The Case Study: Good, Better, Best in the Worst-Case Scenario

Last time we were searching for new resources with which to make OtND’s worst-case setup an actually interesting game (as opposed to merely theoretically winnable). The first place I looked was to an area of the rules that’s been bothering me for a while: what happens when a player gets caught. As matters stood getting caught flatly ended the game, and the worst-case scenario makes it very likely that someone will be caught. Yet, if getting caught was not a guaranteed loss but rather a resource, an opportunity to make a trade between short-term safety and long-term victory, that would make the worst-case setup more manageable while also potentially adding interest to any game in which a player makes a mistake. I decided to follow this line of thinking to see where it went, and I think the result is a substantial improvement both to the immediate problem and to the game as a whole.

The facts: For reference, the existing rule is:

The players lose if:

1.    Any player is caught by a searcher, represented by a searcher occupying the same square as the player’s token.

I wrote the rule this way for two reasons. First, it incentivizes the players to help each other. If player A’s fate is tied to player B’s, player A is more likely to work together with player B by tricking searchers and so forth. Second, it’s straightforward, and saving complexity here offered the opportunity to add it elsewhere.

However, as time has gone on I’ve increasingly come to feel that this approach might not be much fun. It’s stressful to feel like any mistake will have dire consequences, not just for you, but for others as well. Moreover, when someone gets caught it could prompt post-game recriminations. The fun of a game needs to extend to afterwards as well; if the game is entertaining during play but the experience turns sour as soon as it ends, it’s not fun overall.

The worst-case scenario is so bad because not everyone can be saved from getting caught, and if even one player is caught the game is over. Previously I was trying to find a way to let all the players escape, but it’s possible to attack the problem from the other angle. What if the consequences for getting caught were reduced?

The issue: How can the rules relating to players getting caught by the searchers be modified so as to avoid the problems with the existing rule, while also improving the players’ chances in the worst-case scenario?

The rules:

1. The game should be fun.
2. Players should have to work together.
3. The players’ decisions should be interesting.

Thinking it through: As it stands OtND glosses over “sending the prisoner to the rear”–once someone gets caught the game is over. However, what if that was actually played out, so that the players have an opportunity to rescue their teammate? That could be fun (everyone loves a chase scene), the implementation can encourage teamwork, and–if done right–it would be interesting.

I tried this out and I’m happy to say that it worked very well. Here’s an overview the new system (the new rulebook below has some additional details):

If a searcher occupies the same square as the player’s token, the player has been caught. The searcher immediately stops moving, and the player’s token is put on the searcher’s center square. (If multiple players are caught at the same time, put all of their tokens on the searcher’s center square. This is an exception to the normal rule that player tokens cannot occupy the same square.) Turn the searcher so that it faces directly “down” toward the players, away from the players’ goal. A caught player cannot be caught again; other searchers ignore caught player tokens.

While caught, a player does not participate in the sneak phase. During the search phase, other players can rescue those who have been caught by having two or more player tokens adjacent to the searcher who caught the player(s). As soon as that happens (even during a player’s movement), the caught player places his or her player token on any space adjacent to the searcher who caught him or her. The caught player then takes an available turn order card, and plays out his or her turn normally. (If multiple players are rescued at the same time, they take turn order cards in player order. For example, if the second and fourth players are caught, the second player takes a turn order card and then the fourth player.)

If a searcher with one or more caught players reaches row 20, those squad members are beyond saving and the players lose.

There are several things about this that I really like. Players still have to work together, now both to avoid getting caught and to get free after the fact. Furthermore, in playtesting the decisions surrounding the rescues were engaging; picking just the right path to rescue someone while still making good use of the turn by progressing toward friendly lines and/or moving the searcher into a more favorable location was tricky and interesting. Last but not least, it was just plain fun to go save somebody from a dire fate.

Since part of the exercise is to resolve the worst-case scenario, I did a focused playtest on it with the new rule. The game turned out much, much better. Figuring out how to arrange matters so that rescues on turn 2 would be feasible, and then carryout out the rescues, was tense and exciting.

All of the testing so far has been in solo games, but I suspect that the new approach will also go a long way toward solving the post-game-blame problem. Now responsibility for a loss gets spread around; the player who got caught is on the hook for being in the searcher’s way, but the others share some fault for not getting the person out. Everyone is in a bit of a glass house, and will hopefully be less inclined to throw stones.

It must be admitted that there are two weaknesses to the new system. One is that it expands one line in the rulebook into three paragraphs. That doesn’t make the change unacceptable, but complexity creep is definitely something to keep an eye on.

The second concern is that this is a “lose a turn” mechanic: captured players can’t play until someone rescues them. I really, really hate losing turns. One doesn’t have much fun playing a game when one isn’t actually playing!

With that said, two factors make me willing to give it a go here. The major one is that no player will ever be captured very long. Since the searchers turn back right away, players will most likely have one to two turns in which to rescue their teammate. Either the captured player gets back into the game promptly, or the game ends–either way, the captured player is not left twiddling his or her thumbs.

Second, as Zileas mentions in his discussion of anti-fun patterns, it can be OK to dip into a poor mechanic if the cost is outweighed a substantially greater payoff. Losing turns is a lousy mechanic indeed, but I think this use of it makes the game a lot more fun. The benefits accrue, not just in the worst-case scenario, but every time there would otherwise have been post-game unpleasantness.

I’ve attached a revised set of rules below. If you get a chance, take them for a spin and let me know what you think.

Over the Next Dune – Rules – 2-21-14

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