The Case Study: Limiting the “End Run”

While figuring out how to distribute player tokens in a small group, it became clear that the potential for the player tokens on the far left and right to run up the sides of the board was a problem. Although that strategy doesn’t work every time–in some games terrain or the searchers make progress along the sides of the board very slow–it frequently does, and it’s rarely very interesting. Having a boring-but-powerful strategy is terrible; it incentivizes players to play boring games, which can’t be right! Before going any further, this has to be worked out.

Facts: Since the beginning of Over the Next Dune, there has been a “flank” or “end run” strategy wherein the players on the far left and/or far right move to the sides of the board and then travel straight up. This strategy can be very powerful, for several reasons:

1. Searchers are often in the middle of the board, and spend relatively little time at the far sides. As a result, a player on the edge of the board is less likely to be caught.
2. The searchers spending little time at the edges also means that players there can push steadily toward their goal rather than spending time maneuvering.
3. Terrain is usually minimal on the edges, allowing rapid progress.
4. Searchers approach the far sides of the board from only a few angles, so players on the edges are not often surprised by a searcher catching them unexpectedly.

In addition to being powerful, the end run strategy is easy to implement. The players on the far left and right need simply move a few squares, and they fall into it almost by default.

Issue: How can Over the Next Dune be changed so that the end run contributes to, rather than detracting from, the fun of the game?

Rules:

1. Decisions players make should be interesting throughout the game.
2. Players must work together.
3. The game must admit of multiple solutions.

Thinking it through: The existence of the end run isn’t necessarily a terrible thing for OtND. Completely eliminating it would reduce the number of possible solutions. Furthermore, it can be fun for players to spot an approach and try to pursue it–making a plan and carrying it out can create a series of interesting decisions.

Right now, however, the end run is reducing options and interest. Its advantages mean that players on the ends tend to want to do it every time, and its simplicity means that it stops being interesting in a hurry. It needs to be toned done, either by making it weaker or by making it less available.

One obvious solution would be to plant some permanent terrain along the edges of the board. That would make it harder to progress up the board quickly, and encourage players to move toward the middle. However, that ends up reducing the options for the leftmost and rightmost player. Instead of having two options (move to the middle or end run), one of which is sometimes boring, they end up only really having one–to go to the middle. The end run becomes an ineffective choice; they could try it, but it’s probably just wrong.

It might be possible to have just enough terrain to discourage the end run while still making it a viable choice, but if it’s possible the balance would be exceptionally difficult to get right. I’d rather not go down that road.

Another possibility is to make it more likely that players will get caught going up the edges. However, as they are currently set up the searchers aren’t accomplishing that, and I don’t want to mess with their initial layout or movement. A lot of rules have been changing recently, and fiddling with the searchers just seems like putting too many variables into the experiment. There could just be a hard and fast rule on the subject–“if you move along the edge for three consecutive turns you get caught”–but that has both implementation problems (does a new searcher appear on the map?) and, well, it’s just an ugly bodge. Overall, the searchers don’t look like a productive place to look for a solution any more than terrain was.

There is, however, another lever to pull: the initial setup of the player tokens. Starting the player tokens more toward the center of the board adds challenge to the end run. It’s still good if players can make it work, but they will have to make a decision (!) to try it and work together (!) to shift safely to one side of the board.

In addition, grouping the players in the center of the board could reinforce that the players are a team. Although the rules say that OtND is a cooperative game, seeing the board with everyone spaced apart might give a different impression. Pushing the players together at the very beginning reinforces the message that acting in concert is part of the goal and part of the fun.

So far this solution seems like it deals with the problem and has a lot of upsides. However, there’s no way to be sure until it’s put to the test. Below is a new print-and-play file, with a map that has the players’ starting locations grouped in the middle. (The rest of the file is unchanged, so there’s no need to print out the rest if you already have.) If you get a chance, try the game with these new starting positions and let me know what you think.

Over the Next Dune – Print and Play – 3-21-14

P.S. I did fiddle terrain piece 4 a bit, but I wasn’t able to find a satisfactory way to make it easier to cut out while still being useful in play. I’m sorry!

P.P.S. This doesn’t change the arrangement of the players when playing with two to four–it only changes the coordinates where those players find their tokens.

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