One of the more interesting game design challenges is to combine two games. What would a mashup between Chess and Go look like? Or Magic: the Gathering versus Backgammon? How about Arimaa meets Oh Hell? Most of these mashups flat-out wouldn’t work; some might. Here’s my attempt to create one that, I think, would at least be interesting. Perhaps a bit depraved, but so it goes…
Combinatorial game theory gives us a mathematical definition for the sum of two games, but that rarely creates interactions between the two and, anyway, the games I’d want to mash together tend to be more complex (3+ players, hidden information) than typical combinatorial games. So that’s not what I mean to talk about here.
There are two typical techniques for combining two (or more) games. One is to put them in conflict. Each has its own winning (or losing) condition and it’s nearly impossible to perform well in both (see: Attika). This creates a “between-game” game of figuring out which one to play, while defending against other players’ attempts to win either. The other is to make one game support the other, insofar as success in one leads to having more resources in the other, from which the winning and losing conditions derive. I’m going to take the second approach.
First of all, a single round of Ambition works with 4 players, but that number seems to be pretty strict. I haven’t been able to come up with a decent variant for a different number. However, a full game of Ambition can be played with 5+, by rotating people in and out of 4-player rounds (“tournament style”). There’s a lot to say about table position and fairness (no player getting two or more rounds in excess of another) and ending conditions that you need to consider if you want to run a serious tournament, and that stuff I won’t get into here, because it’s not relevant to the deliberately unfair mashup game. Chances are, if you’re combining Ambition with Cards Against Humanity, you’re interested more in hilarity than fairness…
So how does this mash-up work?
Players: 5 or more. You could play it with 4, but the strategies aren’t as interesting because no one ends up sitting out of the Ambition round. Since each round of Ambition plays with exactly four, this means that some players will have to sit out of each hand (as with tournament play). However, each player participates in the Cards Against Humanity component, which is used to select players for each round of Ambition.
Equipment: you need a Cards Against Humanity set, the equipment for Ambition (cards and chips/counters), and an additional deck for (silent) ranked voting.
Round structure: each round begins with a Cards phase, in which everyone plays. To keep anonymity around whose choice is whose, everyone votes silently, and the choices are shown only once all have voted. Instead of voting for one choice, it’s a ranked voting system (each player ranks all submissions) resolved with a Borda count. That is, if there are 7 players, then each 1st-place vote is 6 points, each 2nd-place vote is 5 points, and so on… down to last place, which is 0 points. So if John gets 3 first-place votes, 2 seconds, a fifth, and a last-place, his total score is 3*6 + 2*5 + 2 + 0 = 30 points. These voting points (with one exception, below, should a player get all last place votes) aren’t scored to the game; they’re only used to determine who plays at a round of Ambition.
The top three vote-getters, and the last-place vote-getter, begin a round of Ambition. However, it’s a deliberately unfair round. The first-place vote-getter gets an initial hand of 18 cards; second-place vote-getter gets 16, third-place vote-getter gets 14. Each of those selects a 13-card hand from that pool. The last-place vote getter gets the remaining 4 cards, plus the 9 cards not wanted by the other players. Unlike in the typical game, the 3-card pass at a round’s onset does not occur. Then they play a round of Ambition, according to the normal rules.
Tie-breaking in voting: If there’s a 1st-2nd, 2nd-3rd, or 1st-2nd-3rd tie in vote points, you don’t need to break the tie; just average the initial hand sizes together. For example, in a 1st-2nd tie, you’d have the tied player getting 17 cards each. In a 1st-2nd-3rd tie, they’d each get 16. If there’s a 3rd-4th tie– meaning one player will sit out– then tie-break in favor of the person with more first-place votes (if tied in this, then use second-place votes, and so on). If there’s still a tie after all that, meaning they have the exact same vote distributions, then the player who is farther behind sits in the round. (If they’re tied in even that, then flip a coin.) Ties for last-place are resolved similarly, except in “favor” of the person with the most last-place votes (and so on) and, if that fails to break the tie, then in favor of the player who’s most ahead in the game.
Objective: points and strikes, earned during the rounds of Ambition, accrue from round to round. When a player accumulates four strikes, he loses and is eliminated from the game. Once K players (1 < K < N-3) have been eliminated, the game is over, and the player with the most points (among those without 4 strikes) is the winner of the game.
Note: choice of K, above, depends on what you want from your game; higher K means more players are eliminated on strikes, making avoidance of strikes more important relative to getting points. In tournament-style Ambition, typical K is 0.33-0.5*N, but if you’re looking to have a light flavor and don’t want player elimination, just use K = 1 (i.e. end the tournament as soon as one player’s eliminated).
Exception (Misere): if any player receives only last-place votes from each player in the Cards Against Humanity phase, the round of Ambition is not played, and that player scores 120 points (equivalent to the best possible outcome of an Ambition round). If someone chooses so horribly as to receive across-the-board last-place votes (including from herself) she did something right.
Strategy: note that this mash-up is an unfair Ambition tournament, with the unfairness derived from success in Cards Against Humanity. However, there are a few interesting considerations. Note Ambition’s two-dimensional scoring system. There are points, which are the normal objective; and strikes, which can cause you to lose even if you have the most points. If you have three strikes, you’re much more focused on avoiding strikes than if you have none; in the latter case, the risk of a strike is worth taking if there’s a good chance of getting a lot of points (e.g. a Slam attempt). Where you are in the game determines whether you’re more focused on avoid strikes or on getting points.
In general, in Ambition Against Humanity, you want to do well in the voting phase so you get to play Ambition rounds and score points. However, the third-place prize (getting into the round, but with a relatively mediocre hand) is not always desirable; sure, there are opportunities to score points, but also to strike. Conversely, the last-place (in voting) punishment isn’t always bad; you end up with a crappy hand, but that still gives you an opportunity to score. So you may find yourself trying to avoid a top-three finish in the Cards phase if you’re at two or three strikes; or, if you have relatively few strikes, you might go for full-on awfulness in order to get a last-place finish, just to get yourself into the Ambition round, or to attempt to get the 120-point bonus when a player completely fails in the voting.