Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Manhattan Project dice game contest

Our friend James Matthe over at Minion games has published a number of games, including a few that I really like, such as Grave Business, by Andy Van Zandt (developer at TMG), Battle Merchants, by Gil Hova (owner of Formal Ferret Games), as well as The Manhattan Project, by Brandon Tibbetts (I don't know that guy), and the follow up Manhattan Project: Energy Empire, by Luke Laurie and Tom Jolly (members of The League of Gamemakers), and many others.

I'm a big fan of The Manhattan Project, and an even bigger fan of Energy Empire, so needless to say that Manhattan Project 2: Minutes to Midnight (I can't NOT read that as "Manhattan Project: 2 Minutes to Midnight") is on my radar, and it has recently launched on kickstarter.

In an effort to promote that campaign, and to find fodder for the MP brand, James has decided to hold a contest to find a dice game set in the Manhattan Project universe. He's looking for a dice game that has the thematic feel of the Manhattan Project games, but will play in about an hour, for 1-4 players. That's right, it must include a solo mode. Boo! I've got nothing against solo modes, but I also don't think designers should be required to provide them.

Anyway, I have plenty of my own projects to work on, such as Joan of Arc: Maid of Orleans, Deities & Demigods, Eminent Domain Origins, as well as TMG stuff, and any new ideas that creep into my head in the meantime. So I don't really have time or inclination to create a game for a contest, and for a non-TMG publisher no less.

But after skimming the post about the contest, wouldn't you know it... I had an idea for a dice game about The Manhattan Project.

I haven't put a lot of thought into it, but I think there are two obvious ways to go with the custom dice required by the contest: either put different game resources on each side, or put different worker types on each side. While TMP had 3 types of workers, Energy Empire had a whole host of diverse worker images, even though in that game they were equivalent. My first thought was to put a different type of worker on each face of the die, and then make them different from each other so it mattered which ones were rolled.

However, that thought didn't immediately go anywhere in my mind. My second thought, however, sort of did. Suppose the dice had different game resources on each side, including laborers, engineers, and scientists. Now suppose there were a dice pool of about N+1 of these dice. You'd roll all the dice, then take turns drafting them, but as a role selection mechanism ("roll selection"?). If you pick a die showing coins, maybe you get 4 coins while everyone else gets 1. You get 3 yellow cake while everyone else gets 1. You get your choice of engineer or scientist while everyone else gets a laborer. Etc.

The point would be to build up resources to do various different things. Enough yellow cake and a scientist and you can make plutonium. Enough plutonium, a scientist, and a coin, and you can make uranium. Enough uranium and an engineer and you can make a bomb. There could also be buildings you can buy with coins (or perhaps with steel and plastic, like in Energy Empire), which could make you better at certain things. And there could be achievements (also like MP:EE), which give you game end bonuses based on certain criteria. You would score points for bombs made, achievements met, and your ability to clean up your environment... You see, certain things could give you pollution (building certain buildings, testing bombs for bonus points, etc), and there could be a "clean up" die face to help get rid of it. A certain number of the dice in the pool would be black, and those would pollute when you draft them

When thinking about the components it would take to track all this, it occurred to me that perhaps roll & write could be a good format for this game. Like Roll Through the Ages, you could mark off boxes as you make progress toward various goals. All you'd really need is a handful of custom dice and some score sheets, and I'm sure that would fit James' vision for the budget of the game (or might even be "too small").

I don't know if I'll give this any more thought, but I wanted to preserve the idea here in case I care to revisit it later. For those of you entering James' contest, good luck!

Casual Q&A, revisited

A few months ago I made a Casual Q&A blog post, inviting people to ask questions that I could answer, like an AMA, but not confined to a short timeframe, and not on Reddit. Only 1 person commented with quesitons, and I never got around to answering them (sorry Josh). So I thought I'd finally revisit the topic, answer Josh's questions, and renew the offer to post questions in the comments below, which I will (eventually) answer! Josh asked...

- What do you think about Legacy type games? Are they here to stay or are they just a phase? Would you like to make one?
What do I think about legacy games? I think there are 2 aspects to the genre that really define it, that make a game a "legacy" game rather than a regular game.

First thing: Permanence. For the most part, the legacy aspects of the game are basically a glorified tech tree. You make choices that give your character some kind of upgrade or benefit, and you have to choose one aspect to improve over another. Things like writing on cards or applying stickers causes a permanent change, but really it just makes bookkeeping easier. When you play D&D, you simply write these changes on your character sheet: you're carrying a 50' rope and a 10' pole, you've used 3 of your 12 arrows, you know Elvish and Common languages, you have 18 13 9 7 11 hit points, and 2 1 potion of Cure Light Wounds. Bringing that ongoing story element to board games, where you generally don't have a character sheet, means you have to start writing on the board or cards, or applying stickers to things. Done well, this can lead to some good storytelling -- which shouldn't be a surprise, since it has worked for RPGs for decades.

 Second thing: Investment. The above is true of legacy games, but it's also true of campaign games (which you can reset and play through again), or even regular games that have other ways to track status changes. However, legacy games invite you to rip up cards, or write on the game board... these permanent changes can't be undone, which raises the stakes on your decisions. These stakes gets you invested in the game, they make you care a lot more about what happens. I have played countless games of Puerto Rico, most of them very fun and intense, but with a few exceptions, I can't tell you now what happened in a given game of Puerto Rico. I've also played games where I had fun, but ultimately didn't care if I on or not. Amping up the level of investment as legacy games do, and having them play out differently for different groups, adds a bit of investment, and has the potential to make a more memorable game experience. That's the point anyway.

 Legacy games are something of a fad, made popular by the (excellent) Pandemic Legacy. I think that just like Cooperative games, Legacy style games will become a consistent, though small portion of the market going forward. We already have a handful of new ones that have just come out or are coming soon...

Pandemic Legacy Season 2
Gloomhaven Charterstone
Chronicles 1: Origins (and the rest of that series)

I have heard of a few other mystery legacy games in the works, like a legacy card game from Mike Fitzgerald, or My Father's Work, by T.C. Petty III. Very hush-hush for the most part, but I know they're out there.

 I don't think consumable, story-heavy games as a genre are going anywhere, but I don't think they'll take over the industry or the hobby either. For one thing, they take way more work to design, develop, and produce. In an industry like ours, with the tiny margins that we have, I'm a little surprised that legacy style games are gaining the traction that they are. That may be why I don't think they'll ever really saturate the market, but there are people invested in making them, and people invested in playing them, so I don't expect them to disappear. It does seem that, so far, legacy concepts seem to go best with cooperative games. I have a copy of Seafall, but haven't played it yet, and I never played Risk Legacy either, but from what I've read, they pale in comparison to the experience delivered by Pandemic Legacy. Time Stories is somewhat popular, and is also cooperative. As is Gloomhaven. We will have to see how Chronicles 1: Origins, Charterstone, and other competitive legacy games hold up. As for me, while I applaud the effort and the ambition in these legacy style games, I'd just as soon play an intense, interesting Euro-style strategy game with a clever main mechanism :)

- If you could change one thing about each of your games in retrospect, what would that be? EmDo interests me in particular.
TERRA PRIME
Way back in 2010 I wrote a post about lessons learned on my first game, Terra Prime. Fortunately for me, I'm going to have a chance to realize some of those lessons, and make some of those changes, as Terra Prime returns as Eminent Domain Origins. Set in the world of Eminent Domain, as a prequel to that game, Terra Prime will get an update including the changes I noted in that post, as well as a few other details I've thought of over the years, and even the expansion I made way back when. I'm not sure when this will happen, my thought is that it might be a good 10th anniversary thing for TMG -- re-releasing a better version of one of the launch titles. I'm excited about it, because I've played the game recently, and I think it holds up.

