ll be seeing all of you Tuesday, when we move on to discuss the virtues of fetch quests and player elimination.

The 10 Best Game Mechanisms You Aren’t Using, Part 3

In the last column, I challenged designers to incorporate simultaneous action selection and evolving card decks into their designs.

Today’s two mechanisms share a particularly peculiar trait–I was only able to find one good example of each.


7.   Dutch Auctions

When I professed the glories of simultaneous selection games, I chose to omit simultaneous auction mechanisms.  They were being saved for now.

In the world outside of games, auctions tend to be conducted simultaneously.  An auctioneer supervises while  bidders raise their palettes to indicate bids.  Or the robot at eBay tracks the highest offer and supervises increments.

Auctions in most games are stately, turn-based affairs.  Each player in turn raises the bid or passes. The highest bidder wins.  There are some variations but these are largely cosmetic. So common is this approach that the person teaching me a game on one occasion referred to this mechanism as a “standard auction.”

Why have game designers and publishers come to rely on something so far from completely open auctions?  I believe that it is the dependence on an auctioneer.  Since manufacturers are unable to place an auctioneer into the box, the rules must serve as substitute.  Since the auctioneer would usually keep order, it must again be the rules which do so.  And so we get the the turn-based eurogame waltz.

Some games use closed-fisted auctions in which all players choose and reveal their bids simultaneously.  The most brutal among them require all players to expend their bid whether they made the winning bid or not.  The problem these suffer is that they can be so unforgiving.  Missing a key bid can put you irrevocably far back.

Of course, it would take M.A.T.A.* Reiner Knizia to show us another solution.  His The Merchants of Amsterdam was released originally in Europe by Jumbo and in the US by Rio Grande Games.  It provides a different kind of simultaneous auction.

Dutch auctions provide a remarkably simple solution to simultaneous auctions. A dial is set at the maximum price and ticks down from there.  When the indicator reaches the price you’re willing to pay, press the top and pay.  If two players reach at the same time, the hand actually touching the button wins.  It’s a solid auction mechanism. Knizia’s game The Merchants of Amsterdam is sadly dry and had no lasting impact but the mechanism is there, waiting for an inventive designer to bring it to the next level.  Could it be you?

* Master of All Things Auction


6.   Subgames

Computer game designers frequently include subgames in their releases.  In their best implementation, these subgames provide variety to the challenges of play or allow players with differing skill sets to each shine in their own way.  At the least, they provide a change of experience and change up the monotony of a game.

Tabletop designers are generally happy to provide one a single play experience.  Few include minigames.  This is natural.  Balancing a game is long tedious work.  Few of us are willing to sign up for the extra headaches of balancing several games in the same box.  Far better to give each game in its own box rather than trying to fit them all into one overarching game.

Many publishers also shy away from publishing a game which contains subgames.  They also prefer to give each minigame its own box.  Smaller, focused games are much easier to pitch, much easier to sell.

This means a world of open design space waiting to be explored.

Neopets: Adventures in Neopia took that challenge seriously. Each player has a pawn to move around the eponymous Neopia in a routine roll and move manner. Nothing special there. But reaching a destination launches a minigame for all players.

Because each destination is associated uniquely with its own minigame, players can focus the play on the games in which they excel.

Being intended as a game for kids, the minigames in N:AiN are also kids games. Modern designers working with modern tools could bring greater variety to this framework.

For instance, a eurogame approach might be set at a festival in the middle ages. Players walk from event to event, challenging the other players: a dexterity minigame at the archery challenge, a press your luck minigame at the juggler, a simultaneous selection minigame at the joust and so on.


And now we reach that crucial moment in which I put the challenge to you. Have you seen any dutch auction games? How about games that emphasize subgames? Add your comments below.

We’ll be back together on the first Friday of the new year with a resolution to better employ changing roles and the box.