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Boardgame's 3 act structure

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tikey's picture
Joined: 03/31/2017

I've just finished reading the Kobold Guide to Board Game Design. And in one of the articles mentions this framework of the three act narrative structure applied to Board Games.
I found it interesting as it resonated with an issue I've been having with my own game where the whole game feels just like a long middle act that suddenly ends.
I've been trying different ways to build up to a more satisfying conclusion but I'm finding it hard as the mechanics don't change during the game so you do the same kind of things at the start of the game until the very end.
Have you faced a similar situation? How did you resolve it?

Anyway, I thought it was an interesting concept so I wanted to share it with you lovely people.
Have you thought about your game in terms of narrative structure?

X3M's picture
Joined: 10/28/2013
Of course!

I love wargames.
But I also love RTS games.

And I sort of copied RTS games in several aspects.

A RTS game has 3x3 phases if you will:
- Building up your resource management.
- Building your base. to your preferences.
- Training an army.
- Attacking and/or defending against the enemy.
- Taking the middle of the field if possible and/or tactical.
- Adept forces to your opponents.
- Destroying the last defences.
- Destroying the enemies resource management.
- Destroying the enemies base.

Phases in these games can overlap greatly. It is wise to make sure that the most important phases (the game) are indeed a bit longer. But not too long either.

I could go into depth with each phase. But lets say that I follow a hill concept here.

The beginning phase is like 1,2,3 rounds for the sub phases.
The middle is more or less like 4,4,4.
The end phase can actually revert the whole flow of the game for attacker and defender. The roles can reverse. However, this is only possible, because the defender kinda follows 3,2,1.

The beginning is relatively fast. Otherwise it would be boring and induce a snowball effect.
The middle depends on the beginning. But can also be changing a lot.
The end can be relatively fast, have a pause or reverse the flow. It is a mirror of the beginning.

questccg's picture
Joined: 04/16/2011
Not because I'm bragging ... I'm just sharing...

In TradeWorlds there is a "Starship" TRACK on the Power Chart. At the start of the game, you get ZERO (0) Starships... As such everyone is peaceful building their Deck and accumulating credits. Now each "Scenario" has "unlocking" rules for Starships. Say for example if you hit 10 credits, you earn one (1) starship... Then another phase starts which is early space warfare with the other players Homeworlds. This is the early players since not everyone may have unlocked their FIRST starship...

The game can be really HOSTILE! Like if three (3) players each have one (1) starship and one player has NONE, a joint-attack could create a SERIOUS blow to the one player that had no starship to protect him.

Obviously this is very AGGRESSIVE play... But that's they thing: play styles and aggressiveness may vary. But your 3 Act Narrative is present in that what you do EARLY is different than what you do in the MIDDLE and what you do in the END. A joint-attack may be launched against the LEADING player to oust him from the game (for example). He may be rushing to win the game by CREDITS... (In the Tradewars scenario the goal is to be the first player to accumulate 100 credits).

So I fully get that. But some games which are "SIMPLER" in nature may not have all three (3) acts. They may offer different strategy sometimes based on cards you get "later" in the game... But again this is largely related to shuffling and random deck draws.

Therefore I would say, don't worry IF your game doesn't have this 3 Act Narrative... Some games don't have this and usually they are TIGHTER games with mechanics that MESH well and can provide strategic depth and exciting "combos" or plays ... Well then the game has enough to stand on it's own... It doesn't necessarily need to have progression.

I am specifically thinking about "Monster Keep" (MK). My current WIP (Work-In-Progress). It's a 2 player duel, so both player START with the same amount of cards (24 each). But as play goes along, some cards may go to the Graveyard, others may get "STOLEN" (Sometimes you KEEP the opponent's card) and generally speaking there are LESS and LESS cards in the player's Deck.

But the nature of the game doesn't change from the beginning to the end. What CHANGES is what a player may do in one ROUND. This depends a bit on LUCK and also what strategy he plans to use. There are also TWO (2) RPS-3 which govern BONUS points that can also impact the score and are a bit luck and bit "clairvoyance" (mind reading)...

How players PLAY a round is what ADDS "excitement" and that's about the same through-out the game.

The important FACT is: try to design a game that is FUN to play.

I know FUN is RELATIVE... But I've worked on designs in the past that just SUCKED. They were boring, not enough card play, not enough strategy, no decision trees, no analysis or hand management, etc. When you have a FUN game, you'll know it. You'll be like: "Hmm... This is INTERESTING!" Or "Hmm... I'd play this again..."

