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Could avoiding unique abilities be beneficial for the designer and the player?

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larienna's picture
Joined: 07/28/2008

It's always been hard to know which game I like and which game I am more skilled to design. I could set aside certain game mechanics (Ex: I hate auction and worker placement game) or use certain criteria ( Ex: Games with few players and solo options). But even then I end up with games I dislike or with design ideas that reaches dead end.

Now there is new criteria I have discovered lately that is the notion of unique or special abilities. Games have a different level of unique abilities, normally expressed as text, but that can also be expressed as icons (ex: Race for the galaxy). How the ability is expressed is irrelevant. Some games has few abilities which are reused very often, this is what I call common abilities. They are in between both extremes. This is why a scale could be made to determine the uniqueness of the abilities. Here is an example of scale using games from my collection that people are most likely to know.

1. Carcasonne: there is really no special powers. Expansions can add new mechanics, but there is rarely unique abilities.
2. Settlers of catan: The development cards have common abilities: Most of them are knight and victory points, plus 3-4 other ability cards which is easy to remember.
3. Puerto Rico: There are common ability production buildings, and many optional unique violet buildings. After a few games, you will know them, but a new player could be overwhelmed.
4. Elder Sign: There is a lot of special outcome and abilities, but many cards like assets have standardized effects: add a red die, yellow die, lock X dices, etc.
5. Mage Wars Academy: Every player have unique cards with abilities of their own.

Now, when browsing my game ratings, I realized that for all games I rated 7+, 2/3 of games had little special abilities (rating 1 and 2 on the scale above). And if I had to dispose/trade certain games, I would more likely do it for games in the 3-5 rating on the scale above.

So I have been wondering if unique abilities could actually be a problem. Maybe I should try to avoid games with special abilities in both game purchase and game design. Unique abilities are "attractive" and it makes you feel special when you have it. But it could be a game designer's nightmare and could potentially hide an unbalanced or broken game play.

Here are the possible problems I could foresee for the designer and the player:

A) Problems for the designer
* It's difficult to see the interaction between game elements. Unique abilities are not goin to occur often, so it's very likely to be bugged or that some ability combination could not be anticipated.
* It's hard to balance unique abilities with each other. It's very difficult to determine the value of an ability if they are very different in nature and have no mathematical content.
* It's difficult to see the possibility space that can be covered by those abilities. Unique abilities either modifies rules or the status of the game. Game status can be covered relatively well by listing all possible game elements that can be modified and picking from the list. On the other hand, for game rules, it's hard to see all possible permutations which can leave holes in the abilities you could have been designed.

B) Problems for the players
* It takes more time to understand how the game works. For example, in Battle Star Galactica, I did not know that a deck of cards, only had cards that depleted fuel. It took be a few turns to realize that.
* There could be more confusion or misunderstanding in the unique ability. For example, a single word like "must" vs "may" could change the whole meaning of the text ability.
* It more complicated to make variants or expansions without breaking a unique rule. I like making variant, when a game have special cards, either you must ensure compatibility or remove game components.
* The game is less fluid unless the players are experienced with the game. According to the box, Mage Wars Academy takes 30 min to play. When I played my first game with my friend who never played, it took us 3 hours.

Do you share my idea that games with unique abilities are more complex to play and design?

Do you see other issues with such games?

Do you try to avoid those games, or do you love unique ability games?

If you design games, do you try to avoid special abilities?

Joined: 04/18/2018
Variable Powers

It may just come down to personal preference, but I usually prefer games with asymmetric powers. Root, Cosmic Encounters, Gloomhaven, Spirit Island, Dice Throne, Magic the Gathering, Santorini, D&D (and virtually every take on RPGs out there which involve multiple classes, leveling options, etc.), all offer variable powers to one extent or another. Done well, these variations provide replayability, customization, and diversity which can make each playthrough feel different. However, done poorly, asymmetric games can feel unbalanced and janky.

Are games like these more complex to play and design? They certainly can be! However, a game with a simple design may be easy to play, but how often do you break out checkers or tic-tac-toe with any enthusiasm? As for design complexity, often extra effort can lead to great results. Just look at the top 20 games on BGG, and you'll find a lot of complexity brought to life by some great designers. Did Gloomhaven really need all 17 characters? Many would shout, hell yeah, it did! That diversity is part of the appeal.

Other issues with complex games often include longer times to teach, setup, teardown, more components, etc. But again, done well, these extras are worth it for many gamers.

In general, I am highly attracted to games with variable abilities or powers. They give you something deeper to explore that go beyond the base mechanisms. It stretches my mind in different ways to consider how I might overcome challenges with a new set of abilities versus the abilities I had the last time I played the game.

I do design games, and I almost can't think in terms of NOT having special abilities for each player. Perhaps this goes back to my early days with role playing games. I don't approach these design challenges as agonizing extra work, but with a passion to look at my game from a variety of different angles and playstyles. For example, I'm designing a game that has a Barbarian as one of the characters you can choose. (It's not called a Barbarian in my game, but that's beside the point.) However, I not only want that character to play differently than the Elementalist, but I also want the player to be able to customize a unique build for that Barbarian! Yes, definitely more design work, but also more options and replayability for each player.

One final thought: Games like Chess have simple mechanisms, but are deep and complex in execution. Back when I played AD&D, there was a player's handbook, dungeon master's guide, monster manual, and multiple modules you had to buy, all sold separately. (That was decades ago - not sure how it's all packaged these days.) Chess fired my intellect, but AD&D captured my imagination. Chess offered the choice of white or black. AD&D offered race, class, weapon and spell options, and a story-driven arc that fuels my designs to this day. Complex? Sure. But my most memorable gaming moments have come from complex designs.


questccg's picture
Joined: 04/16/2011
The biggest HURDLE is "Game Adoption"

The problem with all kinds of Asymmetric Abilities, Variable Player Powers, and such, etc. Is that it adds a very "un-appealing" LAYER of complexity.

