The Dreaded Player Order Advantage, Part 3

JS_starter_pistols.tiff_t960Some games give an advantage to the start player. That player gets the best goods, stakes out the best position, wins far too often because of the advantage of opportunity.  Some others give an advantage to the last player.  That player gets the best view of the table, can make the perfect bid without fear of being outbid or of overpaying, again winning far too often because of her position in the turn order.

Part 1 and 2 of this series looked at detecting player order advantages and my suggested solutions; this led to a flurry of fantastic comments.  Today, we take a look at these interesting submissions from our awesome readers.

Comments fell primarily into two groups.  There were comments on methods of reassigning the start player marker and there were comments on allowing players to influence turn order.  They have been grouped accordingly.


On Player Control

Several readers pointed to the notion of putting control into the players’ hands.  These methods of assigning player order can be quite interesting because they tend to present players with another layer of decisions without dramatically increasing rules complexity.  Adding these extra decisions increases player engagement and game design is all about delivering player engagement.


From Gil Hova:

“[The first] article assumes clockwise turn order. When turn order becomes variable, you have a lot more flexibility in controlling and handicapping turn order. For example, passing turn order based on game state becomes very powerful. Power Grid is notorious for handicapping this way. Brass also has a nifty variable turn order mechanism based on money spent in the previous round. In both of those games, the entire turn order will be completely different from round to round.


From Carl Klutzke:

“I’m fond of the Aladdin’s Dragons method for addressing player order advantage: it is something you can bid for in the auctions, like the other resources you need to win.”


From Bevan Clatworthy:

“For my game Ghostel, the player order is based on points scored at the end of each round of play. Going last has major advantages in gameplay terms, so this goes to the player in last place. Tracking player order is done using the score tracker printed around the outside edge if the board, and if players are on the same score, it’s based on ‘token on top goes first’. Not quite perfect, but nice and simple!”


From playnoevil:

History of the World had a nice handicapping system for turn order in each round based on total armies from the previous civilizations – basing order on opportunity and not results.”



From futurewolfie:

“There’s also the drafting/role selection way to determine player order. My favorite example of this is Twilight Imperium, but it’s done in other games – the first one that comes to mind is Citadels. In Twilight Imperium, you choose a role which also determines player order. Sometimes the role is the most important thing in your choice, other times its the order of play – and you try to choose what works best for you. Part of the game is looking ahead and seeing what you’re going to need – and if you can look far enough ahead, you can take steps in an earlier round to make sure you have first choice of roles when the timing is right.”

Letting players choose roles to choose player order is a fantastic mechanism provided that it is thoughtfully implemented.  It is important to try different sequences of roles. You will naturally find that some roles are more powerful earlier in the round while some are more powerful later.  If a certain role seems too powerful, changing its place in the order may be all that’s needed to balance it.


On Rotating the Start Player Marker

Some readers added other methods of passing the start player marker or of mitigating the effect of passing the start player marker.


From Gil Hova:

“Going back to clockwise turn order, you can have players gain the first player marker through a specific action. This can suffer from the same problem you mentioned earlier, where the player sitting to the left of the player who always gets the first player marker benefits. Still, highly successful games like Agricola and Tzolk’in do this.

Some games are successful with this approach but some aren’t.  Railways of the World attempted it with limited success.  Each round of play begins with an auction for the start player marker.  Play proceeds clockwise from the start player.  In this case, the best place to sit is often directly after a player who bids aggressively for the start player marker.   You get all of the benefits of an early position in the round but don’t have to actually pay for it.  I am a fan of Railways of the World despite it but I cannot stop myself from wondering how much better the game could have been without this issue.

“Finally, you can have players earn first player. This is slightly different from the previous example in that players have to really compete for it; it’s not just a single, atomic action. Look at Amun-Re, for example, where part of the reward for the sacrifice auction is the first-player marker.”

This solution has been successful in a large number of worker placement games.  “Turn order” is a location to which workers can be assigned.  Doing so gives you priority in the following round.  My favorite variation on this allows each player who has a worker on “turn order” to decide where in turn order he or she wishes to land–first, last, or somewhere in between.  Players who choose not to put a worker on “turn order” get whatever’s left.


From Carl Klutzke:

“In my cooperative Doomed Atlantis game, the player order problem is slightly different. I wanted to know which player would be the target when an event occurs, and decided to make it the first player. But that means the first player role needs to rotate around the table, so the same player isn’t targeted all the time. As a result, after each player takes their turn in a round, the first player takes a turn for the board elements–handling all of their automated processing–then hands the first player token to the left. His normal turn is effectively skipped, which is a disadvantage you mention above, but he does get a turn of sorts, and it’s important because he resolves any arbitrary decisions not explicitly handled by the automation rules. This seems to work well: no one who’s ever played the game has complained about it. (The automation needs to be streamlined when there are lots of enemies on the board, but that’s a different problem.)”

Carl has developed an interesting variation on simply passing the start player marker.  Because the start player gets something to do at the end of the round other than simply passing the marker, her down time is minimized.  Because the start player has a measure of control over the non-player elements, she gets a boost to make up for being the target of all events.


On Handicapping the Start Player

ironregime brought a different attitude to the table by suggesting a way to mitigate any start player advantage in a two-player game.


From ironregime:

“A possible solution to some two-player symmetrical games where first-player advantage is suspected in the opening move is the ‘pie’ method, in which the second player has the option of co-opting the first player’s move, and forcing the first player to choose something else. It’s neither perfect nor universally applicable, but can be a handy rule to have available.”

