Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Exploring variable player powers


Variable Player Powers

Something that seems to have gone over well with the TMG audience, and with a lot of gamers in general, is variable player powers. Often, unique abilities can lend a sense of replayability to a game by giving the player a different feel, or a nudge toward a different strategic path or goal.

But these powers can be a double edged sword, with the potential for a player to feel pigeonholed into a particular strategy or play style as dictated by their player power, or the possibility (even just the perception) of some powers being significantly stronger or weaker than others.

To be honest, I've historically prefered a game where players start out on equal footing, and quickly differentiate their position through game play. I've always liked it when, based on early choices, you develop your own unique player profile for the game. And I especially like it when you can set yourself up with a different player profile the next time you play (replayability!). However, I'm coming around. I get the impression more and more that variable player powers are worth adding to many types of games.

I've just signed a few new games that will be coming out in the next year or two, and I want to add player powers to two of them.

The evolution of player powers at TMG


In order to inform my thinking on variable player powers, it may be useful to look at the TMG games that have utilized them. Here they are, in pseudo-chronological order:

The first TMG original game that had player powers was Ground Floor, from 2012. Designer David Short included Specialty tiles that gave your business a little nudge in one direction or another. They upgraded one of the 6 starting spaces on your player board -- something you could normally do on your own for a cost. With the Specialty tiles, everyone starts with a different space upgraded. This doesn't make a huge impact on the game, but it does make you a little better at one aspect or another, and therefore better suited to utilize that aspect. Presumably a player with an advantage in a certain area would play in a way that takes advantage of that advantage.

When Kings of Air and Steam came along in 2013, we tried something new. We used 2-sided player boards (A/B), where the A-sides were identical, with each player starting on equal footing. We called that the "Basic" game. In the "Normal" game, each of the 7 possible player characters had a unique board with subtle differences in different aspects, as well as 2 special abilities to choose from, and a specific initiative order. It was a lot of fun to come up with, test, and balance the 14 various abilities, and we used the player board differences and initiative sequence (turn order) to adjust for abilities that were too strong or too weak until we felt we'd gotten a fairly well balanced game.

Another TMG game to get variable player powers around that time was Dungeon Roll, and while the other games were complete games without these powers, in Dungeon Roll, the powers play a much larger role in the game. Each hero in Dungeon Roll has a Specialty and an Ultimate ability, one or both of which gets better when the hero gains enough experience to level up. Dungeon Roll shipped with 8 heroes (9 if you count the kickstarter Guild Leader promo), and has since gotten two boosters of 8 more heroes each, as well as the holiday themed Winter Heroes pack, and the Time Traveler promo hero. Kind of like Dominion and Bridge rely heavily on having a new situation each hand (new kingdom cards, or a new shuffle and deal), Dungeon Roll relies on using different heroes to make the experience interesting. However, many of the heroes can offer at least a handful of games before they get boring, and with 30 heroes so far, there's a decent amount of game there. Without the different hero powers, I think the game would get old pretty quickly.

Bomb Squad is a cooperative game from 2013, and designers David Short and Dan Keltner used player powers similar to what you'd see in Pandemic, and to much the same effect. In my opinion, the base game play of Bomb Squad is so solid and fun that the player powers aren't really necessary to play the game over and over, but their effects do add to the experience. Since the game is cooperative, the player powers don't need to be as balanced against each other, they just need to be useful and fun twists on game play to let players feel like they've got an extra, unique way to help the team.

Belfort, released in 2011, never had player powers. But when the Expansion Expansion came out in 2013, it added assistants that you could draft each round, which approximated a player power in that game. Not really the same as a standard variable player power, but worth mentioning the approximation.

My deck learning card game Eminent Domain was also released in 2011 without variable player powers. For many players, the best part of the Escalation expansion from 2014 was the Scenario cards, which altered your starting deck and gave you some technology to start with. They were so well received that I added 5 Base Game scenarios as a promo in Microcosm, and a handful more came in the Exotica expansion. They haven't come to fruition yet, but I talked on my blog about another possible promo item: Emperor Avatars (described here). Emperor Avatars would be a set of two player powers that you would draft before starting the game.

