The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

Upgrading Your Game Even Further

Anthony Simons

August, 2002

In his article Upgrading Your Game, Greg touched upon a subject close to my heart; quality. The quality of a game is very important, but by quality I refer not only to component quality, but also to the quality of play.

How many gamers, for example, started off playing something like Monopoly, Risk, Cluedo or Sorry; only to abandon them later for the higher quality games by the likes of Avalon Hill, Gibsons, TSR and SPI? How many have further progressed toward the quality of designer games? This is a natural progression; the gamer's goals are driven by the quality of play. But such gamers need not have abandoned the old games. The old games often have quality components, as this was their main selling point; it is just a case of improving the rules, or at least bringing them up to date.

Reducing the Chance Influence

One of the biggest complaints of the older game style is that luck is a ruling element; many gamers see it as the greatest barrier to their pleasure. This is not because chance devices (dice, cards, spinners etc.) are used in the game, nor because such chance devices often decide a player's options; moreover it is a question of whether the player has any control in the game. In the modern designer game, the chance devices are still there; but the player is given more control over his turn, as appropriate. To improve a chance-heavy game, one doesn't have to eliminate it completely; one simply reduces its influence on the entire game.

Take for example Snakes & Ladders; the players roll the dice and move along a track. If they land on a snake, they slide down; if they land on a ladder, they climb up. If they throw a six, they get to roll again. No thinking involved, and no control of the game. But if we were to take a deck of cards, remove the picture cards and deal them out to each player to be used for movement instead of a die; play will be a little different; a little improved if you will. The chance device is now a deck of cards, so players are still governed to a certain extent by luck; but now they can try to avoid snakes and land on ladders by playing out their hand. We could take this further; restrict the hand to three, four or five cards; each player must play one and replenish it from the deck in their turn. Black cards move their own token forward; red cards anybody else's token; thus a player can choose their play tactically; either forcing an opponent forward, maybe even down a snake or moving their own piece forward.

Some may not think this improves this otherwise bland game at all; perhaps my suggestion could end up with a very long race indeed, for example. If this were the case, the introduction of one or two minor rules would allow me to keep this improvement, and prevent it from becoming infinite. Perhaps this is a game best left as is; not all games will be improved by reducing the chance element; I think Monopoly would be a good case here.

War! What is it Good For?

Many games involve conflict, and many have good systems for resolving it; but the modern gamer often doesn't want to spend so much time during his turn playing it out; and hence suffering "downtime" while others do the same. Some games reach a happy medium by employing sufficiently abstracted combat so that not a lot of time is spent resolving conflicts (Civilization or Diplomacy for example); but often some of these are also considered too abstract.

Take for example 4000 AD; a classic game of interstellar domination, in which players send vast fleets across hyperspace to force the submission of opposing planets. Combat is a quick and easy abstraction; the player with the most ships in his fleet wins, the opponent's fleet is completely obliterated. This upsets some players because while the rules can be taken as they are, many cannot accept that a victorious fleet would get away unscathed.

On the other extreme, and in relation to random elements discussed earlier, is the classic game of Risk. Dice are rolled for the outcome; and while this is as good a method as any for a wargame, the randomness means some strange results can occur. On more than one occasion I have seen an attacking army fifteen-plus strong whittled down to nothing by a single defending army (or in some cases two or three defending armies where one or two have been lost). Such attacks can also go on for a long time; so "downtime" again becomes a irritating factor.

To the modern gamer, neither of these extremes is acceptable; I myself disliked the Axis and Allies system of dice rolling, and opted for a more controlled system utilizing playing cards (again!) as opposed to dice. Downtime was about the same, and perhaps the game was lengthened to some degree (not too good for the modern gamer); but the combat results bore more realism, as there were always casualties on both sides and an attacker with no cards had become "bogged down" in the fighting so much that his logistics could not further support the campaign (and hence he was forced to call it off).

To solve the problem for 4000 AD and Risk, I adapted an approach from the theories of F. W. Lanchester; that the fighting strength of an army is proportional to the efficiency of its weapons times the square of the number of troops. The superior force will always win, but the damage sustained will vary, depending on how superior the force was. If we take s to equal the number of ships/armies of the superior force and i to equal the number of ships/armies of the inferior force, then the number of ships/armies remaining for the superior force will be:

rounding down; assuming of course that weapon "efficiency" is not significantly different for both sides. This sounds more complicated than it is; a small matrix table can be prepared to give battle results at a glance, so "downtime" is reduced. And of course, random luck elements are eliminated in the case of Risk.

And Now for Something Completely Different

Some of you are probably wondering how this could possibly have improved Risk; after all, the strong will get stronger and the weak will be obliterated. You are probably correct; but I didn't say I was going to stop there! The whole point of this article is to convince you that there is room for improvement; but what I didn't say was that often you might want to improve the whole game, even to the extent that it isn't the same game at all. A recent post on the Usenet newsgroup rec.games.board discussed (if I remember) using existing games and game parts to make new games, or using a completely new set of rules with existing game components. This may sound laborious, but with our example of Risk one need only add in a few extra rules to create a completely different game.

Let's face it; I can't even remember how many games I have bought because they looked good, only to find they don't play so well. Sure, some work better when you make a few tweaks (which I will discuss later); but others still could do with a complete overhaul. Despite Risk being a good game (and one close to my classical gamer's heart), I do feel it is far removed from the slick, modern, designer fold. I took it upon myself, therefore, to change the game into something almost German.

First I thought about the existing components; a board showing a territorial map of the world; a deck of cards showing one territory and one of either infantry, cavalry or artillery; a set of rules; lots of armies and a handful of dice. The dice were discarded, as I wanted to eliminate the random combat element (as explained earlier). The rules were put aside, but not too far, as some would remain in force.

