Theory: Rules for Player Powers

After hammering away at Lines of Questioning for a while, I feel that the latest variant is a great foundation for a “basic game.” However, it’s also incredibly difficult; saying that playtest victories have been elusive is somewhat like saying that one doesn’t often see a unicorn.

My thinking at the moment is that the core gameplay mechanics are solid, and that the difficulty issue can be addressed with role or power cards that give the player a little boost. Legal analysis teaches that a free-ranging quest for good ideas is less effective than following reliable guidelines, so I thought that as a first step I should try to create those guidelines. Here’s what I’ve come up with.

Player powers in cooperative games (which can include solo games for our purposes here) come in two types: weighting and unique. Both serve to make the game easier, and hopefully more fun as well. However, they accomplish these goals in very different ways.

Weighting powers make the player better at a game action everyone can take. The player might pay a lower cost for the action, or get a bigger payoff, or be able to take it when other players cannot. However it happens, the power weights the player’s choice; it puts something heavy on one side of the scale that balances the options.

Perhaps the quintessential weighting power is the Medic role in Pandemic. The Medic can do all the things the other players can do, but is the best in the game at treating sick people. Since treating sick people is absolutely necessary to win, and the Medic does it better than everyone else, the Medic player’s evaluation of how he should spend his turn is always going to be tilted in that direction.

Unique powers, by contrast, enable the player to do something outside the normal game rules. Instead of making a choice more appealing, as in the case of a weighting power, it adds a whole new option. Players without the power cannot replicate it, even inefficiently. Recent implementations of the idea include Forbidden Desert’s Climber, who cannot be buried under the game’s shifting sands, and Space Hulk: Death Angel’s squad-specific action cards.

Admittedly, the distinction between these categories is not always a bright line. Having a unique power does tend to weight one’s choices; the Climber can move to the same squares as every other Forbidden Desert character, but her additional safety can have a substantial effect on the choice of destination. Similarly, weighting powers can be considered “unique” insofar as they enable players to break the game’s normal rules.

I nevertheless feel that it’s useful to think in terms of powers as coming in two flavors, because they work out somewhat differently in play. Weighting and unique powers produce different behaviors in players and can be used for different purposes.

Weighting powers have subtle, but important, impacts. First, they provide guidance to the player. By making one choice more appealing, weighting powers signal to the player that that is a good choice and he should go in that direction as often as possible.

Think back to Pandemic. If you take a group of people who have never played the game and give them each a role, the players will naturally gravitate toward whatever their roles tell them they’re good at. The Medic will start treating the sick; the Researcher will try to get cards to the Scientist; the Operations Expert will build research stations. All of those are useful contributions, and so that inexperienced group will make progress in the game.

Compare that to what would happen if Pandemic had no role cards. Should everyone treat the sick? Maybe the best strategy is for everyone to build research stations all at once, and completely ignore the cards? Who knows! New players would be completely at sea, and might suffer through many frustrating games while they figured out a reasonable distribution of labor.

That thought experiment points toward another benefit of weighting powers: they are an easy source of player satisfaction. It feels good to treat sick people as a Medic, because each treatment is a little chance to be top dog. No one else can treat people like the Medic can.

As the game goes on those opportunities can even build into something especially satisfying, a reputation for competence and accomplishment. When the table comes to rely on the Medic, trusting him to keep them in the game while everyone else does their behind-the-scenes work, it gives a taste of what it’s like to achieve a position of responsibility in the real world.

By contrast, unique powers offer neither of those things. They do not generally help players decide what to do; if anything, they make in-game decisions more complex. In Space Hulk: Death Angel the purple squad has the ability to move the evil aliens around. It’s difficult to say whether and when that’s better than just attacking them; the choice is highly context-driven, and nothing about the ability itself signals which way the player should go.

