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Special features, like adding abilities, worth it?

8 replies [Last post]
Joined: 12/31/1969

Many games (especially PC games) as we see nowadays add things like spells in a fantasy strategy game or abilities to units, or in a modern game special new units (Stealth bombers for ex.). This we also see in board games like axis and allies (the upgrades) or other board games.

I personally like adding these sort of things to my games, it adds new tactics, new choices and gives us players something to look forward to getting.

The downside I guess is that it also adds complexity to a board game. And although it gives a nice element (its always nice to use a powerful units with an nice ability or using that armaggedon spell), it brings trouble when playing the game.

I see it in two ways: there are gamers that like complex games like and some that don't. So the big issue we're facing, or at least I face when trying to implement those things is to find a balance between the amount of things added and difficulty.

So do any of you know a good method to apply when adding features to a board game.

Sander K.
Board game addict

Scurra's picture
Joined: 09/11/2008
Special features, like adding abilities, worth it?

This is a very interesting topic that causes all sorts of flashpoints.

The rule seems to be that adding complexity for the sake of coolness is a bad idea. Except when it isn't. Was that any help? :-)

Ultimately, it depends what you want from the game. All games produce unique situations - otherwise they'd be pretty dull. But there's a difference between a game in which the uniqueness is generated as a result of, say, the order in which buildings are chosen in Puerto Rico, and fighting off hordes of things in Doom or Descent. Both of these add elements of complexity to a game, but in general they will be appreciated by different types of gamers.

My favourite current examples are the changes Alan Moon made to Ticket to Ride to make the Europe version*. These all add complexity to the game, but they don't create extreme unique situations that may only occur once during all your plays. Instead, they change the way you approach the game, making certain tactical choices better or worse than they were in the original without changing the underlying game system.

I guess what I'm trying to say here is that adding complexity to a design is generally fine, unless it requires you to add a whole bunch of "special cases" to the ruleset that are only going to arise in rare circumstances. Far better to have additions that force strategies to take account of them because they are likely, but not certain, to arise.

(*actually, I still wonder if the Europe changes were actually a part of the original design and were stripped out as "unnecessary complexity"... A bit like the way the Seafarers stuff was stripped out of Settlers to make the basic game.)

Joined: 01/28/2009
Special features, like adding abilities, worth it?

Hi Sander,

These are some of the things I try to keep in mind when designing my games; however, I'm not sure how useful they are.

I try to add various special abilities to nearly all of my games. I think that they can add a lot of flavor to a game. The thing I always try to consider is what the ability adds to the game over all. On the game I am working on now, I have tossed out many very cool abilities because I don’t think they improved the game as a whole. I think that an ability should never appear to have been simply tacked on. I try to make them so they are imbedded into the core mechanics of the game. However, this does limit your ability to create expansion sets. I also try very hard to stay away from the basic flat abilities like (Plasma cannon: add +2 to damage, decrease range by one). I try to create abilities that are more dynamic and are very useful in some situations, and not so useful in other situations. This creates a more strategic dynamic. One difficulty I have found when creating abilities that are more situational in nature is that they are harder to balance against the other abilities. Also, there is a challenge in making sure it isn’t too hard to get them in place where they are very useful, just hard enough to add a little complication to the mix. Another thing I have found is that the more interesting and dynamic your abilities are, the less you need to incorporate into the game. That will help to keep the overall complexity down. Anyway, I’m just rambling.


Joined: 12/31/1969
Special features, like adding abilities, worth it?

I guess what I'm trying to say here is that adding complexity to a design is generally fine, unless it requires you to add a whole bunch of "special cases" to the ruleset that are only going to arise in rare circumstances.

Perfect, and exactly what I would have stressed as a response. This is vital. Your ruleset should be streamlined and all-encompassing. Certain game types (such as multiple-session wargames and RPGs, among others) can break this rule and have page after page of special-case scenarios, but these are special genres where this type of rules-micromanagement is generally adored by and expected by the players.

If you want to add flavour complexity to a boardgame (as opposed to strategic complexity, which comes from the interaction of game elements and can be complex even when the game elements are simple - chess, anyone? - then I would suggest using tables, cards, or some other out-of-the-rulebook element to communicate it to the player. This way, special features can be covered easily in the rulebook. Like this, for example: "To activate a special ability, play it's card face-up in front of you and follow the instructions on the card. You may only activate one special ability per turn." ...something like that.

1. You get to communicate everything you need.
2. The specific conditions created by the special abilities only come up if and when it gets played.
3. There is a handy instant rule reference which describes the new conditions created (the card itself, instead of flipping through the rulebook looking for details.)
4. It has (if you've designed the game carefully) zero impact on the "basic" ruleset.

There is obviously a bit more to making this work properly, and to making it feel like the "special abilities" deck is not just tacked onto the game but is integral to the gameplay. That's your job as the designer.

Players will eventually WANT to know what is on all of the cards in order to play the game well, but they don't NEED to know it in order to play the game in the first place. Sure, maybe the tiger-stance-rushing-claw attack does 3 extra damage points and causes the attacked player to miss his next attack, but that doesn't need to be in the rulebook. Put it on the cards, streamline the ruleset, simplify and complexify all at the same time.



