Category Archives: Games

An untapped family of board game mechanics

Have you noticed how board games are in dire need of electoral reform?

No, wait, seriously. Hear me out. This makes sense.

In most board games, through a series of events, you acquire points (votes), where each point (vote) goes to at most one player, and then at the end the person with the most points (votes) wins outright, regardless of how narrow their margin is.

It’s literally plurality voting, and it leads to a number of the same problems.

One of those problems is that it amplifies small leads quite substantially. e.g. take Scrabble. I play a lot of Scrabble because it’s more or less our family game. I also win a lot of Scrabble. Sometimes comfortably if I managed to get that second bingo out, but often by fairly small margins – 10-20 points in a 300-400 point game is not a large victory, but with plurality victory that doesn’t matter, it’s still a victory.

It also creates spoiler effects, where you have players who obviously can’t win but still participate in pile-ons to people in the lead. e.g. if you’ve ever played a Steve Jackson game (Munchkin, Illuminati, etc) you’ve probably seen this in action – “They’re about to win! Get them!”.

Certainly not all games match this description: e.g. you get a lot of games where rather than scoring points there is a defined victory condition – war games where you take a rather different view of politics and must kill all your opponents (e.g. Risk), or hidden mission games where you must achieve some specific goal unknown to the others (e.g. Chrononauts). I’ll consider that sort of game out of scope here.

Some games you play until someone has hit some defined score and then they immediately win (e.g. Love Letter). This is a bit like majoritarian vote systems (where you only win if you get more than 50% of the vote), but not really.

So the analogy isn’t perfect, but I think it has enough merit for the games it applies to to be worth exploring how things can be different. If nothing else it might be an untapped source of interesting game mechanics.

Even within the scope of games which look like elections if you squint at them hard enough there’s some variation.

For example, I’m aware of at least one game which uses random ballot: Killer Bunnies and the Quest for the Magic Carrot.

In this game you acquire carrots (votes), then at the end of the game a winning carrot (vote) is drawn at random and the person who owns that carrot (had that vote cast for them) wins (is elected). So if you own 60% of the carrots then you have a 60% chance of winning.

Given that I’m generally really rather keen on random ballot it may come as some surprise that I think this is a terrible game mechanic.

The problem with random ballot in this context is both that Random Ballot isn’t great for presidential style single winner elections, and also that in the context of a game players (politicians) matter more than carrots (voters). Voters have a right to be well represented in the decision of which politician eats them, carrots don’t.

If the game were very short it would probably be OK, but getting to the end of a long game and then having victory be decided by quite such a large amount of luck is rather frustrating. I think there are ways to fix it and make random ballot a fun game mechanism, but I also worry that it’s a bit too close to existing scoring mechanisms and where it produces different answers players will mostly find it frustrating.

So instead I’d like to look at how you could use an entirely different class of electoral system to produce this effect: Condorcet systems.

The idea of a Condorcet system is that instead of focusing on point scoring you focus on pairwise victories: Which player beats which other player. If there is a player who beats every other player in a one on one victory, they are the Condorcet winner and win outright.

Depending on who you ask, electing the Condorcet winner is either a terrible or a great idea (my personal biases are “It depends what you’re electing them for but all else being equal the Condorcet winner is probably a pretty good choice”), but that doesn’t actually matter here, because the question is not whether it’s a great election system but whether it leads to an interesting game design!

And I think it does.

When there is no Condorcet winner interesting things happen where you get rock-paper-scissors like events where the majority prefers A to B, B to C and C to A. These are called Condorcet cycles. In this case you need some sort of alternate rule to decide which player is most like the Condorcet winner (this can also happen if you get candidates who are tied because an equal number of people prefer each to the other, but you can avoid this possibility by just having an odd number of voters).

There are a wide variety of systems for deciding who the “most Condorcet” candidate is when there is no true Condorcet winner. These range from the very simple to the very complicated, but there’s a particularly simple Condorcet system that I think is very suitable for game design.

