Points Salad

Out to lunch…

Today’s topic is a shameless excuse for me to write a post consisting of a mish-mash of disparate points with no clear links between them and no coherent argument running through it. This is necessary because I have just moved house and so have had absolutely no free time recently… except of course for the six hours I spent playing Gaia Project on Saturday, but I’m sure that anyone who reads a blog about boardgames would have done the same thing in my position! So sit back, relax and get ready to experience the next big thing in blogging: the health blog. Now with 50% less content!

Where is the meat?

Anyone who has ever bought a “salad” in a restaurant knows what it is really about – a great big juicy piece of meat, possibly complemented by some croutons, with a few token leaves strewn around the edges. The meat of this post is the idea of games that are a “points salad,” where it seems that all players end up doing a little bit of everything and there is no clear advantage to focussing on any particular strategy. What makes a game feel like this, and how can it be avoided?

At first glance it might seem that games that reward diversification will tend to end up as points salads, while those that reward specialisation will not. However, on closer examination this is clearly not the full story – there are many games that explicitly reward diversification in their scoring system but nevertheless are about as far from a points salad as it is possible to be, with enormous importance attached to building a coherent strategy. Agricola is an excellent example of this, and Tigris and Euphrates is another. So what exactly is going on in a points salad that makes it a less satisfying and strategic game?

Fruits and nuts.

I have known some strange people over the course of my life. As an undergraduate I had a lecturer who would eat the chalk during lectures, and another who set an exam question that he himself took an hour and a half to answer, while his students had to answer it in forty five minutes (after the exam he complained publicly about the low standard of that year’s intake). I used to know someone who was ideologically opposed to shoes and would go everywhere barefoot, even in winter. I even know some people so weird that they frequently spend hours at a time carefully arranging little pieces of wood and plastic on top of bits of cardboard, then moving them around very slowly. I can’t work out what purpose this activity serves – it seems to have no useful effect whatsoever – but the people who do it often seem to get quite excited about it.

So, why does this diversity of people not make our social lives into a personality salad? The key, in my opinion, is that although you can get a little bit of everything you don’t get it in a homogeneous way. We don’t all eat a little bit of chalk now and then, perhaps grating it over a ready meal to improve the flavour and keep up our calcium intake. Everyone doesn’t go out in just their socks once a week. The different ingredients we need for a varied and fulfilling social life all come from different people.

For me this is a large part of what goes on in a points salad – it is often possible to get a little bit of the same resource from lots of different places with a similar degree of efficiency, meaning that your ability to gain the required amount of that resource is not as strongly dependent on your in-game decisions as it ideally should be. In this way, proper planning is not adequately rewarded and all of the options available to a player can become “much of a muchness.”

Would you like fries with that?

NO! If I wanted fries, I would have ASKED for them!

More to the point, it is always fries. There is no concession to what the fries might be going with, and whether that thing might be better complemented by something else – a leaflet explaining about the existence of vegetables, for example.

This is another key point about points salads – to make a good meal you have to consider how the different ingredients combine with each other. The games that feel the most satisfying and the furthest from being a points salad are often the ones with the strongest links between the different decisions made during play. Something you build with one resource might strongly influence your ability to gain or use a completely different one. Your actions on a previous turn might influence the amount of a certain resource that is available for you to take this turn – for example via a mechanic such as the accumulation spaces in Agricola. All these interdependencies force players to construct a coherent, unified strategy if they wish to do well.

So, to conclude, building a coherent and satisfying game is not about reducing diversity, but rather about strengthening the links and the interdependencies between the different elements. I also can’t help but feel that replacing the word “game” with “society” might make this a valid political argument… Anyway, it is about time I wrapped this up; in order to continue to market this as a health blog I’m already going to have to claim that it serves twelve. I shall just finish with a quick plug for the game I am planning to design – the one with strategic bite, for which I have just thought of the perfect name – and a couple of possible tag lines…

Points Salad

The taste of victory!

Or perhaps…

Points Salad

Dressed or undressed, you’re in for a tasty experience!

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I am a physicist who lives in Nottingham and I have been boardgaming for the last 10 years. My favourite boardgame is Agricola. I also enjoy playing the Yetis in Terra Mystica, hence the profile pic. I should also credit Sophie for drawing most of the cartoons that feature in the blog. Without her, there would be no grumpy oxen.

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