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BG Choppers - A board game mechanics & design blog

Analysis of mechanics and their applications within Board Games. We look at specific systems within games and examine how they work and what they accomplish (or fail to accomplish) for the games that contain them.
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Castle of the Devil & Secret Conspiracy Mechanics

Brad Talton
United States
New Mexico
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This week's BG Choppers Blog is based on my thoughts after playing The Castle of the Devil. This is a fun secret conspiracy game that plays with 4-8 players (optimal with 6) in about 30 minutes. I'd recommend trying it at least once, as it's quite different than most secret conspiracy games I've encountered.

Here's a little background (skip to 0:45 to go straight to the takeaway)

A good secret conspiracy game is like a good magic trick, in that it comes in three parts:

The Pledge - The first part of the game establishes the scenario. It gives players a chance to become comfortable with the scenario they are placed in and its conventions, and it gives them a chance to begin to suspect what things are really happening under the surface.

The Turn - The game reaches a turning point where enough information is known that parties begin to act aggressively--making their motives and alliances more overt, and consolidating power to their allies. Suspicions turn to rivalries as players learn who has their interests at heart and who does not.

The Prestige - The group that believes it possesses enough information or power to secure the win makes its power play, throwing secrecy to the wind and seizing hold of victory. In this phase, the rivalry descends into all-out war.

Last night, I got the opportunity to play a few games of The Castle of the Devil, a secret conspiracy game where two teams of players work against one another to acquire a number of object cards.

The game follows the pattern of conspiracy games above, and seems well executed, except for a few problems.

Game Overview
Here's a very brief description of how the game works.

Players receive a secret society card that tells them their team and which objects they must collect to win.

Play passes around the table in a series of trades and duels.

To trade, offer an object to any team member. He may trade you back an object from his hand. If the trade is accepted, the traded objects may have powers that activate and provide benefit to the one who traded them.

To duel, choose a target, and all players vote on whether the attacker or defender wins the duel. Winning a duel lets you see a player's group or force a trade for any item you wish from the opponent.

A team wins when one player announces victory by announcing out his team members who possess the requisite objects.

Game flow Overview
Here's a look at how games usually play out.

At the start of the game, players have few tools and no information. The only way to get more items into play is to trade away an item called the Bag of Secrets. This means that for several rounds of play, players will simply be trading with one another, learning a bit about their opponents by which items they trade or refuse to trade.

This changes quickly as specific items come into play--most notably the Monocle, which lets a player look at his partner's society card when traded. As soon as the monocle starts circulating, information begins to disseminate rapidly, and duels begin in earnest.

A player wins a duel by gaining more supporting votes than his opponent (supporting votes come from other players, and from the objects they hold). Once duels begin, the players rapidly acquire information and tools from one another.

The game typically culminates in a power play where the faction who has acquired more weapons and power takes its final required key/goblet object by force from the other team and declares victory.

To declare victory, a player must name which players in his faction hold the objects required for victory. If correct, his team wins. If incorrect, his team loses.

Breakdown of Mechanics
Now, let's dig a little deeper, and decide what elements and mechanics are at work in this game.

Secret Conspiracy Element
- Secret Teams - You do not know which players are teammates or enemies, but everyone is either one or the other.
- Knowledge Victory Condition - Winning requires a knowledge of your teammates.

The secret conspiracy is supported by two mechanics. The obvious one is the secret teams. However, secret teams doesn't imply secret conspiracy. As anyone who has played BANG! can tell you, the Sheriff can win without one lick of secret knowledge. What ties together the conspiracy element of the game is the knowledge victory condition--the idea that knowing teammates is required for victory.

This gives the game a feeling of suspicion and conspiracy that Bang! often misses, but which Werewolf and Mafia capture well. At the same time, CoD improves upon these games by removing player elimination from the game formula.

Teamwork Element
- Combat Resolution by Vote - Players win duels by making sure their teammates know who they are, not by knowing who their teammates are.
- Trade Synergy - Trading confers positive benefits to both sides.

Teamwork is invaluable in CoD for two specific reasons. Voting as the combat resolution mechanic means that educating your teammates to work with you is a huge part of the game, and a teammate who is deceived into supporting the wrong side can spell doom for his allies.

The less obvious mechanic that builds up teamwork in the game is trade synergy. There are many objects that confer positive benefits on the trader, such as the Coat, Bag of Secrets, Tome, and the like. When team members discover that they are allied, they can bounce these objects back and forth to rapidly power themselves up and outpace the other team.

Tactical Element
- Power vs. Knowledge Decision - Players often have to choose between acquiring material power versus secret knowledge.
- Beneficial Rejection - Having your trade refused confers a combat benefit.

One thing that can be missed in only the first few plays of CoD is how deeply tactical the game is. Groups are not just trying to acquire objects, but also to acquire the leverage to steal objects--leverage in the form of weapons and duel tokens. Often stealing a weapon from your opponent is just as powerful as knowing their identity.

The concept of beneficial trades really ties this idea together though. Rejecting a trade means giving a player duel tokens, so when a trade is given, you must always consider whether to accept or decline. Declining allied trades to give teammates more duel tokens is often an excellent idea, while accepting bad trades from enemies is often the lesser evil over giving out duel tokens.

Strengths and Weaknesses

The use of voting to resolve duels is an especially nice touch to this game. By this method of resolution, a team is strengthened not just by one individual's knowledge, but by the knowledge of all teammates. It pays to educate your teammates by purposely losing duels and by accepting monocle trades, and having well-educated teammates is just as important as knowing everything yourself.

In other words, for every trade you could reject or every duel you could win, there's an equally compelling reason to do the opposite. The mechanic of using votes to resolve combat creates a team-play element where the players absolutely must rely on one another to win.

This reliance on teammates for achieving victory is the game's major strength, because the teamwork element compliments the conspiracy element on almost every level. The only part where this compliment breaks down is in the mechanic for voting openly to support players.

The weakness of the game is embedded in its strength. Because teamwork is so pivotal, once all information is known, the game draws to a deadlock where each team supports its own, and the team who has consolidated the most weapons and duel tokens wins.

Possible improvements?
Public voting means that it's impossible in this game to reliably support one team without making it obvious to the other team, so the conspiracy quickly breaks down once one or two players become aware of the team divisions. Tools like the monocle make it very difficult to pretend you're on one side or the other, and refusing the monocle is usually identical to an admission of being on the other team in the late game.

The open voting seems to be the place where the mechanics stop working so well with the larger elements of play. This is because open voting very quickly draws team lines, even for those players who have done very little information gathering. You never ever want to vote against someone you know is a teammate, even as a bluff, because the consequences for losing a duel become more and more crushing in the late game.

In games like Shadows over Camelot and Battlestar Galactica, this problem is alleviated by allowing players to make their votes in secret, and I'm curious whether a secret voting mechanic like the one in The Resistance would fix this problem by allowing you to support your own team without giving away information to the other team.

Thanks for Reading!
Thanks for checking out the first post on BG Choppers, and I hope it's been an enlightening read for you! I'll be attempting to post another analysis each (but definitely every other Friday, at minimum). I hope that you'll subscribe to the blog and check out upcoming games. If you want to suggest one, feel free to send me a geekmail!

About the Author
D. Brad Talton Jr. is the founder and lead designer for Level 99 Games, and the creator of BattleCON: War of Indines and Mystic Empyrean, as well as a number of other games. His homepage is http://www.lvl99games.com
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