What is a Slow Burn?
I enjoy the slow burn of some board games, and what I mean by that is I love it when about two-thirds of the way into my first playthrough of a board game, the eureka moment hits me. I think this is why this game is fun; this is why my decisions are important and matter. And that statement at the end right there is the crux of what makes an enjoyable slow-burning gaming experience for me.
Having meaningful decisions in a game can be tricky to design regardless. Having them from the get-go can create intense analysis paralysis for the newer player. That's why I think having these decisions be more meaningful towards the end of the game can allow people to canter into the experience without much drag and hesitation. This experience is essentially my entire design philosophy, so I appreciate it when identifying other games' strategies to making slow-burning "gateway" games.
One of the other great things about a slow-burning game is that it often leads to quite a moreish reaction from players who initially played it. Before writing this post, I thought it would be best to see how relatively new members receive a slow-burning game to the hobby who only play light to middle-weight games. I played with five different people; Oliver, Lauren, Meg, Lewis and Alex (I won't go through all their experiences as that will take too long). On top of that, I played with Oliver (my brother) and Meg (my partner) multiple times, which turned out to be interesting.
Firstly, Oliver and Lauren had very different reactions to the game the first time around. Oliver is more inclined to play games like Disney Villainous and The Binding of Isaac: Four Souls, where there are many options, lots of strategy, and lots of take-that elements right from the get-go. However, Lauren loves games like Sagrada, Calico and Azul, so Carcassone is very much made for her. Meg went on the journey of discovering the quality of Carcassone as I had initially anticipated.
Oliver didn't have the best time with Carcassone on his first playthrough. He fixated on the end game goals and ignored many ways to gain points during the game. From a psychological standpoint, this leads to the player feeling unaccomplished and stuck waiting for the end of the game, which you never want to see when playing a game like Carcassonne.
However, on his second playthrough, he placed meeples down in small kingdoms and on roads he knew he could complete. Unlike him, he avoided conflict with other players. This left him having a much better time. He got invested heavily in other player's games and what they were doing, leading to collective excitement whenever a player drew a new tile.
Having this slow-burning experience designed into the game can work both ways. Oliver's example is one in which it might not always be favourable. The first time Oliver played Carcassone could have been his last if I didn't force him to play it again. It was because Carcassone doesn't force you to see what is so great about it straight away and instead relies on replays of the game. Thankfully it worked out for the best.
This phrase is something I mentioned earlier in the post. It continues to be on my mind even into the second day of writing this. It's fascinating to think about such a core restriction of play, literally how the game gets resolved, is ever-evolving and changing and ticking down along with the imaginary clock that is those three precarious piles of tiles. It excites me and inspires me to develop similar mechanisms that capture that magic, but with my unique twist.
The difference between these games and Carcassone is that with Carcassone, you can always pick up a tile and place it down somewhere that can be positive for the player. Many of these other games focus on the limitation mechanisms on punishing the player for not acting correctly or quickly, whilst Carcassone focuses on the positive feedback loop that we all love it for.
As I write blog posts, I often discover aspects of games I didn't think about until I get to the post's conclusion section. This time, it's come from reading back through this post and seeing that I take a lot of value in the game evolving cognitively from the players perspective the more they play it. Games like Calico and Azul do not have this quality for me or the people I play with. Still, with Carcassone, it just keeps changing, and I think that's great, and it's also why I love slow-burning gaming experiences.
What to read/watch/listen to next.
/podcast/ Board Games - A Walk in the Park #6 - Carcassonne & Slow Burning Game Design
/blog/ Food Time Battle in Space - January 2021 (A blog post about how Calico controls player's through limitations).
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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