Category Archives: Tabletop Tuesday

[TT] Random But Predictable

Randomness is rarely chaos. In games, randomness is a pick from a pool with known and computable probabilities.

Roughly 1/6 of the rolls in Settlers of Catan will be 7s that activate the robber. Roughly 5/36 of the rolls will be 6s and another 5/36 will be 8s, which is why they are the most sought numbers and why there is so much groaning when there are 5 6s in a row or when there are 0 8s for 15 minutes. Some players think that still leaves too much to chance, so you can buy dice decks, giving you the exact probability distribution over 36 turns rather than knowing it works out in the long run (but maybe not over the course of this game). Strategic play in Settlers involves both getting the best numbers possible and diversifying over numbers and tile types, to survive the swings of fortune.

Deck-building games are substantially about probability manipulation. In Dominion, you start with 10 cards, so you always know exactly what your second hand will be based on your first hand, and you can predict turns three and four based on the (usually) 12 cards you own after those first two turns. From there, the deck-building mechanic is about increasing the number of good hands you have by getting more good cards, fewer bad cards, or just more cards, or perhaps by exploiting higher averages or variability. There are strategies that depend on knowing what is left in your deck based on what you have played so far.

I have been pondering Dungeon Roll. When you roll a lot of dice, the possible extreme swings in luck are large, but you are increasingly likely to be around the center of the distribution. You may have a random pick of a dozen heroes with a random roll of seven white dice against a random roll of foes on each level of the dungeon, but that averages out to reaching level 5 safely, plus or minus one, plus or minus a dragon. You probably end a turn with 4 to 6 experience points and 2 to 4 treasures.

Because you get only three turns, conservative play is encouraged, which is an odd thing for a “push your luck” game. If you go one level deeper, you get 1 or 2 more points for succeeding and lose 4 or 5 for failing. That is a big asymmetry, and you lose the game if you lose one round unless it encourages your opponents to also push their luck a little further (by why would they with a 5-point lead in a game where 30 is a high score?). I have yet to see anyone push his/her luck and fail, because you can predict your odds (two white dice left, enemy rolls six black dice) and your potential benefits (marginal).

On the other hand, there is some variation, particularly within one turn, and that can lead to unfortunate swings you cannot do anything about. “Leveling up” is worth about 1 more point in each of your latter two turns, so if a bad roll means you do not get the 5xp to level up your first turn, you are down even further against your opponents. Sometimes the dice make your special abilities useless. In my first game, I was the knight, and who turns scrolls (low value) into champions (high value); I rolled 0 scrolls on my last two turns. You can expect to roll 0 scrolls in 28% of turns, which means that 63% of games will have at least one turn where that ability does nothing, and it will not be used at all in 2% of knights’ games. In three turns, randomness can dominate long run odds.

: Zubon

[TT] Interaction

Eurogames are frequently distinguished from American games by being more abstract (focused on mechanics rather than theme) with less conflict (competition is often indirect, players are rarely eliminated). Zombie Dice and Dungeon Roll are dice-based “push your luck” games with no interactivity at all. Gameplay is no different as a single-player game, and the endpoint is arbitrary.

Zombie Dice puts you as the zombie. The dice can give you brains or shotgun blasts. You want as many brains as possible, but too many blasts mean you get 0 brains this round. Keep going until you either “bank” your brains or get blasted. Other players can cheer or jeer, but they cannot shoot at you.

Dungeon Roll has more complex gameplay involving a starting pool of resources, variable and growing opposition, and accumulated resources between rounds. Still, you are entirely in competition with the opposition dice, rather than another player. Officially, another player “plays” the dungeon, rolling the black dice against your white dice, but that player makes no decisions and it makes no difference if you just roll the dungeon dice yourself.

Zombie Dice ends when one player gets 13 brains. Dungeon Roll ends after everyone has 3 turns. This is where you get a mote of interaction: you can see what the others’ score is and adjust how much you are willing to push your luck accordingly. If Alice has banked 12 brains and is going next, Bob might as well keep pushing his luck because he either wins now or almost certainly loses next turn. Similarly, if Bob’s last dungeon run left him at 21 points, Alice might as well risk being eaten by a dragon if she only has 20 points, because losing by 1 or 5 is the still losing.

How do you pick the end point, other than boredom and time consumption? For Zombie Dice, it is entirely arbitrary whether you reset the score after someone reaches 13. For Dungeon Roll, because there is some power accumulation between rounds, it makes more sense to have a fixed endpoint.

