Question of the Week: Most Punishing, But Fun?

In the latest episode (107b), we talk about the way that games punish players for certain behaviors, what kinds of behaviors are punished, and what exactly punishment is in the context of a game. No one would say they like being punished, and that’s basically the point: it’s not enjoyable, and it’s meant to steer you away from doing certain things in games

For the most part, punishments are meant to split your attention. You have certain things in the game you are trying to accomplish, towards which you need to put resources. In some games, that’s specific in-game resources like “food” or money that must be spent on upkeep, in others it’s just a more vague sense of time and effort. It’s loss that you must account for or avoid, because loss is visceral in a way that gain is not, even if it is mathematically equivalent. It’s more important to avoid losing points in Agricola for not feeding your family than it would be if it were simply extra points for making sure you did.

Avoiding punishments, figuring out how to split your resources to either get ahead of the loss or avoid it altogether, is a fun element of many games. And last week, I asked if you prefer to have games where you need to avoid punishment, or if it was more fun to not have that worry. I prefer it, because the extra tension is enjoyable, and for me, overcoming tension is a major part of what I enjoy in games in general. But this week, I’m curious about more specific examples!

What is the most punishing game you have played that you enjoyed? Why was it good?

Because for me, there is an upper limit, even as I enjoy punishing games. It was an essential and enjoyable part of getting “good” in Through the Ages to avoid the pitfalls of the economy and not get punished, but the problems you face in The Capitals and Food Chain Magnate are so brutal that they are games I have a hard time recommending to everyone. The setbacks for failure in Dark Souls and Transistor are fairly significant, and they can be more frustrating than fun, and in the case of the latter, were enough to put me off from the cool mechanics.

We spent a lot of time talking about what makes things kinds of mechanisms in games important and enjoyable, despite the counterintuitive nature of “wanting” penalties and costs in games. But I want to hear from you, because of how counterintuitive it is: send us an email to let us know what punishing games you’ve enjoyed, and we can talk about them on the show!

Whatever you want to tell us, email us at We’ll respond and discuss, I promise!

Question of the Week: Punishing games or not?

In the upcoming episode (107b), Brandon and I talk about “punishment” in games, specifically there being mechanics in games that will penalize you in some way unless you can avoid them. In almost every game, the point is to win, be it through killing the bad guys, scoring lots of points, capturing a spawn point, or rescuing the hostages. In many of these, that’s all you do; in competition with the other players, you simply try to “win better.” But games that feature punishment ask you to split your time and resources on another task: don’t take this penalty.

I kind of enjoy games that do this, possibly more than games without it. There is a challenge in always just trying to get a higher score than everyone else, being efficient in actions or movement, knowing every map forwards and backwards, whatever it may be. I recently have talked about The Castles of Burgundy: The Card Game, which is exactly that: you get the same actions and same access to cards as the other players, and you must use your turns to grab the best stuff and block your opponents from doing the same. It’s fun…

But the addition of a penalty for not covering certain bases, for failing to run away in the face of being overwhelmed, of not splitting your resources right and falling short of a payment you must make, that really provides a visceral enjoyment that I don’t get from just trying to score lots of points, or finish levels, or whatever else it might be.

I have talked to a lot of people about this topic, and often I find they are surprised when I say avoiding a punishment in a game can be as much a part of the fun as trying to succeed. So, the question of the week is this:

In addition to the goal of succeeding in a game, would you rather have a punishment to avoid or not? And, more importantly, why?

For me, it’s about the depth of a challenge. Agricola and Through the Ages are both games where you expand your population to achieve more throughout the game, but as your resources expand, you must make sure that some portion of them are dedicated to producing food. There is an economic maintenance that forms the basis for both of the games; you can’t just improve, because every improvement requires additional costs! You have to expand your economic prowess as well as your point-production. This tension, along with many ways to approach relieving it, opens these games up far beyond what they would be without it.

But avoiding punishment in games not for everybody, and it certainly doesn’t always work for me… the Dark Souls games come to mind. But I don’t want to repeat too much from the podcast!

Think about our question of the week, and send your thoughts to We would love to discuss what our listeners think on air.

RPG Review: Anima Prime

Anima Prime, by Christian Griffen, is an action-oriented, tactical RPG intended to recreate Final Fantasy-style stories in a tabletop RPG environment. I first came across Anima Prime because of another game by the same author, Beast Hunters, a game that comes from a similar design space: action-oriented, tactical, and challenging. I thought Beast Hunters was a cool idea, mainly because at that point my experience with RPGs that had meaningful tactical decisions was pretty slim, and most RPGs that leaned in that direction, even a little bit, were slightly abashed about doing so. “Tabletop roleplaying is about drama, acting out your character, doing voices, and getting immersed in the world,” these games would explain, regardless of their mechanical complexity or how well suited they were for fun, “hack and slash” style experiences. But Beast Hunters promised a different approach: absolutely, this game is going to be about your character, but in particular, it’s going to be about challenging your character (and you) with tactically meaningful choices.

And then came Anima Prime. A game that embraces providing the players with a variety of tools to approach tactical situations (yes, mostly combat) and making those tactical situations difficult and enjoyable. Although it is by no means unique in its attempts to address tactical challenges to the players as well as the characters, Anima Prime does approach this goal in several unique ways.

Traditionally, RPG combat takes the form of a small scale war game. After all, the origins of the hobby are in an adaptation of war game rules to feature your individual character. This means that these games concern themselves with physical positioning, concrete ranges and areas, and spatial relationships and maneuvering. This works well for many games, among them some of my favorites: D&D 4th edition and Savage Worlds. However, many RPGs take this approach unquestioningly; your “tactical” rules must include grids, movement rates, minute rules about space and size… and they just end up feeling all very similar.

