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Sunday
Nov282010

Puzzle Strike and Dominion

Sometimes people ask me about the differences between Puzzle Strike and Dominion, so I'll put it all in one place for reference. Even though Dominion inspired Puzzle Strike, the games are quite different. Puzzle Strike fixes what, in my opinion, are numerous problems with Dominion. Now, before you get all bent out of shape, you are free to enjoy and love Dominion. I'm not stopping you or telling you that you didn't have fun playing it. I'm just saying there are several things I consider problems and that I thought I could turn all those things around with improvements on many fronts.

Form Factor

Both games involve a lot of shuffling, and I do mean a lot. Some people are really bad at shuffling and that slows the game down quite a bit. Even those who are good at it can feel bogged down. Changing the form factor to chips that you shake up in a bag makes this easier and faster. Some people tell me this is the most important difference between the two games, but I disagree. I think it's actually the least important difference of anything in this post.

Characters (aka Variable Player Powers)

Playing a symmetric game just feels flat and boring after having experienced so many asymmetric games. Street Fighter with only one character? Starcraft with only one race? Magic: the Gathering where we all start with the same deck? Yes, I'm aware that *during* a game, things can diverge even in a symmetric game, but really that's miles away from a true asymmetric experience. If a given pool of cards has a best strategy, then everyone should be going for that strategy. With different characters (who each have different gameplay), everyone has different strategies even within the same pool of chips.

It's also worth noting that there are more unique character abilities in Puzzle Strike than there are different chips in the bank! Or Kingdom cards in a Dominion set! The point is, there are a lot of them and they greatly expand the replayability. In a 2-player match of the base set, there are 45 different possible character matchups (or 55 if you count mirror matches). And 210 matchups in a 4-player game. Multiply that by the millions of starting conditions from the bank chips, and it's a crazy amount of gamespace to explore. And when Puzzle Strike Shadows is out, that goes to 190 matchups for 2p (or 210 with mirror matchups) and 4,845 matchups in 4p.

By contrast, Dominion has 0 characters (meaning no variable player powers) and zero different character matchups. Or you could say 1 character and 1 matchup, I guess. Now, balancing 45 (or 210) matchups is a hell of a lot harder than balancing 1 matchup, but we had months of tournaments to do so and I think the balance turned out great. Exploring the dozens of character matchups is one of the greatest features of the game.

Faster Start

In Puzzle Strike, you start with three character chips in your deck, while in Dominion, you start with three cards that do literally nothing during gameplay. I like getting to the fun stuff faster, and starting with 3 actions instead of 3 blanks really helps.

Interactivity!

Puzzle Strike increases the interactivity a ton over Dominion. I've heard some call that a negative, but that's very strange to me. The point of a competitive game (or even a social game) is to interact, so playing mostly 4-player solitaire would seem to be a drawback. The crash mechanic in Puzzle Strike means you're always interacting with the player in front of you and the player behind. The attack chips are extremely powerful (they had to be in order to be worth buying, given how the game system works), and they mostly affect all players. In other words, they interact with all players. That makes blue defensive chips that much more relevant, as they interact with opponents' attack chips.

I've also heard a few strange comments that Puzzle Strike is "vicious " game. I have to disagree there, too. I think some are confusing legitimate interaction with viciousness. The video game Puzzle Fighter also involves interactivity of sending gems to each other, but that isn't really vicious either. If you want vicious, see Intrigue, and be prepared to lose your friends (note: that's not Dominion: Intrigue, it's unrelated to both Dominion or Puzzle Strike). In Intrigue, you make deals with your friends and then are forced by the nature of the game to lie and break those deals. In Puzzle Strike, you merely send gems to each other, and attack and defend, but you don't even gang up on anyone, and you don't shatter their hopes and dreams, either.

Comebacks

The comeback mechanic in the video game Puzzle Fighter is interesting and rare in games. Not that comeback mechanics in general are rare, but the particular greed-inducing way it works in Puzzle Fighter is great, and I wrote about it here. Puzzle Strike captures that with the "height bonus" rule. By sitting closer to the lose-condition, you draw more chips and are better able to attack and defend because of that. Giving the opponent gems is good (it puts them closer to losing) but also bad (it gives them more drawing power if they don't lose). This tension makes for interesting games where people are on-edge until the very end.

