23 Mar Developing a Game Design Philosophy – Snowballing
Mark Rivett –
Whenever we get together, Slightly Twisted Games tries to make time to play a board or card game. We love games, and after we play a new game for the first time, we discuss both the things we enjoy and dislike about it. This has shaped our game design philosophy, and we work to incorporate our philosophy into each game we make.
A number of years ago, when the future founders of Slightly Twisted Games discovered the video game League of Legends, we were hooked. We quickly found champions that we loved to play, and over several years we jumped on whenever we could. Being a time in the course of our friendships when we were scattered across several cities, it made sense to stay in touch through online video games. Like many video games, it ran its course. However, the lessons we learned have remained.
When a single player begins to run away with a game, this is referred to a snowballing – conjuring the image of a small ball of snow rolling down a hill, collecting more snow as it travels, until it becomes an unstoppable avalanche. In League of Legends, the game was often won by the player who was able to snowball into an un-killable powerhouse. Many factors can contribute to a single player snowballing – someone on your own team making bad decisions that “feed” your opponent, or a series of successful ganks, among many others. Regardless of how it happens, it’s rarely fun to be bent over a barrel with no recourse other than to surrender.
This phenomenon can also be observed in Monopoly. The player who has the best properties quickly gains the most money, which in turn means they can develop their properties with houses and hotels. This earns even more money and inflicts more hardship when an opponent lands on these developed properties. This likewise lessens the impact when the snowballing player lands on an opponent’s property, and has to hand over a trivial portion of his fortune to a doomed player. The scales start to tip. Once the snowball starts rolling, nothing can stop it short of a miracle.
Risk too, is often a game won by the player who snowballs. Once a player has that one turn – perhaps they’ve conquered North America or Africa, or won a particularly important battle by a statistically improbable margin – they just pressure the other players into submission until the board is awash in the color of their armies. Players are often able to recognize the point of no return, shake hands, and concede in lieu of investing time in an activity with a certain outcome.
Even Dominion, beloved by Slightly Twisted Games, can snowball out of control. It’s very hard to compete when one player is chaining into tons of money and multiple buys every turn, and you’re still clawing for your first province.
Dealing with the snowball is a tricky concept in game design. On one hand, games require a condition under which players can achieve victory. On the other hand, those conditions don’t work when they are undermined by game mechanics that snatch victory from players too easily or punish savvy and strategic play at random. That isn’t fun for many players.
Dominion has a built-in method for dealing with the snowball – a short game. The game is over relatively quickly, and everyone can feel good about the outcome because they didn’t invest hours and hours of play. Star Trek Ascendancy addresses the snowball through a two-vs-one game design. Two players can identify and gang up on an opponent who jumps to an early lead – but they can’t keep the pressure on all game, lest they find themselves an unwilling participant in the snowball of their temporary ally. Axis and Allies is arguably an entire game built around a snowball. The Axis must win before the Allies financial strength overwhelms them.
In Slightly Twisted Games soon-to-be-released Glory, the snowball is addressed through two mechanics. Spell cards give players a risk vs reward method to leapfrog other players. The initiative-based turn sequence also give players the ability to identify the win conditions that an opponent is working towards, and undermine it directly.
We at Slightly Twisted Games appreciate the snowball. It’s a necessary component of many strategic games, but none of us enjoy the experience of standing helplessly in front of an oncoming avalanche. Instead, we prefer to make our games a race amongst snowballs – where everyone is in the running until the very last heart-pounding turn of the game.