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I'm developing a game in which two players compete for area domination. Each player can play four moves per turn, ideally conquering four tiles.
Edit: Here a little more detail on the mechanics: Each player is given the same amount of cards (about 20). Each card has a value. The board consists of 4x5 tiles which you conquer by placing a card on it. If there already is a card on the tile, your can still conquer the tile but your card must have a higher value than the card on the tile.

The problem is that player two could technically (almost) always just undo player ones moves by conquering the same areas immediately. Of course this isn't fun at all and no human player would play this way, but I'm working on implementing an AI opponent, and I've seen the above happen a few times:

  • Player one conquers four tiles with pretty low value cards
  • player two immediately takes them
  • player one takes them back again because not doing so would be a disadvantage
  • player two takes them back again etc...

So as you can see, this is definitely not the best strategy as it becomes ridiculously expensive to possess the tiles of interest, but there are strategies or situations in which you might play like this.

How should I balance this? Are there any common design solutions for this problem?

(Having player one play more moves in the first turn would give player one a huge advantage as it would allow him/her to conquer highly strategic areas in the first turn. (Unfortunately, the "immediately undo player ones moves" strategy is actually not mathematically bad for player two, but that's another issue))

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    \$\begingroup\$ Migth want to add a bit more details about the context of the game, so that people can propose adapted solutions or alternatives. \$\endgroup\$ – Vaillancourt Nov 23 '19 at 1:40
  • \$\begingroup\$ You imply being able to undo moves means the starting player (doesn't?) have an advantage, but can you elaborate a bit more on how these things are actually linked and the game mechanics causing this advantage? Wouldn't the first player just be able to undo the move the second player does and have this be a never-ending cycle (which wouldn't help either player)? Are you suggesting the second player has an advantage? If so, why is being able to undo an advantage for only them? Is there a reason you can't just prevent "undoing" if that would cause problems? \$\endgroup\$ – Bernhard Barker Nov 23 '19 at 3:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Dukeling the never-ending cycle wouldn't be a problem if it was never ending but each player has a finite amount of total moves, and player two gets to play the very last turn after a few rounds. This is why the "undo until game ends" strategy works out for player two (and only for him, unless he/she seriously messed up so that player one has a large enough advantage) \$\endgroup\$ – Finni Nov 24 '19 at 2:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Vaillancourt I edited the question to explain the mechanics a little more. \$\endgroup\$ – Finni Nov 24 '19 at 2:25
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How to balance the advantage of playing first or second is hard to address in general.

It would largely come down to looking at the mechanics of your game, considering possible ways to benefit a player and doing play-testing to determine which player gets an advantage and how you could potentially get rid of that advantage. Also potentially consider what your game mechanics should look like in general when taking this into account. This may involve tweaking some mechanics to make them stronger or weaker, adding new mechanics or altogether scrapping or redesigning large parts of the game.

Simply playing first is usually a pretty big advantage (especially in a symmetric game), so the second player is often given an advantage, but of course this would depend on the game.

Let's consider the example where the second player can just repeatedly retake any area taken by the first player to win. A few ways to deal with this:

  • Simply give the first player more starting moves to offset their disadvantage. Although this may instead allow the first player to simply follow this strategy to win, which isn't any better (except for the first player...).
  • Make retaking an area worse or give a bigger benefit to taking an area not occupied by another player.
  • Rethink how retaking works. Perhaps you need to have taken adjacent areas first, or it's something that only gets unlocked later in the game or you can do things to make it easier. If there are RPG elements, you could do this by allowing players to "research" weapons, build or upgrade a barracks or train soldiers.
  • If all else fails, conclude that the fundamental concept you had in mind for the game just isn't viable because of this, no amount of small tweaking would make it fun and you need go back to the drawing board or even scrap the game altogether.

"Undoing" a move should not truly undo it

If you're able to do a move that completely undoes the move of the other player and resets the game state back to where it was before they moved, this, to me, points to a rather fundamental problem with the underlying design of the game. (It would be worse if your move makes as if theirs never happened but leaves you with some resources on the board, at least if you can do this from the beginning of the game)

Any move made (including undoing) should move the game forward in some way.

