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Design Lessons: Villainous

The board game Villainous is widely available at your local Big Box and on the surface seems to be another barely-a-game theme-for-dollars affair.  After playing it, I came to view it is as a very elegant and well designed game.  Today I want to discuss all the things that I find interesting as a designer.

Normally, when I look at designs, I present an issue from the game and talk about possible fixes.  Since this overview is what I think are solutions provided by the game, I will present the issues that occur in general and how Villainous avoids the issue.

Note that some of what I call ‘issues’ are play preference.  Obviously with qualities such as player interactivity, more is enjoyed by some, less by others.  In this instance, issue is merely an important topic for debate, not always a flaw in the design.

Recap

If you have not played Villainous, let me provide a brief summary.  Each player controls a Villain from a Disney property.  Each player has a board with 4 locations, a deck of Villain cards, and a deck of Fate cards (Heroes, Items, Effects).

On your turn you move your Villain pawn from one location to another.  Each location has a set of actions that the player may then trigger, in any order.  Actions are usually things like, gain power tokens (currency), play a card (by spending power), discard a card, etc.

Issue #1

Many games are solitaire races.  This is not the place where I will expand on my theory that many (if not all) games are races, but many games lack direct interaction and some games don’t even have indirect interaction.

Player interaction has a variety of benefits such as changing how a game plays from session to session, to creating a more varied and challenging experience.  Some players simply enjoy being able to directly interact with their opponents.

The Fix

Villainous addresses this through the Fate mechanic.  Each player has a specific Fate deck that allows other players to hinder their progress by playing thematic effects, items, and heroes.   For example, Captain Hook has Peter Pan and crew in the fate deck, with abilities that specifically hamper Hook from winning, but do not make it impossible to do so.

Having a specific interaction action ensures that each player will be able to directly impact each other.  Regardless of how a particular Villain plays for their own victory their interaction with other players is clearly defined.

Issue #2

Future expansions or even unexpected card interactions can lead to unsatisfying play.  There are extremes to this issue.  Either a player has a runaway game because no one has a card/ability to stop them or a player can make almost no progress toward victory because someone has a card/ability that shuts them down cold.

Some games try to avoid these bad interactions by limiting the pool of cards that can interact.  For example, Magic the Gathering has criteria of which cards are allowed for tournament play, which limits the card pool to a set of specific recent cards, reducing the chance of a broken combo or ambiguity about effect resolution.  However, Magic designers and developers have to rigorously evaluate a card against all other cards, even if the cards might be out of the current legal pool.

Any game with a pool of cards that allows them to be combined faces this non-trivial issue.  Especially if a game does not limit the card pool, it must be hyper vigilant about detrimental card combinations.

The Fix

Villainous takes the route of providing each Villain with a fate deck which is thematically and mechanically appropriate for the villain in question.  Only Hook’s fate deck may be used against him.  You cannot use a Hook fate card against The Queen of Hearts.

This encapsulation allows for a full range of effects in each fate deck, without worrying about how this Hook Fate card would make it impossible for Jafar to win.  This also means that future expansions do not have to worry about terrible interactions with past expansions.  The fate decks don’t have to be future proofed either, because all expansions can only interact via the fate action, and not with new cards from other Villainous.  It is like each Villain has a self-contained card pool.

Issue #3

In some games, any player may attack the leader.  This usually manifests in games that take forever to finish, because as each player comes close to finishing, each other player may attack them to drag them back from the finish line.  This flaw becomes much more clear as more players are added, as each additional player allows for that much more dog piling on the leader, meaning that the game will take even more time to end.  This leads to a more exponential growth of play time, instead of linear growth.

I observed this at GenCon with the game Cogs and Commissars.  I was in a 4 person group and our game took about twice as long as the 3 player games around us.  Each player came close to winning several times and each time the entire group worked to make sure they could not win.

Game drag is a legitimate source of player frustration as it can be designed around and should be obvious in play testing.  Dog piling can make players feel persecuted and reduce enjoyment.  It can also hinder the drag mechanic as players may not want to ‘attack’ each other.

The Fix

Villainous solution to this issue is to prevent the same player from being targeted with the Fate action successively.  However, this rule only applies in 5 or more player games.  I think this could be improved as having 3 other players target one player with Fate is usually enough to drag them back.  Players could simply play with that rule at lower player counts.

The fix could be more robust and games such as 7 Wonders avoid this issue by having players only target their immediate neighbors.  This game only has to design for max 2 attackers.

While this could be a house rule for Villainous, but if players are having to ‘house rule’ to make a game enjoyable, that indicates a design weakness.

