Adventure vs. Replayability

Too Many Bones

I’ve spoken about replayability before, but I want to come at it from a slightly different angle today.  This has been largely prompted by the arrival of Too Many Bones, which I backed on Kickstarter.

Too Many Bones describes itself as a dice-builder RPG.  It’s a typical RPG in many ways: you each take a character, go on a mission, fight ‘baddies’ (that’s the term they use!), get treasure, level up your character and face off against a ‘tyrant’ in a final battle.

The nice thing about it is all the dice (as you might expect from the tagline).  When you level up for instance, you get to pick extra dice to roll from a large selection of unique dice.  My son and I have really been enjoying it.

The main element I want to discuss though, is how the game provides adventure.

I love adventure.  Any game that provides theme, exploration and choices instantly wins me over.  In Too Many Bones, each mission (game session) is divided into a number of days and at the start of each day you draw an encounter card.

Each encounter card provides a short story element on one side of the card: you might reach a fork in the road, you might spot some trolls up ahead, or you might be ambushed by orcs.  On the back of the card you have choices to make.  Do you go left or right?  Do you lay a trap for the trolls or charge in and attack?  Do you stand and fight against the orcs or do you retreat?

Each choice has a different set of consequences.  You have to evaluate the dangers and potential rewards of each choice (they are printed on the card) and then decide what to do.  It’s great!

The problem is, there aren’t that many encounter cards.  You’re even guaranteed to have the same starting encounters each game.  I’m sure this will be addressed by expansions, but right now it means we keep having the same encounters over and over again (there’s some variability, but not a lot).

Drawing an encounter card for the first time provides a sense of adventure and excitement: “What’s it going to be?  What are the potential rewards?”  Drawing an encounter card you’ve seen before doesn’t: “Oh, it’s this card.  I guess we’ll go with the first option this time.”

The encounter cards aren’t actually that big a part of the game in Too Many Bones.  You spend far more time fighting – and the tactical combat system is really engaging!  So the game still has plenty of replayability, even when you’ve seen the encounter cards before.  You just get more adventure the first time through.

You can either provide adventure, or replayability, but not both.

It seems you can either provide adventure, or replayability, but not both.  It’s as if they are complementary variables obeying Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle: the more you have of one, the less you can have of the other.  The more adventure a game provides, the less you can replay it.

At one extreme you have the dry euros that my friend Steve likes (Mombasa, Bruges, Railroad Revolution, etc.): lots of replayability, but no theme or adventure.  At the other extreme, you have games like T.I.M.E Stories that are chock full of adventure, but can only be played once.

T.I.M.E Stories is an interesting example actually.  At its heart, it’s a glorified Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book.  As a kid, I used to love those books.  You read a section of text and then you have to make a choice about what to do and turn to a different page depending on your choice.  They often have limited combat and item/gold tracking so your character develops a bit through the story as well.

However, what always happened was that you’d make one particular choice and end up dying:

Do you take the stairs down or go through the door?

“I think I’ll go through the door.”

The door locks shut behind you and the spiked ceiling begins to descend.  If you have a lockpick, turn to page 213, otherwise turn to page 154.

“Hmm… no lockpick.  Page 154 it is then.”

As your body becomes impaled on the spikes, you wonder about the wisdom of entering the Thieves’ Castle without a lockpick.  You are dead.

So you go back to the beginning and start again, but this time you’re jolly well going to buy a lockpick when you get to the market!

There was something peculiarly satisfying about retracing your steps, but making sure you had the right items or chose the right paths to avoid disaster.  You’d progress further the second time through, but then typically end up dying for some other reason.  Then you’d rinse and repeat until you made it.

T.I.M.E Stories takes this idea and provides a thematic reason for being able to go back to the beginning of your adventure: you’re time travellers who inhabit the bodies of characters from the past in order to prevent some terrible evil.  If your character dies, the link is broken and you wake up back in the future ready to go back in time again.

You get a limited amount of replayability and a ton of adventure.

I love it.  It revitalises the old Choose-Your-Own-Adventure genre for me.  It also allows you to have an adventure where success is not guaranteed, but death isn’t that bad.  You get a limited amount of replayability (each time travel run, you can potentially pick different options) and a ton of adventure.

It still leaves me wishing for more though.  They can’t make expansion packs fast enough.  Each expansion provides a new adventure, but we burn through them as soon as they’re released.  It doesn’t have enough replayability!

The only way I can really see around this problem is to have an adventure game with so much content, so many encounter cards or whatever, that you’re very unlikely to have the same one twice.  Content requires time and money though.

Gloomhaven seems to come close (there’s loads of content!), but the adventure portion of the game still seems quite small.  Most of the time, you’re fighting rather than revealing new content and making choices.

This is a chestnut I really want to crack.  I want an adventure game that remains fresh after many plays.  Maybe it is just about providing enough content.

Can you think of any games that provide lots of adventure and still retain a decent amount of replayability?

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Jonathan Hicks

Jonathan is the director of Maven Games. He blogs and records podcast episodes several times a week. Whenever he isn't doing anything else, he designs games.

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