Addressing the Kingmaker Problem in Invasion

When I wrote about my recent playtest of Invasion, the last point I mentioned was that I found myself in a kingmaker situation: I could not win myself, and I could stop either of two other players from winning, but not both. I ended up making the play that maximized my own score, but it made an unsatisfying end to what had otherwise been a tense and active game. I left this point until last not because it was least important, but because unlike the other points, I was completely unsure what I was going to do about it.

I want for players in a position like mine to be able to credibly play to maximize their score–or to narrow the gap between their score and the leader’s–without the futility of “the game is ending this turn so why bother?” The first way I attempted to solve this in a previous Invasion iteration was the “Will Smith Rule”: when the game would otherwise be over, roll a d6. On a 6, Will Smith’s heroics buy the humans a respite and the game lasts another turn. (Yes, the name was inspired by his role in Independence day.)

This mechanic works, but it has some flaws that kept me from ever becoming fond of it. It feels tacked-on and arbitrary, because it is. It comes as a surprise for first-time players, because it comes up only once, at the climax, and doesn’t fit the pattern of the rest of the game. It’s out of the players’ control. And every so often a game is going to drag on senselessly, boring everyone involved even when the winner is clear. Invasion is already tuned to be the “right length”; occasionally lasting for another turn is fine, but it shouldn’t happen frequently or for many turns.

To try to put the decision in player hands in a later iteration, I scrapped the Will Smith rule and created a Technology card: “Futile Heroics”. The text of this card essentially read “If this card is in your hand when the game is over, reveal it; you get 2 VP and there’s a 1/3 chance that the game lasts another round.” On one hand, this was an improvement, because it gave control to the players and didn’t require any extra rules explanation. On the other hand, it was a disappointing and low-impact card to draw, and when players avoided the Technology deck, it almost never came out at all. Also, in most situations players wouldn’t want to keep a Technology card unused in between turns. When I transformed the random-draw Technology deck into the common-pool Gadget deck, Futile Heroics didn’t make the cut, but that meant nothing was left.

My change for the next iteration is: a few of the Gadget cards now have an hourglass in the corner. (Currently, 4 out of 30.) When the game would otherwise end, you reveal one; on an hourglass, you set that card aside and play another turn. This seems a lot like the Will Smith rule, but I’m optimistic about it for a couple reasons:

  • There are enough Hourglass cards that one of them will almost certainly show up in the first two or three rounds. At that point, if there are first-time players, the rules teacher can reiterate its effect on the game end. The icons on cards act as a quiet reminder that the rule exists.
  • Because the icon is printed on existing cards, it seems like an organic part of the game. It also doesn’t require another component.
  • Because the cards are removed from the deck as they trigger, this provides a natural way to reduce the chances that the game keeps going on, without having to add any new rules or complexity.

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