Every Card a Mechanic

Playing Tiny Epic Galaxies and The Bloody Inn with my usual board gaming group recently, along with our regular games like Dominion, it occurred to me that there is this specific mechanic in board/card games that leads to excessive “analysis paralysis”. Having a large deck of cards, all with unique abilities can add a lot of variety to repeat plays of a game, but it has the side effect of completely stalling the game while a player tries to 1) understand what the card does, 2) think of all the possible strategies that could incorporate that card and 3) what the consequences of that card existing in the game might be.

I feel like the intention with these types of games is for players not to try to always go for the optimum turn, but to try out cards that seem interesting or fun and sort of “feel” their way through the game. However, inevitably players spend a long time on their turn trying to optimize because ultimately they want to win. The fact that these games commonly have an estimated playtime of 30-60 mins on the box, but in reality seem to take at least twice that amount of time to play, is evidence that we are not playing these games as the designers intended or indeed play-tested, at least in my group. I’m sure we aren’t the only ones experiencing this.

So is there a way to keep the same level of variety and replay-ability without introducing analysis paralysis? The answer is yes, and there are two main board/card games I can think of that are able to achieve both of these goals in different ways, whether they intentionally tried to avoid this problem or not.

Dominion

Dominion is probably my favourite board or card game of all time, and a large part of that is because of the huge variety in cards and strategies that can be found in each game, especially including expansions. Some cards have fairly standard, easy to understand benefits, but a lot of the cards have a not-insignificant amount of text explaining what they do. However, nobody ever seems to be dithering over their turn for too long. There are a few reasons for this. First of all, while there is a very large variety of cards from game to game, you only ever need to worry about a small subset of them for one particular game. This reduces the choices available on each turn, hence reducing the necessary time you need to figure out what to do, while still providing great replay value. Secondly, as it’s a deck building game, you are going to be using the cards you choose over and over again, building familiarity with them over the course of the game. The only real choice you may need to ponder over in the game is what to buy to put in your deck, because generally a given hand of cards has a fairly obvious optimal order in which to play them before long.

King of Tokyo

For the dice game King of Tokyo, the core mechanics of the game are rolling the dice, deciding what to re-roll and then executing the actions you’ve ended up with in the best order you can see. Since the possible actions are few and the choices are simple, they don’t tend to take long, but since this is the same from game to game, this doesn’t offer much variety in game-play. King of Tokyo introduces variety by having three random cards available to buy at any one time, for which players must spend energy (collected by rolling a lightning bolt on the dice) to obtain. Some of these cards have fairly simple abilities, but others can be quite complex and require a few moments to understand. These cards don’t cause anybody to stall and think too long though because they are not a part of the “core” of the game – these cards tend to offer bonuses that complement an existing strategy rather than something you can base an entire strategy around. The fact that these cards can be cleared and randomized again by any player by paying a small amount of energy means that it would be too risky to base an entire strategy on buying a powerful but expensive card. Therefore, these cards are almost always “nice to have” rather than central to the game. While I don’t think that the variety offered is quite as satisfying as that offered by Dominion, (probably another side-effect of the fact that the cards do not have a deep impact on the game), it does undeniably result in shorter turns and hence shorter games.

Conclusion

I think that my main take-away from thinking about this is that generally games should aim for a large amount of potential variety between separate plays, but keep the amount of new concepts introduced within one play reduced to a minimum, or at least reduce the impact of those new concepts. The reason games like Tiny Epic Galaxies took us so long to finish is because new concepts are continuously being introduced over the course of the game, and all players must then incorporate those concepts into their strategies because these cards are core to the game. Either reducing the amount of new concepts introduced in a single game (Dominion) or reducing the impact of the new concepts to bonuses rather than central core mechanics of the game (King of Tokyo) seems to result in games with great variety but reduced analysis paralysis.