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Subject: The Rise of Combinatorial Hybrids rss

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Cody Kunka
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Right now, I'm closely following the Kickstarter for Thrive, a chess-like game that allows you to highly customize your pieces throughout the game. Pretty artwork and cloth board too. I eagerly check the take, which is approaching the stretch goal of $16k in the last week of the campaign. But today I wondered why this clever game is nowhere near Sagrada's $152k or Paladin's $509k or Iwari's $400k.

So I was thinking...

Combinatorial games are largely a test of skill and "aha" moments. Hence, fun is tied to investment in strategy development. That feature often encourages the player to stick with only a few "lifestyle" combinatorial games.

Other games, like thematic and euro games, offer many elements potentially alongside a test of skill. These elements often relax the players by demphasizing winning. For example, a player could enjoy art, theme, story, random events, or somewhat isolated play (personal goals not tied to the final placements). With these options, the player does not necessarily invest huge time into strategy development and can therefore feel more free to try a variety of games.

This reasoning is consistent with the fact that abstracts often seem widespread yet also hard to market. Consider the take for the Thrive Kickstarter and the apprehension of selling games like Blooms. Meanwhile look at just the average take for a mainstream Kickstarter... even one that doesn't end up highly rated.

Now enter the combinatorial hybrid. The hybrid takes elements from mainstream games to ease marketability. The simplest thing is an incressed focus on theme and art. Look at the "abstract-like game" of Iwari at nearly $400k. Sometimes the hybrid takes Euro-style resources, scoring, and somewhat isolated play... as with Photosynthesis and Blue Lagoon. Other times, the hybrid incorporates randomness as in the super successful Azul and Sagrada.

I admit I sometimes think the rise of hybrids are diluting abstracts. That maybe combinatorials will slowly fade. That players are missing out on the "real thing"... However, I think that reasoning is wrong. The rise of a new category could just add diversity and new thinking. Different players like different things. The hybrids might even draw attention to abstracts in general.

So, do you also see the rise of hybrids? What do you think is the best way to preseve the core of combinatorials while evolving with the industry? After all, I doubt if Go originally came out on Kickstarter tomorrow that it would eventually become as successful as it is now.
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Michael Van Biesbrouck
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Santorini had more KS revenue than any of the projects that you list. (It, like Iwari, had an existing audience from earlier editions that were hard to come by.)

2-player combinatorial games generally require two people of equal skill and similar interests who wouldn't rather just play one of the classics such as Go. Once it arrives, the game might just fall flat for them. (Although you can try out Thrive in Ai Ai.)

By contrast, multiplayer games with randomness and bluffing can survive moderately variable skill levels and the success of the game depends significantly on the people playing it. The human interaction can overcome lack of depth that would be fatal to an abstract game.
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Russ Williams
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To me, the stuff about "mastery" and that a strong player often beats a weak player is only part of the story, and to some extent a red herring. After all, many abstracts are played casually by many people, and many non-abstracts are played seriously and also have the property that a stronger player beats a weaker player.


I think a big part of it is that many gamers are simply not so attracted to minimalist rulesets and minimalist components as "we" are. There seem to be multiple reasons for this, particularly:

* A (misguided false) belief that simple minimalist rules imply simplistic dull gameplay and shallow strategy and obvious tactics. (E.g. it's not uncommon to see non-abstract-fans say that a genuinely deep abstract "feels like Tic-Tac-Toe" to them.)

* Active intellectual enjoyment of exploring a complex system and seeing how different rules and subystems interact.

* Cosmetic/aesthetic/consumerist enjoyment of a wide variety of physical bits: boards, mats, cubes, pawns, meeples, minis, tiles, cards, player screens, scorepads, tracks, dials, more more more physical stuff is enjoyable for many gamers.

mlvanbie wrote:
Santorini had more KS revenue than any of the projects that you list. (It, like Iwari, had an existing audience from earlier editions that were hard to come by.)

