The Turn of the Cards

During our initial play of World’s Fair: 1893, we noticed that getting Influential Figure cards was an important part of the strategy, because it let you place more tokens on spaces. And with area majority, being able to place more tokens is a big advantage. But we observed that some players had fewer opportunities to collect these special cards, and were at a disadvantage when it came time to score.  That observation initiated a discussion over how random card draws can have a big effect on the gameplay of some games. This is a really interesting type of randomness to study because it’s not simply an input or output randomizer. It has some far-reaching and subtle effects depending on how it is used in the game.

So what sort of gameplay am I talking about? In a lot of games that has players drawing from a central deck of cards, there is a small “market” of cards available. I’ll call this the random market. As you draw cards, they are replaced by new cards from the deck. Some very popular games do this, such as Ticket to Ride, Machi Koro (with the Harbor), and Splendor. [Note to self: use this mechanic in a game. People seem to like it]. I’m not including games where you only draw blindly from a deck, because it doesn’t give the player an option, and it doesn’t change the next person’s options, just their outcome. The key piece of this mechanism is that you end up changing what is available for the next player, and the next player then chooses from what you leave behind.

In Machi Koro advanced play with the Harbor, buying a card reveals a new one for the next player. Stronger cards are worth more. But one challenge we ran into with this method is that your strategy is severely limited by the cards that are available to you in your price range. And even if you have the money, if the card you need to complement your strategy doesn’t show up, your options are limited to buying a different card that isn’t as good, or (and frequently in addition) you’ll save your money but lose a lot of it to another player by your next turn.

In one recent game, the card that everyone needed was the Tuna Boat. And I noticed Daniel Solis tweet out:

I don’t know if the Tuna Boat is actually overpowered (i.e. whether the value to cost ratio is higher than average), but the replies seem to agree that it is very powerful. More interestingly several commenters indicate that when using the random market, Tuna Boats can spoil the game. Because of that mechanism, you can’t do anything to protect against or mitigate the card. It creates an Imbalance of Opportunity.

The imbalance of opportunity plays out a lot like regular old bad luck. Sometimes, you’re the one who gets put at a disadvantage; sometimes, you’re the one who walks away with the win. In some games there’s always the chance of that happening, and the randomness alone isn’t the problem. The problem occurs when this imbalance of opportunity defeats carefully tuned strategies. In Machi Koro, a lot of cards are balanced to take advantage of ability combos. The random market makes these these combos much harder to pull off, making strategies that rely on fewer cards easier and thus more valuable.

But wait! you say. In a game where mitigating randomness is the entire point, surely taking these adjusted values into account is part of the strategy? Good players will account for that and be prepared to deal with it. Yes, good players will figure that out and know what they have to do to counter the luck. But again, they are limited by the imbalance of opportunity. If you don’t see the cards you need to mitigate the randomness, you remain at its mercy.

The random market leads to players having bad choices in two ways. The choices can be uninteresting: I don’t need any of these options, so it doesn’t matter what I choose. Oh, I can’t do anything again this turn. These responses kill player engagement. The choices can also be sub-optimal, which is perhaps a deeper and more subtle problem: I guess I’ll settle for this card that isn’t what I want. I can get this other card I want but will have to pay more than I actually think it’s worth. I’d rather do nothing this turn than take something I don’t want. But the subtle part is that this sort of a mechanic adds a drafting element. A bad turn not only puts the player at a disadvantage, the next player frequently has a slightly better opportunity than average, because in a draft, when you take something less valuable, you’re leaving something more valuable. In games with any sort of positive feedback loop, that problem is going to compound.

Let’s return to World’s Fair, which is much more complex and has a lot more strategic depth than Machi Koro. In this case, the random market is tied to the area majority mechanic. You place a token and also collect between 1 and 4 cards. The cards can be traded for points later, but only if you have the matching area majority. The cards you draw can also include Influential Figures which allow you to place extra tokens, which I mentioned is very powerful in an area majority game. In general, you’re better off taking as many cards as possible because extra cards don’t hurt you. But they also don’t help, because you’ll end up scoring a small number of them. So if those “extra” cards help you win area majority, you’ve benefited with no loss.

