Tuesday, September 03, 2019

Riders of the Pony Express - current status and new ideas

Back in August I had found an old strategy article I'd been looking for, which applied directly to one of my game designs, but I didn't revisit the game itself at the time.

The other day I posted about a playtest session in which I took that old prototype off the back burner and got it to the table: Riders of the Pony Express (BGG link - looks like I ought to edit that description a little bit!).

As I mentioned in the August post, I have experienced an issue, mostly with the 5-player game. And as I mentioned in the playtest report post, I found a hand-written rules edit that I don't remember every trying before, which may solve the 5p problem for me as well, at least in the blind bid version of the game (the one which is the most gamer-y, and which I will probably stick with):

The winner of the bid must leave their winning bid card face up on the table, it is not available to them for the rest of the round.
That's it! It's so simple, and it made for some very interesting bidding dynamics all around.

With respect to the 5p problem I outlined in the August post, I had showed some math which explained why winning each bid for the minimum of $3 was fairly dominant -- you would get $24 while each opponent would get only $14. Sure, you would have to spend more traveling, and you would get a lower bonus upon returning to the post office, but even if that did kind of even things out, it isn't fun for the other players to just go through the motions of riding across the board while you visit town after town to deliver all your parcels.

In the comments on that post, I posited two solutions which could change the math, evening up the amount of money you would get compared to each opponent if you won all the bids at $3: upping the total amount from $10 to $15 in a 5p game, or allowing a minimum bid of $2 instead of $3. Neither of these really solve the problem, they just punish the player who does the annoying thing. That's a sort of "soft" solution, in that players who are trying to win probably won't do something so bad, therefore the game won't be ruined. However, the reality is that, whether they want to or not, players don't always "play to win" as much as you might think. This is especially true in the case that they haven't played before, or fully analyzed the costs of delivering.

This new solution of leaving the winning bid card face up DOES solve the problem, because it means you simply CAN'T bid $3 on every auction! If players really think that bidding the minimum is the way to go, then at least the parcels will be spread around between the players. And savvy players may start to realize they can do better if they bid higher (though if a different non-savvy player does undercut them every time, it might not be very fun, even if they do win).

I'll note also that the current rules give each player a mandatory parcel to deliver. This may be thematically awkward, but it means everyone is going SOMEWHERE each round, making certain other parcels "on the way."

Things to try in the next test
As I mentioned in the last post, I had a hard time finding something I thought really needed changing. Here are a few changes I'll try for the next playtest:
* Increase value of Bears from +2 to +3. This should make them more distinct from Bandits, and will make the Shotgun item more valuable (currently it is probably not really valuable enough)
* Deal round 1 mandatory parcels face up instead of face down, to see if that makes the auction phase any more interesting (it might actually be worse, but it's worth a try!)
* Instead of dealing mandatory parcels for rounds 2 and 3, layout N+1 face up and let players take one when they arrive at the post office (so drafting them in the order they finish the round).
* Treat the mandatory parcel just like the ones obtained by auction - keep it face up and you're required to deliver it that round

Currently the mandatory parcels are face down, they take up space in your inventory, and they aren't required to be delivered until the end of the game, while face-up parcels obtained in the auction phase are required to be delivered that round, but they don't take up your inventory space. Here's a quote from a previous post when I implemented it:

One issue that's come up in the past is the face down parcel cards. Some players feel they "force" a certain path, and I can see that... so I tried a change. Face down parcels aren't from your boss, they're like side jobs. You're not REQUIRED to deliver them each round, but they take up space in your inventory. I made player boards to help show this - you have room for 1 face down card and 4 items (expanded from 3), and if you don't deliver your 1st face down card, then the next one takes up 2 of your item slots (this is obvious graphically). Currently I'm saying that you have to deliver them by the end of the game, but another option is to simply apply a penalty if you don't (so if it's more expensive to deliver than to take the penalty, maybe you just take the penalty).

But you do get the mandatory parcel before having to claim other parcels, and now maybe you'll have chosen it (per tweak listed above), so maybe it'll be fine to treat them the same as the parcels you get in the auctions. I could do with more elegant rules here, so maybe all parcels should just be face up, required to deliver that round.

* Treat each hazard and each town as a space, and let players move from space to space, rather than from town to town. One of my players thought this would be way more intuitive, and it does have the advantage that if 2 players arrive at the same town at about the same time, the one that fiddles around less (spends less time acting int he town) will leave first, irrespective of turn order.

