The Tao of Gaming

Boardgames and lesser pursuits

More thoughts about Semi-cooperative games

I listed some theories about semi-cooperative games before. In particular, I listed some ‘ideals’:

  1. The “Cooperate/Compete” decision should be a spectrum, not just binary. Sabotuer gets this right. All of the “good” dwarves want to find gold, but they don’t want to enable the next player to be the finder (then they get the least gold).
  2. Parts of the “good” group can win without the full group.
  3. Players must have strong incentives to act differently. These incentives should not be obvious to other players.

Now, those are my ideals, not a platonic ideal. Unless I’ve grasped the essence of SCGs. Really an SCG could just be a hidden team game. I’ve started thinking about an idealized SCG. Based on my thought that The Thing makes a good setting, I’ve been idly thinking about mechanics. I had another game of Battlestar last night that prompted a new player to comment “This is supposed to be hard, right?” The issue was that no cylon could have done anything for about 45 minutes. Not good.

BSG and Shadows suffer from “attention surplus.” When you make an action, it is instantly scrutinized by others looking for deceit. Players see most of your actions. Some characters have special abilities that hide a bit more (like Roslin’s picking of two event cards), but even then the outcome is fairly constrained and often immediate. Players can quickly judge you.

BSG’s skill checks are a step towards removing that surplus. It arguably doesn’t go far enough, since players track what cards you could hold.

What happens in the movie (and in any real-life situation where loyalties are uncertain) is that people can only focus on people sometime. The difficulty (for the ‘loyal’ team) is that you can’t spend too many resources hunting out traitors. The difficulty (for the ‘traitors’) is that you have to do things that endanger you without getting caught, and you know the loyal team is checking up on you. But do you know when?

To make things concrete, imagine a game where the players are all spies for MI-5. They move around Europe (or just London, say) and do spy things. They all know each other and cooperate on missions. Each spy can win (or lose) as an individual, but it’s entirely possible they can all win.
Unless there’s a mole. A mole will reveal them to the KGB (say) and get them all killed, given enough time. If the players spend too much time hunting for a mole, then they’ll fail at the spy stuff (and get killed in a mission).

But if the players are convinced there is a mole, then it’s reasonable to drop everything to hunt him down. (I assume real spy agencies work the same way … normally doing routine stuff, but then seriously escalating to deal with potential traitors).

(Now that I’ve played a dozen times, BSGs real flaw is that the players know exactly how many cylons to expect. Once teams are revealed, the tension level drops. Shadows does that right).

So, in an ideal SCG:

  • Players should not be able to make instant decisions about each other’s play.
  • However, with the expenditure of resources players should be able to discover past plays. (“Tracking down evidence.”)
  • Once teams have been ‘proven’, the game resolves quickly.

To my mind, this suggests:

  1. Simultaneous play and fast turns, for the most part. (My ideal game would be 60-90 minutes, instead of BSGs 120).
  2. Limited communication during the early part of the game, and a mechanism to limit communication to specific other players. (I’m thinking of “Gunboat” BSG or SoC).

I’m kicking around ideas, but just in my head for now…

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Written by taogaming

December 30, 2008 at 9:22 pm

9 Responses

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  1. A nice mechanism to limit the resources spent on traitor hunting might be to let external treats continue to mount, and if they rise too high, everyone loses (or maybe only the loyals, depending on need/setting).

    This is done quite nicely in Republic of Rome, where each senator (player) tries to become emperor (thus winning the game), but if the Roman Empire crubles before its enemies, they all lose.

    yours,
    dillo

    Dillo

    December 30, 2008 at 10:34 pm

  2. I think even the skill check thing doesn’t quite work right in BSG. Because the game forces you to play characters with a diverse skill set, and because everyone knows what skill cards you’re drawing, it can often be very hard to throw in a negative card that doesn’t put you at immediate, serious risk of revelation just based on you being the only person that could have thrown in that negative card under the circumstances if the destiny deck betrays you. In general, it seems that unless you’re late in the order, and unless you know for sure that someone else actually could have thrown in the color you’re throwing in, it can be extremely risky for a marginal payoff. It’s actually much more productive to waste cards by over-killing less-important conflicts than it is to try to sabotage important ones, which seems thematically weak.

