Design Tips: The 2-Turn Hurdle

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I love board games. I’ve always enjoyed sitting down with a group of friends and playing them for hours. But one problem I’ve found with most board games is the harsh learning curve when you’re trying to play them for the first time. Digital games avoid this to some extent with tutorials and on-screen prompts, but often board games have hard time teaching new players everything they need to know quickly and clearly. Eventually most players will pick up on the mechanics and get into the rhythm of the game, but there’s the risk that they’ll get frustrated and quit if it takes too long. But how long is too long? After playing dozens of games, I’ve come up with a simple heuristic:

The 2-Turn Hurdle: By the time they have finished two full rounds of play, players should understand all of the game’s core rules and mechanics.

What this means is that, on average, players should have a good understanding of the core of the game by turn 3. If they get the hang of it faster than that, great! But if they don’t get it by then it means something is wrong, either with the game or the player’s understanding. To clarify, this doesn’t mean that board games can’t be complicated. Games can be as complicated as you want, so long as all the core rules and mechanics are clearly and quickly conveyed to the player.

Why does this matter?

For New Players, this means that it’s okay to feel overwhelmed when you’re playing a game for the first time. The first two turns are going to be rough and it’s alright if you get a bit lost. But by turn 3 or 4 you should be getting the hang of it. If you’re still not getting it by then, it means either you misunderstood something critical or the game is doing a poor job teaching you how to play.

For Veteran Players, this means you need to be patient when teaching people how to play. They are going to make mistakes and get confused and that’s normal. Your main job is to help new players get through the first two turns of the game. After that point they might still need a little help, but it should be mostly smooth sailing.

For Game Designers, this means you have a clear deadline for when your players need to understand your game. Any longer and you risk them giving up and playing something else. If you’re noticing that players are still lost by turn 4, it means that you need to make some changes to help them out. Not sure how? Here’s some simple suggestions of how you can help players understand your game faster:

  • Provide cheat sheets and reference cards

  • Remove unnecessary mechanics

  • Provide important information in multiple places so that it’s less likely to be missed

  • Streamline or simplify complicated mechanics

  • Stagger out the introduction of secondary mechanics

  • Reorganize your rules to make them easier to read

  • Use keywords and/or icons to reduce the amount of text

  • Provide suggestions for new players of what they should be doing for the first fewturns of the game, or what their goals should be at each stage of the game.

TL;DR: The first two turns of any board game are going to be rough, but you should expect to get it by turn 3. If you don’t, something is wrong.

Design Tips: Power Curves

For a while now I’ve been working on a power curve analysis of the collectable cards in Hearthstone. I started out trying to prove if specific cards/classes/mana costs are overpowered, but it’s evolved into a really valuable design exercise on understanding game balance. Hopefully one day I can share all the lessons I’ve learned, but today I wanted to take a moment to talk about one of the valuable things I’ve been learning about power curves. But before we get into that, let’s first establish what a power curve is.

What is a Power Curve?

Put simply, a power curve is the average value a player gets in exchange for spending a given amount of resources. It’s most often used when discussing card games like Magic the Gathering, Yu-Gi-Oh!, Gwent, and of course Hearthstone, but it is still applicable to most games. As a general rule, the more resources you spend the more value you should get, and this relationship tends to be linear.

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A fairly ideal powercurve.

To give a simple example, take a look at these three cards I made:

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Thank you Hearthcards for making it so easy to make custom Hearthstone cards.

Let’s say for the sake of argument that in Hearthstone dealing 3 damage is worth about 2 mana (similar to an existing card Dark Bomb). This means that Balanced Bomb would be right in line with the power curve of the game because it’s cost (2 mana) is in line with it’s value (dealing 3 damage). Underpowered Bomb would be below the power curve because you’re paying the same cost while getting less value than you should. Finally, Overpowered Bomb is above the power curve because you’re getting more value than you should for the cost. Seems straightforward right? Here’s where it gets a little bit more complicated.

Independent vs. Contextual Power Curves

So far we’ve been comparing cards to an Independent Power Curve. An independent power curve assesses the power level of cards in a vacuum, and it does not factor in positive or negative synergies between cards. Using what we know, what’s the independent power level of this card?

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Probly one of the best cards ever made.

Seems pretty terrible, right? I mean, 10 mana for a 1/1 that can’t attack is awful. However, this is when we need to consider a Contextual Power Curve. A contextual power curve assesses the power level of cards in conjunction with one another, factoring in things like synergies and the metagame. Now imagine we were assessing the power of Useless Ooze if this card also existed in the game:

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See? I told you Useless Ooze was good.

Suddenly Useless Ooze seems pretty busted. But remember Useless Ooze is only strong in a world where something like Useful Ooze exists. If that card didn’t exist, it’d go right back to being trash.

Why does this matter?

This matters because all cards have two different power levels and you need to consider both when balancing a game. For example, it’s possible to have a card that is independently overpowered but contextually underpowered. Let’s take a look at Alien Queen as an example:

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“Wait…aren’t I supposed to be human now? Make up your mind, Blizzard. Human. Zerg. Human. Zerg. Pick one!”

