The Evolution of Unique Characters in Games
This one is a bit out there in some ways. I would say that there has been attempts at unique powers for a while and some solid successes, but there was a time where the difference between who you were and who I was in the game was that I was the thimble and you were in the iron in Monopoly.
For a lot of people, that’s what it is still in gaming. Even if they’ve progressed away from Monopoly and into games like Ticket to Ride, Settlers of Catan, and Carcassonne, the difference between you and me is that I’m blue and you’re red. Otherwise everything we do is the same. And that’s a-okay in a ton of a games. There isn’t a need for your character to be slightly different than mine, but in some games, it makes the game a whole lot better.
Back in 1949, there was an attempt to make “unique” characters when Clue came out. Professor Plum, Mrs. White, Mr. Green, and the rest of the cast allowed you to pick your favorite based off of more than just color of the pawn you were using. Now, they gave you some art, but it really wasn’t a unique character at that point. You were really just picking a color still. But in some ways that was the start of having unique characters. It gave some foundation that could be built off off later.
Now, we see two prominent ways that unique characters are done in board games. There are more ways beyond that, but there are two major ways. The first is the special power route. Your character has something specific they can do that no one else can. The other way is the asymmetric route. Definitely the harder of the two to pull off, because what you do in the game is always different than what I do in the game.
The first type, is the special power or action that only you can take. A great example of this is Pandemic. In this game you have a base set of actions, treat disease, move, trade cards, etc. that everyone in the game can do. But each character has their own special action that they can take or improvement upon one of the other actions. For example, all characters can treat a disease by taking a cube off of the city they are in, but the medic can take all of the disease cubes off of the city they are in. The dispatcher, on the other hand, can move people on their turn, versus just having to move yourself. The rules still apply the same way for how they can move other people’s pawns.
You can start to see from Pandemic how having unique powers can make the game different each time in different ways. In fact, unique powers are a really good way to keep a game replay-able over a long period of time.
There are games that keep the base action for you, but allow either for changing your unique power or setting up your own unique powers. Two examples jump into my head quickly. The first being Smallworld. Since the races and powers are randomly shuffled, you might end up with flying wizards one time, and wealthy wizards another time. In this case, the game, like in Pandemic, dictates what your unique power is.
There are games, however, that allow you to determine how unique you want your character to be. This is the other example, Blood Rage (also Seafall does this), where you can spend action points that upgrade your clan. A pair of warriors can be made to be worth more in battle for you, or you can gain points when your warriors die in battle and go to Valhalla. Maybe your clan leader is now worth more points, or you can move your ship in a certain way. Maybe you have access to monsters now. Based on how you draft cards, you can shape your own player board to be unique. This type of game is interesting because at the start of the game, your clan is the same as everyone else’s clans. But as the game progresses, the clans play more and more differently depending on your cards, and which ones you choose to use. In Seafall, had the game been good, it was similar where you started out with the same base at the start of the first game, but you could buy upgrades that left from game to game, but you could also put in permanent upgrades as well, so the more you played the more unique you were.
Now, that has been the simpler type of player powers to talk about. The more difficult is the asymmetric player powers. The reason that this is tougher is because even if there is the same base to the game, everyone plays with that differently.
A great example of this is Root. In Root everyone has some pretty similar actions, but how they go about doing all of them is completely different. While you all might be moving troops and trying to control areas, the cats, to gain more troops have to build up various buildings, where as the birds are trying to create an order or cards that they play. The woodland creatures are just trying to get onto the board by using cards in yet another way, and the Vagabond is doing something else different with their actions.
This type of game is very interesting, and Cry Havoc is another example. There is one fairly big downside to a completely asymmetrical game. The time spent teaching the game the first time you play it is pretty to extremely high. In Root, for example, you have to explain a fair amount about each character, even though some of the base actions might be the same. In Vast, this problem is made even larger by the base actions being a greater variety. Cry Havoc is probably the easiest of them to teach, because the base actions for everyone are the same, just the buildings, objectives, and special powers mean that how you play the game as each faction is different.
You can see how this has all moved on from Clue where you had a name for your character, but that was about it that made you unique from just being a different colored pawn.
There are a few more ways that games try and add differences. The other most common, though what you can do might not change, is the hidden traitor role in a game like One Night Ultimate Werewolf or Resistance. These games, what everyone does is basically the same, some expansions provide more variability to the game, but in the base, you can hide your actions because you are doing the same thing as everyone else.
This has then been expanded upon with games like Dead of Winter and Shadows Over Camelot. Shadows Over Camelot gives the bad guy more that they can do, if there is even a traitor in the game. In Dead of Winter, each player has a hidden objective. So while you have the exact same set of powers, you are trying for a slightly unique state of the game when it ends, mainly what you have in your hand at the end of the game. For me, these games can be a bit more hit or miss, because depending on if there is a traitor or not, it can greatly hinge the game on various things, and it can at times force you to look like the traitor to actually win the game. If there was some balancing mechanic for it, it would make the game better, but potential hidden traitor and hidden objectives is very hard to pull off well in a game.
That’s a lot variable player powers and the range that can run. Personally, I’d be interested in seeing a reworking of Clue so that Professor Plum can do something different and better than Colonel Mustard, but that’s already been done in some of those investigation games, like Fury of Dracula.
What are some of your favorite variable player power games? Are there some where certain combinations are too broken to play with so you’ve banned them at your table?
Share questions, ideas for articles, or comments with us!