Theory: Avoid Thematic Mismatch

We shouldn’t judge books by their cover, but we expect the cover to tell us something about what’s inside. Similarly, a game’s theme sets expectations about what it will be like. What’s more, just as we’re disappointed when a book turns out to be other than what its cover advertised, players are apt to be frustrated when a game’s play diverges wildly from its theme. It’s therefore important to make sure that a game’s experience and theme align, lest players be put off of otherwise good products because they weren’t what was expected.

I saw this issue crop up when playing Ryu. Ryu is absolutely plastered with dragons. There’s a giant dragon on the box, dragons on the player screens, even big dragon meeples! Everything about this game screams dragons.

Pause for just a moment and think about what you would expect to find in a game about dragons. Fire-breathing, maybe. Accumulating a hoard of treasure. Doing battle against knights.

Ryu has . . . visiting islands. It also features a simple economy (expressed through wooden cubes). One wins by building a mechanical dragon.

Not fighting with the mechanical dragon. Not breathing fire with the mechanical dragon. Building the mechanical dragon.

There’s nothing wrong with a building a mechanical dragon, and after playing Ryu I found that the game actually had some interesting things going on. A key dynamic in my play-through was acquiring enough materials to build sustainably without having so many as to be targeted by thieves. Judging when opponents would push the thieves into motion, and how to spend enough to avoid being a wealthy target while saving enough to maintain a critical mass of economic power, was interesting.

However, I couldn’t help but be disappointed as the game drew to a close. I had so very much expected excitement, and I got something awfully dry.

By contrast, Agricola’s box is very clear about what the game is going to be—a family-friendly take on farming. No one ever bought it only to be frustrated when the play didn’t match the cover!

Not every game is a thrill-a-minute affair, and those that aren’t are better off without themes that establish expectations they can’t meet. In the same way, pulse-pounding games will find it harder to attract their desired audiences with sedate art. Choose a theme that works with the game’s play; your players, and by extension you, will be happier for it.

Theory: Immersion through Options vs. Immersion through Process

There are two ways to make gameplay “feel” more thematic: by letting players do thematic things, and by having players do those things in thematic ways. Both of those approaches can work, but the former creates more room for design errors and balancing pitfalls. Achieving thematic play through a focus on how players carry out their tasks, rather than by letting them choose from the broadest possible array of options, is thus the safest course.

Many games seek to create immersion by matching play to theme. In fact, getting play and theme to line up is often considered central to having a compelling game. One need only compare the rave reviews given to the experience of playing a driving game with wheel and pedals to the critiques of board games with “pasted on” themes to see the great importance placed on theme coming out through action, and not just through art.

At Your Fingertips: Immersion Through Plentiful Options

Play and theme are frequently connected by seeking to give players all the options they would have if they were “really there.” Thus, in Starfleet Battles—a game of Star Trek space combat—players can use the transporter to move crew members . . . or to beam proximity mines near opposing ships. Shuttles can be sent out to act as fighter craft that harass the enemy vessel, or even to ram them. Whatever a person in the setting might be able to do, games like Starfleet Battles seek to let the player do. The hope is that the player will therefore feel herself an inhabitant of the fictional world.

Unfortunately, this approach has two major weaknesses. First, its limitations quickly become apparent. Shuttles in Starfleet Battles can’t (to my knowledge) have their engines tied into their parent ship’s engines, even though that’s something a starship captain who’s “really there” might want to do. Transporters can’t be used to reposition asteroids to act as navigational hazards, or to pluck out key pieces of opposing vessels, or for many of the infinite uses one might find for pinpoint matter relocation. It’s just not realistic to give the player every option, and before too long the player starts to notice these invisible walls.

Second, and more critically, the quest to make all the possibilities accessible to the player leads to severe design issues. Options might be so unrelated to each other as to need entirely different mechanisms to be satisfying: adding diplomacy to Starfleet Battles, for example, would mean more than just putting a “Talk” entry on the weapon charts. Bringing a wide range of strategies into a game’s ambit can quickly lead to the worst kind of feature-creep.

Even if whole new mechanics are not required, giving players additional choices still opens a can of worms. New capabilities imply a need for counter-capabilities, which may themselves require counter-counter-capabilities. If I could tie the shuttles into main power to get stronger phasers, my opponents would probably need access to better shields lest they get steamrolled by my Voltron-ship—and then I would need a way to break those shields when I don’t have a bunch of shuttles available. Complexity mounts as the options pile up.

