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The Joy of Specialization

April 27, 2010

There are many joys of gaming, but one joy that a few recent games have denied me is the joy of specialization. Many games allow players to score points in a variety of categories or through a variety of methods, and determine the ultimate results by adding up your points in each of the possible categories or achieved through each of the possible methods. However, only some of those games truly allow you to specialize and devise a unique path to follow as you attempt to gain as many points as possible, sometimes neglecting certain categories or methods for the sake of focusing on others. Many games prevent or discourage specialization by overly rewarding a generalist approach that does a little bit of everything, which effectively blocks players from trying and exploring specialized - and dare I say interesting - strategies.

Recent Killjoys

Agricola, Endeavor, and Tribune are the poster children for this critique. All three are deceptive because they make players feel as if they can pick a specialized path and follow through with their unique plan. In reality, you're strongly encouraged by each game's system to fall into line and take a balanced approach. Where's the joy in that?

Let us start with the game that will surely be the lightning rod here - Uwe Rosenberg's Agricola. The game is praised for many things, but you don't often hear its scoring system mentioned in that list of adulation. Agricola takes the innovations of Caylus, Antiquity, and Magic: The Gathering (according to the designer's own Advent calendar) and blends them together into a concoction exalted by many. But what about what happens after Round 14? The scoring chart that ultimately judges each participant's farm and governs your incentives throughout the entire process is the game's big failing. The scoring system may feel like an afterthought to some but in reality it sits astride the entire experience pulling the strings and making the players dance to its tune. Players receive negative one point for having a void in any category and receive positive one point for having a single item in a category. This is the only two point jump in the scoring scale and highly incentivizes players to gather one of everything. It makes for an absurd conclusion to the game where players no longer make decisions that make sense for their farm in the context of the game but rather gather one of everything they're missing, whether it be a vegetable or sheep or what have you. Moreover, the scoring system also maxes out a player's reward for any given category at four points for having an easily attainable number of each commodity. This completely disincentivizes specialization in a few areas because the rewards cease to exist after a certain point, which compels players to look elsewhere for points. The result is a game where you are forced to do a little bit of everything and prevented from overly developing any specialty. Everyone is herded into a narrow band and the confines are simply too tight for my taste.

I was excited when I saw the development board for Endeavor because it reminded me of Goa where specialization flourishes, but sadly after playing Endeavor a few times I realized it was another killjoy. Endeavor is a fantastic first effort by a pair of clearly talented New Zealand designers - Jarratt Gray and Carl de Visser. However, the game is another instance of players appearing to have a multitude of paths to follow, but in reality being squeezed into precious few. I went into that first game hoping to be able to focus my efforts on just one or two of the development tracks, whether it be the industry track for a high build level, the culture track for a high growth level, the finance track for a high salary level, or the politics track for a high card limit. Halfway through that first game I realized that unfortunately the game would cripple anyone who didn't adequately develop each track at least to a point. Having a growth level that outstrips your salary level by too much is useless because you'll be unable to free up space for your gaggle of units, for instance. Not only does the gameplay compel players to keep their development in line, but also the scoring system reinforces the obligation. Progress on the development board only scores at levels 2, 4, 7, 10, and above, and thus players who get a track to levels such as 3 or 5 are urged to continue work on that track. Working on that lower tier track is not in a vacuum, but rather is in lieu of something else. That something else that must be sacrificed is likely your other track at 10 or 11, for which the reward for advancement is lower because there is nothing to lose for not progressing on that track. This condenses and homogenizes each player's progress so that soon enough we'll all start to resemble each other a bit too closely for comfort.

One of the worst offenders is Tribune: Primus Inter Pares by the usually masterful Karl-Heinz Schmiel. Schmiel's Die Macher, Was Sticht, and Extrablatt are unrivaled, but his foray into Roman politics was a disappointment. This game is one that proclaims the possibility of specialization particularly loudly by laying out many victory conditions, of which you need only satisfy a few. My principal problem arises when you play Tribune with only two or three players, which the game claims to work with of course, because the percentage of victory conditions that players need satisfy creeps ever upward as the number of players declines. By the time you get down toward the bottom of the player range, you're satisfying so many of the victory conditions that you're left with almost no room to maneuver whatsoever. This is one of the poorest solutions I've seen for scaling a game to a variety of player counts, and the depth to which publishers sink to widen that player range on the box are remarkably low (see, e.g., Bohnanza and Citadels both professing to accommodate two to seven players). This problem with Tribune is so pronounced that each player's mat on the final turn of the game is nearly indistinguishable and everyone achieves their goal nearly simultaneously. Getting an edge in the game comes down to a single lucky card flip because otherwise players are simply walking the same narrow path side by side for the entire game.

