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Is Your Game able to Withstand a Tabletop Gamer?

This article was written by Filip Wiltgren and originally published on his blog.

It was brought to us by our friends at Critical Distance, who find the best in critical writing about games each week. You can see more at their site, and support them on Patreon.

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My friend broke Elvenar.

I don’t know if it’s been changed since—I don’t play Elvenar myself—but if you do, and don’t want any spoilers, skip this post.

But enough with the disclaimers, on with the show.

My friend is a gamer, more specifically a board gamer. More specifically, my friend is a very, very good board gamer. And what differentiates board games from video games (except for the whole “board” thing) is that in a board game the entire game system is always exposed.

Think about it—in a board game you see all the cogs and wheels all the time. You don’t get any graphics between you and the rules. You don’t have any unknown variables (ok, a draw deck of cards can be an unknown but you know that it’s there—you’ll never be in a position where variable X is secretly controlled by variable Y). What you see is what you get, and what you get is all the rules up front.

You may think that you get the rules in Elvenar up front but you don’t. You don’t see what happens behind the scenes, the little fiddly bits that the computer is taking care of for you. But, being a board game player, my friend is very adept at recognizing the fiddly bits when he sees them. And he’s got another advantage.

Board games are simple. You may think that a board game is complex, with thousands of tokens and hundreds of pages of rules (check out Advanced Squad Leader), cards that change the way the game is played (Fluxx anyone?) or that carry their own rules (Magic the Gathering) but at it’s core, it’s still a very simple system. That’s because a board game needs to be able to be played by an unaided human. A human must be able to understand and apply the rules. All the rules. Miss a rule and you’re not playing the game properly. (BTW, I’m using the term board game and tabletop game interchangeably here, so Magic and Fluxx are board games even though they’re card games. You can just pretend that I’m writing “tabletop” or “card” or “miniature” when it suits you. My point is about analog games of a certain complexity and use.)

Think about it—in a board game you see all the cogs and wheels all the time 

Back to the game. With everything known and every rule adapted to be human-grokkable, board games are perfect at teaching a key lesson: how to analyze and pervert complex systems.

Let’s back up a bit. In a board game you begin by testing different play styles. After a while some of those styles will show themselves to be more successful—you start to win against your friends. Your keep playing and keep winning. You’ve found the optimal way to play, right?

Wrong. You’ve found the optimal way to play in your gaming group. Someone coming in from the outside can completely overturn your group-think way of playing the game. That is what happened to me with Through the Ages.

Through the Ages is a civilization themed engine building game. You’ve got resources, like metal, food, population, science, military strength and a couple of others. You use your resources to build your nation and gather points. In my group we thought that science was overpowered. Whomever managed to get the best science generating engine won.

Then we played with a guy who played in a different group, and he trashed us all. Completely. Turns out that if you analyze the game, mathematically like, you can see that while science is the key to engine building, military is the key to victory. If you’ve got a weak military you can get beaten down, and down, and down. None of us played that way. This guy did. He won.

He won because he’d sat down and looked through all possible play styles. He didn’t need to find them, he could see them right there on the board, and then it was merely a question of testing them against each other. And what he came up with was that military, if you got the right cards, was completely overpowered against someone who didn’t go for military strength. So while betting on military was dependent on luck to win, omitting military was a surefire way to lose in Through the Ages. And he figured that out by looking at the components and the rules.

Sometimes it’s that obvious. Sometimes you need to do more work but you can always do the work. You have all the parts at your disposal and knowing that they’re there, knowing, grokking, that what you’re looking at is a mathematical system, lets you take it apart.

Note that I’m using the word grok here. Grok means to understand something at an intuitive level, to know it so intimately that it becomes part of your world view. It means something that affects our very way of thinking. It’s a very strong term (coined, incidentally, by Science Fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein, you know, the Starship Troopers guy). How strong? Most of us know that the Earth is round. Most of us don’t grok it. We don’t instantly think of a planet as a ball, with no real directions. We sometimes consider how gravity makes people walk upside-down in Australia (btw, if you’re in Australia, pretend I said Norway). But when we look, we see the world as essentially flat, and that’s how we grok it: as a sheet, because that’s how we walk, drive, sleep, live. Some astrophysicists grok that the Earth is round. For them it’s intuitive to think of Earth like a sphere that they can orbit objects around. The rest of us, well, if you’re anything like me, you grok North as “up”, or grok Western Europe, or the US as “up”. If we think of Earth it’s with the US/UK at the top, or perhaps with the North Pole on top. If we truly grok the Earth as round then there is no top. Top is only important for maps and flat surfaces.

In a board game you begin by testing different play styles. 

My friend groks gaming systems.

He knows, intuitively, that they’re there, that they can be broken, used and abused. He’s able to find the types of holes that are masked by clever graphics and themes. He can appreciate the theme, but it’s the system he groks. That’s the way he’s been brought up around games, to grok them as systems. He’s scary smart, too, making it very easy for him to analyze and exploit the system. That’s what he did with Elvenar—he kept testing the different components until one broke. (If I remember correctly it was the fact that the quests would cycle around if you declined them, thus you could decline quests until you got one for which you already had the prerequisites. And since quests gave you all types of resources as rewards, and especially money, all you needed to was find the resource that gave you the best quest reward for money and not produce any money at all. So now you’ve got your Elvenar spoiler, possibly outdated, possibly inaccurate due to how my memory works—anyhow he found the exploit in less than two hours of actual gameplay.)

So, I’ve lauded board game players as systems destroyers. What is that to you? Only this: if you’ve got a person who groks systems, and groks the ways to exploit them, you have a magnificent tester.

You need someone like that because there will be people like that playing your game. Some of them will be vocal on the internet. Some of them will spread the exploits and suddenly your game is broken for those who don’t use the exploits. Knowing this you’ve got two options: throw your game out there and patch it as fast as you can after the exploits are found or find the exploits before you launch your game.

Both ways are possible. Magic routinely bans cards from new sets. They’ve got a very complex system, with billions of possible interactions, and it’s very hard for Wizards of the Coast to find all the holes beforehand (they do try, though, WotC’s testing departments is one of the most comprehensive that I know of, more so than many software companies’). So instead they have players who find the holes and then patch it by removing the offending card(s).

All it costs them is a bulletin on their message board: this card is no longer allowed in official tournaments. But if you’ve based your game on a mechanic and that mechanic proves to be broken, then you need more than a quick fix. You might need to re-create or re-code your entire game. Or you will be forced to leave a game that is broken.

Or you will be forced to leave a game that is broken 

This was what happened to Martin Wallace’s A Few Acres of Snow, a two player wargame which was solved within weeks of its launch. Turns out that the gamers spotted a surefire strategy for one side to win within a few rounds. Nothing the other side could do to prevent it, and in the end Wallace had to say “Yes, it is flawed. It is not something that can be fixed absolutely. The best way forward is to keep changing the rules, with scenarios, to present new challenges.” Lots of sales lost there.

I keep thinking that if some of those who came up with the Hallifax Hammer strategy had been in Wallace’s playtesting groups he could have found a way to circumvent it before the game went into production and it became too expensive to fix.

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This article was written by Filip Wiltgren and originally published on his blog.

It was brought to us by our friends at Critical Distance, who find the best in critical writing about games each week. You can see more at their site, and support them on Patreon.