Category Archives: Games

A class of games I wonder if exists

So I was thinking about board game design and it occurred to me that there is an interesting class of games which I hadn’t seen any examples of. That is the set of semi-cooperative or cooperative-with-hidden-missions games.

There are pure cooperative games, like Pandemic, and there are cooperative-with-hidden-traitors games like Shadows Over Camelot or Battlestar Galactica, where you’ve got the overt goal that everyone is supposed to be working towards but some of you might be traitors trying to undermine that.

What I’m thinking about though is games where everyone is working towards a common goal but people have hidden missions within that. So the possible outcomes are basically either “you all lose” or “you have all made it through the game. Now score to determine which of you actually wins”.

The “you all lose” scenario needs to be likely enough that you are basically forced to cooperate, but you should all have hidden agendas which mean that your favoured actions while generally positive might not be strictly optimal for the group because they’re designed to further your hidden goals.

Here’s a sketch of a game exhibiting these properties:


Humanity’s first colony on an alien planet has been established. Its governance consists of a president and a council. You are that council. Your goals are:

  1. Get your colony self-sustaining before your limited supplies run out and you all die horribly
  2. Gather enough political influence that when the current president’s term is up you’re elected their successor

At the beginning of the game, each player is dealt five “alliances” cards and must pick three of them. These are groups of people who are prepared to throw certain amount of influence your way if certain conditions are met (there are probably several conditions depending on how happy they are, including a penalty condition where they actively oppose you if that baseline is not met).

Play proceeds through mechanisms I don’t feel like fleshing out right now, but you have to gather resources, build infrastructure, deal with random disaster cards, etc.

The game ends under one of various possible circumstances:

  1. You run out of a critical resource (food, water, medicine, etc) and the colony dies or is thrown into anarchy. You all lose
  2. A sufficiently catastrophic disaster occurs and you do not have the capacity to deal with it. You all lose.
  3. The current president dies (you may be able to hurry this along). An election occurs. The person with the most total influence wins the election and the game.
  4. The current president’s term is up. An election occurs as above.

So while you are all working towards the survival of the colony, exactly how that survival manifests is up to you – if the miners are one of your allies, you might be really interested in promoting heavy industry, whileas if the scientists are on your side you might want to preserve some of that wilderness for research purposes rather than digging it up. On the other hand, if you don’t build those mines you might not have the resources to fix that disaster at the power plant, and it’s a real shame you hadn’t spent more time researching the native biology when that plague hit.

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A potentially fun game mechanic

Revisiting my old post about Scrabble variations reminded me of the existence of Richman games. This got me thinking more generally about the class of games where how often you move is something you have control over, which caused me to think of a potentially fun game mechanic.

I don’t currently have a game to attach it to. It essentially works on the following class of games:

  1. Each player has a pool of tokens unique to them, and the number they have in reserve matters
  2. A play consists of expending one or more tokens
  3. Having a low reserve puts you at a significant strategic disadvantage

As an example such game, consider the following territory capturing game:

  1. Play is on a hexagonal board with up to 6 players. Each player owns a single side of the board, assigned by lot at the beginning of the game. Each side has a coloured token associated with it.
  2. A play consists of placing a token of your colour adjacent to either your side of the board or an existing token of your colour.
  3. If someone places a token which is adjacent to an empty square that is also adjacent to one of your tokens, you may immediately respond by placing one of your tokens in that empty square. You may not respond in more than one square simultaneously, but other players can respond to responses. This can cascade indefinitely. If more than one player can respond to a given move, people may decide whether to respond in clockwise order from the player who moved.
  4. The game ends when no-one can move, either because they’re boxed in or have run out of pieces. At this point you count up the territory owned by each player. A tile is owned if it contains one of your pieces or is in an empty space surrounded entirely by your pieces.

