Axes of Victory

Here is a game design concept we’ve been talking about on the Keith Burgun Discord. I think it is useful for creating and honing the type of “strategic dance” we find in games like StarCraft. (See strategy triangle)

First, a definition:

“Axis of victory” – A spectrum along which player power or “position” is measured. Once a player achieves sufficient progress (a “critical mass”) along an axis relative to an opponent or the game state, they can convert or exploit that position into a victory. (Note that sometimes an overwhelming advantage along one axis will actually be converted into another to formalize the win. See: StarCraft, Magic the Gathering, examples later)

Why we care: Having multiple axes of victory can help create “strategy dance/pivoting” dynamics, introduce opportunities for lateral thinking, obfuscate player positions and introduce hard-to-compare trade-offs.

The Strategy Dance: Players make moves that change their commitment and power along each axis (some moves also change how much an opponent knows about each). Each player tries to find a “window” in which their power along some axis is sufficient relative to their opponent or the game state to allow for a win.

Practical Advice:
In order to allow for the dance, designers should do two things:

  1. Carefully manage the relationship between “commitment” and “power”. If a move is powerful along one axis, it might be counterbalanced by the degree to which the player is locked into that choice. Both power and “commitment” (i.e how much this limits your ability to pivot to another axis later) exist on a spectrum. This might also be conceptualized as “strategic inertia”.
  2. Ensure an interconnections between the pursuit of different “axes of victory”. Moves might explicitly spend power on one axis to attain it in another, or gain a smaller amount of power along two (or more) axes in order to “hedge” or defer your decision. Vitally, it is important that players are incentivized to remain somewhat “open” to pursuing more than one axis. (In Civilization, players are specifically too incentivized to “focus” on just one, which can narrow the game into an optimization puzzle along that axis)

Examples of games with multiple clear axes of victory:

  • Puzzle Strike/StarCraft: Econ, Army, Tech (defense is more of a situational response to an opponents advantage in army)
  • Dragon Bridge: Push, Escape, Items, White Gems
  • Magic: The Gathering/Spectromancer: Card Advantage, Board Advantage, Reduce Opponent’s Life to Zero
  • Pax Pamir: Faction Dominance + Loyalty to that Faction (3 different axes), No Faction Dominance + Have the Most Supporters
  • Race for the Galaxy: Produce-Consume Engine, 6 Cost Developments, High “Point” Tableau
  • Air, Land and Sea/Crimson Company: Each of the three lanes

Formal vs. Emergent Axes of Victory

As a game is explored/studied/designed, axes of victory that are not strictly defined by the formal goals of the game may emerge. For example, having a better economy and being able to defend it in StarCraft allows you to get a bigger army than your opponent *later* which in turn will allow you to destroy your opponents buildings (the formal win condition). These can become more and more nuanced and particular as the game is explored. For example, maybe having a “critical mass” of Corsairs and Dark Templar allows you to exploit a weakness along the “detection” axis. Or in a card game perhaps the combination of card X and Y are strong enough to effectively ensure a win. We can refer to progress towards the critical mass or towards playing card X and Y at the same time an “emergent axis of victory”.

Adding formal win conditions/goals can (but doesn’t necessarily) have the effect of increasing the number emergent “axes of victory” in a game. It may be the case that some of the formal win conditions are impractical to reach, or subsumed within the pursuit of another, easier win condition.

Conversely, a game with only one formal win condition may have multiple emergent axes of victory (i.e StarCraft, Race for the Galaxy).

Finally, in the case of a game like Race For the Galaxy, advantages along multiple axes are combined at the end into a score, allowing for “mixed” strategies. This is sometimes referred to as  a”point salad” approach. However, in some cases this can end up feeling less like a dance between multiple axes of victory and more like an optimization puzzle along a single axis. (This is similar to what happens in Civilization when you “lock in” the axis you will focus on to a certain extent early on).