EMINENT DOMAIN
Eminent Domain is far and away my most popular, and best game yet. I realize I haven't gotten much published yet, but I think I'll be hard pressed to outdo EmDo. I continue to be impressed with how well it holds up, and delighted to see people still playing it or discovering it for the first time. The next (and probably last) expansion, Eminent Domain: Oblivion, the one with political agendas, will be coming out soon, and I hope that we will see another surge of interest in the game at that time. So what would I change about Eminent Domain? Not a whole lot, actually. In the base game, I released errata cards for Abundance, Bureaucracy, and Logistics, which fixed most of what annoyed me about the game, though I kinda think Fertile Ground might be a bit too strong.

 In Escalation, I think I added too much technology to the stacks. If I had it to do again I think I would save some of that for future expansions.

 In Exotica I made a boo-boo on one of the Scenarios (Espionage), which is kind of broken as written. I would change that so it worked better. As written, if playing against a Scenario that starts with a permanent tech card, you can just steal it right away. Espionage's special text says you can ignore Reparations, which on Stolen Trade Secrets is giving up the card to the opponent. This just automatically shuts down most other scenarios, and was a mistake. I believe the intention was that the special text wouldn't shut down the reparations on Stolen Trade Secrets itself... online I suggested playing as if it said "Ignore all Influence Reparations on cards you play" -- so if you get other cards with Reparations, you can ignore that. Another fix might be to say "ignore all reparations except when targeting a permanent technology", or "ignore all reparations. You cannot target permanent technologies". Any of those might have worked better.

MICROCOSM
I've always been pretty happy with how Eminent Domain: Microcosm came out. I still feel like it's got a lot more game than most microgames (many of which aren't interesting to me). If I had it to do again, I think I would do the static effects a little differently. they were admittedly sort of an afterthought, and I don't know how much they really add to the game. I'd also try to do a better job with the rules sheet. A lot of people had trouble with it, and even if I think it should have been sufficient, the fact that they had trouble means it could have been better.

ISLE OF TRAINS
Outside of TMG I have 1 design credit... I feel like Isle of Trains, from Dice Hate Me Games, co-designed with Dan Keltner, is a pretty strong design. It was in a 54 card game contest, and while they did let us go with 56 cards for publication, the deck is a bit small and players complain at having to shuffle a lot and use "phantom cards". If we could have added an extra 9 train cards (1 more copy of each car type), that would have cut down on those complaints significantly, I think. I'm told that the expansion, which we finished almost a year and a half ago, should be on Kickstarter in 2018. It's a long time to wait, but I think people will be pleased with what we've come up with.

UNPUBLISHED PROTOTYPE
All my other games on BGG are not yet published, and maybe some will never be. There are all kinds of things I wish I'd done differently in some of them!

- What game mechanisms do you feel get too little love? Which are "overhyped"?
I'm not sure I feel any mechanism gets "too little love", and my philosophy is that it isn't game MECHANISMS that get old, it's game EXPERIENCES... so I'll answer a slightly different question: which mechanisms do I like best, and which do I like least.

I really like Role Selection games (Puerto Rico, Glory to Rome -- but not the Black Box!), as evidenced by Eminent Domain being a role selection game. I feel like the fact that everyone gets to play on everyone else's turn really keeps players interested in the game, and I think it's one of the more interactive forms of indirect interaction out there because your choices literally allow your opponents to act.

I also really like the Rondel mechanism (Antike, Navagador, Shipyard), as I think it does a great job of forcing players to plan ahead and sequence their actions well.

I enjoy the time track mechanism where the player at the back of the line is the one to play next (Glen More, Olympos, Thebes), because I think it does a great job of simulating the time it takes to do a task (the bigger the task, the more time it takes), and it makes time into a valuable resource.

But my favorite mechanism is probably Multi-use cards (Glory to Rome, Race for the Galaxy, Oh My Goods), because they are such an efficient game component, and they have built in opportunity cost (and good choices in games are all about opportunity cost).

