What are the assumptions players bring to games -- and how can you break them? Rob Daviau knows something about that, as the designer of innovative Risk Legacy (and many other board games).
"There was a big fad where I designed games with DVDs in them," he laughs, "so I totally have digital experience."
In Risk Legacy, some of the actions you take in the game have permanent impact on future games -- stickers on cards, writing on the board, even the destruction of cards. This is unique in a medium that often focuses on the careful preservation of the physical materials required to play.
Speaking at 2013's PRACTICE design conference at New York University, Daviau highlighted the unique opportunity in designing for permanence: games that change forever depending on what players do. You can subvert players' expectations, give them a special sense of ownership, an extra element to decision-making, and endless distinct stories to share about their experiences.
Make all the assumptions you can about a game or genre, write them down, and then say "what if?" suggests Daviau. For example, in "worker placement" games, you place your own workers, who work for free, take only one action, and can only be placed one per space. Players can also assume they all have access to workers, and the workers will always return to them.
Assumptions can get even more radical: You assume the workers like you, will never murder anyone, fall in love, start a business or overthrhow you. Brainstorming about assumptions can lead to crucial ways to subvert them.
"Board games live in this weird world of assumptions," he says. "So I started [Risk Legacy] by examining assumptions: What if a game doesn't fully return to a start state every time, and what if one game could affect the next?"
Deface your darlings
If a game can show the pathways of permanent change, then it becomes a vehicle for stories: Each group would have their own unique game set, etched with their memories and experiences, and be able to show friends (one of my friends recently showed me a Risk Legacy board improbably spotted with another friend's blood).
What about just using colorforms or erasable pencil? Daviau often observes players going to great lengths, spending more on craft supplies to preserve a game than it would cost to re-purchase it, and understands permanence terrifies people.
Why push permance, then? "You're doing it already," he says. Players have a permanent narrative within their board games or their play groups already, whether it's that hey remember each other's experiences and patterns or, more simply, prefer to play as the same color all the time. "The game just wasn't paying attention and catching up," he says.
"What you're buying is not special," he says. Monopoly costs about the same as a box of pizza ("Monopoly is not a terrible game," he says, heading off the popular prejudice, "There are worse games; I've made worse games."), even though both involve cardboard and are equally replaceable.
Why modify the Risk game, then? As an established Hasbro brand, the game is known, solved and well-trod -- Daviau himself has made around six Risk games, and the title's metagame is already well-established. Such a familiar quantity is ideal for experimentation and subversion.
How do you design and balance games with permanence?
You don't, he jokes. Legacy games are 80 percent done when they ship: "I give the tools to the player to finish the last 20 percent of the design, as players," he says. "Gamers will balance the game themselves, while they're playing... You can't predict what one person will do in the future, but you can predict what large groups of people will do in the future."
In the development of the game, he says random permanence elements were his worst idea -- if you're going to design for permanence, every decision has to be in the player's hands. Better are the game's cards that let players weigh short versus long-term decisions, a form of "chosen permanence" that involves player-controlled city locations.
He also differentiates between "gimmicks with a point" and those without: The player should not be encouraged to just write on the board arbitrarily, but being able to write the names of continents increases play stakes -- your opponents are more likely to target a place that's clearly yours, that you care about, and it makes for more interesting social dynamics around the table.
Giving the players too much power and choice early on means the permanence loses its meaning, because the players can decimate entire cities or overpopulate the board with permanent decisions before people can react or consider them fully. Permanence should be titrated out to the player gently and gradually so that it always feels like it matters.
Using a solved game like Risk helped, because people had more information about what their changes did. Suspending ownership of factions, and using unpredictability (rather than randomness) to subvert the player's sense of mastery were other decisions Daviau thinks worked well.
Underneath the box's back tray is an envelope that says "do not open, ever", and it has no indication in the manual about what it is and what it's for (he wanted to put "do not open until instructed" and then never instruct, but feared gamers would pore through manuals in a frenzy). The result was all kinds of house rules -- we'll open after a unanimous vote, we'll open after the 15th game, et cetera.
"There's bad stuff in there," he adds cryptically, smiling.
This sense of weight and import to all of the game's physical objects even extends to how it's boxed, beginning with a seal warning "what's done can never be undone," and a request that the players sign the back of the board to "take responsibility" for what they will do. And pushing players to physically tear a card at the game's beginning shakes what many people experience as a sacred contract with the materials. The result is community ritual, a shared narrative that has surprising weight.
A year ago, Dauviau left Hasbro to start a consultancy and create original games. He's now working on SeaFall (2014), a game about reacting to an unknown world, inspired by the island expeditions of the 16th and 17th century.