Saturday, March 17, 2018

The End Is Nigh! Game End Dynamics and how to use them

The Beginning of the End

Historically, I've felt like I'm bad with game end dynamics. I remember playtesting several different variations for Terra Prime, and not liking any of them. The game ends when all the Yellow space hexes are explored. Blah! The game ends when ALL the space hexes are explored. Double blah!

A similar thing happened with Crusaders, which initially had a whole end game phase. Knights ran for safety while a wave of destruction, emanating from Paris, destroyed (and scored) the buildings in play. Fortunately, in both cases I found more appropriate game end triggers, even if I worried for a long time if the one for Crusaders was really the best I could do.

You should have seen the effort I put into the round end trigger for Captains of Industry, trying to make sure players would play as if the game would continue, but still guaranteeing an acceptable number of turns per round!

I got a little lucky with Eminent Domain in that stack/Influence depletion felt like a natural game end condition, and I was able to achieve an acceptable game length range with reasonably sized decks and Influence supply. Even still, some players (especially new players who stay in the early game longer than is good for them) complain that the game is too short. I even included a "3 player extended game" variant, which I don't recommend using, because I knew that some players would prefer it.

In the Escalation expansion, I changed up the game end dynamic of Eminent Domain: instead of simply finishing out the round in which the game end triggers, now you finish that round and play one more full round. I made this change mostly because the original rule worked less and less well the more players in the game, and Escalation added 5th player support. But I consider that new game end dynamic to be better at all player counts, and I encourage players to use it no matter what format of Eminent Domain they play.

What is it about game end dynamics that give me such a hang up? Let's take a look at the different possibilities, and see if we can identify situations where each one would be a good choice or a bad choice:

Game End Dynamics

There are a few different ways that the end of a game can trigger. Some games end immediately when one player achieves a particular goal. Other games give players a set number of turns to accomplish their goals. Some games ensure players get an equal number of turns, other games do not.

Which of these combinations is best will depend a lot on many factors. As a designer, it is very important to choose a game end dynamic that's right for your game, or else you may end up with players feeling underwhelmed at the end of an otherwise great experience!

For this discussion, I'm going to break down different game end triggers and look at them with two major factors in mind:

  1. Do all players get an equal number of turns?
  2. Do players have certainty whether any given turn will be their last?

To be clear, not every game must ensure an equal number of turns. And it's not always important whether or not you know it's your last turn, and in some games it may be important that you don't know.  Part of the reason for this discussion is to determine what types of games best benefit from those factors, in which cases they don't matter as much, and ways to compensate players for turn order if appropriate.

Here are all the game end dynamics I can think of:


Immediate End
  • unequal turns
  • uncertainty
Finish Current Turn 
  • unequal turns
  • uncertainty
Finish Current Round 
  • equal turns
  • uncertainty
Final Lap 
  • equal turns
  • certainty
Set Number Of Turns 
  • equal turns
  • certainty
One More Turn For Other Players 
  • unequal turns
  • certainty
One More Turn For All Players 
  • unequal turns
  • certainty
  • incentive to end

Let's look at each of these in a little more detail:

Immediate End

Race games are the most common type of game that end as soon as a player reaches the end condition. This includes race themed games, where the goal is to cross a geographical finish line, but it can also include games that are a race to get a certain number of points, like Catan.

These types of games end abruptly, the moment the end condition is met. Sometimes this means a player doesn't even finish their turn. Hansa Teutonica is interesting in that respect -- it's a euro-style game where you do a number of actions on your turn. If you trigger the end game with your 1st action, you're not even allowed to take your 2nd, 3rd, etc. Obviously this means you will use all the actions possible to get points before triggering the end of the game, but if you have two point-scoring actions, and both of them will end the game immediately, then you can only do one of them, and that can feel like you got cheated out of the other action's points.

Sometimes, ending the game immediately when an objective is reached makes a lot of sense thematically, and continuing to play once the winner has been determined could be considered a waste of time. However, this does mean players are not guaranteed an equal number of turns in the game. Depending on the situation, it may also mean that as the end approaches, player's can't be sure whether any given turn will be their last.

In a game where players make about the same amount of progress each turn, being denied a turn due to turn order can be a real bummer. It feels bad to lose a race when you would have crossed the finish this round as well. But short of simultaneous play, what can you do?

One possibility is to use one of the other end game dynamics. Steampunk Rally is a race themed game that does not end immediately as soon as one player crosses the finish line. Instead, you finish out that round of play, and the winner is the player who not only crossed the finish line, but who moved the farthest beyond it.

Maintaining the immediate end condition though, it may be wise to compensate later turn order players with some kind of boost during setup. In a way, this looks like the staggered starting blocks for a foot race. The runners in the outer lanes look like they get a head start. Is that fair? Well, if you look at the oval-shaped track and straight finish line, you may realize that the outer lanes are longer than the inner ones. That "head start" simply ensures that all racers have the same distance to run.

You have to be a little careful though, turn order advantage can be a tricky thing to balance. If you dole out too much compensation, you just end up unbalancing the game in favor of the last player!

I'd venture a guess that the reason behind using an immediate game end is most often thematic, and as such, it probably doesn't matter whether players know it's their last turn. However, since players won't be assured an equal number of turns, some kind of turn order compensation is probably in order.

Scythe, by Jamey Stegmaier, is a very popular, highly thematic game with Euro-style mechanisms. Scythe uses this Immediate End dynamic, and it does not offer any turn order compensation. Jamey says the idea is to give a player a strong incentive to end the game without threat that the other players will be able to make their big move as their final turn.

In a game like Scythe, scoring opportunities take several turns to develop, and in some cases you can score a fair number of points in one multi-turn play. So I personally feel that equal turns, or some kind of compensation, would be in order.

Furthermore, when game action takes multiple turns to develop, I have come to prefer some certainty as to whether I'll have another turn or not at the end of the game. If I know that this is my last turn, I'll do what I can to get a few final victory points, or shore up my position. I won't invest in a course of action that won't pay off for a turn or two. On the other hand, if I'm sure I'll get at least 1 more turn, I can consider starting such a multi-turn plan. If I don't have any certainty either way, then things get a little foggy. Is it the type of game where I can reasonably tell that another player is likely to end the game after my turn? Or will I be completely surprised by the game end? Is it the type of game where a player should be expected to watch opponents' positions closely enough to make that judgement?

Finish Current Turn 

Many games allow a player to finish their turn after they've triggered the game end. Other than timing (or thematic) oddities, these games are very similar to Immediate End games when it comes to game end dynamics, and they suffer from the same down sides: unequal turns, and uncertainty as to whether it's your last turn or not.

My first game, Terra Prime, uses this dynamic because in that game, players get a large number of micro-turns to sort of simulate simultaneous action. Because the number of turns is high, and the amount of stuff you get done in any given turn is small, I did not feel it necessary to ensure players got an equal number of turns. I did give a bit of compensation for turn order in the form of starting money, but not because of the unequal turns! The compensation in Terra Prime is because the early turns of the game favor the first couple of players in turn order.

For players who felt cheated out of finishing their multi-turn plan, I awarded points for resources and colony markers on your ship at the end of the game. This was a compromise that I feel worked well. It allows partial credit for a big score you might have been about to make, and at the same time it gives you a way to grab a couple of points if you don't think you'll get another turn: just pick up some resources or a colony marker.

Finish Current Round 

My preferred genre is the European style strategy games. Many of those ensure that players get the same number of turns, which only seems fair because those types of games often have a strong aspect of each player doing their own thing, and then comparing their performance against the other players. That doesn't mean there's not interaction in the game, but it does mean that an equal number of turns is appropriate for a fair comparison -- of COURSE I can do more than you if you give me more time to do it in!

Since all players get the same number of turns, turn order compensation is not needed, unless (like in Terra Prime above), seat order favors turn order at the beginning of the game.

Splendor and Century: Spice Road are good examples of the Finish Current Round game end, and both are well regarded as entry level "gateway" games. In Century: Spice Road, the game ends when one player has bought a certain number of scoring cards (like 5 or 6). It's fairly easy to see how many scoring cards each player has bought, and since resources are open information, you can see if a player is able to trigger the end of the game on their next turn or not. So you can tell pretty well if another player COULD end the game before you go again, but you don't know for sure if they WILL end it or not. So there's uncertainty in the game end.