 Two game mechanisms come to mind as my least favorite. I'm personally pretty bad at trick taking (Bridge, Hearts, Wizard), and similarly, climbing games (Tichu), and they don't interest me at all. Somehow I don't mind Diamonds, by Mike Fitzgerald, because there's more to the game than simply trying to communicate your hand in code to your partner and then deduce who has what cards.

The other mechanism I dislike, and think in many cases might be a demonstrably bad game mechanic, is Simultaneous Action Selection (especially with arbitrary resolution order). This includes blind bids, as well as "everyone choose a card then reveal". It's a little less bad when the resolution order is known, because you can use that information to help you decide what to choose.

The only thing that really redeems this mechanism for me is getting to make decisions after the reveal as well. Take Kings of Air and Steam for example... you must pre-program your movement (choose your move cards simultaneously), and then each turn you must reveal the next one and move that amount. But you get the freedom of moving wherever you want, only the amount of movement is pre-programmed, and then you get to do an action of your choice after that. If something goes awry and your plans are interrupted, you have reasonable ability to change them in a productive way. This also means that when planning your movement, you can reasonably have a plan B, in case your preferred plan does get scuppered by a faster opponent.

Thanks for the questions, Josh! If anyone else wants to ask anything in the comments below, I'll happily answer them... eventually :)

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Dice Worker Placement: The Saga Continues

I've been thinking about that dice worker placement mechanism some more lately. The biggest problem I have when I start with a mechanism is finding a theme that makes sense, and as I've discussed before, even when starting with a mechanism, all design is really theme-first design.

So I put out a (relatively generic) question on social media... what theme could fit well in a worker placement game where the workers get better over time. In part because I didn't give any background to what I was looking for, and in part because of Twitter's strict character limit, I'm afraid I didn't accurately communicate my real question - and I got back a lot of ideas for general themes in which things get better: school, apprenticeships, software... even the most generic answer of all: "Literally any worker who gets training.

After a few threads and discussions on the topic, I was starting to settle onto a theme. I thought maybe a spy theme, where your workers are secret agents who get better as they do missions, and worker spaces could have to do with going on missions or making preparations to go on missions. Another idea though was to model the game after a standard worker placement game like Lords of Waterdeep. In LoW your workers are agents who recruit adventurers (fighters, rogues, clerics, and mages) to go on quests. The adventurers are the resources in the game, and quests require certain recipes or combinations of resources to fulfill.
At that point I read a post by my friend Mohan, who hadn't played Lords of Waterdeep in some time, and conflated the agents and adventurers, and mentioned the adventurers leveling up. I thought tat was interesting, but a wholly different premise than my basic idea where your workers (not the resources they collect) are the thing that levels up.

That said, I thought maybe it could be good if your workers were different types of adventurers, which could be easily tracked by color coding the dice... orange dice for fighters, for example; white for clerics, etc. They could still work the way I had originally proposed - you start with 8 dice (2 of each type), each at level 1. Most worker spaces could accept any die, but some could offer better returns if you use the correct type of worker (example: anybody can go to the Temple and gain 1 Faith, but a cleric who goes to the Temple gains 1 Faith per level). Some worker spaces could be exclusive to specific worker types (example: only Thieves can enter the Thieve's Guild). And of course, while some spaces may accept any TYPE of die, there may be a level requirement (example: only adventurers of level 3 and above can enter the Throne Room for an audience with the king).

Side note:
The Manhattan Project is a worker placement game where you either place workers on your turn or recall them. The turns you recall your workers feel relatively boring, as you don't really make an progress. Manhattan Project: Energy Empire takes that one step further: on turns where you recall your workers, you (a) may get to claim an achievement, and (b) get to generate power for future turns. This feeling of progress even on turns where you're mostly just freeing up your work force is good -- it means fewer boring turns for players.

That said:
As before, players would place 1 worker per turn, or spend their turn recalling workers (with a free recall once all 8 are placed -- as a sort of efficiency balance thing). When recalling workers, they level up, so you increment the dice to their next value as you collect them. While it would probably feel good to increase the power of your workers, it might not feel like progress... but suppose your recall turns are the ones where you actually go on an adventure!