Originally, I had players moving from town to town. Here's another quote from a previous post about why I changed that:
to better represent what's going on (and to make fair races between players), I specified that you don't move from town to town - you move from town to hazard tile, then on your next turn you arrive in the town, discard any parcels, pick up an item if you like, and then move to the next hazard.
So now you basically move from hazard to hazard, and do some stuff in a town as yo pass through. Though it has't bothered me at all, it IS a little weird. So I'll try alternating (move from hazard to town, town to hazard, etc). I thought it might be odd to have twice as many turns, where half of them are 0-1 time cost. When paying 0 time, do you just go again right away? If that's the case more often than not, then why make it a separate turn? But maybe I should make town turns a little more costly -- like you spend 1 time for each thing you do, minimum 1. So like, you had to rest or change out your horse at the very least (1 time), and if you go around making deliveries or shopping for items, it'll cost you more time.

So for a hazard space you spend the listed amount, plus hazard modifier, minus item modifiers (minimum 1). And for a town space you spend 1, plus 1 for each delivery you make, and for at most 1 item you pick up. Which means you could spend 1, 2, 3, even 4 time in a town (in fact, I think it could theoretically max out at 5 if you have both parcels and a package item to deliver, and if you pick up an item).

This change will make longer, more circuitous routes quite a bit more expensive, which might have the side effect of encouraging players to bid higher on parcels, or more often say "no thanks" and let the auctioneer take the parcel. I'd like that to be something that can happen if you choose wisely and want it to, or choose poorly and get stuck with it, but hopefully not too often because things are just too expensive! I'll have to see if that goes too far.

Monday, September 02, 2019

Playtest day: revisiting Automatown and Riders of the Pony Express

The ball is back in Michael's proverbial court for the game I've been testing lately (Sails & Sorcery), so Saturday I brought two games I've had on the back burner for a while: Automatown and Riders of the Pony Express.


It's been 2 years since I initially prototyped this worker placement game where you use your workers to build more workers, and it's been almost as long since I got it to the table. The basic premise is that you're building robots out of head, arm, torso, and leg pieces of high, medium, and low quality (as well as scrap). You can make a generic robot with anything, which gives you another works, and adds 1 strength to your army of robots, but if you get the correct combination of head, arms, torso, and legs, then you can complete a blueprint and make a better robot -- stronger, or with a cool ability you can use each time you send it out.

Challenges with this one include things like (a) the scary look of 13 different resources (even if there are really only 4, each with 3 levels of quality -- but since the blueprints require specific levels of quality, it kinda IS like there are 13 different resources), and more importantly (b) the "combo-y" nature of the abilities does not seem to be coming through, so there isn't a strong feeling of engine building to be had.

I got some good notes, some of which had come up in previous tests, but it's been so long I'd forgotten about them, and I hadn't updated my prototype (friendly reminder: keep our prototypes up to date!). Things like making a specific set of starting worker placement cards, to ensure the first round has useful actions for example. Also, reducing the game end trigger for 4 players, so that the game ends before players have 10+ workers each and the blueprint deck runs out (also, I could make more blueprints). Also, I think I need to improve the engine building aspect / combo-y nature of the robot abilities (again), because it seems like players weren't feeling like they were able to build combos.

Some good ideas that came up this time include:
* Rather than taking any card from the 3 available blueprint cards, take the 1st (if you placed 1 worker), 1st-2nd (if you placed 2), or 1st-3rd (if you placed 3 workers). Ether that, or take any one you want, but to access the cards deeper in the row, pay resource cubes onto the ones before it (as is common in games with a card row). I like both of those ideas, and I'm not sure which I like better.
* Possibly making the higher level resources cost more to get, since currently it felt easy to get what you needed. Currently things are designed and balanced such that the high quality resources are worth more than the low quality ones -- a low quality torso is worth 2 (scrap + upgrade), and a high quality torso is worth 4 (scrap + 3 upgrades), which IS more, but with so many workers, and so many ways to get, upgrade, and swap resources around, it didn't feel hard for players to get what they needed (though by definition, they were paying more for it). I think overall the system might just be too flexible. If I re-balance things so that going up a level requires not just an upgrade action, but also a scrap (+2 units), then that might make the higher level resources somewhat harder to get, and it might also simplify the worker spaces, some of which are oddly designed in order to get the values right.
* Maybe cut a whole resource type, and just have head/torso/legs, reducing the resource variety by 3, and the cost complexity by 25%

Some ideas that I'm less sure about, but which certainly bear considering or trying include:
* Separating scoring from building robots. Make it so you build robots for workers and abilities, but then do scoring some other way.
* Making a sort of Master Blueprint that you could improve/update, to give a better sense of "that player wants that type of resource," so that you can plan and block better.
* Maybe don't require 1 of each type per robot -- instead maybe have a robot that requires multiple heads and only 1 torso, for example. Or change the resources to be things like actuators and power cores instead of heads and torsos. With good iconography, the costs would be clear enough, it's not necessary to make sure each robot has each of the 4 types of resources. This may also help the engine building aspect, since you won't need to always get all 4 resource types (something the swap ability was supposed to help with)

I definitely got a lot to think about for this one, and I'll be revisiting my prototype soon to try another version.