Splendor is the same way, but in my opinion it feels worse. Splendor ends once a player has scored 15 points, and while you collect cards in front of you, many of them are not worth points, and the ones that are generally score only a few points at a time. Like Century: Spice Road, you can look at each player's tableau and add up their score to see if they're able to end the game on their next turn, but that takes significantly more work. Also, since players can have hidden cards in hand that they can build, you might not know for sure whether they can afford a card that could end the game or not. Since Splendor is such a light, quick game, that kind of record keeping does not feel appropriate, and so many players simply don't do it. Therefore, more often than not, I see games of Splendor end abruptly, surprising several players at the table. I find this dynamic to be a real turn off.

Puerto Rico is a classic euro-style game (one of my favorites) that uses the Finish Current Round game end dynamic. In that game there are three different end game triggers, and while you can make a pretty good guess as to whether the game will end this round or not, it's not always clear. However, in my experience that does not detract from the experience very often, perhaps because you get a large number of turns in the game, and because you get to participate in the roles chosen by each player. I have seen instances of the Mayor role occurring before Builder in what turns out to be the last round of the game, so players cannot man a big building bought at the last minute. Maybe because the phase order is in the players' control that has become a feature more than a bug.

My own Crusaders also uses the Finish Current Round game end, and I struggled with whether that was the best format or not. Crusaders ends when the victory point ("Influence") pool has run out, representing that the Templar factions have become so powerful (as a group) that King Philip freaks out and has them disbanded. This seemed like a good thematic way to end the game, and a good mechanical one as well, I was able to tune the vp pool to allow the game to last about the right number of turns. However, I worried that players would not pay enough attention to the dwindling pool of Influence tokens, and therefore not recognize whether they would have another turn or not. Especially as player 1 in a 4 player game, you can be left to choose a course of action without any real certainty whether or not you'll have another turn. That's my least favorite part of that game.

And as I mentioned above, Eminent Domain's original game end rule used this dynamic. There was some uncertainty as to whether you'd get another turn or not, but the fewer players in the game, the less likely it would really surprise you. I was ok with this dynamic originally, but by the time Escalation came around I had soured on the uncertain aspect of the game end, so I changed it to the next category, the Final Lap

Final Lap 

Railroad Tycoon is one of my favorite games for a number of reasons. That game is divided into game turns, each consisting of 3 rounds of player turns. The game is about delivering cubes on the board to the cities that want them, and the game end triggers when a certain number of cities are empty of cubes. When I first played the game, I wondered why the rules indicated that after triggering the end of the game, you don't just finish out the game turn, but you play one more entire game turn (3 more rounds of player turns) before stopping play. It seemed extraneous to me.

Now I understand that there's a real strategic benefit to knowing exactly when the game will end, and exactly how many actions you have left. Once the game end triggers, you can plan out your remaining actions to maximize your points, which is fun, especially after spending 2+ hours building up your position.

As I described above, I adopted this end game dynamic for Eminent Domain, and I'm very happy with the results.

While the previous category (Finish Current Round) may be appropriate for lighter, shorter games where you can fairly easily see if the game will end before you get another turn, the Final Lap game end seems more appropriate for longer, heavier, or more strategic games, or games where plans take a few turns to develop and resolve.

Set Number Of Turns 

Many games, especially euro-style games, do away with thematic or variable game ends and simply let you play for a specific number of turns. This has the benefits of both an equal turns for each player (so likely fair), and certainty as to when the game will end (good if you like to plan). But on the down side, it can feel arbitrary and un-thematic.

Shipyard is one of my favorite games where you build ships, collect stuff to load them up with, and then take them on shakedown cruises in canals that you've built. The game uses a rondel mechanism for its action selection, and many of the actions resolve using other rondels. Just like that main mechanism itself, the game is all about planning ahead, therefore knowing exactly how many turns you have left is welcome.

One More Turn For Other Players 

Concordia is a euro-style game, but it eschews the Set Number Of Turns and even the equal turns for all players dynamics. Instead, the game offers a 7 point incentive (a decent turns score) to end the game, and then gives each other player one last turn. This incentive is meant to encourage players to actually trigger the game end rather than let the game draw out too long.

In Concordia players get a large number of turns to play cards, and once in a while you basically skip your turn to get your cards back. Over the course of the game, players end up with different numbers of cards in hand, and therefore skip a different number of turns. So equal turns does not seem to be important in this game. But as a forward planning game, Concordia's game end does offer the certainty of knowing whether it's your last turn or not.

This game end dynamic could be good for any game where an equal number of turns is not necessary, either because individual turns are low impact, or because players get so many that being short one doesn't have a big impact on the outcome, but is strategic enough that it's worth knowing whether you have another turn coming or not.

Often, an incentive to trigger the game end (like Concordia's scoring bonus) is necessary in this type of game, otherwise it could lead to a game of chicken, with no player wanting to trigger the game end.

One More Turn For All Players 

Ticket to Ride is a well known, excellent, gateway game that ends when any player gets down to 2 train pieces left. In that game, ALL players get one last turn, even the player who triggered the game end (incidentally, that's why it triggers with 2 pieces left instead of 0, so you can lay track on your last turn).

This is similar to the previous case (One More Turn For Other Players), except your incentive to trigger the game end is that you get the last turn. This dynamic also has unequal turns, and certainty in the game end, but with the built in incentive to end the game, additional incentives (like Concordia's scoring bonus) are usually not necessary. Like the previous entry, this dynamic could be good if strategic planning is possible, but it's not important to have equal turns.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Skye Frontier v2.0 -- playtest, thoughts, tweaks, and rules

I've posted before about my Isle of Skye / King of Frontier mashup (code name: Skye Frontier). It's one of those designs I made a prototype for, played several times, liked a lot, and showed some promise, but has sat on the back burner for a long time. Looking at my previous posts, it looks like I haven't touched the game in 2 years (almost to the day).

But that doesn't mean I haven't thought about it! Once in a while (usually on airplanes) I peruse my design notebook, and I come across my notes for Skye Frontier, and I think "you know, I should really revive that one." So last Friday as I dashed out the door to AZ Game Fair (#AZgamefair18), I decided to bring it along, just in case.

I had a good time at AZ Game Fair, played a handful of games, tested 2 prototypes, sat on a game design panel, and got to do a little escape room. I might write up a bigger con report for AZ Game Fair, but this post is specifically about Skye Frontier, so let me skip right to that playtest.

Sunday morning, John and Kara Morgan were up for a game, and actually asked if I'd brought anything to test, so I thought "what the heck," and pulled out Skye Frontier. While setting up the game, it occurred to me that I didn't have my 8.5x11" player boards (that don't fit in the Isle of Skye box) with me -- I'm not actually sure where they are at the moment. Bummer.

But I didn't let that deter me! I decided to just try the game without player boards. The purpose of the player boards was really to actually help players complete their regions (and because King of Frontier had one, and I was starting from that), but I didn't see a problem playing without them. And after this test, I'm not sure I need them at all -- I think I'll leave them out! Mark this down as another one of those accidental development discoveries :)

The major things I remember needing work were the luck-of-the-draw inherent in the Explore action, especially with respect to scroll tiles, and maybe some specifics of the build action. So this test I tried one of the ideas that came up before... I separated out the scroll tiles and made a separate supply of those, sorted into piles of 4/4/3/3, and you could claim one as a prize for completing a region of size 3+/4+/5+/6+. These small piles were laid out, so you'd be able to choose any of the tiles that happened to be in one of the piles you qualified for. So if you completed a size 3 region, you'd get one of the first 4 scroll tiles (while they last), and if you completed a size 6 region or bigger, you could claim any remaining scroll tile you want. That worked pretty well, but there was still a question of whether those tiles needed to cost extra for having scrolls on them (and potentially being worth big points).

I had been scoring the scrolls just like Isle of Skye: full value of the scroll, doubled if its region was complete. An easy nerf would be to ONLY score scrolls if the region is complete, otherwise it's simply a tile that might help your geography. I think that's probably a good nerf no matter what, so I'll be trying that going forward.

After playing though, I have a different idea I'd like to try...

The other tweak I'd made was the resolution of the Explore action, I liked the idea of the original rule: either grabbing the tile you want from the display, or drawing 2, keeping one, and adding the other to the display. I like the thought that you get a better choice, but you're adding options for opponents as well. However, it definitely could have some luck of the draw involved. And the original privilege of getting to go again (getting 2 tiles in a turn) I think is what led people to choose that role too much. A combination of that, automatic building, and auto-production when completing regions meant that you really only needed this one role to do all the game action, and that's just silly.

So this time I tried this... You start with a display of 4 (maybe N+1) tiles. When someone explores, everyone gets to take one of those tiles in turn order. Your privilege for choosing Explore is that you got to draw 2 tiles from the bag, and could take one of those instead if you wanted to. The idea being that everyone gets a tile, and you get first pick, and more options to choose from.

