I’ve been wrestling with event cards of late. Not actually wrestling. I’m not in a blue leotard sweating a poker-sized laminate to the games table surface. No, of course I mean metaphorically.
Event cards, you know – event cards – you draw them during a game turn. They introduce some random event into the game which can enhance or totally muck up your plans. In pandemic, you could draw a ‘One Quiet Night’ event and bless your stressed scientists with some time to push their glasses up onto their foreheads and rub tired eyes while breathing a deep, shoulder melting sigh. Or you could draw the dreaded ‘Epidemic’ card and then the excrement really hits the the ventilator. Or consider a game like Munchkin which could be described as ‘nothing but event cards’. Even that old relic Monopoly had ‘Chance’ and ‘Community Chest’ cards.
Wrestling with Event Cards
I know there’s a bit of discussion back and forth about whether event cards are a good thing or a bad thing. Mostly it revolves around how much randomness gamers are comfortable with in their games. I think my thoughts on the design process might be useful and interesting.
My wrestling has all been in the context of our game ‘Build’. A quick bit of background. Build has elements of worker placement, area control and cooperative play. The players take a ruined, corrupt and broken nation and build it into a thriving, robust and sustainable one. Hopefully. It has its feet firmly in real world economics and development theory. And it has event cards.
In defence of randomness
To my mind, the world has randomness built in and event cards are a handy mechanism which reflects this. Embrace the randomness! They can also be a hold-all for carrying some useful thematic ideas which don’t need a separate game mechanism of their own. Corral! Organise! Simplify! In Build, they encompass ideas as diverse as terrorist attacks, coup attempts as well as export bonanzas.
Right, down to my wrestling. I’ll just pull on this lycra…
I introduced event cards because, in the early versions of Build, gameplay was linear and predictable. Event cards served to mix things up a little. At the end of the player’s turn they drew a card which could be good or bad. It lifted them or knocked them back. We found that in the early stages of the game, when the young nations were weak, a ‘bad’ event could knock a nation totally sideways. I quite liked this, as the other players often rallied round to help the stricken country get back on its feet. Then it could re-establish trade. Then we could get back to developing. But sometimes the knock was very great and a country would be put so far back that they were obviously in no state to win the game. And then you’ve got the lingering death of a runaway leader – or runaway loser in this case.
Later, the gameplay changed slightly and then every player drew event cards every round. Suddenly we were awash with event cards which were having an enormous effect on gameplay. Because they were random effects, the players felt annoyed that they couldn’t ameliorate effects much.
Mathematics to the rescue!
At this point I delved into my mathematical thinking and described the problem as follows:
Affect of the card = Frequency x Severity
The effect on gameplay of drawing an event card is a function of how often cards are drawn and how hard those cards hit. Horrid card effects which happen all the time can be devastating and will block your ability to get started and make any game progress. On the other hand mild, infrequent effects are probably not worth including. The satisfying middle ground lies in the area of infrequent and hard hitting or regular yet mild. And yet, if an effect is happening all the time but not really impacting on game play – why bother including it. Simplify!
Thinking this through to its logical conclusion lead me to decide that the event cards in ‘Build’ ought to have significant gameplay effects in order to stimulate a change in behaviour or a change in the plans of the players. As I said earlier, I liked it when the players rallied around a country that had been struck by a natural disaster. It was thematically secure and a dramatic moment in the game.
What remained was a method of giving the players an opportunity to plan for and overcome the effects of ‘bad’ events. We tried all sorts of solutions to this. We created an ‘international aid fund’ for countries to contribute to to help other countries in need. We allowed countries to buy ‘contingency plans’ which allowed them to ignore the effects of ‘bad’ events – this one caused the unexpected strategy of allowing a leading player to hoard the contingencies and punish the other players. Mean! Eventually, valuing simplicity and respecting the thematic strength of ‘Build’ we subsumed the’contingency plans’ into the victory conditions. Victory is made by collecting ‘achievements’ for your country, such as developing a health service or investing in social equality. Achieving these gave the in-game effect of ignoring ‘epidemic’ cards or ‘crimewave’ events. This pleased me greatly. Simplify! Thematic strength!
Here at last we had a system which recognised the occasionally random nature of the world; balanced severity and frequency; allowed players the opportunity to influence and control their game more all while being true to the theme of the game. Nice.
Addendum 17th April 2018
I’m adding this on after a conversation with a friend in which he separated ‘luck’ from ‘chance’ in which ‘luck’ was something which happened to you and ‘chance’ was influenced by (and influenced) player strategy. I’m not sure his choice of wording is quite right, but the concept is useful. As game designers, we want a game system which is satisfying to play and in which the players feel they have earned their victory. A game of luck doesn’t give us that.
This brings me on to my second addition. We playtested ‘Build’ recently at a very friendly game club in Congleton. Sadly we didn’t see any Um-bongleton being drunk but we did get some excellent feedback. On the subject of ‘event’ cards, we tired a few options. The first was to have a number of cards face up for the players to see in advance and to plan for. This was good, it made the event cards a source of interaction and negotiation. The second idea was suggested by one of the playtesters: that each player ‘inflicts’ an event card on another player. Again, the events become a subject of interaction, but also a subject of strategy. Hmm interesting.