I’m in a rush, but am nevertheless looking forward to digesting a new round of Warmachine errata. A lot of changes to the game, in just a few lines . . . .
Cooperative games exist on a sliding scale based on how players interact with each other. Some feature high levels of dependency: players rely heavily on each other to carry out their respective tasks. Low-dependency games, on the other hand, allow players to progress independently. Recognizing where a design falls on the dependency spectrum is vital, because it has an enormous effect on the player experience.
In high-dependency games, player 1’s ability to perform in-game actions is gated by player 2’s choices. American football has many examples: the wide receiver simply cannot catch a ball the quarterback throws too inaccurately, and a running back stops at the line of scrimmage if the offensive linemen do not make a hole. Video game healers often fall into this category as well, unable to raise health bars when the rest of the team has gotten themselves killed.
High dependency means that if the rest of the team plays badly, or according to a different gameplan, player 1 cannot act. This makes players extremely aware of each other, and can create a very strong team experience. Clockwork moves that enable successive players to act at their best are both intrinsically satisfying and impressive to watch. When this kind of game is going well, the positive feedback is extremely strong.
On the other hand, when things get off the rails high dependency games turn nasty. Successful play is like an assembly line, and when widgets stop coming it’s easy to identify where the issue arose. The center snapped correctly, the quarterback threw accurately, and then the wide receiver was supposed to catch it and run—but that last step was missed. Since center and quarterback did things right, it must be the wide receiver’s fault. If the team is fractious, or team members enjoy the anonymity of online play, recrimination is apt to follow.
Low dependency play avoids turning player 2 into a gate for player 1. Pandemic’s Researcher can always cure diseases regardless of what the Medic is doing. Team Warmachine tournaments pair off members of opposing squads, such that teammates cannot help or hinder a game in progress.
It’s much easier to keep team dynamics positive in low dependency games. Everyone gets to do their thing, whether or not others are succeeding. Assuming “their thing” is fun, the game can be satisfying even if the rest of the group is having trouble.
Yet, low dependency makes it quite a bit more difficult to create a team dynamic in the first place. If everyone can act independently, it is easy to ignore one’s teammates. The game can devolve into loosely connected solo games, or the most skilled player dispensing with cooperation in an effort to carry the entire game.
Neither high nor low dependency is inherently better. Both dynamics provide value, and the weaknesses of each can be designed around. It is possible to shift between them, or to incorporate elements of both, adding just enough dependency to a game to keep a team together while providing independence to cool tensions.
The key for designers is to position their game on this spectrum consciously. Increasing dependency risks increasing toxicity; decreasing it can undermine cooperation. Knowing that, one can design around it.
I have to admit, I didn’t think Privateer Press was going to rebuild the system for its premier game. The system was showing a bit of wear and tear, but the overall structure had proven sound for tournament play. Errata curbed the biggest issues that emerged. No big changes needed . . .
. . . or so I thought! Privateer Press announced the Mark III rules at the beginning of the week, to be released this June.
The things I’ve heard so far are interesting, most notably that the game will now allow pre-measuring all the time. I’ve had a post on pre-measuring knocking around my head for a while. Sooner or later I’ll have time to write it up. 😉
For now, I’m excited to see what the new edition brings. Here’s to many more nights of toy soldiers and good friends.
Privateer Press released a new set of errata for Warmachine and Hordes today. The changes include substantial alterations to a number of theme forces, but I think what’s perhaps most interesting is the way PP handles errata in general. The influence of tournament data is clear, but there are also tweaks that seem to be aimed toward the “feel” of traditionally disfavored models. Nothing that’s likely to shake up the metagame, but little improvements to help those who enjoy the pieces feel justified in playing them.
Maintaining a current errata document is a kindness to players, and putting thought not just into rules issues but also into maintaining balance is especially welcome. That goes double when some of the errata are bringing balance, not just to tournament play, but also to the fun-factor of centerpiece models like (in this case) heavy cavalry and people wearing steam-powered armor. Kudos to Privateer Press.
Warmachine recently unveiled a new format: Champions, in which only certain pieces are legal. Champions is probably a great solution to some troubles Warmachine has been having. It also, however, points up an interesting design problem: how to keep games that have more and more content released manageable without resort to rotation.
By way of background: up until now every piece ever created for Warmachine was tournament-legal. It didn’t matter whether the piece’s rules just came out a month ago, or whether it was the first piece ever released for the game. Absolutely everything could be put on the table.
