A Primer for Modular Game Design

What is Modular Game Design?

You might have heard of this term before, or seen it floating around on Boardgamegeek’s descriptors.  Fortunately, this is one of the relatively few cases where game vocabulary is comparable to actual vocabulary.lego

Modular design involves building your game of independent parts used together, in different compositions–typically to offer a varying experience from session to session.

Chances are, you’ve played a modular game before.  Ever spot the line, “and then return the rest to the box” in a game manual?  In many cases, that’s what’s referred to as a modular setup.

Some of my personal favorite games are modular.  In fact, modular design is often the difference between an engaging and a dull design.  That said, like anything in our little tabletop-building world, it’s not suited for every experience.

Let’s talk about a few different game features that can we can design to be modular.

 

1) Narrative (Dead of Winter, 2014)

Dead of WinterDead of Winter is a semi-cooperative game where each player controls a clique of survivors, and those cliques have banded together at a colony during the zombie apocalypse.  Rather than focusing on hack n’ slash antics like Zombicide, Dead of Winter focuses on the dynamics between players and their struggle in the harsh environment.

Dead of Winter is an extremely thematic game.  The familiar setting is reinforced by difficult risk/reward decisions and the desperation of having more problems than you can handle.  Designers Isaac Vega and Jon Gilmour even manage to capture the feeling of “self-interest vs community” with their Secret Objective cards.  There’s a global requirement for the (non-traitor) players to win, yes, but each individual can only win if they’ve also satisfied the needs of their personal and hidden goals.  This creates an implied climate of distrust and questioned motives that’s outright awesome to find encapsulated in a cardboard box.

But…what’s the goal?  Well, that depends on the module.

Modular scenarios and story can make your players feel as though they’re playing a very different game each time…even if the game’s foundation hasn’t changed at all.

Dead of Winter offers players a buffet of in-media-res Scenario cards, and each Scenario has a different objective that matches a different story blurb in the rules manual.  On your first playthrough, zombies might be overwhelming the colony, and your goal could be to clear them out while still meeting the colony’s needs.  On another, you might be saddled with a crowd of helpless survivors, whose need to eat will drive you to play very differently.

Imagine if your goals and the game state were the same for each session of Dead of Winter.  Would you feel as invested in the story?  Would you feel like your experience was special, or would you feel like you were playing through a book you’d already read before?

 

2) Player Powers (BattleCon: War of Indines, 2010)BattleCon

War of Indines, and some other similarly-named titles, are based on Level 99’s BattleCon system.  This system is, essentially, an analog version of a street fighting video game.  Through simultaneous action selection, players choose and reveal one of their several maneuvers each game round–a dash, a strike, a grab, etc.  Certain moves are faster, stronger, or have special effects that can be good or bad based on positioning and your opponent’s actions.

So, is it basically like rock/paper/scissors with a 2D map?

Not by a long shot.  War of Indines lets you choose a unique fighter for each game, and each character fights very differently.

Modular player powers–also known as Variable Player Powers–can enhance your players’ experience in many different ways.  We touch on that at rather great length in this blog post.

In War of Indines, each player’s identical hands of maneuver cards are complimented by a set of “style” cards that are unique to each character.  The style cards are played alongside the maneuvers, and modify them in special ways.  One character’s grab will be quite different from another’s grab.

This added dimension is the BattleCon system’s third heat, so to speak.  Players become immersed in their characters, they are driven to explore different strategies and lines of play, and they feel like they’re more involved in the overall experience.  Even in cooperative games–Pandemic, for example–your suite of characters and their capabilities can greatly affect the way you play.

Consider this: After you finish a match in a new street fighting video game, what’s the first thing you want to do?  If you’re at all like me, you want to immediately play again as a different character.  As a designer, isn’t that exactly the sort of thing you want your players to feel?

 

3) Strategic Incentives (Kingdom Builder, 2011)

Kingdom BuilderThat’s right.  Believe it or not, Donald X Vaccarino designed more than one game.  I think I even like this one quite a bit more than I like Dominion.

Kingdom Builder is the 2012 Spiel des Jahres winner–Donny’s second–where players are claiming little hexy bits on a big chunky hex map, three at a time.  At the end of the game, the player that laid the best hex bits in the best hexy patterns is the winner.

None of that even made sense.  What’s the game’s objective?

Well, it’s always going to be to score the most gold (read as: victory points) by the end of the game.  So how do you get gold?  In very different ways from session to session.

Introducing modular scoring objectives can force players to look at the game from a different perspective each playthrough, increasing replayability–especially for games looking to offer a deeper, strategic experience.

