Today, we want to talk about randomness and control in Steamwatchers; treat this article as a developer diary of sorts!
In a game where players are quite involved (whether it’s time, thought of a mixture of both), players want to have agency and control over the game. This is something that Marc Lagroy, the designer of the game, wanted from the start. The game had no dice, and a deterministic combat system: each player allocates extra strength to the value of their units, which makes it a mind game that relies on guessing what the opponent might do, rather than just a clear-cut tally of the forces. At the same time, the betting serves as the factor of uncertainty. Uncertainty is needed in that type of game as it prevents players from crunching all the data that’s there to determine the best course of action. This type of deterministic combat can feel very abstract when there’s no player choice involved, or no resolution check!
This is also why the Order allocation is programmed face down, then simultaneously revealed: we wanted each player to select their preferred strategy by targeting which areas should move or defend. Giving players control is a good thing, but not knowing the intentions of everyone forces players to choose after assessing what is on the map. This degree of uncertainty is certainly helping players compute less, but they still have to plan around everyone’s intentions. This also gives some space to table talk; you can discuss a temporary alliance (if your gaming group likes it) and may stick to it… or just betray everyone in the same turn like a heartless monster. Table talk can help ascertain certain moves will not be done, and will have you focus on other parts of the map, on moving around Europa to catch the precious steam.
Select elements of the game are randomized, namely steam columns spawn and Archon cards. The steam columns can spawn at any point of the map. When taking up the Watcher title, people realize they want the cards from the areas that are under their control, or close to. As you draw three cards, there is a good chance you’ll get such an area. While this is obviously a good outcome, having cards from where your opponents are is also very good because you can hoard those cards, knowing those areas will be barren until the end of the game. You know they are bound to leave those areas open, then you might butt in and seize that area before having the column spawn – now, granted, this ideal scenario doesn’t happen often. However, as you take the Watcher title more and more, your hand size increases, and so does the information you have on the game.
Randomness is there to keep everyone’s eyes peeled for what’s going to happen – exactly as the people of Europa. Having too many steam columns on one’s side is definitely possible, and is a thing you want to avoid: if you get too big, players will join forces to take what they must! If there is a takeaway from this, it would be: “be ambitious, not greedy”.
The Archon cards are also random and, as they are situational, they encourage taking up that role a second time, increasing the pressure around the Archon title. If you have a DDOS card, you can shut down any support and know that attacking weaker areas is easier. Or you can ruin everyone’s attack seafaring plans with Strangers from the West, blocking the westernmost two ice floe areas! Having such an impactful card means you are going to decide your game plan around it! The Archon cards from the expansions can add more variability, and are a bit harsher on players – again, the key thing is giving players agency and means to do stuff.
That’s it for this post about randomness and control: as you can see, we tried to preserve a healthy balance of both!