The Case Study: Player Powers, Take Two

Cooperative games often give each player a unique power: Pandemic makes one player a scientist and another a medic, while Forbidden Desert has one player be good at carrying water while another can dig quickly. Yet, it isn’t necessary for a co-op to do so; Space Alert is a great game, and all of its players are on equal footing. I’ve been interested in bringing unique player abilities into Over the Next Dune, and have even put forward some untested ideas, but before sinking a lot of time into it I want to figure out with confidence whether OtND is in the category of games that benefit from such abilities or the category that doesn’t.

When would one want to add unique player powers to a game? I’ve come up with a couple of possibilities:

1. The game benefits from a certain amount of something, but no more. Pandemic would be easy if everybody had the medic’s ability to cure lots of people in a turn. However, letting one person do that is just enough to keep the players above water when the cards flip the wrong way and disease suddenly spreads all over. A single medic serves as a safety valve without making the game trivial.

2. The unique abilities provide very different game experiences. Playing a Dwarf Trollslayer in Warhammer Quest has little in common with playing a Grey Wizard. Providing such distinctive experiences adds a lot of replayability, since getting tired of one of them doesn’t mean you’re tired of the game as a whole.

3. The unique abilities create new, interesting decisions. Playing the water carrier in Forbidden Desert is neat because in addition to the game’s usual decisions you have to decide how important it is to stay close to oases. Figuring out when it’s safe to go help the team and when you should to stay behind collecting water is tricky. The unique power is valuable in part because it brings that interesting decision to the table.

Looking at that list, I’m struck by the fact that it’s mostly about the powers rather than the game. Do the abilities provide different experiences? Do they create new decisions? It depends on what the abilities are!

We could come at the problem from the other direction. When would one not want unique player powers in a game?

1. Giving players unique capabilities would undermine the game’s mechanics. Diplomacy is a classic game of cooperation (and competition). It’s a wargame where the players’ strengths start out relatively even, so to make progress you have to cut deals. If the players had special abilities they could rely on it might make negotiation less important–and the negotiation is the reason to play.

2. The game is at a complexity limit. Space Alert is played in real-time on a 10-minute clock. Players make mistakes and overlook things, even without having to track the effects of special powers. If people were also trying to manage unique abilities the game could tip from “hilarious barely-controlled chaos” into “impossible and frustrating.”

Over the Next Dune certainly isn’t so complicated that it can’t bear the weight of unique abilities. I’m less certain whether player powers would undermine the game’s central challenge of tricking the searchers. On the one hand, the more tools the players have the less likely they are to take the risk of getting close to searchers to pull them around. On the other hand, it seems like abilities could be created that would increase rather than detract from engagement with the searcher-tricking mechanic.

The best way to resolve that uncertainty is with some testing. How about this as a starting point:

Pop a Tire: If this player token is adjacent to one or more searchers at the start of the Sneak Phase, that searcher is affected by terrain during the next Search Phase. (Any time during the next Search Phase that searcher’s movement would cause it to enter one or more squares with terrain in them, the searcher must expend two squares of movement instead of one. If it does not have enough movement remaining to expend two squares of movement, it stops moving.)

My thought is that this creates a new decision (whether and when to slow down a searcher) and a potentially different game experience (seeking out searchers instead of avoiding them), without adding complexity (players will already know the terrain rules) or undermining the central mechanic (since it increases rather than decreases the mechanic’s use during the game). I also like that, as noted in the first iteration of this ability, it doesn’t empower one player; rather, it helps a player assist the others.

That’s one power, but there can be five players in a game of Over the Next Dune. I’ll be back with more on Monday.

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