: Zubon

[TT] Advantage and Disadvantage Calculations

At Origins, I played in a couple of D&D 5th Edition playtest sessions, for a module and for the online tools. Two mechanics stuck out for me: the new system for preparing spells and advantage/disadvantage.

Advantage and disadvantage are simple to describe and powerful in their implications. If you have advantage, make the roll twice and take the higher number; if you have disadvantage, make the roll twice and take the lower number. Done.

3rd Edition had a similar intent with its “+/-2″ default rule. If the DM was not sure what sort of bonus or penalty something imposed, just go with “2.” That is a 10% difference on a 20-sided die. How does “advantage” differ?

Quite a bit. Several people have run the numbers (I think “enumerate the 400 possibilities” is a better method than running a simulation). As noted, the effect of advantage is small at the extremes and huge in the middle. If you are nearly certain to succeed or fail, advantage is +1 or +2. If you have a 50/50 chance, it is +5. Out of 20, that is really, really big.

Players will also feel advantage and disadvantage very strongly because of the perceived gain/loss of the second die roll. If you roll two 18s, “eh,” you say, “advantage didn’t matter.” If you roll an 18 and a 2, that’s a success with advantage and a failure wit disadvantage, and you can see fate hanging in the balance of that mechanic. It’s a psychologically powerful factor.

: Zubon

[TT] Zombie Games

Critical mass of zombie games has long since been reached. We are now at the point where the pit of E.T. Atari games was dug up to create a hole big enough to hold all the excess zombie games being made.

I had not realized how bad the problem was until I went to Origins and walked through the vendor hall. There were at least 100 advertisements for zombie games in the first row I walked down, including zombie tabletop games, zombie dice games, zombie RPGs, zombie survival, surviving as a zombie, zombie superheroes, zombies vs. pretty much everything, everything except a zombie cookbook, which Google tells me also exists.

Someone could surprise me with a zombie game that brings something new to the table, but it would surprise me.

: Zubon

[TT] Tokens of Affection

Love Letter comes with cards you use to play the game and tokens you use to keep score. That there are 13 tokens is elegance in game design.

Love Letter is a game for two to four players. If you have two players, the game is played to seven tokens. The most tokens you will need is seven for the winner and six for the loser. 7+6=13. If you have three players, the game is played to five tokens. The most tokens you will need is five for the winner and four for each other player. 5+4+4=13. If you have four players, the game is played to four tokens. The most tokens you will need is four for the winner and three for each other player. 4+3+3+3=13.

It is a simple thing, but it makes me happy.

: Zubon

[TT] Origins Bleg

As part of turning my attention from MMOs, I will be attending Origins and Gen Con this year. This will be my first time at either, and I am working through the Origins business model. It seems a bit like what we’ve called the “carnival” model in MMOs: you buy a badge (box), which gets you in the door, but many/most events require one or more tickets (usually $2 for a game), and you can buy bundles with ribbons, after which you do not need tickets for events/games covered by those ribbons. That sound about right?

With more than 4000 events listed, time is probably a greater constraint than cost, but so is just figuring out what is of interest from a pool that big. And I’m told that Gen Con events registration is also going on, so I should probably start sorting through that, which is likely to be a larger list.

Any tips or recommendations?

: Zubon

[TT] Betrayal at House on the Hill

Yes, that’s the real title.

Betrayal at House on the Hill is one of those games you want to like for its atmosphere and for what it does well, but I have yet to find myself able to because of two significant problems.

You the players are a group of people who have come to (the) house on the hill for reasons. In the first phase of the game, your group of up to six are exploring the house. You find interesting rooms, events, items, and hauntings. The house is subject to impossible architecture, because you draw the next room randomly, which is perfectly in tune with the haunted setting. Eventually, one of those haunt cards starts the second phase, the Haunt. One player becomes the traitor, and based on what triggered the Haunt when, you start one of fifty Haunt scenarios, which could be an actual haunting, alien abductors, cannibals, or pretty much anything on the big board in The Cabin in the Woods. When that happens, one of the players becomes the Traitor, and now you have different teams and rules and goals. That is a great idea for a game, with a lot of variety, atmosphere, and potential fun.