    Regardless, I think BSG’s real problem is not so much mechanical, but just that it’s an over-chromed monstrosity. As I mention in my BGG comment, the players are given tons more options and tons more resources to manage than they are in, say, Lord of the Rings, and yet somehow end up with fewer really tough choices despite all that plus a 2.5-3x play time. Now, I do kinda like BSG. But I think it could have been an actual really good game if it had really hammered on the stuff it does well and pared away all the super-chromey details and surplus of variables that often don’t *actually* add much to the theme, as well as gotten rid of the repetition (really, there is no excuse for having duplicate crisis cards in the deck, and also no reason for it to be as long as it is). BSG is better than the average FFG stuff, but it’s still a kitchen-sink game and you wouldn’t mistake it for the work of a professional.

    Chris Farrell

    December 31, 2008 at 2:23 am

  3. A nice mechanism to limit the resources spent on traitor hunting might be to let external treats continue to mount, and if they rise too high, everyone loses (or maybe only the loyals, depending on need/setting)

    Yes, games do that. The issue with BSG/SOC is that it doesn’t really cost any reousrces to ferret out the information. About the only way to spend resources hunting out a traitor is to brig them, which costs an action (or accuse in Shadows over Camelot). And, in both cases, if you are right you have a net plus. The ‘Investigation’ is really just observation, and costless.

    I think even the skill check thing doesn’t quite work right in BSG.

    I agree with that sentiment, and almost mentioned the SevenSpirits variant up there, which gives players a (hidden) way to get cards. There has to be some deductive ability in the skill checks, but BSG doesn’t quite handle it right.

    I do think BSG needs to be trimmed (both in time and a bit of detail), and I’ve lowered my rating.

    But in thinking about my ideal SCG and how to implement it, it’s quite hard to give limited communication channels via in game action. My thoughts are always kitchen sink variety … it’s tough to think of ways to do this. That being said, the BSG skill check is extremely clever.

    Brian

    December 31, 2008 at 11:02 am

  4. A nice mechanism to limit the resources spent on traitor hunting might be to let external treats continue to mount, and if they rise too high, everyone loses (or maybe only the loyals, depending on need/setting)

    Yes, games do that. The issue with BSG/SOC is that it doesn’t really cost any reousrces to ferret out the information. About the only way to spend resources hunting out a traitor is to brig them, which costs an action (or accuse in Shadows over Camelot). And, in both cases, if you are right you have a net plus. The ‘Investigation’ is really just observation, and costless.

    I think even the skill check thing doesn’t quite work right in BSG.

    I agree with that sentiment, and almost mentioned the SevenSpirits variant up there, which gives players a (hidden) way to get cards. There has to be some deductive ability in the skill checks, but BSG doesn’t quite handle it right.

    I do think BSG needs to be trimmed (both in time and a bit of detail), and I’ve lowered my rating.

    But in thinking about my ideal SCG and how to implement it, it’s quite hard to give limited communication channels via in game action. My thoughts are always kitchen sink variety … it’s tough to think of ways to do this. That being said, the BSG skill check is extremely clever.

    Brian

    December 31, 2008 at 11:02 am

  5. Here is what I think is the huge, almost provably insurmountable theoretical problem which co-op/competitive games have to solve, and which SoC and BSG come down on opposite sides of. It’s not about mechanics, but about the balance of those mechanics:

    The game is only really interesting as long as the competitive players remain hidden. So the incentives have to be exactly right: the players with hidden loyalties have to have to be more powerful hidden than revealed, and yet have to generally be able to stay hidden for most of the game, and the game has to end not too long after they are revealed. Think about that for a little bit: how hard it would be to nail that spot, where the players with hidden loyalties would be able to both a) play differently from a “normal” player, and b) generally not have their loyalty revealed too long before the end of the game. The incentives have to be exactly right: the traitorous players have to be motivated *and* enabled to play differently, but only slightly differently, not so differently that they will be quickly flagged. They have to be leaking information at just the right rate that their identities will become clear right near the point at which you want the game to end.

    In Shadows, the problem (well, one of many problems) is that the Traitor has a very strong course of action in simply not looking at his loyalty card, playing as a regular knight, and just letting the good guys lose when two swords are flipped at the end. On the other hand, in BSG, revealed Cylons are pretty powerful so there isn’t a lot of incentive to stay hidden – just make sure you reveal before you hit the brig.