By itself, complexity is generally something to be avoided. It’s particularly to be feared in this context, though, because game-breaking design problems lurk below its surface. Left unchecked, the profusion of choices and counter-choices leads to a game that is balanced (hopefully, anyway—it would be hard to tell) but nigh-impossible for anyone but the most invested players to come to grips with. Intimidating rulebooks are not conducive to attracting or retaining people!

Some miniatures games fall prey to this situation. Rules stack on rules: this faction gets to be invisible, so another faction gets tools to see through the invisibility, and then the first faction needs a new trick because invisibility isn’t reliable anymore. The see-through-invisibility faction can also see people hiding in underbrush, so now the “guerilla fighters” faction gets caught in the crossfire, and they need something new as well. By the time balance is restored the rules are a lot thicker!

Moreover, that’s not the worst possible outcome. Arguably a greater danger is the possibility that some choice won’t get its counter, or that the counter will prove too weak. Sooner or later players will notice, and when they do the game will devolve toward a dominant strategy. At that point the game will still be learnable, but it will no longer be worth learning!

Fighting games sometimes end up in that unfortunate situation. Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike is a lot of fun . . . but the things that were supposed to keep Yun’s Genei Jin super move in check didn’t work out. The entire game warped around the Genei Jin, such that much of 3rd Strike strategy boils down to landing or avoiding it. 3rd Strike is a tremendous entry in the pantheon of fighting games—more current games struggle to live up to its art, and that’s to say nothing of the gameplay—but among its astonishing wealth of options an overpowered one slipped through.

Giving players lots of capabilities is, therefore, a double-edged sword. It can contribute to immersion, making the player feel like she is “really there.” However, it can also highlight the options that aren’t available, and can lead to problems with complexity and balance. There are thus good reasons to think that a different approach to immersion might be more attractive.

Tending the Earth: Immersion Through Focus on Process

One such is to put emphasis, not on providing a wealth of choices, but on the nitty-gritty of each individual option. Rather than allowing shuttles to do 10 things (but not any of the 90 others one might want, and #8 is too good owing to a miscommunication with the playtesters), they might only do two—but executing each of those options is challenging and rewarding. Players thus feel that they’re “really there,” not because they can do anything they might choose, but because they get involved in carrying out the choices they make.

As an example, we might go back to flight simulators. Flight sims don’t really have very many options. Players can’t choose instead to drive a tank, or fight on foot, or resolve the issue diplomatically, or apply pressure through NGOs. Many don’t even have any sort of combat; the only thing players do is take off from one airfield, fly in a more-or-less straight line, and then land at another!

Yet, these games have enduring appeal—and that’s because they’re so good at capturing the process. A good flight sim makes the player feel like he’s the captain of the flight, living an entirely different life. Managing the plane is not easy, but doing it well feels great, and having to attend to all of the details maximizes the “you are there” feeling.

This approach to immersing a player in theme can be just as satisfying as providing lots of options. What’s more, it’s much safer from a design perspective. Since options are not proliferating, there’s less need to be concerned about layering of counters and counter-counters. It’s easier to recognize each possibility, to understand its full implications, and to ensure that it’s balanced within the game.

Furthermore, games taking this approach are often easier to learn. Actions have clear implications: do X to achieve Y, at which point you’re ready to do Z. That kind of stepwise process is much more intuitive than a slew of rock-paper-scissors relationships, many in number and some of them (all of them?) involving more than three possibilities.

This is not to say that games focusing on process necessarily have shorter rulebooks, or that they are easy to learn in an absolute sense. Falcon 4.0, a now-venerable flight sim, memorably came with a technical manual describing how to fly an F-16 in such depth that it served as the game’s packaging! By the time a player was ready to take on missions in Falcon 4.0, she was well on the way to actually being able to handle a real Fighting Falcon.

The point instead is that process is easier to learn than arbitrary counters and counter-counters. Falcon 4.0 was workable for those willing to invest the requisite time; a list of options as long as Falcon’s technical manual would have been completely unplayable. Given a length of rules, those rules will probably be easier to grasp if they’re about process than if they’re about alternatives.

As a recent example of how this approach works, let’s look at Agricola. Agricola is a highly-rated game about farming set in Middle Ages Europe. Players feed their families, and farming is the only way to do it; there’s no option to become a trader, or to resort to banditry.

