Positive Player Interaction #2

I named my blog after myself for a reason.  I’ve unleashed one nearly-acclaimed, though supremely indie, board game on the world and now I’m an expert in the field.  Not only am I an expert, I’m also working on multiple games at once and expecting every publisher to fall to their knees in front of me and beg for a chance to touch my designs.  This seems to be the cycle of normal game design.  Make a game, see the success, and suddenly every idea vomited from my brain is dipped in gold.  Angels herald my arrival at local conventions.  I have deep conversations with the sun and moon, and my medication doesn’t always work.

So, welcome to Part 2 of a professional and totally scholarly and educated and supremely entertaining series about Positive Player Interaction in Competitive Multiplayer Games.  (also please read part 1  as this article doesn’t have a recap)

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(In Ben Rosset’s newly announced game, “Brew Crafters” players can sometimes join microbrewery forces to create a collaborative blend.  Or you can do what I do, and make Coffee Stouts all game and lose.)

Part 2: Cross-Pollenation

When a gamer complains that a game has no “player interaction,” what they are saying is that game has no way to directly attack another player.  They point to worker placement Euros like Caylus, tile selection systems like The Castles of Burgundy, and abstracted market systems with personal technology trees and pasted-on themes like Goa.  They are okay with war-games with turtling players, or eight hour negotiation games in space, just as long as a fight breaks out at some point or a well-timed card draw ruins someone’s day.  The assumption is pretty clear;  negative player interaction equals real player interaction. This assumption is, however, completely wrong.  

So, because of this misconception, Positive Player Interaction is not brand-new, but the terminology and the psychological effect is.  It has existed for years, just under the surface, popping up in very small doses in popular games such as Pit!, Monopoly, Acquire, and Diplomacy.  And contrary to those that design and play Euro/German-style board games, these positive interactive elements tend to be more present in the complex and convoluted systems of American-style games.  As much as a player is restricted from attacking another player in a game like Agricola, the central board with available actions is entirely anti-social, vindictive, and negative.  The only way to have positive interaction in games like this is to have to player to your right make mistakes and feed you everything you need.  This is usually accompanied by loud, geeky, whining sounds, and in severe cases can result in multiple stab wounds.  

Like many others before me, Settlers of Catan was my gateway into hobby gaming, but it wasn’t until years afterward that I pinpointed one of the main reasons I enjoyed the experience.  Sure, I had never heard of a “Euro” game before that moment, so it was ripe to bowl me over, but the key mechanic that changed my life was “open trading.”  I could roll dice all night and never ever get a “9” so that I could obtain a Brick resource.  But, I could turn to my friends and say, “I have an amazing Ore for a Brick,” and someone would just trade it to me like a total fool.  Amazing.  I was able to build a new Settlement, and on their turn, they were able to buy a Development Card.  Eventually our games devolved into bash-the-leader, “I’ll trade you everything in my hand since I’m not going to win” fests, but it was that initial feeling of collaboration for separate but mutually beneficial goals that stuck with me.

Active/Passive, Direct/Indirect, Negative/Positive

When I blow up your stuff or tear your gaming heart from your imaginary, bleeding, gaming chest, I am actually engaging in Active (or Direct) Negative Player Interaction.  This can either be “Take That!” gameplay where I would play a random nasty card or effect on a specific player, or it can be a strategic engagement in direct confrontation.  While not always targeting one player, it is traditionally implied to be vicious, humorous, and personal.  It’s also easy to see how appealing this destructive concept has been for the last century.  It is the most simplistic, classic form of interaction.  There is no doubt about where the attack is coming from, the effect is immediately gratifying, and retaliation is generally the only recourse.  And both players are actively involved in the outcome.

There are many problems with this type of interaction.  Like I mentioned in the first section, determining a target for this type of action early in the game is entirely random.  It’s mean-spirited, short-sighted, and allows for ganging up on a player (usually the perceived leader).  Modern board games have shied away from this type of interaction because it is seen as unbalanced, requires less skill, and is highly tactical.  Games with too much Active Direct Negative Player Interaction are usually combat-themed or the type of card game bought for a few bucks at a department store.  

But, as noted a thousand times, this is not the only form of player interaction.  Designers have a new, rich arsenal of Positive binary game design techniques to unleash within competitive games; Active (Direct) and Passive (Indirect).  It would probably be a good idea to explain what I’m talking about before we move on to the meaty narratives ahead.