Next time I want to try expanding on that a little bit... I'd like to layout 4 (or N+1) tiles, as well as 3 or 4 scroll tiles from a separate scroll tile stack. Then the Explore action would be that in turn order, players each take 1 non-scroll tile from the display, and your privilege is that you can take one of the scroll tiles (or the face down top tile from the deck if you prefer) instead.

This way, you get scroll tiles by calling Explore, and they only score if you complete their region, so you have to do some work to get points out of them, I'll make them cost something to build (any 1 cube, or maybe 1 of each cube?) as well. That way when you call Explore, you get first pick, about 2x the options for tiles, and access to the ones that could score points.

One thing I did like about the original rules was the speed and elegance of building right when you take the tiles. I might like to try that again -- when you explore, if you have the cubes, you build the tile right into play. If not (or if you don't want to build it yet), you put into storage. Then you use the Build action to put it into play later.

Speaking of the Build action, after a bit of hemming and hawing, I think I would like to try "everybody may pay to build 1 tile," and your privilege would be that IN ADDITION, you may build 1 tile for free. So if you get tiles you can't build, you can either choose build to build them for free, or you can produce resources so that you can pay for them when someone else builds.

Another tweak or two... At first I didn't start players with any resources. Then I tried starting them with 1 of each cube. I see a note saying "never mind, don't do that," but I don't remember what was good or bad about it. In an effort to jump start the game a little bit, I think I'll try starting with resources again.

In fact, I might also start the game with a reverse turn order draft of N (or N+1) tiles, which you get to put into play attached to your castle, and then a resource on every space in your little domain. This way maybe players won't start with EXACTLY the same resources (though maybe pretty similar).

So here's the latest rules draft as of feb 11, 2018:

Skye Frontier: An Isle of Skye/King of Frontier mashup

v2.0 By Seth Jaffee 2/12/18

Setup:

1. Lay out 4 scoring tiles at random.
2. Shuffle the 14 scroll tiles and lay out 4 face up next to the face down stack (3?).
3. Mix the rest of the landscape tiles in the bag and draw out 4 face up beneath the scroll tiles (N+1?).
4. Create a supply of 15 coins per player in the game (so 30/45/60). Set aside more coins for after game end triggers. When this supply is exhausted, the game end will trigger. Each coin will be worth 1 point at the end of the game.
5. Create supply piles of blue, green, and grey cubes.
6. Randomly select a start player and give them the turn marker. They will begin the game as start player.
7. Give each player a castle tile. Reveal N+1 tiles from the bag, and in reverse turn order, each player takes one and puts it into play attached to their castle (landscapes must match, roads need not). Return the unchosen tile to the bag.
8. Each player may produce 1 time in each of their areas before the game begins.


You are ready to begin!

Each round, the start player will choose a role from the list below and each player in turn will resolve that role. For choosing the role, you'll get a privilege. Then the turn marker will pass to the left, and the new start player will choose a role.

Roles:

Explore
Choose one of the 4 face up landscape tiles (NOT the scroll tiles). You may build it if you can pay the cost (see below). Otherwise, set it aside in your storage area, you may build it at a later time.

Privilege: As the start player, you may choose one of the face up scroll tiles instead if you wish, or take the top tile from the face down scroll stack. 


Build 
Take a tile from your storage and place it onto your board, paying cube costs (see below).

Completing a region:
When building results in completion of a region (capped off on all sides with matching landscape throughout), immediately take N-2 coins from the supply, where N = the number of tiles in that region. For example, completing a size 3 region is worth 1 coin, while completing a size 6 region is worth 4 coins.

Note: You are allowed to place tiles such that the landscapes do not match. When a tile is placed such that landscape edges do not match, neither of the non-matching regions will ever be considered "complete".

Note also: You are allowed to place tiles such that roads do not connect. Roads are not landscapes, they do not delineate regions, and they do not count as matching or non-matching for purposes of building.

Costs of placing a tile on your board:
Pay 1 green cube for each Sheep, Yak, or Farm on the tile,
Pay 1 black cube for each Tower or Barrel on the tile,
Pay 1 blue cube for each Boat or Lighthouse on the tile,
Pay 1 cube of any color for each non-matching landscape edge,
Pay 1 cube of any color for each scroll on the tile.

For the purposes of building, you may pay 2 (3?) coins in lieu of any cube.

Privilege: In addition, as the start player you may build a tile, paying only for non-matching landscape edges -- ignore other costs.


Produce
Choose a landscape region and add 1 cube from the supply onto each tile in that region. Fields get green cubes, Mountains get black cubes, and Water gets blue cubes. Tiles may hold more than 1 cube (limit 3 cubes max per tile?).

Privilege: As the start player, you may produce in a 2nd region.


Trade
Choose a landscape region to trade from.

For Fields and Mountain regions: For each tile in that region that connects back to your castle via roads, you may discard 1 cube from that tile to collect 1 coin from the supply.

For Water regions:  For each boat in that region, you may discard a cube from anywhere in that region to collect 1 coin from the supply.

These coins will be worth 1 point each at the end of the game.

Privilege: As the start player, you may trade in a 2nd region.

Game End:

The game is over at the end of a turn in which the supply of coins is exhausted, or when the tile bag is empty. At that time, each player should calculate their score to see who wins. Points come from:
* coins collected via trade or completing regions are worth 1 point each,
* scrolls on your player board that are in completed regions are worth points based on their scoring condition,
* Consult the end game scoring tiles for bonuses conferred by each.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Getting into the game

Yesterday I met David and Hoss at the game store and I got the opportunity to play one of my favorite games: Shipyard, by Vladamir Suchy. David was new to the game, so we needed to go through the rules. They took a while to get through, but if you're familiar with that type of game, you'll understand that you kind of need to know everything before you can reasonably do anything.

Complicated rules vs a complicated game


The rules of Shipyard aren't really complicated to tell you the truth -- you choose an action that isn't the one you did last turn, and isn't blocked by another player, and you resolve it. Optionally, you can buy a bonus action as well. There are a few details like the fact that you can do the bonus action and the main action in any order, and that you slide some tiles around (which indicate the actions) and you get income for taking an action that's "behind" other players' pawns, and of course there are details about how each of the actions resolves.

I have run into the same issue in the past teaching another favorite: Tzolk'in: the Mayan Calendar, by Simone Luciani and Daniele Tascini. The rules to that game are simple as well: either place workers (paying money), or remove them (resolving their actions). There are details such as the increasing cost for each worker you place in one turn, the fact that after a round, the wheels will advance, moving your worker to a different (usually stronger) action, the one-time power you have to move the wheel 2 spaces, and of course there are details about how each of the actions resolves.

The more you know...


In both of those games there are a large(ish) number of different actions or effects that can result, and technically you need to sort of know what each of them is so you know whether or not you want to perform them. But in both Shipyard and Tzolk'in the actions are grouped:

The first wheel in Tzolk'in provides food or wood. The farther along you are, the more food or wood you can get. The next wheel provides resources. The farther along you are, the more/better resources you get. The third wheel allows you to advance technology and build stuff. The farther along you are, the more or better you get to do that. Etc.

I've universally heard from players that Tzolk'in is "so complicated" because there are so many different action spaces. Maybe I've learned to sort the information in a useful way, but to me it doesn't seem very complicated at all. Obviously that's not true of all players!

In Shipyard, the actions are similarly grouped onto several different areas, and for the most part they all resolve the same way. If you want rail cars, ship parts, or canal tiles, then you simply buy them for $0/$1/$2 as shown on the board. The rest of the actions are on rondels of their own... If you take the green action, you advance the green rondel, you can pay to advance it more, then you take the item shown. If you take the brown action, you advance the brown rondel, you can pay to advance it more, then you take the item shown. If you take the employee action, you advance the employee rondel, you can pay to advance it more, then you take one of the employees there. Yes, there's 1 rondel where you can't pay to advance it, and which requires a little more description. And yes, there are a couple of details regarding the employees (you can't have both copies, some cost an extra $1 as shown on the tile, and the 3 Level II ones have a prerequisite of the matching Level I), but for the most part the information is compartmentalized.
A few turns into Shipyard, I asked David how he was enjoying the game. He said at that point he 'got it' and was enjoying it, but that he almost bailed on the game after the long rules explanation! He hadn't wanted to play after the teach, and only went ahead because he felt like we'd invested that time. And this is a guy who's played a fair number of games -- he's one of my regular playtesters!

