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.

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

Solar Settlers 1.05b, Axes 1.07a and Coral Dice Game Progress!

Released patch 1.05b for Solar Settlers.

Patch Notes:
-Added race specific leaderboards
-In Weekly Challenge, Brain Worms now only uses this week’s card pool
-Fixed race condition with saving that sometimes would result in progress not saving properly
-Can no longer unlock the next race by using a random race
-Terraform World now must be placed on a world with no Habitats
-Added “Hardcore Mode” for testing (press up arrow 10 times on main menu to access)

(Feedback on hardcore mode here: https://discord.gg/UvyeDEN)

Also released a small hotfix patch 1.07a for Axes and Acres

Patch Notes:
-Fixed a race condition that made saves not work properly in some cases

And finally, on this mornings episode of BrainGoodBreakfast, I went into some of the changes recently made to the Coral Reef Dice Game to make the map more dynamic and interesting. Check that out here:

By the way, the current top contenders for the actual name for this guy are:
-Rolling Tides
-Coral Roller
-Roller Reef
-Rolling in the Reef
-Deep Sea Dice
-Coral Colonies

Do any of those stick out to you? Let me know!

Militia Tablet Mode, Solar Settlers Hardcore Mode and a Huge Thanks

I’ve added tablet mode to Militia in settings! Now’s your chance windows tablet users to sit back and slay some orcs. You can also toggle the threatened indicators in there.

Secondly, I’ve added a hardcore mode to Solar Settlers. It’s on the beta now (To access the beta right click Solar Settlers in your Steam Library -> Properties -> Betas then enter “solarsettlersbeta” -> Click Check Code -> Select in Dropdown -> Restart Steam).

The changes are:

  1.  Colonists now cost 2 oxygen per turn.
  2.  You start with 5 oxygen.
  3.  You gain 1 oxygen of production for each settled colonist (but no more than the # of active colonists)

The idea is to lower the number of active colonists on the board at very high ranks, encourage more early settling and to reduce match playtime. We’ll see how it goes! Lots of discussion about the design is going on on the discord if you wanna join in.

Lastly I just wanna give a huge THANK YOU to everybody who has joined the BrainGoodGames community over the last little while. It has been by far the most sucessful week ever for BrainGoodGames, and I’m just thrilled and inspired that I get to keep making them. You guys rock!

Note: To access Hardcore Mode press the up arrow on your keyboard ten times on the main menu.

BrainGoodBreakfast!

Hey everybody! I’m starting a new twitch stream every Weekday at 9am CST called… BrainGoodBreakfast!

It’s gonna be at twitch.tv/brickroaddx and I’m gonna be playing BrainGoodGames, prototypes, and other decision-makey type things and talking about their design. It won’t be a long show, just 30mins or so to get the day started right :).

If that sounds cool, stop by (or check out the VODs!) Can’t wait to see you there/chat about games (my favorite thing)!

braingoodbreakfast w info.png

Axes and Acres Patch 1.05

Patch 1.05 is live on Steam! It features a ton of balance tweaks and quality of life reworks, as well as a big leaderboard update and a second major end-game win condition in the Castle! Go forth and spread your buildings far and wide, and bask in the grandeur of your kingdom.

A mighty kingdom with you as king (or queen :) ).
A mighty kingdom with you as king (or queen 🙂 ).

Balance Changes:
-Chopped trees give 3 wood (from 2)
-Barbarians don’t walk on bridges at all
-Castle reworked:
-Gives 1VP/Worker die on construction
-Royalty VP face gives 1VP/5 player buildings
-Town hall card now gives 1VP/7 resources (from 1VP/6)
-Farms give 6/5/4/3 food, and are depleted at 3 rather than 2 (still gives 1 wood)
-Hunter’s Hut card “Move 2” -> “Move 5”
-Hunter’s Hut Spawn Rabbit ability now spawns a Rabbit within 3-4 spaces of a Hunter’s Hut (previously within 6-8 of a Home space)
-Killing Barbarian Spawners now gives 1VP
-Have a Church VPs: 4->5
-Have 2 Woodsmen VPs: 4->5
-Have 2 Masons VPs: 6->7
-Have 5 Roads VPs: 5->6
-Have 3 Farms: 7 -> Have 2 Farms: 5
-Fountain reworked:
-Added new ability to reroll “action objective” with Crusade face
-Fixed issue with Lumberyard Card (“Work then set to Gather”) rerolling die on board
-Reworked first phase scaling to cap out at 18 points (from 17)

Bugs/Quality of Life
-Added “Current BGG Update” link to Main Menu
-Added save corruption support
-High scores separated into two tables (“Current” and “All Time”)
-Rank updates on both tables when you win or lose, but “All Time” rank will never go down
-Top players page will show your global ranking
-Fixed a bug where quit popup would open multiple times if ESC was pressed again
-“Learn 0/3” text disabled if you’re past rank 1
-Fixed a bug where barbarian spawners would crash the game if there was no room to make a new one

As always, thank you so much for your help and support. Special thanks to Allan, Kenbutsu and K-Rez for awesome balance feedback, and to Gutsman and doiron5 on the Steam forums for submitting bug reports.

Leave a comment below or shoot me an email at braingoodgames@gmail.com with your thoughts and feedback. I’d love to hear it! Onwards and upwards!