Over time that system has become less and less manageable for players. The sheer number of pieces and combinations has become overwhelming. Can your army handle a general like Morvahna, who can manipulate dice in her favor? What if she instead focuses on endlessly resurrecting her army? Deneghra can flatline your army’s stats for a turn; will you survive? Bradigus and the High Reclaimer both block line of sight, but in entirely different ways; can your army see through both? Saeryn’s army can’t be engaged in close combat for a turn, while Vlad can shut down most ranged attacks; you’ll probably want both options so you can always get through losing one. Sorcha will freeze you in place if you don’t have a way to become immune to ice attacks . . . .
The list goes on, but you can see the problem. It’s impossible for any one army to deal with all of these threats. As a result, players inevitably started to get into rock-paper-scissors matchups, wherein they didn’t have ice immunity or the ability to stop resurrection or whatever. Unsatisfying games invariably followed.
Magic: the Gathering had a similar problem of multiplying complexity, and answered it with rotation, a system in which older cards are excluded from tournaments as new cards come out. Rotation proved so effective at keeping complexity manageable that it’s become the accepted answer to the problem of “how do we keep releasing product for this game without rendering it incomprehensible.”
Warmachine will, I think, benefit from having a rotation; only needing to think about Saeryn without also needing an answer to Vlad will be a big help. Privateer Press’ form of rotation is even especially generous to players, since older pieces will rotate back in over time; Magic forces players into “eternal” formats when they want to use their old cards.
Nevertheless, I find I’m a bit disappointed. Rotation is a good solution, but it’s only one solution. I have to think that there are others, if we’re imaginative enough to find them.
The specific form of rotation Privateer Press has chosen demonstrates that there’s still thought to how it should be implemented. I’d still like, though, to push out the boundaries in this area. We know rotation is a good tool; now let’s put our energy into finding some equally good alternatives!
Minis wargaming is an important part of the gaming hobby, and thus it’s worth being conversant with its broad strokes even if it’s not your cup of tea. Recently we’ve seen three high-profile industry players make rulesets freely available, which makes it very easy for curious designers to get a sense for how the genre works. Any of the rules below would be a good starting point for a designer who wants to understand the people moving toy soldiers around at their FLGS a little better.
Privateer Press put the Warmachine and Hordes rulebooks—the entire books, art, story, and all—online. “Warmahordes” (the games are compatible, and are usually viewed as a single whole) may be the biggest tournament minis game today, and its community is intensely focused on high-level competition. If you want that kind of experience, this is the game to look toward.
Mantic Games has long offered the rules for its games free online. They’ve followed that pattern with Kings of War 2nd Edition, a game of mass fantasy battles (akin to the big set-piece fights in The Lord of the Rings). Kings of War is an easy to pick up ruleset, one that people new to minis games can learn in a turn or two. Never played a minis game before? You might profitably start here.
Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Age of Sigmar rules, available at no charge from Games Workshop. Age of Sigmar seems to be aimed directly away from competitive, tournament play, focusing instead on people who want to participate in narrative campaigns, use the coolest looking models without regard to whether they’re “points efficient,” and generally follow a beer-and-pretzels approach to the hobby. For those who fall in that category, Age of Sigmar has a lot of potential.
Any of the rules above and a few cut out pieces of paper will be enough to play a trial game or two. Give one (or all of them!) a try. The time will have been well-spent even if you decide not to invest in this genre of games.
So you’ve decided to use dice, or some other randomizer, to help shape your game experience. You’ve thought carefully about what the odds of success for different actions should be, and have calibrated the randomizer accordingly. However, you’re finding the results unsatisfactory; perhaps the occasional bad roll is too devastating, or players are getting into unwinnable positions early through unlucky dice rather than bad play. Below are some tools you can use to mitigate the effects of randomness, keeping the excitement of an unpredictable outcome without the risk that dice will dominate the game.
Change the odds for key rolls
If something is critically important—because it’s the culminating move in a strategy, for example, or because it’s necessary for the game to progress—shift the odds so that that specific roll is more likely to succeed. Players naturally get frustrated when a game’s randomizer undoes their hard work at the final moment, or even worse when it stymies the game completely (the “I need to make this Investigation roll to find the clue, but I keep failing” problem). Twisting the odds toward the players at key junctures retains the tension inherent in the possibility of failure, but makes it unlikely that an actual failure (or worse, repeated actual failure) will inhibit their fun.
Broadly speaking, there are three ways to push the odds in the players’ favor:
- Roll more dice
As you roll more dice there are more opportunities to outweigh bad results. The average result when rolling two dice is 7, but if one of those dice comes up as a 1 the total result is probably going to be low. By contrast, rolling three dice means that even if one of them lands on 1 the other two will probably still get the total to or above 7. Rolling more dice while looking for the same end result thus leaves open the possibility of failure, but makes it less likely.
