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Wednesday
Nov092011

Flash Duel: *Betrayal* at Raid on Deathstrike Dragon

Flash Duel's new raid mode is cooperative, in that you team up with up to three other players to defeat the dragon. The mortals win as a team or lose as a team. There's a common problem with cooperative games that a dominant player can bark orders at everyone else and basically play the game solitaire. What to do about this?

Deathstrike Dragon tells you what to do!

The most common answer is to do nothing, and "play with different people." Another common answer is an infeasible and sloppy one: rules about how you can't share information with people on your team. Another answer is to have a secret "traitor" on the team, so you can't trust everyone's advice and you have to think for yourself. Finally, there's a very uncommon solution used by Space Alert and Wok Star where there's time pressure (meaning the game takes place in real-time, not turn-based!) and that there simply isn't time for a single person to do everyone's job. In video games, of course there's the solution that your instructions don't replace the skills of other people (hey, just get all head-shots in this FPS!) but we're talking about board games and card games here.

Let's talk about the worst solution first, the one where the game claims that you can't share information. If you're experienced with tournament rules, hopefully you immediately see the problem here. You can "give hints" but you can't say what cards you have? Like "I have a high card" might be ok, but "I have the Jack of Spades" is not? A hint is actually identical to saying the card in high level play. You give enough hints, or you encode information in the hints to make that so. You can also tap your arm or your forehead to pass information, or other such signals. The point is that there is no real way to stop this kind of stuff. In fighting games, it would be like saying "don't use a certain move *too much*" or some such fuzzy, non-discrete, unenforceable thing.

Fuzzy Rules and Battlestar Galactica

Another example of how this type of solution is sloppy and infeasible comes from the game Battlestar Galactica. In that game, each player submits a card face down to a pile that represents a team effort to complete a task, then two extra random cards are added. This allows a traitor to sneak in a card that will hurt everyone, then he or she can claim that card must have been one of the random ones when everything is revealed. Ok, sounds fine at first glance. But what about sharing information? The rulebook says this:

Skill Cards and Skill Checks: Players are prohibited from revealing the exact strength of cards in their hands. They may use vague terms such as “I can help out on this crisis a little bit,” but they may not make more specific statements such as “I am playing 5 piloting.” In addition, after a skill check is resolved, players may not identify which cards they played. The reason for these restrictions is to keep hidden information secret and to protect Cylon players from being discovered too easily.

One player who is not the traitor should announce the following strategy. "I am not the traitor, and it's in my interest to expose the traitor. If you are not the traitor it's in your interest too. If you do not do what I'm going to say in a moment, you must be the traitor. What I'm about to say benefits non-traitors and exposes traitors, so there is no reason to not to go along other than being a traitor. We'll all "hint" at the cards we're going to play, and of course hints and just saying the card are the same in high-level play. Then when the cards are later revealed, we see if every card claimed to be there really is. If anyone lied, they are the traitor. If anyone was intentionally too vague with hints, they are the traitor. (The game pushes us all asymptotically close to the taboo tactic here.) Note that it's possible that a lying traitor could get lucky and his lie matches a random card. That's no matter though because if the cards *don't* match, then we definitely know the traitor. We'll just do this every single time, preventing the traitor from ever doing anything."

Is that a fun way to play? Not really. But that just highlights the problem. Playing well breaks that game because rules trying to limit communication between people who really want to communicate don't really work. Playing that way is also "against the spirit of the game," but with a squishy information sharing rule, playing against the spirit of the game is just playing well, really, and that's a problem too.

A Better Way to Handle Hidden Information?

The problem is that it's infeasible to give players an incentive to share information, then claim that they can't. A better way to handle this is to attack the problem at the incentive level. Make the players not want to share information. Either way, the goal is to make it so not every player knows everything so that players have to think for themselves rather than rely entirely on the advice of the loudest player. If we can give people some reason they don't *want* to share information, we don't have to worry so much about all the annoying stuff above.

We need a traitor who gets his power from information. On the one hand, the more information you share, the better off your team is because you can all plan together. On the other hand, the more information you share, the more powerful you make the traitor, so you should not share everything. The moment you hold back sharing anything, we've already solved the dominant player problem.

In Flash Duel, the hidden information is the cards in everyone's hands. Remember that these cards just have a single big number on them, like a "2" or something, and that you only have hands of five cards. The traitor has a special power where he can voluntarily reveal himself and then attempt to kill off the mortals by naming the cards in their hands. If the traitor can name every card in every other mortal's hand, he kills them all. This would probably never happen in a real game though, because players will know that showing their hand cards can be deadly. What this really does is keep information sharing in check.

