Resolving Ambiguity in Cooperative Games

We recently reviewed Batman: The Dark Knight solo board game (see here). One thing that seemed very weird in the game was how much choice the player had to make decisions when there was an ambiguity. It really got us thinking about how we resolve ambiguities because so much of Batman lets the players choose.

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For instance, when placing a bad thing on the maps, each Location has three types of bad things and the player simply gets to choose which one! (See above). Or, sometimes you place things in a region: a region has multiple locations, so you get to choose which Location in a region! (See below: the region is specified by the little token next to the GCPD track).

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Another place where the player gets to make a choice is when choosing the events: each card has a “good thing” section (blue Detective section or red Fight section) and a “bad thing” section (yellow Event section), and you get to choose 2 cards for their “good thing” and 1 card for it’s “bad thing”: See below.

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Of these three player choices, we found the Event/Detective choice incredibly thematic! It represented a mature Batman having to make the best of a very bad situation: sometimes you have to choose to survive certain Bad things just to move forward. It was incredibly thematic for a dark Batman game.

But, the other two player choices felt … lazy.

“Hey, where are we gonna make the players put the tokens?”
“I dunno, let them decide.”
“What about the regions?”
“I dunno, let them decide”.

I am being intentionally negative about this to make a point: there is a lot of ambiguity in the game and most of the time Batman: The Dark Knight Returns chooses to let the player decide. The alternative is to make a rule system that resolves every ambiguity: in a game full of lots of rules already, you can imagine that would really weigh it down.

Marvel United: Days of Future Past

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Batman: The Dark Knight Returns is a fairly complicated with lots of rules, so maybe it let the player decide things to simplify the rules.  But there are ambiguities of this type in most cooperative games! Even the simpler superhero game Marvel United has to deal with ambiguities:  we reviewed the expansion Days of Future Past here fairly recently.

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When a Sentinel would move towards a hero and it is the same distance away on the left and the right, what do you do? In this case, there doesn’t seem to be a rule for it, so “players choose”.

Cooperative vs Competitive Ambiguity

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These ambiguities don’t seem as big a deal in a cooperative game as they are in competitive games: players can work together to come up with the best solution to the ambiguity, but in a competitive game, such ambiguities can mean the difference between winning and losing!  So, many competitive games have a much stricter rule set (hopefully) to stave off these issues, but perhaps cooperative games have a lower bar because you can always “just defer to the players in case of ambiguity?”  

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Get the errata!

I mean, we saw all sorts of issues with the rules in Cantaloop: Book 2 (from a few weeks ago, see here): it desperately needed an errata for a scene, and the review discussed the many ambiguities in the programming puzzle rules!

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This is where I gave up: E2. I stopped caring

Are ambiguities something that just permeates cooperative games because it’s easy to just defer to the players?

“I dunno, let the players choose”.

Seems Wrong

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I’ll be honest: it just seems wrong to me to let the players choose ambiguity resolution in many situations! I think that’s why the choices in Batman: The Dark Knight Returns bothered me so much. The players want to win, so they’ll probably choose the ambiguity resolution that will help them the most! And that seems wrong to me! The game should be fighting and providing an engrossing experience!

It “takes me out of the game” to have to resolve some ambiguity decided by “letting the players decide”. For example, imagine the light saber duel between Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars: the movie stops, and Darth Vader turns to the audience to ask “Which way should I turn?” Nope. Nope. Nope. Let the Villains fight me, however flawed their logic!

The Sidekick of Interest (SOI) Mechanism

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One trend I have noticed is that more cooperative games are starting to use (something like) the Sidekick of Interest mechanism to help disambiguate! In Sidekick Saga, whenever a Bad Guy has choice to attack two Heroes and they at the same distance, the Sidekick of Interest chart helps to disambiguate!

Consider the example below:

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Who does the Bully Attack?

In the example above, if Shadow Walker and Black Bird are the same distance from the Bad Guy, who does the Bully Attack? Answer: consult the SOI Chart!