Laboratories of Democracy

Not all is bleak in the world of gaming. Many games old and new provide laboratories in which players are permitted to flexibly experiment and innovate. These are games where players can devise their own unique path, which may just as likely turn out a miserable failure as a rousing success, but at least you will have had the chance to stand on your own two feet without the game's crutches. There are thankfully many games I could praise here but a few that are worth mentioning - some for their excellence and others for their unusual nature - are Age of Empires III, Goa, Liberte, Container, China, Le Havre, and most recently Hansa Teutonica.

I've already given Age of Empires III its due, so I'll keep my comments here brief. This is a game where you can really dive head first into your strategy, whether you'd like to focus on trade goods, discovery tiles, area majorities, or some combination. There is nothing holding you back from focusing on one category significantly more than another, either in the gameplay itself or in the incentives provided by the scoring system. Rudiger Dorn's Goa takes it one step further and actively encourages specialization with a fantastic implementation of 1-3-6-10 triangle scoring. Most games that incorporate this scoring progression fail because the increasing marginal rewards come to dominate all other avenues (e.g., Saint Petersburg, Hacienda). Goa manages to walk this fine line such that the majority of a player's score comes from triangle scoring (whether its from the development board, colonies, or card symbols), but the other points from tiles and money are still worthwhile and well balanced. Goa allows players to entirely disregard some avenues on their development board for the sake of focusing on others, whether it be boats, harvest, taxes, expeditions, or colonies that interest you, or any unique combination you care to devise. It is precisely this ability to disregard an area of development that I want games to give me. A game should empower its players to decide where to focus their energies and where to make sacrifices.

Martin Wallace's Liberte is an entirely different beast, and yet it's certainly a game that puts players in the driver's seat in terms of charting their course. Liberte can end after four turns and the winner will simply be the player who accumulated the most points, but it can also end prematurely in one of two diametrically opposed ways if there is a "radical landslide" or a "counter-revolution." Players can push the game towards either of these premature conclusions, and if successful then points become irrelevant and the winner is whomever contributed most to the condition that triggered the game's conclusion. You can go all-in on radicals or royalists, or come up with your own hybrid approach to hedge your bets, but regardless you're free to vie with the other players as everyone fights over how the game will end and how the winner will be determined. There's certainly no right or wrong path in a game of Liberte, no narrow band to which players need conform, and players will be anything but homogenized over the course of the revolution.

Container is worth highlighting for its unusual nature because based on my limited experience it seems to be a game all about specialization. Players can build factories to produce goods, purchase goods from other players to refine them, or participate in shipping goods, but most importantly there is no pressure to do all of these things. Players in my game of Container found a niche and primarily stuck with it, forming a quasi-symbiotic relationship. I greatly appreciated the game treating players like adults by granting them a great deal of freedom, but the downside appears to be a remarkably fragile game system. If the players don't follow an unwritten code of conduct that supplements the written rules then the game seems like it could easily break down. There's nothing but market incentives driving someone to fill each of the necessary roles along the chain of production, so a group of players who are each set on a particular path could easily break the game. A game should certainly allow and encourage specialization, but at the same time should not be prone to breaking down like a house of cards at the slightest breeze.

Whether you're interested in route building and area majority in ancient China or in the Hanseatic region, there's a pair of games that should quench your desire to specialize. The former is Michael Schacht's China, which affords players a limited opportunity to specialize in that you can decide whether or not and to what degree you'd like to concentrate on embassies. While that is admittedly a stretch, the latter is Hansa Teutonica, which I think is a much stronger example of specialization in action. This new game, which I've discussed in detail as a nominee for 2009 Game of the Year, truly allows for myriad strategies. The technology tree in the game is wonderfully flexible, letting players focus on a few select technology areas or opt for a broader yet shallower development arc. The beauty of the game is that I've seen remarkably diverse strategies come out on top and the openness of the gameplay itself seems to spark a rare sort of creativity in participants. Whether you want to focus on developing the Book of Lore so that you can free up additional merchants and move units around the map more quickly and efficiently, or develop your Town Keys and focusing on building a large network of guilds, or one of the many other viable strategies, Hansa Teutonica is another in a proud tradition of games not only allowing but also encouraging players to specialize and find their own unique path to victory.

(See Boardgame News for this column plus additional comments on it)