Getting into the game


There are tips and tricks to teaching a game. Certain ways to organize and present the information so that it makes sense. Paul Grogan (of Gaming Rules! fame) has adopted a potentially controversial stance for demoing a game at conventions (and perhaps he does it when teaching at home as well) -- he ONLY tells people what they need to know RIGHT THEN, and nothing more. This is a neat idea, one I've toyed with myself at times, though I've encountered a fair bit of resistance when trying to teach that way. Many players don't want to choose an action without knowing the consequences, even if it's a learning game. I myself have a pet peeve for when a game asks me as a player to make a choice without giving me enough information to decide which option is better for me, and this forces that dynamic on all players as they learn, with the logic being "see what happens, and when you play for real you'll be better informed." Also, when playing a deep game with your friends, having a new player play this way kind of sours the experience for the experienced players, so to play this way every time would be kind of a bummer for the teacher.

This novel approach can work, but I think it works better on modern games than it does on some of the more complicated games from a decade ago. Newer games seem to limit options in the early game, or give you a player power that nudges you (sometimes very strongly) toward one option over another. Many older games are more like a sandbox, with clear strategies that exist and emerge through game play, but myriad options in the early game, with no direction except your own forward planning. All those options can lead to a lot of strategy space, and a lot of depth, but at the cost of some accessibility. To an extent it requires the player to understand what they're in for, lest they be overwhelmed.

This sandbox nature is something I'm finding to be "old fashioned" about a lot of really good euro-style games. Personally, I enjoy the freedom of strategy and the depth provided by these types of games, but with the rate at which new players are coming into the hobby, and the rate at which publishers are churning out new games, we need to start finding ways to get people actually playing the games without requiring lengthy rules explanations. We've already seen a few attempts at minimizing rules, or removing them altogether:

Jamey Stegmaier's legacy euro-style game Charterstone was originally intended to have no rulebook. In the end he found that he needed at least a bare bones rulebook to express the core mechanisms in the game, and while I haven't played it, I suspect additional rules may be added to that book via sticker (as Pandemic Legacy did) as you play through the campaign.

Friedmann Friese's ambitious Fast Forward series (Fear, Flee, and Fortress) come without a rulebook at all. They're just stacks of cards which you're supposed to tear open, set on the table, peel the top card off and read it, following directions as they're given. This is a pretty neat experiment. I've played two of those games, and while the cooperative Flee seems like a decent group puzzle, the competitive Fortress seemed a bit lacking for my taste (I'm not really the target audience). But more importantly, I felt like there were some problems with the "no rules" format -- we came across a few timing or rules questions when things weren't crystal clear on the cards (and there's not a ton of space on the cards for rules text), and when that happens, there's nowhere to look for answers. Also, with the amount and intricacy of some of the rules given on cards, it seemed like a hard sell to call it "accessible" to a complete non-gamer.

Easing players into the game


What we need is for sandbox-y games with strategic depth that players can get into with minimal up-front rules explanation. Games that can be taught using The Grogan Method, if you will, without feeling like you're making choices at random and seeing what happens. Can this be done without losing the depth these games have? I think that's the job.

The question is... how?

Post script: Reviving old games


I see a lot of reprints of older games coming out lately. Classic eurogames from 10+ years ago, sometimes with updated art, but seldom with updated rules. When I think about the possibility of reviving an old favorite like Shipyard, I wonder if it would really go over well enough in today's market. Sure, hardcore gamers that know they like that kind of thing, or are willing to sit through a long rules teach in order to explore the mechanisms on offer, won't have any problem. But will people new to the hobby be willing to put so much effort into learning the game? Or will they instead opt for something simpler to learn?

Are there any adjustments that can be made to games like Shipyard and Tzolk'in that will allow players to get into the game a bit easier? Can those be made without losing what makes those games so good in the first place? I'd love to hear your thoughts or answers in the comments below!

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Behind the Scenes of Boardgaming: The Pre-Press Process

I was reading an old thread on BGG where the topic of pre-press came up. It reminded me that most people who play games, those that aren't "in the biz," are not aware of the process games go through before they land on the store shelves, or in your online shopping cart. One of the most common, yet least well known steps is the pre-press process.

Pre-press is a process you go through with the manufacturer before going to print (just like it sounds). In that process, the manufacturer analyzes your files and alerts you to any errors they find (RGB instead of CMYK colors for example, or insufficient bleed or spacing between elements on your punchboard), and makes sure the files you gave them match the contract specs.

From there they make a digital, or "soft" proof, which you review to make sure things look right. This is a VERY important step, as it's the first, and cheapest, way to avoid a stupid mistake such as working off of an old file (with incorrect info), or there are somehow accidentally too many card backs, so the backs and fronts don't line up properly. This last one may sound super specific, and that is because it has happened to me twice now. Once was an expensive problem to fix, because the cards were printed that way, and I didn't notice until I got physical copies in my hand. More recently it happened again, but this time I noticed it in the soft proof.

With the digital proofs approved, the manufacturer moves on to create a "hard proof" or "production proof." This looks like an actual copy of the game, but it's not really. It used to be they'd send two things: a "white box proof," with all the correct materials but nothing printed, and a "color proof," with stuff printed but not on the right materials. Nowadays some manufacturers combine that into a single step, where they send you a box that looks pretty much like the real deal, except the punchboards are laser cut instead of punched (they don't want to create the die until they know it's correct), and a few other small details.

All of these steps comprise "pre-press." Once the hard proof is approved, the manufacturer creates the dies and goes to print for real, printing, cutting, and assembling thousands of copies of your game. Any mistakes that slipped through at this point are now written in stone. Well, written in cardboard anyway :)

Eminent Domain Origins -- Starting Resource draft?

I mentioned in my last post that I was considering replacing the stage I rewards (which serve to differentiate player profiles) with a starting resource draft. What I hope to achieve by that is...

  1. Give players more variety in their game starts
  2. Give players more agency when it comes to their early game strategic direction
  3. Maintain an aspect of turn order compensation

Currently, players start with some credits, and that's it. The earlier you are in turn order at the start of the game, the fewer credits you start with, to make up for the advantage of having first dibs on the early game colony options. Other than that difference in starting money, all players have always started out on equal footing. However, the stage I reward tiles give players a different module, which serves to differentiate them once they've colonized something (and really, your first actions should always be to colonize something ASAP). This new idea would replace that random method of player differentiation with one where you'd get some say in how you'd like to play the game.

The scheme I've gone with for the starting resource cards is to make a few at each of three tiers, then to deal 2 cards from the appropriate tier to each player, based on their turn order (1st, 2nd-3rd, and 4th-5th):

  • Tier 1: 1st player (3 cards)
    1. 20 Credits
    2. 10 Credits and 1 Energy
    3. 1 Weapon module
  • Tier 2: 2nd-3rd player (6 cards)
    1. 30 Credits
    2. 20 Credits and 1 Energy
    3. 1 Brownium and 1 Weapon module
    4. 1 Shield module and 3 Energy
    5. 1 Cargo Hold module
    6. 1 Cryo Chamber module
  • Tier 3: 4th-5th player (6 cards)
    1. 40 Credits
    2. 2 Brownium and 1 Weapon module
    3. 1 Brownium and 1 Shield module and 3 Energy
    4. 1 Brownium and 1 Cargo Hold module
    5. 1 Brownium and 1 Cryo Chamber module
    6. 1 Afterburner module
My thought is that you basically start with 20/30/40 credits worth of stuff, and I'm counting an action as 10 credits. So for example, as player 1, you might have to choose between a Weapon module (costs 10 and an action at a green colony), and 20 credits (which you could use to buy shields, or a cargo module).

With respect to the three goals stated above:
1. Give players more variety in their game starts
    Each game you will get to choose between two different starting positions, and that choice will be different game-to-game, and based on your turn order position.

2. Give players more agency when it comes to their early game strategic direction
    Compared to the original game, where your differentiation came at random, this scheme will allow players to choose their strategic path (at least between two head starts). And I tried to make the options somewhat versatile, so they don't necessarily lock you into a specific, scripted strategic path.

3. Maintain an aspect of turn order compensation
    The card are in three tiers, offering more compensation to later turn order players. I think the fact that players 2 and 3 get the same level of compensation, and players 4 and 5 get the same level, is probably fine, as the difference between 1st and 2nd is probably bigger than the difference between 2nd and 3rd, etc.

