Royal Wedding

Royal Wedding (a name that really needs to be changed) draws loose inspiration from the fascinating Crusader Kings IICKII is what Civilization would be if, instead of playing as an eternal and effectively-omnipotent ruler, you played as a specific person with no more than about 40 years of rulership in you. If you want to keep playing after that, you need to arrange to have an heir.

Manipulating royal lines of succession is one of the best parts of CKIIRoyal Wedding runs with that idea of political marriages, following up on CKII‘s example (and a great conversation with my Game Center colleague Alexander King) by putting intense focus on the question of who’s related to who. Your ability to carry out key game functions increases or is constrained depending on whom you have marriage ties with, and how closely those ties bind.

In play, Royal Wedding is to Diplomacy what Dark Moon is to Battlestar Galactica–or at least, I hope so. The intent was to provide the Machiavellian calculation that Diplomacy inspires in a much shorter timeframe. I’ll leave it to the player to decide whether the game succeeds. 🙂

The rules for Royal Wedding can be found here. Print-and-play elements amount only to a few cards, so this is an easy one to assemble. I hope you enjoy 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: The Redemption of All-Chat

It’s an article of faith that all-chat is a cesspool. That reputation is richly deserved. However, it’s not a given that channels for communicating with players on other teams will only ever be used for flinging insults. Global chat channels can work in games designed around them.

Let’s start by laying out the problem to be solved. As a rule, all-chat—that is, a communication mechanism in online games that allows every player in a game or match to talk to each other—is silent at best and hurtful at worst. It says something that one of the first things League of Legends did to curb unpleasantness in its playing community was to set all-chat to “off” by default. Perhaps more remarkable, MMOs now allow players to opt out of their global chat channels. That’s how bad the situation is: an entire genre built on the social aspects of gaming has to let players shut down a primary means of socializing because it’s so awful.

What would it take to make all-chat good? There are two things I can think of:

  1. A good all-chat has a gameplay purpose. Everything in a game should have a gameplay purpose. Social features used to get a pass on that, on the theory that more ways for players to talk to each other automatically made for a better overall experience; time has put the lie to that belief. If all-chat is going to be rescued it will have to earn its place.
  2. All-chat needs players to be reasonable when using it. Making all-chat in its current form central to a game would make that game the least pleasant thing on the internet. For it to be beneficial the messages that go through all-chat must be free of the lowest-common-denominator vitriol so common today.

We can discuss each of those in turn.

The simple part: making all-chat important to the game

The former problem is relatively easy. Opposing parties talk with each other all the time, and there are plenty of ways to bring that into a game. Negotiation, for example, can be a centerpiece of strategic play; Diplomacy is a sufficient proof of that. For a sneakier version of communication, a wargame might include the concept of sending false messages to the enemy, or an economic game could involve market manipulation. Co-ops and team games often demand synchronized effort. Semi co-ops involve lots of talking as players try to balance their personal goals with the group’s needs. There’s no kind of game that can’t be built so as to encourage the players to talk to each other.

The hard part: kinder communication

It’s the latter issue, that of achieving good behavior, that’s the tricky one.

Solution 1: Put the players in an environment where dominating others isn’t the goal.

Keith Burgun recently presented an interesting argument that a game’s thematic elements affect how players view what they’re doing, and by extension how they interact with each other. When players are told in advance that the goal is to have fun together, he explains, they generally act in ways that are consistent with everyone having fun. He cites as an example his very different experiences in games with different art styles; players were nicer to each other in Team Fortress 2 than in Counter-Strike, even though they’re both violent games, because TF2’s cartoonish visuals emphasized that everyone was there to have a good time.

It’s when players are told that the goal is to dominate and harm others, Mr. Burgun argues, that they adopt language to suit. “[W]hile a player is operating in a world of violence, he is more likely to think violently.” (emphasis omitted) Players naturally respond to a game that tells them to hurt the enemy by trying to do so in every way they can, cruel words included.

Mr. Burgun’s theory points toward games that are built from the ground up to send specific messages: that winning doesn’t require achieving power over the other players, that the overall project is fun rather than in-game success, that other players are co-participants in the overall project and should be treated as valued teammates rather than as obstacles. Global chat could work fine in such a context. Without the nudge toward unpleasantness that comes from a violent theme, most players will default to a reasonable mode of conversation. Outliers will hopefully be few, and easily dealt with.

Solution 2: Effective deterrence.

There are games that don’t look at all like Mr. Burgun’s ideal, and yet the conversation manages to be civil. Diplomacy is again my go-to example. It’s a wargame that’s expressly about conquering Europe and eliminating players, but it’s unusual to run into someone who’s openly nasty. By and large people are cordial, even when they’re stabbing each other in the back and overrunning each other’s territories. Why does Diplomacy work?