That limitation might seem unthematic—why can’t I apprentice myself to the local builder, and raise beautiful cathedrals for a living?—but it leads to a much better design. First, the game is surprisingly easy to learn considering how much is going on. There’s worker placement and cards and resources and a mini-map for each farm, but the focus on process makes it all manageable. Whenever a player isn’t sure how to do something, he can just ask “well, what steps would I take if I really were a farmer?” The answer is usually very close to how it works in the game.

In addition, focusing on process allows Agricola to create variety in a way that avoids balance issues. One of the major strategies in Agricola can be summarized as “feed the family with grain products;” another is “feed the family with meat from farm animals.” So long as those macro-level options are kept balanced, it’s much easier to let players acquire grain or animals in lots of different ways suitable to middle ages townspeople. The limitations on the “grain strategy” and the “animal strategy” as a whole provide a safety valve and ensure that none of them will get too far out of whack.

Experience has demonstrated that this works surprisingly well. Agricola has lots of cards that give players unique advantages, but only one has received official errata for power reasons. While other cards have prompted discussion as to whether they’re overpowered, the checks and balances that control all strategies—competition for action spaces, in particular—has served to, at the very least, keep the issue open. Limiting players’ food options to grain, vegetables, and meat keeps the number of things to be balanced reasonable, and that contributes to the game’s excellent play-balance track record.

Diplomacy is another example of a game about process rather than options. It offers players very few choices: they can move their pieces to a small number of neighboring locations, and try to bump other pieces out. Most of the elements that have come to be associated with the empire-building genre—technological advancement, a wide variety of military units, resources that build up—are absent. In fact, there are so few possibilities for much of the game that Diplomacy has named openings and defined midgame positions, in the manner of chess.

Nevertheless, Diplomacy is a deep, fascinating game. Like Agricola, the how is interesting even though the what is not; there are a lot of situations that could lead to “A Marseilles -> Piedmont,” all of them different and all of them worthy of exploring.

Furthermore, Diplomacy’s paucity of options helps maintain the balance that has kept it worthy of tournament play for decades. There’s no unexpected combo that can take a game over on the third turn, and no technology that hard-counters Austria’s primary weapon. Simplicity ensures that the multiplayer dynamics Diplomacy relies upon for balance have room to work.

Immerse Yourself

There’s no one right way to achieve immersion—but there are ways that are more or less likely to cause problems in the long run. Providing lots of options, allowing players to try everything they might conceivably try if they were “really there,” is appealing but hard to do thoroughly and even harder to balance. Default instead to detailing the process of a smaller number of choices; the immersive effect can be just as powerful, and the design problems will be fewer.

Theory: Making Barriers into Benefits

When someone purchases FFG’s X-Wing, this is what comes in the box.

Image from Boardgamegeek
Image from Boardgamegeek

When someone purchases a box of Warmachine, he or she gets this:

12-31-14 - Warmachine BoxLooking at those pictures, one would expect Warmachine to be the province of the hardest of the hardcore, true grognards–but it is instead, as of last time I saw sales figures, the second most popular miniatures game on the market. Part of that is simply because Warmachine is a superbly designed game. Part, however, is that Warmachine turns its barrier to entry into a strength, using it to generate engagement with the game.

Every game has barriers to entry. Usually they must be purchased, sometimes at great expense. Rules must be read. The game must be set up on the table, which is easy enough in the case of something like Tsuro but which can be quite laborious in the case of wargames and RPGs.

In general, these barriers to entry are undesirable. They prevent people from buying, playing, and enjoying a game. Minimizing them is thus usually viewed as strictly beneficial. Designers try to make rules easier to learn and publishers look for simpler, less expensive components, all in the name of lowering these barriers.

X-Wing is a superb and successful example of that process in action. The minatures are ready-to-play right out of the box, fully assembled and painted to a standard much higher than most players could achieve on their own. While the game is not exactly cheap, lots of starships are available at the $10 impulse-buy price point online. FFG has done as much as possible to make getting into the game painless.

Warmachine, on the other hand, makes few concessions. Its miniatures come unpainted and in pieces. Most boxes of Warmachine minis don’t even have an instruction manual; one is expected to figure out that this piece goes here and that these arms are bent just so such as to fit those torsos. It’s not uncommon for miniatures to have flaws straight out of the box requiring non-trivial modeling skill to fix; from the beginning of the game to today, people have been fixing the “Khador gap.”

One might expect that all of this would render Warmachine the nichest of niche games. Instead, however, it’s enormously successful, begging the question of how an expensive game that requires tremendous amounts of setup could ever overcome its barriers to entry. Warmachine is a superb game, yes–but many superb games fail for lack of players willing to invest in them. That alone did not propel the game to the heights it has now achieved. How did Warmachine manage its barriers to become a key player in the miniatures space?