It works as follows: You pick an incumbent (usually at random). Then every other candidate (player) challenges the incumbent in some order (usually random). If the majority strictly prefers them (they beat them according to some as of yet unspecified mechanism) then the incumbent drops out and the challenger becomes the incumbent, else the challenger drops out. Once all but one candidate has dropped out, the remaining incumbent is the winner.

There are a number of free variables in how you could turn this into a game mechanic:

  1. Who gets to be starting incumbent?
  2. What determines who wins in a head on head fight?
  3. What order do people challenge in?
  4. Who wins ties?

However you pick these free variables though, I think it’s most interesting if you do this in such a way that allows the possibility of Condorcet cycles (if you don’t it’s really just another scoring system). In order to do this you need something that looks like at least three voters.

The easiest way to do this is might be something like the following:

The game consists of resource acquisition in some manner. You have three resources and treat each as a vote. Each resource is claimed by whichever of the two players owns strictly more of it. If either player claims more resources than the other, that player wins. Otherwise, apply some tie breaking procedure.

Starting from that concept, you can elaborate itinto a full game. The following is a toy game that might work well (but probably would need significant refining through play testing) based this. It’s called “The King is Dead!”

The king is on his death bed and has no natural heir. He has named one, but the nobles are competing to change his mind, and regardless of who he chooses they might not last long enough to take the throne.

There are a few key nobles who might win, but their chances of victory are slim without the support of the two key factions of the kingdom: The peasants, and the clergy. The nobles must use their influence at court to curry favour with these two factions, but be careful! If you use all your influence outside the court, there may be no-one left to support you when you fall afoul of court intrigue.

Game setup:

  • An heir is picked at random from the players.
  • Three cards per player are drawn from a larger deck and are shuffled together to form the issue deck.
  • Each player is given twelve influence tokens.

Each issue card has a number of clergy points and a number of peasant points on it. It may also have a crown on it

The game is played in rounds which proceed as follows:

  1. A card from the top of the deck is revealed.
  2. The card is now auctioned off with an English auction: The heir bids zero on the card and then play proceeds clockwise, with each player either placing a higher bid or dropping out. Once everyone has dropped out except for the last bidder, that bidder gets that card, places it in front of them, and puts their bid in the centre temporarily.
  3. If the card had a crown on it, the person who won it now becomes heir.
  4. The bid is now redistributed amongst the players: One token at a time, starting from the heir (the new one if it changed places!) and proceeding clockwise until all the tokens have been redistributed

This process completes until the deck is out of cards. The king then dies, and a swift but bloody war of succession occurs.

Starting to the left of the current heir and proceeding clockwise, each player (not counting the player who was heir when the king died) gets the opportunity to challenge the current heir.

A challenge pits the two players against each other as follows:

Each player accrues a victory on each of three scores: Their total support from the peasantry, their total support from the clergy, and their total influence. If one player has a higher score than the other on each of these, they get a victory.

If one of the two has more victories than the other, that player wins. If they are tied, the current heir wins.

Whichever player won is now the new heir. If there are any more challengers left, the next challenger steps up and challenges the heir, otherwise they win and are crowned. Long live the king!

This game definitely needs play-testing and will almost certainly have a number of problems with it, but I think it’s an interesting corner of game design that I haven’t seen anything much like before.

The thing I like about it is also that it creates a much more interesting victory dynamic in most cases: In the case where someone wins really decisively then they still cream everybody else, but the back and forth between the three resources more or less guarantees that nobody will be a Condorcet winner unless everyone else played really badly – the more they spent to get that faction support, the more influence they gave to other players that they could use to claim some other support. This makes things tense right up until the end game.

More generally, I think there’s a rich seam of game design ideas in electoral theory that hasn’t been tapped much. There’s a theorem that says that almost any voting system admits tactical voting. For electoral system design this is a real pain, because systems which encourage tactical voting have a number of problems, but for game design it’s perfect because it means that there’s this giant body of well studied and powerful mechanics that are full of opportunities for tactical play.

