Board Game Mechanics: Variable Player Powers

Board Game Mechanics: Variable Player Powers

This is one of my favorite mechanics in games, it adds a lot of variety to games and to the strategy of games. However, it can be one of the trickier, though there are trickier mechanics, to teach in a game.

The idea of variable player power is that each player can do something different in the game. Now, that might mean that you’re the only player who can do something, or you can do something better than anyone else. And this isn’t because of the skill that the player possesses themselves, it is instead something that the game grants the player the ability to do.

A kind of silly but obvious example of this is in the game Magic Maze. In that game you are trying to, without verbal communication, move a group of heroes through a mall so that they can pick up what they need and then get out before time runs out. In this game each player has a certain power, you might be able to move the heroes down while I can move them up, someone else can move them left, right, and so on and so forth. While all the powers do basically the same thing, move the heroes, each of them moves it in a unique way. And now I wouldn’t really consider this a great example of how variable player powers can be used in a game, it is obvious, because you are doing something different than anyone else, in fact, you are only doing things different than everyone else.

Image Source: Board Game Geek

In most variable player power games, your power isn’t the only thing that you can do. Most of the time there will be a set of common actions that you can take, but you’ll have some added thing that you can do in the game. Pandemic is a good example of this. In Pandemic everyone has the same abilities, you can travel, treat a disease, trade a card, or cure a disease. However, if you are the Dispatcher, you can move other character pawns, not just your own. If you are the Medic, you can treat a disease better. And the same goes for the likes of the Researcher and Scientist and all the other characters. They can all do the basic actions the game, but they can improve upon a basic action or add in a whole action or affect that is specific to them.

Why I like this mechanic so much is that it makes each role in the game feel different. And it means that each time you play the game it feels different as well. In the Pandemic example, if I play the Dispatcher, I’m doing actions that are helping us win the game but that are consistently different than those of the Medic. I care about getting people to where they need to be versus healing a disease. So next time when I’m the researcher and my actions are all about getting people the cards they need, I can coordinate and plan with the Dispatcher to get me to where I need to go so that I’m not using the cards I need to help someone else cure a disease. Sure, you can repeat or find a favorite character for playing or team that you like for winning, but some of the fun is trying out new things. And that’s even more interesting, in my opinion, in a competitive game, because generally that means you are changing how you target a win, I’ll talk about on of my favorites with that coming up here.

Gateway Game:

Homebrewers – Now, I’m sure people have a bunch of different games that I could have put here, but this newer game is one that I really like that plays fast. In this game you are brewing and improving your homebrewed beer. You do this by adding ingredients to your beer, this improves your beer so it makes it more likely you’ll play in the Summer Beer Fest and Oktober Fest. Where the player powers come in is that each character can do something unique. One of the homebrewers is better at cleaning their equipment, another is efficient so they get an extra action die in a month. All of things that are done are simple, and at the end, you end up with a lot of crazy sounding beer that might be good or might just be weird. If that theme doesnt work for you, Pandemic is also a great opion.

Image Source: CMON

Medium Weight:

Xenoshyft: Onslaught – Again an area that could have a lot of different games, but I really like this one because it combines two or my favorite mechanics, player powers with deck building. You even get to blow up some bugs in this cooperative game. In Xenoshyft: Onslaught, you are fighting back wave after wave of bugs who are trying to get into your mining base on an alien planet. To do this, you create a line of defense, but what’s fun is that you can help other people with their defenses as well, so it’s very cooperative in nature. The player powers come in with what group of the security defending the base you are. If you are a medic, that means you start with a special card to start in your deck and it means that you get a few special abilities that unlock over the various waves of bugs. It can be a discount when it comes to buying weapons, armor, more troops, medical supplies, and then they start to build from there. It’s a very tough cooperative game, but I like it a lot.

Heavy Weight

Lords of Hellas – Now, this one is my most controversial pick because there are a lot of good ones out there, and some people don’t like Lords of Hellas all that well. I really like it, though, because of the variable player powers and multiple win conditions. In this game you are either trying to control two groups of land areas, a completed statue, defeated three monsters, or control areas with five temples. At the beginning of the game you pick a hero, and that hero has a unique power. This can help you decide what you want to go after in terms of winning the game. It can be as simple as just starting the game with a priestess but that means you can start going down the path of getting temples faster. But it leads you a bit in a way to win, though, when I got the extra priestess and was going for temples, I actually got closer to winning with two areas controlled. But I like the different options that it gave you and there were a ton of different heroes, so you could really tailor it to how you wanted.

Image Source: Awaken Realms

Those are just some of them that I like, there are so many out there, even something like Gloomhaven falls into that category but I skipped dungeon crawler games because while it is a variable power, it feels and plays different, and I’ll talk about dungeon crawler and what that means coming up anyways. What are some of your favorite games with variable player powers? Does it sound interesting to you if you haven’t played a game like that?

Share questions, ideas for articles, or comments with us!

Email us at
Message me directly on Twitter at @TheScando
Visit us on Facebook here.