Monday, December 24, 2012

Board Game Design: Identifying Multiple Paths to Victory (Part III)

Conclusion of Part I & Part II.

Card games offer a special approach to game driven chaos through a randomized deck. An individual card will often have a range of usefulness relative to the other cards in your hand. In a game of five card draw, there is a straightforward desire for higher value cards and a single deuce can often be discarded without thought. If given an initial hand beginning with a pair twos, suddenly an additional two would add tremendous value. Card games all utilize this to some degree.

In Dominion, many players are impressed with the ability to “build your own machine” deck construction mechanics. I was enamored with the idea that it embraced the aspect of unproductive cards with an all or nothing approach of victory cards. In the base game victory cards are a hindrance for the duration of the game until final scoring in which they are the only means in order to win. Everyone who has played even one game of Dominion has experienced the dreaded mostly green hand for which the actions on a turn are severely diminished. Dominion was the first instance of an all-or-nothing approach to the usefulness of cards I had observed in game design.

The brilliance of the design of the Pokemon Trading Card game is often overshadowed as it was glanced over by many and dismissed as merely an extension of the Pokemon brand. Cards were collected and traded based on the notoriety of the Pokemon, the holographic Charizard being the Holy Grail for many. If you were anything like me in the 1990’s, you never played a game of the Pokemon TCG by the written rules. If that is the case, chances are that trainer cards were passed over and energy cards were trashed completely.

Many collectible card games require an element of structure in the pregame ritual of deck building. Pokemon was unrestrained as the only requirement was that the deck must be comprised of 60 cards. A balance deck needed several categories of cards but there were no restrictive guidelines as to what could be included. Cards ranged from basic pokemon who were your primary method of representation in the battle arena; energy cards which fueled attacks and special actions and trainer cards which allowed common card game actions such as access to your discard pile and drawing additional cards for future use.

The Pokemon TCG is another prototypical example that falls within our framework for multiple victory conditions. Over the course of the game basic pokemon cards are played into your "bench", of which one is selected as an active pokemon. The primary strategy involves switching your active pokemon with those on your bench in order to utilize key advantages and minimizing weaknesses. Upon depleting the hit points of one of your opponent's pokemon, you receive one of six "prizes" which consist of 6 random cards dealt from your deck before the game.

Our first victory condition in this series of articles is our tactical victory, taking advantage of the primary actions in the game. In the Pokemon TCG this victory condition is met by knocking out all of your opponent's active and benched pokemon, in such a way that they have none available during a game. This condition can be more easily achieved with a deck designed to get a lot of pokemon out quickly onto your bench that have moderate attack strength in order to take down an opponent who builds up to that powerfully evolved Charizard. An interesting risk is made if a deck is based on a low quantity of powerful basic pokemon, risking those cards being stuck as an out of reach "prize" or on the bottom of the draw deck.

The prize function operates as an interesting method of facilitating chaos in the game. As not all cards can be drawn through normal play, for the risk averse players it insists upon a deck built on duplication and multiples of the most crucial cards for a given strategy. Achieving all six of the prizes is a simplified element of the set collection victory path in our design structure. It certainly doesn't express the expected aspects of set collection such as like-kind accumulation and zero-sum depletion but it does fit the criteria in a loosely defined manner and satisfies the basic requirement of set collection of a particular item.

Our final strategic pathway of an hourglass victory is a common structure in card games in one form or another. In many collectible card games when a player's deck is depleted this triggers victory for this player or more often, the opponent. In the Star Wars Collectible Card Game, when a powerful character card is defeated it has a "damage" number which causes additional attrition beyond that card. This function consists of discarding a number of cards equal to the "damage" number indicated on the card, usually relative to strength and functional as a balancing mechanism. In Pokemon, this is much more simpler and deck management is more often under control of each player based on drawing and reshuffling discarded cards back into the deck with special actions. Once a players deck has been exhausted, that player has been defeated.

I look forward to seeing how these three primary methods of victory will continue to be explored and expanded going forward in game design. I thank you for reading and I hope this series of articles has enriched your analysis of these game types, and thus encouraging a bright gaming future. 

Monday, December 3, 2012

December Board Game of the Month: Puerto Rico

After an online narrative RPG, a party-oriented card game, and a month of gaming totally devoted to history puzzle-hunting, Board Game of the Month is back with the Euro-gamiest of all Euro games: Puerto Rico. Despite its reputation and prominence among board gamers, I didn't play it for the first time until a recent game night hosted by my friend Phil. After playing for the first time, I quickly developed a love-hate relationship with it: though it's very difficult for a first-time player to make any headway with Puerto Rico, it's easy to see why the game is so well-regarded in the community.

