Posts Tagged strategy

Review: Small World

Small World is a board game that uses a territory-conquering system similar to risk, but has fantasy flavor and special powers for each person’s army.  Once all 1,000 pieces are punched and organized, it’s surprisingly simple to set up and to get going – and the game has only the one core mechanic to make sure play is relatively straightforward.  I thought I’d go through a list of pros and cons:


  • You get a lot of goofy combinations between race and “class” which adds to the hilarity.
  • The core mechanic is straightforward (number of pieces of cardboard in a tile = such a great way to do it!)
  • The core mechanic is fun (send your troops to kill your enemies!)


  • It’s very much an interactive, beat-each-other-up type game.  So if your audience isn’t prepared for that, things might get dicey.
  • Because the only variance is in generation of race-class combos, and I’m positive they aren’t exactly balanced with each other, it can feel like you got outlucked in that respect.
  • There’s a lot of specific rules for stuff that seems extraneous – like, more +1 for territory stuff and less Sorcerer-type abilities would aid this game in its simplicity.

As is, I would recommend this game to any group that can handle Settlers, Dominion or even Carcassone.  It’s lots of fun and once you get the base rules down you can devote free mental energy to the surprisingly complex strategy and the special rules I talk about above.

Overall: A-
Ease of Teaching: B+
Replayability: Medium-High
Brokenness of Dragon Master Skeletons: High

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Early Game Design

I wanted to do a review of Epic Win today (the task list app that Monty suggested to manage my time using quests, loot and XP) but I haven’t found time to download and try it yet.  So maybe tomorrow!  This evening, however, I gathered some folks to help me playtest version 1 of a game I am making for Kelly and Laura as a wedding present, after the fact.  (Shh, don’t tell them!)  There are some interesting properties of early game design I wanted to explore here with the playtest fresh in my mind.  (Also, huge thanks to Dylan, Nik and Rebecca for their help!)

The first is that you need to know which mechanics to be attached to, and which ones to let go.  When an aspect of a game isn’t pulling its weight – either because it isn’t fun, or it isn’t working quite right – then it’s time to take a hard look and ask “how fundamental is this aspect to my vision for this game?”  Two different mechanics in my prototype came up as concerns early on, and upon reflection, I am sure that mechanic A is “core” to the game and mechanic B is not.  Which is totally sweet to know this early, because it means I can devote my attention to finding a new, better mechanic (B’) and not waste any more time (other than post-mortem) on original B.  This is the part of playtesting where I think it helps the most to be aware of your playtesters’ revealed preferences because sensing when fun is missing is so huge in understanding when to focus on fixing a mechanic.

The second is that too much variance can be just as bad as too little.  Assuming your game has any strategic component at all (and the ones I play and/or design always do), then you need to be sure the variance doesn’t drown out the ability for a player to predict and act accordingly.  For example, and this is purely hypothetical, if the game has both cards and dice at the same time, that could be too much swing.  Mitigating one or the other will swing it further to the side of strategy, but not so much that you have a Puerto Rico or a Caylus where the more skilled/informed player always wins.  The variance knob is usually easy to turn, but hard to determine the effect of until you have played a number of times, so I generally vary it only slightly across playtests.

Of course, if I had my way, we’d be more scientific about it and only change one thing at a time (to understand exactly what effect each change has) but game design is (1) more of an art than that, due to all of the interconnectivity and emergent properties of multiple mechanics, and (2) usually more time limited than that.

But yeah, going well, and we ended up finding some new stuff as a group that’s definitely pushed it into Design Phase 2.  Woohoo!

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Review: Starcraft 2

I’ve talked previously about Starcraft 2, how I felt about receiving it on release day and how I reacted to two issues of choice in the single-player game, but I haven’t really reviewed it properly, so I thought I’d do so today.  For those who don’t know, Starcraft is Blizzard’s sci-fi/fantasy IP about humans living in kind of frontier space with an hive-alien race called Zerg and an ancient-tech-alien race called Protoss.  The game itself is a real time strategy game, which means you manage building up your base and sending your troops to attack theirs (and their base) in each game.  In the single-player campaign, there are often other more specific objectives you have to accomplish with the resources you find/leverage.

