[EDIT] The rules DID change again, dangnabbit. See here.
I lately discovered how to make Ketchup, one of my best games, better. So now I’m posting my second revision in as many years. First I’ll describe the new rules, such as they are, and then discuss why Ketchup warms my pants and why I’m so happy about the new version. Here we go:
Ketchup is a game for 2 players played with red and green stones on the board shown in the picture below.
- Group – a set of connected, like-colored stones on the board.
- Group Size – the number of stones that a group contains. The smallest possible group has a size of 1. The picture below shows three groups with sizes 1, 3, and 12.
- To Drop – to place a stone on any empty space.
- The board begins empty. One player owns the red stones and the other owns the green.
- Red begins by dropping a single stone.
- Then, starting with Green, the players take turns. On his turn, a player drops 2 stones.
- When a group of at least size 2 has formed, the nature of the turns change. From then on, on your turn, if your largest group is smaller than your opponent’s largest group, you must drop 3 stones. Otherwise you must drop 2 stones.
- The game ends when the board is full. The player with the largest group wins. If the players’ largest groups are the same size, compare their second-largest groups, and so on, until you come to a pair which aren’t the same size. Whoever owns the larger of the two wins.
- Record the size of each player’s largest groups on a sheet of paper, as they’re formed. This will make it easier to think. A PDF is provided at the bottom of this post for paper and pencil play, and it contains scoring columns so that players can mark their largest groups.
What’s the big deal?
If you’re not me, maybe nothing, but I’m me so here I go pontificating. Ketchup was one of my better games even in its earlier incarnations. I was trying to design a game which is short, intuitive, unintimidating, addictive and deep. The difficulty with these criteria is that the last one is often in conflict with the first four. Deep games tend to be hard to figure out, and that quality can make them intimidating and not-addictive. But Ketchup avoids that trade-off better than most of my other games. There are two key reasons for this I think:
- Negative Feedback: the leading player plays fewer stones than the trailing player. If players play quasi-randomly, as new players tend to do, the game often turns into a nail-biter because the trailing player tends to catch up. Mind you, because this is a perfect information game, it’s not true negative feedback in the sense that it makes a weaker player stronger. In fact, the main strategic dilemma of the game is in deciding when to take the lead and when to fall back, and skill and experience count for everything.
- New players start having strategic ideas quickly. The reason this happens is that the win condition, “build the biggest group”, has a natural, intuitive quality that our brains can easily generate thoughts around. So interesting ideas come easily. Importantly, these ideas are interesting even though they’re nowhere near the final word on good play. The game is indeed pretty deep, and with practice you realize your initial ideas were wrong and you discard them for others. I’ve come to see this dynamic as key to creating games which are both deep and fun: you must be able to think of exciting possibilities right when you start playing (because that’s fun), and yet those ideas must turn out to be wrong (because that’s deep).
But why did you change the rules?
The last incarnation of Ketchup had a niggling issue which had irked me for a year. There was a rule barring the players’ largest groups from being the same size at any time during the game. This ensured that there would never be a tie, but it created situations where certain moves were illegal. Watching out for these illegal move was an extra cognitive burden that broke the flow of play without contributing anything. So I started thinking about how to avoid them. Thereafter I discovered a win condition which prevents ties more naturally, and which allowed me to drop the move restrictions. Three unexpected and happy byproducts of the new win condition were that it shortened the rules about about 20%, made them more intuitive, and I daresay made the game deeper without making it more intimidating or less fun.
The new win condition is: if at the end of the game, the players’ largest groups are the same size, you compare their second largest groups to see whose is bigger, and so on, until you come to a pair which aren’t the same size. The player with the larger of the two wins. What’s cool about this rule is that, as long as there are an odd number of spaces on the board, there can’t be a tie. In a list of the players’ groups, ordered by size, you will always find at least one mismatched pair. I love that.
Another thing I like about the rule is that if you have two players of equal skill, it won’t be extremely uncommon for the players’ largest groups to be the same size at the end of the game. The new rule creates a whole new subgame in this situation where the players’ second- and third- largest groups matter. So you have to “play the whole board” more in order to win in those situations. But this only happens in tense games that go neck and neck to the end. So this new subgame comes up only when you’re already having a riveting experience. That’s a perfect time for extra depth to rear it’s head.
But: I reserve the right to be wrong about everything. That’s the delight and frustration of abstract games – they try to hide their true nature from you.