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Filibuster, the game

I originally thought of this as a training exercise, but actually I think it’s probably quite a fun party game.

This is a game about interrupting other people without talking over them. It works for any number of players in theory, but will probably become unmanageable somewhere in the 5-10 range.


You will need:

  • One weird specialized piece of equipment, which is a decay timer (terminology mine). This is a randomized timer where you get to set a half-life for the timer and then it goes off at an exponentially distributed time with that half-life. (It would be easy enough to create an app for this but I’m not aware of there being one). Set the half-life to somewhere between 30 and 90 seconds (the shorter it is, the shorter the game).
  • A way of keeping score
  • A way of assigning a random player (cards, beads to put in a bag, etc).

Once you have those you are ready start.


The game consists of ten rounds. Each round is played as follows:

  1. A random person is selected to start, by drawing straws or whatever mechanism you’ve picked. As soon as they start speaking, the decay timer is started.
  2. Anyone else may interrupt at any time.
  3. When the timer goes off, the round is over and scores are calculated.

Scoring happens based on who is speaking at the exact instant the time goes off.

  1. If nobody is speaking, nobody gets any points.
  2. If only one person is speaking, they get one point.
  3. If multiple people are speaking then whomever of them started speaking first gets one point, and everyone else loses two points. If there is a joint tie for who started speaking first they each lose two points.

In the case of ambiguity in 3, err on the side of everyone losing.

Once the round is over and scoring has been calculated, start with the next round. Once ten rounds have been completed, the game is over. Whomever has the highest total score wins (ties are joint wins).

Notes on concept and purpose

The idea is that it’s a game about waiting for the person currently speaking to pause and then interrupt mercilessly. You can try to do this by interrupting them mid sentence, but it’s a high risk strategy unless you’re sure you can browbeat them into silence by talking over them very rapidly because every second you’re speaking while they are costs you two speaking solo.

I originally thought of this in terms of exercises for practising conversational flow, but it somehow evolved into a game. As a result of my primary motivations, I would be terrible at this game.

The purpose of the exponentially distributed timer is that it means that your expected score is the amount of time you spend speaking solo minus twice the amount of time you spend speaking over someone else, which I think is a nice metric. I was originally thinking in terms of having a voting system for penalizing jerks, but I like this system much more.

ETA: eiríkr rightly points out that this game may need some sort of neutral adjudicator to decide whether something is an interruption or not. I think it might be obvious most of the time, and with the bias in favour of scorched earth in cases of ambiguity it’s probably OK. This would come out in play testing I think.

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Commons: A board game

I’m overdue for a blog post and half asleep, so you get one of my half-arsed board game design posts instead of something deeper.

The idea is it’s a game about the tragedy of the commons. It works as follows (as per usual, numbers and details are essentially picked out of a hat and this has not ever been play tested so it is probably not actually fun. It may however contain the seed of a fun game):

You have a deck of 60 event cards, a large collection of resource tokens, and a starting player crown.

Resource tokens are split into the bank (an essentially unlimited collection of tokens), one pool per player, and one central pool.

Each player starts with ten tokens and the central pool starts with five per player. The crown is randomly assigned to one player to start.

Each pool will go up and down over the course of the game. If a player’s pool is ever depleted (goes down to zero or lower) that player drops out of the game. If the central pool is ever depleted, the game is over and everyone loses.

Play proceeds until there is only one player left (that player wins) or until the deck of cards runs out, at which point the person with the most tokens wins (if there is a tie they are joint winner).

Play occurs in a series of rounds:

Starting from the player with the crown and proceeding clockwise, each player draws two cards. One of them they play in front of them, the other they place face down in the middle.

Once everybody has played, add one additional face down card to the the cards in the middle, shuffle them, and the one at a time draw them and apply their effect to the central pool.