By the way, the revealed traitor then fights alongside the dragon, so he's not out of the game when he reveals himself.

The Betrayal Mode

Last time I wrote about the Raid on Deathstrike Dragon mode, the one without the traitor. In that one, the answer to the dominant player problem is "just try to work together and don't play solitaire." But a dominant player certainly could ruin that experience, as with almost any cooperative game. The Betrayal mode is a harder version of that raid where one of the mortals (or zero of them, but you won't know that!) is the traitor.

In playtesting, several players actually preferred the regular raid over the betrayal raid. The regular raid is a bit simpler, and if you are all getting along and cooperating anyway, there is no problem to fix. That said, I think the betrayal mode will really appeal to certain groups in that it's an extra challenge, and really different (and treacherous!) game dynamics. If you're ready to turn your Flash Duel up a notch, then try it. See which mode your group prefers, and feel free to post your experienes, questions, or hype on the boardgamegeek.

Flash Duel 2nd Edition ships in early December.

In closing, have another dragon card image:

Reader Comments (31)

I think that's a brilliant solution to the common problems of co-op. Any idea how you might implement a similar dis-incentive to communicating in a purely co-op game like Pandemic?

November 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterApolloAndy

Thanks ApolloAndy. I think your question is a really excellent one. Off the top of my head, I don't have an answer, but I'd be very interested in what such an answer would be.

A sort of half-way answer would be that in a "pure co-op game," maybe the entire team can win or the entire team can lose, but there's also a concept of individuals "winning more." Like imagine there are some points we each get, and if we lose, they are meaningless. If we win, we ALL win, but the person with the most points is the Super Cool Winner. In such a game, you might want to share some info to prevent the team from losing, but hide other info so you can be the Super Cool Winner. A reasonable objection to my idea is that that isn't really a "pure co-op game." It would probably be a fun game though.

If you want to stick to pure co-op, I'm not really sure, but my main contribution here is that putting band-aids on rules that stop info sharing (which allowing communication) is just the wrong road. I think giving a dis-incentive to share info is the right road, it's just not clear how you apply that in pure co-op. Feel free to post your ideas though.

November 9, 2011 | Registered CommenterSirlin

totally agree with the point being made about vague info sharing rules causing potential problems, but i will say that i am not sure you are accurate on the BSG example. there is enough overlap of the same color/number cards and many duplicates so its kinda easy to lie your way through, shift blame else where , and so on. also at the worst case it can get narrowed down to a select few which makes it tough but not broken for the traitor. as the expansions have come out the game has added more that leads their to be more suspicion to be spread around.

All that being said this mode for flash Duel does not have any of these types of even potential issues. It is definately for those looking for an intense challenge. You need the benefit of sharing knowledge but at the same time you may be destroyed by that very shared information. This game just offers so much cant wait for it!

November 9, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterjelyman

I think you've done Battlestar Galactica an injustice there on two counts. First, the rules make it clear that (unless agreed otherwise) information sharing is limited to saying that a contribution is "good" or "bad". This would narrow a person's "good" card down to, say, a 3, 4, or 5 of one of the three colours they draw. Second, players can contribute more than one card to a skill check, so if I put in two cards and say it's a "good" contribution, this could mean Blue 5 / Green 2, or Yellow 4 / Blue 3, or all sorts of combinations.

I understand your point that players could resort to other signals, but that's a problem faced by far more venerable games like poker and bridge (and cheating more generally is obviously a problem faced by all competitive games); if Battlestar Galactica really did become a high-level tournament game, there's no reason you couldn't use bidding boxes and screens like bridge.

November 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBeak-Or

I don't think I did BSG a disservice, I'm just saying what the problem is with the entire concept of squishy rules on information sharing. It's also infeasible in bridge, and that it's been around a long time is not really relevant to the discussion. Old or new, it has the same fundamental problem. Letting people communicate but saying they can't communicate "some things" that they desperately want to is a bad design concept. And in BSG, I'm still saying that "playing to win" means hints and just saying what you have are pretty much the same. If you really cared about maximizing winning, you'd get arbitrarily close to ill-defined limit.

Coming from a world of competitive games where rules have to be more solid, these things are just non-starters to me. Hence the effort to do a better job.