Most players don't want to take LESSONS in HOW-TO play your game. Nobody wants to have to search and find combos that work well between two (2) or more cards ... Because that's how they were designed.

Granted it is COOL as all HECK!

Some PLAYERS will embrace it... And spent off-hours looking through a couple hundred cards and customize their Decks to make perfect "machines" that have some kind of "strategy" ... And that is real cool ... But not everyone will WANT to do this.

I have been working on something similar ... After yet another "set-back". Nothing overly dramatic ... I have to re-think the game: WHAT is it that I WANT this game to be, represent and/or to offer the players?

My "Angle": IF you only have a Micro Deck of fifteen (15) cards. Anyone can take 5 minutes to read over 15 cards and maybe understand what they can do... But hands only have 5 cards ... So no Analysis-Paralysis ... You just need to CHOOSE three (3) cards to play.

So keeping it TRIM, simple and limited scope to allow players to EMBRACE their Decks and seek out more cards to fully customize their Decks.

Maybe this approach in such "piece-meal" fashion may get more Gamers on-board ... IDK. We'll have to see soon enough.

But I agree "Game Adoption" when there is just TOO MUCH to sort through, read and understand how things work together ... Is just TOO DEMANDING. There is also the FLIP side of things: it's very cool to be able to EVEN HAVE such an option...

That's MY angle... Just do it...! Cheers.

Joined: 09/24/2020
great topic

I absolutely agree with Tom, also great game examples.

Additionally, I would argue that asymmetry and special powers do not necessarily entail extra rules/complexity. The already mentioned Gloomhaven or Spirit Island have a huge deal of asymmetry while there are no additional rules for different components. The strength of these games is that they have very strong core mechanics and then each character can leverage on different bits to achieve success. As these are cooperative games, this is the only thing that makes it almost impossible to have an alpha player taking all decisions (which happens in pandemic and other less asymmetric coop games).
In Kemet(competitive), the way in which other players are distributing their powers in the pyramids and taking power tiles you wanted for themselves, forces an asymmetric game even starting from exactly the same initial configuration (everybody has the same cards and units!). And it works great, it means that you simply cannot do the same things every time you play, it keeps your brain actively trying to find different solutions!

In non asymmetrical games, there can be things which are, generally speaking, "better". There most likely will be a better winning strategy (if a player always follows that strategy, they will have a higher chance of winning than players not doing that).
Cards will be more or less powerful, therefore also luck has more impact.
Adding asymmetry, this is not true anymore. The super powerful dragon sword is not anymore the "best" weapon because it has the highest damage: A character specialised in fast attacks will prefer something that fits that play style better and a somebody specialised in ranged attacks will want something else still. It creates variety and replayability.

(by the way I recently taught chess to my gf and tried playing with the same handicap in terms of score, but different ways to distribute the score...totally different playstyles!)

Anyway, this must also be a matter of personal taste! I am quite impressed you (Iarienna) did some statistics on your top games in order to learn something on what you like, very clever attitude...I'll try to do something similar myself as well!


larienna's picture
Joined: 07/28/2008
Games can still be asymmetric

Games can still be asymmetric and not have unique abilities. For example, having various combinations of stats.

I also want to take re-playability into consideration. Games like chess could be annoying after some time. But just giving the player 1 special unique ability for the whole game could change the game play for the player. You don't need tons of them.

In dungeons and dragons, it's less an issue because you are playing against the dungeon master who does not want to win. So if your special powers are too abusive, the game master will be frustrated at most. It also applies to single player and coop games, if a power is too abusive, it will make the game too easy, but it just ruin your own experience, it is not unfair.

It's more problematic in multi-player game, if a player get an abusive power, it kick out all other players from the race to victory.

questccg wrote:
The problem with all kinds of Asymmetric Abilities, Variable Player Powers, and such, etc. Is that it adds a very "un-appealing" LAYER of complexity.

You remind me of Arkham Horror 2nd ed., where I did a quick play test with my game by removing all the equipment, combat, rolls, etc, and just focused on the core mechanics. I realized that the game is just about moving in a gate, survive and close the gate. The core mechanic itself was pretty boring, but the chrome was added to hide those core mechanics.

questccg's picture
Joined: 04/16/2011
That's because some games are designed in LAYERS too...

larienna wrote:
You remind me of Arkham Horror 2nd ed., where I did a quick play test with my game by removing all the equipment, combat, rolls, etc, and just focused on the core mechanics. I realized that the game is just about moving in a gate, survive and close the gate. The core mechanic itself was pretty boring, but the chrome was added to hide those core mechanics.

Like I have a "core" idea: we travel around and close gates. Next I'll say that we add that you must "survive and encounter at each gate". And that's the "core" concept and how it resolves. PERIOD.

Then the designer will be like: "Isn't that too simple???" And then after some thought, "Indeed we need to ADD something to make the game LESS direct!"

Okay so the add "Combat with rolls" and maybe some locations give you Money and others give you Items and some places you can spend Money to buy Equipment, etc.

And that's the OTHER "layer" which gets added to hide the simplicity of the overall design. What you are doing at the "core" ... Isn't the most exciting of things to do... But given a 2nd layer things to collect and hunt down Monsters (Combat) ... May actually make for a pretty good game.

So kudos for you to understand that AT THEIR CORE, most games are SIMPLE. The ones that involve massive amount of "story" ... Are engaging to some, but for the most part ... very challenging to design ... Because you NEED so much content to be able to document a BOOK-worth of events and actions.

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