WORMS ON HOOKS (by Tom Russell)

Mary Russell

I'm working on a game called Field of the Cloth of Gold, which we intend to release concurrent with the five hundredth anniversary of the historical event that saw the Kings of England and France peacocking at each other about how splendid and magnificent and powerful they were. Folks who might be expecting an intricate treatment of Tudor-era politics are going to be disappointed, as this is probably the closest thing I've ever done to a lightly-themed eurogame.

In fact, I've been joking with friends that this is my version of a worker placement point salad game. On the surface, that's an accurate description - you move pawns into spaces, and those spaces let you take an action while denying it to your opponent. Almost all of these actions end up scoring you points for different things.

But the bread and butter - or perhaps, the lettuce and dressing? - of the point salad game is constant positive reinforcement. You do a thing - you do literally anything - you get some points for it: great job, you! You have all these different options, and all of them are great! Not too great - there has to be some parity, otherwise, players will just spam the things that are objectively better than all the rest. So what if that means that all these "options" essentially score the same in the end and that it doesn't really matter whether you select option A or option B? We're all geniuses: look at how many points we've all scored!

Of course, I'm being terribly unfair to those sorts of games, which really don't deserve my derision. Given their prominence in the marketplace, clearly, there are more people that dig them than want to come within ten feet of whatever weird nonsense I'm getting up to. And, you know, the ones I've played? They were fine. Not something I'm really interested in, not my first or even second choice, but they weren't bad. If pressed to say something nice about them, the best I could muster is that they're pleasant - but sometimes unbearably so.

Someone once described my Irish Gauge as "Here are four terrible things you don't want to do - each of them is going to damage your position or improve everyone else's position more than it does yours. Now, choose one." And that's broadly my approach here. Every action you take in Field of the Cloth of Gold will give your opponent a resource that was randomly dealt for that space. So I might really want to take option A, but if I do, the other player gets resource X, and hey, they've already got a lot of X. So, everything you do in some way strengthens your opponent's position - sometimes it's incremental, and sometimes it's dramatic.

So probably I want to choose the thing that gives them the least. Oh, hey, the space that scores for lavish feasts is open, and this turn it will give my opponent some cloth of gold, and that's going to do less for them right now than anything else. I've got one animal tile - they ate a lot of meat back then - and so I'm gonna score one point. If I had two animal tiles, then I'd score three, and if I had three, I'd score six, but one's all I got. The problem is that when I take the action, all my animals get consumed - that's how feasts work, generally! - and are discarded from the game. Most of the scoring actions are like that: everything you've collected for that category goes away, and you have to start over from scratch.

There is an action that will score for complete "sets" - one of every type of thing - and obviously I'd want to score that before I have to ditch those tiles scoring for their individual categories. The problem of course is that said space might not be available, and also, I have to move my pawn somewhere and once there, I have to resolve the action.

Only two or three spaces will generally be available at any given time. And so, yes, I want to score points for my animals, or score points in tournaments, but I don't want to do it now and both of those are going to give the other player stuff I absolutely positively do not want them to have. Here are two terrible things you don't want to do - now, choose one. It's weaponized zugzwang, and it makes for a very spiteful and vicious little game.

In game design circles, a lot is said and written about incentivizing players - about actions having the proper rewards so as to make them viable. I don't think enough is written however about disincentivizing players - about actions having the proper punishments so as to make the player squirm like a worm on a hook. It's fun to force your opponent into a corner so that they must choose between two hooks and then reluctantly impale themselves on it: you chose this. And, hey, sometimes - in the context of a game - it's fun to be the worm.


  • You are one smart sadistic cookie, Tom Russell.

    Brian Train

  • Maybe it’s because I just finished watching Lodge 49, but “zugzwang” has re-entered my vocabulary lately – the idea that All Guesses Are Wrong. This kind of decision space makes some people very uncomfortable, but I’d like to see more done in it. A game that is brought to mind is Vampire (the CCG) which can accurately be described as competing to be annihilated the slowest, although in practice it doesn’t always feel that way. I’m rambling.

    Scott Muldoon

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