This is a classic solution which I’d completely forgotten! Fortunately, ironregime was here to remind us.  I first encountered it in Piet Hein’s/John Nash’s Hex.  It’s not universally applicable to all two-player games but can certainly see applying it to those with open information–Chess, Targi, Zertz, and the like.


On Data Collection

We close today’s column with bduerksen30’s suggestion that judicious data collection might bring further insight.  This is a suggestion I will definitely be pursuing.


From bduerksen30:

“It would be interesting to compile a list of games, their game type, and their player-order solutions to see if certain game types utilize some methods more commonly or more successfully than others. For example, I think Kevin rightly identifies modern racing board games as mostly utilizing changing play order, and it seems to work quite well in those rulesets.

“Just in general, I’d be curious to know if others see a correlation between successful implementation of the solutions above that address play-order imbalance, and certain game types?”

What do you think of these ideas?  Did we miss your favorite method of mitigating player order advantages?  Share with your fellow readers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create an account with WordPress and follow this blog.  You keep reading. I’ll keep writing.


The Dreaded Player Order Advantage, Part 2

Some games give an advantage to the start player. That player gets the best goods, stakes out the best position, wins far too often because of the advantage of opportunity.  Some others give an advantage to the last player.  That player gets the best view of the table, can make the perfect bid without fear of being outbid or of overpaying, again winning far too often because of her position in the turn order.

Many game designs carry in them player order advantages such as these. Fortunately, we have tools to detect them and tools to redress them.

Part 1 of this series looked at detection and two potential solutions to a player order advantage; starting bonuses and changing start player.  This led to a flurry of fantastic comments which will be discussed in part 3 of this series.  Today’s, column focuses on changing player order, tie breaking and differing goals.


Solution 3: Changing Player Order

Last column looked at changing start player from one round to the next as a method of addressing player order advantages.  Some games completely reassess player order each round. This approach has the advantage of being completely responsive to each player’s position but does run the risk of being fiddly. The best uses of this are either transparent and quick or integral to the rest of game play.

Many modern racing games take the transparent and quick approach.  Each car on the race track acts in race position order from front to rear.  Once every car has moved, a new round immediately begins, this time in their new position order.

Struggle of EmpiresStruggle of Empires took the approach the approach of being integral to play. Establishing turn order in Struggle of Empires is sometimes the longest part of a given game round but it is essential to the rest of play.  Turn order is set by auction in which players not only assign order but also alliances.  Since allied players cannot attack one another, a player in a poor position can adjust turn order and earn a cease fire by positioning himself into an alliance with a pugilistic rival both at the same time.


Solution 4: Tie Breaking

Sometimes, the solution to player order advantage can be found in tie breaking.  This is particularly handy in area-control games and racing games.  An end player advantage is mitigated by breaking all ties in favor of the start player.  A start player advantage is mitigated by breaking all ties in favor of the end player.

Terry Goodchild’s Formel Fun is a racing game that employs this approach dynamically.  If two cars are equally far ahead, the one in the inner lane goes before the one in the outer.  To make this completely clear, the game rules direct players to always place their cards into the innermost available space when they move.


Solution 5: Differing Goals

A great way to eliminate turn order issues is to give different objectives to each position.

Avalon Hill ASTEach player’s culture sets turn order and differing objectives in the Avalon Hill classic Civilization.  In particular, Africa is first in turn order but has the most difficult road on the Archaeological Succession Table (AST) shown above. Egypt is last but has the easiest road on the AST.  Civilization also gave each position at the table a different starting position on the map and through those positions, different options.

Fantasy Flight’s game Sid Meier’s Civilization: The Board Game gave each player different options in much the same way that the computer game does–through special powers.  The Romans advance on the culture track each time they build a wonder, build a city, conquer a village, or conquer a city.  The Americans by contrast convert trade into production at an accelerated rate.  Each of these abilities will push their player toward different foci and thereby tend to mitigate the importance of turn order.

Chaos in the Old World achieved differing goals Chaos in the Old World dialsthrough a variety of methods.  Most prominently, each faction gets a unique progress dial.  Since each dial awards different bonuses as it progresses, player strategies must differ appropriately.

Changing player order, tie breaking, and differing goals are three of my favorite techniques for mitigating a player order advantage in my designs.  Put these, long with starting bonuses and changing start player, into your game design toolbox.  They will empower you to address any player order advantages that appear in your designs.

Next column we examine the suggestions and examples you wonderful readers have contributed to this series.  Let us know how you track player order advantages and what techniques you use to mitigate them.  Please post them so we may share them with your fellow gamers.

And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create an account with WordPress and follow this blog.  You keep reading. I’ll keep writing.

The Dreaded Player Order Advantage, Part 1

Does your game give an advantage to the player who goes first?  Does she get the best goods? Does he stake out the best position? Does his opportunity trump other players’ skill?

Or is it best to go last?  Does the last player get the best view of the table?  Does he get to take advantage of the spots other players overlooked? Does she get to make the perfect bid without fear of being outbid or of overpaying?

Symptoms like these are collectively called player order advantages. Does your game have one?

Player order advantage is one of the first things a diligent publisher will look for.  It’s high on many critics’ lists as well.  Tools to detect and redress such imbalances should be in every game designer’s toolbox.


Detecting Player Order Advantages

The first step to solving any player order advantage is in detecting it. I recommend good record keeping. Record player order each time you test your game. Look for a relationship between final scores and turn order.  Track other relevant measures of position if your game doesn’t use victory points.