(This might actually be a fun game in its own right. I tailored it to work well with this mechanic, but it could also work well without it)

Given such a game, the game mechanic I have in mind proceeds as follows. Instead of playing alternating turns, what happens is that you have a bag of tokens, mixing from all the players. A turn now proceeds as follows:

  1. Each player may put any number of pieces from their reserve into the bag. If the bag is empty all players must put at least one piece into it if they have any in reserve. If no players have any pieces in reserve and the bag is empty, the game ends.
  2. A piece is drawn from the bag
  3. This piece is added to its owner’s reserve. All other pieces remain in the bag
  4. The player whose piece was drawn may now choose to make a play or pass.

You control your likelihood of getting to play by adding pieces to the bag, but in doing so you deplete your reserve – in the early game when you have lots of reserve, this may not matter, but in the later game you are limited by the fact that a play consumes as many pieces as you draw, so you may want more pieces in your reserve (e.g. in the example game, not being able to participate in response cascades is a major disadvantage)

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Report on a scrabble variation

A while ago I suggested a bunch of variations on Scrabble. I’ve still yet to play any of them, but I’ve spent a bunch of time this holiday playing a different variation (I actually thought it was one of the ones I’d previously proposed, but looking at them again it isn’t).

The variation works as follows:

  1. As well as the usual set of face-down tiles, you maintain a set of 7 face up tiles
  2. When drawing new tiles, you may draw from either the face up or the face down tiles. You can mix between the two, and you can look at tiles you’ve drawn before deciding where you want your next one from.
  3. After you have drawn tiles, if there are any left draw from the face down tiles to replenish the face up ones back up to 7.
  4. If you draw a blank to place in the face up tiles, shuffle it back into the face down tiles and draw again. This doesn’t apply if you’ve run out of face down tiles
  5. If the same letter appears 3 times in the face up tiles, shuffle them all back into the face down tiles and draw again. Again, this doesn’t apply if you’ve run out of face down tiles. (We added this rule later when it became clear that the face up tiles would often fill up with letters nobody wanted).

The basic intent is that it reduces the element of chance in the game by allowing you to pick your letters more strategically, while still maintaining the basic play of Scrabble.

How does it play? Mostly pretty well, with one caveat which I’ll get to later.

I’ve played 4 games of this this holiday, 3 with my dad (which I won) and 1 with my brother (which I lost, and was also the first one). One of the ones with my dad was super scrabble.

High scoring letters tend not to stay face up for very long – they’re usually drawn within a turn, two at most. The result is that it doesn’t seem to be that much easier to get high scoring letters than it would otherwise have been – there’s still a strong element of chance in whether you get them or not.

Where it makes a real difference is in letting you control the number of vowels in your hand, and in general which low scoring letters you’re carrying. It’s not impossible to still end up with a surplus or surfeit of vowels, but it’s much harder and tends to happen more through bad planning than bad luck.

So in general I’d say all of this is a win – it significantly reduces the ways in which random chance can screw you over and makes for a much more tactical game.

Which, unfortunately, leads us to the caveat.

It turns out that by reducing the element of chance in the game what you end up with is a much harder game. This feels almost like a reductio ad absurbum of Scrabble, in that it makes it impossible to ignore that at its heart Scrabble is a bit of a fundamentally flawed game.

The issue is that good Scrabble play results in Scrabble boards which are really painful to play on. You build small words across small words, you link things up, and you get a board which is dense and hard to expand.

Like this one:


The above is the board Dad and I finished with last night. It’s a little more extreme than most of our games, but not by much.

We both had a few tiles left in our hands and gave up at that point (we realised afterwards that we could probably have continued a few words further, but he couldn’t have closed the 20 point gap so we decided to call it game then). This was pretty much my consistent experience with playing this rules variation: We actually couldn’t finish the board, as we’d already exploited most of the places where you could put finishing tiles.

Another thing that seemed to happen is that the game took a bit longer than normal – I think this is partly because we were unfamiliar with it so were spending more time thinking through the implications, but it was also because we spent more time in the state where we had good letters and a frustrating board so we were sitting there going “But I must be able to do something good with this”.