Independently this card seems extremely strong because it’s a 3/3 for 3 mana AND it gives +3/+3 to all your other Aliens. Assuming all your other minions in play are Aliens, that means she could be giving +3/+3 to 6 other minions for a total of +18/+18 (for context, a 3/4 is roughly worth 3 mana, as shown by the existing card Spider Tank)! Alien Queen seems pretty broken, right? Well, contextually speaking, maybe not. What if Alien Queen was the only Alien in the entire game? Suddenly it’s very difficult to get any value out of her battlecry, to the point where she might as well be a 3/3 for 3 with no additional text. Now she’s not only no longer overpower, but she may in fact be underpowered!

So let’s say we’ve determined a card too weak or too powerful. How can we fix it? Well, based on what we’ve learned today here are two approaches we can use when balancing cards:

  1. Adjust the card’s independent power level (i.e. decrease the value you get per resource spent); or

  2. Adjust the card’s contextual power level (i.e. create new cards that have positive or negative synergy with existing cards)

Both approaches are completely valid and have their own pros and cons. But make sure you’ve compared your card to both your independent power curve and your contextual power curve before making any changes. Otherwise you might make the problem worse than it was before.

TL;DR: Context matters when balancing your game.

 

Design Tips: Tell A Story

Back in February I attended the 2018 Learning and the Brain Conference in San Francisco. I went to the conference because I thought it sounded interesting and I was hoping I could learn something that I could apply to game design. Unfortunately, I quickly learned that many of the sessions were geared towards traditional educators, so I was worried that there wasn’t going to be much I could take away. But then I noticed that several sessions focused on storytelling and I found that the lessons I learned from them had broad applications beyond education. So now I’d like to take the time to share with you 5 things I learned about storytelling that are applicable to game design.

Why does this matter? Put simply, it’s because we crave stories. Nothing holds our attention and engagement quite as effectively as a good story. So why not increase the immersion and enjoyment of our games by framing them around stories? And even if your game lacks a traditional story structure, there is still the story of your players playing your game.

1) Stories are fundamentally about solving a problem

Broadly speaking, stories tend to be structured like this:

  • The protagonist has a problem.

  • The protagonist tries to solve the problem.

  • The protagonist ultimately solves the problem, or they fail to solve the problem.

This is shockingly similar to a game, isn’t it? Here’s a typical structure for a game:

  • The player(s) have a goal.

  • The player(s) attempt to achieve that goal.

  • Ultimately the player(s) accomplish that goal and win, or they don’t and lose.

So even in games that lack a traditional story (i.e. Tetris, Chess, Go Fish, etc.), there always exists a story centered around the “play” experience of your players.

2) Plots are overrated

When people think about stories, they think it’s all about the plot. But this isn’t really the case. Plot is just the sequence of events that occur in the story. Without giving those events meaning and context they aren’t very compelling. So instead of focusing on the plot, focus your stories on goals. Stories aren’t about going from A to B to C to D, it’s about why we want to go from A to D.

3) The hero needs to struggle

Tell me what’s missing in this story:

“There once was a knight who wanted to save a princess. So he went to the tower where she was locked away to rescue her. But there was a dragon standing in front of the tower. So the knight walked into the tower and saved the princess. The end.”

Okay, so obviously there’s a lot missing in this story. But the main thing missing is a struggle. When our hero confronts the dragon, the main obstacle in the way of achieving his goal, he immediately overcomes it. How is that interesting? If the obstacle doesn’t do anything to prevent the hero’s progress towards the goal, it’s not really an obstacle. What if the dragon posed a real threat or challenge to him? What if instead when he tried to get past the dragon he failed and had to try again? By having the hero struggle and fail against an obstacle it makes their story more compelling. This same concept applies to games. If you confront an enemy and immediately defeat it, was it really ever in your way? This doesn’t mean you should make all your enemies impossible to defeat, but they should at least pose some challenge to the player.

4) Every character needs a goal

The hero isn’t the only character that needs a goal. In fact, every character needs a goal. Using our above story, we gave the knight a goal to save the princess. But what about the princess and the dragon? Why is the princess in the tower? Does the princess even want to be saved? Why is the dragon at the tower? Does the dragon want to keep the princess locked in the tower? Does the dragon want to eat the princess? Does the dragon want to help free the princess? By knowing each character’s individual goals, we can see how they align or conflict with one another to create tension. This same concept applies to games. Whenever a player interacts with a character in your game (i.e. an enemy, an ally, another player, etc.), that character should have a goal. That goal can hinder, complement, or be unrelated to the player’s goal. Use those goals as a guide for how they’ll interact with each other.

5) The hero needs to change

Heroes aren’t interesting if they always stay the same. By the end of the story the hero shouldn’t be the same as how they were at the beginning. Instead, they should have changed based on the events of the story. The players should change as well. The player should have learned something from playing the game, even if it was just how to play it better. If your player didn’t learn anything, they probably won’t want to play it again.


So those were the 5 main things I learned about storytelling. Hopefully you learned something from them as well. Want to make your own stories but don’t know how to start? Here’s a simple template you can use to get you started. Good luck and happy writing!

Once upon a time, there was _______.
They wanted to _______ because _______.
But _______. So, ______. (repeat as needed)
Until finally, _______.

Want to learn more about storytelling? Check out Jonathan Gottschall, Kendall Haven, and Jason Ohler, as their presentations directly inspired this blog post.