20 Days of Prototypes Challenge Complete!

I’ve just finished my 20 days of prototypes challenge and come up with 10 brand-new prototypes for the next BrainGoodGame (or games!) The idea is to be able to be able to make them quickly and then draw from a larger pool rather than getting stuck trying to “force” one idea. Anyway, I thought I’d describe each to you so I could get some feedback! (Feedback notes and challenge reflections after the list of games). Anyway, here are the prototypes!

Yes, lawnmower game is missing.
A sort-of haiku of 9 of the 10 game prototypes.
  1. “Lawnmower” – A simple real-time game where you attempt to control multiple lawnmowers and keep them cutting grass! You can also play new lawnmowers. This is supposed to sort of capture the feel of Mini Metro. (Non-panicky real-time)

    Dividing your attention.
  2. “Blob-Commander” – A game where you pick an “order” die (on the left) and combine it with a “selection” card (on the right) to give an order each turn. So you might “move forward twice with all archers, or move left and attack with all units that are connected in a “blob”. An interesting idea but has problems in terms of “action parsing” or proofreading.

    Issue orders to groups.
  3. “Protector” – An idea where you have 3 energy or action points to spend each turn. Most commonly you spend it moving around the map (up,down,left,right), but you can also spend the energy points on cards in your hand. Enemies move after you’re done and can be fast and slow. This one seems particularly open ended in terms of extending it. Lots of possibilities for enemy types, card types and even objectives (although I like the idea of a “there and back again” type objective because if you rush ahead and don’t fight much it’ll be harder on the way back but not impossible). Also tends to have a playful feel at least for me, as I find a lot of the time I can hit the arrow keys by intuition.

    Ride forth, playfully!
  4. “Dominion Lord” – The idea here is that for both you and your opponent, the cards in your hand correspond 1:1 with units on the board. So the action funnel is pretty explicit. If the unit is not on the board, the card becomes a “summon” action instead. One downside of this approach is that it seems much more fun to order units “near the front”. Maybe it needs a double move option for guys in the back like XCOM, or a different kind of objective. This is sort of like Undaunted.

    Units in a deck.
  5. “Farmer Dan” – This one is about moving around a single avatar on a map again (like #3). However here, as you move around a couple things can happen. If you move into a grass space, you “till” it, making it ready for new crops. If you move into a weed rock or stump you work on clearing it (some take more than one action). Then you have tetris pieces in your hand representing both crops and watering actions that you try to line up with the shapes on the board you have cleared with your farmer. There is a whole efficiency game about farmer actions, about lining up the crops properly and trying to refill water without wasting it. Pretty interesting. What this one seems to need is longer strategic arcs or something to “build towards”. Not quite sure what that might be.

    Farming with tetris pieces.
  6. “Deus Lines” – This one is fundamentally about building out action chains on the board. You place buildings that have an action on them and also allow your workers to “turn” as they activate them. Crucially, each turn you place a building and then send a worker in, but you can only send a worker from each side once. You can reactivate abilities by cleverly positioning your turns. Sort of a riff on the Deus/Wingspan “action-chains” type of thing. This one is pretty complex though to get started with, so needs some simple goals to work probably.

    A maze of chained abilities.
  7. “Minos Mana” – This one is roughly about building off of matched colored pieces on the board to make shapes. So sort of like Through the Desert network building and sort of like Minos Strategos (or Tash Kalar) shape building. Needs more definition to what shapes you’re trying to build, and whether those are explicit goals, or patterns that always work, or cards that you draw. Has a couple cool twists. One is that you pick up new dice off the board as you go. Two is that the enemies spawn based on an intersection of row and column, and it alternates whether the spawn row or spawn column switches. Three is that you are working against the “enemy score” and they score by capturing your placed pieces. Therefore there is an upside for spreading out (more patterns) and a downside (more vulnerability).

