Game Design Status Report #7: Interlude: Perils of Designing a Game

One of the problems with designing a game is suddenly having to think about game design. Part of why I once swore I’d never do this is because I don’t like thinking about game design, not in games I’m currently playing. Just as I’m not interested in listening to director’s commentaries on movies I like, or reading interviews with comics creators talking about their work, I don’t want to see what’s under the hood of a boardgame I like, I just want to take it out for a spin.

But now I have to think about this stuff and really examine it. I have to look at the games that I know inspired my game (Starship Catan, Merchant of Venus, Merchants and Marauders, Galaxy Trucker) and figure out what works in them and why. And this bleeds over into games I’m playing.

This weekend I played a game I just got, City of Remnants from Plaid Hat Games. Let me tell you a little bit about it before I get to my main point.

In this game, a race of galactic conquerors called the Yugai (Pause for everyone to make a “you guys” joke. Everybody ok? Let’s go on.) have laid waste to countless planets. Refugees from those planets have been thrown into squalid cities elsewhere. In an interesting thematic choice, you are not the Yugai. You are not really fighting the Yugai. The galaxy was conquered, and you lost. What you are is a gang leader fighting against the other players for scraps in one of these ghettos. At best, you’re a minor nuisance to the Yugai. So you and the other players slap each other around to decide who is king of the scrap pile. (It’s not called ‘City of Prosperity’ or ‘City of Puppies’.)

Now, the Yugai aren’t leaving you alone to do this. Every round they drop Yugai Control Units (YCUs) into the city to knock a few heads. They come down in more or less random locations, and if one lands on you, you fight it because let’s face it, you were breaking some law or other. The rest stick around, and you can hunt them if you feel so inclined or leave them alone.

When you fight a YCU and win, you roll a d6 on this table:

Let me explain each outcome, in order. ARCs are money, so outcome 1 is losing 3000 bucks. Renown is victory points, so option 2 is giving one of your VPs to the player on your left. Option 3 means that more YCUs are going to drop into the city. For 4 you gain money, and for 5 and 6 you gain VPs.

I am obsessed with this table. I can’t stop thinking about it. I carry it around with me everywhere and stare at it on the subway. This table haunts me, intrigues me, baffles me, because I can’t figure out why it exists.

The game was pretty good; more plays will be needed to see if it’s a keeper or not. But Matt, Bob, and I hated this table. Why would you lose money for defeating YCUs? Why would killing a YCU make you give a VP to your opponent? What’s the reason for this table, thematically or mechanically? None of us knew, and everyone present who we described it to said it sounded stupid. But the rest of the game wasn’t bad, if maybe just a touch clunky, so this element alone jumped out as bizarre.

I went to BGG to see how others reacted to this and no one else even mentioned it. Now I was even more perplexed. Were we the only ones who reacted poorly to it? To be honest, part of the reason it stood out for us is that I rolled a 6 on the chart like 5 times in a row, so I got 15 VPs out of killing YCUs when others lost money or drew down more to fight. Maybe we just happened to hit a particular moment in the universe when the YCU Alert Table would call attention to itself. So I asked on BGG, simply enough, What is the purpose of the YCU Alert table?

I got a few answers, mostly thematic. The game’s co-designer, Colby Dauch, gave this response:

Thematically going out and killing Yugai units sometimes means you loot them for money. It some times means tales of your exploits got around. But it sometimes means they destroyed some of your holdings before you took them out or another gang took credit for what you did, or the control force beefed up its presence in the city in response.

Mechanically it makes hunting Yugai an unsure venture.

The thematic explanation still doesn’t work for me. If that’s the case, why not a table at the end of the game? “Oh, the red player had the most victory points, but he pissed off the Yugai and they nuked his house, so the player to his left wins instead.” Makes as much sense.

The second part, though, is interesting to me, and was echoed by others. Without the random element, they argued, people would just hunt Yugai for VPs and not go after the other players. Now, it’s true that the Yugai, despite having defeated all of your planets, aren’t that tough. (It could be argued that the guys holding down these refugee worlds aren’t their best and brightest.) Unlike when you fight another player, you know going in exactly what the strength of a Yugai Control Unit will be, so it’s possible to hop in and defeat one without even needing to roll dice (or to know that you can probably defeat one by only rolling dice and not having to commit any units.) But if the worry is that Yugai are too easy or predictable, surely there’s a better fix for that? Make ’em tougher, and give them some dice rolls as well. I wouldn’t even have a problem with there being no reward for defeating Yugai (the DungeonQuest attitude, where sometimes the best you can hope for is getting nothing because all the somethings are terrible.)

As the BGG thread has continued it’s become clear that me and my friends are in the minority. No one else seems to have a problem with this thing. I want to play again with it and try to figure it out, but also play without it to see if it really makes a difference. Maybe roll on the table and note the results, but don’t actually do them in the game, and then afterwards see what the difference would have been.

I’m essentially wanting to playtest this damn thing, which isn’t mine and isn’t really worth thinking about that much. In the past I would have said, “this is dumb” and not worried about it. But now I’m in this mindset where I want to know…what was the designer thinking? How did this element get added? What alternatives, if any, were rejected? If I’m wrong about this element, and removing or changing it would be bad, am I making similar flawed decisions regarding my game?

See, this is why I originally avoid this whole mess.

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