Does a certain position win more often than the others?

Does that position score higher than the others?

If so, how extreme is the advantage?

Keep an eye out for these issues and be prepared to adjust accordingly.


Solution 1: Award Starting Bonuses

One way to address player order advantages is to give bonuses to the weaker positions.

Alien FrontiersAlien Frontiers would have a start player advantage had Tory Niemann not addressed it so effectively.  To counteract the start player advantage, players other than the first begin with extra resources.  Many games use the similar solution of giving players in the weaker position bonus points.

Zong ShiMany modern designs give every player a few resources at the start of the game.  This has the primary advantage of accelerating play.  During the mid-2000s, I developed a technique to also address start player advantage through this technique. Starting resources are drafted in reverse player order; the last player gets first pick and the start player gets last pick. Because it has proven to be a successful response to the start player advantage, Zong Shi and Rolling Freight both start this way.


Solution 2: Changing Start Player

Games which are played in rounds can address turn order advantages by giving every player a chance to experience them.  A start player marker of some sort is included in the box.  At the end of each round, the marker is passed and start player is thereby reassigned.

TargiThe most common change is to pass the start marker forward one step at the end of each round.  Although this method has been quite common over the last decade, I find it can be problematic.  In a game with only two players, this system can equate to letting each player repeatedly take two turns in a row.  In a game with several players, start player must wait through every other player taking two turns before taking her next.  For this reason, I approach this technique with caution and save it for games in which individual turns are short.  The Kosmos two-player game Targi does this excellently.  The start player marker passes every round but each round is made up of several short turns, leaving nearly no player downtime in the game.

Ora et LaboraA fantastic method of passing start player appears in Ora et Labora.  The start player takes the first and last turns of the round before passing the marker to the left.  Because many choice actions have already been claimed, this final turn is limited.  These actions largely reset when the start player marker passes, giving the new start player a fresh set of options.  In this way, position advantage is spread around without and downtime is minimized for all players.

Another way to change start player is to pass the start marker by the current game state.  If going first is an advantage, the marker goes to the player who is furthest behind.  If going first is a disadvantage, the marker goes to the player who is furthest ahead.  I like this approach conceptually but not in application.  It always seems to turn out that the player sitting immediately after this player is excessively impacted.  Imagine a game that gives the lead to the player with the most points each turn because going last in that game is the best position.  Sitting immediately to this perennial start player’s left, you find yourself in the second-worst position, never getting that chance to play last and catch up.


Awarding starting bonuses and changing start player are two of my favorite techniques for mitigating a player order advantage in my designs.  Next column will look at some more.


What about you?  How do you track player order advantages?  What techniques do you use to mitigate them?  Share with your fellow readers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create an account with WordPress and follow this blog.  You keep reading. I’ll keep writing.

Landmark Games Part 6

U1_titelThe latest issue of Spielbox magazine arrived in my mailbox a few days ago. Its cover proclaimed this to be the 20-year anniversary of 6 nimmt!

The article about this auspicious birthday was something of a  two-page trip down memory lane for Joe Nikisch and Uwe Mölter. This history lesson was interesting enough for a casual read. It was not the exploration of its mechanisms and influence I’d hoped for.

To be clear, Nikisch does discuss mechanisms and impact in his article, just not in great detail. Let’s say a bit more about this landmark game.

6 Nimmt! is remarkably elegant.  The rules at their core are extremely straightforward–Horns are points and points are bad.  Play a card simultaneously and resolve them in ascending order.  Each card goes to the pile it is most closely over.  The 6th card takes the pile it lands in but stays behind.  There is only one “fringe rule;” a card too low for any pile takes a pile of your choice and stays in its place.  Quick, clean rules like these favor such quick-playing games and are ideal for sharing our hobby with non-gaming family or friends.

6nimmt_Spielsituation2Like Hearts or Golf, 6 nimmt! players win by avoiding penalties rather than by gaining points.  Having worked on a few games of this type, I can tell they are darned tricky to balance.  Kramer found that balance in the places he chose to dole out the penalties. Every card is worth at least one penalty point but cards ending in 5 have two points, cards ending in 0 have three points and multiples of 11 have five.  The 55 card, being both a card ending in 5 and a multiple of 11 is singularly nasty–it carries seven penalty points! This spread is more than sufficient to keep players watching every pile and its potential penalties.

One element the Spielbox article did focus on was the game’s approach to simultaneous play.  Players in 6 nimmt! choose a card to play simultaneously but execute the cards in increasing order.  According to the article, this two-stage version of simultaneous play was completely revolutionary at the time.  There is a unique tempo as you alternate between first attempting to read your opponents and second watch the results of your decision play out.

Because play is simultaneous, some of its detractors will assert that you can simply play a random card each round to get a similar effect.  This argument has been put up against a large number of simultaneous play games, including my own Nobody But Us Chickens.  The Spielbox article defends this approach as a valid method of play.  I cannot be so charitable.  While playing cards at random misses the spirit of the game.  Getting a good read on your opponents, spotting a good spot to drop a bad card, these elements are essential to fully experiencing 6 Nimmt!  To play otherwise is to deny yourself a great gaming experience.

On the other hand, 6 nimmt! does fall short in scaling.  The game with 3-5 players is tense and strategic but as additional players are added, the game grows increasingly chaotic and if the maximum 10 players are participating, it does begin to feel as random as its detractors insist.