Active Player Interaction:  A type of direct interaction that requires two or more players to collectively resolve an action immediately.  A positive example would be Open trading in Settlers of Catan or cards that require two or more players combining resources to activate as in Spartacus.  Active Interaction requires active participation (or the illusion of active participation) in the collaborative action.

Passive Player Interaction:  A type of indirect interaction that requires two or more players to collectively resolve, but the resolution of the action is not immediate and affects all other players. A positive example would be Role Selection in Puerto Rico where I choose a Role and then every player gets to take that same action or publishing in The New Science, where all players suddenly have access to higher levels of experimentation when a player decides to publish their findings.  The key to this type of interaction is that it is based primarily on anticipation, is subtle, generally is a global effect, and requires no active participation between players.  Note that Passive (negative or positive) Interaction is the type of player interaction that irks those that scream about Euro-style games not having real interaction as it still allows players to take a bathroom-break.

The point is, whether the interaction is subtle or overt, active or passive, stab or backstab, multiplayer games rely on player interaction.  This is why most games break down if players stop trying to win and also why Euro Games are not strictly multi-player solitaire affairs.  Knowing that a game has zero Active Player Interaction lets a player know that they should be ready to push cubes and fill out spreadsheets.  Conversely, expecting a ton of Active player interaction invites huge social game pitfalls, ganging up, and silly player-driven randomness that can alienate just the same.  Knowing the difference is important.

And while I’ll be focusing on ways to integrate Active Positive Player Interaction into game systems (with a little bit of Positive Passive thrown in for fun), a good, complex game should have a mixture of all or most of these elements.

Chris Kirkman, from Dice Hate Me, likes to throw around the idea that, “human beings are the ultimate random element.”  I think this is mostly true (though some people are extremely bland and predictable), but most importantly, if a designer ignores this altruism, they are not embracing what makes a multiplayer game so engrossing.  There isn’t a Euro or American game that exists which can fully remove a player’s choice from affecting other players and still be enjoyable, no matter how hard some designers try.  

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(VivaJava prototype as players show a little team-style love. Actively negotiating plans across the table with teammates keeps downtime to a minimum.)

Compounds, Coffee, & Experimentation

My first direct foray into Positive Player Interaction was VivaJava: The Coffee Game.  I have written at-length about my experience creating this game, so instead of explaining the process, I will describe some mechanics and decisions that were made during development.  These are issues unique to creating and balancing an open system where success is directly related to working with other players.  In fact, this entire section is dedicated to improving and avoiding common mistakes.

Teams that change every round.  Players actively decide which team they join and then complete a task.  In VivaJava, this includes a Vote as to what action the team will take.

But, let’s focus on the variable team aspect.  If players are choosing a new team every turn, there MUST be a reason to not choose the same team members every single round.  Randomizing what resources are available to players can be useful.  This was done in VivaJava by randomizing what color beans would be placed in the location taken by the individual players.  Changing teams then becomes crucial to collaborate and collect beans effectively.  Alternatively, overlapping hidden objectives could be used.  If players are attempting to achieve a common objective, and once achieved they move onto another, this will also reinforce positive interaction as teammates and make it beneficial to move from team to team each turn.  But, the point is to give very little reason for players to “betray” their teammates when completing the collaborative team action by making the incentive compelling.

Investment.  In VivaJava, players can research an ability that will allow them to Invest in another team’s potential achievement.  The keyword is “invest,” in that the success of the action is unknown and the action’s progress has now become important to both players.  Train games like Union Pacific have used this mechanic (usually by making buying shares of stock in another player’s railroad) for years.  In VivaJava, this investment action is “simultaneous,” which helps reduce downtime and gives a sense of constant involvement.

In practice, it is very key to balance the investor’s reward versus the reward that the player or team that is taking the action receives.  If the investor’s reward is too high, then the mechanic quickly becomes a negative interaction.  VivaJava is also a 7 Round game (usually), so time-pressure can help make it absolutely imperative for a team not to destroy potential points just to shake off some “mooching” investor.  Allowing or forcing investing players to contribute resources can also aid in emphasizing the active collaborative nature of the action.  