November 9, 2011 | Registered CommenterSirlin

Sirlin- your idea of a semi-coop, semi-competitive game has been done before with "The Republic of Rome". Everyone has to work together enough for Rome to not fall, but at the same time, you need to backstab and screw your opponents some because you want to win for yourself.

In my experience, Rome ALWAYS falls, and everyone loses because, at least with the folks I game with, we're too caught up enough on getting ahead for ourselves and forcing someone else to do the "dirty work" to keep us all alive. Which means that it makes for a pretty accurate political simulation, but perhaps not a very good game.

November 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterObscura

I agree with what you're saying about how the secrecy rules in BSG can be attacked if you're playing to win, but only in the frame of one game where you're human.

When I Play To Win in BSG, I'm playing to win in every game, and to do that, I need to be able to win when I'm a Cylon too. So I need to cultivate a table image like that - if I'm always the guy who pushes the secrecy rules to gain power for the human side, then I'm dead if I'm ever not on that side. In the long term, I believe it's in my favor to preserve the secrecy rules and cultivate a table image that gives me the flexibility to play for whichever side I'm dealt.

November 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterYostage

Obscura: Oh interesting. Thanks for the reference. I guess that isn't the most "cooperative" experience. I wonder if a similar system in some other game could end up being more cooperative though.

November 9, 2011 | Registered CommenterSirlin

I can't remember the name of the game, but there was a co-op where you defend a castle by killing invading monsters and the you win or lose as a team, but you also "Super Win" if you killed the most monsters. At least in that case, your team and individual goals seem relatively aligned and there isn't an opportunity to screw other players unlike the Rome game Obscura mentioned....just the opportunity to outperform them.

November 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterApolloAndy

ApolloAndy, I believe the game you're thinking of is Castle Panic.

November 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterObscura

Ok, this just sounds too fun. I need to get this now. (not kidding)

November 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAphotix

A coop-petitive game like Sirlin mentioned that I always loved back in the day was Four Swords Adventures for Gamecube. I know thats a videogame, but its tension between coop and competition always worked really well for me.

The game was kind of obnoxious for how much hardware it required in order to get the full experience (The game used the GBA with GCN link as a controller, so you had to have 4 GBAs, 4 GCN links, a GCN, and a TV to play with a full party), but my friends all happened to have GBAs already, and the link cables weren't that expensive, so we were rewarded with some of the most fun multiplayer videogaming I've ever experienced.

November 10, 2011 | Unregistered Commentermatt.lashof

As I commented before, this is a truly clever rule to prevent most issues with cooperative games. Every time I play BSG, I hope not to become the traitor, because that means I will be forced into passivity for most of the game.

November 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKdansky

I have to tell only two things :
- extremely nice insights in co-operative games gameplay
- I'm definitely going to buy it in December!

November 10, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterfezvez

One way in the purely co-op games is to assign some cost to communicating. I've seen variants of Pandemic where you can't communicate at all (with game information) unless you spend an action or discard or card or something to that effect.

But that does in some ways hinder the "cooperativeness" of the game.

November 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterApolloAndy

Yeah and another fun thing about a cooperative game is that it's social. So restricting communication in a supposedly social game is kind of iffy. It's also kind of iffy to say you can talk about some things but not others, because it's hard to define the line probably.

November 11, 2011 | Registered CommenterSirlin

I read this earlier in the week and let it sit a bit, but I've just come back from reading over the Exodus expansion to BSG and it raising some more thoughts ...

Firstly, the restrictions on communication exist in equal parts (and never to a good effect) in every coop I've played. Pandemic has the loosest and most bizarre rules while Shadows Over Camelot and BSG follow very similar ideas. Typically I've just waived off whatever has happened in each game, as people have very different levels of ability to cope with this (some people can't help but just name specifics, and it's hard to call them out on that, you know?). I guess all I'm saying here is "I agree, there has to be some method to do this better."

Anyway, the alternate bit that I was considering is this:
The whole concept of BSG, from the beginning, has aimed to make it possible for a player to play in the shadows, and for every player to scrutinize the actions of every other. In the base game this was primarilly accomplished through skill checks, although a few other things like action choices were a factor. Cut to the Exodus expansion, and players are now accumulating (effectively) 'positive' and 'negative' trauma, which are used to progress certain events in the game. The crux of this is that just prior to the end of the game, every player is forced to discard (depending on which side they're on) all positive or negative trauma, and whoever has the most left is out of the game. The idea here is that human players won't only use good trauma to help, and cylons won't only use bad trauma to hurt. I think the concept is interesting, and certainly it creates good, meaningful choices. What I begin to question is how many methods do we need to give cylons a means to hide their intentions? If it reaches a point where players are just guessing, isn't that not a good thing? Particularly since between these new traumas, and a number of other means introduced in Pegasus (personal goals). To me, it has become part of the game that human players are forced to take cylon actions or lose the game.

