Extensibility in Board Games

March 20, 2008 at 3:02 pm (Game Design, User Interface)

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.

Suppose you were designing Go Fish.  You need a bunch of cards divided into several groups (ranks), but each member of the group is interchangable, so your first thought is probably to print a deck of cards with 4 identical copies of each of 13 symbols–a set of playing cards without suits.  However, as the reader is doubtless aware, you can play many games other than Go Fish with a deck of playing cards–but most of them require suits, and not just ranks.  If you print 4 slight variations on each of 13 symbols instead of 4 identical copies, your deck is still just as good for playing Go Fish, but now you can play a lot of other games you couldn’t play before; more people will buy your cards, because some people who don’t care about Go Fish will buy them for playing, say, Bridge.  You get more, happier customers, and you can even sell books containing rules for more games to play with your cards without the cost of actually manufacturing any additional game components.

Playing cards are a good example of an extensible game system–you can easily reuse the same components for playing many different games (or variations on a single game), because they are generic without being redundant.

Take a look at another game:  Betrayal at House on the Hill.  This game features a variety of different scenarios that use the same basic rules but vary in their details, goals, and–you guessed it–playing pieces.  Depending on the scenario, you may have zombies, vampires, ghosts, demons, wolves…you get the picture.

One of the core rules of Betrayal is that when you damage a monster, it becomes stunned, and you flip its token over to expose a large “S” symbol on the reverse side.  However, a few scenarios have special monsters that don’t become stunned when you damage them, so the designers made both sides of those monster tokens identical.  They probably thought they were making the game easier to use, since you wouldn’t need to worry about which side of the token was up, and maybe you could find it more easily–but they also made it much more difficult to use those tokens in any scenario other than the one they were designed for.  If players want to create their own scenarios–or if the publisher wants to make an expansion–those monster tokens have no way to indicate that the monster is stunned.

And in fact, the results are much worse than that–the designers overlooked the fact that there’s a special item that can be used to stun any monster, even if the monster isn’t normally stunned when it takes damage.  (Maybe that item was added later?)  And they’ve already published revised versions of the scenarios to fix a variety of problems discovered after publication–and some of those changes cause previously unstunnable monsters to now be stunned normally.  Oops.  If they’d included the “stunned” side on all the monster tokens in the first place, this would be no problem–but they printed themselves into a corner, and now players need to make up another way to keep track.

There’s also a few tokens that have different things on each side, but neither of them is “stunned.”  In this case, it’s understandable why there’s no “stunned” side–there was no space for it; they would have needed to print extra tokens (and possibly complicate some other mechanics) in order to fit them.  And you can probably use whatever is printed on the reverse as a stand-in for “stunned” if you have to.  But many tokens are completely identical on both sides.

Betrayal also features some scenarios with a group of interchangable monsters, and others with monsters that are similar, but need to be distinguishable.  For example, there are 6 “specter” tokens, and they’re all the same.  But there’s also 6 “evil twin” tokens that you need to tell apart, so they’re numbered (evil twin 1, evil twin 2, etc.).  Once again, if they overlooked something, or if they ever want to change the scenario, or if anyone wants to re-use those tokens in a new scenario, they can’t have 6 unique specters in the way they can have 6 unique evil twins, because they just didn’t write the numbers on.  They didn’t think they needed them.  But adding numbers to the specters wouldn’t have hurt anything, and it would have made the game more extensible.

The game also has some very interesting dice that are numbered from 0 to 2 twice (six sides, two each of 0, 1, and 2).  Sure, it’s not a big deal, but they could have printed the numbers in different colors or arrangements to make the duplicate sides distinguishable, just in case you ever need to have a 1/6 or 1/2 chance of anything.

I suggest the following rule-of-thumb:

No two symbols should be identical without a good reason.

The backs of the cards in a standard deck are all the same, because their function is to conceal the card’s value.  The fronts are all different.  “Cost savings” might be a valid reason, but I’ve seen a lot of games with two-sided tokens punched out of the same cardboard sheet as one-sided tokens (or tokens with two identical sides).

In general, two sides of a token should be distinguishable, even if they mean the same thing in your game (at the moment).  Two separate tokens should be distinguishable, even if they are interchangeable in your game (at the moment).  If you need dozens of small or detailed tokens to be interchangable, this might not be practical, but in many cases it is.

Doing this not only allows your players to create new games or variants from your components (increasing the value of your game for free), it also means that if you decide to make revisions (or expansions) to the game, you keep all your options open.


1 Comment

  1. Colleen said,

    Checkers are a good example of this: most checker sets have different symbols on both sides and the pieces can also be stacked, even though there are only 2 states (king and regular) that a checker can normally be in.

    A corollary rule is that pieces with multiples, especially pairs, should be reversible whenever possible. Chess variants sometimes reverse one of the rooks to make them distinguishable, for example. This allows them to be distinguished when needed, but identical when not.

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