Keeping Turns On Point

At the moment I’m talking about pace in games. Last post was about making sure there’s not massive gaps and doing whatever we can to reduce the game killer- downtime. Today I want to write about something else- the structure of a player’s turn.

The structure of a player’s turn has a massive impact on the pace of a game. If you’ve ever played a game where someone has sat around not knowing if it’s there turn, that’s a pace issue caused by either a lack of structure to a turn (or player’s not paying enough attention). I know from playtesting some of my old designs, if a player could do too many things during their turn, or rounds weren’t structured enough, the game can dissolve quite rapidly. Some of the causes are: excessive admin during a turn, being able to do multiple things in any order; & spending resources/ action points to do an action, but also being able to do multiple additional actions on top, or stockpiling resources to have an exceedingly long turn when they choose. Now unfortunately I don’t want to turn this into a slagging blog where I criticise other games, so I guess I’m talking in abstracts here when highlighting the bad, but hopefully I can illustrate excellent turn structures in (non-simultaneous play) games.

The ‘you can only do one thing’ turn. In so many superb games. Agricola- place one person and do the action, Splendour- either take some tokens, a card, or buy a card, and so on and so forth. A quick an easy Euro mechanism to make sure everyone can stay on point. You’ll know it’s your turn because the player next to you has just had there’s. The structure will game the game progressing smoothly, provided no AP, and makes it simple for people to see what’s happening.

The ‘you do these things in this order’ structure. Think any game which comes with a list of instructions for players to follow, such as Cosmic Encounter or Good Cop, Bad Cop. Or even the finality of buying a card in Dominion. Clearly less intuitive the first time then just giving players one thing to do, but with a clear list and order to follow, players can understand the flow of a game, and get to the point where it’s not needed. In Dominion the importance of buying a card is emphasised through it’s place in the turn structure- everything you do is to build up to this action. The changing of the aim in Good Cop, Bad Cop, is cleverly placed at the end of the turn, catching out most new players who want to change and then shoot, but that delay gives the game a lot of its tension. Not only does clever turn structure elegantly draw attention wherever the designer wants it, but a final full stop to a turn lets other players know the turn is finished without having to announce it to the table.

In 3 Districts* I have tried to follow the second of these structures. I’m toying with the idea of only allowing players one action, but even with that restriction there still needs to be a ‘tax’ phase at the beginning of every turn. But the turn structure is written on the player mats and allows for clear progression from player to player.

*thinking of changing the name to ‘From the Ground Up’, which I’m growing fonder and fonder of.

Knowing when to park

When I started this blog I had a good idea what game of mine (apart from Newspeak) I was excited about. Something I, and everyone who played it, enjoyed. A worker placement game, but one with lots of player interaction, where you build up your tableau, but use other people’s as well! Something I wanted to be simple enough to be considered a gateway game, but with enough depth that seasoned gamers could enjoy it. Sounds great, right? And in my head it was.

However, the best laid plans never survive first contact with the playtesters, just as they shouldn’t. Despite the enjoyment there was always something which should be tweaked to make it better. Some of which I did- reducing initial randomness, increasing rewards for players whose cities are used, reducing the word count. But there existed throughout a constant thorn of ‘simplicity’ vs ‘depth’.

Streamlining and making things simpler is normally a good thing, as it allows the pure mechanics to create the interesting choices, and that happened with this, but feedback from a number of playtesters, and my gut, told me it wasn’t streamlined enough. Essentially there was too much information on the cards. Each card has a cost to build, a type, a level, some VPs, a cost to visit, a reward for the person visiting and a reward for the owner (and not a cost to purchase, which confused people by not being there). Another game designer said it was simply too much, and I agree. But as I tried to remove them, I realised I was removing something which created some of the interesting decisions, a way of balancing cards so any of them could be used depending on people’s strategies. But I had to remove something.

