The “Playfulness” Property of Strategy Games

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the properties that I appreciate the most in strategy games, and going through my collection of games I noticed a trend about my favorites. They all exhibited a high degree of an element called playfulness (term suggested by Keith Burgun, we talk a bit about it on his podcast here. Alternative names might be Smooth, Easy, Intuition-Rewarding and Streamlined)

To describe the property, let me first use a counterexample.  There is a common design aspiration to make games “simple to learn,but hard to master”. Games like Chess and Go embody this; they are both simple to learn (they have low inherent complexity/few rules) and hard to master/deep (they still exhibit a varied and interesting strategy space after a ton of intense study and play).

On the other hand, Caverna, StarCraft and Keyflower are quite complex and deep, but in my experience also don’t lend themselves to playfulness. In StarCraft, it can often feel like you are on a knife’s edge, and one wrong move can send the game spiraling out of control. In Caverna, it can often feel like there are large amounts of information you could be studying/calculating (like the building market), but don’t because it is overwhelming or tedious. (This can be a big problem if other players don’t mind the calculation).

So I’m not talking about simplicity/complexity, and I’m not talking about depth. (Although depth is  another property I aspire to in BrainGoodGames)

Instead playfulness refers to a property of games that encourages players to play with their gut/creatively, and minimizes the incentives to calculate/count/solve. Games that have this property include Race for the Galaxy, Wingspan and The Castles of Burgundy.

Race for the Galaxy is quite complex, and notoriously difficult to learn to play, but when I play I am often playing by feel rather than calculating out card probabilities or doing a lot of calculation. I think this in part can be attributed to the fact that you know some of the properties of the draw deck but not to an exhaustive degree.

The Castles of Burgundy also has quite a bit of inherent rules complexity, but gains a lot of playfulness by utilizing something I like to refer to as an “action funnel”. There are a ton of possible varied game states, actions and effects possible in the game, but on your turn you are constrained to actions that correspond to the values on the two dice you rolled. In this way you can focus your attention on a smaller part of the game system.

This player only has actions for a “3” and a “1” readily available to them (they can adjust them, but at an efficiency cost, so the heuristic to just focus on those values can be useful.

Wingspan also features an “action funnel” in that there are only 4 possible “main” actions available each turn (play a bird, or activate one of 3 habitats). In addition, it also features a system of “sub-goals” like “collect a bunch of birds with large wingspans” or “be the player with the most birds that have eggs on them”. It also features “sub-goals” on the bird cards themselves, such as a bird that encourages you to play birds with a certain nest type to gain more eggs.

“Sub-goals” on cards is also used by the 6-cost development cards in Race for the Galaxy, with similar effects. Players that are lost in the complexity of the game state can use the “sub-goals” as ready made heuristics to circumvent calculation and aid decision making. The labor-intensive process of picking through the huge decision tree can be circumvented with the expectation that the “sub-goals” are at least sometimes reasonable to pursue. (As the player plays more they can replace this rough heuristic with subtler/more context dependant ones)

Here are a few other game design techniques I have thought of that can contribute to playfulness (i.e encourage players to play with their gut):
Turn timers/real time games
-Simultaneous actions/”Yomi” mechanics/Donkeyspace
-Information horizon/ambiguity engines
-Trying to not punish player’s mistakes too harshly
-Increasing the complexity threshold until players give up calculating
-Using systems amenable to pattern recognition/chunking
-Avoiding snowballing mechanics
-Allowing risky play/”going all in”/comeback potential
-Thematic nudges (suggested by Keith Burgun) like having a cute, playful or unthreatening theme

I plan to elaborate on some of these in future articles, but hopefully you get a sense for the concept and why it might be useful to optimize for. I’d be very interested to hear any ideas you have about techniques for maximizing playfulness so please leave a comment, drop by the discord or tweet at me @brickroaddx.

Three Small Updates!

Did three small patches/hotfix updates this morning!

Militia 2 1.01m
-Added endless modes!
This one goes out to you Lord Gek!

Solar 1.07b
-Fixed small visual bug in card collection (deep space cards showing up twice)

Rolling 1.02b
-Moved second dice row down a bit to make it easier to click on the quick sun buttons

Working on an action-game type prototype right now,  which would be a first for BrainGoodGames! We’ll see where that goes, I’ll keep ya posted 🙂

Have a great Tuesday.

