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Hacking the Game (plus the Advantage of Experience revisited)

I wrote a few posts back about the advantage a player with extensive experience with the digital/app version of a game gives the player over newer players to the game. Since writing that post I've had the opportunity to play a couple of games in person that I'd only ever played virtually before.

One was the Castles of Mad King Ludwig, an immensely enjoyable game that has a very simple play (buy a castle room and build it on your castle) but with plenty of play features (rooms that, when completed, give bonuses) and combining facets (different points scored, or lost, when joined) which makes optimization the real challenge. Here, knowledge of those features and facets makes a huge difference in gameplay and someone with a basic understanding is at a pretty big disadvantage to someone who has played the game a couple hundred times.

In this game, I had the most experience playing because of my time spent with the app. Two of the other players had played the physical game a few times, while our fourth had never played before. I was curious how my app experience would come into play in a physical setting against non-AI players.

Where the two players familiar with the game did OK, their limited experience meant they still struggled with strategy, whereas it took maybe a half dozen rounds for me to start recalling my preferred strategies, and to create multiple approaches to extending my castle. Our fourth actually locked in on a strategy from the outset (utility rooms) and stuck with it an came in second place.

If we were planning to play Castles more often I wouldn't think twice about my strong win, but with this being a one-off (for now) I do feel a little bad about it. Should a really experienced player take a handicap against a new player (like in golf)?

I also recently played Galaxy Trucker for the first time outside the app in a four player game. Two of the players had never played, while two of us both had extensive experience with the app (and the other experienced player had played the physical version a few times). The difference in the ships that the two inexperienced players made versus the experienced players ws shockingly huge. I was expecting that the scramble-draft of the ship parts would lead to more parity, I underestimated how much the knowledge of how the ship's pieces work together and how the game plays out after the drafting factors into the build.

two very different ships

Looking at the two (somewhat blurry) ships above, the one on the left is mine, the one on the right is from a new player. In normal competition the ship on the left would trounce the ship on the right in the convoy. However because we had two experienced players and two novice players we hacked the game and paired up.

In this hack all four players still built their ships individually at the same time, the difference being when it came time for the flight, the teammates would swap ships and any money earned would be collectively pooled.

It was a very nominal hack, but it created a much more exciting and entertaining game than had we played it traditionally. When you're scrambling to put your ship together you're not really paying attention to the other's players' ships, so it's always a little surprising (/disappointing/amusing) to see what you get from your partner. Then it's really quite fun to see how this ship you didn't build performs, plus you get to look across the table and see how the ship you did build performs (but in someone else's hands).


There are many reasons to hack a game. Broken or misinterpreted rules sometimes require a hack, or sometimes you see something in a game the designer didn't and you make a house rule that you'll refuse to play without.

Sometimes you hack a game to add an additional player. I did this with Imperial Assault to allow for a 5th Rebel player. We created a -1 action card that would be passed around from player to player each turn, limiting the effectivity of that player for the round. At the same time the Imperial player would get double the starting threat to compensate for the additional opponent. It seemed to work well.

In these situations where you want to add an additional player you can always consult the internet (guaranteed someone has thought about it and posted it somewhere) or you can groupthink about it then trial-and-error a solution, or both. Many games just won't allow for it, but there's also a bit of fun to be had in trying out a fifth player hack.

I've also hacked a lot of games to be played with younger players. With King of Tokyo which I started playing with my daughter around the time when she turned 5, I just took out the Power Cards. It makes the game ridiculously straightforward but that's kind of what a 4 or 5 or 6 year old needs from a game.

With Ticket To Ride, I would choose three disparate routes for myself and give my daughter two simpler routes and we would essentially race for completion, letting the Train Car draw pile sort of dictate the race.

In both cases minimal guidance was needed from my end, letting my daughter learn to make her own choices in the process.

I know there are children's games out there but few of them I find stimulating enough that my kids can actually challenge me (there has to be a lot of randomness generally for a kid to win at a Euro style game). I tend to enjoy hacked adult games more, with the benefit that your child gets used to these more complex games allowing you to introduce the more complex concepts of these games, further allowing you to introduces new games to them.

In the end it's all about having fun and sharing the fun.

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