So when you place your workers they are collecting resources and preparing for adventures, and when you recall them they actually go on the adventure, which means you get a chance to cash in some resources to complete adventure cards for points and stuff, and as a result, those adventurers level up. Perfect.

This sounds good to me, and makes good thematic sense as well. And it maintains the basic idea of the mechanism... do you want to recall workers early so that you can do an adventure now (I imagine those adventure cards would be in a public pool), and so that you can get a few higher level adventurers, even if it means several of your dice are left un-upgraded? Or do you wait until you have placed all of your workers, upgrading them all evenly (and getting an essentially free turn with that automatic recall thing I mentioned parenthetically above)? In addition, using different classes for dice means that if you do choose to recall early, which flavor of adventurer do you leave un-upgraded? I think these are interesting mechanical concerns which could lead to a fun, puzzly, euro-style game.

A little behind the scenes math:
Of course, at this point I can't be sure what the best number of workers per player will be, but let's take a quick look at some numbers based on 8 dice per player:

Case 1: Place all 8 dice, get a free recall, place all 8 dice again (another free recall)... After 16 turns you now have 8 level 3 dice, and have been able to do 2 adventures, and you probably could have afforded expensive ones since you collected a lot of resources first.
Case 2: Place 2 dice then recall, repeat... after 16 tuns you have 2 level 6 dice (and 6 level 1), and have done as many as 5 adventures, but of those 5 chances you probably either couldn't afford any of the available adventure cards, or were only able to afford small ones, since you're not gaining many resources before recalling.

Case 3: Place 3 dice then recall, repeat... after 16 turns you have 3 level 5 dice (and 5 level 1), and have had 4 chances to do adventures.

Case #4: Place 4 dice then recall, repeat... after 16 turns you have 4 level 4 dice (4 level 1), and have had 3 chances to do adventures.

These cases all sound interesting to me. I suspect that optimal play will unlikely mean either of the extremes (recalling every other turn, or always playing all of your workers), but might be somewhere in between, and that sounds ideal.

As for what the worker spaces do...
If going with a fantasy/adventure party/D&D style theme like this, then I imagine the board being split into a few areas...
For example, there could be a city area with places such as an Arena, where Fighters can fight to gain Glory, a Temple, where Clerics can pray to collect Faith, an Academy, where mages can accumulate Magic, and a Thieve's Guild (or a Marketplace?), where Thieves can procure Money. Again, maybe anybody can go to those spaces, but the correct class will be more efficient. There could also be generic locations such as a Blacksmith where you can get Equipment, or Throne Room where you can have an audience with the King, or a Tavern where you can learn local rumors or get information (whatever that means, maybe get side quests).

There could also be some adventuring spaces outside the town, such as a Dungeon where you can pick up side quests or minor encounters, like mini-adventures.

There would be a few face up Adventures, representing missions that are known -- maybe things the king has offered a reward for. When recalling workers, you'd have the opportunity to complete 1 of those adventure cards, as well as any number of side quests you may have picked up.

As for resources, it might make sense if each class is "good at" one of the resources (like thieves are good at getting money, and clerics are good at getting faith), but it might also be good to have some crossover, like maybe clerics are better at collecting magic than fighter and thieves, but not as good as mages, and fighters are decent at getting money, but not as good as thieves. This could offer some flexibility, though I'm not sure if it's needed.

I also think it might be good if there were basically something each resource could do besides being required for adventures, like Money could buy Equipment, or Glory might get you in good with the King. Magic might help you get cards that do special things (like the Intrigue cards in Waterdeep), while Faith might help you draw more or better adventures or side quests.

Those are my current thoughts. I might prefer a different theme, and I suppose I could re-skin all the above with some kind of spy theme where you have different types of agents, but in the meantime this sounds like it could work. I just need to get some specific locations ironed out and put together some adventures and side quests, and maybe it'll be ready to test!