Archive for June, 2006

Puerto Rico

June 29, 2006

Puerto Rico is one of my all time favourite board games. It’s a complex game, with depth of strategy not seen very often elsewhere. It is a game for 3-5 players, and different game pieces are used depending on the number of players, which means that playing games with 3, 4 or 5 players are all equally valid options, and provide equally good games.

The basic premise is that the players are landlords and merchants on the island of Puerto Rico, during colonial times. The aim of the game is to score the most victory points, by building factories and other buildings, and by farming various resources and shipping them back to the Old World.

During a turn in a Puerto Rico there will be several phases, one for each player. The player that goes first is the Governor, and he picks a role for the turn. The role picked will determine the next phase played, picking ‘Builder’ will allow building to be created, picking ‘Captain’ will allow resources to be shipped. There are more roles than players, so not every phase will happen in each turn, and the phases will happen in a different order in each turn.

The player that picks a role will have a benefit during that phase, such as cheaper buildings for the player who picked the Builder role. Roles that are not picked during a turn will have a coin placed on them, to make them more attractive picks during the next turn. Coins are required to pay for buildings.

Before we have even considered play strategies and the various ways of winning, you can see that the game changes based on the turn created by the players’ phase picks, it’s an extra element of strategy that is rarely seen, and it works very well.

There is no dominant strategy in Puerto Rico, nor are there certain ways of progressing well tactically given you’ve picked a strategy to follow. It is always possible to prevent another player doing well, and sometimes it’s even possible to block other players without damaging your own position.

This is getting a little long, so I’m going to leave it here, and come back to of how the game works, and go into a bit of detail into the various strategies and tactics of the game.

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Random Elements

June 22, 2006

Random elements are interesting, because they introduce information into the game that is hidden from all of the players. When random elements are included, you need two attributes to perform well, some ability with basic statistics, and luck.

Settlers has a large random element, resource production is determined by the roll of the dice, the sum of two six sided dice to be precise. Now, I'm going to assume that everyone is aware of the probability distribution of the sum of two six sided dice, but you'll notice the link if you aren't aware of the breakdown. Settlers has some complexities to it that make a simplistic analysis dangerous, but I'm going to do that anyway.

I think it would be fair to say, that a Settlers player will see an advantage if they have resource production that occurs on the role of a six or an eight. These numbers are the most common (barring seven, which has special meaning and does not produce resources). If you produce resources with these common rolls, then you are acting to mitigate the effect of the random element, via statistical analysis.

Whilst we expect the totals six and eight to occur most often, there is no guarantee that this will actually occur over the course of a given game. This is where you must rely on luck to aid you. If you produce resources on a roll of 3 or 4, and this total is rolled often in the game, then you have gained an advantage from your luck.

If a game is influenced too greatly by luck, then this will tend to detract from its interest to the serious gamer. We seek games that reward skill and ability during play, and a large element of luck will reduce the impact of skill on the game.

Why are random elements included in games, they introduce luck, and reduce the skill of play?

Firstly, they encourage the use of different skills, statistical rather than deterministic analysis. Not everyone can be a superb Chess player, we recognise this, and design games that require different skills.

Secondly, they introduce an unpredicatable element to the game. Once you are clearly winning in Chess, the game may as well be over, once you are clearly winning in Settlers, it is always possible the dice will turn against you, and never allow you to produce more resources.

Finally, rolling dice and flipping cards is exciting, and that is something that is always worth considering, we are playing games after all.

Merchant Venturers – Board Layout

June 21, 2006

Last night I updated the Merchant Venturers rules with a diagram of the initial board layout, as promised in a previous post.

I'm working on images for the various game pieces, this may take a little while, I'm going to be away for the next two weekends. As ever, I'll keep you posted on any developments, and I'm always keen to hear from people with any comments (especially those of you with a bit more ability with art and drawing than me).

Hidden Information

June 20, 2006

Some board games provide all the relevant information regarding the game to all players at all times. Go, Chess and Mancala are all examples of this type of game, there is nothing hidden from either player, all pieces are on the board, all the attributes of each piece and each rule of the game is visible and known in full.

Other games hide information, Development cards in Settlers, Risk cards in Risk and so on. This hiding of information adds a further level of analysis and complexity to the game. In a game without hidden information, then victory will ultimately go to the player best able to analyse the play situation, this is why we see Computers becoming the bast Chess players in the world.

Some games have apparently hidden information, which is not really hidden to those with good memories, Resource cards in Settlers and Victory points in Puerto Rico are both examples of this, they are kept secret once acquired, but each player sees all such acquisitions. To all but those with perfect memories, this information is somewhere between hidden and freely available, depending on each individual’s ability to recall details of who acquired what over a given time.

I think that hidden information provides a more social aspect to a game, it encourages the art of blag, and generally gives opportunities for negotiation and trade in the hidden information. Knowing something that is secret has value, and holding secrets can allow you to wield more influence over the game than would be possible if you converted the secrets to visible information.

So, hidden information can be said to add an extra dimension to gameplay in a given game. Too much can prove detrimental to the game. A chess game where you cannot see your opponent’s pieces might be an interesting game, but it would certainly no longer be chess. Too little will also change a game, and possibly lessen it. Making Resource or Development cards visible information in Settlers will remove most of the finer parts of the  trading game, making your Poker hand visible would destroy the entire point of that game.

