Passages & Plunder – Vision (or lack thereof)

Because it’s dark in the Underworld, you see. Or maybe you don’t.

Passages & Plunder is a board game of exploration and greed I’m working on. There’s a playtest version available, try it! This post is a (somewhat retroactive) design diary that won’t make much sense unless you’ve played it, so there.

There’s a certain way the game has played out within several groups of people I’d tried it on. The first game starts nice and cooperative as everyone’s learning how the mechanics work, then, about half way through, players realise they don’t have to be the ones to contribute to the colony’s wellbeing, so long as someone does. One person goes selfish. Seeing them gain points off the back of their labor, others go fully selfish, too. If someone holds out and tries to keep the colony alive, the selfish players win easily. Otherwise the colony is overcome in a couple of turns and everyone loses. Either way, afterwards the losers will explain, in great detail, why it’s my fault they lost. They didn’t have a reason to cooperate, they say. I can’t help but grin.

In the second game, people are selfish from the start. It’s a quick game. Eventually, gradually, an understanding comes. You have to find a balance between selfishness and cooperation. And to do that you have to talk. You have to convince your fellow players that what you’re doing is for everyone’s good. Or at least that you promise to help out on the next turn. Talking is easily half the game, that’s it’s purpose. That’s why it requires at least 3 players, to allow for these bald-faced lies and accusations.

There is, theoretically, an even deeper level of strategy. P&P is somewhat unique in that players can choose to end the game by evacuating at any point. But doing so early results in a crapshoot – someone will have grabbed more points than others, but will that be you? No, a better way is to let the game run for longer. To sneak ahead on favor with sponsors. If a player visibly gets ahead too much, others will become selfish, too, putting the burden of maintaining the colony on the nominally successful player. The player ahead still hopes to win, so they make sure everyone survives. The players behind hope to catch up. It’s a catch-up mechanism without any actual mechanics.

The longer the game goes, the more favors players will accumulate. The more uncertainty in the outcome there will be. The more willing everyone will be to help out, secretly thinking they are the ones who’s going to win. If everyone thinks they’re losing, the colony will be overrun. Therefore the aforementioned deeper level of strategy is to convince others they’re doing well. To let them catch up on points. To manage the group. To talk.

This is my hope for the game. My vision. This is why I’ve resisted putting in rewards for cooperative behavior – something playtesters always thought was missing. No, in my eyes, the reward for helping the colony is being able to say you did so. There is no “good standing” track. If you can convince others you’ve been useful it doesn’t matter if you actually have been.

But. But, but, but. This does mean that the first game or three can result in frustration, until players understand how the seemingly simple game is supposed to work. And that’s dangerous. It’s too easy to have a “meh” experience with a game and never put it on the table again. To combat this, I try to emphasize the nature of the game in the rules. Some sponsors favoring cooperative behavior is as much of a compromise as I’m currently willing to entertain, though. Vision, or lack thereof.

Variable sponsors

Enough with the retrospective, though. The last several playtests I ran focused on fine-tuning the new addition, the sponsors. While doing so it became apparent how much they shape the game. Players significantly change their behavior to gain their favor and advance their agendas – it would be a useless feature otherwise. So what if the sponsors were variable, drawn from a deck? That’d non-trivially vary up playthroughs. Right now, sponsors cover the basic actions required to run the colony: scouting, supplying, and defending. Removing any one of these sponsors could result in hobbling the colony – but maybe that’s alright, too. The current set can still be a recommended setup for the first game.

Current sponsors

Adding extra sponsors would allow me to do some bonkers things that didn’t fit into the “core” set, e.g. a sponsor whose favor is gained when another player wants you to gain it, and whose agenda is advanced when all the players agree it should be advanced (both probably limited to 1/turn).

The main concern I have is the amount of effort it’ll take to balance these extra sponsors and their combinations – it took some effort to get the first 4 right. Still, that’s what playtesting is for. I’ll try this change myself before putting it out there.

Another issue is technical. Right now, sponsor symbols are tied to their nature. If there were, for instance, 8 sponsors to choose from, though, it’d be something of an overkill to have 20+ favor tokens of each, only using 4 at a time. I guess generic sponsor emblems will have to do, with players assigning them during set up.

2 thoughts on “Passages & Plunder – Vision (or lack thereof)

  1. Make sure you clearly label the game as non-cooperative from the very beginning, then. Open the explanation by clearly stating “it’s a dog-eat-dog underworld and you are cutthroat rivals. Player on the left kicked your puppy and player on the right took your sweetroll” and go from there, letting the talk about survival and sponsorship take the back seat.

    The way it was presented when I played it, the need to keep the colony alive and the presence of cooperative sponsors makes it far too easy for an altruistic-minded play to slip into “we’re in it together” mentality which inevitably results in disappontment – and disappointment is simply not fun.

    • Here’s what the rulebook currently says, inspired in part by the game you took a part in:

      “To put it bluntly, you have to play selfishly to be able to win. While building a colony is useful, it’s not going to get you far – this isn’t an engine building game. You’ll just end up feeling used by other players who plundered the treasures and racked up the score.
      At the same time, everyone has to contribute to the wellbeing of the colony, or the end will come very quickly. How to resolve this paradox? That’s the crux of the game. Here’s a hint: a single player cannot hold it all together. You’re running a society, even if it is a society of crabs in a dungeon. Get talking to one another! This cannot be overstated: if you confine yourself to simply playing your cards, you won’t get much out of this game.”

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