Monday, May 6

Winning Against The Odds

There are a few things I like to see in a game:

  • The most experienced player usually wins - the game rewards time invested in it as an experienced player will learn the available strategies and play them better than a newbie
  • It's not clear from early on who the winner is - it's no fun playing a long game if you know in the first ten minutes you're gonna get hosed
  • A spirited after-game conversation - if the game was fun you'll want to discuss what went well or badly or how you could have done better if you'd made different decisions

I've been getting a good feeling about the latest version of Codename: Vacuum for a number reasons related to the points above. In this version, there are five possible end game scoring conditions:

  • Conquest: Points awarded for capturing or otherwise absorbing locations into your empire
  • Exploration: Points awarded for exploring the solar system
  • Reproduction: Points awarded for the size of your population at the end of the game
  • Greed: Points awarded for having amassed wealth through trading
  • Knowledge: Points awarded for developing futuristic technologies

In each game, the players pick which three of those they wish to score in that game. In an ideal world, each player would score their chosen strategy - but it's always three that are scored. That has a few implications:

  • In a two-player game, one player will chose more conditions that their opponent
  • In a four- or five-player game, some players will not get their chosen strategy scored
  • There's a race of sorts to ensure the strategies you want are scored, which curtails game time

The biggest worry I've had about this is that if your chosen strategy isn't scored, you've lost. Game Over. But recent evidence hasn't borne out that fear. We've played a few games where the person who choose the fewest conditions has won!

  • A few weeks ago I play a two-player game with Dave, my chief playtester. I raced ahead and chose two of the three conditions, while he mopped up the third one. In the very last turn of the game he made a gambit for some extra bonus points and pulled it off (with slight luck of the draw) and ended up winning the game by a point :)
  • At the last two of my Games Nights I've played a game with Hoops and Gav, both of whom have a few plays under their belts. In both games I won, despite choosing none of the conditions!

After the last of those games, the whole of the Games Night crew had a fairly long discussion about winning strategies and how I'd pulled a win out of the bag (I was still fairly sure I'd lost going in to the final scoring).

These games have also been fairly tight score-wise (a good thing in my book) and if I'm playing against anyone other than Dave (who has played about 25 games) I (who have played about 50) almost always win. So the most experienced player thing is panning out nicely too. Dave has a win ratio of about 50% against me, or possibly even slightly higher.

It's results like these that give me a good feeling about the current balance of strategies and cards. The next step is to simplify things further without ruining that balance and find the certain je ne sais quoi that moves it from being a reasonably good game into an awesome one.

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