And, of course, Simultaneous Actions. Simultaneous Actions are a very fickle beast within an environment of collaboration; layer on the idea that other players have the option of actively investing in your team, and suddenly there is a recipe for chaos.  What I did in VivaJava to combat this idea was provide all players with a token that determined their vote secretly.  This way, non-verbal communication became just as important as verbal communication and most specifically, ALL teams had to decide their course of action at the exact same time.  My team can’t “leave the room” to negotiate; we have to negotiate in front of everyone else.  So, while there’s no reason to lie to your teammates and pick the opposite action after secretly deciding, advanced players understand the importance of lying to everyone else at the table, so that those other chumps don’t invest in your team’s hard work.  

The key to simultaneous actions in a game with Positive Player Interaction: secret information.  Whether this is a token that conceals a vote or action choice, a bag that conceals beans, or a secret “objective,” it is important to provide some method to be clandestine.  

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(Ben Rosset jots down some feedback after a play-test at Unpub 3.  In the background, I believe thats Bryan Fischer from Nevermore Games being interviewed for local news. A very beneficial game design event.)

I met Ben Rosset, designer of “Mars Needs Mechanics,” in 2011 at a pre-Unpub-Mini event in Glen Burnie, MD.  His signature approach to game design has always been a very focused, mathematical, abstract puzzle; which is of course, what draws me to his games.  Usually there is a pivotal mechanic that is the crux of the design, and the theme is integrated around it.  Game first, chrome later.  Early in 2012, during the VivaJava Kickstarter campaign, Ben invited me down to his apartment and about twelve other people showed up for a night of VivaJava.  We ended up playing the game twice that night.

Months later, Ben creates a game.  Or, and I hope I’m not offending, more of a social experiment than a game, at least in the form that I originally played it, called “So You Want to Be a Game Designer.”  At a local game design group, “Table Treasure” in Maryland, 10 players huddled around a single folding table, and we were given a player board with multiple ability tracks all related to aspects of boardgame creation, each of them interconnected.  I couldn’t publish my game until I had play-tested.  I couldn’t start play-testing until I had prototype.  I couldn’t have a prototype unless I had collected mechanics and developed an idea, all the while getting better and better at design (and collecting tweets!).  Very meta.

The reason I mention this game, is because it was an experiment in Positive Player Interaction that directly inspired me and solidified some of the principles that need to be in place for this concept to run smoothly.  Please keep in mind that it was a very early prototype and I will keep my descriptions as vague as possible to conceal both Ben’s design intentions and to respect his work on it in the future.  

On the central board, players could place two action tokens, simultaneously, openly, while conversing, on any action spaces that they felt would be beneficial.  Any number of players could place their tokens on a space AND usually the space became more and more beneficial if more players chose it (with a cap).  Once all player’s had placed their tokens, the actions were resolved.

One thing that became immediately apparent; since we all started symmetrically, no player had an advantage.  It was relatively obvious what tracks everybody needed to push forward at the start.  So, cue players all piling on to one or two spots.  As the game continued, action started to become more diverse, yet since we all were following basically the same path and increasing our tracks, and since there were only a few options on the main board and zero randomness, there was never a real reason to move “against the grain.”  Instead of choosing a strategy, it was more of a copycat , “you’re doing that, oh, well I guess I’ll do that too now.”  On the positive side; scores were all (somewhat inevitably) close, it was a Euro-style game with 10 players where the game was over in about an hour, and it encouraged players to talk out their decisions instead of keeping their strategy a secret.  But, it made me realize that when positive player interaction exists, there must also be a source of divergent confrontational or competitive elements.

The second lesson to learn here is that Positive Player Interaction cannot exist without limits.  Whether this is an imposed cap on the amount of extra points player’s receive for working together or a limit to the amount of spaces available in which players can choose to interact, viable reasons to NOT interact need to exist.  Ben’s game, in this very early build, did have these limits, but encouraged interaction so much that divergence from the collective mindset was a punishable offense.  (Renaming it “Conformity” and theming it in an Orwellian future would be an awesome idea)

Also, as I mentioned before, simultaneous actions are difficult to balance within an area of open collaboration.  At the time, we were all “playing nice,” but an impasse could have been reached where no players would volunteer to help the “leading player.”  Thus creating an infinite loop.  As a group, we would all want to take a certain action together, but if the player in the lead would choose the space, we would move to another space.  Then, if the lead player would choose that space, we would all move our pieces back.  Similarly, some players could hang back and choose “last” after seeing what everyone else had done.  Even with a timer, this could cause a chaotic chain of last-second movements.  Wits and Wagers, a party game with “open betting” has this same issue towards the end of the game.  A smart leader simply places their chips wherever the player in second place does to ensure victory.

