Imagine a game of chess where each player used different pieces each game. A Queen swapped out for a catapult, the Rooks replaced by Ninjas. Imagine a game of monopoly where the properties changed location each game, and the player pieces each had unique powers. The games of our youth are durable and time tested, but one thing they can often lack is variety and change from play to play. There is, of course, some variability. The dice and chance cards make each game different, and the human element at play in even a luckless game like chess means that strategies will vary. But the games themselves, for the most part, are static.
Modern game designers have worked to add variety to games. To make a game as replayable as possible, and to have players excited for it to hit the table again and again, the experience can’t becomes stale or predictable. Players ask more and more for the games they buy to provide ever more strategies for victory, different pieces from game to game, and above all, an experience that is both deep AND broad.
To provide such an experience, a game needs to be designed from the ground up to include this variety. That game of chess I describe at the beginning? It exists, although not as the much anticipated Chess 2.0, but as The Duke. The Duke owes its roots to Chess, in that you move units with set movement patterns around a grid like board trying to to capture your opponent’s key piece. Sound familiar? The difference is that you pull these units randomly from a bag, instead of having a set group of pieces at the beginning like in Chess. To add an additional twist, the units are two sided tiles with different movements/powers on each side. When you move a piece, you must flip it to the opposite side, which means even the pieces you have access to are constantly changing how they can best used to conquer your opponent.
You see this kind of ingenuity everywhere in the designer game market. In fact, one of my favorite designers, Donald X Vaccarino, stakes his reputation on nearly infinite variety in his games. His first design is a card game called Dominion. In Dominion, you are the lord of a kingdom with a deck containing some money cards and some land cards. (Land cards are end game points. After all if feudalism taught us anything , what is a lord without vast tracts of land?). You use this money to buy new cards representing the people and structures that might be part of a castle. A spy let’s you see other player’s cards, a woodcutter generates more resources, etc… The goal is to build a sort of card engine that helps you buy more land and ultimately win the game.
It is a fantastic game, and was one my first purchases when I wandered into a gaming store years ago, but the aspect of the game that gives it its longevity is the set up. Each game, ten kingdom cards are selected at random, making the strategies that are available for any given game different based on what cards are selected. The initial game came with 25 different cards to choose from, allowing for many different set ups with completely different cards. The game has been so successful that there are now over 200 different cards to choose from, making for 35,216,131,179,263,320 possible starting combinations. With odds like that, no two games will ever be the same, and each game requires a different tactical approach. This would all fall apart if every card was its own complicated mess of rules, but where Dominion succeeds most is in combining many different simple actions to create a depth of strategy.
Another game by Vaccarino is Kingdom Builder. Here too, variety is king, but in different ways than Dominion. In Kingdom Builder, each player tries to place their 40 settlements out on a hexagonal grid based board to score the most points. Each turn players draw a card that indicates one of the five different terrain types on the board, and places three settlements on that type of terrain. Settlements must be adjacent to each other whenever possible, presenting the fundamental puzzle of the game in following this rule of adjacency while still placing pieces in the most advantageous position. The key lynchpin of the design is that the board, powers, and the way to score points are different from game to game.
Each game has players set up 4 boards as the map for that game, each with 1 to 2 different powers, and select 3 goals the define how to score points. One goal might be to have a big cluster of settlements next to each other, while another goal tasks players with creating long horizontal lines of settlements. Others challenge players to build next to mountains, or water.. Even playing on the exact same map with different goals will provide a very different strategic experience. I have played over 150 games of Kingdom Builder, and each plays feels both familiar in its basic cadence, and fresh in how I approach using the powers on the board to accomplish the goal.
Most modern designers work like Vacarrino has, to bake variety directly into the core concepts of their game design. The easiest way to accomplish this goal, as evidenced by the games I described, is to have variable set up. Unlike Monopoly or Chess, having variability in the how the game is set up before anyone makes a single move is key to having different play experiences. There is no better way to ensure that the journey of a game will be different than by having each journey begin at a different point of origin.
Board games are an investment, so it is no surprise that players want to play games that have longevity and variety. There is a lot of different options provided in the box for the Duke,Dominion, and Kingdom Builder, but what I did not touch on today is how designers continue to add life to a game through expansions. All three of these games have additional expansion titles that you can buy to add more options to the base game. The advantage in expansions is that they can add more of what players love without being a whole new game. There are often a few rule tweaks, but unlike learning a whole new game, any player that knows the original can jump right in. They can provide the best of both worlds, in being both familiar in terms of how to play, but new and exciting in how the a particular set up plays out. More expansions were just announced for both Dominion and Kingdom Builder, and I cannot wait to add the twists and turns they promise to my favorite games.