Super Scrabble helped offset this a bit. I’ve generally found that super Scrabble becomes less congested because you have more room to expand and it lets you move around blockages, and that definitely seemed to be the case here. Also, in Super Scrabble, unlike normal scrabble, bingos are commonplace so in many cases victory is simply decided by how many bingos you get, and being able to choose your low scoring letters helps a lot in reducing the amount of chance in that.

All told, despite these flaws, I think I enjoyed this variant more than classic Scrabble, but I feel like this might be a slight case of Stockholm syndrome: The variation very successfully pointed out the flaws endemic in normal Scrabble play, so if I enjoy normal Scrabble then I must enjoy this variation dammit. On the other hand, a lot of it could simply be that normal Scrabble victory often feels quite arbitrary and this variation made it feel much less so.


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More tinkering with auction games

So I was thinking about the scrabble modifications I outlined and some of the ideas sortof collided in my head with the auction game I designed (that didn’t really work) and I came up with the following game design. I do not yet know if it works. I suspect it to be overcomplicated.


  • The same hexagonal tiles as before.
  • Currency tokens.
  • A tie-breaker token.
  • Some means of scoring – either a pad or victory point tokens
  • A collection of temporary marker tokens

Setting up

Assign the tie breaker token to someone.

Put all the hexagonal tokens in a bag or face down somewhere from which they can be randomly drawn.

Draw one hex tile at random and put it face up. This is the beginnings of the game board.

Give everyone N currency tokens. I don’t know what the right value of N is but it should probably be somewhere in the 5-10 region.

Place one currency token in the middle. This is the beginning of the auction pool.

Note that currency tokens will never enter or leave the game. The currency tokens given out now are the entire economic pool for the game.


Play proceeds through a sequence of turns. A turn consists as follows:

One tile per player is drawn and placed face up.

Each player submits a sealed bid (they put a number of currency tokens in their hand and hold it out).

They reveal their bids and use them to determine play order. Play order is determined as follows:

  1. Higher bids go before lower bids
  2. Given two identical bids, the person clockwise closest to the tie breaker token goes first

So if we have players in order A, B, C, D, E with A being the tie breaker and we have bids A=2,B=3,C=1,D=2,E=2 then the play order is B (highest bid), A (tie breaker), D (closer to tie breaker than E), E, C (lowest bid).

In play order they each draw a hex and put it into their hand (a collection of hexes face up in front of them).

Now in reverse play order they may choose to play runs. A run consists of putting a set of hexes down on the game board as follows:

  1. The first hex may be placed so that it touches any existing hex on the board
  2. Each hex must be placed so it touches the previous hex laid. It is allowed to touch other hexes laid this turn as long as it also touches the last hex laid.
  3. As many hexes as you have in your hand may be laid down as long as you obey these rules, but you are not required to lay all of them down

Put temporary marker tokens on played hexes so you can keep track of which they are.

The run is then scored by counting up the number of edges each hex laid down has that are the same colour as the hex they adjoin. Note that this means if that hex is also one you’ve just laid down you score double (so if you play two hexes which share a red edge, they each gain you a point. If you lay down a hex which shares a red edge with one already on the board then you gain a point for the hex you played but not the one that was already there). These are added to your total.

At the end of the turn you now do two things:

  1. The tie breaker marker passes clockwise to the next player
  2. All bids made this turn are placed in the central pot. The pot is then divided equally between all players. If it does not divide evenly then the remainder is left in the pot for next turn.

Ending the game

There are seven special hexes. They each have 6 distinct colours and a black dot in the center. Once three of these tiles are on the game board the game is over. The current turn is completed (and the money and tie breaker tokens are distributed as normal), then victory conditions are calculated as follows:

  1. The person with the most points wins
  2. If there is a tie, the person in that tie who has the most currency wins
  3. If there is still a tie, the person clockwise closest to the tie breaker token wins


It feels like there are some annoying special cases in this. They were all added for good reasons, but I’m not sure that’s enough. I may attempt to play test this soon and see how it plays out in practice.

