This is a guest post from Jonathan Tweet about a game we both love. You can find him on Twitter at @JonathanMTweet or on Google+ as Jonathan Tweet
Atlas Games has a new board game that’s about placing bets based on shared, limited information, and it’s become one of my favorite multiplayer board games. Cursed Court was designed by Andrew Hanson, with great art by Lee Moyer. The board and cards consist mainly of art, so it’s an attractive game. The core mechanic is simple but deep, where each player starts with foreknowledge of two cards guaranteed to come up, one card secretly shared with the player to the left and the other with the player to the right. Players take turns betting on which cards and card combinations are going to turn up, watching each others’ bets closely to try to discern what the other players know.
Coins are used to guarantee the bets that players make. Each round, each player ends up with four bets placed on the board, each one backed up with a number of coins. Another player can take your place on a bet if they devote twice as many coins to the bet as you did. For example, if you bet on “The Scandal”, you score 3 points if, at the end of the round, the Courtesan, Queen, and Assassin are all in play. You can also put any number of coins on the bet, and they indicate how committed you are to it. Later in the round, another player can kick you off “The Scandal” by committing at least twice as many coins as you did. The coins add an important degree of strategy, both in how you assign coins and how you interpret the coins assigned by others. Bluffing can throw off other players, so it sometimes pays to assign coins to a bet that you’re not sure of.
The drawback of using the coins is that they lead to time spent counting and calculating. Players are stuck sometimes trying to figure out whether it makes more sense to commit 6 coins or 7. To figure that out, you need to know how many coins other players have left to play, which means counting their stacks.
When I play, I make a simple change to the rules. Instead of each player starting with 20 coins, you get 4. At this scale, the difference of 1 coin plus or minus is actually significant, and you see at a glance how many coins each player has left to use. Players get the same range of options, from committing no coins on a bet to committing all of them, but their intermediate options are limited to three: 1, 2, or 3 coins. The game moves faster, and you don’t really lose anything.
One game design rule of thumb that I’m sometimes credited with is that in a game two things should be the same or different. When we designed 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons, we made all the standard humanoid monsters, such as goblins and hobgoblins, noticeably different from each other. That was an example of the same-or-different rule in practice. The four coins variant is another result of that thinking. With 20 coins, when you back up a bet with 6 of them, it’s not the same as using 7 but it’s not all that different, either. Likewise, backing a bet with 1 coin is almost the same as not using any coins at all. Using only four coins, two different levels of commitment are always significantly different from each other because each individual coin is one-fourth of your total.