In practical terms, this means an "undo" is more of a strategic counter that allocates your resources in some way or to the same place in order to hinder your opponent's attempt to gain an advantage there.

Go is the best example I can think of right now. Every move involves placing a stone in turn, so each one progresses the game (well, there are ways to take stones too, but not from the beginning). The second player can choose to place a stone near the stone placed by the first place in order to defend or attack there, or they can place a stone further away to try to gain an advantage on another part of the board.

Chess is also an example. Many moves can be thought of as counters to other moves: from a move as simple as advancing a pawn to block another pawn to defending an piece being attacked. Moves typically move the game forward by opening up the board, moving pawns, which can only go in one direction, or removing pieces from the board and it's a strategic decision whether to try to counter something or to try to gain an advantage somewhere else.

On the subject of chess, it is possible to get back to the same board position repeatedly with some moves, which is why there's a rule stating if a position repeats 3 times it is (or can be) a draw. Go has a similar rule. This is, however, largely an artificial constraint: it's not really a fundamental part of the game and doesn't add anything beyond simply being there to prevent infinite repetition. I would recommend trying to change your mechanics in some other way instead to avoid repetition if possible.

Undoing a move might be expensive or rare

You could also have true undo's, but these are expensive or rare.

A few ways to accomplish this:

  • It just costs 2 or more movement points (or whatever resource used for making moves) from your side to undo their move.
  • To consider area domination as an example: they take some territory and you might need multiple units to take that territory from them (losing some of those units in the process).
  • It costs some other type of resource to take an area from the other player.
  • It takes some time to take the territory and in the mean time it's generating resources for the other player (meaning focusing on that too early instead of on gaining resources puts you at a disadvantage).
  • A (recently) retaken area produces fewer resources than an area that wasn't occupied before.
  • Give players a limited number of undo's (either from the start of the game or by finding some item during that game).
  • Similar to the above, attach some cooldown to undoing, so it can only be performed a certain number of times over some time period.
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  • \$\begingroup\$ thank you for your ideas, I edited my question to clarify the game mechanics. In my case it isn't possible to completely undo moves, as the value of the cards on the tiles increase with each change of possession, so it does actually cost more every time you reconquer a tile. Also it brings the game forward, as you spend some of your cards, which you only have a certain number of. \$\endgroup\$ – Finni Nov 24 '19 at 2:25
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Finni I expanded on my answer a bit. \$\endgroup\$ – Bernhard Barker Nov 24 '19 at 3:51
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Assuming all tiles are worth the same, conquering an enemy tile is always better than conquering an empty one. Both actions give you a tile, but capturing the enemy also causes them to lose a tile in addition to that. So why would a player ever not conquer enemy tiles if they can?

Possible solutions:

  • Make attacking more costly. The only two resources you have right now are moves and cards. So what are your options here?
    • One option would be to add a cost in form of discarding another card from one's hand.
    • Another option would be to make attacking cost two moves. This would make the point-per-move turnout of taking empty vs. occupied territory equal again. Player 1 conquers 4 territories, player 2 takes 2 of them, and the score is 2:2 as it should be.
    • Or you could introduce another resource which is used for attacking.
  • Make attacking less rewarding. For example, an attack could destroy the enemy card on the tile, but then leaves the tile unoccupied. So the player who wants that tile needs to expend another move to conquer it. If player 2 undos all the moves of player 1, then the game is back at the initial state.
  • Make attacking more risky. Instead of higher cards always beating lower cards, introduce an element of chance. A higher ranked card might have a good chance to win against a lower ranking card, but there is still a chance that it fails. In case of a failure, the attacking player might be punished by losing their move, losing their card or both. This turns attacking into a risk/reward mechanic.
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    \$\begingroup\$ wow thanks, while the idea of chance doesn't fit the game that well as I want the player to be able to plan in advance a lot, I really like the idea of making attacks cost two moves or only destroying the enemy and leaving the tile unoccupied. In the latter case, one would still need another high card to place on the now empty tile, to be able to defend it for a while. \$\endgroup\$ – Finni Nov 24 '19 at 12:15

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