Snakes and Ladders redux... with added groundhogs

Inspiration can come in strange places.  I was reading an interesting post about a forthcoming time travel game which basically allows players to repeatedly play through the same scenario, a la Groundhog Day, in order to finally solve The Problem or defeat the Big Bad.  This got me thinking about similar ideas where you played through a relatively simple game multiple times, which allowed you to modify your actions a little on each run in order to gradually improve your moves based on what  you see others doing.

My first thought was of something like Robo Rally, where the whole game was preprogrammed (it would have to be a lot shorter than a typical game of Robo Rally!) and on each run of the race each player could switch out a small number of their program cards.

Pondering on this some more, I figured it would be good to explore the mechanic by dropping it into a game that's about as simple as they come.  So, Snakes & Ladders...

The problem with Snakes & Ladders, if you worry about this sort of thing, is that there are no choices to be made: you just roll the die, move the pawn, and then go up if you hit the foot of a ladder, or down if you hit the head of a snake.  The game essentially plays itself.

Now, if instead of dice we had a deck of cards with the numbers 1 to 6 on them (each number represented, say, 3 or 4 times), and just flipped over the cards one at a time you would have the same effect, though the distribution of cards within the deck would shape the outcome, whereas a true die would give proper randomness.  The die could (though is very unlikely to) always roll a 6, while the cards couldn't unless every card in the deck was a 6.

If, for one player, we now dealt out ten cards, face down in a row, we have now predetermined the first ten moves in the game.  So far we still have a completely random game.

Now, if the player draws a hand of, say, four cards, these cards can be used to substitute for the predetermined cards.  Each time a card is turned over, the player has the opportunity to discard that card and replace it with one from his hand.  Then the card that is chosen is used to move the pawn, obeying the usual rules of the original game.

At the end of the ten cards, the player will have progressed some way along the board, but probably not to the end.  So, flip the cards back over, keeping them in the same order, draw a fresh hand of cards, put the pawn back on the start space and try again.  Over a few plays the player should be able to get further and maybe even (depending on the board layout) get to the end.
It's a basic prototype, but it's all that's needed.

To make this into a multi-player game, each player has their own deck of cards, colour coded on the faces.  Each of the ten moves has a pile of cards, one for each player, and for each of these moves one player acts as MC, picks up the pile of cards, gives them a shuffle and then turns them over one at a time.  I thought about trying to maintain the order of the cards to add some predictability, but decided that the chaos of each move being shuffled should add to the fun.  Each player decides whether to switch the card as it is turned over, and then moves his pawn.  If a pawn ends its move on another pawn at any time, then the one that has been landed on moves back one space.

The ten-turn game is repeated up to five times (an arbitrary number that seems about right).  If someone reaches (or passes -- exact numbers are not requires) the last space on the board at any time, they instantly win.  Otherwise, whoever has got the furthest at the end of the fifth race is the winner.

So, to test...  As it turns out, we didn't actually have a snakes and ladder board in the house, so I found a printable board on t'internet and made do with that.  I also marked up two sets of cards on flashcards that I keep around for this purpose and then kicked myself for not thinking of using the cards from Ave Caesar, which would have been just the job.  Rookie mistake.

Then I played through a couple of two-player games, playing both sides myself...

The problem is that on the board I had, there was a good chance of hitting a ladder that took you to two spaces from the finish within a couple of turns, and that was what happened both times.  I didn't even get through the ten cards for the first time.

Thinking all this through I realise a couple of things.  Firstly the design of the board is absolutely critical to the game and can't be thrown together in a random way as most Snakes & Ladders boards seem to be.  Secondly, this set up pretty much means that the game can be all but over in the first couple of turns, given a lucky draw.

I think that perhaps with more players and possibly restricting further the number of cards that can be played in a race (plus, of course, a better designed board) we could have something OK.  I'm not sure if I'll do another round of this particular experiment (maybe I will), but I expect I will have another go at this whole "Groundhog Day" concept.

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