So I hit a bit of a brick wall, and a bit of a low. I felt so close to a fantastic game, but I knew in my heart it wasn’t at that level yet. Enjoyable, but I don’t want to ride the enoyable-if-there’s-nothing-better pony. I want to make things which are the best they can be, which don’t have a nagging ‘almost great’ feel to them. I also realised that I’d involved myself so much in the game that I was overthinking pretty much everything about it.

So, for my own sanity, I’ve parked it. The change it needs to elevate it to that level has eluded me by my being so wrapped up in it. I truly feel some distance and time will help, and it’s definitely something I want to return to. And in the meantime? Well, a certain competition has kept me sane and made me re-evaluate a game I’d been working on before, giving me a breakthrough I’m super excited about. Something which I want to talk about when it’s ready, but which has been a smash hit whenever it’s hit the table. One which knows what type of game it is and gleefully runs with that mantle. I can’t wait.

Accelerating Through the Finish

I’m still talking about pace*, and the third thing developers can do to make sure a game’s pace is on point:

  1.  Reduce downtime
  2.  Structured turns
  3.  Make the game evolve <—- we’re here

A common refrain from a disappointing game is the feeling that the gameplay at the end was no different then the gameplay at the start. It feels the same, or perhaps even is the same. Engine building games in which the engine sputters out before it really has the chance to shine, or games which don’t empower the player in any way. I have played some published games, as well as prototypes, in which the game settles into a rut, barely breaking out of it except for random event cards. No sense of urgency, just repeat until fade. So what can we do to prevent this from happening in games?

Have options change for players throughout the game. Something Agricola does to amazing effect is ramp up the efficiency of the available actions as the game progresses. You might still have to go back for wood, but really the fight is over growth without a room. Those later actions make the game exciting, and every turn begins with a new one. Important here is the idea that the actions are better, worse actions would slow the game down towards the end (and that can happen with pure random selections).

Empower the player, whether through engine building or power ups, make them feel constantly more powerful than previously. Agricola does this again masterfully- as your farm improves you are able to do more- whether take more actions, improved actions, or set up your feeding engine, players are rewarded for good play by having stronger rounds. Similarly, all Civ games are based upon this idea that your civilisation gets more powerful, and everything starts ticking along like clockwork (unfortunately, so does your opponents, but there’s the game). Ideally, a player should see a future action and consider it utterly impossible, only to find it more than possible by the game’s end.

Understand where in your game the key turning point from engine building to point scoring is going to be. Some of the best engine builders, whether deck or tableau based, have a key tempo change where players switch from engine to points. Switch too early and you may run out of steam, too late and you miss out on points. Dominion and Through The Ages, amongst others, have a key difference between experienced and inexperienced players being when to chase after the points. And when that tempo switches you don’t want to be behind on the curve.

In “From the Ground Up” (new name for 3 Districts, until I change my mind again),  I’ve tried to meet all three of these things. Player’s are in charge of the options available, but the higher victory points for the more powerful buildings means there should be a natural progression into more powerful actions. The engine being built is a relatively simple one- a money producing based upon the number of cards, but it works effectively to push players forward. The jump from Level 1 to 2 to 3 is decided upon by players, but it needs to be considered- too soon and you may not bring in enough money, too late and you’ll leave points on the table.

So there’s all my thoughts on pace, and hopefully a great deal to explain what I’ve done to make sure From the Ground Up is a well paced game. Making a number of changes to it which will need to be tested, but luckily I’ve got a playtesting spot at the UKGames Expo! New icons will need a bit of explaining, but I’m hoping to bring something which looks good and plays fantastically. If you’re going I hope to see you there.




*Although, saying what I’m going to post about so far in advance has really hurt my pace here ironically enough.

Pace Yourself


In any lesson, pace is one of the biggest issues for early teachers. Starting with high engagement, allowing time for deep thinking, changing things up when students are flagging, keeping a sense of progression going- it takes a good few years to get a natural sense of what your pace should be to enable these things. However, this isn’t a blog about teaching (although how we teach games is intrinsically important), this is a blog about boardgames and boardgame design. So what has pace got to do with boardgames?

Answer: everything.