The Starcraft 2 single-player campaign was pretty impressive.  Not only did it cleanly introduce the player to the units and structures you can build (by way of play-to-learn levels), but it also told an interesting story and made me care a bit about my choices (by rewarding me with more story or with stuff) and gave me a wide range of customization – and since RTS games are about “customizing” the units you use and the strategy you take based on what’s happening minute to minute, further customization is a perfect addition here where in other games it may just feel extraneous.  I liked that the missions you got in single player varied widely in goal type, and it usually wasn’t “kill all the enemy buildings,” which is great because I can do that in multiplayer vs. a real human opponent.  One thing I disliked (although I admit this could be personal preference) is that the achievements/badges you get in the campaign mode aren’t told to you until after you complete a mission, and when you make a choice about what sort of customization you want, it is often irreversible – two things that made me feel like I was forced to replay the same content to “achieve everything.”

Speaking of which, the multiplayer in Starcraft 2 is actually something I got a head start on, joining the beta along with many friends to play online.  Multiplayer in Starcraft continues to be the pinnacle of online real-time strategy games for me: it has the right number of units, the right number of structures required to make those units, and the right number of “spellcasting” units so that the intense micromanagement of your units is an opt-in experience.  I am by no means an excellent Starcraft 2 player, but I love playing with friends in 2v2 or 3v3 capacity, and the game is well set up to make that function.

Overall: A
Sequel Power: More like Back to the Future 2, less like Terminator 2 (good, though!)
Use of Choice and Achievements to Enforce Replay: C
Zergling Rush: Still strong, after all these years!

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Review: Kingsburg

Kingsburg is one of your classic German resource-management strategy board games.  Dylan introduced me to it; I bought it recently while browsing for other stuff at a game store, because I remembered I enjoyed it.  Like many games of its ilk, it takes an hour or two to play, it involves a lot of fiddly resource pieces, and you build up and acquire victory points.  Unlike other games, it has a sweet core mechanic that I am very impressed with: dice roll drafting (explained below).  Although the game is kind of annoying to teach (there’s a lot of information to take in on your personal stuff-to-build card), it’s got pretty good pacing and a lot of fun moments.

The dice roll draft works as follows: all players roll three six-sided dice of their own color.  Then there are spaces on the board, 1-18, which have resource icons on them (they are advisors you are trying to influence, so like a Merchant, a Wizard, a Duchess, etc.).  You “draft” a space (take it and nobody else can) by putting any number of dice on it that add up to exactly the number shown.  So with my 6-5-4 roll, I could take the 9 space with the 4-5, or the 15 space with all the dice, or the 6 space with just the 6, etc.  You keep going around the table until everyone’s out of dice (or can’t place anywhere).  There are neat mechanics in game – extra dice, bump the number up/down one, get a one-time +2 chit – that influence the roll in interesting, strategic and fun ways.

The downside is that this super fun core mechanic is accompanied by a sheet of stuff to spend resources on, that isn’t particularly compelling in my opinion.  Ostensibly, the structures make you (a) better at dice-drafting, (b) better at doing the regular-interval combat mechanic, or (c) get points, but they kind of feel haphazard and they are very hard to keep track of in-game.  I would prefer a different system for spending resources that integrates better with the dice-drafting part of the game – maybe everything makes you better at drafting, there are more spaces, and the primary way to get points is via the draft?

Regardless, the game has many compelling parts (there’s even fun in griefing your opponents by picking a spot they want right in front of them!) and if you are into strategy board games, I recommend picking it up!

Overall: B+
Core Mechanic (Dice-Drafting): A
Fiddliness/Wordiness: C+
Gold Icon That Looks Like a Lemon So Everyone Calls It Lemons: A++ (thanks Dylan!)

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Risk/Reward and Interaction

I was pondering two separate games, or ways to play games – Concentration (or Memory), and Winston Draft – and saw a common thread of interest to comment on.  In Concentration, each player takes turns trying to find a match on the board of scrambled tiles.  In Winston Draft, one player has the option to take a pile of cards for their deck or pass, but if they pass, another mystery card is added to that pile for the other player to look at / potentially choose.  In both styles of game, the player has to measure the risk of allowing their opponent additional benefit versus the reward of doing something awesome (matching/getting better cards).

One of the dangerous areas of game design that I realized after playing Dominion is that the amount and nature of interactivity in a multiplayer game has a huge effect on the enjoyment of the players.  When there is very little interaction, the game feels like a shared Solitaire experience and you don’t have any social benefit from playing together.  On the flip side, when there’s a ton of interactivity – like people attacking each other all the time in Small World, for example – players can get upset and frustrated because they are unable to execute their strategy and/or have fun that way.

I really like the way this interaction conundrum is solved in the risk/reward scenario outlined above.  Rather than pit players against each other, make it so that both (or all) players actions contribute toward a “pool” of resources in such a way that each player can ignore the benefit being given to the other if they desire, or they can factor it into their strategy (the less I give to others, the better off I am myself).

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