I’m actively exploring this idea of “open worker-placement/action-selection” in a game I’ve tentatively titled, “Club Zen.”  In Club Zen, there is a main board where players choose activities to attend each day.  If 2 or more players choose the same action, they are given a Karma token that can be later used for extra actions and victory points.  Separately, each player is trying to eliminate emotional and work stresses (represented by black and red cubes), and collect meditation stones for their personal Zen Garden, the key being that each stone will provide “secret” end-game points for Friends and Events and other collectable items.

Early in development, I decided to nix simultaneous action selection to favor the more traditional, turn-by-turn placement.  So much easier to manage.  This eliminates the need to make “secret” action selections.  And the open placement de-emphasizes the power of choosing first (which I always hate in worker placement games).  A player can still choose to place their pawns in the same space as another player, but those who place last receive the most information.  

With more play-testing, I was able to make more informed decisions about “caps” and diversifying spaces on the board.  At first, spaces were exponential.  If 2 players would choose a space, both received a Karma token.  But, if all 5 players went to a space, everyone would exchange a Karma token with every other player.  It could quickly become insane and fiddly.  Eventually I capped the benefit at 1.  Now, when all players choose the same spot, each player still receives only one token.  Most importantly, this meant that in a 4 player game, players could split up into groups and not feel forced to take an action.  Also, I provided some spaces that did not give a “group” bonus to players.  I limited some actions to once-per-day.  I made some spaces better to enter first, some cheaper to enter last, and overall added a different “feel” to each action on the board, so that players were encouraged to explore.

And I started each player with a random Zen stone to introduce an end-game goal and provide an asymmetrical beginning.  This makes piggy-backing on other player’s actions a less viable option as the other player may be receiving a larger benefit.  

The strange thing was, I originally thought that the game would be broken.  If every player can go to any space at any time, I assumed that I would have to implement rules that forced players to take different actions.  In my naivety, I instituted rules where players could use gained Karma tokens to then Block other players or Invite them to their space.  Surely, when anyone can go anywhere, everyone would clump together and the game would be pointless.  But, the opposite seemed to happen.  The more I opened up the system, however still providing limits, the more players would choose NOT to work together.  

By implementing the positive and negative ideas I learned from playing Ben’s game, I was able to skip so much early experimentation.  Providing a variety of choices, an asymmetrical beginning and a few elements of secret information encouraged exploration and diverging strategies.

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(Compounded just finished a successful run on Kickstarter.  With the extra funds, a small inspansion was added to the game, further increasing the positive player interaction in the game by “Lab Partners” working together to finish larger Compounds.)

I met Darrell Louder at the first Unpub in Dover, DE, in January 2011.  Back then, the event was held in a small side-room at a local church, and a handful of designers milled about, running their games on folding tables.  Darrell was a first-time designer, bringing along his chemistry-themed game “Compounded,” which was created three nights earlier and was printed on the back of a few notecards.  What I remembered most about the game in that form was that it had a really nice logo.  That’s usually a bad sign.  But, Darrell was a real swell guy and had a chance to play my prototype of VivaJava (which had real painted coffee beans), and afterwards, he even offered to help me with some graphic design.  In hindsight, I probably should have sent him some files.

Moving forward to October 2011, Darrell brought his updated version of Compounded to Congress of Gamers in Rockville, MD and I was blown away.  Whereas the original version was a card-driven, “multiplayer solitaire” experience, in just a few months, Compounded had become a fully-fledged Euro game with real player interaction.  Direct or subconsciously, there was a hint of coffee-game flavoring in the new Test Tube tracks, and to encourage player interaction, players pulled “elements” from a central cloth bag and traded them to others when beneficial.  I was legitimately impressed by the positive interaction that ensued during the game.