So far I've tried this twice, and I think it's OK. What I haven't tried yet is removing the stage I reward tiles. The combination is kinda lame, as your random reward tile may or may not synergize with your chosen starting resources. Removing the stage I tiles will shorten the game a little bit, and with all the recent changes to jump start it, I think cutting a couple of rounds off the game wouldn't hurt.

Eminent Domain Origins progress

It's been a while since I last posted about Eminent Domain Origins, my Terra Prime reboot in the EmDo universe, so I'll begin by revisiting the changes discussed in that post and offer my current thinking on them. Then I'll mention the latest modifications, and how those went in yesterday's playtests.


New modifications discussed 10/27/17:

  • Add one "any module" slot to the command ship.
After trying this a few times, I ended up removing it, and I prefer the game without it. The expansion (being included in EDO) added an Extra Module Slot tech, which is pretty cheap and allows players to get extra slots if they want them.
  • Add 1 "any resource" hold to the command ship.
I have continued to like this, and decided to keep it. With this extra slot, players are not required to purchase a cargo hold in order to carry 1 Yellow cube, or 2 Blue/2 Green cubes, which means they are able to go for various technologies without having to buy a cargo hold first.

I also updated the cost and effect of a few technologies.
  • Set direction on tiles, so there's no possibility of illegal placements or configurations.
I have been using completely random orientation for space hexes, and I've come to like it just fine. The map is more different game-to-game, which is probably a good thing. 
  • Re-examine distribution of hazards on exploration tiles (I haven't done this yet).
I still haven't done this, and I still might. I have more to add to this now, see below...
  • Change Weapon module cost (a simple $20 each. Or even just $10?)
I've kept the $10 weapon cost, and I've been fine with it. I also did nerf alien scoring down to 1vp/alien killed instead of 2, which seems fine, but I wonder if alien hunting is no longer as strong a strategy as it used to be. Maybe that's OK, as it used to be fairly strong!
  • Consider changing the Shield action (people have trouble with "Do one, the other, or both: Buy a shield module for $10, charge shields for $10"). Maybe recharging shields should be free?
After some hemming and hawing, I think the best thing to do is just keep the Buy Shields rule the same... in one action you may optionally (1) Buy 1 shield module for $10, then optionally (2) charge all of your shields for $10.
  • Change Delivery Optimizer to "+1 LP when you complete a demand tile. At game end: 1vp per demand tile collected."
I have continued to use this, and I think it's fine. If you buy it before completing any demand tiles, then it's the same as it ever was. If you buy it after you've completed some tiles, then it's a little bit better than it was.
  • Start with energy on your built-in shield?
I have been doing this, and it seems OK so far. I have a new idea that will make this point moot, see below...
  • Colonies immediately produce as soon as they're created, so there's less wasting actions waiting for the new colony to produce. 
I have enjoyed this, but I have a new idea that will make it moot, see below...
  • Ignore the "no planet adjacent to Terra Prime" rule as well, all of this hopefully just speeds up the game a little bit.
I have been doing this, and I think it's fine. I am planning on keeping this rule (that is to say, removing the restriction).

  • Ignore the limit on Exploring, and just have that be wrapped into the Move action 
I've been fine with this. I've decided to embrace just about anything that removes stalling and waiting from the game.
  • Wrap the Pacify and Attack actions into one. 
Yeah, this can be 1 action, dealing with aliens. You can shoot them, or you can "Pacify" them (might change that to Befriend or something). I reduced the cost of Pacifying aliens to "1 cube per icon," rather than "1 cube per icon plus 1." Perhaps for that reason, I've seen more pacifying of aliens lately, and it's kind of neat - you give them a brown and a green, and maybe they give you a yellow and an energy (on the reward tile) -- it's like a trade.
  • If I remove the Explore limit, then it might mean I ought to allow exploring out of a wormhole (I'd rather not do that), which leads to exploring 2 tiles at once (or that).
I have allowed this, and so far it seems to be fine. Again, I think it just sort of speeds up the game.

  • Finally, the Afterburner module (pay 1 Energy for 2 actions this turn) seemed WAY too good. I think it was probably a little too good before, but it didn't seem that bad because to power it efficiently you had to fill your module slots with shields... but with the additional module slot (see above), you could pretty easily get 3-4 shield modules and 2 Afterburners, and do 7 actions per turn, only needing to spend one of those actions every 3-4 turns to refuel. That felt like too much, even if the player who did it didn't score very well (I think it took him too long to set up and start abusing that). So losing the extra module slot might make the Afterburner OK again, but I might try another version.
I'm currently of the opinion that without that extra module slot, the 1 Energy = 2 Actions Afterburner is probably OK.

Now I'll discuss some of the more recent changes:


  • Hyperdrive: Cost changed to Yellow+Blue+Brown, points removed, effect changed to: "After each (->) spent on a move action, you may immediately take an additional move action."

Now that there's no "explore" limit, it doesn't make sense to allow it 2x/turn. I COULD just have this be a thruster that doesn't take up a module slot, but in an effort to be more interesting, I thought I'd try this effect. It lets you move after moving, which is like saying your move actions move you 2 spaces (worded that way to avoid rules issues, for example Alien attacks). This will therefore help you zoom across the board, which could be good for a delivery strategy, or a colony strategy that wants to get to and from the red zone quickly, or maybe even an alien hunter.



  • Cloaking Device: Cost increased to Yellow+Green+Brown. 

Cloaking device has always been a very strong tech, and so it should cost a little more. Also, this way the costs are more evenly distributed. hyperdrive costs Y/Br/Blue, cloaking device costs Y/Br/Green. And cloaking device is better for an alien hunter, so using green makes sense, while hyperdrive may be better for a delivery strat, so using blue makes sense there.


  • Wormhole: 1 move action will move you into a wormhole and out of ANY wormhole (used to be 2 actions)

In an effort to make the wormhole rules less confusing, I'm trying this change. This way you're never in a sort of limbo space "inside" the wormholes, so you won't ever try to short range scan something from inside the wormhole (which a player did, and I realized doesn't make sense). I've tried this twice now, and as a result, the wormholes seem to do a much better job at what they were supposed to do... shrink the board in the late game! There are currently 3 wormholes in the green zone, 2 in the yellow zone, and 1 in the red zone, but I might change that a little bit. I might add another in the red zone, and I might go back down to 2 in the green zone, or even just 1, but make it always in the same place (see below).


  • Add free resources to the blank green zone exploration tiles

It was pointed out that exploring a tile and finding it blank is super boring, but I couldn't think of anything else to put on the blank green exploration tiles. I don't want the green zone to be dangerous, so no aliens or stray asteroids. It would be lame to find a sunstar ("Treat this tile as if it were blank") there on turn one. I already have some wormholes... so the only thing I can think of is a free resource. I tried it with a free brown whenever you explored a blank tile, which was kinda interesting because it maybe speeds up your ability to get tech, especially if nobody builds a mine.

Later I had a different idea which I might try that would make this a moot point. What if the green zone just didn't have exploration tiles at all? And what if there was always 1 wormhole, in the center green tile (the only one that's 2 moves from Terra Prime instead of just 1)? It could make some thematic sense, that the Terran Federation set up their first space station just outside a wormhole -- maybe that's how they got there. This would remove the need for exploration tiles on the green zone, and would make blank exploration tiles irrelevant. And that wormhole placement MIGHT make for more interesting games than when a wormhole occurs 1 space from Terra Prime (not sure).


  • Nix production, just spend an action to get a resource.

One thing that's been a bit of a hassle with Terra Prime is clutter on the board, and it's always been easy to forget to produce on your colonies at the start of your turn. I've never worried about that, as it's easy to tell if a colony should have a resource or not, but I've never loved having to figure that out (and it happened all the time). So what if you din't have to produce goods and place them on the board? What if you could just always get a resource as an action? That would remove one of the interactions I liked in the game -- competition to pick up certain resources, but the assurance that YOUR resources would always be there for you. However, I don't know if that interaction is really such a big deal, and having to stall or out when someone takes the resource you were going to get seemed like a feel-bad moment. As my playtester kept putting it yesterday, "being able to do things is better than not being able to do things." So I thought I'd give this a try. So as not to be degenerate though, I thought it should be limited to once per turn per colony, so you can't sit there and fill up on cubes so easily.

In the first playtest yesterday I tried this, and it worked pretty well. It felt a lot like the regular game, the only real difference being you never got screwed out of a resource, and I didn't miss that dynamic.

I wondered if the arbitrary 1x/turn limit was really necessary -- after all, you're already a little bit restricted on what you can carry. So in the 2nd playtest I tried removing that limit, even though I suspected it would cause a problem. Sure enough, I didn't like the result. Without the limit, there's less reason to visit someone else's planet to get resources, and with the Matter Converter tech it got a little ridiculous -- you could just go to the closest planet, pick up 57 resources, then come back and deliver them all for money and points.