Am I overthinking this? Is it not a bad thing to say, "Hey, do something bad on occasion so the other guys have more fun."? Because that seems weak to me. Shouldn't the focus be on giving cylon players more interesting options, not forcing human players to be 1/4 cylon?

November 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNikkin

It seems like the mechanic you describe would be a good one for Shadows over Camelot. In SoC the players are members of King Arthur's court and they cooperate to do quests. One player can be a traitor that is working against the Knights. The game is card driven, and the rules have a wish-washy rule about information exchange between the players. Here is the relevant portion:

A few rules must be observed at all times, when conferring with your fellow Knights.

Declarations of invent ("I heard those blasphemous Saxons are on the march again, I will put them down!") can be made freely; resources ("My Men-atarms are strong and ready, my Lord") and capabilities ("What a laughably puny Black Knight I see across this bridge!") can all be discussed openly, as long as your comments are general and nonspecific.

However, you must never reveal or discuss the explicit values of cards in your hand, or volunteer any other specific game information not readily available to your fellow players. For example, you should never say "I have 3 Grails, let me have this one" or "I'll trade you three Fight 2 cards for my Fight 5".

I believe that a variation of the approach you discuss would really help SoC. All too often SoC degrades into "I have a high card," which ruins the game both thematically and mechanically.

November 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJimb0v

Since someone else mentioned Four Swords, I want to elaborate on that a bit. In each stage, the team is tasked with getting to the end, as well as getting a certain number of total Force Gems (points). However, at the end of the stage, it tallies up every player's points, and whoever has the most points wins.

So the team has a mutual goal of getting to the end and getting points, but at the same time, YOU want to be the one getting the points. "Okay, you press the switch there so I can get the treasure chest" - both people agree that someone needs to get the chest, but there's the competitive aspect and you're pretty much forced to make a bargain of some sort, like saying the other person gets the next chest. (And then backstab them and grab that one too!)

One other detail is that you can set the points to be visible to all players, or hide other players' scores (and health and items) from everyone except themselves, which I thought was a nice touch. It's one of the best multiplayer games I've ever played, even though I've only been able to play with 1 other person most of the time. I can just imagine how crazy it is with 4...

November 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAzure Lazuline

So, I want to address the point about BSG that you brought up, because I think the issue you raised is less about the rules themselves than the mindset of the players. I'll preface this by saying, I've never played Flash Duel, so I don't know how secrecy will effect that game in a betrayal setting.

I have played probably more than a hundred games of Battlestar. The situation you described is not feasible because, frankly, it would make the game unenjoyable to play. The game would not be about the social interaction it is designed around but procedural gameplay. Yes, a group of humans could browbeat (and by the rules cheat because they do say that you cannot reveal the value of your cards which is what your "hinting" scenario did blatantly) their cylons into your scenario, once, and then their game would never be played again. The Cylons would be unable to play unrevealed, which is the fun part of being a Cylon, and the Human's victory would be unsatisfying. Its like playing video games with the cheat codes.

Battlestar is not meant to be a competition balanced game the way your games are designed. Magic the Gathering designers talk about the different player Psycho graphics of Johnny (the "Combo" player), Spike (the "win the tournament" player), and Timmy (the "play big effects" play) and, to a lesser extent, the Vorthos (flavor lover) and Melvin (puzzle solver). Battlestar isn't meant to connect to the spike player the way flash duel or yomi is. That's not to say one is bad or the other is good, just that the focus is different.

I have had the chance to play Puzzle Strike, and its a very good playing game, but the focus is the mechanics not the social interaction, its about finding the one optimum play. In Puzzlestike Multi, you cannot even change direction of who you are attacking. Battlestar mechanics are designed to play up that interpersonal interaction, so even if you could justify your scenario in the letter of the rules, it certainly flies in the face of the spirit the rules and game were designed.

Hopefully I'll get the opportunity to try some of your other games in future, and I hope you get a chance to play a game like Battlestar with a fun playgroup.

November 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGlenH
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