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Special abilities, common abilities and values

Page: DesignArticle.Article-SpecialAbilityRatio - Last Modified : Thu, 20 Jan 11 - 1360 Visits

Author : Eric Pietrocupo

During a game, players get various kind of reward and abilities for accomplishing things. This is what makes the game progress. For example, in Monopoly, players receive money for accomplishing things. Money serves for the victory condition and is used as a tool to do certain actions into the game. For example, buying, renting and selling properties affect the outcome of a single value: the money.

Concept Definitions

Some time games give other type of rewards, here are the 3 types I will explain:

Special abilities are special powers a character receives generally described by a string of text. Most of the time special abilities are unique or in limited copies. An example of special abilities is like in Magic the Gathering, each card has a unique ability text, but you can have the same card multiple times in your deck.

Common abilities sometimes also have text, but the idea is that players will need to use the same limited set of abilities over and over during the game. So these abilities can actually be remembered by the players which removes the need to write the ability text. For example, in Age of Mythology, there are 7 types of action cards that the player can perform every turn, so players actually remember the ability of each action card which removes the need to write it on the card.

A Value is simply a number which can be recorded by a game components in various ways. Paper money is an example, but Victory point value on buildings in "Puerto Rico" is another way to record values. A value is always expressed as a number or as a count of something. For example, in Magic the Gathering, 3 green mana icon means 3 green mana. Instead of using number 3, they repeated the icon 3 times.

How should they be used.

The 3 concepts above should be present in a game in different levels of occurence. It is recommanded to use them in this priority.

  • The number of values should be greater than
  • the number of common abilities which should be greater than
  • the number of special abilities.

There is not any mathematical formula to determine exactly how much of each type of elements a game needs. It really depends on the type of game and the complexity of the game. I strongly suggest having only 1 source of special ability, if you want multiple source, make sure there is something distinctive about the abilities found in each source.

For example, in my game Fallen Kingdoms, special abilities appears on the technology cards and on the god cards. I decided that even if they both had special abilities, they would each have different effects. Technology abilities are passive abilities which change some rules of the game while god abilities are triggered as an event, during a certain game phase, which changes the status of the board immediately. So they each have 2 different use and it should be a good idea, if you intend to use multiple set of special abilites to define limits for each set.

So you might be wondering why there must be a control? The reason is that special abilities require much more player analysis than for example a value. A player easily know that +5 is better than +2, so he can easily evaluate that doing the action that gives 5 points is better. It's also easier to remember and analyze what the component does if there is only a number on it.

While a special ability, players need to read the text, analyse the ability's effect and see how it could help in the game. If you end up with too much text ability, you get situation like in Magic the gathering where people are constantly reading their cards, and their opponent's cards, unless they know perfectly all the cards.

Common abilities are some sort of compromise. Yes they are special abilities, but since there are few of them, the player simply needs to remember them to play the game effectively. It also remove the needs to place text on the components. Still, if there is too much common abilities to remember, it could make the game more complex. In average, 5-7 abilites is ok, 10-12 could probably be playable but very hard for newbies. More than than is probably too much.

Like I said, there is no precise rules on how much a game whould have, it should be more used as a guide line.


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