So, even though I don't like arbitrary limits and I'm trying to remove rules, I think the 1x/turn/colony limit is necessary. This rule still allows me to chop off the production phase, which needs to be awkwardly explained before anybody has any colonies, and it gets rid of the "should this colony have a resource?" questions entirely. It also makes obsolete the idea of producing a resource immediately upon colonizing (which is just one more step in the fairly lengthy colonize process).


  • Define Sunstar exactly

I think the simplest rule for sunstars is "treat this space hex as if it ere blank." In fact, it may be good to have a few blank space hexes (with a sunstar icon on back), and when you reveal a sunstar, you simply replace the hex with a blank one.

This has an unintended consequence (though one I'm OK with) of removing asteroids from being in the way. There's one rule clarification that's probably necessary... what happens if you explore into a sector with an asteroid field, and find a sunstar on the tile with the asteroid field? Do you roll for the asteroids? I think the answer would be no - you'd move in, flip the tile, replace it with a blank one, and then see if you roll for asteroids. I think that makes the most sense.

The other alternative would be move in, roll for asteroids, then explore the tile... either way would work, but I just want the rule to be clear and consistent.


  • Draft starting resources

At the beginning of the game, it's possible the first players have an advantage over later turn players. That's why the later turn players got more money to start with. I've been increasing that compensation lately, such that players start with 10/20/30/40/50 based on their turn order. In related news, I had started players with their built-in shield charged with energy, just because people seemed to want that.

Adding 2 more paths out of Terra Prime helped the turn order thing a little, but it occurred to me that I could try something new: I could make starting resource cards for players to choose from. I like how that works in Chimera Station, where you draft starting resource cards in reverse turn order. I was going to try using that here, but in the end, this is what I tried:

I made 3 P1 cards, 6 P2-3 cards, and 6 P4-5 cards. For each player, I dealt 2 cards for their position, and let them choose between them. The P1 cards are worth about 10-20 credits, the P2-3 cards are worth 30-40 credits, and the P4-5 cards are worth about 40-50 credits.

I kinda liked this, and more importantly, I think players would see this as more interesting, more variety in the game. Originally the game achieved this by having the first N reward tiles (1 per player) give you some module which would set you apart from other players, differentiating the player profiles. Since everyone's early game should really be "establish a colony ASAP," this meant everyone would have a nudge in one direction or another. Of course, it'd be at random, not chosen.

Adding these starting resource cards are neat, but now I'm sort of double dipping on that mechanism. You might choose a starting resource card based on how you want to approach the game this time, then after dropping your first colony you might get something that works well with that, or something that doesn't. I don't love that, so I might just take out those first stage rewards altogether.


  • Ion Cannon useful all turn

I've noticed a few times that when using an ion cannon (spending an energy for 2 weapons), sometimes you don't defeat the aliens, and then your next attack is super weak unless you spend MORE energy. I don't like that, so I think the ion cannon should continue to work until the end of the turn.

This would be consistent with the afterburner, I think. You'd activate the module by placing an energy on it, while active, it does its thing. At the end of your turn, you'd clear off any energy on your afterburner or ion cannon. I think this will make the ion cannon a lot more useful, a player with enough actions could potentially use a single ion cannon activation to fight several alien clusters!


Tuesday, January 02, 2018

2017 year in review

A lot of stuff has happened in 2017 in general, some of it good, much of it bad. In my own life, the good stuff includes getting married in March, and now expecting a little boy next May, so I guess that's big news. But as this is my game design blog, I suppose now would be a good time to take a moment and reflect on my experiences in 2017 on the games front.

I didn't keep specific notes or anything, so I'll just go through my calendar and blog posts and see what that reminds me of:

January

I started off the year wrapping up development on Eminent Domain: Oblivion, and coordinating art with Brian Patterson for the tech card illustrations and Ariel Seoane for the graphic design. A few people have grumbled online about how they don't like the look of the new tech illustrations, but as I have said in a couple of different threads already:

The main artists we had used for previous EmDo expansions were no longer available, and I wanted a consistent look within this set. Brian Patterson did all of the illustrations, and yes, he has a sort of cartoony style.
Many of the previous cards are a little bit cartoony, and there's a mix of styles from 5 or 6 different artists in them, so I don't think there will be much of a problem adding these new tech cards into the mix.
And as for the cartoony-ness of them, I kind of wanted that -- to an extent, Oblivion is a parody of government, and most of the time government could best be described as "cartoony."

I think Brian did a great job with these illustrations, I like that the expansion art is internally consistent, and I don't think there'll be any problems incorporating this set into the base game (or playing it with previous sets) based on that, but YMMV.
Also in January, Eminent Domain was featured in a Reddit forum called Game Of The Week, Redux. And I posted about a game idea sparked by an episode of The Game Designers of North Carolina podcast -- however, that game idea hasn't gone anywhere, and I don't expect it will. However, as I describe in the comments on that post, it did spark another game design idea which I think MAY actually go somewhere.

In addition, I was wrapping up rules edits for Harvest, and coordinating with Sergi on Pioneer Days art. I was pushing hard to get all three of those into production in time for a potential GenCon release, and failing that, at least an Essen/BGGcon release.

Outside of gaming, it looks like I flew to Dallas for a friend's divorce trial, a stark contrast to the time I spent on my own wedding preparations that month.

February

After January, I took stock of The List, a sort of compilation of games I've got at the idea stage, design stage, and published titles. I posted an update to kick off February.

Other posts in my design blog this month included:

  • That game idea I mentioned above, which grew from the ideas that came to mind listening to that podcast.
  • A sort-of formal definition of "Deck Learning," the term I've coined to describe Eminent Domain, which I feel is a significantly different type of deck building than games like Dominion, Ascension, etc.
  • A request for Q's for a Casual Q&A, like those Reddit AMA's, but in a more laid back format. Only 1 person asked any questions in the comments.
  • A summary of the beginnings of a new game about Joan of Arc, a design which I'd been tinkering with since Essen. It's intended to be a sort of sequel to Orleans, and spoilers: it did go somewhere, but now I've sort of backburnered it.


Not much else notable happened this month. It looks like I recorded a podcast episode with Isaac Shalev, though I don't think it aired until September.

March

I skipped SaltCon last year because it was 1 week before my wedding, which is a bummer, because that is a nice, relaxed convention which gives me a chance to hang out and catch up with my TMG cohorts. For the previous couple of years, Michelle came with me, we stayed at Michael's house, and we enjoyed the convention. I hope we can return in the future.

I think of March as the sort of deadline to get files to the printer in time for GenCon, so I furiously tried to finish Oblivion, Harvest, and Pioneer Days to give them their best shot at that.

I continued to think about that Worker Learning game idea, and had a "Eureka" / "Duh" moment about it, and I made a prototype for that Joan of Arc idea I'd posted about in February.

April

In April I had some promising playtests of the early versions of Joan of Arc: Maid of Orleans, and I updated my prototype accordingly.

I also went to Paris on my honeymoon, and unfortunately got a bit sick there. I did however get my new wife to play a game of Joan of Arc with me at a game cafe though!

May

I kicked off May by joining Lance to record Episode #3 of the TMG podcast.

Blog posts this month included:



I finished up the month with a trip to Birmingham with Andy, Aaron, and Daniel for UK Games Expo - a neat show, only mildly disturbed due to some terrorist activity nearby the week before.

June

I began the convention season in England at UK Games Expo, and continued in Columbus at Origins, where Andy and I had a number of meetings with designers to listen to game pitches. Not much interested me there, though we did see 2 things which we ended up signing later in the year.

My own design efforts were focused mostly on Deities & Demigods, which I hadn't tested since January, but which I revived at UK Games Expo and concentrated on throughout June, with a little bit of Joan of Arc thrown in for good measure.

July

I spent the first 2 weeks of July vacationing in Dallas and then Seattle. I managed to play a few games... Werewords and Wordsy went well at Michelle's family reunion in Dallas, and I introduced some of my Seattle friends to a new favorite: Barenpark. I also showed off a full art prototype of Crusaders: Thy Will Be Done, which finally hit Kickstarter in July!

As could have been suspected, there was a slight backlash to the theme of Crusaders, but to be honest, it wasn't all that much. While the material holds potentially controversial subject matter, I think that game really sidesteps it -- it's not about the Crusades themselves, it's about the so-called "crusading orders," such as the Knights Templar. It's also not really intended to be historically accurate, though it is based on stuff the Templars did.