Riders of the Pony Express

This is another "oldie-but-a-goodie" from the back catalog. My last blog post about playtesting this one was 4 years ago (whew!), but I might have played it since and not posted about it. The premise of this one is that you're a rider for the Pony Express, tasked with delivering parcels to various towns on our way from Missouri to California and back. You haggle with your fellow riders, trying to get people to take your parcels for you, and offering to take parcels that are on your way, before riding from town to town to make deliveries. This was my attempt at a low-bid auction, initially a "count-up" auction, where the auctioneer would count up from 1 to 10 or until another player jumped in to claim it, I think it works better as a blind bid (even though generally speaking I hate blind bids). However, it's possible that the "count up" auction could be a variant rule, because non-designer/social gamer types seemed to like it.

This game went over pretty well with my playtesters, and a new rule I found hand written on the rules page was a great change that I don't think I'd tried before. In the past I'd had some trouble with the 5 player game, and decided maybe it should just be a 4p max game, but this new rule might actually make 5p work just fine after all. The rule is that you leave your bid card out, so you can't bid the minimum ($3) over and over again. We clarified that to be that the bid winner leaves their card out, which must be what I had meant in the first place :)

I was hard pressed to find anything I really wanted to change for the next test of this. I think I'll boost the Bear hazard up by 1, to make them more different than the Bandits, and to make the Shotgun item more attractive. I also might try a tweak to the delivery phase based on some comments that one of my testers felt strongly about.

All in all, a good playtest day. We even played Dave's video game prototype, which is a pretty fun spaceship building/dogfight/king-of-the-hill ting based largely on one of my favorite old arcade classics, Rampart.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Sails & Sorcery progress

I have been continuing to develop Sails & Sorcery, Micheal's "Victorian era organized crime" themed game. After a disappointing few tests with the TMG guys at Origins and GenCon, and several attempts to balance the Plunder role, I have come to the conclusion that the way the role works is too problematic -- it cannot be fixed just by tweaking the costs and rewards.

The Plunder Role

The Plunder role allows you to remove opposing pirates from the board. You get some points for this, but the captured pirates go back to their owner's ship to be re-deployed. Deploying pirates to the board helps you win majority in an area, and then they stay in play for later, while Plundering an area helps you win majority in that area for the round, but nothing more. This sounded like a decent trade-off to me, but in practice it always seemed to be problematic. Part of the problem is the ability for a player to wipe another player out of an area entirely, reversing their progress, or cutting them out of scoring. Some of this might be groupthink, but it tends to scare players away from recruiting and deploying pirates (in an area control game about putting pirates on the board and moving them around).

We tried several versions of Plunder costs (capture 1 pirate per icon, pay N icons, capture N-1 pirates, Capture 1 pirate per *2* icons...), and considered several versions of rewards as well (you can capture ships and they're worth points, you can capture ships and they're NOT worth points, you can't capture ships, you get 1 point per pirate captured, you get 1 point per COLOR of pirate captured, you don't get points at all...). Over the different iterations of the game we even tried giving captured pirates back right away, vs the next round, and we experimented with those pirates going back to the player vs back to the general supply. The point is, we tried a lot of variations, and while each idea had its merits, none of them combined to make the role work correctly!

Re-imagining Plunder

A few times it crossed my mind that perhaps Plunder should do something else entirely, but I hesitated to change the effect because I liked the idea of having a way to remove pirates from areas. After all, El Grande (one of the main sources of inspiration for this game) has effects that add and remove pieces from the areas, as well as move them around. After a recent playtest, the idea of changing the nature of Plunder altogether came p again. One player suggested that perhaps there could be some kind of set collection associated with the role. Another something to the effect of digging up buried treasure. The epiphany I had that got me interested in it this time (when I was hesitant before) was this: perhaps there could be a set of "treasure" tiles, which you "buy" with Plunder. Each one could either give you an effect similar to Davy Jones (add one of your pirates to an area and capture 1 pirate from each opponent there), or some set collection scoring icon (like a gem of a certain type).

This way, a player could "Plunder for control" by going for the tiles with effects, or "Plunder for points" by going for the set collection stuff. My first attempt at this format was to make a bunch of tokens like that, put 4 of them on each area during setup, and make the cost of plundering an area go up each time one of them is taken. I figured that matched the Summon and Build cost structure, so it made some sense. I wasn't sure whether to go with the more strategic option (placing the tiles face up), or the more thematic option (face down), so I sort of compromised -- the tiles were face down, and when you plundered an area, you got to look at all the remaining tiles there and choose one. I tried that version last week, and it had some good points and some bad. Nobody missed the thought of having all of their pirates wiped off the board! However, it was weird that the choice went down as the cost went up (assuming the best tiles get taken first), and I would have preferred less setup anyway.

