Category Archives: Game Design Thoughts

(Almost) All Games Can Benefit From a Role-Play Attitude

Published / by Rob Streeting
(I don’t have any actual D&D dice, OK…)

From a young age, I always played as myself in any games (video games or board games) I played. I’d create a character that often looked nothing like me in some of them, only to then make all decisions as if it were me making them. Either that, or I’d be making the decision that I felt would put me in the best position for succeeding in the game. It’s not until relatively recently that I realised that I was missing a very enjoyable facet of most of these games, and in some cases more or less completely missing the point of the game.

I’m talking here about role-play. More specifically, putting yourself in the shoes of a fictional character and considering their motivations, flaws and experience in the decisions that you make, rather than considering your own. It means sometimes making bad decisions because that’s what your character would do in that situation (or even just because it might be funny or interesting), rather than what’s most likely to make you succeed.

I think that generally, games tend to fall roughly on a triangle, where the bottom of the diagram represents mechanics-focused games and the top represents story-focused games. The top is a spectrum between prescribed storytelling and more free-form role-play style storytelling. I’ve tried to make this diagram and position some games on it to try and demonstrate what I am talking about:

I think most games boil down to more or less the following categories:

  • Pure Mechanical (Blue): Pure mechanical or abstract games that forsake story for focus on mechanics.
  • Thinly Themed Mechanical (Yellow): There’s a loose theme to provide some context to your actions, but it isn’t the focus and generally won’t affect your decisions.
  • Strongly Themed Mechanical (Green): The main story is prescribed, but there is room for role play and more story-impacting decisions
  • Structured Role-play (Purple): There is some loose structure to the story and some prompts or mechanics but the story is mostly down to you.
  • Structured Storytelling (Red): You make some decisions and have control, but this doesn’t really affect the overall story.

All this is really just context for what I want to say though, which is that I think that a lot of games can be improved by playing them with a more role-play type mindset. I think this is most powerful for the games in the “Strongly Themed” category above, since for these ones it’s easiest to fall into the trap of playing them as purely mechanical games and missing out on a whole avenue of enjoyment.

Benefits of Role-Play

The key point I think is that role-playing makes a game enjoyable regardless of whether you are winning or losing. If your character fails to accomplish something, rather than being frustrating it can be hilarious. While still getting to share in your character’s successes, you get to enjoy their failures as well. I think that the reason for this is that role-playing games seem more focused on the experience itself, rather than whether you are winning or losing. Both successes and failures are contributing to the experience and the story, whereas failures in an abstract game definitely don’t contribute to winning.

A consequence of both successes and failures being “successes” in the context of contributing to the experience means that you are granted freedom from having to take the optimal decisions. In fact, you can take bad decisions on purpose because it makes the story more interesting or just to see what will happen. You can play an evil character, or even a completely incompetent character even if you know they won’t win, just because it will be fun to see them interact with others and the game. It even means the game can be unbalanced or unfair and still fun.

Applying a Role-Play Mindset

So, when it comes to games that fall in that “Strongly Themed” category, we can benefit from these traits by simply approaching the game with a role-play mindset. A game like Betrayal on the House on the Hill can be totally unfair against one player in the group, but by treating it as a role-playing game rather than focusing entirely on the mechanics you can enjoy the story woven throughout the course of the game even if you aren’t winning. By approaching a cooperative game like Pandemic or Zombicide as a story-telling experience rather than a win-or-lose, it makes a loss feel less like a waste of time.

Even the games outside of that category can benefit somewhat from this mindset. Story-focused but less decision-oriented games like Tacoma or Hellblade mean that you have less control over the experience but it can still be a fun exercise to try and act as you would believe the character would. Even though these games limit decisions, there’s usually still some room to role-play on occasion.

Abstract games or thinly themed games have less enjoyment to be gained from the storytelling experience, but approaching them with more of an experimental/exploratory attitude than an attitude simply to win can still be liberating. Rather than stressing over making the optimal move at every stage, it can be fun (and educational) to experiment with the mechanics instead. In a game like Dominion, while there’s not much of a theme to latch on to there’s still plenty of room for experimentation and creative expression with strategy. Picking a crazy strategy and following it through can be fun even if it doesn’t work out. And of course, hilarious or impressive if it does work out.

(Almost)

Of course, this doesn’t apply to everything. I don’t think a game of Scrabble or Codenames would be much helped by taking a more experimental attitude. The game needs to have a complex enough system at it’s core that is fun to play with beyond the act of trying to win the game itself. Similarly, most party games or dexterity games (Jenga for instance) don’t really fall anywhere on the chart so wouldn’t benefit much from this mindset. Of course, something like Jenga doesn’t need much help making failures enjoyable!

Every Card a Mechanic

Published / by Rob Streeting

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.