    It seems to me to be a really hard problem for a meatier game to tackle. Saboteur does well in large part because it’s so short, and because you play multiple hands (the Saboteurs very rarely win any individual hand, so the balance still isn’t right, but in light of the brevity it’s OK). But to get the balance right, where traitor(s) are encouraged both to play differently from a loyal player, while at the same time making sure that given reasonably competent play they’ll be able to stay hidden until close to the end … it seems like a really tough problem.

    On balance, I actually think BSG does pretty well. There is definitely some motivation for the Cylons to stay hidden, but the game continues when they are revealed, just in a slightly less interesting way. The two stages of dealing out loyalty cards, where the precise number of Cylons is slightly elusive but some balance is maintained, was a really good idea. The killer is not so much that once the Cylons are revealed the whole game becomes less interesting, the killer is really that the game goes on too long in the first place.

    Chris Farrell

    December 31, 2008 at 12:19 pm

  6. For me, the ideal Semi-cooperative game is a hidden teams game. (Currently, the best one that exists is Werewolf, which can be used as a model).

    I actually dont like games that are partially cooperative but then have only a subset of the ‘good’ team win. (Where generally ‘good’ team just means the big team). These tend to be just an extension of Diplomacy games. (For example, in Bohnanza, the goal is to make the most mutually beneficial deals, with various players, so that you end up gaining over everyone. I dont want a semi-cooperative game to really jsut be Bohnanza.

    To me, the best cooperative game is a hidden teams game, with one team being the small team, with extra information, and one team is the big team, who is doing the investigative work. This is the formula from Werewolf, and it works very well.

    Players SHOULD have strogn incentives to at differently, I agree. Beyond the two teams acting differently, there should be different hideen roles or powers. For example, in Werewolf, a Seer acts differently than a Villager. (At least, over the course of the game). A Hunter (who in a 1vs1 against a wolf at the end, kills the wolf), acts differently than a normal villager, and can win by appearing evil, gaining the Wolves trust, and then surviving until the end. This also allows normal villagers to fake these behaviors and thus appear to be those roles, to hide and protect the players who really have them.

    ANother point I agree on is that once the teams are proven, the game should end very quickly. This is the case in Werewolf. If the teams are proven, and Good still outnumbers Evil, Good wins. If Evil comes to a point of outnumbering Good, Evil wins. Essentially Werewolf is still a resource management game, with the resource being # of remaining good players.

    In a resource management game, this could take the following form:
    When all of the small team players have been uncovered, the game ends. If X resource is above 0, the big team wins. If X resource ever hits 0, the big team loses. (Or alternately, there can also be certain other fators based on individual roles that could effect this. For example, a Hunter type role might say: “If resources go to 0, but X is also true, then the big team still wins”).

    I think that another hidden team game that is interesting to look at is Dopplekopf (German card game, ‘Double sheeps head’). In that game the two players with the Q of Clubs are partners. Players can make announcements during the game which declare their team and change the score value of the hand. Also, players will want to put valuable poiunt cards onto tricks they think their partner will take, but not on ones for their opponents. The two sides tend to play a bit differently, because one side tends to be stronger in the trump suit (they have 2 high trump on their team guaranteed), and the other team balances that by scoring more if they win.

    Generally, I think that resource management hidden team games need to be more about the investigative work (finding the traitors), and less about the resource management. It should be both harder and more rewarding to find the traitor. The traitor should be able to hide their misdeeds much better, but being found out should be more costly. Thus the game moves towards Werewolf, and away from Shadows over Camelot, where the traitor usually should be obvious from the start and just add siege engines.

    I think the BSG skill check mechanism is a good start toward this, but its still too easy to determine who the cylons are if they are sabotaging you, and there isnt a lot of reward for finding them out and putting them in the brig. (They just reveal, and getting them in there is costly).

    Regarding BSG: It has a length problem. Other than that its quite good. The skill check mechanic is a good start at how traitors can harm the team without giving themself away necessarily, but I agree that it would work better if people drew a slightly wider variety of cards.

    Also in BSG, I have developed a strategy of playing selfishly until the sleeper agent phase, and then after it occurs (if human) playing very strongly to help the human team, or if cylon, quickly doing something destructive. (And then using my accumulated power to cost the human side about that much power, then revealing). The reason to play selfishly early on is that you still dont know what team you’re on. Really, all players should be focused on gaining personal power early. If they end up human, that personal power is power for the human side, if Cylon, for the cylons.

    Alexfrog

    December 31, 2008 at 12:41 pm

  7. For me, the ideal Semi-cooperative game is a hidden teams game. (Currently, the best one that exists is Werewolf, which can be used as a model).