Style and Gameplay

Puerto Rico is a turn-based city-building game. You play the role of a territorial governor in colonial-era Puerto Rico, and your task is to build your city and its farms to become the most prosperous. The game uses a standard "victory point" mechanic, and both goods from your farm and buildings in your city count for victory points in the final scoring. There are strong similarities to both Agricola and Race for the Galaxy, and in many aspects, Puerto Rico plays like a middle ground between those two games.

The actual mechanics of Puerto Rico's gameplay are mostly straightforward: to build your city, you can create buildings and grow crops in plantations. Buildings cost money to create and require citizens to operate; you make money by selling the crops you grow, and a limited number of citizens immigrate to the island every turn. Certain buildings allow growing more expensive crops, while others make it easier to attract citizens or to build even more buildings.

Much of Puerto Rico's decision-making comes in deciding which crops to grow and when to sell them. Sometimes it makes sense to invest heavily in expensive crops, while other times, it's better to move quickly through lower-value ones; sometimes you need to sell crops for money, and sometimes it's better to trade them for victory points. Other strategies can get by without growing crops at all. Like all the best games in the genre, Puerto Rico strongly rewards formulating a consistent strategy and pursuing it through the end of a game; like all the best games in the genre, that's particularly difficult.

Analysis and Anecdotes

A (possibly apocryphal) story about Puerto Rico's development is that it and Race for the Galaxy grew out of the same development process and a disagreement between the designers. That's especially plausible having played both games. One core mechanic shared between the two is "phase selection," where each player chooses an action to perform (like "Explore" to draw cards or "Develop" to make a new building), and every player performs each selected action, with a bonus to the player who selected that action. For example, if one player chooses to "Explore," everyone draws cards, but the player who picked "Explore" gets an extra card. The result is a free-form and largely non-interactive game where each player can develop a strategy and not have other players interfere with it.

In contrast, Agricola, another game that has plenty in common with Puerto Rico, limits each action to one player per turn: only one person can take stone, only one player can build fences, and so on. Puerto Rico lies somewhere in between: while only one player can get the "bonus" from any given phase, all players can play in all phases. That makes Puerto Rico a less frustrating game in general than Agricola but one that requires more anticipation of other strategies than Race for the Galaxy.

Puerto Rico is not an easy game to learn, even for a player who's had experience with similar games. That was reflected in the scores of the very first game I played, with Raphael (who had the most experience with the game) winning easily and me (the only person playing for the first time) bringing up a miserable rear. Although it's easy to appreciate that winning the game requires a consistent strategy, it's not so easy to get an idea of what that strategy might be until you've played through the game a few times.

Something in particular that got me into trouble was not building toward the end-game buildings aggressively enough, and then not accounting for the need to move my citizens into my end-game building to "activate" it. Like Race for the Galaxy, 7 Wonders, and a host of other Euro games, Puerto Rico's scoring ramps up in later turns, making end-game plays generally more valuable than early-game plays. The consequence is that it's important to anticipate the end of the game coming and to prepare for it in time to maximize the value of your late plays, another skill that's difficult having never played the game before.

Overall Impressions

There's a whole lot to Puerto Rico, and the most clever part of its design is that two players can be pursuing completely independent strategies and be successful in both--but interact just enough to impact how successful each of those pursuits are. Fans of Race for the Galaxy should appreciate all the similarities between Puerto Rico and Race; fans of Agricola or of stiflingly low-variance board games in general will be drawn to the utter lack of randomness in Puerto Rico. Along the lines of Agricola, it's a more proactive game than the more reactive Race for the Galaxy, so even though the mechanics are similar, the approaches to winning Puerto Rico and Race for the Galaxy are very different.

Regardless of personal preferences for proactive vs. reactive, or moderate vs. low variance, or interactive vs. isolated-strategy games, Puerto Rico is consistently in BoardGameGeek's top five best board games for a reason. At the very least, it's worth playing because it's a mainstay in the genre; at best, it's a game whose depth of strategy and multiple viable approaches will draw you in enough times to actually become good at it.

2-5 players, 90 minutes (or 120 if there are new players), $45 at a game shop or $29 on Amazon