Cards are as follows:

  • 10 x Lose 1 token
  • 10 x Gain 1 token
  • 6 x Lose 2 tokens
  • 6 x Gain 2 tokens
  • 3 x Lose 3 tokens
  • 3 x Gain 3 tokens
  • 1 x Gain 5 tokens
  • 1 x Lose 5 tokens
  • 1 x If you have > 10 tokens, reset to 10, else do nothing
  • 1 x If you have < 10 tokens, reset to 10, else do nothing
  • 2 x Gain one resource token for every 5 you have, rounded up
  • 2 x Lose one resource token for every 5 you have, rounded up [Note: Yes this will kill you if you’re down to 1]
  • 3 x Given each other pool one resource token. If you don’t have enough, deal out all you have remaining starting with the common pool, then from the player with the crown going clockwise.
  • 3 x Take one resource token from each other pool.
  • 4 x Give 5 resource tokens to the pool with the fewest tokens that isn’t you [Tie break: Prefer the common pool if it’s joint. Else, prefer clockwise closest to the starting player]
  • 4 x Take 5 resource tokens from the pool with the most tokens, or as many as they have if it’s fewer than 5 [Tie break as above]

Each of these should be available in a variety of values of X, and the distribution should be such that every card is paired with one of the opposite effect. The deck should be quite heavily stacked with “Gain X / Lose X” cards, with the more complicated cards making up a bit under half the deck.

After a round has been completed, the crown moves one player clockwise and the next round begins.

Design notes

One of the interesting features of this game is that it is very hard to tell what other players are doing. You can observe the effects “Hmm your pile is suspiciously large for if you haven’t been fucking over the central pile” but you can’t actually tell who has played what card. There is a huge amount of plausible deniabilty in every move, especially with the random extra card in the center.

There’s also no way to target someone specific (there can’t be, because of the central pool needing to be able to play without choice).

Overall, the game has ended up as a sort of hilarious head on collision between the tragedy of the commons and the prisoner’s dilemma. I think I like that aspect of it.

Thanks to the other David for helping me think through some of the aspects of this.

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Richman Scrabble: A play report

A while ago I proposed Richman Scrabble. Nearly a year later I’ve finally got around to playing it, with my flatmates Dave and Rae.

The specific rules we played:

  1. Richman scrabble as described in the link, with the take a penny leave a penny rule for change left after splitting. Each starting with 30 tokens (chosen to be “a bit less than a bingo”).
  2. Currency was supposed to be secret, but we didn’t have a good way of hiding it so you generally had a rough idea of how much people had even if you didn’t know the exact count.
  3. Bidding happened when everyone agreed they were ready with no time limits.
  4. In the event of a tie, the winner is randomly resolved (we use a die). The second price is of course the tied bid (so if two people are tied for 8, a random one of them wins and pays 8).
  5. No dictionary research, no word lists, etc. “Sudden death” challenging – anyone can challenge a word at no cost, you lose your turn if your word isn’t valid. Validity is determined by SOWPODS.

The game went pretty well. By which I don’t just mean “I won”, though I did. Rae had a 22 point lead on me, but I had a 31 currency token lead on them, so that made the difference for me winning. So, obviously I think that adding the currency to your score at the end is a good thing.

Dave was quite far behind on points but managed to claim the lion’s share of the currency tokens, which brought him very close to victory. If he’d known the word “pice” (which, of course, is “a former monetary unit of India and Pakistan, equal to one quarter of an anna”) he’d have pulled ahead at the last minute and won.

Over all I think the bidding for turn mechanism worked pretty well. I did find myself fairly often forgetting the second price rule, but between us we remembered it. I thought it had a pretty positive effect on the bidding.

The strategy I settled on was basically to bid 2/3rds of the score I’d get by playing plus an “urgency bonus” for tactical considerations around really wanting to play (e.g. if I was desperate to get rid of a bunch of tiles I would overbid compared to the cost of the word I’d get).