In July I updated The List again, since a lot had changed in the first half of 2017.

August

A lot of stuff seemed to happen in August...

  • Crusaders finished funding with 4,162 backers pledging a total of $330,691 of support, mostly for the Deluxified version of the game. That's not TMG's BIGGEST kickstarter project, but it's close, and it makes the $48k we raised for Eminent Domain 6 years ago look like child's play.
  • I worked with a sculptor on knight and building sculpts for the Deluxified version of Crusaders.
  • I also worked with Ariel to get the art and graphic design for the upcoming Homesteaders expansion ready to go.
  • I checked production proofs for Eminent Domain: Oblivion, and found (and corrected) an error with the card backs.
  • And of course, I attended GenCon with TMG, where Andy and I met with a bunch more designers to listen to their game pitches, and attended 2 nights worth of Publisher Speed Dating.

Most of the Publisher Speed Dating events I've attended have been a bit of a bust for me. Out of 400+ pitches, I'd only been interested in a few games, and of those, even fewer turned into TMG products. This year at GenCon, the signal to noise ratio seemed a lot higher for some reason -- just lucky I guess. There were several games I was interested in, and upon closer examination we took several of them home with us, and ended up signing more than one!

In addition to all of that, I started a new game design (Automatown rules), I revived an old game design (Alter Ego) and enlisted a design hobbyist to do some blind PnP testing of it, I re-posted some nuggets of design wisdom from Matthew Dunstan (with his permission) from a Twitter thread, and I revisited the Casual Q&A idea again.

September

September was similarly busy. This month I...



The big ticket item here is probably getting more organized with playtesting. I have been meaning to do that forever, and now I can much more easily track what gets played and when, and by whom.

I ended September by attending RinCon (Brian had a great geeklist from RinCon this year, and I didn't so I'll just link his), for once as an attendee rather than an organizer. I took on the responsibility of running the convention because I wanted it to happen, and it was very relaxing to finally just sit around and play games rather than answer questions and put out fires. Unfortunately, this reward was short lived, because I had to fly to California for a wedding on Saturday morning, so I was only able to enjoy RinCon for 1 day.

October

By comparison to the last couple of months, October sounds fairly uneventful:

I skipped Essen this year -- TMG usually sends 4 people, and this year we had a booth, and so wanted to send someone new to help run it, so I stayed home to make space. It's too bad, because two of the games I put a lot of work into, Harvest and Pioneer Days, made their debut at Essen. I hope to return in the future.

Instead of flying to Germany, I finally started updating Terra Prime for a new life as a prequel to Eminent Domain (it will be called Eminent Domain Origins), and I kept working on the Eminent Domain dice game ("Eminent Domain: Chaos Theory"?). I worked almost exclusively on those two games in the month of October.

November

November was a big month for conventions for me. I kicked it off with a trip to Seattle for Sasquatch, and followed that up with my annual trip to Dallas for BGGcon. Michelle came with me to both of those this year, and we took a day trip from BGGcon to Rockwall for Michelle's 3 year old niece's birthday party.

I wrote a post examining variable player powers, since I'm currently working on adding them to two different TMG games, and I started testing those, while continuing to test Eminent Domain Origins and Eminent Domain: Chaos Theory.

I had another new game idea as well, but this one is not as exciting or interesting as some, so it'll probably just sit in the toolbox, waiting to be combined with something else down the road.

December

I rounded out the year playing a lot fewer games than I normally do, but I did get a lot of testing done of the upcoming TMG game Embark (one of the summer pick ups) with player powers, and I worked with an illustrator and a graphic designer to get that game put together for submission to the manufacturer. I'll be wrapping that up in the next couple of weeks.

2018

I'm starting off the new year with 1 game project finishing art, two more about to start, two games in production, and two just waiting to be sent to the manufacturer. If things go well, I should see all of the following games (each of which I've had a heavy hand in) on store shelves by the end of the year:
As for my designs, once these are all out of the way, I hope to return to Alter Ego, Deities & Demigods, Joan of Arc, and maybe Automatown.

And of course, I'll be doing development on another couple of TMG games.

Monday, November 20, 2017

YANGI: Dice Drafting Rondel game idea

Dice Drafting Rondel

You guessed it, I've had Yet Another New Game Idea (TM). This time it's a dice drafting rondel game. I found a note on my desk at work that I wrote a few weeks ago, and I had some time, so I thought about it a bit and pretty quickly sketched out a mechanical idea. Like I've mentioned before, from this point I'd probably need a theme that fits before I could make much more progress.

Imagine a Rondel with black spaces, gray spaces, and white spaces on it.

* Black spaces show specific basic resource icons which allow you to collect basic resources, as well as a higher level resource icons.
* Gray spaces show conversion icons which allow you to trade resources around, and next to each gray space there'd be a building tile with an ability and a resource cost.
* White spaces show coin icons which allow you to collect coins, and next to each white space there'd be a contract card with some requirement and some reward.

Each player has a pawn on the rondel, or maybe there's a single shared pawn -- I suppose either way would work.

I could imagine this rondel being printed on a board, or I can imagine it being assembled from tiles, such that the order of the spaces is not the same every game.

During setup, you'd roll 3 dice into a pool, 1 Black, 1 Gray, and 1 White.

On your turn:
  1. Choose one of the three dice, and move your pawn clockwise on the rondel to the next space of the color matching the chosen die (you could pay some cost in coins to skip that one and move to the 2nd such space, etc).
  2. Resolve that space according to the number of pips on the chosen die:
    1. Black: Either:
      1. Collect PIP of the resource shown, or 
      2. Exchange PIP of the resource shown into the higher level resource shown.
    2. Gray: Either:
      1. For each pip on the die, either make the specific conversion shown, or collect 1 coin (maybe exchanges of advanced resources cost 2 pips), or
      2. Purchase the building tile here by paying the printed resource cost, plus PIP coins (or additional resources?).
    3. White: Either
      1. Place up to PIP of your resources onto your contract cards, in an effort to complete them, or
      2. Pay PIP coins to take the contract card here.
  3. Re-roll the chosen die back into the pool for the next player.
[edited to make the actions interesting for both high and low rolls]

So you draft a die to collect, convert, or spend resources, and you care about the color for the type of action, and the pip value for the value of the action.

Thoughts on this? Any theme that might be a particularly good fit?

[edited to add this theme idea]

Here's a theme idea that may be a bit unusual:
You're an aspiring actor, seeking fame (and fortune?)... but you have to start somewhere. You wander around doing small jobs (voiceover work, perhaps?) to gain experience (collect resources), and maybe parlay some of that into some decent gigs (advanced resources). With enough experience and a couple of bucks you can take classes (build buildings) which give you an edge in certain aspects. Ultimately you're trying to land roles in TV and Movies (contract cards) to earn fame.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Exploring variable player powers


Variable Player Powers

Something that seems to have gone over well with the TMG audience, and with a lot of gamers in general, is variable player powers. Often, unique abilities can lend a sense of replayability to a game by giving the player a different feel, or a nudge toward a different strategic path or goal.

But these powers can be a double edged sword, with the potential for a player to feel pigeonholed into a particular strategy or play style as dictated by their player power, or the possibility (even just the perception) of some powers being significantly stronger or weaker than others.

To be honest, I've historically prefered a game where players start out on equal footing, and quickly differentiate their position through game play. I've always liked it when, based on early choices, you develop your own unique player profile for the game. And I especially like it when you can set yourself up with a different player profile the next time you play (replayability!). However, I'm coming around. I get the impression more and more that variable player powers are worth adding to many types of games.

I've just signed a few new games that will be coming out in the next year or two, and I want to add player powers to two of them.

The evolution of player powers at TMG


In order to inform my thinking on variable player powers, it may be useful to look at the TMG games that have utilized them. Here they are, in pseudo-chronological order:

The first TMG original game that had player powers was Ground Floor, from 2012. Designer David Short included Specialty tiles that gave your business a little nudge in one direction or another. They upgraded one of the 6 starting spaces on your player board -- something you could normally do on your own for a cost. With the Specialty tiles, everyone starts with a different space upgraded. This doesn't make a huge impact on the game, but it does make you a little better at one aspect or another, and therefore better suited to utilize that aspect. Presumably a player with an advantage in a certain area would play in a way that takes advantage of that advantage.

