There’s been recent mention in a couple places on this blog about a board game called Betrayal at House on the Hill. It’s a horror-themed board game in which players cooperatively explore a haunted house until they trigger some pivotal event and “the Haunt begins.” Then one of the players turns against the others and, depending on how it started, you play one of many different scenarios, each with its own story, goals, and special rules.
I’m rather fond of the game. In fact, I’ve created a collection of 20 new scenarios for it, which you can find over here. You’ll also find some musings on Haunt design (also partially applicable to strategy) and some reference tables I used while doing it.
I also made a WarCraft 3 Map inspired by the board game for Blizzard’s 2006 Halloween mapping contest, though it didn’t work out as well as I’d hoped. Turns out that introducing a bunch of new rules and objectives half-way through the game doesn’t go over as well in a real-time Internet game as in a turn-based face-to-face one. Who’d have thought?
Many board and card games have an interesting design challenge: they need to create special playing pieces. This may not seem like much of a challenge if you’re creating Checkers or Sorry, but more complex boardgames like HeroQuest or Arkham Horror can produce a multitude of customized figures, chits, cards, dice, and other pieces used to play the game. And while the value may not be immediately apparent, you should really pause to consider how well all these custom pieces can be used for things other than your original intent.
I have previously argued that a game will only be balanced if players’ capabilities are good at what they’re intended to be used for without usurping the functions of other capabilities. In order to determine whether that’s the case, we need to consider the effectiveness (for the player) of taking each of several options in a given situation, and compare the usefulness of each.
One of the hardest parts of comparing the effectiveness of two player options–for example, turning invisible versus hurling a fireball–is often finding a common basis for comparison. Let’s face it, in terms of their immediate effects, those probably accomplish completely different things. They probably synergize in different and complicated ways with a whole host of different circumstances and strategies, so we don’t do them justice if we consider simply swapping in one for the other in an otherwise identical strategy, and their effects on the game’s final outcome are probably (intentionally) virtually impossible to predict in the general case. We’re comparing the proverbial apples to oranges. Where do we even begin?
As usual, there’s no silver bullet, but one widely-applicable strategy is to abstract the game state as a set of resources, by which I mean quantifiable assets that can be expended to change the course of the game. For example, ammunition is a resource–you can use it up in order to fire your weapon, which is one of the ways you can affect the game’s outcome. “Mana” (or energy, power, etc.) often serves a similar role in fantasy-themed games.
Though the phrase “games of chance” tends to refer to gambling, random elements show up to a greater or lesser degree in many other games. In fact, in many genres, they are so ingrained that it is difficult to imagine playing the game without them.
On the face of it, this is rather odd. Games are fundamentally about making decisions–whether strategizing or just “playing around”–and adding in random outcomes can only reduce the amount of control the player has. Why would so many games engage in such an apparently self-defeating behavior? Other than the ones that are doing it to get your money, I mean.
Well, I think there are three significant reasons a for game to include randomness…
In order to play a game (or, in the age of computers, maybe just in order to play a game well), you need to know how. In an ideal world, you’d simply dedicate some time to learning whatever you need to know–read the manual, play the tutorial, peruse a FAQ, or what have you–and then you’d remember it all.
Unfortunately, most players have neither unlimited patience nor perfect memory, so that typically doesn’t happen. Players who want to play your game will generally want to start with as little time commitment as possible, and they won’t remember everything you tell them. So in order for them to play the game, it has to be possible to learn at least some things as you go along. The game has to be self-documenting: the game itself needs to contain the information necessary to play it.
This doesn’t mean that you should have a button in the game that brings up the player’s manual (though perhaps you should), but that players need to be presented with context-sensitive help giving them information relevant to their current situation. If the player wanted to simply hear everything you want him to know presented in the order you think is best, he’d be reading the manual. What he probably actually wants is precisely the information that will get him safely through the next ten seconds of his game.
As a general rule, I don’t like free-for-all-style games (also known as “every-man-for-himself”). In this category, I include games with more than 2 teams, even if the teams are larger than one player each.
More precisely, I don’t like the fact that they’re free-for-all; there are many individual free-for-all games that I rather enjoy, I just wish they were organized differently, and I tend to enjoy them less than other people seem to.
Like many of my gaming preferences, I imagine this is partly just due to my own individual personality, but I also think it’s partly that free-for-all games tend to suffer from several systemtic problems.
In a previous post, The Tangled Concept of Balance, I argued that balance should be thought of as the game’s stability, or ability to maintain the shape of its gameplay under the stresses of players who are trying to win. Actually achieving balance is hard. Balancing a game is often a long and laborious process, requiring designers to carefully explore the large possibility space of different game strategies and search for problematic special cases.
There’s no “magic bullet” that is going to make this problem go away, but there are good design practices that can make it easier. In this post, I’m going to discuss my favorite trick: building in stability.
I recently discovered an amusing little flash game called Cursor*10, which was described to me as a “one-player cooperative game.” Like many other games, you control several distinct avatars that work together to complete the game, but unlike most games, you control these avatars in sequence, rather than in parallel: after playing out the entire game with the first cursor, you move on to the second, and watch as the first cursor moves around and does all the things you did with it. The knowledge gained and supporting actions taken by earlier cursors are critical to winning the game with the later ones.
This is not the first time I’ve seen this idea, though I think it’s the first successful implementation I’ve played. In a talk I heard about Sly Cooper 3 (previously mentioned in this post), it was revealed that they had tried to develop levels where you’d play several characters in the same area, one at a time, with each character able to watch the actions of the characters you’ve previously played as they repeated what you’d done. Sadly, Sucker Punch was unable to keep the replays consistent–even with extensive measures to synch up the random number generators, things just wouldn’t play out the same way.
Cursor*10 barely scratches the surface of what could be done with this idea, and I’ve already heard speculation on various ways the concept could be extended, but the failed attempt of another game to incorporate this idea raises a red flag. What steps should future games take to avoid a similar fate?
There is a particular game mechanic that is now used in almost all MMORPGs (and a few other game besides) for controlling group combat. It’s variously called “aggro,” or “threat,” or “hate,” and it’s what makes a monster attack one player rather than another.
And it’s holding the genre back.
One of the indelible properties of games is that people who play them get better at them; players develop skills that allow them to play more consistently and effectively.
A more arbitrary notion is the concept of the player’s avatar becoming more “skillful,” through a convention commonly known as “experience points” (XP) or “levels.” The idea is that, within the secondary reality of the game, the character (or other entity) controlled by the player is also practicing, learning, and growing in power, presenting the player with new or enhanced options within the game. While most closely associated with role-playing games (RPGs), this mechanic is now pervading a wide variety of games, from shooters to puzzle games, rewarding the player’s accomplishments with additional powers, and sometimes greater options for customizing his avatar.
While initially this may seem like a nice secondary feature, easily attachable to a wide variety of games, the addition of this mechanic often substantially alters the way a game is played and balanced–not always for the better.