Note #1: Also GAME DURATION may also have a impact on this three (3) Act Narrative. If a game takes 30 minutes from start to end... Well it has less "meat-on-the-bone" than a game that takes 90 minutes. I would say LONGER games "could" get boring if the gameplay feels all the same. Shorter games which are clever and quick ... may not suffer from not having a "Beginning, Middle and End Phases" (or styles of play...)

But I fully support the concept ... My "TradeWorlds" does this factually.

questccg's picture
Joined: 04/16/2011
I'll give some examples to illustrate the difference

Take the game UNO. The game doesn't change once the player knocks on the table saying He/She has only one card left, right? Players will still play cards and try to get the opponent to draw cards because they don't have the correct number or color. And it's beginning and middle are also identical.

I think in this type of SHORT 30 minute game, it's more about the tightness of the mechanics and clever gameplay which make the game FUN to play. Alright UNO is not the most FUN game around... Nevertheless my point is made.

How about Doug's Window Pains. Each turn you need to match one Rosette with another pane of the same color to score points. Nothing changes between start, middle or end. Sure during the game players will be trying to optimize their turns and TRY to bank more "End-of-game" Victory Points ... But it's like that throughout the game.

This is another SHORT 30 minute game, where it's about color matching and secretly not revealing your "special objective" color suit. But the game looks like a TON of FUN and at each turn, you have decisions to make.

Now compare this with Jamey Stegmaier Scythe. Although I have not played it personally, I did discuss the game at a Game Night with someone who had played it several times and told me that the Mech battles normally occur at the end of the game when there are territorial disputes but for the majority of the game, the game is NOT about Mech combat. What is the start and middle of the game is "optimal moves" trying to maximize your economy as much as possible.

This is a LONGER 90 minute game, where some people may be SURPRISED if they see the Box Cover and say: "Wow this looks like a Mech Battle game." Well it's not really... Like I said there are battles but that's not the primary function or goal of the game.

Another game is my TradeWorlds (TW). TW has clearly different strategies from Beginning to End. And they are all very different. There are weaknesses that can occur at various times and sometimes (most times) it's a question of capitalizing on those weaknesses. It's not always about focusing one the player you choose... It's a question of who is most vulnerable (Early) and then in the Middle (some kind of cooperation could be established) and then in the End (targeting the player in the lead, for example).

This too is a LONGER 90 minute game. And what's you'll notice is that at the start while you build your Deck, it's about getting more cards. Then later on it's getting your starships out there and at the end (or middle-end) you can focus on optimizing your Deck to be more performing (as an aggressive player may do). Again it depends on players and how aggressive they are. The bottom line is that gameplay psychology and thinking change as the game evolves.

So it's VERY important to see these as TWO (2) DISTINCT "beasts", each one with different restrictions and timing of a game is a huge factor about how much one can have UNADULTERATED FUN smacking your opponent around versus building a strong Deck for more optimal play.

And both those types of games appeal to very different audiences even if there might be some overlap.

Tim Edwards
Tim Edwards's picture
Joined: 07/30/2015
I think this 3 act feature

I think this 3 act feature tends to appear organically in most games where you're required to prepare/ develop/ build (up) something before you can act effectively - whether you're building engines, decks, hands, opening positions, gaining knowledge (about your opponents probable ambitions, for example) So, it's probably not something always to TRY to create. Not all games have it or, as Questccg said, need it. And those that do have it, usually just have it because it's a natural consequence of the kind of things I mentioned above.

That said, my current project (a Muay Thai card game) didn't have that 3 act sense in its first iterations and that was a problem because it was thematically important that it did. Early rounds to feel out - middle rounds to get the upper hand - last round to get the KO if losing, or survive if winning.

It took ages for me to come up with a system that produced that 3 act model. I even considered contriving it with rules because it seemed so essential. But In the end - luckily -, I realised a system where you could develop your hand of available techniques - and also your supply of Power Chits needed to execute those techniques - which produced a situation where a 3 act pattern was a natural consequence, albeit, as X3M mentioned, those phases are overlapping and flexible.

Interesting thread!

questccg's picture
Joined: 04/16/2011
Happens organically during each ROUND

Tim Edwards wrote:
...It took ages for me to come up with a system that produced that 3 act model...

See your 3 act model that you developed for your game ... Is something so inherent in my "Monster Keep" (MK). See in MK you draw 1 card from your Deck and then you roll a custom 1d6 to determine how many ADDITIONAL cards you will draw for that ROUND.

And then where you have that Beginning, Middle and Ending 3 Act Narrative through-out the game... Well it happens in EVERY one of my ROUNDS.