When Kings of Air and Steam came along in 2013, we tried something new. We used 2-sided player boards (A/B), where the A-sides were identical, with each player starting on equal footing. We called that the "Basic" game. In the "Normal" game, each of the 7 possible player characters had a unique board with subtle differences in different aspects, as well as 2 special abilities to choose from, and a specific initiative order. It was a lot of fun to come up with, test, and balance the 14 various abilities, and we used the player board differences and initiative sequence (turn order) to adjust for abilities that were too strong or too weak until we felt we'd gotten a fairly well balanced game.

Another TMG game to get variable player powers around that time was Dungeon Roll, and while the other games were complete games without these powers, in Dungeon Roll, the powers play a much larger role in the game. Each hero in Dungeon Roll has a Specialty and an Ultimate ability, one or both of which gets better when the hero gains enough experience to level up. Dungeon Roll shipped with 8 heroes (9 if you count the kickstarter Guild Leader promo), and has since gotten two boosters of 8 more heroes each, as well as the holiday themed Winter Heroes pack, and the Time Traveler promo hero. Kind of like Dominion and Bridge rely heavily on having a new situation each hand (new kingdom cards, or a new shuffle and deal), Dungeon Roll relies on using different heroes to make the experience interesting. However, many of the heroes can offer at least a handful of games before they get boring, and with 30 heroes so far, there's a decent amount of game there. Without the different hero powers, I think the game would get old pretty quickly.

Bomb Squad is a cooperative game from 2013, and designers David Short and Dan Keltner used player powers similar to what you'd see in Pandemic, and to much the same effect. In my opinion, the base game play of Bomb Squad is so solid and fun that the player powers aren't really necessary to play the game over and over, but their effects do add to the experience. Since the game is cooperative, the player powers don't need to be as balanced against each other, they just need to be useful and fun twists on game play to let players feel like they've got an extra, unique way to help the team.

Belfort, released in 2011, never had player powers. But when the Expansion Expansion came out in 2013, it added assistants that you could draft each round, which approximated a player power in that game. Not really the same as a standard variable player power, but worth mentioning the approximation.

My deck learning card game Eminent Domain was also released in 2011 without variable player powers. For many players, the best part of the Escalation expansion from 2014 was the Scenario cards, which altered your starting deck and gave you some technology to start with. They were so well received that I added 5 Base Game scenarios as a promo in Microcosm, and a handful more came in the Exotica expansion. They haven't come to fruition yet, but I talked on my blog about another possible promo item: Emperor Avatars (described here). Emperor Avatars would be a set of two player powers that you would draft before starting the game.

Steam Works, in 2015, was the next big game to have player powers. This time we repeated the A-side/B-side player board idea from Kings of Air and Steam, but rather than having the A-sides being identical, they were unique. The B-sides had even more diverse or crazy abilities.

2015 also brought us Harbour, by Scott Almes. The base game of Harbour is a solid, compact worker placement game with an interesting market mechanism, but like Dungeon Roll, the real attraction for players (I think) comes from the host of player characters in the box. Since Harbour we've set a couple of games in the same universe (with more to come), and one of the things I've tried to do with each of those is maintain that format by providing diverse and colorful player characters with fun abilities.

2015's Dungeon of Fortune is basically a card game version of the press-your-luck dungeon crawl that was Dungeon Roll. Different mechanics, but the same theme and setting. As such, it made sense to add player powers to that game as well, and we tried to model them after some of the heroes in Dungeon Roll.

I wasn't involved in Andy's Bottlecap Vikings (also from 2015), but I know that he added variable player powers in the form of different upgrade powers on your player board in that game.

Variable player powers in today's TMG titles


This year (2017) has brought us a handful of TMG titles with player powers. In Exodus Fleet (which I didn't work on) you choose one of two factions, and that lets you start with a slightly different starting ship, and a unique card or two which could give you a nudge down a different strategic path. I don't think the differences are so substantial that you'd feel forced to pursue a particular strategy though.

I had a big hand in their development of the rest of the 2017 titles, including the variable player powers:

Chimera Station follows the Kings of Air and Steam tack of A-side (identical) and B-side (unique) player boards. That game originally didn't have player powers, and I decided they could be a good thing to add. In Chimera Station, you modify your workers by adding 4 different types of components to them: Brains, Claws, Leaves, and Tentacles. It also happens to be a 4 player game. So for unique player powers, each faction/player is kind of "good at" one of the components. This may be a little heavy handed, pushing you fairly hard toward using a bunch of the type of component that you're "good at." However, you have several workers, and it's still worth getting other components than the one you're "good at," so I think it works out.

When we signed Harvest, the game was simply about growing crops. It didn't have any characters or payer powers. But I decided to set it in the Gullsbottom universe, like Harbour before it. So naturally, it made sense to add player powers like we had in Harbour. At first I thought it would be good to take some of the actual Harbour characters, and see if we could interpret their abilities to make sense in the context of this game. However, we instead made new characters for this game. Designer Trey Chambers, taking a cue from The Voyages of Marco Polo, thought it would be good if the player powers in Harvest were more than just a tweak here, or a nod to a specific strategy there, so his first draft of the player powers were very powerful, very unique, and very diverse! We embraced that strategy for this game, and came up with a set of 8 characters with crazy powers. Mixing that with the A-side/B-side format, I wanted to have the common side be something basic, but I decided this time to make the A-sides playable along with the B-sides. So the basic character, Wil Plantsomdill, has a well rounded spread of starting resources, no particular abilities, but gets 15 points added to his score at the end of the game. This way, you can deal 2 player boards to each player, and they can choose between one character, the other, or Wil, and if I've done my job, the game will be fair.

I was working on Pioneer Days at the same time I was working on Harvest, and I decided to try the same thing with the player powers in that game. Originally there were none, and I decided to add some. Like Kings of Air and Steam or Chimera Station I wanted a basic side and a unique side, and like Harvest, I wanted it to be comparable to the unique side. What I decided to do was to take the designers' proposed standard player power (before we had unique ones), and make it the standard power. It's straightforward, and recommended for first time players, but it's not just vanilla like Wil Plantsomdill is. We called this the Standard Pioneer, and put it on the A-side of each player board. Then on the B-side of each board is one of the unique powers. Again, you can deal 2 player boards to each player, and they have 3 options to choose between: the 2 unique characters, or the Standard Pioneer, and whichever they choose should be competitive.

We have two upcoming titles that have been announced so far for 2018:
Crusaders: Thy Will Be Done is my next title, and in that game you get a knight faction tile with an ability in it. Most of the abilities have to do with controlling the distribution of your action tokens around your action wheel, which was their purpose. These aren't big effects, but they help you work with the rondel mechanism to pursue your chosen strategy.

I wasn't involved in Downfall at all, but that has player powers too. I think they're pretty low impact though, you get a Leader unit, which is like an upgraded regular unit, and you get a special card which is more powerful than normal. It's a card drafting game, so if you pass your special card and another player uses it, then you get a small owner's bonus while they get the better than usual effect.

Let's think about these games and how they use player powers, and consider what we can learn from them. This will help me design and test player powers for the two new games I mentioned earlier.

Good vs poor player powers


I think the kinds of things that make good player powers are things that either:
  • Give you some sort of starting advantage, then you don't have to worry about them again. These are straightforward and good for new players or those prone to being overwhelmed, however they're not ideal since they don't necessarily affect the way you play.
  • Give you static end game goals, such as bonus points for certain things, which give you a nudge toward a long term plan. These help drive your choices, but really they just weigh some choices more than others because you want to do things to increase your end game bonus.
  • Give you reasons to make choices you wouldn't otherwise make. This is probably the most ideal kind of power, provided it's balanced, but there's a danger of feeling like you're not even playing the same game if the incentive is to do something TOO different than normal.
  • Give the you agency to control something you couldn't otherwise.
  • Give you an incremental bonus when you do certain types of things, as long as you set them up correctly.
I think the kinds of things that make poor player powers are things that:
  • Introduce additional decision points which other players have to wait for, especially during maintenance phases. This can break up the flow of the game, or create timing issues
  • Are easily forgotten. If an ability is so seldom used, or so easy to forget you have it, then what is it really doing for you?
  • Occur based on chance, such that you might not get an opportunity to use your power, or such that a power could be significantly more or less valuable each game just due to randomness.
  • Slow down the game or are hard to keep track of.
  • Are directly interactive in a negative way (this is OK in some games, but in most games I work on it's probably not OK).
Are these lists exhaustive? I doubt it. If you have types of powers you'd like to add to either the "good" or "poor" list above, please mention it in the comments!

What do you think? What makes a good player power? What are some examples of successful powers in games, and what are examples of powers that are unsuccessful?