Hello everyone! This blog post is a little different as it is more of an essay about game design, but more specifically, about how to control players through design. I also talk about how I did so during the design process (which involved heaps of playtesting and iteration) and how I slowly but surely gained control of the player experience through the design of the gameplay. I have also made a video to accompany this blog post, though I still recommend reading the post as it has more detail and different details.
When designing a board game, you can’t just think about what the player’s can do, but also, what they can’t do. I went on quite the journey of discovery with my latest game Food Time Battle in Space regarding this concept, but I also want to talk about games like Calico and Wingspan.
Firstly though, before I get into the nitty gritty, let’s talk about why you would even want to restrict what a player can do. You may even think this illogical, as surely you would want to provide as much value as possible to your players when designing a game. More cards, more mechanisms, more meeples, more everything if you can. However, despite this maybe making a large, heavy and impressive box on the store shelves, it could actually be very detrimental to the overall player experience.
One of the easiest ways for you as a designer to create meaningful choices for your players to make, is by controlling what choices can be made, and by controlling how often they can be made. To make this relevant to a couple of popular board games, let’s take a look at Calico. Calico creates a very tense and strategic experience. Calico is a tile drafting game, which means that the core mechanism is picking up tiles from a communal pool and then that tile becomes yours. In Calico, you have a communal pool of just three tiles at any given time, so on a players turn, they remove a third of those tiles as they pick up one, and then another one gets placed down for the next player. This lack of options is the perfect way to control the player through design. Due to the limited availability of each tile, coupled with the fact that the game inherently requires very specific tiles for you to maximise your board, the player has just two questions in mind. Are any of these three tiles good for me? And then usually if that’s a no, the next question is, are any of these three tiles good for my opponent? This amount of control despite all of the variables in this game, the goals which are unique to each game, the sub goals which are unique to each game, the 36 variations of tiles, shows just how well designed this game is.
With regards to Food Time Battle in Space, the initial design was almost the complete opposite of this philosophy. If you would like to watch a short how to play video for Food Time Battle in Space, our upcoming Kickstarter game which will be live from February 2nd 2021, then you can check it out on our YouTube channel. In the early days of FTBS, I wanted to give the players as many ways to play as possible, as many choices as possible so they could build their own engine their own way without me, the designer, interfering. Unfortunately, this lead to player’s building engines that just didn’t work, as the pool of cards were both too small, and too big. This could have been fixed by taking an approach similar to Wingspan, where the game has heaps of cards and an uncontrolled card drafting pool, kind of like the original version of FTBS, but the main difference is that with Wingspan, mechanisms for the cards vary very little, and if they do, it is minimal. This means that despite there being a lack of control with regards to card drafting, the similarity between the cards allowed for synergistic engines to be easily built as long as you planned well. However with FTBS, I wanted each ability to be unique, whilst sharing mechanisms with other cards to promote that same synergistic gameplay. Unfortunately, this meant that players were struggling to find any two cards in the pool that would work well together. On top of that, with a problem unique to FTBS, completing difficult cards (which is how you draft cards in FTBS) without a solid, synergistic engine, is almost impossible due to the nature of how you complete cards in FTBS. So this meant that if the card pool was initially filled with difficult cards, or maybe after players had completed just a couple of the easy cards, the pool would then be filled with difficult cards and games would just grind to a halt every time because no player could complete any cards.
So as a designer, what I took away from the first couple of playtesting sessions was that I needed to control the game more. I needed to control what mechanisms players could gain, as I wanted to maintain the unique aspects of each card, and I needed to control the difficulty of the cards in the drafting pools. This led me down the decision to make each player have their own decks of cards to complete, along with separate decks for each level of difficulty. As there are certain mechanisms in each deck which still allow players to interact, the lack of a centralised card pool doesn’t affect the amount of intractability between players too much, but at the same time creates a sense of solitude in creating their own perfect engine without any “take-that” style theft of cards that other players know they have no need for, but know that you have a need for, like in Calico.
Personally, in the future I do have plans, if economical, to add an expansion to the game which brings back the central pool with quite a big twist on the standard mechanism, but for now the game succeeds on creating a controlled, yet varied and strategic experience. If you would like the full breakdown of the playtesting journey that I went on with regards to FTBS, then check out either the blog post at niallcrabtree.com, or the video on the You Tube channel.
That’s about it regarding how I attempted to control the players of FTBS through design, so thank you very much for joining me. If you think that FTBS is interesting, make sure to check out the Kickstarter page and back the game!
Hello, my name is Niall Crabtree, and this is my comprehensive blog showcasing all of my game development endeavors and successes, as well as essays on game design.
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