While out with Sam and Cliff, they reminded me that I’m on the record for having a pretty negative reaction to gambling mechanics in games.
It got me thinking, and now I have a few mechanics I’d like to talk about. For me, personally, these mechanics almost always detract from the game unnecessarily. I do give some examples of games that are exceptions to my dislike, however.
I dislike it when games instruct me to keep my victory points or other cards face-down after I’ve earned them.
I’m not talking about games where hidden information and memorization can be the entire heart of the game, like Fury of Dracula. Instead, I’m talking about games like Small World, where you earn victory points openly, but then keep the values of your tokens face-down.
Any game mechanic that can be circumvented by a notepad and a pencil is a sloppy one. I understand the reason this mechanic exists – game designers want to keep us engaged, mentally keeping track of everyone’s score, and also avoid kingmaker problems by making it unclear who’s winning.
But unless there’s some randomness and uncertainty to the hidden information, this is just petty and punishing for players who want to just play the game instead of committing everything their opponents do to memory. I like to be able to get up from a game, use the bathroom, and get a soda without needing to mentally repeat “Sam has 3, Greg has 5, Erin has 4″ over and over in my head.
A game weakened by this mechanic: Glory to Rome. In Glory to Rome, cards move around the table face-up, and get placed in different parts of your play mat for everyone to see. However, if you place a card in your Vault, it goes face-down. It’s not a secret; you have to openly announce which cards you’re putting away. But it mars the elegance and thoughtful strategy of the game to have that one piece of information hidden.
A game that overcomes this weakness: Cleopatra and the Society of Architects. The number of Corruption tokens you earn during a game is kept hidden. However, the only reason the tokens matter is that the player who has the most tokens at the end automatically loses the game. This lets me choose my involvement in the hidden information – if I don’t want to worry about it, all I have to do is make sure I am less corrupt than at least one other player. If I do want to worry about it, then it’s my choice to try to follow and track everyone’s tokens.
This is definitely personal taste, but deckbuilding in CCGs drives me crazy, and often makes it so that I can’t enjoy the game. If I play a CCG and lose, it’s because I didn’t build my deck right; if I play a CCG and win, it’s because my opponent didn’t build their deck right. Either way, I can’t take any real satisfaction in my victory.
This is why I only play Magic with pre-constructed decks.
A common thread for me is that I don’t like being forced to play one game to play another. In this instance, I don’t like being forced to play the deckbuilding game in order to play the main card-strategy game.
A game weakened by this mechanic: Android: Netrunner. Netrunner has a really interesting system involving bluffs and counterplays between the corporation and the runner. But it works best when both sides have some idea of the cards in the other player’s deck. Now that the game has seen a few expansions, we’re starting to see the degenerate combos that plague CCGs, and I find myself really wishing that the core set had been a standalone, non-expandable product.
A game that overcomes this weakness: Any drafting mechanic, where you aren’t in total control of what cards you have available, helps a lot. I have no problems with trying to make the best deck possible out of suboptimal resources. I just don’t like being asked to make the best deck possible, period.
Tacked-On Hidden Roles
I’m just going to start talking about my example, which is Bang. Bang has an interesting card play mechanic, and then some unnecessary hidden roles. You might be out to kill everyone, out to protect the sheriff, or something else.
Bang doesn’t use these hidden roles well. There’s no method built into the game to gain information on other players, and too few ways for players to distinguish themselves through their behavior. Generally, I find that my best strategy, regardless of who I’m playing, is just to turtle up, let the other players kill themselves, and hope that I happen to fulfill my victory condition.
A game which overcomes this weakness: Shadow Hunters. This game has a Hermit square, which allows you to draw a card with a question and pass it to another player. Based on whether or not the card damages them, you gain some information about their hidden role. There are other cards which force players to take damage or heal damage depending on who they are, which means that during every round of the game, I am gaining some tidbit of information about who is who.
Bidding and Gambling
I’ve never understood bidding, and I hate Poker. It feels like another instance where I am not allowed to play the game that I sat down to play. I sit down for an interesting game of card probabilities, but then I have to play this weird sub-game where I try to place a numerical value on how I feel about those probabilities.
Personally, I find that bidding is a mechanic that’s just used to cover up that Poker and other games like it just aren’t much fun without the bidding element. If your primary gameplay mechanic isn’t interesting without putting money on the line, you don’t have a game.
A game weakened by this mechanic: Poker, as mentioned above. Also, Android: Netrunner is introducing a few cards where both players bid 0, 1, or 2 credits, and I really dislike it. I play Netrunner to play “Hacker trashes the evil corporation,” not “Guess how many tokens I’m holding.”
A game that overcomes this weakness: Ra. Everyone has a set of tokens with fixed values. When you win an auction, you place your token on the board and take the token that was on the board previously, so the value of the tokens you have changes constantly. Since you only have three values to bid with, I find it much easier to judge the value of the tiles before make and make a good decision.