Here’s my theory: Diplomacy, along with Twilight Imperium, the Game of Thrones board game, and others of their ilk, has the most effective deterrence around. In fact, Diplomacy has a level of deterrence that the criminal law envies! The structure of the game ensures that players who want to be mean are powerfully and reliably discouraged from doing so.

I recognize that that’s a pretty bold claim, so let me back up and discuss this more fully. Deterrence requires at least three things: (1) there is a rule you want people to follow, (2) people know about the rule, and (3) people are more afraid of the consequences of violating the rule than they are eager for the rewards to be had from doing so.

(1) is trivial. (2) is very much not trivial. New laws, highly technical laws, laws about unusual issues–all of these can have a weak deterrent effect simply because people don’t understand what’s forbidden or don’t think to ask whether there’s a law on point. Still, for our purposes we can assume that (2) is easily achieved in the context of rules about “don’t be a jerk on the internet;” everyone’s been told not to be unkind at some point.

(3) is the hard one. This is for a couple of reasons. First, humans discount the threat of punishment by the chance that it won’t happen. Put simply, people aren’t afraid of violating rules when they think they can get away with it. The greater the odds of getting away with it, the weaker the deterrence.

Second, humans aren’t very good at weighing future events against current ones; we tend to discount future harms based on how far away they are. The longer it will take for punishment to happen, the less we tend to care about it.

These foibles make it harder for the criminal law to achieve its deterrent purpose. Every time somebody goes to break a law, they implicitly weigh the consequences against the ideas that (a) they might not get caught and (b) the price of getting caught will be paid at an indeterminate point in the future, whereas the rewards will be here promptly. As the continued existence of crime demonstrates, some people do that calculus and come to a regrettable conclusion.

Diplomacy, on the other hand, creates an environment where those human failings aren’t given much room. The negative consequences of being nasty to other players happen right away and are extremely predictable. Negotiations break off; other players won’t provide the assistance necessary to progress; the game ends in swift defeat. The whole process takes a few hours at most.

As the theory of deterrence predicts, that leads to most Diplomacy players being polite. Tempers can flare and the gameplay is often vicious, but the kind of hateful, profanity-laden speech one finds in online games is absent. It’s remarkable: Diplomacy is basically built around all-chat, but it doesn’t sound like the all-chat we’ve come to know and disdain.

Compare this to games that try to achieve deterrence by having rules in the Terms of Service and banning users who break them. They suffer from the very problems of uncertain and distant punishment that the criminal law does, with the added weakness that banning isn’t nearly as severe as what the criminal law can impose. The sad reputation of all-chat is in part due to the fact that the deterrent effect in these games is very weak indeed.

From Diplomacy and similar examples I think that deterrence can be an effective mechanism for promoting good communication behavior in games. However, strong deterrence isn’t achieved simply by hiring some mods. It requires that the game be designed from the ground up to have a short feedback loop that consistently discourages unkindness.

Build from the right foundation

We’ve learned from sad experience that all-chat isn’t something that can be tossed on top of a game. The results are unsatisfactory, to say the least. However, global chat could be a valuable, positive thing. A game designed with the needs of all-chat in mind from the beginning, tuned in such a way as to bring about friendly communication, could elevate the global channel from cesspool to centerpiece.

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.

Theory: Defining Concessions (and Rules for a New Print-and-Play)

(First things first: I’ve been working on Trust Me’s follow-up. The print-and-play file isn’t ready yet; the pieces are still very much in flux. However, you can find the rules here–Lines of Questioning – Rules – 10-3-14–as a preview.)

The recent blowup about conceding Warmachine tournament games highlighted the issue concessions pose to game designers: some people approve of them, other people think they’re monstrous, and it’s hard to please both groups at once. Nevertheless, concessions are a fact of gaming life and games need to deal with them as effectively as possible. It’s a designer’s responsibility to catch bugs, and a player dropping out is a situation that needs to be handled just like an incorrect key press or a rules corner-case.

Managing concessions is an area where I feel that a lot of games fall down, so I’d like to spend a few posts hashing out the issues involved. We’ll start with the fundamentals: what counts as conceding? From there we’ll move on to why opinions of the practice are so divided. Then, with groundwork laid, we’ll get into how to handle concessions as a design matter.

I hope you’ll join in and leave your thoughts in the comments. All of these are big topics, and there’s room for differing views. If you think I’ve missed something, or that my analysis is off, let me know.

To talk about concessions, we first have to agree on what we’re discussing–and what we’re not. “Conceding,” as I’m using it here, is a decision to take game actions that the player expects and intends will result in a loss. The archetypal form is the player who pushes the “concede” button in Hearthstone, or who says to a real-world opponent “I’m going to lose, so let’s call this early and do something else.”

However, my definition also includes intentionally playing badly so as to lose the game. In other words, it includes throwing games. I feel that to be useful from a design perspective, a definition of conceding has to encompass that kind of intentional loss. While formal concessions and informal tanking may feel different, they raise the same design issues: winners who feel cheated out of competition and threats to tournament integrity.