How? Why? It's because if you have 2 cards (rolled a +1) well the first TURN of the ROUND is "choosing your Monster". That's the FIRST step and is your "Beginning". Once both players play a card face down... Simultaneously BOTH players REVEAL their "Monster".

That's when the 2nd TURN starts. And by Jove, you could be in a real BAD position (on the negative side of BOTH RPS-3). You may be facing a real strong opponent. But that all happened BEFORE. NOW what you need to do is figure out "What's the BEST Move" to try to DEFEAT the opponent's Monster or how to best PROTECT my own Monster. Same deal, secretly choose one (1) Enhancement and play it face down. Simultaneously reveal again.

And when the LAST card is played (based on turns)... That's when the tally shows who is the victor or is it a tie, etc.

So this 3 Act Narrative happens each round in MK. And you better believe that it's a THRILLING process for Johnnies!

BTW @Tim you should post an update about your Muay Thai Boxing Game ... I'd like to hear where you are at, the new developments (by the sounds of it you've had to re-think some aspects of the game)... Anyways it would be cool if you could share some of your game...


Tim Edwards
Tim Edwards's picture
Joined: 07/30/2015
Yup, I should do that soon.

Yup, I should do that soon. Having finished one design, I more or less started from scratch and made a significantly different system.

To reiterate my general point - which I tried to write tired, in bed, on an iPad: I think probably a lot of games that have this inherent 3 act structure do so because they contain some kind of 'invest' and 'spend' decisions.

With this, it almost inevitably makes sense that at the beginning, we'll be mostly investing, then we'll be doing a mixture of spending and investing - the balance depending on your strategy + other factors (the middle act), and in the final act we'll have almost no interest in investment because you want to leave it all in the ring, as they say.

I'll try to say something about my game soon. But I've tried to design a system which has the characteristics described above. Thanks for the interest! :)

Juzek's picture
Joined: 06/19/2017
I read Kobold's Design Book this week too!

I got it for Christmas. The author criticized Euros for only being one long 2nd act, and I disagree. Even if the turns are all taken the same, the first act is just trying to get an edge, and understand the game play, The second is where someone pulls ahead and is the leader, and the third is when you can see the end of the game in sight.

Some games are very obvious. In Betrayal in the house on the hill the first to second act is a big event called the Haunt. In 7 Wonders, it is literally a 3 act game.

Dominion does a good job of making the lines blurred, but at some point you decide to only buy victory points, and that seems pretty 3rd act-ish.

tikey wrote:
I've been trying different ways to build up to a more satisfying conclusion but I'm finding it hard as the mechanics don't change during the game so you do the same kind of things at the start of the game until the very end.

The turn structure and mechanics are good to stay the same, but you can generate excitement by changing the situation you take the turns in.

How does your game end? Could you obscure it? Perhaps multiple paths trigger the end, so no one is exactly sure if it will be their last round.

Also, is it possible to obscure who is winning in the middle? either with hidden points, or some difficult-to-calculate end scoring, that may make it more up in the air?

I'm curious to know more about your game, otherwise I'm just shooting in the dark, or talking to my past-self who made a lot of simulations, and few games.

tikey's picture
Joined: 03/31/2017
From what I've gathered we

From what I've gathered we could say that there's a "natural" progression that games have that sometimes mirrors that of the 3 arc structure. I guess we could describe a setup-conflict-conclusion gameplay structure in most games.

What you helped me realize is that progression isn't just mechanical, so while individual actions might be the same trough the game the consequences of those actions and the relationships to other components/mechanics is changing constantly, and there are also some other tricks to force a sense of conclusion, taking again the UNO example, having to say that you have one card left forces the urgency of the end and gives that coherent sense of conclusion if the player manages to finish the game, so there's a bit of a mechanical trick there and that might be what's missing from my game rather than a change of gameplay.

@Juzek: This is my almost abandoned game.
Here's a post with the rules and a link to a tabletopia version of the game (WIP).

I think the issue with my game lies somewhere in the win condition. I have a few experiments on my mind to see if I can shake things up.
The idea that I think has more potential is to have separate decks for each player and to have the game end when one player is left without cards. That might put more pressure on players and create a more visual reminder of the ending for the players.

Amazing stuff, thanks for the replies!

Rick-Holzgrafe's picture
Joined: 07/22/2008
Euros can be three-act

Expanding on what tikey said above: A well-designed engine-builder type Eurogame definitely has three acts. This is the kind of game I am usually trying to design. Railways of the World offers an excellent example: the first act is getting some railroad track on the board, to make a few early deliveries and start some income coming in; this is the "startup phase" of your railroad. The second act is "expansion": expanding your tiny initial railroad until it covers a fair portion of the board. In the third act, your railroad is mostly complete, and instead of continuing to expand you are milking what you have already built for maximum victory points.

