Wednesday, February 16, 2011

How mechanics can push players toward fun.

I've been designing a dungeon crawler board game for a few months now. If you're not familiar, this genre was popularized by HeroQuest and is essentially a tactical RPG without the roleplaying. It comes down to exploring a dungeon, fighting monsters, finding treasure and leveling up. This particular crawler was prompted by one of the latest to hit the market: Castle Ravenloft. I say "prompted" rather than "inspired" because playing Castle Ravenloft pushed to me to make this game, but most of the ideas that form its core existed before Wizards started developing Fourth Edition D&D, much less Castle Ravenloft. I had forgotten that was the case, but while I was dredging years of old Magic card ideas for the Great Designer Search 2, I also stumbled upon board game ideas and found the core concepts of this new dungeon crawler spread amongst them. I'll write about stolen / simultaneous ideas another day.

Delve (the working title of my dungeon crawler) is a cooperative game; all of the heroes want to work together to win as a team. I don't know how many 'cooperative' games you've played, but I can tell you from experience that just making good cooperation between players a dominant strategy is sometimes not enough. Some players are naturally competitive and yearn to outdo their team-mates while some love to be the chaotic element and run off on their own just to see how much trouble they can stir up. In order to encourage better teamwork (which is fun on its own) the mechanics of the game need to reward cooperative play.

The game already allows players to use their character-specific powers to aid each other and offers a few items that only work on other players, but it's also the case that the vast majority of items (weapons and armor) benefit the owner directly. If I can reduce the number of things that support a hero going rogue in favor of things that support sticking together, we'll maximize the value of cooperation. To this end, I removed all the hardtack cards which heal yourself and replaced them with more first aid kits which heal an ally.

Trading items has always been an option in the game, but it originally cost an action point. While that makes good sense thematically, it imposes a very real cost to the play. By making it a 'free' action, the only remaining cost is the need to stay close to fulfill the action's adjacency requirement. The heroes should probably be staying relatively close to each other anyhow, so that will actually help them to play more strategically.

With those two changes it is still entirely possible to abandon your party and run off on your own, but without any ability to heal yourself you probably won't last very long. And while it's still possible to behave selfishly in the game, what are the chances the other players are going to trade you items or heal your wounds when you are?

A big part of game design is knowing how different kinds of players will play your game. While you never want to force everyone to play the same way, there are types of play that will reduce or destroy the fun of the game for other players. Your goal is to find carrots and sticks to lead players down the funner paths without beating them over the head with it. A rule that feels out of place will appear as an obvious patch, but a rule that fits the theme of the game will draw attention only from careful scrutiny. Better still is when you can change the nature of the game by altering the contents, rather than adding or complicating rules. Removing an offending component is even better because it streamlines your game and no one will ever notice it's missing.


  1. It's interesting to hear about player selfishness as a problem in cooperative games. While I'm vaguely aware its existence, my playgroup is so heavily dedicated to optimization that we have the opposite problem: we cooperate too much. In games with a traitor mechanic (e.g., Shadows over Camelot, Battlestar Galactica) it becomes far too easy to detect non-optimal behavior. And in games wherein there is no hidden information (e.g., Pandemic) it basically becomes a one-player game, since there is no need for independent decision making.

    In fact, in order to "fix" Battlestar Galactica, we had to homebrew a points system that encouraged selfishness, so that Cylons would have some sort of cover for their lack of cooperation.

  2. I'm actually in the same group as HavelockV, and have similar cautions against a fully cooperative game. It's really hard to make a fully cooperative game that has distinct and meaningful decisions for each player. The usual way to make the players distinct is "hidden information", but there is rarely any incentive to keep information hidden when all players share the exact same victory condition.

    Perhaps it's just my preference or specific to the dynamics of my regular board game group, but I think it's much easier to design a compelling and replayable "1 vs many" or "traitor" game than a fully cooperative game.

  3. I know a lot of players that love Pandemic and other fully cooperative games, but I'm not one of them. I agree that they end up feeling like ~4 people playing one big solitaire game.

    "Hidden information" in those games always seems to devolve to "the rules say I can't tell you explicitly what's in my hand, but I can tell you it's between a 2 and a 4, wink wink." What a waste of time. Give me inventive to keep something secret or just make it public, c'mon.

    Delve and—as far as I know—all dungeon crawlers, play very differently. They tend to be grab-as-much-glory-and-loot-as-you-can-while-not-getting-your-team-killed affairs. Delve is playable with or without an "archenemy" player.