Warmachine implements this concept to great effect. It allows players to expend a resource to roll more dice when trying to hit a target, without changing the math that determines the total the player needs. This allows players to improve their chances on vital rolls, reducing the risk that a single unlikely fall of the dice will decide the game while promoting simplicity by keeping the math consistent.
Adding dice to control randomness works even in systems that don’t rely on totals. For example, role-playing games sometimes count the number of dice that meet or exceed a certain threshold value—say, one might roll ten six-sided dice and count all the dice that came up with a 4 or better. Even though there’s no totaling of values here, rolling more dice still helps, since one has more opportunities to get those 4+s.
- Roll the dice more times
One’s odds of succeeding on a roll go up substantially if one is allowed to roll the dice again, especially on “easy” rolls. Allowing the players to roll a second (or third, or fourth . . . ) time can thereby act as a safety valve against unexpected and/or undesirable results.
Heroclix uses this approach. The results of an attack in Heroclix are based on a single roll. Each roll can lead to a hit, or a miss, or an unusually damaging hit, or a miss so severe that it reflects damage back on the attacker! As one can imagine, the outlier results can be devastating, especially “critical misses;” wasting a turn setting up an attack that instead results in damage to one’s own piece is often a game-ending setback.
To limit how often those crushing failures occur, Heroclix is liberal about allowing players to re-roll their dice. There are many ways to get the ability to do so, or to get access to a limited variant (e.g., the ability to re-roll a die that lands on 1). Critical misses therefore end up being very rare. Furthermore, when they do happen they are usually the result of a strategic decision to forego re-rolling in order to get some other advantage, so they feel like a justified outcome rather than being struck down by random chance.
- Change the goal
Perhaps the most obvious means of shifting the odds in the players’ favor, this may also be the most dangerous. It’s easy enough: if the players normally need to roll a 7, make it so that they need to roll a 6 or a 5.
Unfortunately, this seemingly simple approach can be complicated in play. First, it can introduce memory issues when the change is not directly followed by the roll. This issue comes up in many miniatures games: piece A can increase the defense of one of its friends, B or C. By the time it comes to the opponent’s turn it’s not always easy to remember whether A made B harder to hit, or C, or neither of them. By contrast, picking up an extra die or re-rolling a bad result both happen at the moment of roll, and so memory issues generally are not present.
Second, changing the goal can significantly add to the game’s mental overhead. It’s much easier to look at a lousy roll and decide to re-roll it than it is to do math. Adding a step to calculating the goal—or even worse, making the players calculate the goal when normally they wouldn’t have to at all—can be trying.
Changing the goal, then, is a technique to use with caution. Forego it if the game already involves significant calculations, or if the game otherwise involves no calculations. Outside of those circumstances, think about whether another solution would provide the same in-game benefits.
Remove the worst results
If a certain possibility is going to be bad for the game, consider removing it entirely. There’s no need to be content with “this unfortunate thing won’t happen often;” as the designer, you can make it happen never.
The example of this that sticks out in my mind is the Combat Resolution Table in Avalon Hill’s classic wargames. CRTs generally looked something like this:
|1||A eliminated||A eliminated||Exchange|
|2||A eliminated||A back 2||Exchange|
|3||A back 2||Exchange||D back 2|
|4||Exchange||Exchange||D back 2|
|5||D back 2||D back 2||D eliminated|
|6||D eliminated||D eliminated||D eliminated|
The CRT’s X-axis is the odds in the battle, while the Y-axis is the attacker’s roll. Thus, if the attacker and defender are of equal strength (1-1), then a roll of 1 means the attacker’s entire force is eliminated while a roll of 6 eliminates all defending units. If the attacker has double the defender’s strength (2-1), the table changes so that there are more of the results favorable to the attacker, and so on.
CRTs could be a bit unwieldy; they changed the goal in a calculation-heavy context, with all the mental load that implies. One had to total up the attacker’s strength, then the defender’s, divide the former by the latter, and then check the table to find out how high one actually needed to roll to win the battle. Playing games with a CRT could involve a lot of basic arithmetic (which, in retrospect, may in part be why my father suggested them when I was little).
The trouble was worthwhile, however, because CRTs allowed the designers at Avalon Hill to encourage good play by removing the worst results. Attacking at even odds is easy, but the CRT allows an even-odds attacker to be eliminated wholesale. 3-1 attacks, by contrast, are rather trickier to set up, so players who manage it are rewarded by having the possibility of total defeat taken off the table.
