Variability is an important factor in my ownership of a game. Not just in the setup of a game, but the outcome of the game. Changing the starting point slightly while continuing down a path to the same outcome doesn’t give enough variability to me. It ties into my love of choice; I want to know that the outcome happened because of the choices I made. I want to look down and think that if I had chosen differently, I would be looking at something completely different. It’s also important that there not be one optimal path. That just creates the illusion of variability. I “could” have done something differently, but I would have consciously been making subpar choices had I done so. When I play a game, I want to be excited at the possible decisions I’ll have before me. I like it best when I don’t know what decisions I’ll be making going into a game and I enjoy ending a game wondering how the next game could turn out differently. Two of my favorite games tick all the right boxes with what I enjoy most about variability, Brass Birmingham and Teotihuacan.
The variability in Teotihuacan comes primarily with player setup and secondarily with player interaction, which is the opposite of Brass Birmingham. Six of the eight action spaces players will be circling are randomly set up. With the limitations of only being able to move workers 1-3 spots the placement becomes incredibly important. When a resource generating space is placed after the space those resources are used for, it throws an added wrinkle of time from when the resources are gathered to when they can be benefited from.
While one game might see the temple as the dominant point generator, another might see the stone gathering space placed after the temple building spot with players scattering down other avenues of victory point generation. One player might decide it’s crafty to go down a particular temple that grants resources, another might see lumber and developing the Path of the Dead as the most prosperous route. An “Ideal” strategy or plan could be completely upended based on the board layout.
The player interaction will also dictate the decision making process of Teotihuacan. Crowded spots require more cocoa (Think food) to use the action of, but could also harvest more food if players choose to not use the actions on a space. Plans are beset on all sides by potential opportunities. Planning to triple up on the gold action spot? Sorry, you won’t have enough food to do that three turns in a row because of how crowded that space is….. how sad for you. You were planning on doing that one action for a number of turns now, but everyone is all crowded up and now’s your chance to gate a 5 cocoa harvest.
The board state creates a constantly evolving ecosystem of many small interconnected variables. Small changes in variability that make the player think “is it actually better to do x instead of y now? Or z? Dose this throw the math of my fundamental plan off?”. The optimal path is constantly changing in small ways and the variations are small enough as to not be obvious. It’s your choice to recognize and select the right actions for your game, and your turn. The righteous worker is beset on all sides by the inequalities of the action spaces and the tyranny of other workers, blessed are they who in the name of optimized decision making shepherds the low level worker through valley of inefficient resource collection.
Brass Birmingham offers variability almost entirely through player interaction. The board setup in Birmingham does shake things up a little bit, and the cards do limit player actions. However, a crafty player can usually find a way to squeak out what they want to do. The games will unfold differently as player decisions dictate almost everything about the board state. This was perfectly encapsulated when I got the chance to play with the game’s lead designer. He opened up his turn by playing a happy little railroad connected to Birmingham. To experienced players, clearly an ideal play.
Unfortunately, he was playing against three novices and we all proceeded to build out of our own little corner of the map. He was shocked. I told him that was my second game and that the first one turned out similar, he said that was incredibly weird. Even the ideal moves from the most experience player can be leveled if players don’t act as they are expected to. Plays have to adjust on the fly to the actions of the players. There are always the twin swords of Damocles “supply” and “demand” hanging over any plan. Didn’t expect players to snatch up resources you needed? The demand for iron went up too much and now you’re one pound shy of what you wanted to do. The cash return on supplying that good that is in massive demand is so tantalizing and no one else seems to want to supply it. The decisions are constantly changing every turn and unfold in different ways every game. It’s a living breathing economic ecosystem that’s fueled off player decision.
I recently passed on a few games because, while they look fun, they seem to lack variability. Imperial Settlers Empires of the North did look enjoyable, but playthroughs seemed to result in almost the entire deck being laid out in front of the player. There was no excitement of “Which buildings will I play this game?” since most buildings are laid out in any given game. You have to use a new faction to experience something different, but those experiences are finite. Looking down at a player board it just felt a bit too samey.
I didn’t choose to build X over Y, X came out before Y and I still built almost everything just in an order that maximized resources. The same thing happened with Everdell. I built a nice little tableau for my animal kingdom, but I had seen almost all the buildings there were. The choices were obvious, A combos with B, so take both of those, that sets me up to combo with C, follow the dotted line…. A few buildings and citizens might shuffle around depending on what order they were revealed but the overall experience was the same. It takes something like Caverna with staggering options, finite space/resources, and player blocking to create a create variability with that tableau building model. Unfortunately, you add complexity and discourage people who don’t like that level of complexity.
Variability is something that is at the core of my gaming values. I enjoy the unknown and the ability to use my mind to cut through it. Games I prize the most in my collection are ones where I’m excited about what options I’ll be presented with and if I’ll be able to see the flow of that particular game and act accordingly. I also enjoy when my mates have that same option. I don’t want to go into a game with the problem already solved by experience, there is always some advantage but it prefer when it can be overcome. Having to adjust a plan because the board unfolded in unexpected ways is exciting. Ending a game in a completely different state to the last is refreshing. It’s these experiences that keep those games off the Facebook boardgame exchange.