During Kingdom Builder’s setup, three modular objective cards are drawn from a stack of ten, and players will score a majority of their points according to how well they satisfy those objectives at the end of the game.  For example, you may be encouraged to settle along a river, or in clusters, or by linking certain board features together with strings of your settlements.

Beyond the obvious, there’s also another subtle layer of diversity between game sessions.  The context of each objective is different based on which other objectives are present.  Players that most efficiently adapt their strategies to complete multiple objectives are generally the most rewarded.

It’s also worth noting, this kind of modularity lends itself very well to easy expansion.  New objectives can breathe an entire new life into the game, and potential customers will understand the new elements of the game with very little prompting. Even if you only introduce one minor feature to the game…the series of scoring objectives revolving around that feature may be enough to excite players.

 

4) Strategic Options (Citadels, 2000)Citadels

An old favorite of mine, Citadels is a hidden role-selection game by Bruno Faidutti.  Each player is working to build districts in his or her part of a medieval city.  The game ends after a certain number of districts have been built, and the player with the highest-scoring array is the winner.

At the beginning of each game round, however, there’s a draft, and I do so love a draft.  Players take turns secretly selecting a character, and that character will determine their place in the turn order as well as grant a special benefit for the turn.  The Merchant, for example, lands you sixth to play, and grants you extra gold based on how many green (trading) districts you’ve built.  A total of eight of these role cards came in the base set.

But then the Dark Tower expansion introduced a new line of characters, which you may exchange as you like for any or all of the characters in the base set.  This expansion is so fundamental that, in no time at all, it was packaged with the base set.  In Citadels’ upcoming Asmodee reboot, a third set of characters will be included for even greater diversity.

Modular strategic options–such as different choices in a draft, different spaces for workers to be placed, or other manners of differing effects employable in the game–give players more of your design space to explore from session to session.

A game with the Abbot character is a bit different from a game with the Bishop…but when you can choose one character or the other for each of eight slots, the game’s decisions change quite a bit from session to session.  Likewise, in 2016 Spiel des Jahres nominee Imhotep, flipping over even one of the locations gives players something different to try and exploit.  As a consumer, this is exactly the kind of thing I might be looking for to add perceived value to my purchase.

 

5) Structures and Systems (Viticulture w/ Tuscany expansion, 2014)

TuscanyViticulture is a worker placement title from the guys at Stonemaier Games where each player is building and developing a wine-making business in Italy.  Build your workforce, plant and harvest fields of grapes, let them age, make different wines, and sell your wines to fill work orders–all in a year’s work.

Viticulture, on its own, is a fantastic game.  I personally find it to be deep, fun, and engaging from start to finish.  I’ve been perfectly happy to play it on its own.

When the Tuscany expansion was released, I initially had little interest in making that purchase.  However, prompted by an onslaught of rave reviews, I took the plunge…and haven’t regretted it for a moment.  This is because Tuscany not only expands the world of Viticulture, but it makes it modular as well.

Expansions–and even your game’s base set–can introduce independent game structures that, when added to the core rules, will offer an evolving experience.

Tuscany comes with about a dozen different modules to “uncork” as you go.  The manual suggests a certain tempered gradient, but you’re welcome to guzzle if you’d like.  Each module introduces a new structure to the game–variable player powers, a new theater of area control, special workers with different abilities, etc.  The best part of the expansion is the fact that you can pick and choose the expansions you like, or that are best suited to your group, and plug them in however you like.

This means that, when I sit down to a game of Viticulture, Tuscany hasn’t just added its bits.  Tuscany has changed the entire experience by presenting a different game with different rules at each session.

Imagine how affirmed you can make your players feel if they feel like your game is worth five on the shelf instead of just one.

 

6) The Game Board (Xia, Legends of a Drift, 2014)Xia

When all the pieces of a game are trapped in a box, the designer faces a challenge in preserving surprise.  Xia manages to capture this surprise, largely in part due to its modular game board.

In Xia, each player takes the role of a starship captain, and flies across the galaxy doing…well, whatever they want to do.  There are ways to acquire and complete objectives, and different things you can do to improve your ship and earn Fame.  Unfortunately, I can’t be much more specific than that.

This is because Xia is a sandbox.

Unless you include multiple game boards in your box, it will be the same from session to session.  Breaking that game board into pieces, and allowing players to build a new map during each session, is a way to get around that while potentially preserving the element of surprise.

That’s right.  In Xia, you reveal new parts of the map as you arrive there.

