The two player conundrum

Pirate Brawl! is a competitive game with many player interactions. Originally designed as a three to four player game, how can we turn it into an exciting two player experience?

Playtesting Pirate Brawl! at the Factory in 2017

Imagine this: You are sitting around the kitchen table with two (or more) of our friends playing a competitive game. You are clearly in the lead. Friend One turns over to friend Two: “You know what to do, right?”.

And your downfall begins …

In competitive games with player interaction an exciting layer of negotiation, treaties and betrayal emerges.

Player are faced with new interesting decision: Should I support Ania against Marcy because Marcy is in the lead? But what if Ania is not successful and Marcy strikes back at me? And what if Ania is indeed successful …

When executed well these social mechanics drive a game (when implemented poorly they lead to stalemates and king making).

Now imagine: Marcy decides not to play tonight. Welcome to the two player conundrum.

Pirate Brawl! was originally designed as a three to four player game. Player interaction (conflicts! stealing!) drives the gameplay.

But why making a two player version at all? You have something great going, don’t spoil it by slabbing on some half baked two player experience.

I tend to agree. But there are good arguments to include a version for two players.

One: It is easy to find one other player. Grab your roommate, your loved one, one friend, done. Accommodating a larger variety of player counts adds to the flexibility of the game and it will get played more often.

And two, a completely different and more personal reason: I enjoy the challenge. Here I have a game, which I tremendously enjoy playing with my friends. Is it possible to recreate the same experience for two players?

The answer could be no.

In some games the triangle of power is so deeply engrained in the mechanics that a two player version will be in the best case stale and in the worst case imbalanced.

Luckily, this is not the case for Pirate Brawl!.

Pirate Brawl! has a strong inherent symmetry: Each player receives the same set of starting items (cards/ships/ports/..) with only slight variations to mitigate a first player advantage.

Drawing cards from a stack (each player has their own) is the only mechanical randomiser. The draw stacks are small (twelve cards) and the card powers are balanced, so an individual draw does not lead to an overwhelming advantage.

Symmetries and low randomness result in a balanced gameplay.

So, good news everyone? We don’t have to worry that, if we take away the third party, the game will turn it into a boring the-first-round-decides-who-wins-and-the-remaing-twenty-we-still-have-to-play-out affair?

True, but …

Player actions in Pirate Brawl! often include, as a side-effect, drastic changes to the board state. The next player find themselves in front of a new (and often hilarious) puzzle. Solving these puzzles is the core of the game.

In a game with only two players these changes become much more predictable. Play Pirate Brawl! with two players without any rule changes and you end up with a balanced but not very exciting game.

Famous 18th century pirates Mary Read and Anne Bonne (A General History of Pyrates, East Carolina University, Digital Collection).

The solution for this problem turned out to be straight forward: Don’t play with only two players 😉 If the third player is crucial to the game, keep her!

For the two player game in Pirate Brawl! you set up a three player game with both player taking turns controlling the action of the second captain.

This might sound like a lazy solution. But lazy is good! Lazy means, you didn’t have to change much. Why change a great game if you don’t have to?

In addition to solving the issue of too much predictability keeping the third player adds a new layer of interesting decisions: If I play the extra player very aggressive, how will this affect me when the other player is controlling them?

It also adds a new “wavy” asymmetry: with every change of control over the extra player the balance of power shifts. As it turns out this makes for a great two player game.

The two player variant of Pirate Brawl! is currently my absolute favourite! Maybe we need to go back and see what can be improved in the three and four player versions 😉

Why game jams are great for board game design

All of my board game designs started out as game jam projects. All of them. What makes game jams such excellent breeding grounds for board game design?

Board game prototyping materials

Take a few dozen game enthusiasts, cram them into a room, throw a theme at them and then give them eight hours to create something from scratch. You have yourself a game jam.

Some people might find it stressful, staring at a blank page, wondering how they should manage.

I love them! The clash of absolute freedom (“You can create anything … or nothing.”) with tight time and theme constraints creates this wonderful space for design.

We all once had this free day on which we really wanted to get going on that passion project of ours. After an extended breakfast, cleaning the apartment, running some errands and meeting a friend for a coffee, we postponed it to another day.

Our lives are full of distractions, fun ones, pleasant ones for sure, but nonetheless they tend to get into the way of us achieving what we want. This is particular true for creative work, which requires intense focus and a clear mind.

In comes the game jam.

It starts with the setting: often a co-working or office space (i.e. clearly not your living room) void of distractions.

Then there are the other participants. Many of them you meet here for the first time. Your common denominator is you both came to a game jam to create something. This is the starting point of your conversations.

But if you prefer to work alone on your personal twine adventure, no one will bother you. They will respect your choice.

When creating board games at a game jam I try to team up with at least one other person. You can bounce ideas of one and another but even more important: you can immediately test your crazy ideas by playing!