    Patterns of elemental mana!
  8. “Dungeon Beans” – Called “beans” because of the name our group uses for Bohnanza, which is a game where you can’t re-order your hand. The premise here is that you have a set amount of energy. Playing the left most card in your hand costs 0 energy, but each card to the right costs 1 more (so it’s more expensive to skip ahead). You can also always just do a “default” up down left or right move/attack by discarding the leftmost card. This one also seems super extensible and easy to see as a full game. It takes a lot from roguelikes/broughlikes in terms of structure (slay enemies, be efficient, get to the exit). Seems to be a lot of room for deckbuilding, card types, treasure, monster types, etc.

    It’s hard work to skip ahead!
  9. “Card Maze” – This one is about moving on a grid using standard playing cards. If you match “suits” you get to move and go down a card. If you match “rank” you get to re-draw at the end of the turn. If you match both you get to draw 2 (plus one card). You can also collect totems on the board that let you discard and re-draw your hand. Once you collect 3/4 totems you head for the exit. Already quite fun and very extensible with enemy types, different suits, special powers for Jacks (there are no Jack spaces on the board), pickups, starting characters etc etc. With the playing card metaphor I think it is a bit more approachable than most BrainGoodGames for non-strategy gamers. Very intriguing!

    Matching feels good!
  10. “High Seas” – The final prototype is kind of the inverse of the previous. By stepping onto ocean spaces you draw the indicated card. You’re trying to make sets of cards, runs, basically typical poker card hands and use them to “battle” other ships. Lots of ways this can work, and it’s fun to collect the hands and scout out the best cards to collect and asses the diminishing returns (you have limited time, can’t take em all and have to make your way north!). I have some ideas about how different enemies can work, different pickups and sub-goals and selling big sets at “markets”  for a lot of points. Goal being have X money and get to “port” at the north of the board to bury your treasure/buy the port/retire etc. Promising!

    Cannons are loaded. Full house!

So those are the 10 prototypes from the 20 day experiment! It took about 2 days for each prototype, and the process ended up mostly being 

  • Day 1: Brainstorm ideas by reviewing design notebooks and mix and matching game mechanic cards that I’ve drawn up/seem interesting to explore.
  • Day 2: Make the digital implementation of the prototype.

One thing that stuck out to me was that my prediction of how promising each prototype would be was often very far from my evaluation after making it. Some were much better than I thought they’d be, others much worse. Takeaway: you gotta make em and see. Don’t get hung up looking for the “perfect idea”, because it’s hard to identify!

The goal of the digital implementations was mostly to assess each idea for how promising it seemed, and how easy it would be to take it from the current state to a released BrainGoodGame. I have ideas about the potential of some of them, but I’m curious what you guys think with just the gifs and the basic descriptions to go on. Which ones jump out at you? Let me know on the Discord or on Twitter.

If you’re interested in the games I end up making with these prototypes, please sign up for the BrainGoodGames mailing list here.

Action Funnels

I’ve been asked a few times about what I think the best way to start a new strategy game design is, and I’ve generally had a hard time answering. However, during the process of brainstorming for new prototype designs I have repeatedly returned to a concept I like to think of as Action Funnels as a useful starting point (especially if we’re shooting for Playfulness). Let’s try a simple definition:

“An action funnel is any system in a game that takes a wide menu of possible player actions and limits it to a subset of currently possible actions”.

There are a few reasons that they are useful! Firstly, a strategy game needs to be complex enough (whether intrinsically or through emergent complexity) to remain unsolved and provide interesting decisions. Therefore generally speaking, there needs to be a wide array of game states and actions possible. 

However, if all options are available at all times, a player that has not developed sophisticated heuristics is encouraged to parse through each of them in order to evaluate them relative to one another. Anyone who has stared at a 19×19 empty Go board or wondered which of their chess pieces to move at the opening of the game can attest to this.

Should I try B14 or J7?

Clearly, this kind of laborious parsing is not what we’re looking for if we’re trying to maximize Playfulness. Action funnels allow for a breadth and richness of possible game-states/strategic contexts, while keeping the responsibilities of the player relatively manageable, and hopefully freeing them up to play a bit more instinctively. In Through The Desert, you are only allowed to play next to one of your “leader” camels, which provides a much more manageable array of options for each turn.

Placing next to a leader in Through the Desert.

Games use a wide variety of means to implement Action Funnels, but here are just a few examples:

  1. In Great Western Trail, there are a huge number of possible actions/worker placement spaces, but players are only allowed (at the start of the game) to move forward 1,2 or 3 spaces. (“You don’t have to worry about everything, just which of these 3 would you like”). Notably, as players gain comfort with the system they can read into further implications of those three actions, but still only need to consider the 3 each turn.
  2. In The Castles of Burgundy there are a great number of tiles available each round, and a great number of possible placement spaces on each player’s board. However, they can generally only gain tiles from “depots” that match the two dice they roll each turn, and place tiles on board spaces that match those dice. Furthermore, player’s have to “extend” their existing kingdom with each placement, further funneling their actions.
  3. A Hand of Cards can be interpreted as an action funnel, and is used in many games! (You may have a large number of cards in your deck, but you are only allowed to play those in your hand)
  4. Many rogue-like games feature an implicit action funnel with the spaces on their board. Because these tend to be single-actor games, while there are a staggering number of possible positions and actions available you are only able to take actions from where you are. Typically on a square grid this limits you to 4 options, plus whatever items and spells you might have available (although still interpreted from your current position).
  5. In Wingspan there are 170+ bird cards available, but on your turn you must first choose one of only four actions. (Play a bird, gain food, lay eggs and draw cards). There are then nested* action funnels (heh) after that! When you play a bird, you choose one from your hand. When you gain food, you gain from those available in the feeder. When you lay eggs, you must choose which bird to lay them on (and some may not have room). When you draw bird cards, only those in the “offer” plus the top (unknown) card of the deck are available. In Wingspawn after you activate a row, you might also activate bird cards in that row, which could result in ANOTHER layer of actions, which are again heavily funneled (which of these two goal cards would you like?)
  6. In Memoir 44, it would be easy for players to get overwhelmed if they could command any of their units. However, they must first choose from a small hand of cards which normally feature a flank (left, center or right).Then they enter the nested funnel of choosing which particular units to activate in that section of the board.

There are many, many more examples of Action Funnels in games. You can think of resources in a game that are used to pay for buildings as an Action Funnel that limits your current actions to buildings you can afford. You can even think of cooldowns (especially long ones) in a MOBA as Action Funnels that limit your current strategic possibilities. 

So help your players navigate a complicated and interesting game space without heavy proofreading, action parsing and calculation. Use Action Funnels! If you’re interested in the games I make with following these design guidelines, please sign up for the BrainGoodGames mailing list here.

*Notably, when a game features nested Action Funnels, keep in mind whether they can feel comfortable choosing the top layer BEFORE choosing everything they will do in the second layer of choices. Otherwise they will end up with a combinatoric array of options that can result in a ton of action parsing.

20 Days of Prototypes Update – Under the Radar Games

20 days of prototypes is progressing smoothly! I’m 9 days in so far and have made 5 different bite sized game prototypes with the new dev tools. Aiming for 10 prototypes by the end and then the idea is to pick the most promising one and develop it into the next BrainGoodGame!

You can follow along on the discord and Twitter. (Links in the sidebar)

Also thanks for the shoutout by Under the Radar games about Solar Settlers on mobile. Happy to see this game continue to get noticed long after release! You can find the article below.

Stay tuned for an article on Action Funnels as briefly described in the Playfulness article.

Happy Valentine’s Day,

Brett

Under The Radar Games That You Should Play!

Skill Compensation

Something I’ve been meaning to blog about for a long time is a concept I personally think of as Skill Compensation (I briefly touched on it here). Some alternative names for this game property might be Feedback Accuracy or Performance Compensation. Let’s take a shot at a definition:

Skill Compensation is the degree to which a player’s performance is reflected in the final outcome of a match. Phrased another way, it is the extent to which “the better player wins”*. 