    I actually dont like games that are partially cooperative but then have only a subset of the ‘good’ team win. (Where generally ‘good’ team just means the big team). These tend to be just an extension of Diplomacy games. (For example, in Bohnanza, the goal is to make the most mutually beneficial deals, with various players, so that you end up gaining over everyone. I dont want a semi-cooperative game to really jsut be Bohnanza.

    To me, the best cooperative game is a hidden teams game, with one team being the small team, with extra information, and one team is the big team, who is doing the investigative work. This is the formula from Werewolf, and it works very well.

    Players SHOULD have strogn incentives to at differently, I agree. Beyond the two teams acting differently, there should be different hideen roles or powers. For example, in Werewolf, a Seer acts differently than a Villager. (At least, over the course of the game). A Hunter (who in a 1vs1 against a wolf at the end, kills the wolf), acts differently than a normal villager, and can win by appearing evil, gaining the Wolves trust, and then surviving until the end. This also allows normal villagers to fake these behaviors and thus appear to be those roles, to hide and protect the players who really have them.

    ANother point I agree on is that once the teams are proven, the game should end very quickly. This is the case in Werewolf. If the teams are proven, and Good still outnumbers Evil, Good wins. If Evil comes to a point of outnumbering Good, Evil wins. Essentially Werewolf is still a resource management game, with the resource being # of remaining good players.

    In a resource management game, this could take the following form:
    When all of the small team players have been uncovered, the game ends. If X resource is above 0, the big team wins. If X resource ever hits 0, the big team loses. (Or alternately, there can also be certain other fators based on individual roles that could effect this. For example, a Hunter type role might say: “If resources go to 0, but X is also true, then the big team still wins”).

    I think that another hidden team game that is interesting to look at is Dopplekopf (German card game, ‘Double sheeps head’). In that game the two players with the Q of Clubs are partners. Players can make announcements during the game which declare their team and change the score value of the hand. Also, players will want to put valuable poiunt cards onto tricks they think their partner will take, but not on ones for their opponents. The two sides tend to play a bit differently, because one side tends to be stronger in the trump suit (they have 2 high trump on their team guaranteed), and the other team balances that by scoring more if they win.

    Generally, I think that resource management hidden team games need to be more about the investigative work (finding the traitors), and less about the resource management. It should be both harder and more rewarding to find the traitor. The traitor should be able to hide their misdeeds much better, but being found out should be more costly. Thus the game moves towards Werewolf, and away from Shadows over Camelot, where the traitor usually should be obvious from the start and just add siege engines.

    I think the BSG skill check mechanism is a good start toward this, but its still too easy to determine who the cylons are if they are sabotaging you, and there isnt a lot of reward for finding them out and putting them in the brig. (They just reveal, and getting them in there is costly).

    Regarding BSG: It has a length problem. Other than that its quite good. The skill check mechanic is a good start at how traitors can harm the team without giving themself away necessarily, but I agree that it would work better if people drew a slightly wider variety of cards.

    Also in BSG, I have developed a strategy of playing selfishly until the sleeper agent phase, and then after it occurs (if human) playing very strongly to help the human team, or if cylon, quickly doing something destructive. (And then using my accumulated power to cost the human side about that much power, then revealing). The reason to play selfishly early on is that you still dont know what team you’re on. Really, all players should be focused on gaining personal power early. If they end up human, that personal power is power for the human side, if Cylon, for the cylons.

    Alexfrog

    December 31, 2008 at 12:41 pm

  8. As to length, the shorter the better pretty much. 30 minutes would be really ideal for this type of game, imo. It should be about the deduction, and figuring out who is who shouldnt really ahve to take hours.

    Alexfrog

    December 31, 2008 at 1:03 pm

  9. Possible tveaks for BSG:
    Each player when drawing cards, take one card less than he should and then instead take one random card from the randomly created deck? Then any player could have any type of cards -> easier to sabotage and still keep hidden.

    And in order to award the hidden cylon(s). Each hidden cylon at game end takes away one resource of any kind, which would be quite similar to the hidden traitor in Shadows that flips swords. This would make the game harder and instead perhaps a revealed cylon should be made weaker. Revealed cylons cannot contribute to skill checks (also more thematic).

    Regards,
    Patrik.

    Patrik

    January 2, 2009 at 7:34 am


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