Concessions can occur negatively through inaction as well, and this definition allows for that. The player who stops submitting orders in a game of Diplomacy, knowing that this will result in an automatic surrender, creates all of the problems that someone who explicitly announces an intent to leave the game does. (Indeed, this player might have even more of an impact, since other players may continue for a time under the mistaken impression that the conceding player is still involved.) Again, this might feel different from other forms of concession, but its effects are the same.

This definition excludes losses where there was no decision–and thus, no intent–to lose. Playing badly does not raise the same issues as conceding, so long as the player’s goal is to win. Concessions can raise questions about whether a tournament was fair and honest; having a lousy day does not call the event as a whole into question.

Also excluded are situations where a player forces an inconclusive result. The legitimate version of this is playing for a draw in a tournament, expecting that the draw will enable the player to advance where a loss would not. Illegitimate versions include things like DDOSing the League of Legends servers or pulling one’s internet connection while playing Street Fighter, both of which tactics have been used to shut a match down before a loss has been recorded. When done legitimately, an effort to draw gives rise to a proper game that doesn’t undermine the tournament or take anything away from a winner who overcomes the strategy. Done illegitimately, forcing a draw is simply cheating. Either way, the issues posed are entirely different.

My feeling is that this definition captures the situations that are logically related and separates out those that aren’t. Next time we’ll get into why conceding (as defined) is so controversial . . . and why the controversy probably won’t end.

Theory: What to Do If Your Game’s Not Random

Riffing on the idea that the promise of a rare lucky moment is attractive, I thought it might be interesting to look at the fate of VS System–a game where people didn’t get those lucky moments. I should say up front that I only have this story second-hand, but even if it’s wrong it’s still interesting as a thought experiment. It’s a cautionary tale about a game that ended up being unfriendly to new players, and a chance to learn lessons about what to do if your game doesn’t randomly offer new players help.

VS System was a superhero card game. If you wanted to play something Magic-ish, but instead of knights fighting dragons you wanted Captain America fighting Doctor Doom, this was your game. Its crowning achievement may have been its substantial tournament popularity; lots of people got very good at VS System, played it very seriously, and won quite a bit of money in the process.

Part of what made VS System so popular among tournament players was that, even though it was a card game, luck actually had very little to do with the outcome. Better players almost always beat worse players. For heavily-invested players who had spent a lot of time practicing, that was a valuable feature. Their hard work was consistently rewarded.

New players, however, found VS System quite frustrating. Since everyone was better than them, they lost almost every time. They couldn’t hope for a rare lucky moment; no such moment was coming.

Losing is, of course, part of getting better. I have vivid memories of going to the local arcade in Japan once a week and getting trounced for a full year before I managed to win. However, at that point in my life I was dedicated to improving at fighting games. It’s not unreasonable for people to try a game that they’re only casually interested in, get clobbered, and decide that this particular mountain isn’t one they’re interested in climbing.

That was the decision people often made about VS System. Although a dedicated group of old-timers kept the game going, fewer and fewer new players appeared to reinforce their ranks. Tournament players who moved on were not replaced, and ultimately the game folded for lack of sales.

Compare VS System’s experience to Magic: the Gathering. In Magic, the better player wins . . . most of the time. The fall of the cards can give the worse player a chance, creating the openings they need to win. When it happens it makes the better player crazy–but even Mark Rosewater believes the game is better because those moments can happen, and the sales data support him. Magic lets new players get the lucky moment they need once every so often, and as a result it can appeal to a much larger player base.

So, judicious use of randomness can help new players win, and in the process can contribute to keeping a game popular. What if a game has no randomness? Chess has no dice, no cards, nothing that’s outside the players’ control (and I depart from Mr. Rosewater’s view that opening moves are random; a decision made with incomplete information is not random, it is simply risky). Yet, Chess has lasted for a very long time. Diplomacy has a less impressive pedigree, but it’s also a popular game of long standing with no random elements. How do they keep going?

I think there are two key things that non-random games can do to avoid frustrating new players:

Ranked play: Chess’ ELO system helps players find others at the same skill level. Weaker players can avoid being clobbered by playing people at the same ELO–or can opt into a challenge by finding someone at a higher level. Players control how much frustration they experience.

Make it hard to lose quickly: Even an extremely bad Diplomacy player can’t be eliminated in the first few turns. (The writing, admittedly, might be on the wall by then.) Furthermore, the early turns are often when most of the wheeling and dealing at the heart of Diplomacy occurs, so even the newest player gets to experience what the game has to offer and feel like he or she got to participate meaningfully.

I’m sure there are more approaches to this problem, but I feel that these are particularly effective. If your game doesn’t enjoy the luxury of offering rare lucky moments to give new players hope, doing one or both of these will help ensure that they still have a positive experience. That, in turn, will contribute greatly to the long-term health of your game.

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.