When adding hidden information to a game, you need to think hard about what you are trying to achieve, whether it is truly necessary or not, and whether you are going to employ truly hidden information, or only apparently hidden information.  

Merchant Venturers – Diagrams added

June 19, 2006

I've added a couple of the promised diagrams to the rules of
Merchant Venturers. I'm still working on the main board layout diagram, which should hopefully be done before the weekend. This is the most important diagram, without a board layout it is quite hard to actually play the game.

This diagram is a bit more complex than the other two, but it's nearly done, and hopefully it will be a significant and useful addition to the published rules.

Game rules

June 15, 2006

Writing rules for a game is always a difficult proposition. There is a line to be walked between writing too much, and not enough. If you write too much, then you will lose the attention of your reader, too little and they will not be able to understand the rules you are trying to convey.

Including examples with a set of rules is, I feel, very important. An illustrative example can really aid in the understanding of the rules. A diagram can be even more helpful, pictures really can be worth a thousand words. As in all things though, they must be considered in moderation. Too many diagrams and examples can distract from the main purpose of the rules, and this is obviously undesirable.

I think that the main effort of a rules document should be focused on the specific or unusual areas of your game. If your game is a variant of a well known game, then don't reproduce the rules of the base game, but do be sure that you cover the exceptions or differences sufficiently. Make sure as well, that you provide extra illustration of any exceptions to the general run of play. If it usually costs you one Gold coin to purchase a resource, but it takes two in Winter, then this seems to be a part of the game which would be ripe for an example.

The length of a rules document is also important. Don't expect the general public to read more than a page or two of rules (possible up to 4 sides of A4 if sufficiently illustrated). A rules booklet that runs to up to around 20 pages is possible if your game is for more dedicated gamers, and any rules longer than this will only hold the attention of truly serious gamers. Each extra page of rules will tend to limit your possible market, as the number of people willing (and able!) to read and understand your rules will get smaller. Always consider removing unnecessary rules, and look to rewrite rules to be simpler and shorter to explain. I would very much advise against producing rule documents without extensive testing, it's as important to play-test the rule documents as the game itself, because it's very rare the game players will have the benefit of the game creator on hand to walk them through the difficult or poorly explained concepts of a badly written rules document .

Unassailable lead

June 13, 2006

In many games it is a valid strategy to aim to build a large lead at an early stage in the game, then merely keep pace with the other players as the game goes on, hence ensuring that you win with a comfortable margin.

In most games where there is a large degree of co-operation available between the players,I would think that this is a risky strategy at best. If there is an obvious leader, there is an obvious target for any limiting or destructive moves, that may otherwise be played more randomly. In a four player game with an obvious leader, I have often seen the other three players team up against them to prevent them winning. It generally requires a totally crushing advantage, or a serious skill disparity to allow the lone player to fend off the assault of the other three.

Hence I would tend to say that a preferred strategy would be to not take the immediate lead, but to place yourself in a position to take full advantage once the early leader is overhauled. Ride at the head of the chasing pack, rather than being the trailblazer.

Some games will not have the degree of player co-operation available to allow an early leader to be caught. If you find this to be the case then I would advise you avoid against these games, if a lucky start can determine the winner of the game, then there would seem little point in wasting the time to play out the remainder, either pack up and start again, or move on to something with a little more depth.

Aggressive versus Passive interactions

June 12, 2006

Boardgames that are interesting to play generally feature a significant amount of interaction between the various players. There are board games where this is not so much the case, but games of solitaire are not really what we are interested in here.

I find that there are two main methods of interaction, Passive and Aggressive. I'm not sure that these can ever be fully delimited or defined, but I think I can illustrate the two best by means of an example.

Chess is a game that encourages aggressive interaction between the two players. The aim of the game is to checkmate the opposing King, and to do so you must generally take some of the opposing pieces. So, you are aiming to remove the resources of the other player, which directly reduces their ability to oppose you and further influence the game.

Settlers is a game that encourages more passive player interaction. Once a piece is played on the board, it cannot be removed. You can limit access to other resources by claiming territory, or blocking the expansion of another player, but you cannot take away the pieces they have played.

When we wonder which is best, passive or aggressive interaction, it is hard to be entirely certain. It would seem that very few games could rely entirely on one type of interaction or the other, for example, I would classify the robber in Settlers as an aggressive form of player interaction, but this is one of the few elements. The German-style games tend to favour passive interaction, and American are more skewed towards aggressive.

I find that I tend to prefer to design to the German style, so favour the passive interaction, but I am more than will to use aggressive interaction elements in a game should I feel that they are merited. I prefer to see players with the opportunity to potentially get back into the game if they start badly, which is impossible to do if they are totally eliminated due to aggressive interactions. I am always conscious that the passive interaction can lead to an elimination in all but name, as the poorly performing player can have all viable play options removed, I always try to design to avoid these situations where possible, but sometimes it is unavoidable.

Merchant Venturers

June 8, 2006

Last night I made available the rule for my new game, Merchant Venturers. This is one of the games I discueesed in my previous post.

It is a game of trade and adventure on the high seas, where your aim is to become the richest trader in the Old World, master of the largest trading fleet and empire of trading posts, within ten years.

Check it out: Merchant Venturers.

It's just the rules at the moment, the diagrams and playing pieces are on the way, and will hopefully be available for download soon. As it's so sparse, I've released it without a 'Pay for me' link. I'll add one when I think it's in good enough shape to warrant it.