The answer is that Warmachine’s greatest barrier–the tabula rasa nature of its pieces–is a strength in the eyes of a substantial proportion of the player base. They become an artistic outlet; one is not just going to field pikemen, one is going to field one’s very own pikemen, with paint schemes and poses chosen in accordance with one’s taste. Many players end up involved the game just for the painting, playing only rarely as a way to show off their work.

Personalizing the miniatures in that way invites other forms of creativity, such as biographies and backstories chronicling the achievements of one’s troopers. Ultimately all of this can even feed back to the tabletop, with players devising campaigns in which rivalries between their armies are settled and new ones created. Again, these opportunities to craft something unique are the result of what would otherwise be a barrier to entry, and are an important draw for many players.

Not every game can do what Warmachine does, but it’s a possibility for more games than one might think. What if Agricola required players to build little parts of houses, instead of just using tiles? Would that lead to a greater sense of ownership over the homes, and more incentive to play? Would players be less likely to shake their heads at the depth of chess and give the game up if they painted the black squares on the board themselves?

Barriers to entry are always going to be a problem. However, it’s possible to approach them imaginatively, and ask how they can be used to encourage player investment.

Now you’ll have to excuse me–I have some pikemen to paint.

Theory: Concession-Proofing Your Game

Although concessions are inevitable, we don’t have to throw up our hands and accept that some percentage of matches will be ruined. Games can be designed so that both the number of concessions and their impact are minimized. Below are some thoughts on how those objectives might be accomplished.

It’s important to recognize that not every technique I suggest here will fit every game. Sometimes page limits mean a legal brief can’t address every opposing argument; sometimes a game can’t include an elegant solution to the problem of concessions. My goal is not to say that all games must implement mechanisms that make them sturdy against players conceding, but simply to encourage designers to think about the issue and to offer some ideas on the topic to prove that it can–at least sometimes–be addressed.

First, we need to put aside some strategies that definitely won’t work:

Making the game shorter (or longer): Game length has no bearing on whether players concede. People surrender in six-minute games of Hearthstone and in weeks-long games of online Diplomacy. There is no “right” length that will prevent concessions.

Indeed, in my experience there’s no game length that even discourages them. If a player wants to concede, the game’s length can always be used as a justification–no matter what that length is. Players looking to get out of short games can take the view that the opponent(s) didn’t have time to get invested; those trying to escape a long game may feel that the investment they’re being asked to make is unreasonable.

Increasing (or decreasing) the number of players: I’ve seen people quit two-player games, seven-player games, and everything in between. Adding players does not necessarily create moral pressure to stay in the game. If anything, it can decrease the perceived need to keep playing–“there’s a lot going on, the game will still be interesting even if I leave.”

While those strategies don’t work, there are some that can. They can be broadly split into two groups: ways to make concessions less frequent, and ways to make them less impactful when they happen.

Making concessions less frequent:

Include one or more comeback mechanisms: Done right, comeback mechanisms discourage concessions by making players feel like the game is still meaningful. They know that if they make good decisions, they can position themselves for an upset victory. Hence, the game stays interesting and the players stay engaged.

Done wrong, of course, comeback mechanisms make the game feel meaningless from the outset. Be careful not to go too far by making the mechanism too strong. Concessions may be harmful to a game, but the game being just plain terrible is a lot worse.

Obscure the score: If it’s hard to tell who’s winning, players are less likely to feel themselves irrevocably behind and concede. The extreme form of this is games where scores are completely hidden during play, like Small World and Puerto Rico. (To be fair, the scores in these games can usually be determined by keeping running totals–but I’ve never seen anyone bother.) Lack of precise information allows players who think they’re losing to hope that they can close the gap.

It’s also possible to obscure just part of the score. Most often, in my experience, this is done with secret objectives that players reveal at the end of the game. The point swing that results when one player achieves her goal and another doesn’t can allow for come-from-behind wins, the promise of which helps keep everyone involved.

The most extreme form of this is something like Killer Bunnies, where the game’s result is always decided by a final roll of the dice. I’m not sure I would recommend that approach, but it certainly makes it harder to predict the winner!

Give players more capability over time: Even if a player is losing now, he or she might hang around if new powers/better stats/more items/etc. will help turn the tide. League of Legends matches against an all-attack damage team can be brutal . . . until your entire team buys Thornmail, and starts reflecting all that damage back at the opponents. Knowing that team-wide Thornmail is coming makes the heavily-slanted early game more bearable.

