So, here’s a thing that keeps me up at night.
Anyone who’s hosted a house game of poker has had to answer what I think might be the most fundamental question in game design. Oddly, this question is not what snacks can you put out that people will actually eat, while not utterly destroying your cards. (The answer to that is Goldfish and peanut M&M’s.) The bigger question is, how much is the ante?
See, this is the thing with Poker. You have to play for money. It’s required. Ask anyone who’s played even a bit of poker, and they know that playing for loose change, Skittles, or bragging rights never really works. When your chips don’t matter, you’ll take a swing on any two cards that come your way just to be in the hand. No one has fun folding on the first round, but it’s fun as hell to raise twenty candy coated chocolates while you're sitting on a two-seven-off-suit. And most poker players seriously hate it when people do that.
Without money on the table, the game is often entirely random. Deciding how much to bet, and when to make your big move are the biggest decision moments in poker, but if those chips don’t mean anything, those decisions don’t mean anything either. Without a real ante, the tension and life of the game just drains out, as some players goofily throw in on every hand, and the serious minded get aced out of their pocket aces when five people call their all-in.
So, you need to play with some money to get people to feel the weight of their decisions, but you have to be careful. Not everyone can afford to throw out $50 to chip in on your hold-em tourney, and new players can get terrified of playing in a cash game where their Seamless money for the month can disappear with the turn of a single heart. Worse than that, if you make the ante too high, you risk real bitterness between friends when someone sneaks out a straight or a flush. A hundred dollars changing hands can easily upend a friendship. All over what was supposed to be a fun game.
Setting that number - enough that decisions matter, but not so much that they’ll actually hurt - is a piece of really delicate math. That’s the Poker Problem. You have to keep in mind how much all of your friends have to spend, how easily they’ll take things personally, and exactly how much tequila you’re going to allow at the table.
And I honestly wonder if that plays into regular board game design too. Sure, most of us don’t play board games for money, but there are other currencies that we stake whenever we pull up to the table: time and investment.
There are a lot of fast party style games out there that get away with being very random, and a lot of very serious 4X games that will get hounded if even one card is out of balance. That is the Poker Problem in action.
I’m only speaking for myself here, but with most party games, I really don’t care who wins. I appreciate that there’s a score in Monikers, and I do take a moment to recognize when a team had an absolutely awesome round, but in the end, I really don’t care about who is winning. I absolutely adore Wavelength, and I’m not sure I’ve even bothered keeping track most of the time.
The reason these games still work without a dire need for exacting rules or scoring is that they are low time and low investment games. Both games take under two minutes to explain, and in both cases, players don’t need to build up a persona in the game. They don’t build their own engine, deck, or character in those games. They’re just themselves, with their friends, trying to figure out a way to mime “Gender Reveal Party” without seriously scarring their mom.
Compare that to playing a game of Twilight Imperium. Hours on the teach, then maybe another hour spent working out which faction to play. Serious game time is spent working out your strategy, looking at which upgrades to take, which friends to try to make a truce with, and which planet to invade. One of the reasons to play a game as complex as Twilight is the space to build something relatively unique. Hours of effort flow into the creation of your version of this faction, your strategy laid out carefully over move after move. If there is a flaw or imbalance in the game that makes the characters you carefully carved out of cardboard simply unable to compete, you’re going to be pissed. The ante was high, and now you’re pot committed. If you turn over a card, and suddenly discover there’s a new Rainbow suit that actually trumps everything on the table, and there was no way you could have anticipated that, you might rightly hurl said table out the damn window.
With every game, designers have to work out the ante. You have to work out how to get people to invest in the game enough to make the decisions feel weighty, but not so much that the game loses its fun. How far can you go within your systems and still have your players forgive you for bad luck? Is a roll of the dice exciting, or do they have far too much invested for the tilt of a cube to determine their success? How much does the game ask of you, and does it reward you in kind? Finding that exact balance feels really difficult, and seems absolutely necessary. I’m still puzzling over the math on this one.
Though, honestly, if you have a bowl of Goldfish available for your players to drown their sorrows, a bad beat on the river does go down a lot easier. That may be just me.
Take a look at our new game, The Last Summit.