Playing With Your Food

Do you find yourself doing this thing in games where you can end them, where you know the game is done, but you keep doing things that let you keep playing?

I’m not talking about games like Skyrim where there’s a whole instrumentation of the game being built around giving you more varieties of tihngs to discover and where you can break ‘the game’ apart into lots of smaller chunks of ‘game experience.’ In that case you can view the game at large as an archive, where the conclusion, the ‘end of the game’ is a kind of unimpressive tome in the whole arrangement of these things, but where the driving play experience you focus on is instead all the stuff that builds up to that point. Nor do I mean something like Minecraft where the game’s ‘end’ is very superficial and expects you to return to the play experience over and over inventing new reasons to want to keep engaging with it. They’re not unrelated kinds of experiences, but I really am referring to something that I’ve noticed in myself when dealing with a particular kind of digital card game.

It’s Star Realms, but it’s true of its cousin game, Hero Realms as well.

In Star Realms I’ve noticed that I often find the game ending one or two turns before I wanted it to. What’s more, I notice this because the game’s interface was changed last year to make it so you could no longer accidentally end the turn when you had lethal damage and fail to attack your enemy with it. With the default buttons on the interface, if you have enough damage in your hand to win the game, you can’t just ‘pass’ – you need some reason, something to make a choice about, or to pull open the menu – to finish the turn and let your opponent survive for another turn.

When I find myself doing this, I can attribute it usually to some secondary goal, some greater challenge the game has not assigned me. It’s not uncommon in this game to set things up so that your opponent has to discard one of their five cards every turn. If you thin your deck out right, and get the right pieces, you can make them discard two, or three, or more. If you’re following this track, yes, if you get them to discard five cards, they start their turn, throw out their hand, and pass it back to you, and if you keep slimming your deck down, you might be able to do that every turn.

You will usually do this once if you aim for it. You don’t loop it, with a helpless opponent frustratedly throwing out their hand, because the cards that let you do this are also the cards that kill your opponents. They’re not dedicated to the purpose of killing time and depriving your opponents of choices, but instead do that while advancing a gameplan of killing your opponent and depriving them of choices.

I don’t think this is a bad thing per se but it does make me wonder if the game (in this particular difficulty) is over-tuned. Tabletop games often have this feeling to me where I just start getting to do the thing I enjoy doing but oh no oops doing that involves ending the game really abruptly, or running away with an advantage that makes other players realise what’s happening and promptly surrendering. Which, you know, reasonable, I don’t want to keep them there if they’re not having fun but also: Dangit.

This impulse, to keep the game going, doesn’t seem to be entirely situated in this game, but it’s definitely something I notice when I have more time to play games with more freedom to them. In Commander Keen, I found a point where I could generate more points per life than the lives took to get, and I wound up running a level in a loop, over and over again, trying to build up a stockpile of teddy bears.

I know that in Dungeons & Dragons I don’t bother looking at epic or higher level material just because that’s a play experience I rarely see even discussed. I’m basically completely unfamiliar with the really high level version of play, and that means whatever you can do with an epic level character is kind of purely academic to me. In this case, the game seems to be delivering an exciting thing I want to experience as a play operation after it’s useful, after there’s a reason to want to have it.

Just to be clear there’s no wrong way to play. I’m noticing this pattern of behaviour not in myself to judge anyone for doing it, but to document it and consider how I can avoid creating it in players. I’ve talked in the past about on-ramps in games, where just having a basic idea of ‘here’s how you start’ can be amazingly powerful; whether the hold-down-right or the elf-ranger type combination systems used can be seen as ways to induce players to keep playing with the stuff that’s presented to them.

It presents a question of engagement: What can I do, in my design, that players like to see happening. It’s sometimes described as the mid game, where players have resources enough to enjoy deciding how those resources are used, where they are no longer trying to ‘get started’ and more involved in the experience of seeing results to their play choices. And am I making sure that engagement happens at the right time and in the right way?

I watched a game being played recently that took the entire resolution mechanic it had, and, for the sake of an expansion, basically tripled the game in duration so you instead had to engage with the expansion’s new mechanic. It looked miserable! It served to show me that no, even if I want that midgame to last longer, there’s definitely a problem if it lasts too long.

To this end, when playtesting and talking with players, ask yourself, and ask them: When did you feel the game ‘start’ for you? and then, When did you feel the game’s end starting?