Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

15 June, 2010

Game variants
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 1:02 PM

One of the reasons I really enjoy offline (board and card) games is because they offer a lot of great opportunities for game design. There’s nothing quite like chewing over a game’s mechanics while playing with friends. It’s a fun exercise to think about how to turn an interesting board game mechanic into something that would work for the design of an online game.

Offline games are also a great opportunity to tweak the rules to try to make them better. Perhaps you want to make a game harder, or easier, or just want a different experience after playing the game for the hundredth time with friends. If you can find a group willing to experiment, offline games are a great opportunity to practice game design and talk it over with other interested people.

Let me talk about some of the variant rules I’ve been playing with in games.

One game that a friend got for me recently was Arkham Horror, a cooperative board game based on the work of H.P. Lovecraft. One thing I really like about this game is that it is cooperative, meaning that the players win or lose as a whole. The incentive to screw your buddy for a few more points isn’t there.

One problem we had was that the game seemed a bit too frantic. That makes sense given the horror nature of the game, but the pace really didn’t allow us to explore the game out. It seemed we were either running to/from monsters, focusing on portals, or running to safety in order to heal our characters. So, we’ve played around with rules to slow the pace down. One problem is that if the pace slows down too much, then the game loses the challenge that also makes it appealing. The alternate rule we’ve come up with is that we get a number of rounds to start before portals start opening up. That allows us to have a few adventures around town before we get occupied with monsters and portals to other dimensions. It makes some narrative sense, too: the investigators get a bit of time to poke around town before the stuff hits the fan.

Another game we love is Apples to Apples. For those not familiar with the game, you have red cards with nouns in your hand and green cards with adjectives played one per round. One person judges while the others throw down cards trying to get the judge to pick theirs. Cards are thrown in face down to try to reduce favoritism. It’s a pretty funny game, especially if you have demented friends like I do. It’s not unusual for the red card “Pond Scum” to win when the green card is something like “Misunderstood”.

The problem we encountered is that if there are only three people who want to play, that’s not very exciting. One judge getting two cards doesn’t have much choice. So, in times like this we add another player:

Yes, those are the ashes of my cat who passed away. We sometimes use one of the other cat’s ashes, though. Okay, yeah, it’s a bit macabre, but it’s really funny when he wins the right cards. Or, if the cat’s red card is something like “milk” or “mice”.

How it works is that we throw in an extra red card from his pile to the mix. The judge then has three cards to pick from instead of two, making it a bit more interesting. If the judge picks a card nobody claims, then it goes to the cat.

The funny thing is… the cat ashes keep winning the games when we do that. Perhaps it’s a sign of the good design that went into the cards. Or, it could be that the humans are over-thinking their cards they throw in. Or, perhaps, we gravitate toward the most oddball card, and the random card tends to be pretty off-the-wall. At any rate, it adds a bit more demented humor to the game.

So, what about you? Do you have any offline game variations that you really enjoy?







20 Comments »

  1. I’ve been picking up a lot of board games recently and love to play them through with friends. I have Arkham Horror and like you, feel like it is a bit hectic at times. However, since there isn’t any competition with other players, I don’t mind it so much. I recently picked up Runebound (an older game) and love the fantasy/epic nature of the game. If you’ve played D&D, the massive amounts of rolling will feel very familiar. What’s so great about Runebound is that there is a story being told with every game and with only a few card additions (not free of course), you get a different story and a different game.

    I also love that both Runebound and Arkham Horror can be played with a group or solo. The dynamics change obviously but it’s nice to be able to pull out such a big board game and play by yourself.

    Comment by Joe — 15 June, 2010 @ 1:14 PM

  2. Have you ever tried The Game of Things? There’s a bit of strategy to it. And then there’s the meta-meta-meta-meta gaming/cognition as we try to sound like someone else so people can’t figure out who to choose, but they’re all doing the same, so then the person guessing is trying to guess who sounds most like someone trying to sound like someone else. It gets complex. And dirty.

    Comment by Klepsacovic — 15 June, 2010 @ 1:34 PM

  3. Joe wrote:
    I recently picked up Runebound (an older game) and love the fantasy/epic nature of the game.

    We have that as well. I really like the movement mechanic (you roll 5 dice and can use each dice to move through a terrain type it’s showing. Roads are common on the dice, but high mountains and marshes are less common). The competitive nature of the game can make it seem cutthroat at times. Are there any of the expansions or additions you really recommend?

    The same publisher used similar item and quest mechanics for World of Warcraft: the Board Game. The big change was that they split out the item cards into different tiers, related to how WoW does it (white common items, blue uncommon items, purple rare items). Prevents the game from becoming too easy if you get a “free card” of a powerful item early in the game.