I suspect the large variety of special god powers was a key factor in Santorini's success. I see lots of fans say that they find the base game boring, or only useful for newbies playing a learning game.

(Not to mention the obvious factor of the cute art which many people love, of course.)

But if Santorini had been published with the cute art, but without the diverse god powers, and instead was only the "austere" "pure" base game rules, I think it would not have been nearly as popular. (But I don't know; what do you think?)
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Cody Kunka
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@ Michael

Ah, yes, a common hybrid trait is the support of more than 2 players. Blokus, Azul, Sagrada, Phoyosynthesis, Reef, Thrive... I think playing with more than 2 teams takes some competitive stress off.

@Russ

I can see how a new gamer would assume a simple-looking game has simple strategy. There just doesn't seem to be much there. Emergence is hard to see.

However, I feel like the complexity of chess is a common sentimemt. Plus, I think about gaming with my wife. We have owned a decent variety of games, including several combinatorials but also several others. And no matter the other game....whether the hidden- movement Specter Ops, Monopoly-like Great Western Trail, worker-placement Anachrony, word-association Codenames... we definitely feel a big distinction between combinatorials and all others. Combinatorials have a cutthroat, thinky feel that requires a particular type of energy.

By the way, I've seen firsthand the idea that Santorini "needs" the god powers. I guess the fact that Thrive is doing the Pond-Life expansion fits.

But with all this in mind, how do suggest combinatorials evolve in this market?
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Nick Bentley
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Related to this discussion: I have a hypothesis that many people prefer the feeling of familiarizing themselves with rules over making progress in strategic understanding.

Learning rules has advantages over learning strategy: the former is both more straightforward and more assured. It requires only memorization, assured by repetition. Learning strategy, in contrast, requires insight, often at the cost of strenuous thinking, and for which a positive outcome isn’t assured.

I think that may be a reason why there are so many tabletop hobbyists who lose interest and move on to the next game after after internalizing a game's rules. As long as you're learning rules, you have a consistent sense of progress in learning, and when that sense becomes inconsistent, you move on to something else.

Games with austere rules don’t afford players the pleasure of learning rules and instead throw players directly into the more stressful and disorienting (for them) realm of strategy.

Conversely I think this may be a reason CCG's and other games with tons of distinct cards are so popular. There's always a new rule (card) to learn.

[edit] Similarly, I've noticed when hobbyists talk about the value of "variety" in games (and many do), it's almost always focused on mechanical/rules variety, and almost never strategic/tactical variety.
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Kunkasaurus wrote:
@Russ

I can see how a new gamer would assume a simple-looking game has simple strategy. There just doesn't seem to be much there. Emergence is hard to see.

However, I feel like the complexity of chess is a common sentimemt. Plus, I think about gaming with my wife.

Yes, agreed, certainly not all abstracts get the "tic-tac-toe" comparison, just some of them.

E.g. I think games like Chess which have various different types of pieces and movement rules probably look "more obviously complicated" than games with simple uniform pieces and movement rules, for instance.

Plus a classic like Chess has a lot of cultural/historical weight behind it so people "know" that it's strategically deep. In that sense, compare the (grudging) respect given to Chess with the frequently dismissive attitudes towards Checkers.
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milomilo122 wrote:
I have a hypothesis that many people prefer the feeling of familiarizing themselves with rules over making progress in strategic understanding.

Learning rules has advantages over learning strategy: the former is both more straightforward and more assured. It requires only memorization, assured by repetition. Learning strategy, in contrast, requires insight, often at the cost of strenuous thinking, and for which a positive outcome isn’t assured.

Yes, this seems clearly a significant factor indeed!

I notice that kind of "rule learning enjoyment" in myself in the case of Advanced Squad Leader Starter Kit (itself the "simple intro" version of Advanced Squad Leader). There's a definite meta enjoyment in just grokking the rules better over time.
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milomilo122 wrote:
As long as you're learning rules, you have a consistent sense of progress in learning, and when that sense becomes inconsistent, you move on to something else.