The first problem is that Haunt/Traitor transition. The Traitor goes into another room, and now everyone reads rules. You know that part at the start of a new board game when maybe one person knows the rules, and you spend a long time reading and/or explaining the mechanics, and maybe you need to work out some ambiguities in the rules and fumble through it for the first quarter of the game? That happens pretty much every single game of Betrayal, and it happens as the central event in the game. Continue reading

[TT] Online Tabletops

Have you used the online or mobile versions of tabletop games? What do you think of them?

Letting the computer take care of setup, dice, math, etc. is a really convenient thing. I have heard of people who will go to their respective computers to play Settlers of Catan rather than sitting at a table because of the convenience. You could play Carcassonne on your mobile device. My friend has a Dominion card randomizer app, and a smartphone is smaller than the stack of randomizer cards if you have all the expansions.

Games like Risk, Titan, or Axis & Allies, with lots of pieces and long play times, seem better on a computer than in physical space. I have a cat, you have children, and Ethic lives a day’s drive away, but the electronic board is there, safe and sound and remotely accessible. Pen and paper RPGs have a mixed record with online tabletops, but computers do handle miniatures and dice nicely.

Or do you then get into “use the medium” concerns? Now that you are no longer on a tabletop, how many vestiges of the tabletop do you want to keep? You start the long, gradual slide into computer games rather than computer-mediated tabletop games, and the whole point of Tabletop Tuesday is to avoid that.

: Zubon

[TT] Asymmetric PvP

Let’s take a break from the Dominion-centric Tabletop Tuesday. People who are interested are probably already reading Dominion-specific sites. Dominion is on one extreme of a continuum in that every player starts with exactly the same resources and options. Some games like Risk or StarCraft give everyone the same option pool to start but then provide different starting points, or different victory conditions like Illuminati.

At the opposite extreme you have games that offer asymmetric options: vastly different starting resources, methods of playing, rules, and/or victory conditions. Balance here is difficult to do well, especially since a playstyle that works well for one side may not work at all for another, but a successful asymmetric game is a really great experience with multiple experiences built in.
Continue reading

[TT] Adding Value

As mentioned, the Intrigue expansion was Dominion’s first chance to vary the environment and give more potential to the less valuable cards. Remember, the benchmark is Big Money and streamlining decks, so the design space to be explored is how to make the cards that are not the best still worth seeking. Silver, Gold, and Province are good cards that everyone wants. How do we make Copper, Estate, and Duchy more valuable?

Baron makes money off Estates and gets you more Estates. That’s good. That gives you victory points in small increments while helping you buy them in larger increments. And remember, at the end, you only need to win by one point. Baron also helps you get a quick start, because your odds of drawing Baron + Estate on turns 3 or 4 are pretty good, but if you don’t hit that, your turns will be horrible because you have one turn with Baron and no Estates then a turn with Estates and no Baron.

Duke is worth more victory points when you have more Duchies. That is a straightforward way to make Duchies more appealing: synergy! Duke is kind of the opposite of Baron: Baron shoots for the extreme turn with lots of money (or misses for nothing); Duke works reliably at $5, and you just need cards to support it that let you reliably get moderate amounts of money.

Coppersmith makes Copper produce an extra coin this turn. Straightforward: Coppers are now effectively Silver. This becomes more valuable with multiple actions or cards that double or triple actions. Coppers that are worth as much as gold are not only valuable, but you did not spend the money buying gold.

But you did spend the money buying a Coppersmith or a Baron or a Duke. I do not find this expansion very successful and offsetting the base value of Silver, Gold, and Province. When Baron works, you get a nice head start, but that’s a bit of a gamble, and Baron only gets worse as either you have too few Estates to fuel Baron or too many to do much when you do not draw a Baron. In a long game, a Duke deck can beat someone playing for Provinces, but you are relying on the game running long enough for that investment to pay off without your opponents’ investments paying off sufficiently. Duke decks also get weaker as more players play them; being the only one playing for Duke is a great position to be in, but being one of two or three means the other player(s) get ahead while the dukes squabble. And Coppersmith is just a weak card in most situations. Yes, it is great if you can play two and turn your Copper into Gold, but you need one card to get you +2 Actions plus your two Coppersmiths and then how many cards do you have left for Copper? If you have that many cards and actions, there are probably better things you could be doing than playing with Copper. The opportunity cost of a Baron or Coppersmith is not buying a better card, and then your deck has more Estates and Coppers than you want except for the turn when your combo pays off big.

But future expansions will come back, try again, and in some cases make cards that combo wonderfully with these, perhaps adding enough value.

: Zubon