    Klepsacovic wrote:
    Have you ever tried The Game of Things?

    Comment by Psychochild — 15 June, 2010 @ 2:26 PM

  4. How many people do you play with? I’ve always found that if you play with 4, 6, 7 or 8 the game is less frantic. 4 because its below the first power ramp and 6-8 because its a lot of people in general. A friend and I generally take up as many as four people each, I have all of the expansions so far so extra boards, and it makes the game both more fun and more interesting. Definitely doesn’t reduce the challenge as much as we first thought it might. All of this being said I like your variant rule and I might use it as it makes narrative sense. How many turns do you usually do? I was thinking like 3-4 turns but its your variant so you might have a better number.

    Comment by Cheshiremythos — 15 June, 2010 @ 2:51 PM

  5. For Apples to Apples specifically, we use a rule that the first card rejected (worst match) gets an extra card for their hand from that point on because hey, they need the help. It only takes a moment longer for the judging player to pick that worst match and reveal it.

    Comment by Brett — 15 June, 2010 @ 2:57 PM

  6. Apples to Apples is a longtime favorite in my family. We’re pretty weird, too. Much hilarity ensues.

    Rage is another longtime favorite. It’s a relatively straightforward trick-taking card game with a trump suit, but the mix of six suits, bonus and penalty cards, and most importantly, trump changing/nulliying cards make for some good variable gaming.

    It’s always interesting to me when board and card games set up some relatively simple rules and pieces that lend themselves well to player-driven complexity and depth. I firmly believe that card and board game design has a lot to teach video game designers.

    Comment by Tesh — 15 June, 2010 @ 3:04 PM

  7. My group of friends plays Apples to Apples with a supply of fine-point Sharpies. We take the blank card rule to a whole new level.

    Bored with ‘Eleanor Roosevelt’? Try ‘Stabbing turkeys in the face’! ‘Giving a hug’ is nice, but ‘Giving a hug to a bear’ is even nicer! Cross out a couple words in a deadpan caption and suddenly it’s an hilarious your mom joke!

    My favorite was actually originally a blank card:
    You
    Probably a racist

    Comment by Tim! — 15 June, 2010 @ 4:09 PM

  8. Cheshiremythos wrote:
    How many people do you play with? I’ve always found that if you play with 4, 6, 7 or 8 the game is less frantic.

    We usually have 3 people playing. Might have to try adding another person.

    I was thinking like 3-4 turns but its your variant so you might have a better number.

    What we did was use the track on the elder god and put 2 tokens on it each round. We’d pick a Mythos card, but would simply spawn a monster in that location instead of a portal. So, there was still some danger. Reactions were mixed, but I thought it was good.

    Comment by Psychochild — 15 June, 2010 @ 5:52 PM

  9. Ah, I remember when I took my Axis and Allies pieces (along with some Fortress America pieces) and a careful trace of the A&A board (so I could split up some especially large provinces and lower the values on the “key” points, but not too much), added some tech (thus the FA pieces) and made “Risk, but with good combat rules” using the A&A rules. Good times.

    Comment by silver — 15 June, 2010 @ 8:20 PM

  10. I’ve also seen the random card win- the trick is that it actually has a statistical advantage, since it has a chance in every round instead of N/N+1 of the rounds. I guess you could fix it by letting the cat’s ashes judge, but I’m not sure how to resolve it.

    Comment by Greg — 15 June, 2010 @ 10:12 PM

  11. Back in high school I played a lot of Axis & Allies. Eventaully we got sick of the normal set-up, and so made the game more “Risk” like…. that was a lot of fun, and changed everything. Suddenly you had no allies, no strong home bases, and everything was fresh every game.

    Another game I’ve modified is the space epic, Twilight Imperium. The game is for 3-6 (8?) players, however that’s tough to pull together all the time and so a friend and I put together a two player variant… here are the rules:

    http://systemicbabble.com/misc/twilight-imperium-two-player-rules-variant/

    Comment by Andrew — 16 June, 2010 @ 6:05 AM

  12. I used to be a huge fan of TCGs and played a ton of them relgiously. The biggest problem I had though was trying to find people to play with and that’s why eventually MMOs became my more major gaming focus. Sometimes I really do miss – and wish for – the times when I could just sit around a kitchen table on a Sunday night and play a card or board game with my friends. There’s something truly rewarding about that, more so than any sort of cyber hobby.

    Comment by We Fly Spitfires — 16 June, 2010 @ 6:23 AM

  13. I don’t know if you remember me but a year ago, after reading your book, I decided to ask you about making offline games, specifically board games and trading card games. And now we have come full circle hehe.

    PS : Although the advice from your friend was very good, me and my friend didn’t go through with it because we were first timers, and scared out of our wits in doing things by ourselves for the first time.