Avalon Hill’s wargames were games of maneuver, and it would have been a problem if players had maneuvered skillfully and then been crushed regardless. They might have been confused as to what was expected, or even concluded that sound tactics were not to be used. By using CRTs that protected players from bad results after they managed their troops well, Avalon Hill’s designers made sure that the game was consistent in encouraging strong play.
Put outlier results behind multiple rolls
Sometimes a game would benefit from an outcome being rare—rarer than one can achieve through a single roll. In that case, it can be useful to require multiple rolls to get that result. With each successive roll that needs to succeed (or fail), the odds that a player will get through all the rolls diminish.
Warhammer 40,000 uses this technique to give battlefield primacy to important models like unique characters and giant futuristic battle-robots. It needs to be possible to take these centerpiece models off the table, but 40K’s designers have concluded that to emphasize their power and importance it should be quite difficult. As a result, damaging such models involves many rolls in sequence: one to hit, then a roll to see if they were hit hard enough to do damage, then a further roll to see if their armor saves them, and then a final roll for an “invulnerable save” to see if a force field or their own doggedness keeps them going. It’s very difficult for an attacker to get all of those rolls to work out as he or she needs—a friend of mine once had a character survive multiple turns of an opponent rolling hundreds of dice against him—and so these centerpiece models are subject to some risk while generally being very safe even when they lead from the front.
Choose from a pre-set list of results
It’s possible to manage, not just how likely a result is, but how often it can occur overall. For example, a game can produce random results by having players draw from a deck of cards rather than rolling dice. By adding and subtracting cards from the deck, the designer can control not just the odds of getting a 7 or an 11, but how many 11s it’s possible to have during a game.
Forbidden Desert uses this strategy. During the game a sandstorm swirls around the players; it gets worse over time, and will eventually bury them. If the storm rose too quickly it would be patently impossible to win—and not much fun. It’s easy to imagine that happening if, for example, the storm got worse on every roll of 6 on a die; inevitably someone will have the unlucky game where they roll a bunch of 6s in a row, and will walk away irritated.
The game avoids that problem by using a deck with a limited number of “Storm Picks Up” cards. Since the players will go through the deck multiple times during the game, and the storm can’t get too strong on any one trip through it, there is no danger that the storm-rises result will occur too often.
Choose from one of several lists of results
An outgrowth of the previous technique, here the game has different pre-set lists of results for different events/points in the game/etc. Players get a random result from a list appropriate to the situation.
Many games do this, but I think an especially strong example is Through the Ages. Through the Ages is a civilization-building game in which players buy cards representing noteworthy elements of their civilizations—inventions, an important person, etc. Each card is available in limited quantities, controlling how often it appears in the game.
Even that level of control, however, is insufficient for Through the Ages’ purposes; it would be frustrating if the random draw of cards gave a player whose civilization is in the 1900s options like basic agriculture and bronze weapons. As a result, the cards are subdivided into three decks, each appropriate to an historical era. This still provides a random draw, but the draw is guaranteed to generate options that at least have the potential to be impactful given the stage of the game.
Allow some tasks to be accomplished without randomness
If accomplishing something is absolutely vital to the game, should it be rolled for at all? It may be better simply to assume success and reserve uncertainty for matters where failure doesn’t bring the game to a screeching halt.
The GUMSHOE role-playing system follows this line of thinking to make sure that games simulating an investigation work. Essentially, GUMSHOE provides that player-detectives can never miss vital clues entirely; if something they need to know is present they will always find it, no rolling required. This ensures that, like a good mystery novel, the players get to the end with the all the pieces of the puzzle. Also like a good mystery novel, the challenge is in recognizing them for what they are, and putting them together correctly!
The problem of must-succeed situations can also be resolved in other ways; for example, players might be asked to roll just to see how well they succeed (the worst result of failure having been removed). However, assuming success and moving on will always have the benefits of simplicity for players and predictability for the designer. Neither of those should be undervalued.
Make failure as interesting and fun as success
The brass ring of randomness mitigation, here there’s no frustration because all possibilities are awesome. Randomness is still present, but there’s no need to go out of the way to control its effects; the effects are positive for the game as a whole no matter how the dice turn up.
Very few games even try to follow this road, but when it works the results are impressive. For example, the (sadly) short-lived Marvel Heroic Roleplaying used a system in which high rolls were more likely to result in success, but rolls of 1 could be a source of “Plot Points” which give the players extra capabilities. As a result, even bad rolls were good—just on a different axis.