The skills measured in a game like basketball might include running, passing, shooting accuracy, passing accuracy and decision making ability. In a game like “War” there are no skills measured whatsoever. Therefore War has no Skill Compensation.

In a match of a game that is primarily a strategy or decision making game, a player’s skill is primarily a function of how valuable their decisions are in terms of maximizing their win probability/expected value (“EV”).

Interestingly, in a game like Yomi, for any given game state/turn of the game, there exists a single “best” play in terms of raw EV. However, because the system has both you and your opponent act simultaneously, it is possible to “win” a hand by doing the “wrong” play. Frank Lantz talks about this concept in his article on Donkeyspace. This means that a given turn of Yomi has less than perfect Skill Compensation, if we set aside any value from the skill “reading” or “predicting” the opponent.

Simultaneous action in Yomi. Notably, Yomi still features a lot of depth/strategic consideration possible beyond “reading” or “predicting”.

However, crucially, despite the fact that simultaneous actions tend to lower Skill Compensation, the depth of the game has not necessarily decreased; there may still be the same about of strategic consideration, calculation and skill possible. Even though you might be rewarded for making the wrong move and punished for making the right one, the “right” or “more correct” move or set of moves still exist for players to find. This is also the case for games that feature a significant degree of output randomness, like Hearthstone or Risk. While a given game may feature more or less of either, Depth and Skill Compensation are not the same thing.

Pictured: lowered Skill Compensation.
Cards like this lower Skill Compensation but may actually increase depth, because players may have to contend with more possible future game states.

There are also advantages to adding a system like simultaneous actions to a system. It allows for weaker players to have intermediate successes even when playing the “wrong” move. It tends to allow for the hope of comebacks. And it allows us to tell stories about how we “just knew” the opponent would do that, which can be fun and exciting. Similarly output randomness, or any number of Skill Compensation reducing mechanisms can fuzz up the feedback and also allow for weaker players or players who have fallen behind to have hope. It can allow for a wider range of “valid” or “justifiable” moves, which contributes to playfulness. And variance in a system tends to contribute to a variety, novelty and excitement.

That is not to say that Skill Compensation is irrelevant. Some players may play games “to prove something”, in which case this might be a highly important property. Otherwise, such players may find themselves feeling cheated or having “wasted time” in terms of evaluating their skill/progress. Also, having lower Skill Compensation tends to lower the rate at which players will learn/gain understanding about your system. Whether this is important to you as a designer is a topic for another day. (Keith Burgun has claimed that a fundamental value in strategy games is gaining understanding, but it seems to me to be unclear whether the rate of this learning is important)

One thing I’d like to mention before closing is that games can also give feedback within a match (like taking a tower in DOTA), reducing your opponent’s life points in Magic or fulfilling an objective card in Wingspan. The extent to which this feedback is valid in terms of contributing to your win-rate is also interesting, but beyond the scope of this article.

To summarize, it is absolutely possible to have a game with high depth (interesting decision space to explore) and low Skill Compensation. Varying Skill Compensation can have both positive and negative effects on your game design, depending on what other properties you’re optimizing for (evaluation, learning rate, playfulness, etc). In addition, some players may find one range or another of Skill Compensation to be incompatible with their tastes. 

Let me know what you think, and whether this brings to mind games as examples of extreme ends of this spectrum, but with variable other properties. If you’re interested in games made with these sorts of considerations, especially with an eye towards playfulness, please sign up for the BrainGoodGames mailing list here.

 

* Notably, human performance can vary quite a bit from match to match even in a game that is very high in Skill Compensation, like Chess or StarCraft (there are other human factors like framing, specific preparation, nutrition, intimidation, etc etc). Therefore it might be more useful in some contexts to talk about performance within the frame of a given match rather than talk about player skill as an absolute fixed value, but we can use skill as a rough shorthand for average performance.

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):
Action Funnels
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, low-stakes 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. If you’re interested in games made with an eye towards playfulness, please sign up for the BrainGoodGames mailing list here.