Mary Russell

This is a new series of blog-things where instead of delving into highfalutin experimental game design theory, I look more practically at a specific game design problem and talk about how I solved it. This is the first of a handful about our end-of-year release The Vote, a game about voting rights in America during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

I had a problem: I didn't want to do the thing that scores me points, because if I did it wouldn't give me enough time to score enough points to win the game.

So, let me back up a bit: my game The Vote shares some broad similarities with This Guilty Land. In that earlier game, Oppression generally scored points each round, while Justice typically scored almost all of their points at the end of the game. The core asymmetry there was that Oppression wanted to run through the game's stock of 30 VP as quickly as possible - before Justice could accomplish enough to score those end-game VP.

This one works somewhat differently: while Supremacy generally scores points each round, Equality scores points only at the moment when they accomplish something, like forming an Organization or passing an Amendment, with the scoring based on their current board position. So Supremacy might score 3 points each round - +3, +3, +3 - and then, bam, Equality does something and scores 12 points. Besides trying to run through the stock of VPs as quickly as possible, Supremacy also wants to obstruct Equality's progress, both in terms of what is built on the board, and in terms of when they're able to score.

Early on, I decided that the Amendments specifically would also lengthen the game by adding more VP markers to the pool. If Supremacy played really well, they could end the game before the first Amendment passed, when there were only 30 green VP in the pool. If Equality managed to pass the first Amendment, it would add 20 purple VP to the pool, lengthening the game. If they pass the second one, we add 10 gold VP - the colors just being to demarcate when they enter the pool.

So far, so good, except, like I said, I had a problem. I'm playing Equality and I am about to pass that first of two Amendments. Supremacy has built themself up pretty well and is scoring 4 VP each round. There are 4 VP left in the pool: one turn to go if I don't do something. Well, I'm going to score 12 VP with this Amendment, and when I do, I'm going to add 20 VP to the pool - I'm going to add five turns to the game's clock. Five turns is enough time to set myself to pass the other Amendment. Only, I'm not adding five turns, because by scoring 12 VP I'm also losing three of them. Two turns is not enough time: by doing the thing that should make me win, I'm making it easier for me to lose.

Taken in isolation, that's not necessarily a problem: it can in some games be a feature. But that's not the case here. It doesn't feel like a case of "I should've done x, y, and z sooner or better": it feels like a fundamental problem.

My first solution was to introduce a fourth color of VP - when Equality scores more than what's in the pool, they score the excess from the fourth color, then add the next batch of VP to the pool. So, if there's only 4 VP left when Equality scores, they're only going to "lose" one turn of time before adding five. Of course, if there are 12 VP left, then they're going to "lose" three turns - and while this could in theory in another context be an interesting timing question, it doesn’t make a lick of thematic sense for suffragists and reformers to advocate delay in their aims.

My second solution was to play with the numbers a bit: if 30 VP was cutting it close, maybe we should have 40 to start instead? Maybe instead of adding 20 VP after the first Amendment, we should add 25? But the more I bloated the thing to give Equality enough leeway, the harder it became for Supremacy to prevent the victory of all but the most incompetent Equality players. It didn't feel like a race anymore.

With both of these solutions, I ran into a more practical problem. We were playtesting with bits cannibalized from This Guilty Land, and the problem with adding more VP - either as an "overflow" pool or more generally - is that I didn't have enough VP tokens. And so to compensate we started using a score keeping program on my computer-phone. And that proved to be the (rather obvious) solution: rather than a race to exhaust a supply of tokens, it would be a race to cross a finish line on a score track.

The timing element would still be there: if Supremacy is scoring 4 VP per turn, and they're 12 VP away from the finish line, then the game has three turns left unless Equality does something about it. Passing an Amendment still lengthens the game, but rather than moving the goal post, it causes Supremacy to fall back a bit, losing a few points - essentially buying Equality a turn or two. And I should note that this "4 VP per turn" isn't static or reliable: the things Supremacy does to obstruct Equality will temporarily reduce their VP for the current turn or even several turns.

This needed some finessing, of course. I gave Equality some additional opportunities to score a fewer number of points when tests showed they consistently lagged behind. And I had to both decrease and increase the rate at which Supremacy scored. Broadly speaking, I made it a little harder to get those cards to start and to keep scoring for you. But Supremacy also scores a few extra points whenever the deck is exhausted, and as the game progresses, that deck gets thinner and more cards are drawn from it each turn. If the game goes long enough - if Equality is too slow to enact meaningful change - that deck will be exhausted almost every turn, and in some cases will essentially end up doubling the number of points Supremacy is scoring - cutting the remaining length of the game in half. This gives Supremacy a great deal of incentive to churn through the deck as quickly as possible, in the same way that Oppression in This Guilty Land wanted to churn through the pool of VP tokens as quickly as possible.

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