Penalties Over Rewards

A wonderfully lively discussion has arisen around the “Rewards, Not Penalties” column.  It’s been particularly difficult to remain quiet while knowing that today’s column was coming.

You see, Luther read my last article before I posted it.  Two days later, he sent a rebuttal.  The italicized paragraphs which follow are entirely in his words.  This rebuttal is a testimonial to the nuances of in game design.  The post was written to share his “rewards over penalties” philosophy with the world. Luther stepped in to remind me that there are absolutely no absolutes.

Penalties Over Rewards

I wanted to expand some on the idea of “bonuses are better than penalties.” Reading your writing about it had it back on my mind, and I was reevaluating my thoughts about it. I still agree with the general idea that bonuses are more emotionally pleasing than penalties, but I wanted to think about “okay, when are appropriate times to use penalties?” I came up with three major categories.

1) Clarity

Sometimes it’s way easier to express a mechanic as a penalty than as a bonus. If you have a game where you move slower for each wound you’ve taken, it’s much easier to express that as a penalty than trying to say you get a speed bonus for every wound you haven’t taken. Other times it’s more about frequency; if you need an attack that does less damage to blue monsters, it’s awkward to say “bonus to non-blue monsters”.

2) Using bonuses with penalties

Using a bonus along with a penalty takes a lot of the sting out of the penalty. If your sword is +2 against fire but -2 against water, or your shotgun is minus accuracy but plus damage, that can use penalties to massage a mechanic without just “feeling bad”, because hey, check out that upside right there.

3) Evoking emotion

This is the big one, I think. The major issue with using a penalty instead of a bonus is that it evokes negative emotions instead of positive. If you’re a mighty superhero, you want that player to feel powerful and strong. Sometimes, though, it makes sense to try and evoke a different feeling in the game mechanics. In a gritty zombie survival game, where you’re accruing penalties left and right, it’s going to feel tough. You’re going to feel like it’s harsh. And that’s the way the game wants you to feel.

So yeah. Generally I still feel like if a penalty can be rewritten as a bonus, that bonus should be the default. But there’s certainly appropriate times to use penalties too. They’re all tools in the toolbox, and there’s no shame in being an Allen wrench instead of a screwdriver.

How do you employ rewards and penalties in your games?  Which do you employ more?  Which do you prefer?  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.  If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.


Designing Microgames–Duel, Part 5

The Story So Far…

A new microgame is in development.  Duel supports two players, each with a deck of about 20 cards.  Players have a hand of 4 cards and may (1) play a card into an empty space, (2) play a card onto an enemy card, or (3) move a card one space.  After this, the player refills her hand.  The game ends if a player is down to 3 or fewer cards in hand and chooses to end it.  The player controlling the majority of a 3×3 grid wins.

Kevin (APE Games) Brusky has given the prototype a look and wants to proceed together.  APE Games will release the game in two-player packs containing two unique armies.

Card abilities have been categorized into five broad groups–teamwork, individualist, movement, card manipulation, exotic.  It is time to start codifying the rules and creating decks.


Making The Rules

I like to get rules written down as soon as possible no matter what sort of game is being developed.  These rules will get overhauled from time to time but they are a good progress marker nonetheless.  For reference, here they are in toto.

Duel Rules 3-0


Creating Pirates & Sea Monsters

As the first sets for the game, I tried to keep these two relatively straightforward.  Their abilities should be fairly easy for a beginning player to comprehend yet still offer some depth for experienced players.  I ultimately kept most cards extremely similar to the original navy set.  To give each deck its own flavor, these abilities were split between the sets.  The Pirates got support abilities–found on “Anne Bonny,” “Redbeard,” and “Dagger.”  The Sea Monsters got the old explosive Mine in the form of “Whirlpool” and a reveal power in the “Pilot Fish.”  Both decks got movement abilities–found on the Pirate “Calico Jack” and the Sea Monster “Tiger Shark.”

An attempt was also made to balance each deck in gross strength–the Pirates have a total card strength 100 and have support powers.  The Sea  Monsters have a total card strength 109 but no support and single use “Whirlpools.”


The Pirates

Pirates Page 1 Pirates Page 2 Pirates Page 3


The Sea Monsters

Sea Monsters Page 1 Sea Monsters Page 2 Sea Monsters Page 3


Initial Testing

Their first playtests revealed that these decks were not fully balanced.  This is perfectly natural.  If anything, I would have been more worried had we failed to find any areas for improvement. Iterative play with a steady stream of adjustments has and always will be the secret to game development.

We’ll take a look at where the imbalances appeared and how we adjusted the game in response to those imbalances next time.  See you Friday!


What’s your favorite Microgame?  What do you like best about it?  Have you written one? How did your players respond to it?  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 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.