One thing that was interesting and I don’t know if it’s legitimately how this style of game plays out or just the result of us all being slightly drunk and a bit out of our depth with the new rules is that the scores were really low. I normally aim for a par of about 20 points before it’s worth playing (a strategy  hit on by my brother which I shamelessly stole), but I only got 20 points twice in the game – most of my scores were closer to the 15 point mark.

I’m not entirely sure why this was. I was trying for 20 point pars I think, but it didn’t seem as easy to achieve. Possible due to less letter churn when your hand is bad – normally if you have a rubbish hand you’re going to have a turn anyway and that will force you to get rid of some letters. Other possible theories are that you’ve less incentive to mess up the board for other people because you could just play twice in a row. I’m not sure. I’d have to play more games to know whether this is a real effect or not. Right now I think I’d put my money on it just being a result of unfamiliarity.

Dave, who is totally fluent but not a native English speaker, reported that he felt the game put him at a bit of a disadvantage because he’s much better at Scrabble strategy than he is at the words, and this seemed to emphasise the words more. This sounds more like a feature than a bug though, as I suspect (particularly with the above caveats) that once we’ve adjusted to the new style of play this version will be full of strategy, but hopefully one that results in a slightly less frustrating game than normal scrabble (one of my bugbears is that optimal scrabble play makes the game less fun).

The only thing that I felt hurt the game a bit was the lack of letter churn. I think it might be interesting to play a variant where before the bidding people can freely swap out tiles from their hand. I don’t know if that would be an improvement, but it might be worth trying.

All told, I think the bidding for turn mechanism is a good one and will probably be playing around with it as a concept a bit more.

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A mod for a large class of board games

Have you noticed how there’s an external factor that is largely decided for social rather than tactical reasons and massively influences the tactics and strategy of a large number of games you play?

No? Are you sure? You probably have. Most people who play board games regularly will have commented on it at least once.

This factor is of course where you’re sitting. More accurately, the order in which you’re sitting.

We noticed this most recently playing citadels – I was acting as a spoiler between two players who are normally more evenly matched but one was now consistently winning by a large margin. We’re not sure this is a seating order effect (though we were sitting in the same order each time), but it seems a plausible culprit. I’ve definitely noticed a strong seating order effect in the past when playing scrabble – what the player before you is willing to pass on makes a massive difference. If you have two equally matched players and one inexperienced player, the one who comes after the inexperienced player gets a huge advantage.

I have an idea for how to offset this. I don’t know how well it would work, but it should be pretty easy to try: You randomize the order of play each turn.

The exact mechanism of doing this depends a bit on the game in question. e.g. citadels has a different turn structure from scrabble. Most games are more like scrabble than citadels and can use that variant unmodified.

The basic tool is the same though: A set of cards, one for each player. When you need to decide turn order, you shuffle them and deal them out face up. Play proceeds in that order.

(For Citadels, play starts with the King as usual, but the characters are then passed around in player-card order rather than seating order).

For something like scrabble where people are actually taking turns you’d instead want to deal out the cards, play in that order, then when you get to the end shuffle and deal again.

The scrabble one does change the character of the game somewhat because you no longer have a fixed number of plays occurring between each of your turns (though it averages out) – potentially you can even get to play twice in a row. For Citadels I think this should matter much less.

Other variants:

  • Play the cards face down so you don’t know who comes after you
  • (For the scrabble version) Play with two sets of player cards. Deal both out face up, one after the other. When you complete the first one, shuffle it and deal it on the end of the other one. This means that you always know when your next turn is going to be so it’s a little more predictable.
  • (Also for the scrabble version) Have a deck with multiple copies of each player card. Shuffle these all together and draw from the top to determine whose turn it is. This changes the game a lot more, and makes it much more random. It might be interesting but it’s probably not going to be that good (see also Richman Scrabble).

I haven’t tried any of these yet. I’ll report back on if they’re any good if I do.

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