Fairway Thoughts: Grove’s Bag Building

Today, Fairway reflects on the very clever “Bag Building” game mechanism used by co-contributors Steven Aramini and Dan Letzring in their upcoming Kickstarter game, Groves. This peculiar variation on the common deck-building or deck-optimization mechanisms results in some fantastic game play. So fantastic, it’s worth exploring in a bit more detail.

It’s rare that I stumble across a game that makes me do a complete double-take on one of the core mechanisms. That most recently occurred for me during a playtest of the upcoming, Kickstarter game, Groves. Dan had asked me to try out an early version and provide some feedback. And while I had some of the standard playtest feedback, I was mostly in love with the “bag building” mechanism.

What is Bag Building?

Bag Building is a board game mechanism in which players add identically shaped items to a bag to alter the contents and probabilities of drawing items from that bag. In essence, bag building is to drawing-items-from-a-bag as deck building to to drawing-cards-from-a-deck.  In this way, it’s probably easiest to first talk about deck building.

Courtesy of BoardGameGeek.com

Deck building is the now-common board game mechanism of adding better and better cards to a deck that is then shuffled and replayed.  In some flavors, you’re also allowed to remove cards from the same deck.  As the game progresses, you have increasingly better odds of drawing better cards from your deck.  There’s a whole range of deck-building games from solo-playing Friday to Battle for Hogwarts to Star Realms to, the classic, Dominion.

I like Friday as an example because poor Crusoe’s survival depends on deck building.  For, you see, over the course of the game, the player is charged with making Crusoe smarter and more able to overcome the island’s obstacles. With each obstacle a player draws up a hand of cards from a deck. In game, Crusoe’s ability is represented by the contents of that deck which starts out terrible. Crusoe’s progression though the game is reflected by the addition of new skill cards and discarding useless trait cards from that deck. By the end of the game (if you survive), you’re able to string together really impressive feats that you couldn’t do at the beginning.

Bag building is similar. Instead of cards, this mechanic uses a bag of similarly shaped items such as different colored cubes or tokens. In bag building games, the bag draw isn’t just for randomization (something like Starving Artists). Instead, the contents of the bag will change affecting the odds of player-selected items and that change is often a reflection of a player’s (or their opponents’) choices. Groves is certainly not the first.

Existing Bag Building Examples

Courtesy of BoardGameGeek.com

Automobiles. An easy example of bag building is Automobiles. In this game, players have bags of colored cubes. Each cube corresponds to a set of actions such as which gear a car is in. Each turn, the player draws a number of cubes from the bag and spends them for an action, like spending a “gear” cube to move their car around the track. To win, player need to improve cubes in their bag by spending money to add cubes for new, helpful actions like increasing their car’s top speed or to improve odds of pulling desired cubes. This mechanism is presently nicely in the first few minutes of this video review.

Conversely, as a game of Automobiles rolls along, players’ bags also accumulate wear cubes which, when drawn, limit a player’s turn by eliminating a useful action. The game also provides mechanisms to remove cubes from the bag enabling a player to optimize their bag and fine tune their racing machine.

How does Groves use Bag Building?

In Groves, players each have a “summoning bag” of spirits. There are five primary types of spirits: white, blue, green, yellow and orange. The starting summoning bag starts with mostly white spirits and one spirit that matches the starting player’s color.  During each round of the game, players will place the selected spirits on various game locations: hexes within their own realm; on a central, communal board called the Tree of Idyll; or, once portals are built, on hexes in other players’ groves.

Each hex provides a base reward. In addition, each hex is associated with a specific colored spirit. When a matching spirit is played on that hex, the player earns a bonus reward. The game allows players to expand their own realms by adding new hexes to their groves.

Rounds of Groves, start with players summoning (that is, drawing) three spirits from their summoning bag.  In the beginning, you’re much less likely to get a colored spirit that matches a grove hex. During the game, this changes for two reasons: certain actions will let you add spirits of your choice to your summoning bag, and, conversely, you can banish Spirits that you don’t want.

In the latter case, players can remove unwanted spirits by either sending them to the Tree of Idyll or by sending them to your opponents’ groves. To make this work, during the “clean up” phase of Groves, players place any spirits on their grove hexes back into their summoning bag.  These spirits include those you place there and those that your opponent places there. Spirits on the Tree of Idyll are sent to the general supply.  As a result, at the start of the next round, the contents of the summoning bag reflect the current set of Spirits.

The Power of the Summoning Bag

Admittedly, Groves could probably stand on its own by merely being a worker placement or action selection game: given everyone spirit meeples and let them choose powers to convert resources and generate victory points in a very Steven Aramini engine-building game kind of way. Even if Groves were just that, the game would be interesting in its own right.

But there’s real game play and strategic power in the bag-building mechanism. The summoning bag enables a range of strategies and choices that would be difficult to replicate without it. I don’t want to spoil this rich game for folks, so I just want to talk about one strategy that was counter-intuitive and insightful. I called it the optimized-down strategy.

Optimized-down Strategy & Counter-Strategy.  Players summon three spirits from their bag each round. In one game a player used the first few rounds to build a grove that quickly converted resources to points. This combo used three colored spirits placed on three matching hexes. His strategy? Banish all unnecessary spirits and keep only the three necessary spirits. If it worked perfectly, each turn he was a point generation machine. If it worked perfectly, his strategy meant no Summoning Bag randomization.

I kept saying “perfectly” because, although he strove to keep only those three spirits in his bag, the game enabled other players to intervene. Players started sending their own spirits to clog up his hexes and clutter his bag. See, the optimized-down strategy turned out to be a risky strategy. There was little room for error. Since he only had three desired spirits in his bag, players adding even one unwanted spirit changed the probabilities significantly. Drawing the unwanted spirit meant that that was one less turn converting resources to points.

Groves’s summoning bag is clever because not only does it enable offensive, player-selected strategy, but it enables defensive strategies by other players. In this sense, Groves goes further than other bag-building games that I’m aware of.

It’s hard to do bag building well

As I was playing Groves the designer in me also realized how hard it is to design a bag building game and get it right. Unlike its deck-building cousins, bag building really imposes some significant challenges including that variation is likely more limited. And then within that limitation, enable the player to make rewarding game play and strategic choices. The difficulty is further heightened since the mechanism is uncommon enough that it has to be intuitive. On all these counts, Groves does well: players intuitively understood the ramifications of their bag populations, but still felt like they had options when the draws didn’t go their way.

Is it your bag, baby?

Did you think I’d make it a whole post without saying this?

Groves implements an interesting game play mechanism that should feel both familiar and new at the same time. Players who like deck-building games and looking to mix things up will probably find that bag building is a neat alternative and Groves’s implementation a particularly engaging one.

Also worth mentioning is that bag-building eliminates a common complaint of bag-drawing games: unbound randomness. So for people who enjoy drawing things from bags (really, who doesn’t?), but hate that they have little control over the outcome, bag-building games are a good option.

Note: Dan and Steven are both regular contributors to The Indie Game Report. Fairway was provided a very early version of the prototype to play and test.

Tell us what you think!