Ironically faster than certain Euros

At a simplistic level I feel these three questions reveal the pace of a game:

  1. Does the game induce massive amounts of downtime?
  2. Is a player’s turn clearly structured?
  3. Is there a natural sense of build up and progression toward the end game?

There are more things which affect the pace of the game (any amount of negotiation or bidding), and clearly the people we play with will have a huge impact, along with they style of the game, but any designer needs to consider their game’s pace and what they’d like it to be. When playtesting games it’s usually clear when players are flagging, or repeating actions. We’ve all played and playtested games where it becomes clear the ’10 minute first round’ has no sense of when it should have shuffled off to make room for the second round; or the final round is identical to the second round; or every new card revealed needs a 10 minute break to decipher what it’s trying to tell us. Or the game suddenly ends oh well. Whilst I don’t think anybody can say exactly what makes a game fun, we can say a poor pace stops it being fun. My next few posts will be on what I’ve done to consider each of those when designing games, but if anybody has any thoughts or comments let me know! Especially if my three questions are ridiculously oversimplified.

FODP (Fear of Disappointing Playtesters)

I’ve had my games playtested plenty of times. By friends, family, colleagues, Fiona, club members, random people at cons, folk at Playtest UK, other designers, Fiona again, and more. And every time there’s a fear that I’m going to let them down. Not that the feedback will be bad, I can take that. Or that they’ll have plenty of recommendations, that’s great (even if they’re not). No, instead I have a horrible feeling I’m about to waste 30-45 minutes of their life. Time they could have spent doing literally anything else. It’s a redundant fear- even with my worst games I’ve never had people have a less-than-enjoyable time. Sitting down playing games is naturally fun, and given my games are diametrically opposed to any kind of take-that victimisation, even if it turns out a little underbaked, we’ve still sat down and had a good time.


An underbaked disappointment


I write this, because I’m about to head off to Airecon and give this new improved version of 3 Districts its first proper playtesting outside in the big world. Whilst there are still a few things I’d like to change (work commitments have meant the iconography isn’t complete, and some cards have been removed whilst being balanced), but otherwise I’m extremely happy and excited for how it plays, even if the art is still all prototype. Playtesters should have a fun time playing my game (and if not that’s the most important thing for me to find out).

Now I just need to stop being so apologetic when I’m trying to encourage people to play it…

And the game is…

The reason I started this blog (and everything along with it) is because of a game. 3 Districts (name subject to change). I’m going to explain it in broad terms here, and use future updates for reasoning, changes, influences and everything else. There won’t be a full rules explanation here, or finished art, just the ideas I think are important, enough to give you a flavour of the game.

3 Districts is a city-building worker-placement game for 2-4 players. Each player builds buildings and visits buildings, either their own or other’s, until one player has built a set number. At that point, the player with the highest quality city wins. The game takes around 45 minutes to play, and is designed to be straightforward, but with interesting choices and plenty of player interactivity.

Key ideas:

Build your own actions– at the start everybody has the same basic action available to them. All other actions need to be built first. But something you build is available to all other players (at a cost). This means the other players aren’t just blockers, like in traditional worker placement games, but facilitators as well.

But the actions keep changing– it would quickly get overwhelming to have every action space built be usable. Therefore each player only has two spaces to build buildings. When a third is built, one of the previous two are replaced. They still count for victory points, but they’re not longer an action space. This prevents there being too many options, but also takes all players on a journey, and guarantees no two games will be alike.

Pace from an engine– each building pays tax at the start of a player’s turn. As more buildings are built they get more money. This results in a natural progression from the level 1 buildings through to the more expensive level 3 buildings.

The option to jump ahead– The buildings at level 3 are worth more VPs than level 1. Do you build up your tax base by cheaply building a host of level 1 buildings, or use certain building’s to make sure you can afford a level 2 or 3 building, changing the dynamic of the game. Different paths to victory.

All of this done with minimum randomness, genuine options, high interactivity and elegant gameplay. Hopefully you’ll eventually be able to tell me if I’ve succeeded!