Iteration and progression in games: Progressive/ Entropic games.

Last time, I took a look at some games that have iteration as a core part of their gameplay. Today, I’ve set myself a task that is both easier and more difficult: Finding games that continuously progress or “decay” without returning to the same game state.

This is an easier task, because almost all games have development built into them. I mentioned poker as an iterative game yesterday – but while it iterates, it will also be progressing towards a conclusion: bankrupting all players except for one. At the same time, this is a more difficult task, because I want to find games that have almost no iteration at all, and that is a relatively rare phenomenon.

I’ve called this post “progressive/entropic games”. But while they are similar, I would say that entropy and progression are two different things:

  • Entropy is a term in physics describing the principle that all things in the universe are slowly devolving into heat (put very, very bluntly – I’m using this term for my purposes). More generally, I would determine it as “things decaying on their own”. In game terms, I define entropy as mechanisms within the game that will drive the players away from the starting position, often slowly moving the game towards a conclusion. A turn counter is perhaps the bluntest form of entropy. The pile running out is another form of entropy: no matter how well you are doing, the pile is going to end at some point, and the game is going to end.
  • Progress, meanwhile, means development, maybe towards some kind of goal. If you are constructing buildings that give you more resources, you are progressing. If you are moving towards your goal in a racing game, you are progressing.

Both of these can be reversible or irreversible. I would say that entropy is very often irreversible. Many games have built in mechanisms to make sure the game does not go on indefinitely – and indeed, quite a few games could have benefited from that kind of mechanism. Progress can be either, sometimes in the same game. Take Munchkin – killing monsters in Munchkin gains you loot and levels, both of which are examples of progress. If you die, you lose your loot (so that progress was reversible) but keep your levels (so that was irreversible progress).

And so, without any more ado, a few games that, to my mind, are progressive and/or entropic.

Tic-Tac-Toe

When I played this game as a kid, I seem to remember a game with three little circles and three little crosses that could be moved around on the board. But when playing on paper, you draw your symbol on the paper and don’t erase it. In other words, the game will never take more than nine rounds. After nine rounds, the grid will be full, and you can’t play anymore. A very clear example of irreversible entropy.

Chess

Chess is another great example of entropic gameplay, and also one in which the entropy can also be progression. From the first time a pawn is moved, the board will never look the same again, as you can never move a pawn backwards. Soon, pieces will be captured, leaving both players with fewer and fewer pieces.

As a matter of fact, I seem to recall that there is a rule in chess that states that if the same board position occurs a certain number of times, the game ends in a draw. In other words, any player hoping to win the game must drive towards a resolution. Progress or die!

Settlers of Catan

I’ll be honest – I’m not a big fan of Settlers. It is, however, a very good example of a game that progresses. Every time you build a settlement or a city, you will gain more resources (as you will have one more space to harvest from). And as settlements and cities gain you points, you are also driving towards the 10 points that close the game. This is an example of irreversible progress: once something is built, it is not taken off the board again.

Warhammer

I used to play Warhammer Fantasy Battles, and I dabbled in Warhammer 40k. In both games, once you’ve set up your figures, there’s no going back. Moving back takes such a long time, your only sensible move is almost always to go forward, towards the enemy. And once you start fighting, your army starts slowly deflating. The game, then, is about making sure the other player expends all of his resources before you can expend yours. And of course, many of the scenarios you will be playing also have turn counters build into them.

Red Dragon Inn

One thing I’ve always admired about Red Dragon Inn is the way the game is designed to end. There are two ways to lose the game: run out of money (as symbolised by cardboard coins), or have your alcohol content meet your fortitude (represented by a clear and a red stone, starting at opposite ends of the same track). You gain alcohol almost every turn, and lose fortitude regularly through cards played on you. Fortitude can often be regained as the game progresses, but it’s almost impossible to get rid of alcohol content once you get it. As such, you will eventually pass out.

Meanwhile, money is more of a fluent resource that can change hands quite often. There are a number of ways money leaves the game completely: many cards will do it, like having “the wench” take away the pot of a round of gambling. Also, whenever the drinks deck is empty, everybody pays to have the deck reshuffled. And when somebody passes out, at least half of their money will go to the inn. As such, there will be fewer and fewer coins to go around. This means that somebody will eventually run out of money, unless everyone passes out first.

Now the genius of this game is that each character in the game has one or more strengths. Some are good at gaining money, some are good at dealing damage, while others are good at avoiding getting alcohol. As such it will often be a matter of having enough of one resource while trying to protect the other resource. In a way, this feels like progress – while it really is entropy.

Geiger Counter

The story-game Geiger Counter contains two inbuilt countdown mechanisms: First of all, the menace slowly increases in size until it reaches the maximum, after which it can be whittled back down. Secondly, every time someone loses a challenge, they gain a condition – a certain number of conditions and you’re out. This means that there can only be so many confrontations in the game before it ends. Either the menace gains a die or loses one, or one or more players gain a condition. This will inevitably lead to the end of the game.

Fifteen Men

Fifteen men is a Fastaval scenario about pirates. There are five players in the game, each of whom will get to play a number of characters throughout the game, until all fifteen characters have been played by someone. As such, each time somebody dies, we will be one tick closer to the end of the game.

At the same time, the game has an inbuilt compulsion to progress: at certain points, you can’t progress the game without killing someone. This seems like a double-edged sword: on the one hand, you force the players to do something they may be hesitant to do. On the other hand, if they don’t do it, the game is stuck.

Starcraft

One of the neat things about RTS-games like StarCraft, Warcraft and similar, is how the resources drive the game onwards. There is progression in the game – but you can easily be reduced to rubble. You can’t continue building indefinitely, however. Eventually, your minerals will run out or your Vespene Geyser will run out, and you will have to go find more resources. This means that any game of Starcraft (and Warcraft, and – if I remember the game correctly – Command & Conquer) will have to end, at the latest when the map has been drained of resources.

Other progressive or entropic games

  • Racing games: In racing games, you may be taking several laps –but the more you progress, the closer you get to the finish line.
  • Sid Meyer’s Civilization: in the game, you progress through research and years towards the inevitable ending of the game.
  • Bausack/Bandu: Each time someone pays gems, he’s a little closer to being broke. Each time someone puts a piece in their tower, they get a little closer to toppling their tower. Each time a tower topples, you get a little closer to ending the game.
  • Race for the Galaxy: The game ends when someone has 12 cards in their display, or when a certain number of VP have been gained.

The golden is mean

All the games above have progression as a core thing in the way the game is constructed. But very few, if any, games are completely devoid of iterations. And why should they be? The best games happen when a designer hits a perfect combination of the two. Some way the player progresses with each iteration, some way each iteration ends for another to begin.

But that’s for next time. For now: does this make sense? Is it a useful distinction to make? And do you have any great examples of entropy or progression within a game?

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