Monday, October 11, 2010

Don't call it a comeback

I played a new 4 player game today.  Strangely enough I am not confident of the exact name of the game but I believe it was called factory manager, and if not then at least factory manager is an apt name for it!  In the first 2 turns I wasn't exactly sure how things would play and I ended up being about 6-10 dollars behind Ziggyny in points and was fairly sure there was no way to make up the difference unless he did something really foolish.  When the game ended at the end of turn 5 I lost to him by 8 points (276-284).  The game was quite enjoyable generally and seemed well put together but it distinctly lacks a way for those who end up at an early disadvantage to come back into the game barring a serious blunder by the person in the lead.  Obviously someone who leads early and plays flawlessly should have at the very least an extremely high chance at victory but it felt bad looking at our respective positions and noting that they were nearly identical except his was just a tad better.

This makes me wonder how much of a comeback mechanism a game needs to be enjoyable.  In Settlers of Catan for example it is absolutely trivial for three players to crush 1 player who gets an early lead; they could simply refuse to trade with him and stuff him at every opportunity or they could just hand all their resources to one guy and watch him win the game in no time.  The problem with those sorts of situations is it becomes all about politics and convincing people that your game position is worse than it is so they spend their time beating down on somebody else.  I have played Settlers games where the entire game boiled down to two loud, stubborn people arguing about which of them was in the lead and the other 2 players refused to play the game again after that.  On the opposite extreme is Dominion, where in many games the players interact in virtually no way and it is often nearly impossible to actually do anything about a person who is running away with the victory.  Clearly some people really like games where they have tremendous flexibility to get together and stomp the leader flat and some people hate it but I think there must be some kind of middle ground where you have some control over other players but you can't simply take them out of the game entirely.

I think the easiest example of that middle ground is Puerto Rico, though I am very biased here since it is one of my favourite games.  You can certainly rain on somebody's parade if you want to and make the game more challenging for them but you absolutely cannot remove their ability to play nor can you guarantee that you both lose on a whim.  If you have 3 strong players and players A and B decide that they are both playing for A to win and C to lose they will certainly succeed but at the very least C will always feel like he is playing the game and getting things done which is much better than Settlers played against a team.

FMB does not achieve this middle ground that I am talking about unfortunately.  Just like Settlers if A and B decide to gangpile C and refuse to back down from that then C won't have much of a game.  I feel like I succeeded in that if everyone is playing to win then C should never be out completely because the A and B should backstab each other as soon as a substantial lead over C is established and C should have an opportunity to come back.  I figure in any freeflowing war game there is no way to prevent an alliance of players from crushing a single player if that is their goal but at least I made comebacks possible and made it optimal to break alliances fairly quickly.  Perhaps it isn't as structurally impregnable as Puerto Rico is but given the genre of the game I think it is excellent in this regard.


  1. I don't think you've ever played Puerto Rico against people who were actually trying to make you lose. I've played games where I certainly 'could play' but I was guaranteed to come last. Both games that I played at WBC the year after I won worked out like that. (One I came tied for 3rd instead of solely last!) One of the games featured the opponents colluding to settle, build, and mayor in order to allow the guy on my right to go from nothing to an active coffee in order to prevent me from selling my early coffee.

    The Settlers extreme is a little more extreme than the PR extreme but they both have average cases where you can pretty easily knock someone out of the game. You can't always pick who is going to win instead of your target but you can find the guy with the different strategy and call jobs to benefit him instead of the target.

    Which I actually think could happen in Factory Manager, too, if people had different strategies. I agree that when we have essentially the same board but mine is a little better than there isn't much that can be done about it but if we had different boards the other players could collude for you. If I need boxes and you need pallets they could pull only pallets down for you, screwing me and them at the same time. But when we both need pallets or both need boxes or both need power there's not a lot of hope.

    Now, if we could have different boards but still both be competitive is something I'm not actually sure of. I've only played 3 times now and I actually worry there's an optimal progression to take and whoever does it best will win. (people robot, machine, box robot, machine, huge pallet, machine, box robot with power mixed in depending on the cost progression)

  2. I've been struggling with this idea of making a comeback because I've been thinking a lot about game mechanics recently and the problem of feeling like the game is over long before it is, then just having to wait out the last few turns while you watch the winner win (or watch the two way race for first that you are not involved in).

    Obviously any game where you interact with one another in even a minimal way there is some way to collude against a player (to greater or lesser effect) but if you are building a game you don't want to use collusion against the winner as a balance mechanism, since it just turns into those "I'm losing!" "No, I'm losing!" shouting matches.

    Predicting what makes comebacks possible is very difficult. I was playing a four-player game of Dominion against myself with Prosperity (definitely the best expansion yet) and I had a game that ended with a score something like low fiftes - 50 - mid forties - low forties. But the loser would have scored 27 points on his next turn, winning the game had the player before him not ended it by buying the last province. There's a real magic to that kind of balance, but it's something that's almost impossible to engineer that and clearly doesn't exist in nearly any game (including the vast majority of Dominion games).

  3. There are a few ways to mount a come back:

    1) Be luckier: Imagine that you and I are playing snakes and ladders. If I'm ahead, then your hope is that I get unlucky and fall down some snakes, or get lucky and go up some ladders etc.

    2) Play better: Imagine that you and I are playing chess. If I'm ahead (say up a pawn with equal position) then you're hope of winning is to play better (make fewer mistakes) than I do over the rest of the game. If we were world class players this would be a ridiculous hope and you're probably concede, but at the level I play errors on both sides would allow a comeback.

    3) Gang up: This is the case you're focusing on. El Grande is probably the biggest example of this, or a multi-player wargame like risk.

    4) Game "balancing": This is Powergrid's mechanic where the "best" player gets game disadvantages and the "worst" gets game advantages.

    Many games combine these mechanics: Settlers has 1, 2, and 3. Titan has 1 and 2 (and a bit of 3). PR has 1, and 3 (and a bit of 2).

    There are elements of each of these approaches that I don't like.

    1) If luck is too dominant, then my decisions don't matter.

    2) In a skilled game then comebacks are impossible.

    3) If there is too much collusion then, my decisions don't matter since they just make me look like I'm winning and then others kill me. I should just concentrate my efforts on convincing others I'm losing and they should help me.

    4) You end up in a situation where the optimal strategy can be to "draft" in a close second gaining advantages that the rules don't count as winning. I don't think this is bad in general, just not a mechanic I'd want in every games.

  4. I think that maybe one of the greatest solutions to the problem of making a comeback is creating a game that is fun enough to play that just playing is a consolation prize. I've been in some Agricola games where I was sure I couldn't win but I just liked making a farm, so it was really okay.

    I also think another solution is to smoothly incorporate randomness into the game play. In deck building games obviously there is a luck element in the draws you get, but making the right plays still feels like it has a big impact. In dice-chess (chess where each turn you roll a d20 and if you get a 20 you win the game) the luck element feels totally separated from the game. Even if we play dice-chess with a d100 so that most games end in a checkmate rather than a good roll, it still feels like the luck factor is totally out of place and interrupts the game rather than being a part of it.

    Anyway, I feel like we need to get together to playtest some ideas I have for Race to Destroy the Sun.

  5. Dice-chess sounds interesting. If I know I'm playing someone better than I am I no longer try to win the real way, I just try to stay alive long enough for one of us to roll N. Half the time that will be me!