Hands And Bags

Been thinking about bag builders lately.

If you’re not familiar, a bag builder is a type of game where you have a bag – an actual, physical bag – that you can’t look into very easily. You put things into the bag, ideally things that are hard to tell apart from one another by touch, and then players draw things out of the bag and check the results that indicates.

In its simplest form the bag builder is a slower, more elaborate form of dice. You have a random distribution of potential outcomes, and players choose one. It’s slower because a dice roll is stunningly quick and you can roll four or five dice at once. Really, dice deserve a special mention here because when you’re rolling dice it’s faster to resolve the four or five dice than it is for the player to process the result.

Bag builders swerve wildly away from dice when you start to think about what kinds of control you have. Now, you can make dice do weird things with probability but generally speaking if the game starts with 1d6, you have a hard time making that dice mathematically behave like 1d8. you can usually go down – odds and evens lets the dice behave like a 1d2 – but you can’t readily go up without getting into bell curves and distribution matrices.

For a bag, though, if you want something to be 1d7 you can just put in 7 options in a bag. That’s a pretty basic use for a bag, just to make a sort of softer dice. It puts the cognition on the ‘roll’ earlier, too – players retrieve the object from the bag, and look at it – the action has stopped, and the result is literally in their hand.

The bag builder being a more ornate and elaborate thing means that it won’t be as good for simple turns and simple actions. I think that a good bag builder wants to draw from the bag, say, once a turn, make it the centerpiece of a turn. Rerolls (putting tokens back and drawing again) are valid, but generally, if a player does something with the bag, that should be the turn, and then the choices come from what to do with what you draw.

Here are a few things I think about doing with bag building mechanics.

  • A game with one common bag, everyone is adding to. The bag contains a signifier token for each player, and a number of other tokens. At the start of the turn, you pull tokens from the bag until you pull one with a signifier for each player, and the remaining non-signifiers are used to trigger game events. This could be used to represent something disastrous – each token claimed from the bag is a monster they have to fight – or it could be somehing good. Maybe the tokens represent customers coming to your shop.
  • A game where each player has a bag, and players contribute tokens to other people’s bags. Maybe this represents cooperation or hindrance – you can put good numbers in other players’ bags to hopefully improve their performance.
  • A game where enemies are stacks of tokens, and damaging them results in dice being put into the enemy bag – which indicates each enemy is having a sudden surge of power as they’re damaged.

Some themes I think I can do with Bag Building:

  • Collaborative creative processes. These are naturally messy. Putting ideas into someone else’s bag so they can gestate on them and then when they come out, it’s not something you can force.
  • Cooking and potion brewing! Throw recipe ingredients into the pot and then pull them out when they surface! This is a place explored by Quacks of Quedlingburg.
  • Space trading! I like this one because travelling from planet to planet gives markets lots of time to react weirdly. It can be that each planet has a standard set of ‘needs’ and the tokens from the bag can introduce new needs, or diminish the demand of old needs, so you have some demands that are consistent and some that aren’t. 
  • Ecological behaviour. Imagine if tokens represent types of animals, say, a food source C, predators that eat them B and predators that eat them A. You pull a handful from the bag, and then see how many A B and C that handful can support.

Try out bags for designs that:

  • Want randomisation but don’t want to keep looking up tables
  • Wants something tactile to take out and put down
  • Wants to customise dize conveniently
  • Wants a building and randomisation system, but doesn’t want tons of shuffling


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