    Comment by Jon Ho — 16 June, 2010 @ 8:26 AM

  14. @Psychochild It seems interesting as a variant and without testing it I would say its balanced given that you are getting an extra doom token for the benefit of no gate. A hefty cost indeed. Do you have more games where the great one awakes quickly now?

    Comment by Cheshiremythos — 16 June, 2010 @ 11:38 AM

  15. Cheshiremythos wrote:
    It seems interesting as a variant and without testing it I would say its balanced given that you are getting an extra doom token for the benefit of no gate.

    I wasn’t clear, that’s how long the “before the real game” segment lasts. After the Elder God’s track is filled with no portals opening, we clear the track and then start the game proper. So, it adds a bit on the front end. It makes the game a bit easier overall since we can prepare a bit more, but it allows us to experience a bit more of the game through the adventures. For example, I finally got a Silver Twilight Lodge membership the one game we played like this, whereas it wasn’t something you could really work for previously.

    Hope that clarifies. :)

    Comment by Psychochild — 16 June, 2010 @ 1:52 PM

  16. I wound up playing “Apples to Apples” for the first time a few weeks ago with my nine-year-old nephew, and discovered that he and his older sister had added a meta-rule to the game.

    Everything played as usual (although we had to pester the rest of the family to serve as ad hoc judges for every hand of the cards). But at the end of the game, beyond just who won and who lost, I found it fascinating that they looked at the words on the green cards as personality descriptors.

    In other words, if you wound up with cards like “attractive” and “bright” and “unfriendly” (I’m just making up some here), then the meta-game was to see those elements in the personality of the person who won those cards.

    Actually, a Google search reveals that other people have come up with this gameplay extension as well. And that makes my game design antennae twitch because it suggests that there’s broad interest in a gameplay feature that appears to reveal to people something about their personalities that they might not have recognized.

    Could an entire game be deliberately built around that? I don’t mean purely for giggles, where the “personality” portrait is basically random (as in Apples to Apples). I mean a game that’s fun to play and has a clear winner, but that’s deliberately designed so that the results can be interpreted to describe some of the core personality traits of each player.

    More generally, how do you know when a variation might be interesting enough to merit a game of its own?

    Comment by Bart Stewart — 16 June, 2010 @ 3:27 PM

  17. Bart Stewart wrote:
    Actually, a Google search reveals that other people have come up with this gameplay extension as well.

    Heh, that is a really common rule. I thought it was in the core rules, but I think it was told to me by the person who owned the copy I first played.

    I mean a game that’s fun to play and has a clear winner, but that’s deliberately designed so that the results can be interpreted to describe some of the core personality traits of each player.

    First though that leaps to my mind is having victory points of different colors earned by different methods. The number of victory points of each type at the end gives you a final personality profile. Just a thought.

    More generally, how do you know when a variation might be interesting enough to merit a game of its own?

    Tricky question. Most games have a core mechanic that could be applied to any theme. We’ve seen plenty of game re-use a basic mechanic in a new way.

    Beyond changes in theme, I think it takes quite a bit to really come up with a “new” game. How many variations on house rules are there to Monopoly, for example. You can play with dozens of house rules, but the core is still Monopoly. In order to create a new game, you’d really have to radically change the game, in my opinion.

    Anyone else have any thoughts?

    Comment by Psychochild — 17 June, 2010 @ 4:28 PM

  18. In order to create a new game, you’d really have to radically change the game, in my opinion.

    Now apply that to video games and you discover there’s like 5 titles that get released over and over and over :)

    Comment by silver — 17 June, 2010 @ 8:57 PM

  19. I thought the rule in Apples to Apples was that with fewer players, (< 5?), each player could throw down two cards? The frantic point is that only X cards can be accepted, which are less than (players-1) x 2, so you have to hurry if you want to get two chances to win the round…

    Or maybe that’s just how we play. I haven’t actually looked at the rules in years…

    Comment by Rampant Coyote — 18 June, 2010 @ 8:00 AM

  20. silver wrote:
    Now apply that to video games and you discover there’s like 5 titles that get released over and over and over :)

    Oh, certainly. As I said, it’s mostly changing theme which most people consider a “different” game even if the core gameplay is virtually identical.

    Rampant Coyote wrote:
    I thought the rule in Apples to Apples was that with fewer players, (< 5?), each player could throw down two cards? The frantic point is that only X cards can be accepted, which are less than (players-1) x 2, so you have to hurry if you want to get two chances to win the round...

    That’s one of the official suggested variants listed in the instructions. We might have to try that out sometime. :)

    Comment by Psychochild — 18 June, 2010 @ 1:51 PM

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