The core decision of each turn is whether to use your placement to focus on collecting cards or on area majority. Getting a single extra placement is a sub-optimal play. And your turn always ends by adding more cards, improving whichever sub-optimal options you left, and giving the next player a better opportunity. World’s Fair has several different layers of strategy going on, and the random market is only one piece, so I think there’s enough going on that you can play around an unfortunate turn of the cards. A random market can be used to add more layers of complexity to game decisions, as it does in World’s Fair. And World’s Fair demonstrates that there are ways a designer can address the imbalance of opportunity created by a random market (Besides, of course, eliminating it completely).

The simplest way is to give players a large set of options to choose from all the time. But this is frequently impractical. Machi Koro includes a rule where there must always be 10 different things shown. If you keep increasing the limit, you would end up with unique piles of every card on the table, Dominion style. And too many choices could take over the table and quickly leads to more over-analysis, as players evaluate each possible choice by each opponent. A big number of choices also doesn’t automatically guarantee that the opportunity is balanced, because it might be the one card you need is stuck in the bottom of the deck.

The “more options” route is really a sub-case of the bigger solution: Always have something the player can do. This can come in a lot of varieties. The first variety is changing the value of cards. You can re-balance the options so that everything is of similar value-to-cost. If things are too similar, this can lead to a “point salad” approach, where choices are less meaningful. You can add multiple vectors of value for each card. If a multi-tiered strategy needs different types of cards, now you can make use of a wider variety of them in different ways. A card that doesn’t help you much in one category might be just the one you need in a different category.

The next variety is supplementing the choices with extra actions. It can be a fallback or “last resort” option to recover from a sub-optimal turn, by doing something completely different. It needs to be balanced within the game to make sure that it isn’t so powerful as to be a frequent action, but not so weak that it isn’t better than any sub-optimal choice—easier said than done. Something like storing up power, gaining an extra ability to use later, or a small number of one-time use actions that are only worth using in dire situations. Or perhaps being able to trade in things you can’t use makes a sub-optimal turn more advantageous, especially if the player can offensively take cards they don’t immediately need in order to prevent the next player from having a super-optimal turn. Remember that improving the player’s turn is only have the solution. You also have to watch out for ways that the following player has an advantage after a bad turn.

The final variety is changing the options. Give the player a way to get new options when they don’t like the ones they have. In many card games, seeing more cards is always a good strategy. So being able to refresh the market gives the player a way to improve their chances of finding the right card. A lot of card games with random markets also tie the availability to the cost. This is commonly referred to as the “conveyor”, where cards more recently drawn are more expensive to collect, and gradually decrease in cost as they they get older, usually filling in gaps as cheaper cards are taken. The time aspect lets players plan more, and literally adds a cost to the opportunity.

Many of these games have a sort of hybrid option, where players to draw from the top of the deck. This can be lucrative but at a risk. And it also adds a layer of strategy that other players don’t know what you’re doing, which has value in itself.

Finally, I wanted to highlight a couple of games that manage this really well. First, The Great Heartland Hauling Co. has a random market for cards that let you pick up and deliver goods, and for gasoline cards that let you move. This has multiple vectors, (sometimes you want the gas to save money, sometimes you want the goods) and gives you an alternate use, because getting a lot of a bad card can be as good as getting a few of a good card, if you can make more deliveries. And the option to draw cards unseen can be a big game changer when you surprise opponents with exactly the cards you need.

But the game the really nails this is Xenon Profiteer, which is another reason I think TC Petty III is such an excellent designer. You have two types of options with multiple vectors, and the three types of cards can score in 3 different ways. You have a three-tier fallback option that reduces your cost for the future, reserves a card, and makes it more expensive for others to take it. And you have the option to clear the market before also getting the first opportunity to buy. You’re never locked into any one of those paths, and any imbalance of opportunity is almost completely mitigated, without making the choices any less strategic. You can still have the random luck of not finding the card you need, but it doesn’t compound on itself, and it still makes any decision a little risky.

A random market can be a great way of adding some variation and strategy into your game. It has the capacity for more interesting choices than simply drawing cards or many other forms of randomness. And it inherently mitigates some of the randomness of a card draw. But it can still lead to an imbalance of randomness that can take away from the player’s enjoyment by making certain strategies less effective and forcing sub-optimal plays. But there are a lot of ways you can build on the random market mechanic to avoid these issues, increase the strategic depth and complexity, and give the game a unique character.

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