Many simultaneous-play games stand on the shoulders of the 6 Nimmt! giant.  Games like Die Glücksritter–which alternate between simultaneous and ordered play are doubly indebted.  If you have any plan to design a simultaneous play game, 6 nimmt! is a must-play.  Through its simplicity, Wolfgang Kramer shows how powerful a single, cleanly executed, mechanism can be.


In Local News…

Comicpalooza started as a small but ambitious comic con here in Houston.  It has since exploded into a huge con for all of geekdom–comics, sci-fi, fantasy, gaming. My design partner Luther Bell Hendricks and I will be demoing Sentinel Tactics throughout the weekend. I will also be participating in several panel talks.  If you’re in southern Texas this weekend, come on by. I’d love to see you there! 🙂


What are the landmark games?  Which titles should every game enthusiast play at least once?  6 nimmt! is my suggestion.

Have you played 6 nimmt!?  What do you think of it as a landmark game?  What other games do you see as notable ancestors to newer games?  Share with your fellow readers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create and account with WordPress and follow this blog.  If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.


Bottom-Up Scoring

Len Stemberger is a designer in the North Houston design group. He is currently developing an area control game which features marker manipulation–placing and moving markers.  His core engagement is to keep players constantly jockeying for position in as many areas as possible at all times.  With this core engagement in mind, we began looking for the best scoring mechanism to serve it.

As we bounced various ideas around, we hit upon a mechanism which was entirely new to me and darned interesting–a system that scores both upwards and downwards.  We provisionally named it “bottom-up scoring” and decided to share it with you.  We hope it gives you an interesting tool to work with.


Bottom – Up Scoring

Area majority games generally score downwards. Awards are passed out by looking at first place, then down to second place and so on.  Bottom-up scoring does some of that.

Set collection games generally score upwards. Increasing your set increases your reward.  Bottom-up scoring does some of that too.

The first step to creating a bottom-up scoring scheme is to select a top-down scheme as you might for any other area majority game.  For our example, I’m using an exponential scheme.

First Place

8 points

Second Place

4 points

Third Place

2 points

In most area-control games, the first time a player placed a marker into an area, he is considered to be in first place.  He essentially occupies the top spot.  If scoring occurred with only his marker in the region, he would receive the best possible award for the region.

Example: Danielle has a cube in the green region and it scores.  Since no other cubes are present, Danielle scores first place, 8 points.

In Len’s game, area manipulation and scoring each occur on every turn.  This is important to understanding why how we arrived at our new scheme.

Our concern centered on the massive start-player advantage that occurred when the start player placed a marker into a region on his turn and then immediately scored that region–He would get the first place prize simply for going first!  That sat well with none of us.  We needed a different plan.

In our bottom-up system, the first time markers are placed into an area, they are thought of as beginning construction in that area, only just beginning to improve and expand the area.  The player who placed these markers essentially occupies the bottom spot. When scoring occurred with only her markers in the region, she received the worst possible award for the region.

Example: Danielle has a cube in the green region and it scores.  Since no other cubes are present, Danielle scores third place, 2 points.

Massive holdings in an otherwise empty region are no better than a single cube in that region–like having the best castle in Boise, Idaho.  This is better than no award at all of course, but no longer so massive an award.

Example: Danielle has five cubes in the green region and it scores.  Since there are still no other cubes present, Danielle scores third place, 2 points.

Now in order to reach high awards, the player must work for majority in popular regions.

Example: In addition to Danielle’s five cubes, and Dean has two cubes and John has 1 cube.  When the region scores, John scores third place, 2 points. Dean scores second place, 4 points. Danielle scores first place, 8 points.

Working for majority in popular regions puts players in conflict throughout the game.  Putting players in conflict throughout the game increases player interaction.  Increasing player interaction increases engagement.  Delivering engagement is what games are all about.  We were looking at a winning scheme.


Tie Breaking The Bottom-Up Scheme

Having established the basic structure, we immediately moved on to debate the best tie-breaking scheme for Len’s core engagement.  Our best suggestions fell into three general categories.  Rather than asserting which is best, here are all three.  Each had its merits, depending on the spirit of the game and playtest data.  Len wisely decided to collect more data before making any final decision.

First in wins.  Markers placed later are considered to fall behind those placed earlier.  The only way a later player can get ahead is to exceed the previous count. This is generally best if the game has a start player disadvantage.

Last in wins.  Markers placed later fall ahead of those placed earlier.  A later player can get ahead by tieing the previous count.  This is generally best if the game has a start player advantage.

Friendly ties.  Tied players each get a full share of their position’s award.  This is generally best if there is no discernible advantage associated with the order of play.


Have you designed an area-control game? How did you award points?  How would Bottom-up scoring have changed the dynamics of your game?  Share with your fellow readers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create and account with WordPress and follow this blog.  If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.

Landmark Games Part 5

Buddy Walter Hunt proposed recently that some games are essential to every gamer’s education.  He takes the position a bit more strongly than I but does have something of a point.  Some games are so influential that they stand as landmarks.  What are the landmark games?  Which games created genres?  Or perfected them? Or changed the way we look at them?  Walter’s essay below adds We The People to our list.  And since We The People is a game I must confess to never having played, it’s clear that this author has some homework to do…
I have to take some of the credit and some of the blame for my friend Kevin Nunn’s recent series on this medium, discussing the landmark games – the ones everyone should have played as a part of gaming education.

We decided at the outset that we didn’t want to make a list of favorites, or a list of games that we thought were the best overall or the best in a category, but rather the ones – as Kevin said in the first installment – that “everyone should play in order to put modern design into context?” In homage to that particular mandate, I have chosen a game that I consider seminal, even though most gamers (and, indeed, its designer) have passed over in the years since its publication.


