The self-propagation theory


A thought occurred to me after a game of Ascending Empires tonight, as I put the game away into my game closet.  I looked over the variety of games there, thinking about the ones I liked and the ones that just didn’t seem to get as much playtime.  I picked up Munchkin and looked at it and thought about why Munchkin, despite it’s enjoyable humor and appealing theme, didn’t get played much anymore.

The last couple of times I played Munchkin, at least that I remember, one person got stuck around level 2.  Every time it was their turn, they kicked down the door to find either a monster far too powerful for them, or a new class or race that didn’t really help.  They never became powerful enough to help anyone else… so they couldn’t really play.  At least, not the main part of the game, the fun part.

I realized that some games – the best games – inherently propagate players forward.  Simply by playing the game – even if they don’t know exactly what they’re doing – advances their position in some way.  In Ticket to Ride, cards are collected and eventually sequences will be met. In Smallworld, you can always conquer – no luck of the dice can prevent your turn from moving forward (or you can abandon your race which is a viable option.)  In 7 Wonders, you have to play a card either for the bonus or for extra money.

The point is, all of these games keep you in the game just by playing them.  You don’t have to figure out some weird strategy to advance.  You don’t have to wait for luck to roll your way.  One of the reasons some people don’t like Settlers of Catan is that you can go several turns without gaining any resources if the dice rolls go against you – if that happens, there is nothing you can do but wait til luck runs your way.  Your turn only advances you if you’ve gained the resources necessary to do anything.

In my opinion, this is one of the most important elements of a game design.  If a designer hits the spot on this, that means everyone gets to keep playing.  No one is left out because of bad luck or because they didn’t realize there was a second game within the game that they needed to be playing to actually advance.

Of course, you can also go too far in the opposite direction.  Games that play themselves – such as Monopoly, Life – you know, the roll-and-move-and-do-what-the-space-says games – do ultimately push players forward (except for the classic “lose a turn” or “go to jail” or “go back 3 spaces”) but they forget the other important elements of choice and strategy.

It’s a tough balance to hit – the balance between variety of strategic choices and inherent forward motion, but when a game hits that balance, you usually get something golden.

Just a thought.

Futurewolfie loves epic games, space, and epic games set in space. You'll find him rolling fistfuls of dice, reveling in thematic goodness, and giving Farmerlenny a hard time for liking boring stuff.

Discussion3 Comments

  1. I don’t know about “the best” games propelling players forward. I certainly think that’s a common theme in good gateway games, but I don’t think it’s necessary for more advanced games.

    I consider Acquire, for example, a great game, and yet it does nothing to move players forward. I suppose it inherently increases the value of their stocks, but that could mean nothing until the end of the game–their advancement in the game itself is usually not based on this. It’s hard for new players to adapt to, but I don’t think the game is broken; it just takes a learning round or two.

    But the games that I find the easiest time getting other people to play are either 1) party games or 2) games that help players progress more or less evenly. And it’s a beautiful thing when you can achieve this without giving too much of a helping hand (condescending to the player, basically).

  2. Actually, FarmerLenny, I would count Acquire in the “self-propagating” category I describe here.

    Why? Because every turn you have to place a tile on the board. You might not make the best choices in the tile you choose to lay down – it might not be the cleverest positioning or the best bang for your buck. It might even help someone else to do so. But you’re still adding to the board – and as you learn the game, likely adding to your own stock. There’s no way to lose out on a turn, or to have a completely unplayable set of tiles.

    And, as you learn the game, you can make better choices. But having choices doesn’t defeat the self-propagation.

    Games that lack self-propagation are games such as the ones mentioned above – Munchkin, or Catan, where things that happen in the game can prevent you from moving forward. If your numbers are never rolled in Catan, you’re stuck. If you never meet a monster you can defeat in Munchkin, you’re stuck.

  3. I disagree. Granted, the game itself doesn’t hamstring players, but newbies often do it to themselves. They may be able to lay tiles (just as in Catan when your turn comes around, you roll the dice), but without money and mergers (and these things going in the way that brings them cash), their decisions are limited or nonexistent. They still decide where to place a tile, but with as many spaces as there are on the board, this is often of little consequence without cash. (Though, it’s true, even cashless players can start companies and gain stock that way, but companies typically go fast.)

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