(Speaking of the video game Puzzle Fighter, I also balanced that. You can read about it here.

No Lame-Duck Endings

We're going to need some game design jargon to talk about this one. A lame duck situation in a competitive game is when you're in a situation where you will definitely lose, but the game isn't technically over yet. This is a bad feature that we'd like to remove. It happens in Dominion when there aren't enough 6 VP cards left for you to buy to win, so even if you get the last one or two, another player is so far ahead that he will win. This is futile and a waste of your time. It's actually kind of a trick to make a game with no player elimination, but to have you functionally eliminated, yet forced to keep playing. Actually, being eliminated is preferable in that situation. Further, being in a lame duck situation encourages another deadly game design buzzword: kingmaker.

Kingmaker is when you will definitely not win, yet your actions will determine which of the other players will win. This is a bad thing that we try to get rid of in a competitive game (unless it's Diplomacy or something, where the entire point of the game is politics). Anyway, Puzzle Strike avoids these problems. But how and at what tradeoff?

First, Puzzle Strike has player elimination. That means when you lose, you're out and the game keeps going with whoever is left. At first glance, that's also a bad property, but it's very much on purpose that that's how the game works. Why? First, it gets rid of lame duck, which is really no better in the first place. Second, it's actually strictly better in a 2-player game because you get all the bonuses of player elimination with zero of the drawbacks (there's no one waiting around when someone loses in 2p, the game ends at that point). Third, it allows for a more interesting win condition here, the whole business about gem piles filling up and the greed of you trying to stay kind of full but not too full. To put it another way, it enables a great gameplay system.

Fine, so what's the drawback? The drawback is that in 3p and 4p games, someone will wait to play again if they lose first. How bad is this problem? Because of the nature of the game, you don't really lose right away. It's likely that when players lose, they all lose at about the same time. Also, the overflow rule allows a powerful attack that knocks out one player to actually knock out multiple players all at once, which further lessens any waiting time. Also remember that these games are short to begin with, like 20 minutes, so you might have to suffer like 2 minutes of waiting, sometimes, instead of being stuck in some lame duck situation for even longer. And in return, you get a much more interactive and interesting win condition.

The lack of lame-duck situations also greatly reduces the kingmaker problem. All 4p free-for-all games are probably going to have some degree of kingmaker (meaning politics determining the winner rather than individual playskill at what the game is supposed to be about), but it's a question of how much can you reduce that effect. In Puzzle Strike, the kingmaker effect is tiny indeed, much smaller that you'd expect in any 4p free-for-all game. Even on the micro level of your very last turn (the turn where you lose), you can't even use your buy phase to slightly affect the availability of chips for the next player. You could in earlier versions of Puzzle Strike, but we eliminated even that (very small) kingmaker effect.

Theme

Dominion's theme is pretty incidental to the game. Puzzle Strike at least models something, in this case the back-and-forth gameplay of a puzzle video game like Puzzle Fighter, along with the comeback mechanic that makes that type of game so fun.

I hope you don't take all this the wrong way. As I said, I'm not trying to invalidate your fun. What I am trying to do is explain the reason that Puzzle Strike works the way it does, through the lens of starting with a core idea from Dominion and fixing many things that I consider problems. I hope you enjoy Puzzle Strike when it comes out in January, and you can order it here. And a reminder that you can play it for free in the early online version here.

Reader Comments (37)

Never played Dominion, so this all sounds fine.

I thing I disagree with is that a game of Puzzle Strike takes 20 minutes.

Even eliminating set-up time (which can be pretty long), I don't think I've ever had a 2 player game of Puzzle Strike last less than half an hour. 4 player games easily run to an hour.

Never even in the most brutally one-sided match have I seen a game end in 20 minutes.

How did you come up with this number?

November 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDave

The tournament guys were playing 2-player matches in less than 10 minutes. Other people report 15-30 minutes, when I asked around just now. Another guy said to say 30 mins, just now. Depends on the character matchup and how familiar you are with the game, so yeah, it could be longer than 20, you're right. Still pretty fast though.

November 28, 2010 | Registered CommenterSirlin

I've only ever played on the online client, but after the initial game (which took about 40 minutes factoring in all of the players learning the rules), I have a game before class with my friend for about 15 minutes every other day before class starts. 20 minutes seems fairly reasonable, factoring in setup time. Maybe extend it to 30 if the gang playing is particularly talkative or slow. I can see a 4 player game running around 30-50 minutes, though.

November 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDanfoo

In my opinion the chips form factor is the one thing that's actually a drawback with Puzzle Strike. It takes a lot more time to shuffle and draw chips in the bag than to just pick up cards and shuffle them, at least with the Deluxe version (maybe the Regular version's smaller chips makes that less of an issue).

Also, setup time is a killer. Both of these are the reasons why my playgroup just prefers Ascension, though if I'm playing online I like Puzzle Strike better because it cuts down on these two drawbacks (setup is instantaneous and so is shuffling and drawing).

November 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterXDarkAngelX

I think the deluxe version had two different sizes of bags at various points. Yeah it's possible they were too small at one point, given the bigger sized chips, and maybe that slowed you down.

The second printing of Puzzle Strike, with the purple bags and 1.5" diameter chips, seems pretty easy to shuffle though. I mean you just reach in and swirl stuff around with plenty of room in there. It's faster than doing multiple shuffles of cards. Like...it really is.

November 28, 2010 | Registered CommenterSirlin

Played Dominion, and it was fun. Yet, some of these flaws were glaring. There were always a few cards to buy that are better than the rest. With only ten copies of a given card in a 4 player game, and the game ending when 3 cards have been entirely bought out.... well it creates a terrible imbalance. The first two players will be able to get 50% more copies of the better cards (minimum). PLUS the last two players are now stuck in a lose/lose situation. Don't buy the best cards, and practically concede (the lame duck), or do buy the best cards causing the game to run short when the best cards are bought out (likely playing kingmaker to whoever went first).

Also having your deck consist of 30% USELESS cards at the beggining may just be the stupidest idea in gaming. It's like starting a Street Fighter match, but in every fight you can't use a random 30% of your moves! Who would play that?

Hopefully Puzzle Strike delivers and eliminates these flaws, without introducing newer ones!

November 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBavitz

Shaking the bags doesn't work very well with the 1E basic set, but reaching in and swirling them around with a hand is totally acceptable. PS also has the interesting dynamic that you draw at the end of your turn, and usually, the next player can start playing while you are still shuffling, drawing and reading your cards. You can also start to plan out your next turn, which makes it a lot faster.

A dynamic which I've seen: Both players are kinda high on chips (20+), combines and money, and crash a 4 at each other pretty much every round, but nobody can take the win. I've seen this come down to unlucky no-crash draws a few times, which was unsatisfying, as "not drawing one of my three crashes in 15 chips when I draw 9 chips" is just bad luck.

November 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKdansky

First off, it's kind of interesting to see you address this yourself, and I'm glad you did. I haven't played a game of Puzzle Strike (not because I haven't wanted to, I promise ;P), but I've been playing Dominion for a while and have commented on the topic previously. I have always looked at the two games as similar, but different, and I find sometimes people are just a little headstrong on the matter.

The main difference to me is something you've touched on, although you've called it a glaring flaw - the interactivity. Dominion is one of my two 'gateway' games to bring people up from the levels of Risk and Monopoly, and I find the lower level of player interaction can be great in this application. It helps buffer people from getting intimidated, because the other 3 players aren't usually 'hurting' them, and they're free to play the game their own way and at their own pace. By contrast, we've had a new player try Bhonanza with a group of 5 regulars, and they absolutely hated it. This was because even though the core mechanics were understood, it's very difficult for that person to get into the level of interactivity needed to successfully play that game.
Of course, I know Puzzle Strike doesn't require that level of bartering, and that it's still very beginner friendly. It's more that there will always be some people who don't want to participate in conflicts, and I believe Dominion does a good job catering to this sort of person.

I'll agree with the mention Bavitz made about 4-player games and the advantage of going first though. This is my biggest issue with Dominion at present.
However, "Also having your deck consist of 30% USELESS cards at the beginning may just be the stupidest idea in gaming." is something I can't support. Dominion is all about 'expanding your kingdom' to the point that generally the 10 cards you start the game with will wind up practically obsolete by the end of the game anyway. Maybe they don't do anything for you, but would Dominion be more fun if everyone just started with 10 copper? I doubt it. Besides, depending on what your kingdom cards are, those Estates can wind up being plenty useful.
Is it as interesting as having 10 unique characters for startup? No, not at all. I'd love to see Dominion have some degree of asymmetry. But I wouldn't say it was 'the stupidest idea ever' either. :/


Unrelated note - Never did comment on how awesome Yomi looks to have come out, Sirlin. I've been stuck waiting on my financial situation's status for a couple of weeks, and that's the only reason I haven't pre-ordered it yet. Really hoping that changes so I can grab a copy. Congrats again, for all the hard work done. *thumbs up*

November 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterNikkin

When I learned to play Dominion, the person who taught it to me said that you picked three action cards at the start of the game, rather than having Estates in your deck. (I don't know whether this was deliberate, to draw me in faster, or inadvertent.) This mechanic made games go much quicker, but it took out a lot of strategizing. My Dominion group played like this for several months before we were forced to read the instructions for some reason and discovered that we'd been playing it wrong.

November 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterNathan

I've never had a problem with the "30% useless cards" opening design choice of Dominion. All it's there to do is ensure that not every player will have the exact same opening move choices. It's predetermined that your first two actions in Dominion will be to buy cards, and every player will have the same *total* buying power during those two turns, but seeding your opening hand with some victory point cards ensures that your buying power on each of those turns won't necessarily be the same as the other players.

It's basically a setup round, more akin to staking territory in a strategy game than wasting moves in a fighting game. Not sure why that's such a bad thing.

I am looking forward to Puzzle Strike, though. Sounds like you've put a lot of thought into having a game with similar mechanics play differently in non-trivial ways.

November 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterEric

Nice article. I like dominion very much and didn't play puzzle strike. I think I'll buy it, but not now when it costs so much.
Anyway about the last section of the article - your game contain a card named "draw three" and a card named "really annoying". Don't criticize dominion's theme.

November 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterIdo

Nikkin: Thanks!

Nathan and Eric: I can't comment on playing Dominion where you start with some cards that do something, but it's certainly great in Puzzle Strike for both eliminating the boringness of early turns *and* adding strategic interest. In most games, I find that asymmetry adds to the interest for the sake of asymmetry. Here, it's even more than that. It's specifically that a given bank might suggest a dominant strategy, and with different characters, it means experts players are going to be playing differently against each other, not all racing for the same strat. And actually, regardless of any asymmetry, they still have to play differently than each other due to the "starcraft" nature of the game I wrote about in another post. Economy vs. Tech vs. Army, basically.

Ido: Costs so much? It started as $150. Now with the second printing, it's finally down to $60, wow. For almost 350 thick chips and nice bags. Only high volumes can really reduce price, and there can't be high volumes (or expansions...) unless this game actually sells. I hope it does though, I'm really happy with how it turned out.

November 29, 2010 | Registered CommenterSirlin

Does anyone else notice the picture of an almost nude couple at the top?
Just sayin'

November 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBryan

For assymetry done poorly, see the Resident Evil Deck Building Game. Most of the characters start out the same (apart from slight variations on starting Health) and they only change once they've levelled up. The difference is only on the character card. They either have the same starting decks or decks that are almost entirely the same apart from a slight variation on the distribution of ressources (I think a few characters start with one action card in the advanced 'Different Inventory' variant). Most of the difference lies in them favoring certain weapons, which are otherwise almost identical in what they do (ergo what the characters do is give you one optimal choice amongst a number of what amounts to insignificant non-choices).

November 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterXDarkAngelX

Well, I wasn't talking about some variant of Dominion where you start with cards that do something (Nathan was), I was just saying that the cards that you describe as "doing nothing" in Dominion actually DO do something - they inject asymmetry in the "setup phase" - the first two rounds where all anyone is doing is buying cards.

It sounds like from your point of view, the only serious problem with that is that it's slow (and I'd say you're right), and you've addressed that in Puzzle Strike by having more things to do right off the bat, which is fine. My initial response was more to Bavitz's comment: "Also having your deck consist of 30% USELESS cards at the beggining may just be the stupidest idea in gaming. It's like starting a Street Fighter match, but in every fight you can't use a random 30% of your moves! Who would play that?" - I was just pointing out that those cards aren't actually useless from a game design standpoint, and that without them, everyone's opening gambit in Dominion would be identical and thus less interesting.

November 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterEric

Eric, I'm saying they do nothing also, though. They have no actions on them that do something. They aren't money used to buy things during gameplay. They "do nothing." Now, "do nothing" is slang here. It's shorter to type than "does an infinitesimal amount that is almost nothing," which would be more accurate. They do something at the END of the game, though part is still nothing during gameplay, so we don't count that part. But you're saying their very existence creates opening hands of, say, 5 money then 2, or 4 money, then 3. Yeah ok, but you get that same effect if the cards *did something*. You're only talking about the slots they fill, even though the cards themselves do nothing.

So I really do agree with the person who said the "30% useless cards" comment. Those slots can be filled with cards/chips that actually do things and you get so much out of that. You get a faster start, the possibility of asymmetry, and more effects at your disposal.

Another way of looking at it is after playing Puzzle Strike for a bit, ask how the game would be if we replace the character chips with wound chips that have the text "This chip does nothing." (That's actually what wound chips say, btw!) I think the game is dramatically worse that way.

November 29, 2010 | Registered CommenterSirlin

Yeah, I was wondering about that too, Bryan.

November 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterVuther

I disagree a lot that Estates are a bad idea in Dominion, but I disagree even more that the opening hand variance they create is a good idea. The 5/2 split debacle is one of the worst of Dominion's many flaws. It's almost always 5/36 chance of either having an enormous advantage or an enormous disadvantage.

On a completely unrelated point, PS's web interface is deeply unusable. A friend and I tried for about fifteen minutes and then gave up. I know it's beta, but I think it's the wrong approach entirely - dominion.isotropic.org has a very clean, minimalist style and gets almost everything right. I would love a PS interface modeled after it.

November 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPersonman

I'm the same Ido from before - I meant to write a longer reply but didn't have time.
About the characters - I have mixed feelings about that. On the good part, they are very quite cool and can make the first turns much more interesting.
However I experienced a lot of asymetrical games (played, not designed) and my conclusion was that no asymmetric game can ever be completely balanced - all characters on the same power level. It's true dominion might have cards that are dominant in certain setups, but all players can access them. It's not true in this game.
And I'm probably alone in this opinion, but I like the feel of "building up from nothing" that dominion have.

About the interactivity - I, too think it's good, and don't quite understand why people think of it as negative. I once saw someone on the thunderstone forum on BGG that said he didn't like dominion because it "feels like somebody else is playing his deck". Go figure.

November 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterIdo

I really liked the section of this article dealing with Lame Duck endings in games. I recently started playing Settlers of Catan with a couple of friends. I'm sure you have heard of it, as it is all the rage right now among board game fanatics. In any event, I'm of the opinion that this game has a MAJOR problem with lame duck gaming sessions.

More often than not, one or more players fall so far behind, that the possibility of winning is extremely remote if not impossible. Yet, the lame duck player is forced to continuously role the die to enable his opponents to keep getting resource cards.

It so happened that during one game of Catan, I was the lame duck. I proposed a trade whereby I would basically give all my remaining cards to the person I thought most likely to win the game (in order to end the game early and not continue to be a lame duck for no reason). The game permits lopsided trades like this. You can trade all your cards away so long as you get at least one card in return.

This trade would have been the right one for me (as I was the lame duck), but there was another option I offered to everyone still in the running. I told everyone that I would not enter into the 'suicide trade' (giving all my cards away so the game can finally end), if and only if everyone gave me four of their resource cards. This would have enabled everyone to keep going and would have made my position competitive again.

The players refused to give up their cards on 'moral grounds,' saying I was 'tanking the game' or extorting cards from them. In my view, it was in my interest either to end the game as quickly as possible by playing kingmaker and allowing someone to win more quickly, or in the alternative, threatening such a trade until all the other players gave me their cards. I saw nothing wrong with this tactic, but according to my teammates, the tactic should be banned. Anyone want to weigh in on this?

November 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCatanHater
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