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Things you can do to scrabble

I’ve recently had my biennial family reunion. Amongst many other things, this means I’ve spent a lot of the time playing Scrabble.

I’d recently read this paper about “Richman” games where you take a game that is normally played with two players taking it in turns and convert it into a game where each turn is an auction for who gets to play with the winner playing the loser. It occurred to me that this would work very well for Scrabble, and this line of reasoning caused me to think of a whole bunch of other different variations.

I’ve not played any of them. Most of them are likely to be terrible. One or two might turn out to be good ideas.

Richman Scrabble

This is the idea that started this off.

How to play: Add some sort of currency token to the game. The currency should not be points, as that causes the game to have unfortunate “rich get richer” effects. Possibly how many tokens you have left at the end of the game should be added to your score. Each player starts with an equal number of tokens (say 50).

Each turn is played as follows. Everyone is given some time to study the board (say 1 minute). They then must submit a sealed bid (by putting tokens in their hand and holding it out). The highest bidder wins the right to play. If there is a draw the winner is determined randomly in some manner. They pay the amount they bid, distributed evenly amongst the other players (bids must be a multiple of the number of players – 1. So if you have three players it must be even, four it must be a multiple of three, etc. This ensures they divide evenly). They now take their scrabble turn as normal.

How would this change the game? One really annoying thing in multi-player Scrabble is when someone takes the perfect place for you to go. This would allow you to bid higher in those cases to have a chance of getting in there. Adding the currency to your score at the end provides a nice grounding of the value of the currency in the points of the game, but isn’t strictly necessary.

Letter queue

Another currency based system. You could use this either separately or together with the auction system.

Instead of drawing tiles randomly there is an ordered queue of tiles (at least 7). Each tile has a number of currency tokens on it. When you pick up a tile you get all the currency on it but must put one token on each of the tiles that comes before it. So e.g. when picking up the 7th tile you pay 6 tokens. You pick all your tiles, then you refill the queue by drawing tiles at random.

This leaves an element of chance in it but reduces it slightly. You can take less effective tiles for the value they’ve accrued if you think you can use them, or you can pay money for the optimal tile.

Random winner

This is a change you can make to any game where the victory is determined by scoring. Rather than having the winner be whomever has the highest score, the winner is chosen randomly at the end with a player winning with probability in proportion to their score.

Why? Because this means that a slight advantage in ability translates to a slight advantage in chance of winning. It’s much like the argument for random voting over FPTP.

Additionally, in a system where the highest scoring player always wins, once you’ve got a significant point advantage it’s in your strong interest to shut down the board and make it as hard as possible for people to score well.

I suspect in practice this would be quite annoying to actually play – it’s a situation more analogous to electing a president than to electing a representative, and I don’t really like random voting for such systems.

Random ending

A special tile is introduced to the mix. As soon as this tile is drawn, the game is over. Everyone’s current hand is deducted from their final score.

I think this would be interesting. Instead of a hotly contested endgame, your score at every point matters. It also discourages keeping high scoring tiles in your hand during the game because at any point the game might end and they might cost you.

Single word scoring

This is in the most scrabble specific of the changes, and it’s also probably the most controversial for hardcore scrabble players.

Instead of getting to score all the words you played, you only get to count the highest scoring word.

Yes, this completely changes the tactics of the game.

Why would I suggest such a thing?

Because in current scrabble, effective play makes the game less fun. Playing tightly filled blocks of words is a very good scrabble tactic – you can easily get a lot of points off each play – but it makes continuing the game like pulling teeth. Having a “highest word only” scoring system instead encourages playing long words which open out the board a lot more.

As a side benefit, it also reduces the advantage of having drawn high scoring letters.

In conclusion

I don’t actually know if I’d want to play any of these. I think it might be fun to try though.

In some ways a lot of the appeal of scrabble is that it’s not actually a very good game. Tinkering with that might disrupt that, or it just might uncover a good game inside it.

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