Judging from these preferences there may be a market for long rulebooks with many sequels ('something else') and no game.
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christianF wrote:
Judging from these preferences there may be a market for long rulebooks with many sequels ('something else') and no game.

*cough* Roleplaying games *cough*
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mrraow wrote:
christianF wrote:
Judging from these preferences there may be a market for long rulebooks with many sequels ('something else') and no game.

*cough* Roleplaying games *cough*

I almost made the exact same joke. Must be true.
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milomilo122 wrote:
As long as you're learning rules, you have a consistent sense of progress in learning, and when that sense becomes inconsistent, you move on to something else.

I don't think it is so much about rules, as about variability. For example in Agricola which cards you (and your opponents) have at the start alters your approach to that particular game. Similarly for Power Grid, Concordia and Age of Steam each map is its own challenge (despite the rules staying mostly the same).

I don't know how well The Duke has done (but it is in its third iteration so probably pretty good) and that is an abstract-ish (contains random draw of pieces) game which provides that width of variability.
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andyl wrote:
milomilo122 wrote:
As long as you're learning rules, you have a consistent sense of progress in learning, and when that sense becomes inconsistent, you move on to something else.

I don't think it is so much about rules, as about variability. For example in Agricola which cards you (and your opponents) have at the start alters your approach to that particular game. Similarly for Power Grid, Concordia and Age of Steam each map is its own challenge (despite the rules staying mostly the same).

I don't know how well The Duke has done (but it is in its third iteration so probably pretty good) and that is an abstract-ish (contains random draw of pieces) game which provides that width of variability.

Right, but what is "variability"? To someone focused on strategy over rules, a game with a fixed setup and austere rules can have tons of variability. So I think there's an unspoken assumption about what variability means here.
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milomilo122 wrote:
andyl wrote:
milomilo122 wrote:
As long as you're learning rules, you have a consistent sense of progress in learning, and when that sense becomes inconsistent, you move on to something else.

I don't think it is so much about rules, as about variability. For example in Agricola which cards you (and your opponents) have at the start alters your approach to that particular game. Similarly for Power Grid, Concordia and Age of Steam each map is its own challenge (despite the rules staying mostly the same).

I don't know how well The Duke has done (but it is in its third iteration so probably pretty good) and that is an abstract-ish (contains random draw of pieces) game which provides that width of variability.

Right, but what is "variability"? To someone focused on strategy over rules, a game with a fixed setup and austere rules can have tons of variability. So I think there's an unspoken assumption about what variability means here.

Tons of depth, sure. Variability in how different a game plays out, sure.

But when most people talk about variability they are talking about the variability of different boards or powers or pieces either at setup or introduced during the game.

Variability however doesn't trump everything otherwise Navia Dratp would have been a bigger success despite its silly name, anime aesthetic, and collectable nature.
 
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andyl wrote:
milomilo122 wrote:
As long as you're learning rules, you have a consistent sense of progress in learning, and when that sense becomes inconsistent, you move on to something else.

I don't think it is so much about rules, as about variability. For example in Agricola which cards you (and your opponents) have at the start alters your approach to that particular game. Similarly for Power Grid, Concordia and Age of Steam each map is its own challenge (despite the rules staying mostly the same).

I don't know how well The Duke has done (but it is in its third iteration so probably pretty good) and that is an abstract-ish (contains random draw of pieces) game which provides that width of variability.

One doesn't exclude the other.

I think you're right too, that setup variability (different maps, available units, victory conditions, etc) are also a significant factor for some people, in addition to the fun (for some people) of learning (and "mastering") new rule systems.
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Michael Van Biesbrouck
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russ wrote:
mlvanbie wrote:
Santorini had more KS revenue than any of the projects that you list. (It, like Iwari, had an existing audience from earlier editions that were hard to come by.)

I suspect the large variety of special god powers was a key factor in Santorini's success. I see lots of fans say that they find the base game boring, or only useful for newbies playing a learning game.

