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Matching Costs with Rewards in Game Procedures

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ananda's picture
Joined: 11/03/2019

Reposted for feedback/discussion

ananda wrote:

As a kid, I loved Risk. I played as many versions as I could find, and even made my own boards. Later, when I played Small World for the first time, I was struck by how streamlined it felt in comparison. Where combat in Risk was a tedious affair of endless dice rolling, combat in Small World was a simple matter of assigning enough units to a territory. Risk has a number of issues, but its biggest flaw for me has always been its sluggish combat system.

One of the most important differences between designing board games and designing computer games is that board games do not have a computer to do calculations or update the game state, so players have to do it themselves. This maintenance can be broken up into a series of simple procedures that follow each choice a player makes. Procedures can involve physical effort (such as shuffling cards, rolling dice, or moving components around) or mental effort (such as adding numbers, counting objects, or reading text).

Procedures are not the fun part of a game – they are the work that must be done in between the fun parts to keep the game moving. Each procedure represents a cost in time and effort to the players of the game. Some procedures are so quick and simple that they are unnoticeable. For example, the process of playing a card face-up on the table after choosing it is a procedure, but it is so trivial that the player will not even notice it. Other procedures are more cumbersome, and can drag down an entire game if not used appropriately. Resolving a procedure rewards players with the feeling that the game advanced in some meaningful way. When this reward is less than the cost of resolving the procedure, it starts to feel less like a game and more like work.

The combat system in Risk involves a series of dice rolls. In each roll, 1-2 of the armies engaged in a battle will be killed. If a battle has 10 armies on each side, it will take at least 5 rolls to resolve. The stakes of each battle are a single territory, out of forty-two that are required for victory (on the classic Risk board). Rolling dice is not a trivial procedure – it requires an element of manual dexterity and takes several seconds to resolve. On top of this, players must order each combatant’s dice from high to low and compare their values. And for all this effort, the battle isn’t even resolved – the players will have to repeat this process again and again until one side is defeated.

Contrast the battles of Risk with those of Dune, with its iconic Combat Wheels. In Dune, resolving a battle requires comparing treachery cards to see if a leader died, adding and comparing combat totals, and spending/gaining spice for troop support and killed leaders. The key difference is the stakes – encounters often involve between 1/5 and 1/3 of the victory condition (rather than 1/42), and can cripple the players involved. Players don’t mind executing expensive procedures when they have a proportional impact on the outcome of the game, because the effort feels justified.

The easiest way to estimate the cost of a procedure is by measuring how long it takes to resolve. The longer it takes, the more expensive it is. An added benefit of limiting expensive procedures to important game events is that it naturally reduces the playtime of the game, since important events are often less common than unimportant ones.

A good example of a common procedure that has a high cost and a low reward is shuffling a deck of cards. Shuffling is a complex procedure that takes several seconds, and often longer if the player doesn’t know any fast shuffling techniques. The reward for shuffling a deck of cards is the randomization of the deck, which has no visible impact on the game state. Shuffling a deck of cards does not feel like it has an impact on the game – it is just a chore. This is the part of deckbuilding games that I dislike the most, especially in the early game when players have only a dozen or so cards and are shuffling every 2-3 turns.

On the other end of the spectrum, end-game scoring is often the most complex procedure in the game. In games like 7 Wonders, there are so many things that need to be interpreted, counted, compared, added, subtracted, and sometimes even multiplied that the entire scoring procedure can take several minutes, during which players make no choices at all. Yet players tolerate end-game scoring because the payoff is finding out who won the game. Imagine instead a game that uses a similar scoring procedure every round to determine who goes first next round – players would get frustrated pretty quickly.

There are many tricks for reducing the cost of procedures without changing the nature of the game. My favorite involves computing income from controlled territories using tracks. A common mechanic in some old area control games like Risk determines a player’s income by counting the number of territories they control – a process which is quite expensive since it first requires identifying those territories on a cluttered board. The game Eclipse streamlines this process by having the player move cubes from three tracks on their player board to the planets they colonize, exposing numbers on those tracks that indicate their income. When it is time to collect, they just read off the highest number on each track.

Players tend not to be consciously aware of procedures when playing, but they do feel the impact when a game has procedures that are too expensive for their place in the game. Players want to be immersed in the game. Procedures that are too expensive remind players that the game is nothing more than bits of cardboard and plastic that only move because the player moves them.

Joined: 11/27/2019
Excellent post. I had to read

Excellent post. I had to read through three times to fully process all the information presented.

I hadn’t fully conceptualized the cost of procedures for games like risk, but i agree completely that there is a cost to executing procedures. Repetitive, non engaging tasks make for boring gameplay. Shuffling in particular, I agree is a non-engaging activity.

I think the tracking mechanism can be a challenging procedure that isn’t particularly rewarding and can detract from a game unless there is a continuous reason for it, such as you mentioned in Eclipse. As another example, Ticket to Ride tracking mechanism with low game weight players tends to have an issue with people tracking score, I find. In most games that I have played ( not with hobbyists, but family) players lose track(pun intended) or fail to keep score perfectly and I end up auditing at the end of the game. Tearing attention away from the fun part of the game to keep score can be a challenging feature for Low game weight players. Even with hobbyists, the time and attention spent on tracking can exceed gameplay and result in a sub optimal experience.

For my current game I am developing a tracking system that has an important result. At the end of a turn the player with the lowest score is awarded a title. The title has a rubber banding effect to benefit the player with an in game benefit and the player chooses who goes first (not theirself) next turn. Because the tracking is important each turn, players will make sure the result is correct and it won’t feel like a simple tracking mechanism.

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