Issue #4

In some games, the play space is almost entirely accessible by all players (public space).  This means that any player can alter the state of the game (for example, by moving a particular group of meeples in Five Tribes), sometimes significantly just before another players turn.

The unstable game state makes it hard or impossible to plan your turn until the start of the next turn.  Which means that a player will not plan ahead during their down time.  This means the players are often bored while waiting for their turn and then their turn consists of staring at the board trying to determine the best move.

This can be a particular issue with games that have drawing at the start of a turn.  This introduces the issue by immediately introducing new elements to organize and strategize with, slowing down the game.

The Fix

In Villainous, the game state is almost entirely private.  While another player may make a big change to their own game space, the only impact to the next player is if they choose a Fate action.  Even then, that is the extent of choice.  A player doesn’t have to determine how to stop another from winning, they know that other player’s Fate deck will provide the how.

This keeps each player focused on the ‘how’ of their own victory and allows them to plan their turn ahead.  Facilitating this is the card draw mechanic, which is an end turn, draw up to hand limit effect.  This means that adding more players generally adds a smaller static amount of overall playtime.

Issue #5

Games usually have abilities that allow the player to do something, a positive or expansive effect.  Conversely, some games have abilities that limit the player, let’s term it a negative or contractive effect.  An example for both comes from the game Gizmos.  There is an ability that allows you to draw a marble after a certain trigger.  And there is an ability that blocks an entire action completely.

Why is this an issue?  Because while it can be important to remember another players abilities, it is crucial to remember what a player cannot do.  And if an ability removes a basic action, then it is important for all the players to remember.  So, negative effects introduce a kind of mental overhead (or memory burden) for all players, not just the one who played it.

The Fix

Villainous abilities do not limit basic actions.  Limiting the actions is built into the game, via Hero cards which cover up abilities.  This limits the actions clearly, as a player can only execute visible actions.  Note this isn’t so much about cheating, but rather about helping all players follow the conditions of the game.

So, the best fix for this issue is not to have negative abilities, certainly not controlled by the player it effects.  Most game effects are small boxes of text which can be easily overlooked by the player, much more so by their opponents.

People are largely creatures of habit.  When all players have access to the same set of actions, it becomes habit for players to perform the full range.  Suddenly limiting or removing them, when it isn’t part of core game play, will lead to player’s overlooking the new limitation more often than not.

Issue #6

Many game expansions require the base game to play.  While this is not entirely mechanical, there is a degree of design to facilitate games that do not require core components.

The Fix

Because Villainous has little communal game space, each expansion only has to have a set of tokens to track currency, beyond the new player roles.  With each Villain being self contained to a large part, expansions could have any number of Villains, even as little as two.  Having one Villain would make it more of true expansion, as it wouldn’t be playable alone.

Having the expansions that stand alone gives several benefits.  The biggest being detaching sales of the expansion from sales of the core game.  I have seen stores offer an expansion to a game like Mansions of Madness, but without the core game for sale, a new player cannot benefit from the expansion.

That changes products from ‘anyone can buy’ to ‘buyers must meet a condition to buy’.  This limits sales in a way that a game like Villainous doesn’t.  Which makes it much easier for a mass market store to carry.  While someone may buy an expansion of Villainous as a gift, it is entirely playable, even if the people had heard talk of the Villainous core game or a different expansion.

Issue #7

Some games have specific rules to limit if an action is performed several times a turn or is limited to just once.  A game with a take that mechanic has to watch out for dog piling or even just griefing where a player may spend all their time targeting other players.

This issue generally shows up when a game will arbitrarily restrict the frequency of actions.  Again, this is adding another memory burden to players, an exception to remember.

The Fix

Villainous doesn’t allow players to freely take actions.  They must chose from one of four sets of predefined actions (3 really as they cannot stay on a location).  This allows for actions to be customized not just for the Villain, but for that particular set of actions.  For example, a Villain usually has several locations where they can gain power (currency), but the amount will vary.  One location might give 1 power, but have other more powerful actions, while another may give more power, but less actions.

There are even differences between Villains.  Some have locations which give 3 power, some only go up to 2.  The customization allows for thematic play, without introducing additional memory burdens.

Conclusion

I find Villainous to be a finely crafted game, with the design decisions complementing each other to avoid common play problems.  Not all players will see the above issues as problems or detriments to enjoyment.  A player may even rail against a mechanic in one game but forgive it in another.

I fully acknowledge that the changeable nature of Five Tribes makes it hard to plan turns, yet it is still one of my most played games.

Like most things, the context of an issue can greatly influence the perception of bane or boon to a design.  In addition, other design choices can amplify or minimize an issue as well.

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