Militia Patch 1.01k is Live on Steam

Patch notes are here!

Polish update for Militia 2, and the final thing on the BrainGoodGames list before hunkering down with some new prototypes.

Future possible expansion ideas for Militia 2 are currently some “god” tiles like in Minos Strategos randomly added to the Weekly Challenge, “Endless Mode” and a “Daily Climb”.

Have a great Wednesday!

Solar Settlers Patch 1.07 and Rolling in the Reef Patch 1.02a are Live on Steam

Patch notes are here and here!

It was cool this week to be able to go back and dust off the cobwebs from both of these games after the Militia 2 launch (I have another update planned for that in the near future too, then back to NEW STUFF).

I feel very fortunate to be in a position where I can go back and tweak the games. It would feel pretty bad to have to leave them in a state I wasn’t 100% proud of.

As always, let me know if you have feedback about either of the patches or encounter any bugs or whatnot. And if you want updates when we release new BrainGoodGames and large updates for old ones, sign up for the mailing list here: https://braingoodgames.com/email.html It’s hugely appreciated!

Thanks for your support and for playing BrainGoodGames!

Patch 1.07 Live on Beta (Windows)

Holy cow, this might be the biggest patch I’ve ever made!!
To opt in and try out the changes:
Right click Solar Settlers in Steam -> Properties, Betas

GENERAL CHANGES
-Added flavor text to every card!
-XP Gain Multiplied by 1.5 (Game Bonus, Win Bonus, Rank Bonus Random Bonus and Fate Bonus)
-Added background art to Derelict Starship and Shifting Vista
-Added Expert Mode unlock cheat
-Added BrainGoodGames Current Update to main menu
-Void can no longer destroy settled worlds
-Added floatey text when you harvest a planet with Origin
-Added basic explore cards to Card Collection
-Scaled down # of games required for race unlocks
-Added last week weekly challenge leaderboard
-Tweaked asteroid Event

CARD CHANGES
-Buffed Wormhole to allow free moves on AND off
-Temple of Might is now free
-Waystation is now free
-Habitat factory is now only usable 1 time
-Added 1 Military to Proto-Formids and Sentient Fungus
-Added +1Military/settler to Mining Colony

-Replaced Sensitive Server Farm with Extraction Facility
Extraction Facility – 1 ore
:colonist: – Draw a Card, 1 oxygen 1 hydrogen
:colonist: :colonist: – destroy this world, 4 ore 6 hydrogen

BUG FIXES
-Fixed a bug with not gaining resources fast enough from Production abilities to meet Goal requirements
-Fixed clicking between Popups in tutorial
-Fixed a bug with step 29 of tutorial
-Fixed bug with Diligence Tribunal not checking whether it was settled
-Fixed being able to activate Nomadic Tribe for no effect
-Fixed bug with Mirror Anomaly and deep space Jungle Worlds
-Fixed bug with Goal prompt not showing up sometimes in Expert Mode Weekly Challenge
-Fixed bug with loading Therlunai scavenge values
-Fixed weird Weekly Challenge timing to be Saturday to Friday

Harshness in Games

Some random game design scribbles!

Games can feel “harsh” for a number of reasons, and although seasoned gamers have built up a tolerance for certain kinds of harshness, it can be off-putting for newcomers. Musing about it a little, a game can feel harsh because of:

Randomness seems to have too high of an effect on your fortunes, making the game feel capricious or arbitrary
-The game could have too high of a degree of Skill Compensation, making the game feel overly judgmental when you make mistakes
-The game can combine a long playtime with high endgame swings of fortune, which can make you feel like you have “wasted” time
-The game can feature prominent directed confrontation, leading to feeling singled out or ganged up on
-The game can have a lot of snowballing (common to engine building games) which can make early mistakes (when the player might still be learning) feel too important/punished too much
-The game can have a perceived forgone conclusion, where the outcome seems inevitable or almost inevitable (mitigated in some euro games by hiding victory points), and therefore the game seems pointless to continue

Have a great Wednesday,

Brett