You can ponder ideas in your head forever but nothing gives you a better reality check then throwing down a quick and dirty paper prototype and play a couple of rounds.

A team of two to three works best for me. There is only so much to do in the design process (coming up with mechanics, testing them, and, if your are lucky, create some beautiful art) that with more persons you are getting close to the design by committee danger zone (I should probably write an extra article about this).

Ghosts of Global Game Jam
Ghosts of Global Game Jam (cardgame for the global game jam 2016)

Let’s talk about the elephant in the room: eight hours (or 24h/48h/…)? This cannot be enough time to create something interesting and meaningful? Right!

On the contrary!

It is the perfect amount of time … for one idea.

Sure, you will not be able to create a new Caverna (a complex, well balanced board game with many intertwined systems) in eight hours.

You want to find that one interesting idea and explore it. Think of it as a scientific expedition cartographing the idea’s wildlife and boundaries. Even if it falls through in the end you will have learned so much in the process.

Last but not least: the theme.

The theme (or themes) might sound random at first. It is easy to dismiss it, it is a suggestion after all, and continue working on that idea you came with to the jam.

Don’t do that.

Embrace the theme!

Embracing the theme will open your mind for new (crazy) ideas. It will help create a levelled playing field among your team members: Everyone starts their idea finding process with the same (minimal) set of information. And, if everything goes well, it will lead to a densely thematic game.

But why would you choose to do something as old fashioned as board games when there are virtual reality helmets and full body motion tracker around?

I have three answers for you:

  1. Board game design is the purest exercise in game design and player interaction you can get. You can’t hide behind peripherals or particle effects. You will see if players are having fun with your game.
  2. Eight hours is plenty of time to design a small board game. Sure, it won’t be perfectly balanced, and yes, maybe some of the systems won’t really work, but you will have something playable. And if you really like it you can take it further after the jam.
  3. You will have the most fun at the jam. Instead of staring at a computer screen for eight hours wrestling with a game engine you can spend your time playing and discussing games with your friends. What could be better!

Why “Pirate Brawl!”? – Part 1

Pirate Brawl! was not the first game we designed but it is the first we decided to take further. How did we end up going through with it all the way to Kickstarter? What makes it so special?

Spoilers: it involves a lot of hard work.

The Forbidden Lagoon at the September 2015 Berlin Mini Jam

Pirate Brawl! shares its origins with its predecessors: we developed the core ides during an eight hour game jam session.

The themes of the jam were “A World in the Skies”, “Voodoo” and “stranded”. The game we came up with evolved around voodoo priests luring pirate ships onto their treacherous reeves to steal their treasure.

And it already contained some of the elements of the current version: the circular board with the island and ports, pick up and delivery and the wind mechanic.

It was fun, chaotic … and did not really work.

Boosted by the success at the game jam – we won the grand prize for the theme – we took the game to other meet ups and played it with our friends. It very quickly became apparent that the game was – as a friend of mine put it – a random box of fun: you shake it and something happened, but you have no idea why and what you could do to change the outcome.

Or to put it in technical terms: there was no player agency.

But even though agency was lacking there was something in the player to player interaction that people enjoyed tremendously.

There was joyful bickering about your own success and failures, which always directly impacted other players. There were collective outcries of “Oh my god!” when the misguided use of wind created another catastrophic or heroic situation.

The core mechanics of competitive game play on a small board, where every action impacts other players, was great fun. Auction elements and collective movement strengthened the player interaction even more. The whimsical theme and the constant change of tides prevented the arguments to ever escalate to serious.

In hindsight, these ideas became core pillars for the future development of the game from “Voodoo Lagoon” to “Pirate Brawl!”. At the time we only knew we had something at our hands that we and others greatly enjoyed spending our time with.

And that was a good thing, then now the real work started.

About nine month after the original game jam, Thibaut and myself found ourselves with some spare time on our hands and we decided to go for it.

Playtesting at the co-working space (September 2016)

We both had rented a place in the same co-working space and for three months we spend one afternoon per week working exclusively on improving the game design.

We knew we had to tackle the issue of agency but without damaging the core of fun and casual player interactions.

Between two design sessions we would try to come up with ideas to tackle issues in the current design. On our “board game afternoon” we would start with discussing the possible solutions trying to find one we both found interesting.

We would then play test the idea, modify it and then rinse and repeat. Sometimes two to three player turns would be sufficient to find out if an idea was terrible (or excellent). Sometimes we needed to play several rounds, or invite other people to play with us.

Spending one afternoon per week focused on improving the design helped tremendously: during a single session we could usually solve at least one  issue and prepare the session for the next week.

After the three months, the game was pretty much in the form you can play it today: there were cards for movement, battles decided by bidding, the wind controlled by cards and of course: the kraken.

All done, right? Kickstarter next month!

Well, and this is were the real work started (if you are having a deja vu, you are not alone).