But Anima Prime’s tactical combat is about resource management and risk taking, building tension through narrative “maneuvers” that generate power for periodic explosive moments. When you take action in the game, you roll your character’s skill specialties (such as acrobatics, engineering, perception, explosives, etc.) to generate an abstract pool of advantage dice, and you can eventually spend these dice to “strike” an enemy, potentially taking them down. And in the mean time, you are incidentally generating a pool of points that you can spend to activate your character’s powers. It’s really a lot of fun, describing how your skills set you up, making small dents in a monster’s defenses until you go in for the kill. There is a constant stream of other choices you (and the other players) must make as well: What actions do you spend your resources on? Do you try to strike early to gain advantage, or do you wait until later when you might be more powerful, but the attack comes too late? Which bonuses do you target with your actions? Figuring out your maneuvers, linking any of your several powers with the other players’, determining an approach that will bypass your opponents’ mechanical weaknesses, building up to powerful attacks… it’s all very engaging.

The most important thing in these action scenes is the fact that you must split your efforts between engaging with the opponents and achieving the “goals” of the scene. Although you can focus entirely on taking down minions and bosses, those enemies typically have goals of their own that aren’t simply to kill you, and you sometimes need to commit the resources you generate with your skills to stop those goals or achieve your own. Here’s a concrete example: the evil cultists are trying to sacrifice a captive, and your team is trying to stop them and save him. Surely, if you kill all of the cultists and their dark master, you will succeed! But in the mean time, the bad guys just need to spend enough of their gathered dice to make the sacrifice. So, you can set a goal to free the captive, committing your gathered dice to the goal in order to ensure that, regardless of your success in the battle, you can make sure no evil gods are summoned today. But doing so takes away from your direct combat efforts. This parallel series actions, dealing with the fighting but also dealing with the reasons for the fighting, creates a compelling narrative that is often missing in bog-standard grid combat you find in many games. Plus, some of the available goals have mechanical impact, like breaking through impenetrable defenses (e.g. finding a weak point in the dragon’s scales), inflicting a specific sort of elemental damage (e.g. blowing up a gasoline tanker), or providing a boost to another player’s skills or powers.

Although Anima Prime purports to be a game for supporting Final Fantasy-style stories, a real strength of the game (and perhaps Final Fantasy-style stories?) is the flexibility of settings and character types it allows for. We have used the game for traditional comic book superheroes, grotesque demon-powered monster hunters, and even standard RPG fantasy with elves, dragons, and sorcerers. The skills and powers characters are built from are easily (and sometimes necessarily) re-skinned for whatever setting you need, and the tools provided to the GM for creating opposition are flexible and, with little effort, can be adapted and added to in order to represent all kinds of opposition, from overwhelming hordes of zombies to building-sized creatures without any discernible weakness. Even “combat” can be easily re-skinned to many kinds of challenges (physical, social or mental) due to the system of “goals” discussed above.

At this point, you may notice that I haven’t talked much about the Anima Prime system outside of the tactical combat parts. That’s because, frankly, there isn’t much of a system outside of the tactical combat part. There is a minor mechanic that functions sort of like Aspects in Fate RPGs, where playing your character in a particular way in non-action scenes can provide a buff… for the action scenes. But it’s all essentially freeform roleplaying, and then everyone claps each other on the back, we check a couple of boxes on the character sheets indicating some re-rolls we can use, and we get back to the actual action.

Now a big question: Does it actually support Final Fantasy style? I don’t really think so. I really love the way all of the mechanisms focus in on the action scenes, but Final Fantasy is about a lot of stuff that isn’t combat, and the combat here doesn’t really work like any Final Fantasy game I know of. In some sort of a nod to that source material, there is a setting that comes with the game, but it is really, really minimized, and it has never held any interest for me. It is barely detailed, and I have a hard time picking out why I should care about it as opposed to any number of other great settings that this game could be adapted to. Fortunately, the “Final Fantasy” pitch is really just a hook to grab you for this fairly genre-free system, so the lack of any Japanese CRPG touches isn’t a big deal.

I would be remiss if I didn’t touch on a mechanical weakness of the game before the end of this review. Namely, the system of wounds and defense for the game is mathematically a little wonky. When you deal damage, you divide your successful dice by the target’s defense and the result is the number of wounds dealt. The problem is that Defense ranges from 1 to 4 (maybe 5 for unbelievably tough enemies), which means the same attack could be up to four times as effective against different targets… and when those targets are PCs, an attack that could barely harm the toughest of them will more than likely devastate the weakest. This results in a mad dash for high defense, and kind of makes the rest of the system look bad as a result. As long as everyone’s defense is fairly close, it’s not a big deal, but it’s something to look out for. I scale the cost of increasing a character’s defense so that a player who wants to be an absolute tank can be, but it will eat up most of their defining traits.

Anima Prime is a great RPG. But it is one of those RPGs that targets a niche, and it may not be a niche you are looking for. In fact, I’ve talked to people who are genuinely confused that it focuses almost entirely on tactical action, but the action is almost entirely abstract. In a hobby that is so used to particular approaches that 90% of games look like they are simply dice-rolling variants, Anima Prime is a welcome change. And in a hobby where so many games seem afraid to embrace the fun of tactical combat, it’s nice to play a game where you can unabashedly beat stuff up.

Find more about Anima Prime here: