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Common Syndromes found in Board Games

Page: DesignArticle.Article-CommonSyndromes - Last Modified : Mon, 13 Aug 12 - 1219 Visits

Author : Eric Pietrocupo

This is a list of the most popular board game syndrome that every designer should know. These are generally pitfalls that should be avoided when designing a game, but it could happen that for a certain game that you actually want to promote a syndrome in particular. I will also try to list a couple of ways to avoid the syndrome.

Analysis Paralysis: The game slowdown because a player is actually spending a lot of time to analyse the board. This is a common syndrome found in chess. While people are analysing the board, the game is stalling and not progressing.

There are different ways to get rid of this. You can make the board less complex to analyse or allow players to analyse the information on other people's turn. For example, you could make the player draw cards at the end of their turn, so that they can analyse their hand while others are playing.

Downtime: This is another kind of game slowdown that might not involve analysis. For example, in a game where players play one at a time, if a player's turn is pretty long to resolve, then the other are stuck with nothing to. Another situation is if the first player marker rotate in clockwise order, the first player on a turn will be the last player on the next turn. That will increase the downtime for that player.

You can avoid this by either making turn shorter or splitting turns into smaller actions and rotate between player for each of them. You can also have some actions possible to be resolved simultaneously.

King Making: This happens when a player who has no chance to win a game decide to not play competitively anymore and help another player so much that it makes him win. I had this syndrome in Settlers of Catan, one player decided to give all his resources to 1 player in particular for the last half of the game. That player end up receiving twice much resources than any other player and won.

One way to avoid this is to limit the sharing of resources to make sure a player cannot easily give everything away to another player. Maybe there is some restriction that could prevent a player to interact with any player they want at any time. Allowing other players to block a relation between the 2 players.

Run Away Leader: This is a situation where the leader of the game has so many points that it is impossible to catch him up. There is a rule that says that once you know who is going to win, the game should stop. There is a syndrome like that in stock ticker because the more money you have, the more money you will make. So your income increase exponentially and if the players could not follow with you, then there is no way to catch up.

So a way to solve this could be to change the victory conditions so that when you know who is winning, the game should end. The other option is to give the players some power or resource to be able to catch up the leader. You could also power up the player in last position.

Leader Bashing: This happens in a game where the winning players gets attack by everybody else preventing him from winning. It can go to a point where the leader is always under attack which prevent any player from taking the lead and prevent the game from ending. This is the case of Illuminati, when players know a player is in position to win, they are all going to jump at his throat.

The first solution could be to prevent players from attacking each other directly or limit the number of times they can do it. Having a hidden score could also prevent players to easily identify who is winning.

Dominant Strategy: A game try to give each player various strategic decisions, If a specific action or series of action will always make a player wins, then you have a dominant strategy. I had this situation where players could construct any building they want from a list of X buildings. The problem is that with time, players could identify the best building order path and always use this strategy.

In order to avoid this, should try to make sure every option available to a player is almost equally balanced. To avoid specific building path like above, adding some randomness to determine which building is available will change the possible path the player can use. Or you can make the building very dependent on what other players has built with some sort of rock paper scissor relation ship. This is the case of Starcraft where you will want to build certain type of units if a player focus on another type of unit (ex: build Anti-Air unit if your opponent use a lot of flying units).


Update (Aug 12th 2012)

I found a backup of a post on BGDF on my hard drive that made a list of much more game syndromes. Unfortunately, I don't remember who is the author. Here are additional syndromes:

Bash The loser: This situation happens when players can increase their position by attacking or putting pressure on the weaker players. This is not very interesting because the losing players loses even more.

Ways to avoid this could be that weak players has little to give, if attacked, to the stronger players. Or that they are protected from certain effects or they force the attacker to sacrifice something. Eliminating the player could be a way to make sure that he will never get attacked any more. An alternative I found in Viktory II is that the weak player can become the vassal of the stronger player. So he is somewhat put in a forced alliance with the stronger player.

Loser left behind: When a player is so weak that he has no chance of winning or when he has little chance to influence the game, then the player is left behind.

This is like an unofficial player elimination, you can still play the game, but we know you are out. This is not very interesting for the player left behind because he does not see the point to play any more. He would prefer be eliminated and do something else. One way to avoid this is to give the player some power over them game, or allow him to team up with other players.

Never Ending Game: This is when the victory conditions of the game cannot be achieved or takes much more time than expected to achieve. The original Dune express has such problems where the game keeps rolling and never ends.

The solutions that was used is to place a turn limit to force a game ending. There are various ways to force a game ending, a fixed number of turns is the easiest one. You could have some pushing mechanics, that will make the game end what ever the outcome. A quick example, if you need X victory points to wins and a certain number of VP must be given to players every turn, then the game will eventually end.

Run for Victory: This is a situation where players does not need to focus on defence any more because they know it's the last turn. So they just sacrifice everything and go in all out attack mode.

The way to prevent this could be to have a variable or random ending, so players does not know when the game ends. Each player could have a hidden victory condition, or need a certain number of VP which are kept hidden.

Early player elimination: When a player is out near the beginning of the game, it can be very annoying since he did not have a chance to even play the game. It occurred to me in illumination where a player got eliminated because he had no group on turn 3. This is a weird rule that they should have simply removed.

A quick way to solve this is when a player gets eliminated, the game ends. I played a monopoly style game that worked this way, once the 1st player is eliminated, everybody count their money and the richest player wins. You can shorten the game if certain players is eliminated or you can make them come back into the game.

Multi-player Solitaire: This occurs when player feels like they are playing alone since their actions have no or little impact on the game play of others. In that case, it means the game could almost be played as a solitaire game.

The way to solve this is to add interaction between players. The first method is direct interaction where player can target directly an opponent. The second method is indirect interaction. For example, if there is a limited common pool of resources the players draw from, then the resource selection of a player will influence other players. But a player is not targeting directly another player. Puerto Rico does this with the role selection, the role you pick affect other players and prevent them to pick it for themselves.

Seat order too important: I have not seen this problem very often but it happens when the game play is influenced by the seat order of the player. So a newbie sitting next to an expert will be disadvantaged. This happens in regular card game where the discarded card can be taken the next player. A newbie could advantage the next player by discarding the wrong cards.

A way to solve this is to change the first player from one turn to another. Use a random seat allocation, remove mechanics that are dependent on the previous player's action. You can even change the order of play every turn like in Twilight Imperium 3 where the order of play is determined by the role selection of the players.

Dead Ends: This is when a player is stuck into a position where it's impossible to get out of it or do anything. For example, if a player must roll 13 with 2D6 to get out of a trap, it's impossible to succeed and the player is just stuck there. I had this situation in Arkham Horror where the stats required to avoid a monster and flee from a monster was the same. So if the monster was impossible to avoid and could not be killed due to certain resistance, it's impossible to retreat or kill the creature. So you die automatically.

One way to solve this was to change the stats used for retreating to unlock this option to the player. Adding new options could also be a solution. Dungeon quest had an interesting mechanic with determination tokens, every time you failed, you gain a token that gave +1 on your next roll. So eventually, you would succeed, you simply lost time.


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