We The People

Published in 1994 by Avalon Hill when it was still an independent entity, We The People is the ur-example of a CDG: a Card Driven Game. It is a two-player simulation of the American Revolution, with one player representing the British (and Loyalist allies) and the other representing the Rebels (or Patriots, depending on your point of view). Each turn, players receive seven Operations cards, and take turns playing a card and either conducting “Operations” – moving armies, placing or replacing control markers on the board, or adding reinforcement troops – or executing events. The game progressed until one side or the other achieved a specific victory condition, or a variable ending turn was reached.

This all seems rather mundane today, but twenty years ago it was (if you’ll pardon the expression) quite revolutionary: consider that the most popular game published by Avalon Hill at that time was Advanced Squad Leader: rules-intensive, counter-focused, obsessively-detailed and time-consuming. By comparison, this game lasted six to eight turns of ten to fifteen minutes each, used a minimum of counters on each side with very few numbers, and even lacked a hex map: units moved along lines between locations, highly abstracting all of the cumbersome logistics so endemic to war games.

Leaving aside the evolution of the CDG after We The People came out, there are a number of remarkable innovations that Mark Herman brought to the game.


The Cards

In place of the rigorous move-fight-move sequence of play common to war games, Herman’s design gave each player an ever-diminishing range of choices for each campaign year.

Operations cards, valued 1, 2 or 3, let players do several things. They can move their generals, who in turn move combat units: the ‘3’ cards are the best, since even a bumbling general rated 3 for strategy can be moved; ‘2’s can move ‘1’ and ‘2’ generals, and a ‘1’ can only move a ‘1’ (and there aren’t many of those). They can place Political Control markers, which claim areas of the board. Finally, they can enter reinforcements; hard for the Americans, easy for the British.

Event cards are somewhat different; some are historical (“Baron von Steuben Continental Line Training”); some are merely structural (“Minor Campaign”). Since both players draw from the same deck, however, one side is sometimes stuck with a card that would be better for the other, but these can usually be discarded rather than played at the cost of an action. Some Event cards are required, which is particularly problematic if it’s an unwanted event.

Lord North cards, which set the end date of the game. These cards are required and set the game end, sometimes pushing it out, sometimes bringing it closer. This variable, uncontrolled ending is a unique factor, a real departure for a historical game published in that era. (Though it should be noted that Herman’s seminal Civil War, published by Victory Games a decade earlier, had a variable turn-ending mechanism that kept players unsure when a campaign season would be terminated.)

When all cards were played, the year was over, and some logistics took place before the next year began, unless the end date or victory condition was reached.

Combat was very different as well. Battle took place when units occupied the same space on the board, either because the current player moved to a location, or was intercepted on his way; it was resolved through the use of Battle Cards, which introduced tactics (again, in an elegant and abstracted fashion) that gave a really authentic feel to the conflict.


The Game as History

We The People was aimed at a somewhat different audience than most highly-detailed Avalon Hill “historical simulations.” While it emphasizes historical events, they tumble into play more or less at random; sometimes the bear eats you, sometimes you eat the bear – it depends on a variety of things.

Still, winning with the Americans is hard for all the right reasons (and it’s very satisfying when you do) and winning with the British is hard in a different way, even with logistics and superior numbers in your favor (and, again, it’s very satisfying when you do). The original game included a historical overview that was almost twice as long as the rules. If I was teaching the American Revolution I’d use this game to do it. There’s a huge amount of replayability in there, and two experienced players can set it up and play in an hour, then turn the tables and play opposite sides in another hour. Our game group years ago had two guys who set it up every week at the beginning of the night and played turns in between other games, usually managing two complete plays.


Design Problems

Just as Richard Borg’s original Battle Cry has flaws that were smoothed out and improved with later Commands & Colors games (Ancients, Napoleonics and Memoir ’44 are all far better designs), We The People has design problems, mostly with the Strategy Cards. Each turn, a player has seven cards to play or discard, and sometimes there isn’t much that a specific card can do. In Hannibal: Rome Vs. Carthage, the direct successor to We The People, each card that wasn’t a required event could always be used like an Operations card of minimal value. This method is also used in the classic Twilight Struggle, another direct descendant of this game; it is a definite tactic to deliberately use up a card in this way that the opponent would really prefer to have in his hand. Later CDGs evolved the Strategy Card sets, dividing them according to game period; both Twilight Struggle and 1960: Making of the President do this, as due innumerable others. Games like Here I Stand and Virgin Queen, multiplayer CDG extravaganzas, gave different decks to each player, further refining the experience.

Similarly, the Battle cards, though clever and thematic, often resulted in one-sided outcomes when a player received a particularly unfavorable draw. If anything, the luck factor made players a bit gun shy when it came to fighting big battles – the outcome could be devastating and game changing, turning on the absence of one particular type of card.

Herman himself took these criticisms and the general evolution of the CDG into account by developing a complete redesign, Washington’s War, published in 2010 by GMT. This version introduced many innovations in the basic CDG procedure, added depth and more historical flavor, and still kept the play time to 90 minutes or less.


Does It Hold Up?