This approach is tricky to implement, because if the losers are getting new stuff the leader probably does as well. New capabilities only offer hope to those who have fallen behind if they’re numerically superior to what the leader gets (in which case they’re a comeback mechanism, with all the challenges those entail) or they allow one to progress along a totally different axis from what the leader is doing. Giving both leader and loser a sword doesn’t help, but if the leader gets a sword and the loser gets extra points for holding key scenario locations the loser is apt to be tempted by the possibilities.

End the game at the climactic move: If a game is going to be unwinnable for one player after X condition obtains, stop the game at that point. Forcing players to go through a denouement will be frustrating and will likely produce concessions. Warmachine and Hordes are good examples to follow here: those games are essentially over from a tactical perspective once one player loses his or her leader, so defeating the enemy leader is a victory condition that ends the game on the spot.

Note that this doesn’t mean ending the game unpredictably, or prematurely. “Climactic” includes elements of buildup and drama; there should be time enough for both. The goal with this approach is simply to avoid dragging out the endgame to the point where there’s no game left.

Establish objectives other than winning: This goes back to the idea that “building” games can be satisfying even if one loses. I’ve never seen anyone concede a game of Agricola, even though the game can be long and it would be possible to do so with a minimum of disruption; creating one’s farm is reason enough to keep going. MMOs do a lot of this, too, with professions to improve in, things to collect, and stories to experience even if one can’t beat the raid bosses.

Make each match part of a larger whole: Drawing on the car-racing example from last time, players are more likely to keep going if finishing the game is worth points in an overall competition. There’s a limit to this, of course–players might simply concede the entire event! Nevertheless, the possibility of making up a poor performance today with a better one tomorrow is a strong incentive to keep going and minimize the amount of scrabbling back to be done.

Reducing the impact of concessions:

Make the players independent: It’s not hard to keep Race for the Galaxy going after a concession , because the players don’t (generally) interact directly. The loss of a player takes some cards out of the game, and might occasionally result in a phase not being chosen when it otherwise would have, but that’s about it. Everyone remaining can still play a perfectly good RtFG match.

Unfortunately, it’s easy to take this idea too far. Games that can edit a player out cleanly often fall into the trap of “multiplayer solitaire,” with opponents who are so irrelevant that one may as well not have had them in the first place. Use with caution!

Replace departed players: Substitutions are common in professional sports, and their example suggests that this is a fertile area for tabletop and video games as well. We have seen a little of this in video games, with AIs taking over for disconnected players in online games, and tabletop games may also be able to sub in an AI–or another person–for a player who has to leave. Rather than just leaving the conceded position in Race for the Galaxy alone, why not have the solo-play “bot” from the first expansion take over?

Keep the conceded position in play: There are many games which handle player concessions by removing all of his or her stuff from the game. That can be rough in multiplayer games where preying on a weaker player is a valid way to maintain a lead–or to catch up. If the game involves taking things from other players, try to keep the conceded player’s territories/artifacts/etc. available for the remaining players to grab. If this can be combined with a replacement AI that makes realistic efforts to defend those things, so much the better!

Change the objective: This is the flip-side of creating alternative goals for those who are losing: give the winner who’s now without an opponent something else to aim for. John Doe leaving might deny Jane Doe the full satisfaction of beating him, but the frustration will be lessened if she can still compete for the high score or unlock an achievement.

Offer goals along the way: If all of the game’s satisfaction comes in one big lump with the win, anything that seems to cheapen the win will be a major problem. If, however, there are points of satisfaction before that a concession won’t be so bad. This ties back to the question of how to make losing fun; although the positions are reversed–we’re now talking about the winner–the fundamental issue of “keeping a player engaged without the satisfaction of a big win” is related.

Again, I don’t propose that some or all of these need to be in every game. Nor do I mean to say that this is a comprehensive list of ways to deal with concessions. Rather, I hope that these ideas inspire others to take up conceding as a design issue in their own games, and that the approaches here are useful starting points in that process.

Something Completely Different: Making Competing Players Powerful – Rules

How can a two-player competitive game reinforce both players’ feelings of might and prowess, where the game is played synchronously in the real world?

There aren’t a lot of competitive games that are designed so that all of the players feel good at the same time. Usually it’s exactly the opposite: at any given moment someone is losing, knows it, and feels lousy. Miniatures games are no exception; since everything is (usually) right there on the table, it’s easy to see when you have taken greater losses than your opponent or are further away from an objective.

