With board games becoming more and more popular, I suspect many developers and publishers have spent a lot of time thinking about how to create positive first impressions for their games. In fact, this is one of the areas where I am slightly concerned about the future of modern board gaming. Eventually I’ll expand on that concern in another article. But one of the best ways to create a positive first experience for any kind of game is to have an evident first order optimal strategy.
A What Now?
These “FOO” strategies are the lowest effort strategies that reap the greatest reward. They’re what experts of the game would consider beginner strategies. They’re typically (but not always–as we’ll see) the first thing that new players gravitate towards, and they’re the easiest strategies to execute and still remain competitive.
The best example of a FOO strategy in board gaming is the “big money” strategy in Dominion. If you haven’t played Dominion yet, you should, because it’s great. But in a game of Dominion you are trying to purchase victory point cards using money cards. The third type of cards also available for purchase are action cards that can make your deck more efficient or fuel awesome combos. What many players have found, however, is that by eschewing action cards altogether and only purchasing more money cards, and then victory point cards when able, they are able to beat a lot of other players.
This is a FOO strategy because it requires very low skill (you’re eliminating one aspect of the game entirely) and it actually works fairly well. Now, you will most likely lose to an experienced Dominion player, but against many people it’s surprisingly effective.
Note, however, that it is not a strategy that beginners will immediately gravitate towards. Action cards are cool, and they open up the door for cool combos. The beginner Dominion player will inevitably err on the side of purchasing too many action cards and lose sight of the goal of acquiring victory points.
This brings up an interesting dilemma for game designers. Assuming they want to have a FOO strategy in their game, is it more beneficial to have that strategy be the most evident one for new players to pursue, or to have it hidden somewhat? If it’s the most evident play, then you run the risk of players never going beyond that strategy because it works well enough for them. The costs of exploring other strategies, particularly in a game that may take 1-2 hours or more, may be greater than the benefit of possibly figuring out a superior strategy.
On the other hand, if the FOO strategy is not the most evident play, then the game may appear to be non-user friendly and unappealing to the new player. If someone learns Dominion and sees all of the interesting action cards available to them, but then is beat by another player who doesn’t even use action cards at all, it doesn’t give off a good first impression of the game.
Personally, with board games I think I prefer the latter. I enjoy the stepping stone feeling of being more or less uncertain of how to approach the game strategically, then finding a FOO strategy that works, then experimenting outwards, using that FOO strategy as a guiding stick and point of reference. This creates a nice sense of strategic discovery in the game.
Of course, not all board games have this kind of strategy, or at least not one that’s easy to parse. In video games, FOO strategies are much more apparent. Mostly this is because video games contain more repetition than board games. In a fighting game, you can find one or two moves that are effective and spam them over and over. In a shooter, you can stick with the less precise grenade launcher or assault rifle instead of working on your precision motor skills.
Board games, like Dominion, sometimes have these clear-cut FOO strategies, but I find that, more commonly, they have narrative-inspired heuristics. I promise I’m not trying to be obtuse here. Nearly all board games present a kind of narrative to the player based on the theme of the game. This narrative can take many shapes. If the game is one about building up a tableau of some sort, the shape of that narrative slopes upwards. The game, through its central conceit, communicates to the players that their experience will be one of starting small, building up means of production, until you’ve created an engine that will snowball you into the end game. Similarly, a fully cooperative game communicates to the players that they will be racing against some sort of built-in timer created by the game until they either succeed at the last second or run out of time. A combat-focused game may slope downwards, as troops are killed through battle, or maybe it is shaped more like a bell curve, where the early game is spend building up units and resources before the confrontation begins.
All of these narrative shapes guide the player towards a certain heuristic. In an engine building game, valuing highly items that increase the player’s production capabilities in the early game are part of the heuristic implied by the design. Most players will generally follow this heuristic at first. Eventually, a player will branch out and try out an alternative strategy–maybe in the engine building game they try a rush tactic and attempt to end the game as soon as possible before the others have set up. If it wins handily, this is now the new strategic standard to measure other decisions against. This doesn’t mean that the implied heuristic is a poor strategy, maybe it just needs some alterations to counter the rush strategy.
As new strategies are explored, more depth (hopefully) emerges. Maybe a strong metagame blooms, where certain strategies counter each other in a rock-paper-scissors kind of way, and adapting and predicting to exploit that becomes the strategic consideration. Maybe the game becomes more tactical, where victory is contained in the details and nitty-gritty of the mechanisms. Both of these results are fulfilling and provide a great experience–first players experience the surface-level narrative of the game and its themes, then they experience a deeper competitive narrative underneath.
The problems with games that have this kind of long-term experience are twofold. First, when an alternative strategy is discovered outside of the narrative, particularly if it is a very simple FOO strategy, players are very quick to call the game broken. I see this play out all the time in the BoardGameGeek forums. Someone will find a very simple strategy that beats their friends, and one of those friends will post on the forums complaining that the game isn’t fun anymore. More often than not, a veteran of the game will explain how the strategy is countered and why it isn’t actually unstoppable. However, if enough people have the same experience, the game may develop a reputation of being broken and thus a bad game.
The second problem, related to the first, is that many people just don’t feel right about the non-narrative strategies. They feel like that kind of strategy is playing the game wrong and undesirable. The only time I have had this feeling is with the game Stone Age, and I have no idea why it is the lone example. Stone Age is a worker placement game that uses the popular “feed your workers” mechanism. The penalty for not being able to or refusing to feed your workers at the end of each round is negative ten points. It turns out that it’s not very difficult to ignore feeding your workers and make over ten additional points per turn using the workers that would have gone to gather food to instead do something else. I know this starvation strategy rubs many other people the wrong way. To me it feels so against the theme of the game that I have a negative gut reaction to it.
What can board game designers learn from all of this? They can close the door to alternative strategies outside of the narrative completely, of course, and many games do not suffer from this. Extremely tactical games like The Castles of Burgundy or Quantum, or puzzle-like games such as Pandemic do fine without leaving very much space to pursue anti-narrative strategies. The more difficult, but more rewarding path is to tie the theme of your game so closely to the mechanisms and strategic options that players can take a number of paths to victory without feeling like they’re playing the game incorrectly. Suburbia and Viticulture are two games off the top of my head that accomplish this well. Viticulture’s narrative guides players towards acquiring and fulfilling wine orders by producing wine in their vineyards. However there are other ways to generate victory points, though charming special visitors who come to your vineyard, or by giving people tours of your wine cellar. Every one of your options is narratively consistent with the theme of the game.
Designers can also consider incorporating a FOO strategy into the design. Like I mentioned above, I do not think that the FOO strategy should be the most apparent strategy, even though it may help the very first impression of the game. But one hidden in the mechanisms can create an exciting discovery for players as they explore the game. Plus, internally, the FOO strategy can be used as a value-benchmark to compare other strategies against to help maintain game balance.
For board game players, I encourage them to think about the narrative the game is giving them and see if they can subvert that in some way. Maybe you’ll fail, but maybe you will find a new, exciting strategy that opens the game up. At the very least it will give you an avenue to explore the design and understand the game in a more holistic way.
What FOO strategies have you observed in your favorite games? What are some interesting ways you have seen players subvert the narrative in a game to open up new strategic possibilities? Join the discussion below.