We all face the problems of limited time, attention span and shelf space. This is a game that is hard to find these days. The 1995 Expansion Cards – 18 cards, of which 5 are to be randomly selected – add some additional historical flavor, and are even rarer. It’s not as meaty as the updated Washington’s War; it’s not as fluid or as balanced as Rome vs. Carthage; the Making of the President is more “accurate;” Twilight Struggle is more tense (nothing like nuclear Armageddon to make a player focus). But its virtue is simplicity and it is the game that made all of those and many more like it possible. It’s staying on my shelf – and when I play, I will often try something new just to see if it works. (If it doesn’t, I’ll know for next time – which might be an hour later).


What are the landmark games?  Which titles should every game enthusiast play at least once?  We the People is Walter Hunt’s suggestion.

Have you played We the People?  What do you think of it as a landmark game?  What other games do you see as notable ancestors to newer games?  Which ones changed the face of gaming? Share with your fellow readers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create and account with WordPress and follow this blog.  If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.

Using Playtester Feedback, part 3

Playtesters are the sole authority of their own experience.  There is not a single person in existence better qualified to comment on the player’s experience than the player herself.  We designers need our playtesters to share their experiences with us.  It is critical to gather as much of these as possible.

It would be ideal if our playtesters could state exactly what issue they see in our design.  In that case, they could point us directly where we need to put our eyes.  Unfortunately, that will seldom be the case.  Be mindful that playtesters are not generally experienced designers.  They know what they like (or don’t) but they may not be able to fully articulate why they like it.  This is not to say in any way that their feedback isn’t useful but instead to emphasize the role of playtest data as an indicator.  This is why it’s so very important to ask follow-up questions.

I recommend that your follow-up questions should be structured along the lines of “What is the issue you’re seeing” or “how would your change address that issue” or “let me say this back to see if I’m fully understanding you”  and “What if the game (had/didn’t have) _____. Do you think that would address the issue?”


Sarah Aronson Uses Her Feedback
Writer Sarah Aronson related her relationship with feedback in a 2012 post on Through the Tollbooth.  She says that the feedback she receives points her to what is working, to what is not working, to the seeds of good ideas which need watering and a bit of TLC.  Aronson used her next post to share some of her key questions: where are the hooks that pull you in?  Is the plot balanced? What were the most memorable moments?  How was the pacing?  How was the length?


Daniel Solis Listened Beyond the Comments

Designer buddy Gil Hova is one of the folks I consulted while working out my thoughts for this series.  He referenced a blog post by Daniel Solis in which Daniel laid out his process for evaluating playtester feedback.  Daniel says near the end of the article “I didn’t end up using any of these new suggestions directly, but instead tried to suss out what those suggestions were trying to fix. They were trying to make early choices matter.” Again, playtester feedback may not be the solution but it is a valuable indicator.


Gil Hova Listened Beyond the Comments

designer_headshotGil also shared his experience applying Daniel’s approach.  Gil brought his new game Primetime (which is excellent by the way and you should plan to buy a copy as soon as it drops) to a gamer con and showed it around.  The first two groups each told him that it was boring to have so much money but little to do with it.  “I should be able to spend money to X,” they said where X was any number of player options.

Gil stepped back and asked what underlying problem might lead to these comments.  His conclusion: it was not a problem of too few options for the money, it was a problem of too much money!  He tightened the game economy up drastically and the game began to sing.


An Enhancement For Rolling Freight

Rolling Freight came with us to BGG.Con a few years ago, shortly before it went to the printer.  This would be our last chance to get outside feedback, to look for loopholes in the rules and the like.  One of the players mentioned that improvements lost value over the course of the game and that they should therefore get cheaper as the game proceeds. Through three years of development, this idea had never occurred to any of us–what an awesome idea!

That idea had to be left out of the core set.  Rolling Freight was already a bit rules-heavy and I was concerned that the extra rule would have been the straw that broke the camel’s proverbial.  But I held on to it.  And I put it in Expansion #1: Great Britain/India.  And it will appear in Expansion #2: Austro-Hungarian Empire/Mexico as well.  A huge breakthrough. All for the low low price of listening to a playtester.


The last three columns have been devoted to my thoughts on the relationship between designers, playtesters, and their feedback.  This topic–like core engagement–is an essential tool in the designer’s toolbox.  It is one to which we will often return.  The phenomenal Julia Cameron who we can imagine knows a thing or two about the creation as she has been an author, artist, poet, playwright, novelist, filmmaker, composer, and journalist remarked in her book The Artist’s Way that

“All too often too often we try to push, pull, outline and control our ideas instead of letting them grow organically. The creative process is a process of surrender, not control. Mystery is at the heart of creativity. That, and surprise.”

Researching this series led me to evolve my position as each new source made it progressively clearer that this is a broad concept with no simple answers.  Reading your comments led me to adjust my position as each new response made it progressively clearer that we all will have our own take on the issue.  Writing this series has matured me as a designer.  I hope that in reading it, you have too.


If you’re near the west coast this weekend, I have the honor of attending Protospiel San Jose.  Grab your prototype and drop by. I’d love to see you there! 🙂


How do you playtest?  What sorts of feedback are you seeking?  Do you give directed instructions or do you encourage testers to explore your game?  How do you record your data?  Share with your fellow readers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create and account with WordPress and follow this blog.  If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.


A Response to “Using Playtester Feedback”

Reader Yves Tourigny Posted a response to part 2 of this series yesterday.  It is so well argued that I asked for his blessing to quote it here.

Yves position and mine don’t differ by much but they do differ in some interesting ways.  Whether you are still seeking your own voice as a designer or if you have your voice and wish to strengthen it, there are some solid ideas to contemplate here.