Nor are unique powers always going to be wells of player satisfaction. Frequently they just create agita as players struggle to decide whether they should use a power now, or save it for later, or use the power in a different way. We have all seen people frustrated at the end of a game because they were so afraid of wasting their Cool Thing that they never actually did it.

Unique powers are nevertheless still valuable despite those weaknesses because they are an effective route to new decisions and different play experiences. As an example, take another look at Forbidden Desert. Most of Forbidden Desert’s players operate in an environment characterized by water scarcity. The Water Carrier, on the other hand, can have as much as she pleases if she’s willing to spend the time to dig a well; for her the game is all about opportunity costs. Having a unique power fundamentally changes the experience for that one player, which helps keep the game fresh and interesting.

These, then, are the rules I’ll be using as I design player powers for Lines of Questioning:

First, follow the rules here for when player powers are useful, and in what amounts.

Use a weighted power when (a) the power should help players, especially new players, decide how to approach the game; and/or (b) the power is meant to add satisfaction to the game experience.

Use a unique power when (a) the goal is to create a new set of decisions; and (b) the power will not frustrate players by being difficult to use correctly.

On Monday I’ll be back with first-draft ideas.


3 thoughts on “Theory: Rules for Player Powers

  1. Tom, I like your thoughts here. I am developing a game, MoonQuake Escape, and have been working through the initial steps of adding “powers” into the mix, probably as an add-on, but still considering. My theme includes “aliens”, so naturally unique powers are easy to lay into the game. My currently thinking is to assign the powers randomly via cards, vice tie a power to this or that alien, not like the roles in Pandemic. In my case, I’d like players to pick their favorite alien, and the special power is hidden info until it’s used.
    But, two point I’d like to bring up on your discussion. First, was the way you define “unique” powers as “outside the rules.” I really like to think of those as defining a specific way to “break the current rules”. Cosmic Encounters, Talisman, etc all give the characters a specific way to break a rule, and therefore it tightly ties to the rules, not “outside” the rules. This is how I decided on the powers to add to MoonQuake: Pick a rule, define a way to break it that doesn’t break the game, play test it for its fun factor.
    Second, I highly recommend you ensure your game balance is well established before adding powers. Play testing with powers may mask underlying balance issues that otherwise would have been easier seen. So, your choice to think about adding them now after you’re well into Lines of Questions is probably wise.
    Engaging observations and good luck on your project!

    1. Jeff,

      Thanks for the kind words! Taking your points in reverse order:

      I absolutely agree about the importance of having a well-understood base game before adding powers. Trying to balance both the core gameplay and powers that won’t always be present is running an experiment with too many variables.

      As regards “outside the rules” vs. “break the current rules,” my thinking is that “outside the rules” is useful because it’s clear about what’s happening. Every power breaks the rules–that’s why it’s a power and not a core game rule–but they break them in different ways. I feel that it’s valuable to have a way to refer to powers that let the players do things that aren’t even contemplated by the normal rules, thus the “outside” terminology. That might just be a lawyer’s preoccupation with words, though, and we seem to agree more than we disagree. 🙂

      I really like the power-designing approach of picking a rule and finding ways to break it that leave the game intact. That sounds like a fun bit of brainstorming that could lead in a lot of interesting directions. I’m going to try that in the future.

      MoonQuake Escape looks neat–that’s great cover art. Here’s hoping I get the chance to try it sometime soon!

  2. Great article! I had not considered the use of powers as a method of guiding new players into a cohesive team in cooperative games. My game Skulldug! makes heavy use of both types of player powers, so your article provides a useful lens to re-examine my own design through.

    I would disagree that unique powers are a source of agita by their nature, though — I feel that a well-designed unique power demands to be used, and prompts players to build their playstyle around it. (The water carrier you mentioned above is a good example of this.) A unique power that causes you stress over when and how to use it (such as the purple squad in Space Hulk) seems like a specifically poorly designed power, as it is not making its affordances clear or its usage compelling enough to drive the player’s decision making.

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