Procrastination Amplification: Punditry on MMOs and games in general.

Environment Altering Effects

I played a round of Dominion at a friend’s house the other night and stumbled upon something that is quite problematic for game designers – the environment altering effect. That game of Dominion featured the “Thief “card, which all by itself pretty much forbids the use of the silver and gold coins that are usually an integral part of the game. The threat of them being stolen is big enough to stop players from using these cards altogether.

The Thief is interesting in so far as it reduces the game’s economy by quite a bit, requiring alternate strategies to those that players normally employ. Unfortunately though, it makes the game quite boring and tedious as well. Having no money and not being able to buy things makes for quite a lame game of Dominion.

The possibility of other players acquiring Thief cards makes it unwise to invest in any but the lowest common denominator of coins.

There’s another card in the game that works similarly – the Moat. The Moat block negative effects that other players’ cards can have on you – which seems like a reasonable enough card to put into such a game. Games that include the Moat tend to degenerate to a state though, in which each player has multiple Moats and aggressive cards are pretty much completely useless from then on. Whatever interesting effect these cards could have had on the game, the availability of  the Moat card alone often makes it unwise to pursue aggressive strategies at all. Just like the Thief, the moat alters the environment in a way that blanks multiple other cards, clearly not a good thing.

This issue isn’t limited to Domnion or even board games. A funny effect I’ve noticed in Starcraft matches between Terran and Protoss players is that the existence of the Colossus (a Protoss unit) completely invalidates the Carrier (also a Protoss unit.) Colossi are potent ground units that are so tall that they can be attacked with anti-air weapons as well. As it turns out, the best answer that a Terran player has to those Colossi is the Viking – a long-range air-superiority fighter. Whenever Protoss go for Colossi, Terrans pretty much have to get a bunch of Vikings to be able to survive and the pure threat of Colossi often makes the Terran get at least the facilities to produce those Vikings when needed.

The Carrier is a potent air unit, at least in theory, but it dies quite badly to Vikings. Normally one would be able to imagine situations in which the Protoss switches from a ground force to a group of Carriers to punish the Terran player for building too many ground defences. As it turns out, the units that the Terran builds to ward off the Protoss ground forces (Colossi) are also quite useful to ward off Carriers. The reason that you don’t see Carriers ever is not mainly that they are bad, but that the Colossus has altered the environment so much that is hostile towards Carriers by default.

  • Maybe said environmental changes cannot be balanced as global effects. If we assume that the game is balanced without the effect, adding it in will cause an overall shift which is likely to disrupt said balance.

    However as localized effects they could be useful. Perhaps this corner is too hot for infantry to survive long, prompting increased use of vehicles, while that corner is too swampy so the vehicles sink, prompting more infantry use. But in the overall scheme, neither infantry nor vehicles can be ignored.

  • I like the idea of local effects, but one has to be careful not to make it too obvious. A huge “must use vehicles here” sign isn’t a lot of fun now, is it? I’d like players to still have a choice even in such cases.

    The really mean part about these environment-warping effects is that they not only topple a balanced system but can turn an completely unfair one fully around. Imagine a game of Dominion in which players have different card pools to choose from. The player with the aggressive cards is highly favoured to win as long as the other player doesn’t get to pick the moat. As soon as she gets access to the moat though, the game turns around and the aggressive player doesn’t stand a chance any more. A sudden change in the rules of the game is far more than just a balancing effect.
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