In my review of Terra Mystica on my latest podcast, one thing that I talked quite a bit about was the major influence that the different fantasy races had over play. Players choose one of the races at the start of the game, and the powers, opportunities, and limitations of that race will (sometimes drastically) guide and change the way that they play.
On one hand, it’s the coolest part of the game, because the racial powers are very thematic and unique, it adds a ton of replayability to the game because you have 14 different races to try out and explore, and it can be sort of a puzzle to figure out the “best” way to play with a new race. But on the other hand, having such strong, predetermined powers can also lock you into a spoon-fed strategy, reduce variability in the game (since any player using a particular race will probably using a similar approach), and if they’re not perfectly balanced, sometimes give a definite advantage to a particular player.
This, of course, is not a new conundrum. Individualized player powers have been around in modern boardgames since at least Cosmic Encounter. Some people absolutely love them, while other players chafe at the limitations they impose. To me, I’m pretty ambivalent. Or more accurately, I have a love/hate relationship with them depending on the game and the strength of the influence they have. So I’m going to go through a few case studies to look at the impact that player powers have on games, and hopefully shed some more light on the issues here.
In Pandemic, of course, each player has a particular role that gives them a special power, and to me, this is incredibly important to the game. In addition to giving the team a few extra resources that they need to defeat a difficult situation, they can help differentiate players in the context of a cooperative game where individual identity could potentially be threatened. Knowing that one particular player has the thing we need to handle a crisis in the game makes them feel special and important. And I think it’s also important that these powers don’t make any player less useful in other situations, they just make them extra useful in one or two cases. So especially depending on the card draw, players can still be flexible to do what ever makes sense. The powers are, for the most part, well balanced (even if some are “easier” to understand and use), and seeing what combinations of roles you have in a game is an added wrinkle that you have to consider when formulating strategy.
In Shadows Over Camelot, however, I think that the roles can go a little too far to lock players into certain activities. The prime example of this is Sir Kay, who gets to play an additional card after the results of a quest are determined. This is nice for a lot of the quests, but is absolutely incredible when fighting the Siege Engines outside of Camelot. So what tend to happen is that near the end of the game when Siege Engines are popping up all over the place, Sir Kay gets permanently stationed in Camelot doing the same thing over and over, which can quickly become no fun at all. King Arthur is almost as bad, because his power lets him pass cards to other players, thus encouraging him to sit around the Round Table drawing cards and passing them to other people a lot of the time.
Going back to the example I gave earlier, Cosmic Encounter, many would probably say that the player powers are the defining characteristic of that game. But it only takes one play to realize that many of those powers are wildly unbalanced and exceedingly limiting, so how does the game work at all? As a negotiation-heavy, direct-conflict game, the players themselves balance play through how they attack, offer alliances, and make deals.
In Eclipse, it’s more just about giving more variations for play. Once you’ve played the humans a few times and sort of have it figured out, the alien races mostly just tweak the variables a little here and there to give you a new starting point from which to work.
In all sorts of adventure games (Descent, Catacombs, Mice and Mystics, the D&D boardgames, etc.), as in the roleplaying games they echo, having specific player powers helps to protect the importance of each player’s role and position in the group. It’s vital to building interdependence and teamwork.
In 1812: The Invasion of Canada, there are 5 different factions divided into 2 sides. In addition to there being a decided advantage for the Canadian/British side, some of the factions are just simply more interesting to play than the others. The Native Americans, for instance, have a cool ability to retreat into any unoccupied area, while the American Militia just tend to flee off the board a lot.
In Chaos in the Old World (which I have, admittedly, not played), the four different chaos gods play so differently that each player’s approach needs to be very different. And since almost immediately after its release, cries of imbalance have been raised against it. And whether the accusations are actually true or not, the reality is that until players fully understand how to use and exploit the strengths of their role/power, the easier/more obvious roles will often be seen as dominant.
In the original design of Cutthroat Caverns, I’ve heard the designer say that they specifically did not give the players any unique powers or variable abilities because they wanted to avoid any actual or perceived imbalance, and instead wanted players to focus on the core element of the game (the uneasy cooperation and eventual backstabbing) rather than on how to best use their powers.
Really, of course, the core issue here is asymmetry. Player powers introduce asymmetrical conditions to a game. And here are some thoughts on what makes asymmetry good or bad:
– It’s more interesting
– Increased variability (from different combinations of powers in the game, and more chance to “learn” how to play with different powers)
– it’s often more thematic
– can breed teamwork from role specialization
– Difficult to balance
– Can lock you into an “ideal” strategy or role
– may distract you from the core mechanic of the game
– some roles/powers may be more interesting to play than others
– Different powers have different learning curves (leading to perceived imbalance)
And finally, the end decision on whether variable player powers is a good thing or not comes down to 2 things: how well it’s implemented in a game, and what your personal taste is.
So… what is your personal taste? Do you like having asymmetric sides, or would you prefer to start from an equal footing? Maybe there’s even some arguments for either side (or great examples of either) that I haven’t even mentioned.
Give me some feedback, and let’s explore this topic a little further together.