As in most modern games, a scoring system would be used so that the game would play out approximately within a specified time; so I decided players would score one point for every territory owned at a particular point, plus bonuses for continents as displayed on the board.

I decided to keep the cards, and use them to play. As I am using the combat system described earlier, there was no need to integrate them into this; but rather I used them as a mechanic for gaining reinforcements (as in the original) and for determining where invasions can take place. The rule I chose was that a player could instigate an invasion as long as he could play a card depicting either the territory attacked or the territory attacking. I also ruled that, if another player had the other card, he could play it and either join the attack (provided he had forces in an adjacent territory) or assist the defence (again provided he had adjacent forces). On the completion of the attack, any allies would remain, and the allied player would also score a point for the territory. The jokers would allow any attack to any territory; each player would have to play a minimum of one card every turn and instigate a maximum of one invasion.

Scoring would take place once the pack had exhausted, and then the next player would deal. This would go on for an agreed number of dealers.

Nips and Tucks

Of course, having "redesigned" Risk into something more modern, more of a designer flavour; I am still not completely happy. This is especially since I haven't tested it properly; this is also because with such nice little miniatures for infantry, cavalry and artillery I would like to alter the rules to represent them. I would like to alter reinforcement rules from the original cashing in of cards for a number of armies, to the cashing in of cards for more infantry, less cavalry and even less artillery. I would also like to alter the combat rules to allow for their advantages and disadvantages. But these tweaks have to be made later, when I have the basics sorted out.

Often a game will appear on the shelves which is not entirely as good as it should be. There are many examples of games having a single failing which obviously never came to light during testing. Other games don't have a failing at all; but there is always room for improvement. Quite often such a game can be improved simply by tweaking the rules a bit. Of course, most modern gamers do this anyway; but occasionally some are afraid to. Don't be!

Clue piecesA game of Cluedo (Clue) is to many a gamer quite predictable; I mean everybody knows the murderer was one of six people using one of six weapons in one of nine rooms. Have you ever thought that Mrs. White might have opened the door while Miss Scarlet threw the poor Dr Black down the cellar steps? Or that he may have been strangled in the hall, dragged to the lounge where Col Mustard ensured he had finished the job before hiding the body in the cellar? Or perhaps an unknown assailant broke into the billiard room, and surprised by the good doctor was chased into the kitchen, where the burglar turned and filled him in with some handy lead piping before dumping him downstairs? Perhaps Mrs. Peacock stabbed him and then shot him (just to make sure) as he perused his wine collection.

To play Cluedo this way, all you have to do is to shuffle all of the cards together, and deal three into the murder envelope. Each player must refer to an "unknown assailant" if no suspect makes it into the envelope, "The Cellar" if no room makes it into the envelope, and "strangled" or "choked" or some other such method if no weapon is present. Two suspects are accomplices; more than one room means the victim moved between them during the course of the murder or whilst dying; and any combination of weapons might have been used. This makes things a little more difficult for those who find Cluedo boring in its present form; and lengthens the game. Of course, improvement is often in the eye of the beholder.

Another (better in my opinion) example of a tweak is one I suggest for Tank Battle, the Milton Bradley classic. Firing is plotted for your tanks every turn, and one bonus shot may be expended per game for each anti-tank emplacement. I suggest that more importance be attached to the anti-tank guns; give them the shot every turn, and the tanks one bonus shot per game (as they are used in more direct confrontation anyway). This forces players to think about taking out enemy anti-tank guns to reduce the enemy's chance of hitting their tanks.

Pick and Mix

Monopoly might well be a great game in its own right; but this didnít stop an adventurous gamer coming up with Illuminopoly. This interesting hybrid introduced elements of Steve Jackson's Illuminati into the oft-played real estate classic. Another hybrid you may be aware of is Riskopoly; the origins of which are evident in its title.

If a game becomes a little familiar, or in other words you have "played it to death"; why not try combining it with another and see what happens? The examples above, though I cannot profess to trying them out for myself, have given somebody great pleasure; if the modern gamer puts his analytical mind to it he is bound to come up with something.

Perhaps Diplomacy could do with a bit of Web of Power; introducing cloister placement in tandem with orders; advisors forcing alliances for as long as they are significant? Perhaps your El Grande can be used in influence on the island of Puerto Rico? I don't have any suggestions as to how these could be implemented (yet); but they are not beyond consideration.

I rather like the idea of welding two games into one big game, but this must be done carefully; otherwise I am going to be left with some Frankenstein's monster of a game, which the modern gamer will never play as it will be too complex, too long and/or too ridiculous. Yet many combinations have worked in the past, such as Illuminopoly above; other hybrids have become successful designs. Canyon has combined the trick-taking card game Oh Hell (known also by many less printable names) with a standard race game; a better example would be Chebache, which combines elements of three classics; Chess, Draughts and Backgammon. Do not discount the possibilities of welding a few games together.

Another possibility is just playing out both games, but allowing them to influence each other. This would work better where games have a common theme (money, power or war), or where themes can be related (money, power and war). This may of course require adjusted victory conditions, and probably a larger playing surface. Be careful, as this is just as likely to be a monster as the hybrid.

My favourite idea is to combine the games Cosmic Encounter and 4000 AD. All movement and production would be carried out as per 4000 AD (with perhaps some adjustment to take account of the alien powers), and confrontations resolved as per Cosmic Encounter. Allies would only be called in if they were about to arrive, and ships sent to the warp could be regained through production or powers. Might just give it a try...

End of the Game

That's all I have to say about this for now; if this has got your interest, I would like to hear your thoughts. Well, I can't hang around here; where did I put that old copy of Risk?

- Anthony Simons

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