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Min-Maxing

Essays
  • Essays
  • Limited Components - Board Games Doing More with Less

Limited Components - Board Games Doing More with Less

O Updated
(Photo by Ksenia Kudelkina on Unsplash)
There Will Be Games

I have previously written about small box games in my article "Compressed Collections" which can create a lot of gameplay with only a few components. However, even larger box, or big box, games are sometimes very inventive when it comes to using components in a clever way to create more gameplay and possibilities than would otherwise be possible. After all, board games have it much harder when you compare them to computer games. They have a limited number of components that come in a box, even in a large box. So I want to look at how the same components can be used in many different ways.

I think the first thing many of us will think of is multi-use cards. They are a relatively new idea still, but are a brilliant way of not only giving players several options to develop different strategies, but also reducing the number of components needed in the game. Instead of needing coins, resource tokens, defence counters, life points and other components, cards can be used as all of these things and at the same time also offer the option of carrying out actions or offering permanent abilities. Multi-use cards can also be a brilliant way of forcing players to make difficult decisions about what function to use a card for, if cards can only be used for one of the various options.

A deck of cards can also be used instead of dice, creating a different kind of randomness that dice would otherwise create. Depending on how the cards are used, you could add a deck-building mechanism, allowing players to improve their possible dice results, or you could keep it simple and have a fixed deck, and every time you draw a card, you're removing a possible result from a future turn, allowing players to plan better in advance. So rather than shuffling the whole deck every time and drawing a card, you reduce the deck by one card each time until it's empty and you reshuffle it.

Of course, removing dice and replacing them with cards actually increases the component count, but if you incorporate the dice mechanism with the multi-use functionality of cards, you effectively remove components, the dice, from the game.

Cards and tiles are also often used to create a flexible map for players to explore. Sometimes these maps are completely randomized, other times they are predetermined. However, to create large maps, you really need a huge number of cards. You can probably think of a game that comes with a giant box filled with hundreds of square cards to create a fixed map and even though that is an amazing idea, this article is about using a few components well.

So some games have come with a modular set of tiles that can be combined in many different ways to create a fixed map for different scenarios. It's an elegant solution for creating a large, varied world for players to walk through, without needing dozens of components.

Another component that has seen wider use in modern board games is the humble dice, in particular the six-sided version. Dice have now become workers with a numeric property that could represent power or turn order or something else. So instead of having lots of meeples to represent the power of an action, you only need one dice, or maybe two, reducing the number of components needed.

Dice have also been used for stacking, which can create a dexterity element and adds a third dimension to an otherwise two-dimensional game. Of course, this is not about reducing component count, but I still thought I'd mention this clever use of dice at this point.

Some games also use the game box itself, creating higher ground, a place for players to reach or as a dice tray with targets to give bonus points or trigger other effect. Some game boxes even have a game board, or part of a game board, printed in them. Again, that's a great way of creating more options for players and add mechanisms without adding more components.

I'm sure there are other ways in which components have been used in a clever way in games, creating more fun and more gameplay. What can you think of? Have you played a game which you thought really used every component to its full potential? Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below. I'd love to hear from you.

There Will Be Games
Oliver Kinne
Oliver Kinne (He/Him)
Associate Writer

Oliver Kinne aims to publish two new articles every week on his blog, Tabletop Games Blog, and also release both in podcast form. He reviews board games and writes about tabletop games related topics.

Oliver is also the co-host of the Tabletop Inquisition podcast, which releases a new episode every three to four weeks and tackles different issues facing board games, the people who play them and maybe their industry.

Articles by Oliver Kinne

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Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #312981 11 Aug 2020 12:20
The first time I remember seeing cards that could be used as dice was in the Middle-Earth ccg of the '90s. The game used a 2d6 roll to resolve combat and corruption checks and a few other mechanisms, and if you didn't have a couple of six-sided dice handy, you could flip the next card in your deck and ignore everything except a small number ranging in value from 2 to 12 near the center of the right edge of the card. To keep people from "loading the dice" in their deck, the more powerful cards had lower die roll values, while the weaker cards had higher die roll values.
Msample's Avatar
Msample replied the topic: #312982 11 Aug 2020 12:29
UP FRONT used cards as die rolls back in the 80s.
jason10mm's Avatar
jason10mm replied the topic: #312986 11 Aug 2020 13:38
Awesome article. I emailed it to the offices of Fantasy Flight Games and I think I can hear their laughter from 4 states away :)

Best use of a game box was some random zombie game where you dropped dice onto a picture of a snarling zombie to see if you hit it.

Conservation and consolidation of components also contributes to concise and quick game set up and often conveys considerable rules depth cleanly and conceptually without confusion.

I.e. You don't need to be told that cards represent life if you just know that no cards equals game over.

Sometimes though it leads to too much nuance or clutter if one component has a lot of contextual meanings or information so it can be taken too far sometimes.
the_jake_1973's Avatar
the_jake_1973 replied the topic: #312988 11 Aug 2020 14:48
The Dungeoneer series was a pretty tidy adventure game that used flat stock components and a variable map setup. Nice PVP type game in a portable format.

Gentlemen Thieves uses the game box as a fold out play area. Appealing art design as well.
SebastianBludd's Avatar
SebastianBludd replied the topic: #312989 11 Aug 2020 15:10
I prefer dice for combat unless the game wants to represent a range of results beyond the simple binary of live or die. I like Runewars' card combat where units can be forced to retreat to an adjacent area and it makes you consider unit matchups a little.

When it comes to multifunction tokens, one is unlikely to find many better examples than Horrified. The item tokens that seed the map have a numeric value, a color, and a location, and each of those pieces of info is used in clever ways when fighting the six monsters you might face.
Jexik's Avatar
Jexik replied the topic: #312990 11 Aug 2020 16:24
I like how Root's combat system uses just two dice with minimal modifiers. It's fast and clean. With the exception of the Vagabond, nearly every faction does all of its asymmetric wildness with the same deck of cards. I feel like other companies or designers have made similar systems much more complicated or included more decks of cards for everything.

I like how both Summoner Wars and Race for the Galaxy use the cards in your hand as currency. Both games have few other pieces.
Gregarius's Avatar
Gregarius replied the topic: #313015 12 Aug 2020 10:31
I was immediately impressed with how Dice Forge allowed you to physically change your dice throughout the game. I think some LEGO games used that device first, but I think it's very clever.
SebastianBludd's Avatar
SebastianBludd replied the topic: #313018 12 Aug 2020 12:10
Another way dice can be used is by having custom faces with multiple symbols. I'm not a big fan of Descent but I like how the dice for it include a number for attack range, hearts for damage, and lightning bolts to represent hero and monsters' surge abilities.

They also convey metagame information by virtue of being multicolored, with different probabilities for range, damage and number of surges based on their color. Once you're familiar with the dice you can just look at the number and colors of them listed on a weapon or monster card to instantly get an idea of its abilities.