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A 4-Player Game of Sidekick Saga

According to the SOI chart above, the Shadow Walker is “more interesting” and becomes the target!

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Black Bird became more interesting!

Later in the game (after Black Bird becomes more interesting by taking out some Bad Guys), Black Bird becomes the favored target in the wake of an ambiguity!

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The Gang is on the same Location as two Sidekicks: who do they attack?

The SOI mechanism is resolution mechanism for “who does the Bad Guys attack” when there is ambiguity.

Forgotten Waters

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Forgotten Waters has made so many of our Top 10 lists: Top 10 Cooperative Games with a Sense of Humor, Top 10 Cooperative Swashbuckling Games, Top 10 Cooperative Storybook Games, Top 10 Cooperative Games of 2019 and more! Forgotten Waters has a mechanism almost exactly like the SOI chart: The Infamy Track! The players are pirates working together on a Pirate Ship, but each pirate has to go in some order they place themselves on the storybook!

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The Quartermaster Board (see above) has the Infamy Track which is JUST like the SOI chart! The players are ordered left to right. The players can do silly things in the game to go up and down in infamy, but it’s really just a fun disambiguation mechanism! What order do players place their pirates on the storybook? In the order spelled out on the Infamy Track! (Infamy and Interesting even start with the same letter I!)

The Legends of Sleepy Hollow

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Legends of Sleepy Hollow is a cooperative game from our Top 10 Anticipated Games of 2022 that we reviewed here! This incredible thematic game is all about fighting weird sleepy hollow creatures on a map! See below.

Much like Sidekick Saga and Forgotten Waters, Legends of Sleepy Hollow has a notion of a SOI chart! In this case, it’s called simply the Attack Priority Chart. See below.

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The mechanism is used the same way as the SOI chart: if two good guys are at the same range, which do the bad guys attack? The only difference is that the Attack Priority chart is static for a scenario, i.e., it doesn’t change for the entirety of the scenario. Every new scenario has a different Attack Priority Chart! But it works just like the SOI chart in every other way.

Static vs Dynamic

The fact that the SOI chart and the Infamy Chart change as you play makes them dynamic!  In Sidekick Saga, every time a Sidekick takes out a Bad Guy, he rockets to the top of the SOI chart!

Bad Guy 1: “Hey!  Did you hear??? Blackbird took out Hacker Noir!”

Bad Guy 2: “What??? Oh that does it, I am going after him now if I get a chance!”

Although this dynamicism makes the game exciting and strategic as you have to think about WHEN you should take out a Bad Guy, it is slightly fiddly to maintain the SOI chart: players are sliding tokens left and right all the time.  Forgotten Waters dispels some of this fiddliness by assigning that job exclusively to one player: that’s the Quartermaster’s job!  Legends of Sleepy Hollow sidesteps the fiddliness issue completely by simply not having moveable tokens at all!

It’s really just a tradeoff.  A dynamic SOI chart is exciting and strategic, but potentially fiddly.  A static SOI chart is much less fiddly, but at the cost of some excitement and strategy.  Of course, the lack of a SOI chart is the simplest solution, but at the cost of taking players out of the game.

Conclusion

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I am excited to see more games using the SOI Chart mechanism!  I really don’t like it when cooperative games (especially ones where I am fighting bad guys) make the “players choose” in ambiguous situations!  I feel like the “players choose” resolution mechanism is anti-thematic and takes the players out of the game.  Hopefully we’ll see more games use mechanisms like the SOI chart in the future!

And hopefully companies won’t lazily just use “player choose” as a default mechanism when they don’t know what to do to resolve ambiguity.

Appendix: I Really Do Like Batman: The Dark Knight Returns!

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I really do like Batman: The Dark Knight Returns.  I think the design embraces the player choice on purpose, and it is very interesting to have so many places where players choose.  I think it’s an interesting design choice.  And it works much better in a solo game.

It’s just that it was so weird it got us thinking about these issues.

One thought on “Resolving Ambiguity in Cooperative Games

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