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Unique Abilities Mechanic

Unique Abilities

Nobody in life starts out with the exact same combination of challenges, opportunities, experiences, and capacities, and this is reflected in many areas of life. This is especially useful in business and sports, where teams are created so that team members’ unique abilities combine to accomplish more than could otherwise be achieved.

Many game designers replicate this in board and card games alike. Players are given varying starting positions, action potential, and options that create exciting and new game experiences each time. Let’s explore some of the ways that unique abilities can be added to the games we design in old and new ways to create more joy.

Overview of Unique Abilities

Unique abilities in board and card games include anything that gives one player a unique advantage or impact on the game. These abilities can include role or faction asymmetries, as well as unique engines or combinations of cards and actions that players develop over the game that give them a competitive advantage.

Unique abilities are quite common in social deduction games such as Secret Hitler and Saboteur, where one or more teams of players hide from and inhibit other players, but unique abilities are also found in a large variety of other tabletop games and can add extra excitement and vigor to most games. Often games can benefit as designers consider ways to add unique abilities to the games we create. Here are some ideas of how we can get started in doing so:

Important Considerations with Unique Abilities

Unique abilities may be organized in a variety of ways, both precedented and unprecedented. Here are some of the ways that I have considered. What else comes to mind for you?

One common option for unique abilities is to have them assigned to players from the start of the game in an asymmetrical way that adds some interesting variation to games and mixes up the strategy that players must follow. Great examples of this include cooperative games such as Forbidden Desert and Forbidden Island, which give each player a random unique role with associated abilities that can become quite useful throughout the game.

The reverse of that option (though both options may sometimes be combined) is unique abilities that must be acquired throughout the game and affect the game in various ways. These might be purchased, as in CastleScape and Dominion, or could alternatively be distributed throughout or traded for, as in Coup.

Another related consideration is how frequently unique abilities may be used. Some games might have cards with one-use abilities (the above-mentioned CastleScape is an example of that), some games such as Bang! permit unlimited usage of a player’s special abilities, and other games do something in between such as limiting usage to a certain number of times.

Finally, along the line of limiting players’ usage of unique abilities, some games grant points or bonuses for players not using their unique abilities during that round or during the game. Other games such as Raising Robots provide each player with a certain amount of energy or resources that can be used to activate unique abilities, but may also be used in other beneficial ways.

However you assign and limit unique abilities, consider the cautions and tips below while doing so to create a game that works well in an enjoyable way.

Cautions and Tips for Using Unique Abilities

The first and biggest task when adding unique abilities to a game is balancing them so that no player gains an undue advantage. Calculations and spreadsheets can be important parts of this process, but ultimately playtesting is key to making sure any set of unique abilities provides a chance at victory without automatically guaranteeing it.

When balancing unique abilities, consider both the immediate effect of your actions and the ultimate consequences. Some abilities might provide advantages at front and disadvantages later on, and others might do the opposite. Unique abilities might relate to trading, building, exploring, conquering, and more, and usually a variety of unique abilities helps each game feel fresh and new.

One other things that should be considered is the importance of creating the right amount of resistance, either through built-in obstacles or other players’ interactions. Care should be taken to make sure that unique abilities don’t make the game feel repetitive and dull, and as a general rule, players can feel a greater sense of excitement when unique abilities are more impactful and harder to take rather than less impactful and easier to take. Choices that really matter are great to intentionally plan into the game.

What are some interesting ways you have seen unique abilities be used as a part of a game? How can they best be employed in creating strategic games? Please comment below with your thoughts!

Unique abilities in board and card games include anything that gives one player a unique advantage or impact on the game.

Unique Abilities

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Other Tabletop Game Mechanics to Explore

Are there other game mechanics or topics that you would like to see explored further? Please comment below with any requests!