Don’t leave fun to random chance
Adding an element of chance can do a lot for a game—but it can take over the game if incautiously implemented. The techniques above can help take control of randomness, mitigating its potential downsides. Give them a try when your game needs the Goldilocks amount of uncertainty–not too little, not too much, just right.
When someone purchases FFG’s X-Wing, this is what comes in the box.
When someone purchases a box of Warmachine, he or she gets this:
Looking 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.
As players, we sometimes feel like we’re at the mercy of the dice–but as designers, dice work for us. They make what’s going on under a game’s hood explicit, and in doing so enable us to see and work with the often-obscure probabilities underlying the game experience. When used correctly, dice can let us tune a player’s experience to the Goldilocks standard: not too little of anything, not too much, just right.
The great merit of dice is that they give the designer direct access to the player’s chance of succeeding in doing something. A bullet has pretty good odds of harming a soldier, but only a very small chance of disabling a tank. Bullets fired by a modern rifle are more effective at both of those things than a weapon from the Napoleonic era. Using dice, a designer can reach into a game and set those percentages: if history demonstrates that the odds of a bullet stopping a tank are a little less than 3%, requiring players to roll a 12 on two dice will model historical events accurately. If playtesting then demonstrates that bullets need to stop a tank about 15% of the time or else tanks are too strong, requiring a roll of 7 solves the problem.
Managing the odds of success in this fashion does more than just let designers model armor penetration; it provides a way to establish the feel of a game. When something is more likely to happen, players will naturally trend toward strategies that favor doing it. Conversely, actions that are unlikely to work will be a minor part of the overall experience.
Take Warmachine as an example. In Warmachine attacks are made by rolling two dice, adding an attack stat, and trying to equal or exceed the target’s defense. An average Warmachine soldier has a ranged attack skill of 5, and a defense of 12. Thus, on average dice the soldier will hit her target (ranged attack skill 5 + roll of 7 = defense of 12).
Since the average roll is a hit, Warmachine skews toward offensive play. Players are aggressive because they know attacking is likely to be rewarded. The game as a whole ends up feeling very active; attacks are frequent, models are steadly removed from the table, and the game constantly progresses.
Yet, making aggression good on average wasn’t enough for Warmachine’s designers. They added a mechanism by which players could roll three dice to hit instead of two. With three dice even bad rolls are enough to make contact, which lends the game even more energy; attacking isn’t just favored, it’s much better than hanging back.
Of course, too much offense would be a problem–Goldilocks’ lesson is just as applicable here as it was to heat in soup–and the precision with which dice odds can be manipulated enables Warmachine’s designers to add just the right amount of defense back in. The (arguably) best defensive spell in the game adds 2 to a soldier’s defense. That’s enough to warrant going to the trouble of getting that third die, but not so much as to make hitting impossible.
Imagine what Warmachine would be like if the average defense was 13. Now players generally need an 8 to hit–or, looking at it conversely, the average roll misses. With the best defensive spell defenses push up to 15, which can only be hit with any reliability when using the third die. It’s hard to envision that game being a high-energy affair. More likely it would mimic trench warfare, with players waiting to attack until they had a dominant position.
Going beyond the overall feel of the game, dice can also be used for subtler applications. The average defense is 12, but Warmachine’s important leader figures often have defenses in the 15-16 range. As a result, they’re hard to hit. Players are thus incentivized to push their leaders forward and get them involved in the action, which focuses attention on these thematically important pieces. The designers have used dice math to support the narrative of the game.
Subtler still. Not every soldier can add that third die. The ones that can have a much better chance of hitting a defense of 15 or 16. Hence, the soldiers who can “boost” their to-hit rolls are well-suited to knocking out enemy leaders, while those who can’t are usually sent against line troops or relatively immobile heavy targets. By setting where soldiers’ attacks fall on the probability curve, Warmachine’s designers establish their tactical functions.
Subtler still. Rolling a handful of dice is fun. People tend to like picking up and throwing more of them; it’s exciting to see if a big pile of dice will spike to a huge total, or collapse stupendously. By giving the ability to “boost” to thematically important soldiers, the designers link those soldiers with the excitement of the big pile of dice. That encourages people to play them, further reinforcing the game’s narrative and intended theme.
With all of that said, Warmachine’s approach to dice isn’t appropriate to all games. A game about World War I trench warfare probably should favor defense over offense! The take-away point is that dice, correctly implemented with an understanding of the probabilities involved, enable designers to build and modify games with substantial precision.
It’s often hard to judge exactly what effect an element of a game’s design will have. The beauty of dice is that the effect is right there to see: the probability of success is now X. Rather than fearing the randomness of dice, use the macro-level predictability they offer to shape the game they’re in.
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.