(Not to mention the obvious factor of the cute art which many people love, of course.)

But if Santorini had been published with the cute art, but without the diverse god powers, and instead was only the "austere" "pure" base game rules, I think it would not have been nearly as popular. (But I don't know; what do you think?)


There are people who've enjoyed nothing but the base game for 50 or 100 plays (look at the stats on boardspace.net) and have no interest in power games. OTOH, that's like getting about 1/1400 of the possible game experience. Providing a varied experience is a good thing.

Playing a game and considering purchasing it are different. Looking forward to an endless succession of new experiences is a selling point. People who don't want new experiences should master Go or Shogi. Perhaps meeting new board positions won't be as distressing. When you are playing games, mastery of something new produces endorphins. On the road to mastery of a fixed game that effect diminishes over time as you refine skills rather than learn new ones. In a game with variable powers there will be new 'Aha!' moments for each power and even combinations of powers.
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christian freeling
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milomilo122 wrote:
a game with a fixed setup and austere rules can have tons of variability.

Forget the fixed setup, austere rules can be enough (assuming a good game).
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mlvanbie wrote:
Playing a game and considering purchasing it are different.
And if it's all about purchase, considerations become different.

mlvanbie wrote:
Looking forward to an endless succession of new experiences is a selling point. People who don't want new experiences should master Go or Shogi.
I think there will be posters like me who find this a remarkable statement.

mlvanbie wrote:
Perhaps meeting new board positions won't be as distressing. When you are playing games, mastery of something new produces endorphins. On the road to mastery of a fixed game that effect diminishes over time as you refine skills rather than learn new ones. In a game with variable powers there will be new 'Aha!' moments for each power and even combinations of powers.
I understand that refining one's skills is inherently dull. Aha!
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christianF wrote:
mlvanbie wrote:
Looking forward to an endless succession of new experiences is a selling point. People who don't want new experiences should master Go or Shogi.
I think there will be posters like me who find this a remarkable statement.

I'm one. Variety is a key factor in the enjoyment of these games. It's just a different kind of variety than the sort mlvanbie is thinking of. The idea of "variety" has become so identified with rules variety (and attendant first-order strategy variety) that many hobbyists think there can't be any other type. For those who think that way, it's hard to see why anyone could love games like Go or Shogi so much.

This drives me more than slightly batty.
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christianF wrote:
mlvanbie wrote:
Playing a game and considering purchasing it are different.
And if it's all about purchase, considerations become different.


The original post is about dollars raised in KS campaigns. Generally people are purchasing games they've never played.

BGG is a handy tool for comparing the number of copies owned or times played for games such as Santorini or Dominion versus whichever hobby games you care to look at. (Plays of Bridge, Go, etc. aren't likely to be recorded.)

christianF wrote:
I understand that refining one's skills is inherently dull. Aha!


The effects of working on the same skill for thousands of hours are also interesting, but you can get those effects through spending the time meditating. Buying new games would interfere with this path.
 
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christianF wrote:
mlvanbie wrote:
Perhaps meeting new board positions won't be as distressing. When you are playing games, mastery of something new produces endorphins. On the road to mastery of a fixed game that effect diminishes over time as you refine skills rather than learn new ones. In a game with variable powers there will be new 'Aha!' moments for each power and even combinations of powers.
I understand that refining one's skills is inherently dull. Aha!

Not that it's "dull"; it's just different and it gets continually more difficult.

Refining one's skill in e.g. Go is very much a matter of diminishing returns; everyone's progress slows down significantly over time, and many people hit plateaus and perhaps never progress more. Some people are fine with accepting that (I still love playing Go even though I've been stuck in a plateau for years, I suppose making barely measurable progress), while other people feel stupid and frustrated by their slowed-down rate of learning.

In contrast, there's no diminishing returns with e.g. trying different pairs of gods in Santorini; each time you play with a new combo, you see and learn new rule interactions.