For those who may be thinking that there needs to be something in the rules to define the three acts: no, you don't need that. In RotW, it's a natural progression.

It's a good design because you really shouldn't want a two-hour-plus game to be just "doing the same thing" the whole time: that of course is the whole point of the "three-act" structure. The important realization is that it's not the rules that make the difference: the same small set of actions is fine for the entire game, provided that they can be used for different sub-goals, and provided that the problems players must solve change throughout the game. So in RotW, the first act is about getting established; you may not be interacting much with other players. In the second act, the "expansion" phase, you are acutely aware of your competition, who will be getting in your way as you try to build into new areas of the board. In the third act, the competition for the remaining high-VP deliveries is the focus.

ceethreepio's picture
Joined: 04/01/2019
This is a fascinating topic,

This is a fascinating topic, and one I've been looking into recently. I've been reading "The Seven Basic Plots" by Christopher Booker

The book categorises all stories as belonging to one of 7 plots; "Overcoming the Monster", "Rags to Riches", "The Quest", "Voyage and Return", "Comedy", "Tragedy", and "Rebirth".

The book explores each of these plot types and describes how all modern films and literature are retellings of the stories. I'm interested in this to see if I can make the game tell a better "story".

But I'm also taking the 3-act narrative quite literally too for my game.

In my war game, every player's faction has a goal. For example, the Martians is "Cure the nasty 7 diseases on the planet". So the 1st act is building up enough Fighting Machines and getting enough humans to eat to survive. The 2nd act is curing the diseases by collecting antibodies. But at this point I wasn't sure how to end it. Similar games use Victory points. I hate Victory Points*.

Now, whenever I have a problem I can't solve I just ignore it and work on something else. I figure I'll find the solution when I stop looking for it. As I was building out the "Loki and his Children" faction, I realised I needed Ragnarok as a part Loki's story/game. Loki hates the Norse Gods, who treat him terribly so triggering Ragnarok is totally inkeeping with his story and character. It's also just too funny not to have.

Now I'd already designed a faction around the story "The Call of Cthulhu", featuring explorers who travel the world looking for R'yleh (Cthulhu's home). Once they found it, the Investigators get eaten by Cthulhu who then goes on a rampage. This faction was unusual in that it had two boards (investigators/cthulhu), and changed the game's win condition if Cthulhu was awake. It sat a little uncomfortably with the other factions.

Finally I realised how to merge all these things - the 3-act structure. Every faction needs a "end game" final act, not just Loki and the Investigators. The Martians need to colonise Earth, the Deep Ones must summon Dagon, Loki causes Ragnarok, Captain Nemo drowns the world, etc.

The final piece in the story framing is all the other players, who didn't reach their "End Game", join forces and are now allied against the player who did.

Well, at least, that's the plan, for the moment. Time will see if it works.




BACKGROUND: A darkened lair. Goldfinger sits in a chair behind an expensive wooden desk, stroking a cat.
DOOR: Explodes! A guard crashes through the door, and lies there unconscious. Bond walks through the door.
BOND: Mishter Goldfinger.
BOND: It'sh over Goldfinger.
GOLDFINGER: For once you are right Mr Bond. For I, have 25 Victory points!
BOND: What? That'sh imposshible? I only have 23!
Goldfinger looks on smugly.
BOND: ****.
The cat looks on smugly.
BOND: Alright, another time Goldfinger.
Bond turns around, walks to the door, pauses, shoots the unconscious guard, and walks out.


Jay103's picture
Joined: 01/23/2018
"Do you expect me to

"Do you expect me to talk?"

"No, Mr. Bond, I expect to gain 3VP from your death."

tikey's picture
Joined: 03/31/2017
Finally I realised how to

Finally I realised how to merge all these things - the 3-act structure. Every faction needs a "end game" final act, not just Loki and the Investigators. The Martians need to colonise Earth, the Deep Ones must summon Dagon, Loki causes Ragnarok, Captain Nemo drowns the world, etc.
The final piece in the story framing is all the other players, who didn't reach their "End Game", join forces and are now allied against the player who did.

That does sound interesting. Cthulhu vs Ragnarok.

If you're interested in narrative devices, Campbell's work on the Hero's Journey is seminal. I don't have the materials here with me, but once I get home I can look at some other recommendations.

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