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Deliberate Design Decisions

September 8, 2008

Have you ever played a game and asked yourself why a designer made a particular decision and really puzzled it through until you thought you knew the answer? It’s an amazing design exercise, and I encourage you to try it first chance you can.

Consider: everything you see in front of you is a deliberate design decision. Everything. Either a designer or group of designers decided it would be that way for very specific reasons or it happened over the course of play to the surprise of the designers who then decided to keep it. I consider it an archeological dig of sorts into a designer’s mind, and if you don’t happen to know the designers personally, this is about as close as you’re going to get.

This happened to me most recently with Ticket to Ride. If you haven’t played it, go buy it. It’s one of the five board games everyone should own. It’s endlessly replayable and fun for a wide variety of individuals. You can play for free online, but it’s something you’ll want in box form, too. It’s way more fun to play with friends in the same room. It’s designer, Alan Moon, set up the draw like this:

In drawing train cards to get new routes, the player may draw two per turn from either a pile of cards which are all face down or from a group of five train card which are all face up. The player is also free to draw one from each.

Why? It’s a matter of risk/reward and delayed gratification.

  • Do you want precisely what you want now at the risk of revealing your plans to fellow players?
  • Would you rather keep your plans private and hope that the deck gives you what you need?

In my current group, people tend to play non-aggressively and don’t deliberately do things to screw up the other players. This may have changed after the last session, though. I sort of, well, started something. Anyway, there are more layers to Moon’s decisions. Why 2 cards vs. one? Why five cards out?

In looking for a pic for this article, I came across a post on Soren Johnson’s site where he puzzled over Moon’s decision to apply a particular narrative. This is something designers do. You play a bunch, and then you start asking questions.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. September 8, 2008 11:55 am

    I just assumed he liked Web of Power 😉

    If you like to use this mechanism competitively, I highly recommend Kanaloa.

  2. September 8, 2008 1:19 pm

    @Stephane – That’s such a good point. Sometimes designers include things because someone else did it and it was good.

  3. September 8, 2008 4:44 pm

    Seems like a marketting ploy in some ways, such as friendly-yet-competitive exploration vs cut-throat railroad building. Sounds like an iteresting game for play and reflection.

    As for puzzling out why a designer did something, I count that as part of playing. Everything has it’s reasons, and each game is a new mental exercise. Plus, it leads towards how things could have been done better and worse. A very valuable exercise.

  4. September 10, 2008 12:38 am

    “There’s a bunch of face-up cards you can draw from, or you can take the mystery card on the top of the deck” is kind of an Alan Moon signature. He’s been using it in some form since some of his earliest games (Airlines and Elfenroads/Elfenland both had it as well). It’s a brilliant mechanic.

    The real thing I’m still wondering with Ticket to Ride is the scoring. Why 1-2-4-7-10-15 instead of the more standard triangular 1-3-6-10-15-21? It clearly came out of playtesting, but for the life of me I can’t find a mathematical pattern to explain WHY the numbers he chose work as well as they do.

  5. September 10, 2008 7:47 am

    I haven’t played enough of his games to get that signature. I’m still have 10 Knizia games on the shelf I have to get through before I feel comfortable consuming all of Moon’s games.

    Funny you mention the numbers. I thought about that, too. I actually tried to find out if his number choices were some pattern I hadn’t heard of as opposed to triangular numbers. Ironically, I choose not to write about that stuff figuring it was a tad too tragically geeky… so bingo to you. 🙂

    Like you, I figured it came out of testing. Already, I can see a way to “break” Ticket to Ride, and I resist it whenever I am playing. If I went for all the top scoring routes and nothing but the top scoring routes, I suspect I would win. I know this could be called “just another way to play the game,” but it doesn’t fit with the narrative, and I kind of feel like I’m doing an end run around the designer’s original intention.

    Anyway, I tell you this to say that I suspected it was this that lowered the upper numbers, and the other numbers had to come down to make it match in the middle. Or not.

  6. September 17, 2008 9:34 am

    (Sorry I’m commenting so late on this. I’m behind in my blog reading and catching up now).

    I actually do this all the time, and I love it when I can actually figure it out *and* apply a term to it. Puerto Rico’s colonist system has a deliberately designed negative feedback loop in it, which is always really cool to see in practice.

    One that I still don’t understand though is the use of cards in Race for the Galaxy as resource counters. The only reasons I can think for doing this is a) they wanted people to move through the deck quickly to get discarded cards back in circulation and b) they didn’t want to pay extra to put counters in the box. Both good reasons I guess, but I do want to play it once using counters, just to see if it changes the dynamics at all.


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