Since minis games weren’t helping me find rules germane to the issue, I ranged around a bit. Here’s what I came up with:

1. Players should “fail forward.”

This one comes from role-playing games. In essence, it says that failure should not mean that the player’s turn just ends in defeat. Instead, something interesting should happen.

Knowing a little role-playing game history might help clarify how this rule works in practice. (It’s also interesting in its own right.) Dungeons & Dragons, arguably the first major role-playing game as we’ve come to think of the term, was designed by wargamers. Those designers modeled D&D’s combat on the wargames they were familiar with: dice were used to model the uncertainties of combat, with a good result meaning you succeeded in hitting the target and a poor result meaning failure. This system is used even by game designers with military experience, so I assume that it’s at least a reasonable way to model people fighting.

Over time, however, problems revealed themselves. When playing a wargame, one normally controls many pieces. A single piece’s bad roll is just one part of a larger turn, so even when the dice go against you it’s still possible to have a satisfying turn overall. By contrast, in role-playing games the player usually controls a single character who makes a single roll in a turn. If that roll comes up snake eyes, that’s it–the turn ends on a down note.

Failing forward is one solution to that issue. (It also relates to other role-playing game design issues, to say nothing of the term’s use in self-help books and other arenas; I’m focusing on this particular application of the idea.) In essence, it says that failure should make things more interesting instead of just being a stopping point. The player doesn’t get what he or she wanted, but does get something else: plot advancement.

So, for example, in D&D (or at least, some versions of D&D) a player might try to swing a sword at a monster in order to slay it. If the player fails to slay the monster, that’s it; the player’s turn is over. By contrast, in a fail-forward model the player might fail to slay the monster–and be carried back to the monster’s lair. That means a whole new set of opportunities and options: maybe the player will have another go at fighting the monster, or sneak away, or find out that the monster’s lair is full of the monster’s artwork and the monster is actually a sentient being. Instead of the player’s turn just crashing to a halt with failure, the player is left with new possibilities to consider while waiting for his or her next chance to act.

Failing forward doesn’t mean failure is impossible or that players are choosing between a menu of good options. It just takes some of the sting out. The player missed the mark this time, but something interesting still happened and so the player can focus on that instead of stewing over the failure.

2. The game should involve building something the player can take pride in.

Agricola is a controversial game, which is surprising for a farming simulation with tried-and-true mechanics. A lot of people find the theme dull, or don’t like the “Euro” design sensibility wherein much of the game boils down to constructing an economic engine. I can’t say those criticisms are unfair–I’m not, I have to admit, all that interested in agriculture myself–but Agricola is nevertheless one of my favorite games. That’s for one simple reason: each and every time I play, I get a sense of accomplishment from building my little farm even if I lose.

I see the same dynamic play out in the Civilization series of video games, Minecraft, even building toys like lego. It’s fun to make something. Creating is enjoyable even if you lose, or even if the game is such that winning and losing aren’t meaningful concepts. Seeing something neat that’s new in the world, and being able to say “I did that,” is for many people compelling regardless of the context in which it occurs.

Building doesn’t have to be linear or unopposed; Civilization, Minecraft, and many other games involve building in an environment of challenge with the possibility of setbacks. Overcoming those obstacles can be another part of the fun, and can even give character to one’s result. The key is the sense of accomplishment; players need to be able to take pride in the results of their efforts, even if those efforts don’t result in winning.

That last sentence deserves a little more emphasis. It’s critical that the players end up with something they can take pride in. Agricola’s building is fun because your farm is a nice, productive spot even if it doesn’t earn the most points. Games where the building is just another way to keep score–where one can end the game with a useless half-constructed building, or a spaceship that could never fly–don’t provide this kind of satisfaction.

So what does all this mean?

I’ll be honest: I’m not quite sure yet how rules from role-playing games and a farming simulation apply to a miniatures wargame. However, I feel like these rules are already pushing in interesting directions. This game is supposed to play out a story, and failing forward involves plot advancement; doesn’t that suggest a very different kind of minis game? One where success is measured, not in the number of opposing units destroyed, but in telling a story? Where does that story come from? How does the building factor in? What are the players building? A thing? Character competence? The story themselves? How is the building handled so that players can enjoy the result even when they lose?

At the risk of being unfair, I’m going to leave those questions hanging for a little while: on Friday I’ll have the results for the latest round of Over the Next Dune’s playtesting.