Hedge-o-Matic's picture
Joined: 07/30/2008
Special features, like adding abilities, worth it?

I generally try to create a core system without frills first. Once the core is solid, interesting and fun, and has been playtested enough to reveal some of the emergent complexity of even the simplest rules, then the chrome can be cansidered.

So, for me, I generally take the opposite approach to Koshianok, and keep my more detailed rules for an "expansion" set or a varients section. Of course, I now design mostly abstracts, but the idea's the same. Take the GIPF project for example. The basic game, GIPF, can be played by itself just fine. The other games add the "potentials", extra pieces that may or may not complicate the basic game.

This brings up the point that some games are far more tolerant of this sort of rules layering. Abstracts are probably the least tolerant of disruption, since the whole idea is to have a balance between what is obvious (that Queen can take my rook) and what is emergent (and if I use my knight to put his king in check, I can then move my rook here, and fork his rook and queen, and be protected by my pawn and knight). The GIPF potentials are probably not a good example, since almost nobody seems to use them, so there's some argument that they aren't a good implementation of the idea. But that just shows you how tough it can be to alter the formula of an abstract.

Role-playing and miniature wargames, on the other hand, are fractal-like creations in that the rules can get infinatelycomplex. Remember Rifts? This game was a tangled mess when it first came out, and every product release just made it more snarled and unwieldy, and yet it was Fasa's top shelf game for years. Warhammer 40,000 is another example. Simple as the basic rules were, even the designers threw up their hands after the second edition became a grinding rule-a-thon to play.

I'd like to second Zaiga's thoughts on cards, since these can each be altered or discarded individually, thus making playtesting easier.

If additional rules or abilities are added, I'd urge you to test every single one of them individually first. Tedious? Maybe, but throwing them all in at once can break the game, and finding the exact cause will be far more tedious, and may not be so easy, considering the synergistic effect of every change.

Nestalawe's picture
Joined: 08/07/2008
Special features, like adding abilities, worth it?

I agree with the comments about creating a core set of mechanics that flow easily and are the guts of the game, and keeping the information regarding special abilities etc, where they are relevant.

OL's comments about having special ability info referred to on cards is spot on.

I have been working on all this kinda stuff for the main game I am working on. There are not really any explanations or details about any of the 'Abilities' in my ruleset, only the mechanics and 'how to play the game' (though the rules are *achem* still rather long...). All the informatin about the Abilities, where and when they are used, and what they do, is held elsewhere - currently on reference charts, maybe later on cards...

But, that doens't mean that Abilities are 'tacked on' in any way. In fact the growth and development of the various abilities players can gain is crucial to the game play and the strategies and tactics these Abilities lend themselves to should be what keeps players playing, and how players should develop their gameplay.

Also, there is always a lot of give and take, for you cannot really develop your Special Abilities etc, until you really understand how the game plays, or at least you (or at least I have...) have to keep 'refreshing' the Abilities to reflect changes to other parts of the game. But keeping th ecore mechanics 'simple' or unchanging, means you can play a lot more with how Abilities can affect the game.

And yes, then the other thing is balancing, and how to make sure Abilities are not abused when combined etc, thats a tricky one...

Joined: 12/31/1969
Special features, like adding abilities, worth it?

A lot has been said about creating a core system and adding extras in a way that makes them easier to remember and use (I like the cards for the special abilities). However there is also the issue of balance.

When adding new abilities and other extras it is important that they don't break the game, or become irelevent (the other side of imbalance is that the new content is not worth using). The best way I have found is to make sure that the addition has some situations that it is advantagious to be used in, some situations where it is detrimental to be used and some situations where the use of the unit/resource/choice could have some advanteges and some disadvantages (it is both good and bad to use it). This means that there will always be time where it is the most usefull, also time where you don't want to use it and most importantly ther are time where the use of it is very dependant on the potential situation of the game (rather than the immediate situation). This give the addon both tactical (immediat) and strategical (long term) aspects.

larienna's picture
Joined: 07/28/2008
Special features, like adding abilities, worth it?

Managing special abilities in a video game is easier because there is a computer behind the game that make all the computation and it does not forget anything.

If you make special abilities that influence battle, there might be a situation where you forget some abilities. For example, your unit was more resistant against archers, but you forgot that +2 bonus on your def. vs archer. So a problem with special abilitities is that if you have to make many verifications for each battle to apply all the special abilities, it will slow down the game and increase the errors.

But there are some kind of specialities that you are less likely to forget. For example, you will not really forget that your gargoyles can fly. Or that your lizard men can swim. In my war game, I somewhat new that all the fighter could intercept ennemy aircraft. In that case, the special abilities are more convenient.

If it is something that it can use, like instead of attacking ... do the special ability, you can still forget your ability but it won't create any rule errors. You just simply never took advantage of your special ability. Again, this kind of ability is more conventient (ex: does my priest fight or use the ability "heal" on an adjacent unit )

Nestalawe's picture
Joined: 08/07/2008
Special features, like adding abilities, worth it?

There are definately useful differences between 'Useable' Abilities and 'Passive' Abilities, where anything that is passive is easy overlooked. This can of course be the case in other areas of the game where there are exceptions to rules, or rules that players must remember to enfore in particular situations.

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