Last week I posted an update to my game Ketchup, the final version (fingers crossed) in a string of versions. In my tinkering I’ve come to grok its weaknesses, and decided to look for ways to address them. While doing so I ended up designing a new game I call Clots. It shares Ketchup’s win condition but is a different game otherwise.
IMO Ketchup has two weaknesses:
- You must track the size of your largest group as the game proceeds, which requires a scoring track and some extra attention in face-to-face play.
- It doesn’t scale well. It gets boring on boards larger than hexhex5. The strength of the negative feedback in the game grows with board size and becomes too strong for too much of the early game. It may even be a bit too strong on the standard hexhex5 board, depending on your taste.
Both weaknesses exist because one player plays an extra stone on his turn if his largest group is smaller than his opponent’s. Therefore, the natural thing to do is to look for an alternative to that rule.
Note however that the rule does two critical things which any replacement must also do:
- It gives you control over the number of stones you play. This is essential because without it, one player would have an advantage in virtue of turn order, *even* with other balancing rules in place like the *12 drop rule (I leave it as an exercise to the reader to figure out why)
- It gives you a reason to avoid connecting all your stones together in a big clump in the middle of the board right away. Without that, there’s a trivial best strategy where one player always wins.
After churning through a bunch of alternatives, I’ve got one which satisfies these conditions and could end up being good. I won’t know until I’ve played more.
In fact there are several versions of the new game and I don’t know which is best. Since only play testing can reveal the answer, I’ll describe some here and report with more later. If you’d like to help play test, see the bottom of this post for paper-and-pencil-play boards.
Without further ado, the rules:
The game is played on a Hexhex board divided into concentric sections. I don’t know the best board size, and I don’t yet know the best way to section the board. The different versions of the game arise from the different ways to section the board. I’ll start by describing the rules with the simplest board, which looks like this:
As you can see, there’s an inner section in white surrounded by an outer section in grey.
- The board begins empty. One player owns the black stones, and the other owns the white. Starting with Black, the players take turns.
- On your turn, you must either place one stone on any empty space on the inner section, or two stones on any two empty spaces in the outer section.
- 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.
The new rule prevents clumping in the middle and gives players choice over the number of stones they play, as required. More important, it seems to yield a game with a good feel. The rule was inspired by Mark Steere’s Fractal (link to PDF), which uses a sectioned board with different kinds of cells in each section to reduce the value of the central spaces in a connection game.
Ok, but there are other ways to section the board. Consider these boards, each with three sections:
When playing on one of these, a player can choose to put one stone on the inner section, or two stones in the middle section, or three stones on the outer section on his turn.
Boards with 4 or 5 sections are also possible but they contain a technical blemish (one player won’t be able to complete one of his turns on them), and they’re too complex for me anyway, so I’ll ignore them.
By now I’m pretty sure that the best board will be one of the two- or three- section boards above, but early play tests suggests that the best isn’t obvious. The best board is the one that makes it hardest generally to decide which section to play in. But the issue’s complicated by some tactics that emerge on these boards which I haven’t encountered before. More on that in future posts.
What’s do I like about Clots?
- Complexity is unobtrusively encoded into the board where it won’t confuse new players.
- The rules are more straightforward than Ketchup’s and therefore better for non-abstract-games nerds. If you’re designing abstract games for a broad population as I wish to do, the bar on rules complexity is profoundly, profoundly low. I mean lowwwwwwwwwwwww.
- Above all, I like playing it.
What do I dislike?
- Different size boards may require different sectioning for optimal play. I don’t know yet.
- Loss of Ketchup’s negative feedback. The feedback has some virtues. For example: games of Ketchup between new players tend to be close, because when you play somewhat randomly, as new players do, the negative feedback often lets the trailing player catch up. Also, negative feedback can lead to exciting lead changes.
- I’m not confident that there isn’t some simple winning strategy for Clots, or at least one that makes the game boring, even if I haven’t found any yet. I don’t have enough experience.This is another reason to bemoan the loss of negative feedback, since it helps to ensure exciting, non-trivial games.
printable PDF for paper and pencil play: