An Addendum to Pulsipher

So I’m read­ing this cool book on board game design. The book is a col­lec­tion of essays, some bet­ter than oth­ers. In the first, Lewis Pul­sipher pos­es some solu­tions to the three play­er prob­lem and pet­ty diplo­ma­cy. He goes into some detail to define the prob­lems (check the link) and present the answers he has test­ed inside the rules cir­cle of games.

I sug­gest an adden­dum. First, add social pres­sure. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, not all play­ers will be sus­cep­ti­ble to that.

Sec­ond, and more help­ful­ly, sys­tem­ize social pres­sure in the form of cross-game scor­ing with the intro­duc­tion an orga­nized metagame.  For exam­ple, play a card game in which you track points (whether for mon­ey or just brag­ging rights) over time. Each play­er must then play to max­i­mize his point total at all points of the game, rather than throw­ing the game or play­ing king­mak­er once win­ning that indi­vid­ual match becomes unlike­ly or impos­si­ble. This works for all sorts of games where point totals deter­mine that game’s win­ner. Games with­out an embed­ded scor­ing mech­a­nism (e.g., Diplo­ma­cy) like­ly resort to assign­ing metagame point val­ues to rank­ing the fin­ish­ing posi­tion of play­ers. If that gets you turtling you don’t want, you may have to add a scor­ing met­ric for offen­sive suc­cess­es in games that don’t have it.

Mix in point decay over time to give the his­tor­i­cal­ly weak­er play­ers a bet­ter chance to climb the game stand­ings. For years at WotC, such a scor­ing sys­tem was used to track play across hun­dreds of games of hearts (or their ver­sion of the card game). Last I checked, it was still in use. For the record, my score, if still in their data­base, was pret­ty abysmal. My math on when to shoot the moon was more than a bit faulty. Sigh.

Leav­ing behind ana­log games, a more mod­ern exam­ple can be found in cur­rent-gen shoot­ers, in which the play­er has a per­sis­tent account with cur­ren­cy or expe­ri­ence points attached. Earn­ing xp for each kill, or each com­plet­ed objec­tive, means that play remains fun­da­men­tal­ly pure, even in mul­ti-sided con­tests. This metagame func­tions more like a true econ­o­my instead of just scor­ing, but it pro­duces the same effect.

Admit­ted­ly, the attach­ment of a per­sis­tent metas­core can’t help one-off match­es with ran­dom play­ers at the game store or out­side of a per­sis­tent social net­work. Sor­ry, board game con­ven­tions. You’re going to have to rely more on social pres­sure, or the sorts of rules that Pul­sipher adopt­ed.

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