One innovative interaction mechanic was called, “The Grant.”  When completing a chemical compound, players would normally receive a special piece of lab equipment.  But, a few of the easier compounds had a symbol called The Grant in order to balance them.  When completed, a player would have to Give another player a level in research.  Not only was this positive interaction, but it also had other positive negotiation benefits as well.  It created an interesting dynamic where you could donate a needed element to complete another player’s Compound and in return, they would give you the Grant.  

If “The Grant” looks strangely similar to a select few Interns’ abilities in VivaJava, it is purely coincidental, maybe.

Compounded also has the dreaded “open trading” mechanic from Settler’s of Catan, which I mentioned earlier as degrading into chaos.  Initially, I was skeptical, but the key to Compounded is that players are severely limited by their own lack of storage space.  In Settler’s a player can potentially trade a hand of twelve cards to another player for nothing in return.  You know, just to be an ass.  Compounded separates all player’s turns into phases, and the phase where you trade is not the same phase as where you build compounds.  Since your lab table only has space for a certain amount of elements, even if another player would trade ALL their elements, you would end up discarding them.  

Did I mention that limits are important in Positive Player Interaction?  I can’t stress enough how almost any “open” system can be mildly constrained and provide a truly balanced experience.  In this case it’s storage, in other cases, it’s a “cap” on collaborating benefits, randomized resources, splitting into temporary teams, orvariable costs to visit spaces,  The limit can even be the simple fact that helping another player helps them more than you.

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(VivaJava: The Coffee Game: The Dice Game continues to evolve as friends and designers let me steal all their good ideas.  Balancing positive and negative forms of interaction are key.)

Bees?

I bring up Ben Rosset and Darrell Louder because as in any artistic, business, or scientific pursuit, ideas are worthless if they are kept bottled up in buried in the sand.  We each took out game design pocket-knives and grafted pieces from our collective experiences, in some sort of craftwork quilt of abstract concepts, building upon the ideas of the other.  Call it stealing or kindly “borrowing” if you prefer, but I consider it cross-pollenation.  

VivaJava is an amalgamation of ideas from myself and play-testers.  I credit my friend, Jim Neuschwander with the Investment mechanic.  My friend, Timothy Hing provided the “degradation” mechanic that fuels the economic system.   Friedemann Friese with the “last place goes first” variable turn order mechanic.  “Kingsburg” for the research tracks.

I’ve discovered, over the few, meager years that I’ve been actively designing boardgames, that being visible or “out there” showing off your new design is much more beneficial than whispering about it from behind a curtain.  I think, in general, most content-creators with a product feel a strange aversion to openly discussing projects.  Or in the case of the recent Kickstarter surge, they feel the need to keep all details of the project whisper-quiet and then suddenly unveil the surprise campaign.  

For boardgame designers, this stems from the paranoid delusion that the project in question is so new or groundbreaking or exciting that if any other person were to even catch a glimpse of the cardboard paradise hidden within the overly-photoshopped beta prototype box-covering, they would snatch it up and release an identical version on the market within the next week!  What divine creations we designers conceive!  The reality is that direct stealing is so uncommon and boardgames so unprofitable that being concerned with this eventuality is illogical and detrimental to the entire game refinement process.  My humble recommendation: leave secrecy to movies, literature, and video games (unless you’re designing Risk: Legacy).

Because, Positive Designer Interaction is very important.  And very meta.  Like Ben’s game, we’re all making similar decisions and while there are some people that like to run contrary to the awesome community of game designers that exist on Twitter, Unpub Events, and forums on boardgamegeek.com, pooling our collective resources is what is going to move this hobby/genre forward.  Attacking others early is pointless and does the most damage.  This is all sounding very familiar.  But, the key is to be involved and helpful.  I mean, unless your game design goal is to make thirty unfinished prototypes, pull them out of the garage once a year and giggle to yourself about your genius.  

If you’ve made it this far, you either love game design, the hobby, or you skipped to this sentence by accident.  

And that’s where we leave it until the stunning Part 3: The Action Glossary.  Hidden inside is a more concrete list of Positive Interaction ideas, some old, some new, and how to implement them into games.  I drop the narrative, and focus on the hard scientific data!  It will hopefully prevent players from taking thirty minute naps when it isn’t “their turn.” 

Also, if you would like to help me add more positive player interaction to my new 2-4 player game “VivaJava: The Coffee Game: The Dice Game” here is the link to all materials needed to print and play:  LINK

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