“I remain unconvinced. Your reply to argument 4 leaves me scratching my head. Who are these analytic geniuses with whom you playtest your games? A single play of any game may leave you with the impression that you have a deep understanding of it, but if that’s the case, I’m afraid that I’ve already filed your feedback under “crank”. The inner workings of a game may in theory be laid bare, but the complexity that emerges when even simple systems start to interact should give pause to anyone who thinks they have an easy fix.

“This is especially true if the playtesters have not read the rules, but have had the game explained to them. Or when the playtest is a partial one, where the entire game may not have been experienced.

“Repeated plays, or a very simple game, may very well give playtesters a complete, holistic picture of the game. This would simply make their cogent analysis of any problems far MORE useful than any solutions they might have for those problems.

“There are times, I believe, when playtester feedback is almost completely irrelevant. Case in point: I playtest many of my games with my two sons. One is 17, and has Aspergers, and the other is 8, and has a very strong desire to express his opinion about everything under the sun. I’ll ask for their feedback, specifically for things they liked or didn’t like. If the 8-year old starts offering solutions, or suggestions (e.g. “Maybe you could add (something that would add nothing)?”), I politely steer the conversation back to useful territory.

“This is in fact what I do with any playtester. I’m not concerned about hurting their feelings if I don’t use their suggestions, because I question them to get to the root concern. Why do they feel this suggestion is required? What problem is it that they are trying to solve?

“Just to be clear, I’m not saying I never want to hear solutions or suggestions, only that without a clear statement of the problem they are next to useless.”


Using Playtester Feedback, Part 2

“Learning and innovation go hand in hand. The arrogance of success is to think that what you did yesterday will be sufficient for tomorrow.”         –William Pollard


Part one of this series generated intense response from both camps. Some lauded my comments. Others decried them. So long as we’re debating, we’re thinking. As long as we’re thinking, we’re growing.  So long as we’re growing, we can avoid the arrogance of success.  Keep those comments coming folks!

A designer I know asks of his playtesters, “give me your problems, not your solutions.”  In support of this position, he offered five arguments.  My collaborative philosophy finds these arguments fundamentally flawed.


Argument 3. Playtesters tend to get attached to their suggestion and resentful if that suggestion isn’t used in the final design.

This is a valid concern.  It is also a concern that can be alleviated with appropriate courtesy.  Thank each person for their input.  Thank them for helping you make the best game possible.  State that you’ll be looking at all of their suggestions, working to integrate them and refine them in the best way possible.

This response also keeps the peace when two playtesters come up with conflicting suggestions during the same test.  Acknowledge that you won’t be able to integrate both suggestions and that everyone is working for the same goal–to make the game as good as possible.

communication_feedbackA similar excellent solution to this issue comes from Imaginatik in their article Making Feedback More Positive.  “Instead of sending individual [acceptance or rejection] messages, send a group response to all interested parties, praising them for their contributions as a collective. Indicate that each individual response was crucial in helping the review team reach a consensus. Also, mention that all ideas will be moved to the Idea Warehouse for possible future consideration. This way, each person feels good about his or her contribution as opposed to getting negative feedback.”

In other words, thank all playtesters for their contributions.  Then express that every perspective adds to your picture of the game as a whole and helps you to make the best game possible.  In this way, unused ideas have been acknowledged and the tester knows THAT YOU KNOW that she made a meaningful contribution.

This is all most playtesters need to hear.  Playtesters want to know that you appreciate them.  They want your acknowledgement and respect.  Give it to them.


Argument 4. Playtesters cannot see the inner workings of the design.  They are therefore ill-equipped to make informed suggestions.

This argument might be valid in the world of computer game design but it is not a reasonable statement about tabletop games.  The opposite is true.  One of the principal reasons many CG design schools begin by making students create tabletop board games is precisely because tabletop games DO reveal their inner workings.

Imagine you’re playing a dungeon crawl-type game like Orc Vengeance on your smart device.  you know that your hero’s sword has power 38 and your hero has strength 53 but the damage it deals seems to vary from about 60 to 130.  Do you know why that variation exists?  Is the enemy’s armor a factor?  Its agility?  Terrain?  Is your target resistant to your attack?  Or vulnerable to it?  Does the game use a randomizer?  If so, how?  Through trial and error you will likely figure out many of these details.  This will take time and even then you will probably not figure out all of them.  It is tricky to study CGs from the outside because the game engine is obscured by the interface.

Now imagine you’re playing a dungeon crawl board game like Descent.  The rules are there to be seen, to be analyzed, to be assessed.  You can look at the die faces and estimate your odds.  You know what modifiers exist and when they matter.  The inner workings of traditional tabletop games are quite close to the surface.
Argument 5.   Many players don’t want to raise a problem without having a solution as well. Asking players to express only the issues frees them to raise issues to which they see no solution.

This is certainly the most well-meaning among the arguments–well-meaning but implausible.

We need playtesters to be candid. We need playtesters to express every opinion that occurs to them in whatever form that opinion should take.  Once you’ve got that feedback, then you can decide what best to do with it.  Fail to get the feedback and you’ve got nothing to work with.

Many people have been trained by their experiences in the corporate world not to raise issues without having a solution to offer as well.  We definitely need playtesters to disregard self censorship.  However, instructing them to ‘offer issues, not solutions’ constitutes a direct order them to self-censor. It is not plausible that such directed censorship will free them from internalized censorship.

Instead, encourage openness. Practice saying phrases like “I’ll look at that,” and “how do you feel that would improve the game,” and “how do the rest of you feel about that.” Expressions like these make it safe for them to offer every concern and suggestion.  You will quickly see a change in their candor and their expressiveness.  I guarantee it.


