Meaningful Decisions: Dan Cassar on Design Choices in Arboretum

In our Meaningful Decisions series, we ask designers about the design choices they made while creating their games, and what lessons other designers can take away from those decisions.

In this edition, we talk with Dan Cassar, the designer of Arboretum, about game progression, scoring systems, balancing cards and more.

Arboretum has a very simple structure: Each turn players draw two cards then play one and discard one. How did you settle on this?

The structure is simple but it's pretty unusual. From the start, I knew from very early on that I wanted players to be building paths that would grow organically in many directions, and I also wanted players to have to manage their hands carefully. So there were two parts of the game that needed to have cards feeding it every turn.

Originally, I tried it with the traditional rule of drawing one card and either playing or discarding it. But then it was too easy to sit back and not commit to which colors you were going to score. Increasing the number of cards coming into your hand each turn allowed me to feed both systems at once. I could force you to both commit something to your tableau as well as have to make a choice about what cards you're going to hold back.

The other nice side effect of drawing two each turn is that you can actually dig through a discard pile because you can remove cards faster than it will get filled. This means that any card that gets discarded is potentially playable at some time later in the game. This is something I always wanted to do in traditional card games like Gin or Rummy, but never could.

How important is it for a design to naturally progress toward an endgame state, and what can designers do to ensure their game has forward momentum?

Progression is one of those non-obvious but really critical aspects of game design that I struggled with a lot when I first started. It's something that I never thought too much about explicitly until I heard Geoff Engelstein talk about it on Ludology when he was on with Ryan Sturm a while back, and then he and Mike Fitzgerald mentioned it recently in their Game Design Checklist: "What drives the game towards a conclusion?"

I'd agree with them and say momentum is absolutely critical. Since games run in loops, it's natural for them to want to return to the same state they had in a previous turn. But if you allow that to happen, then your engine stalls. Game state progression is the plot of the story. Everyone wants to know how a good story ends.

Players only score paths if they also have the highest sum of that suit in hand. This one rule has numerous effects on how players interact with the game and their opponents. What are some of them, and were these outcomes entirely intentional when you were designing the game?

The issue I was actually trying to solve was how to determine which player got to "own" a particular color. Thematically, I wanted one arboretum to be known for magnolias and dogwoods, and another to be recognized as having an especially attractive collection of cassias and willows. I wanted there to be competition for control of individual colors, but since paths were allowed to have many colors (as they do in a real arboretum), it was common for several players to have valid paths. When I allowed multiple players to score a single color, the strategy was not about choosing which colors one would focus on, but instead everyone would try to score everything.

So when I thought about it, I reasoned that if a player has several cards in their hand of a particular color and has additional cards of that color in their tableau, they really controlled the majority of that color throughout the game. Therefore, it made sense that they would gain the right to score that color. So I figured I'd try it, and suddenly it made everything fall into place. The game felt like I had originally envisioned the game feeling.

I once heard someone say that your scoring system is your game, and I think this is a lesson one really needs to take to heart. Things in your game are important only insofar as they contribute to your score. Everything else is either an intermediate step to getting there or else it’s just a distraction.

So if the designer says that you only score if you do a specific thing, that necessarily makes that thing your number-one priority as a player.

Players are allowed to draw from any player's discard pile. What effects does this have on the design?

The open-information draft is an underutilized mechanic, in my opinion. It's one of my favorites because it's so simple and yet can create great tension by controlling how much information each player has. I wanted a drafting element to the game because I wanted players to have more control over how their arboretums would be built.

Having a separate discard piles for each player that are fed each turn by each player created a simple way of creating a drafting element to the game. It automatically scales with the number of players and it ensures that there are always new cards to choose from.

What are the risks and benefits of giving players some control over the game clock in a design?

I never really thought about this idea until I saw it in Lost Cities. I loved the way that it created tension, especially toward the end of the game. It creates those situations where you're ahead now, so you want the game to end sooner, so you can draw from the deck to help hurry things along. Or maybe you want to surprise your opponents by scoring a color you introduce in the last two turns of the game.

The risk of putting that control in the players' hands is a danger of stalling somehow. But as long as your game state progression is built in, it's a neat thing to have in the game because it just offers one more thing for players to consider during the draw phase of their turn.

During scoring, the 1 card in a suit reduces the 8 card in the same suit in an opponent's hand to 0. Why?

This was the last rule that I added to the game, but I feel it was an important one. I was playtesting Arboretum pretty extensively at conventions, and one thing I noticed was that 8's were rarely ever played to players' tableaus. The reason why was because it was the most efficient way of gaining points toward gaining the right to score.

So it was an automatic decision what to do with an 8 when you drew it. You held it. Automatic decisions are no fun, so I wanted to come up with a way to create some uncertainty around the utility of the 8 in hand.

What can and should designers do to address potentially overpowered cards or strategies in their designs?

The biggest problem with an overpowered card is that it's boring. If you get that card, you win. If that card is in your hand, you play it. There's no decision there. Other cards become irrelevant. So bringing everything in line makes things more fun because the strengths and weaknesses of the cards become situational as opposed to structural.

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SENIOR INVENTORS: Steven Cole, John du Bois, Richard Durham, Peter C. Hayward, Chris and Kathy Keane (The Drs. Keane), Matthew O’Malley, Isaias Vallejo

JUNIOR INVENTORS: Ryan Abrams, Luis Lara, Behrooz Shahriari, Aidan Short, Jay Treat

ASSOCIATES: Robert Booth, Doug Levandowski, Aaron Lim, Nathan Miller, Marcel Perro, Matt Wolfe

APPRENTICES: Kevin Brusky, Kiva Fecteau, Scott Gottreu, Michael Gray, JR Honeycutt, Scott Martel Jr., Mike Mullins, Marcus Ross, Sean Rumble, Diane Sauer