A good kind of collapse

Structure is a funny thing. In my mind’s eye, when I think of “structure” I think of buildings whether I mean structure in an architectural way, an algebraic/mathematical way, or a game mechanics way. A sprawling structure is something like The Winchester House – rooms and corridors going in all directions, linking to each other in innumerable ways. Those with a mathematical background might want to think of the tree of elements of the free group on a few elements.

Structures collapse when bits of the structure coincide with other bits (quite literally when a building collapses!) In algebra we collapse structures by saying a bunch of things that we previously considered separate are the same thing. Recently I’ve experienced a bit of game mechanic structures collapsing and thought it might be interesting to explore. Don’t worry, I won’t bring up any more architecture or algebra.

There are a few board games out there that I consider to have “sprawling” rule sets: Arkham Horror, Order of the Stick and earlier editions of D&D. Let’s take Arkham Horror as an example. Here is a list of all the game mechanics/concepts in the game: stamina, sanity, skill sliders, skill checks, clue tokens, money, first player, fixed possesions, random possessions, common items, unique items, skills, skill checks, spells, allies, Ancient One sheet, Doom tokens, the Doom track, Elder signs, Ancient One cards (split into Location, Gate and Mythos cards), streets, locations, The Sky, monster markers, gate markers, activity markers, explored markers, the Terror Track, terror markers, closed markers, Arkham, Other Worlds, the Monster cup, movement (both Arkham and Other World), monster movement (normal, stationary, fast, unique and flying), card exhaustion, upkeep, blessings, curses, delay, evasion, combat, trophies, handedness of weapons and spells, unconsciousness and insanity, being Lost in Space and Time, being Devoured, being Arrested, closing Gates, monster limits, the Outskirts, trading, bank loans, retainers, Silver Twilight memberships and the monster special abilities. PHEW! And that’s not including all the stuff the expansions add! When you play the game a bit, the rules aren’t too onerous, but still, there are a lot of things to consider. And if you don’t present the rules effectively (like, alas, they are in the current edition), learning and playing the game is all that much harder. People have created simplified explanations of the rules that inform you more of the structure of the game, but Arkham Horror is without a doubt a sprawling game.

I’ve been working on my own board game lately (The Day After). It’s a game about surviving a major catastrophe, so you naturally tend to think like Maslow and put in game elements corresponding to all the basic needs people might have like food, water, weapons, fuel and power. Oh and don’t forget if you have weapons you have combat, so you need a way to heal, so that requires medical supplies. We forgot that people like to go looting after a catastrophe, so we need something akin to loot. You can see how game elements can turn into a combinatorial explosion like Arkham Horror.

One of the central game mechanics my game has is secret goals (kinda like Ticket to Ride). Every player has a set of hidden goals that they need to achieve by the time they get rescued. These goals are usually selfish or sub-optimal in a utilitarian survival sense, so players need to coerce the others to do things in that player’s self-interest without giving the game away. I was talking to my friend Rowan about this while I gave him a lift home and we jazzed on how you could get this to work. My initial (weak) solution was around-the-table debates. But that can drag the game out and it means the loudest player wins. Rowan suggested some sort of voting or auction process. I liked that idea and thought about adding some “argument points” mechanic.

But also itching the back of my brain was how food and drink were going to work. At that point it was a sort of checkpointing system – at certain points of the day you needed to consume food and drink (say morning, noon and night). If you didn’t have any, you’d lose health or something. This didn’t give food or drink any utility outside of those times. In the same car trip (perhaps even in the same minute) that I was taking Rowan home, I [1. Or more likely, we – creation is such a tricky thing.] came up with a neat way to combine the two game mechanics: energy. Each character has an amount of mental energy. They can expend this energy in a variety of ways, but most usefully they can use it to increase their voting power in decisions! This way a quiet player can sacrifice some of their energy tokens to push an agenda without having to get into a yelling match. There could still be discussions, but this allowed a neat shortcut. And how do you restore energy points? By food and drink!

I was cheerfully surprised by this neat collapse of structure. I previously had all these tendrils of game mechanics spreading out and out, but by linking two of these tendrils, the structure collapsed inwards, creating a much simpler structure. Not only that, but I could link that general mechanic to a bunch of others: expend energy to improve combat or scavenging chances; use it to cause some sort of non-lethal or psychological damage (like sanity in Arkham Horror, without the dire consequences of running empty!); and a way to give non-combat-oriented characters an edge and an importance.

This little revelation left me giddy. However, with this neat collapse of complexity comes a trade-off: I had to balance a bunch of elements against each other where I didn’t have to before because they didn’t really interact. Being too slap-dash would create a dominant strategy, thus collapsing the whole game to “how well does this dominant strategy fare against the random number generator?” This would be a miserable fate for a game. Nevertheless I think I can put together a game that doesn’t go too far off the rails. And there’s always playtesting to pick up on subtle unwanted biasses.

Long story short, I’m working hard on bringing this mechanic in and making an interesting game around the rules I have. I’m always trying to simplify things without casting away interesting complexity. I think I’m onto something when I way keen on being able to play this game 🙂


  1. Rowan says:

    Using energy as a driving force as something which you constantly utilise for everything is a pretty acceptable option, where most of your decisions end up being about how to go about getting more of it, and how you spend what you have. It can be dominant without being boring as long as there are tradeoffs involved and the answer is neither the same action all the time, or “it doesn’t really matter” like some games *cough* Clans.

    Inbuilt there is already the idea that you might acquire (hoard) more food for the future, thus having less influence now but more later. Let players second guess each other about that and argue about who is doing the fair share of public goods actions (which I assume there must be in the setting!) rather than argue about the groups going places becase that’s probably more fun (really it just allows 2 different ways of playing the game, wich would suit different groups).

    Oh, and the consequences of running empty are not all that dire in Arkham, and it sometimes bothered me a bit how going insane or getting pulverised were often just as convenient as not…

  2. Paul Murray says:

    Many games use three different types of “energy” in order to avoid the “one strategy vs the random number generator” effect.

    DND uses reflex, fort, and will. Mtg uses white, black, red, blue, green. Age of empires uses infantry, cavalry, and archers. Rock-paper-scissors is perhaps the most obvious. The idea is to create a cycle, so that you can’t beat everything.

    As for settling arguments – to spice things up you could use a preferential voting system, with argument points if you like. This allows people to do preference deals – just like in real life!

  3. BrettW says:

    Yep, the “debate on which way to go” is just an easy example I keep using. Forcing players to expend energy for the good of the group will be necessary but a nuisance.

    And yeah, I agree, losing stamina/sanity in Arkham Horror isn’t as bad as it’s supposed to be (Lost in Space and Time or being Devoured, notwithstanding). It is still a nuisance (unless the insta-teleport works in your favour). My feeling is that health/stamina in this game will be vital (lose it all and you die), and energy is just useful. Both push a sort of resource conservation strategy, but energy you conserve because you can, stamina because you should.

  4. BrettW says:

    @Paul Murray
    I think you’re thinking of Nash Equilibrium (or the lack thereof), which certainly is the case for Rock-Paper-Scissors, less so for the other examples. But you’re right, this is a great way to keep a balance across your main strategies.

    I certainly want to avoid a preferential voting system, or heck, anything more complicated than “most votes”. Part of this is to keep the game going and make things simple. You can still coerce other players to join your coalition, but without all the paperwork. In a way I’d prefer simple systems or even blind randomness over complicated voting schemes.

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