Steam Works, in 2015, was the next big game to have player powers. This time we repeated the A-side/B-side player board idea from Kings of Air and Steam, but rather than having the A-sides being identical, they were unique. The B-sides had even more diverse or crazy abilities.

2015 also brought us Harbour, by Scott Almes. The base game of Harbour is a solid, compact worker placement game with an interesting market mechanism, but like Dungeon Roll, the real attraction for players (I think) comes from the host of player characters in the box. Since Harbour we've set a couple of games in the same universe (with more to come), and one of the things I've tried to do with each of those is maintain that format by providing diverse and colorful player characters with fun abilities.

2015's Dungeon of Fortune is basically a card game version of the press-your-luck dungeon crawl that was Dungeon Roll. Different mechanics, but the same theme and setting. As such, it made sense to add player powers to that game as well, and we tried to model them after some of the heroes in Dungeon Roll.

I wasn't involved in Andy's Bottlecap Vikings (also from 2015), but I know that he added variable player powers in the form of different upgrade powers on your player board in that game.

Variable player powers in today's TMG titles


This year (2017) has brought us a handful of TMG titles with player powers. In Exodus Fleet (which I didn't work on) you choose one of two factions, and that lets you start with a slightly different starting ship, and a unique card or two which could give you a nudge down a different strategic path. I don't think the differences are so substantial that you'd feel forced to pursue a particular strategy though.

I had a big hand in their development of the rest of the 2017 titles, including the variable player powers:

Chimera Station follows the Kings of Air and Steam tack of A-side (identical) and B-side (unique) player boards. That game originally didn't have player powers, and I decided they could be a good thing to add. In Chimera Station, you modify your workers by adding 4 different types of components to them: Brains, Claws, Leaves, and Tentacles. It also happens to be a 4 player game. So for unique player powers, each faction/player is kind of "good at" one of the components. This may be a little heavy handed, pushing you fairly hard toward using a bunch of the type of component that you're "good at." However, you have several workers, and it's still worth getting other components than the one you're "good at," so I think it works out.

When we signed Harvest, the game was simply about growing crops. It didn't have any characters or payer powers. But I decided to set it in the Gullsbottom universe, like Harbour before it. So naturally, it made sense to add player powers like we had in Harbour. At first I thought it would be good to take some of the actual Harbour characters, and see if we could interpret their abilities to make sense in the context of this game. However, we instead made new characters for this game. Designer Trey Chambers, taking a cue from The Voyages of Marco Polo, thought it would be good if the player powers in Harvest were more than just a tweak here, or a nod to a specific strategy there, so his first draft of the player powers were very powerful, very unique, and very diverse! We embraced that strategy for this game, and came up with a set of 8 characters with crazy powers. Mixing that with the A-side/B-side format, I wanted to have the common side be something basic, but I decided this time to make the A-sides playable along with the B-sides. So the basic character, Wil Plantsomdill, has a well rounded spread of starting resources, no particular abilities, but gets 15 points added to his score at the end of the game. This way, you can deal 2 player boards to each player, and they can choose between one character, the other, or Wil, and if I've done my job, the game will be fair.

I was working on Pioneer Days at the same time I was working on Harvest, and I decided to try the same thing with the player powers in that game. Originally there were none, and I decided to add some. Like Kings of Air and Steam or Chimera Station I wanted a basic side and a unique side, and like Harvest, I wanted it to be comparable to the unique side. What I decided to do was to take the designers' proposed standard player power (before we had unique ones), and make it the standard power. It's straightforward, and recommended for first time players, but it's not just vanilla like Wil Plantsomdill is. We called this the Standard Pioneer, and put it on the A-side of each player board. Then on the B-side of each board is one of the unique powers. Again, you can deal 2 player boards to each player, and they have 3 options to choose between: the 2 unique characters, or the Standard Pioneer, and whichever they choose should be competitive.

We have two upcoming titles that have been announced so far for 2018:
Crusaders: Thy Will Be Done is my next title, and in that game you get a knight faction tile with an ability in it. Most of the abilities have to do with controlling the distribution of your action tokens around your action wheel, which was their purpose. These aren't big effects, but they help you work with the rondel mechanism to pursue your chosen strategy.