Where the benefit of most modularity is in replay value, it can also be used to broaden the scope of your game’s appeal to different psychographic groups.  Discovery and exploration can be very gratifying to players, and Xia is able to serve that to players because of its sandbox-style map.

Even in games that don’t involve exploration–Settlers of Catan, for example–a modular map can change the game’s strategic implications.  Location and geography can impact strategy and tactics quite significantly.  Changing the context of your game can be just as valuable as changing the game itself.

 

Putting it All Together

You’ll notice a recurring theme–modularity increases perceived value and replayability by expanding its explorable play space.  This can be desirable to your players, certainly, but also to your potential publisher or backers.

When looking to make your game modular, be sure to consider the following:

  • Modularity increases footprint, and footprint increases cost.  The more stuff you’re looking to offer in your game, the more stuff you’re going to have to put in the box.  Modularity is, essentially, designing too much of your game, and then asking people buy all of it at once.  Aim to offer this breadth of experience with a minimal (but appropriate) amount of components.
  • Modular designs require much more playtesting and development.  As we learned in the Kingdom Builder example, modules can perform differently based on how they interact with the game’s other modules.  It is important not just to playtest, but to stress test your game’s every configuration.
  • Modularity can exceed a game’s scope.  For many games, their charm is their simplicity or their straightforward presentation.  Modular design can damage this by giving players extra hoops to jump through during setup.  I can’t imagine for a minute that The Oatmeal considered designing Exploding Kittens to be a modular game.
  • Some games don’t need to be modular to offer a continuing experience.  Make sure to ask yourself, “Is this modular setup just overkill?”  Player interactions, social climate, and other game dynamics have a way of making the game “modular” in a more natural way.  Try to avoid adding things to your game that it doesn’t need.
  • Consider balancing for each module–both individually, and as compared to the game’s foundation.  You can save a great deal of time during iteration by planning the math in your game.  Try and make sure the modules are compatible with one another in theory before it even hits the table.  Even a simple Excel spreadsheet can save you a lot of trouble.
  • Modularity can add complexity.  Even though the rules for each module can be relegated to components, it could overall lower your game’s accessibility.  Making modular elements as “one-dimensional” as possible can mitigate some of this accessibility loss.

Design Lessons

Consider the base version Ticket to Ride.

If you had to choose one way to make Ticket to Ride modular, how would you do it?

Would Ticket to Ride benefit from this modular design?

How would this modularity change the game’s target audience?

Would you play Ticket to Ride more often with a modular setup?

4 Comments

  1. Nice article, Michael! I’d add Elysium and Dominion as great examples of modular design, perhaps going further than many of the examples above. Much of the modularity of the games you’ve mentioned come from a single element, the victory point cards, or unique player powers, for example. Dominion and (perhaps to a lesser extent) Elysium are designed from the ground up to be modular. The choice of which 10 action cards you play with in Dominion creates a completely different experience each game. Elysium has separate card decks, of which a subset are combined to create the market each time you play. While the rules for how you interact with these modules is the same each time you play, the different combinations of actions and abilities adds crazy amounts of replayability and, as we have seen for Dominion, expandability!

    • Thanks Matt, glad you enjoyed it.

      Dominion and Elysium are what I was fumbling at with modular strategic options–those are wayyy better examples than Citadels/Imhotep. It’s like swapping out buffet items, I love that in a game.

      Keep up the good work over at creakingshelves!

  2. Ticket To Ride is effectively modular when you toss in all the different versions of it — it’s the same game, but on a different map. Or is that not fine-grained enough? The long routes in the Europe version also serve to introduce some modularity in that each time you have a different challenge — some long routes cause you to fight harder through the mess of Western Europe than others. But perhaps this doesn’t vary the game enough?

    Perhaps instead of there being a single award of 10 points for the longest route, you could draw a couple of bonuses at random for things like: longest route, most branches, most cities connected, double points for all route cards involving X cities, etc.

    The problem is that TTR introduces far, far too much pain for failing a route card (even the smallest is +5 for completion or -5 for loss so a 10pt difference — up to ~45 points for failing your long route), so that they will always be the player’s top priority.

    • That raises an interesting question–are expansions, effectively, modules? I don’t see much difference except in how we might design for accessibility. A consumer that purchases an expansion is implying that he or she is prepared to learn more rules to add more to the game. A consumer opening a fresh game to discover that it is modular may not have that same willingness to invest.

      Different objectives like you mention would certainly make the game more modular, but I see what you’re saying about the routes. They do tend to weigh the most heavily on peoples’ minds, as their scoring throughput is quite high.

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