Argument 6.   If I incorporate too much playtester feedback, it won’t be my game design anymore.

This was not one of the arguments he put forward but in developing this article, a few other folks did raise the question.

Fashion designer Tom Ford was posed with exactly this quandary in his 2014 interview with Kinvara Balfour.  He has a number of designers working under him and their creations bear his name.  His reply mirrors that which creative leaders have said across the centuries, that ‘while you do listen to everyone’s feedback, it is you who makes the final decision and this is what entitles you to put your name on it.’

While others may have given you a huge number of ideas, it is you who decided what to incorporate and how to incorporate it.  It is this which makes you the craftsman, not the originality of your ideas.  Ask any designer, artist or craftsman and she will tell you that ideas are cheap and plentiful.  Achievement is derived from refining and editing those ideas.

There may be several arguments for “give me your problems, not your solutions”  but I found them to be fundamentally flawed.  Today, we debunked the remaining arguments against soliciting playtester feedback.  That attitude is dismissive, arrogant, unfortunate and ultimately toxic.

On Friday, we return to look at positive ways to playtest and ways to best use player feedback.  See you in three days!

And if you’re near the west coast this weekend, I’ll have the honor of attending Protospiel San Jose.  Grab your prototype and drop by. I’d love to see you there! 🙂

How do you use playtester feedback?  What role would you give your playtesters?  Do you give them any directed instructions or do you encourage them to explore your game?  Or are you a laissez faire tester? Share with your fellow readers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create and account with WordPress and follow this blog.  If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.

Using Playtester Feedback, Part 1

A designer buddy quoted another designer to me a few weeks ago.  “Give me your problems, not your solutions.”

This confused me.

So I consulted the designer in question.  Yup.  “Give me problems, not solutions.” That’s a direct quote.

I asked for further clarification.  Wouldn’t you?

He obliged my curiosity and related the reasons which led him to this conclusion.  First, he expressed that the suggestions playtesters give are usually bad.  Second, that while the playtester is relating the suggestion, he was generally running other–presumably better–variants in his head.  Third, that playtesters tended to get attached to their suggestion and resentful if that suggestion isn’t used in the final design.  Fourth, he stated that the playtesters could not see the inner workings of the design and were therefore ill-equipped to make informed suggestions.  Fifth, that many players don’t want to raise a problem without having a solution to offer as well so asking players to only express issues freed them to raise issues to which they see no solution.

A friend of his–another designer–stepped up and agreed with these assertions before they left for dinner, leaving me to reflect on their point of view.

feedbackI went on to discuss this position with other designers.  I have sought the opinion of creative people whom I respect.  I consulted folks that can be trusted to give you an honest opinion, who are candid to the point of brutality.  These conversations led to a number of useful perspectives.  Considering each enabled me to codify my own position.

I am only one person. I won’t pretend to be an expert on any designer’s method but my own.  If an adage like “give me problems, not solutions” fits your design philosophy and it works for you then by all means continue.  But I cannot imagine working successfully with such an attitude because it seems to me that the arguments underlying this approach are fundamentally flawed.

Argument 1.  Playtester suggestions are usually bad.

A friend in college was terrified of asking women out because they might say no.  My response was and is that “you’re right.  That interesting woman over there might say no.  But if you don’t ask her, you’re saying no for her.  You’re denying her the chance to say yes.”

Do you feel that the suggestions playtesters give are usually bad?  Let’s assume you’re right.  The idea that tester wants to give might be bad.  But if you tell him not to express it, you’re denying him the chance to offer a great suggestion.”

“Usually useless” = “sometimes useful.”  So listen to every idea that comes your way and keep looking for the good ones.

Who cares if 99% of the suggestions playtesters offer are bad?  Be assured that 99% of my ideas are bad.  Einstein said the same thing about his ideas.  That’s exactly why we need as many ideas as we can get.  With a 1% success rate, we had better be looking everyplace we can for those diamond ideas.

Argument 2. While the playtester is relating the suggestion, the designer could be contemplating other–presumably better–variants in his head.

Playtesters are the sole authority of their own experience.  There is not a single person in existence better qualified to comment on the player’s experience than the player herself.  We designers seek–and sometimes bribe or beg–her to share her experiences with us.  It is critical to gather as much of these as possible.

You certainly need to hang on to the ideas in your head.  It is equally important to hang on to the ideas coming from your testers.  You are going to have a hard time processing playtester feedback while your brain is off creating other variants.  And people can tell when you’ve checked out.  If you stop listening while they’re offering feedback, your testers will rightly choose not to return to your table.  Playtesters choose how to expend their energy.  They’ll choose the designer with the courtesy to respect their feedback.

It is for this reason that I always have my notebook open and ready to record.  I’m set to jot down my thoughts and feelings while still recording those of the testers.  “It felt like _____,” and “why would I ever_____,” and “this would be better if ______” are all data you need to capture.  Sort through them later. Remember that 99% of them are probably bad–both you ideas and theirs.  That’s why you need them all. Every single one of them.


Today, we debunked the first two arguments against soliciting playtester feedback.  On Tuesday, we return to examine the three which remain along with a sixth one which arose during my research.

How do you use playtester feedback?  What role would you give your playtesters?  Do you give them any directed instructions or do you encourage them to explore your game?  Or are you a laissez faire tester? Share with your fellow readers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create and account with WordPress and follow this blog.  If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.