I wasn't involved in Downfall at all, but that has player powers too. I think they're pretty low impact though, you get a Leader unit, which is like an upgraded regular unit, and you get a special card which is more powerful than normal. It's a card drafting game, so if you pass your special card and another player uses it, then you get a small owner's bonus while they get the better than usual effect.

Let's think about these games and how they use player powers, and consider what we can learn from them. This will help me design and test player powers for the two new games I mentioned earlier.

Good vs poor player powers


I think the kinds of things that make good player powers are things that either:
  • Give you some sort of starting advantage, then you don't have to worry about them again. These are straightforward and good for new players or those prone to being overwhelmed, however they're not ideal since they don't necessarily affect the way you play.
  • Give you static end game goals, such as bonus points for certain things, which give you a nudge toward a long term plan. These help drive your choices, but really they just weigh some choices more than others because you want to do things to increase your end game bonus.
  • Give you reasons to make choices you wouldn't otherwise make. This is probably the most ideal kind of power, provided it's balanced, but there's a danger of feeling like you're not even playing the same game if the incentive is to do something TOO different than normal.
  • Give the you agency to control something you couldn't otherwise.
  • Give you an incremental bonus when you do certain types of things, as long as you set them up correctly.
I think the kinds of things that make poor player powers are things that:
  • Introduce additional decision points which other players have to wait for, especially during maintenance phases. This can break up the flow of the game, or create timing issues
  • Are easily forgotten. If an ability is so seldom used, or so easy to forget you have it, then what is it really doing for you?
  • Occur based on chance, such that you might not get an opportunity to use your power, or such that a power could be significantly more or less valuable each game just due to randomness.
  • Slow down the game or are hard to keep track of.
  • Are directly interactive in a negative way (this is OK in some games, but in most games I work on it's probably not OK).
Are these lists exhaustive? I doubt it. If you have types of powers you'd like to add to either the "good" or "poor" list above, please mention it in the comments!

What do you think? What makes a good player power? What are some examples of successful powers in games, and what are examples of powers that are unsuccessful?

4 comments:

Sean McCarthy said...

A major function of player powers IMO is to make people feel less bad in their early games.

* You and I thought the best opening move of the game was different? That's fine, we had different starting positions, neither of us has to be wrong.

* You crushed me in our first game? That's fine, maybe my start was harder than yours.

* You got to go first? Sure, but there are so many other differences in our starting positions too, it's hard to measure them against each other and say that you had an advantage. We don't need to worry about something so small as turn order.

Of course, as you play the game more, you may learn that there WAS a correct first move of the game, or that your start was actually harder than mine, or that going first is a big deal. But it makes your early play more comfortable and exploratory.

The other big thing for me is something you already touched on: they guide you to try out various strategic paths, making choices you wouldn't otherwise make.


An interesting way of looking at special powers is the analogy of having private information in an otherwise efficient market. Like, if I don't know anything unique, it's a fool's errand for me to bet on particular stocks - they're already priced correctly as far as can be done with my knowledge and more. It's only when I have some material new insight that I can then act on that marginal information. E.g., if I know something positive about Google that no one else does, I should buy Google, because I know that Google is better than other people think - even if I don't know how much Google is really worth overall and I only have that marginal information.

You might come into a game with the base assumption that everything is balanced. And, if everything is balanced, how do you choose what to do? The only way your choice matters if things are balanced is if you make a foolish mistake. But if instead, you come into the game with a special power, then you can say: "Aha! The game is balanced overall, but I have special incentives. I just have to figure out what things are better *for me* than they are for other players, and then I can do those things and be successful." It gives players the manageable task of figuring out what they're marginally better at, rather than the herculean task of understanding the balance of the entire game.

Seth Jaffee said...

@sean, I really like your perspective here. Great reasoning to explain how variable player powers can be helpful for a new player, especially when it may be easy to think of them as something to add once you're already familiar with the game.

I wonder, are certain types of powers better for new players, and other types better held back until players are experienced?

Sean McCarthy said...

Oh, yeah, that's a good question.

I think new players benefit from a straightforward focus on a major core part of the game, while experienced players would rather get a sort of micro-expansion - a power that enables a completely new way to play.

Michael Brown said...

I never thought of secret objectives that award points as variable powers before, but that is basically what they are. Interesting insight.