So for people who want those "easy regularly acquired endorphins" from continually learning new stuff about how the pieces and rules interact, the type of game for them is one with never-ending new combinations of pieces, not one with emergent complexity from the same rules and same setup every time.
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Cody Kunka
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@Nick

Your point about people preferring accomplishment through learning rules over developing strategy is very interesting. You could even say this feature is the driving factor for Cult of the New.

If your idea is true, I think there may be opportunities to hybridize combinatorial games without losing their cores.

Way #1: Introduce variants/expansions. Consider Santorini's god powers and Thrive's Pond Life. As long as these variants still relate to the core game, the game will feel like a complete package rather than a collection of different games. Of course, this way is easier to implement with games that already have some susceptibility to variability (e.g., special powers in Hive and goal cards in Sagrada). However, I think that clever design could add variability to any game. Consider the focused designs of Thrive or Santorini, for example.

Way #2 (my new idea): Alternatively (or additionally), work in a sense of progression in learning strategy. Treat learning strategy almost like learning rules. Consider an analogy to achievements in video games. Those achievements often are for trying something new or completing a difficult task. This way #2 requires the designer to detail core strategies and efficiently teach the player rather than just letting the player learn alone. I think of Randy Ingersoll's strategy book on Hive. He names various structures (e.g., "fill," "squeeze," "gate"...). I feel a sense of accomplishment when I form these structures. Of course, the average gamer will probably not want to read a strategy guide. Including a brief description of such features with pretty (even artistic) pictures in the rulebook would be a helpful start... but there also needs to be a sense of progression too. Perhaps introduce an achievement checklist... even a minor game benefit to completing strategically useful features. Not sure... just starting with this idea...
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russ wrote:
So for people who want those "easy regularly acquired endorphins" from continually learning new stuff about how the pieces and rules interact, the type of game for them is one with never-ending new combinations of pieces, not one with emergent complexity from the same rules and same setup every time.
That's indeed the problem with 'variability'. Having a new game in more or less the same category every time seems to me the kind of variability that can be found in flavoured potato chips. Nothing against it (except the waste created by the bags), but to say it is what 'variability' is all about seems to stretch it a bit. Mastering anything much beyond flexibility in handling different rule sets doesn't seem part of the equation.
 
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christianF wrote:
russ wrote:
So for people who want those "easy regularly acquired endorphins" from continually learning new stuff about how the pieces and rules interact, the type of game for them is one with never-ending new combinations of pieces, not one with emergent complexity from the same rules and same setup every time.
That's indeed the problem with 'variability'. Having a new game in more or less the same category every time seems to me the kind of variability that can be found in flavoured potato chips. Nothing against it (except the waste created by the bags), but to say it is what 'variability' is all about seems to stretch it a bit. Mastering anything much beyond flexibility in handling different rule sets doesn't seem part of the equation.

To be clear, I'm certainly not saying that new rules/pieces/maps/etc are not "what variability is all about". Just that it's one kind of variability, which has an obvious "low entry cost" kind of appeal for many people.
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milomilo122 wrote:
mlvanbie wrote:
Looking forward to an endless succession of new experiences is a selling point. People who don't want new experiences should master Go or Shogi.
This drives me more than slightly batty.
I think this has a straightforward explanation:
1. Everyone takes you seriously if you play Go or a Chess variant (cultural heritage).
2. The depth of these games is proven! No new game can claim that.
3. The depth is quite easily accessible through clubs, books etc.

If you want to become a player at a deep game then all of these are really good reasons to pick your preferred ancient abstract and stick with it. And I don't think that's a problem (well it is if you're into selling new games). I generally introduce myself to other players as a Go player.
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russ wrote:
Active intellectual enjoyment of exploring a complex system and seeing how different rules and subystems interact.

I think this is definitely a big factor for me. Additionally I can more directly feel the difference between strategic approaches when I'm actually using different mechanical parts of the system. While an abstract game might be quite deep, it doesn't feel as "fresh" to me from game to game as a more complex thematic game can.
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