Thinking about it some more, I decided that this new format is similar to the old one, but limited in how many pirates you can capture, so maybe better than effect or points, it should be effect and points. So for the next playtest, I will try a tweak: I'll put 2 tiles on each area, each with a random plunder cost (between 2 and 6). Then I'll have a deck of treasure cards to the side of the board, with 4 of them face up. Each card will have both an immediate effect, and a gem for set collection scoring. This way, the plunder cost doesn't escalate like it does for building or summoning, but it'll still matter where you are when you Plunder, and it'll still be worth having plunder in your deck to afford the higher cost opportunities. And you'll get to capture or add pirates according to one of the available cards, plus you'll score a few points. We'll see if this version feels better.

If that doesn't feel right, another idea is to make the cost "2 + 1/player with presence in the area" -- which would scale in a potentially interesting way, but might not scale well with player count. But it would save the plunder cost tiles, and a little setup hassle.

A word on theme

At the top of this post I mentioned the theme was supposed to be Victorian era organized crime. Michael did mention that when he dropped off the game, but as far as I could tell, the game was a generic pirate game with monsters you can summon. If he hadn't told me he intended the players to be pirate captains backed by countries, doing espionage and etc, then I would never have guessed it. When I told him about this "buried treasure" version of plunder, he suggested we do something more in line with the Victorian era organized crime theme... which made me consider theme in general...

I think it's good to have a specific or interesting theme to a game. The less generic, the better. However, if the interesting, unusual theme looks the same as a more common, generic theme, then Occam's Razor would suggest that people won't even see the interesting theme.

So it's not a surprise to me that a player actually suggested a buried treasure sort of mechanism in this game, which is not intended to be a "pirate" themed game, but which clearly looks and feels like one.

If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and plays like a duck...

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Recent playtesting: Apotheosis (FKA Worker Learning)


Since I last posted about it, I've had the opportunity to play Apotheosis (the current title for my Worker Learning game) about a dozen times. We've quickly iterated on a couple of different aspects, going from 8 starting workers (one level 1 and one level 2 of each type) to 4 (one of each type, some level 1, some level 2, depending on turn order), adding a space to recruit more workers (I'm torn on this), adding a space to pay a chunk of resources for steps on the victory tracks, and tweaking the resolution of the Recall turns and the requirements and rewards for adventures.

The current version looks something like this:

You start with a Fighter, a Cleric, a Mage, and a Thief, 0/1/2/2 of them are level 2 at the beginning if you are player 1/2/3/4 (the ones that start leveled up are dealt to you randomly, and no two players will have the same combination of upgraded starting workers).

You take turns either placing a worker and gaining the benefit of that space (your worker must be at least tied for the highest level in that area), or recalling your workers and sending them on an adventure. Most spaces are better if you are higher level, or the right class. You can gain resources, train (level up), claim adventures (so nobody can do them out from under you), buy progress on the victory tracks, turn resources into blessings, which are like wild resources, visit the Throne Room to earn royal favors, or visit the tavern to recruit more workers.

When you place a worker, you have the opportunity to play a Side Quest card for either of 2 effects (one cares about what type of worker you are placing that turn, the other doesn't). When you recall workers, you earn steps on the three victory tracks, and if you qualify, you may do an adventure to earn more steps. The adventures have 3 tiers, and the higher the tier you do, the better the rewards. After returning from an adventure, your workers level up, becoming better at their jobs.

When you do certain Side Quests, or tier 3 adventures, you get a special resource called Spoils. You can visit the throne room to turn those Spoils into Royal Favors, which you can use at certain points on the victory tracks to take a "shortcut" as well as earn a Boon (reusable power card).

Design concerns

I'm noticing a real tightness in the design -- a difficulty creating adventures that are both doable by a player who has not recruited any new workers, but also doable by a player who has. The current level cap is 6, and so I wanted the adventures to require max 6 levels of any one class. If you hire a worker, then place it, and recall once, then you have 2 workers who's levels total 4 or 5 -- that's almost maxed out already! I am considering making the level cap 8 instead of 6, but d6s are easier to use in the prototype. Doing so would allow for more variety and more texture in the adventure requirements. It's also possible that not every adventure needs to be doable without recruiting another worker.

With just 4 types of worker, many of the tier 2 adventures require 3 of the 4 types. So you basically need to train up all of your workers if you wan to use them at all, there's not really such a things as choosing a class and neglecting it. I'm considering adding a 5th worker type to help with this -- it would allow the adventure requirements to be much more diverse.

Another thought is to add Split and/or Prestige classes:
Split classes would be like regular workers, that count as either one or the other of two types (like a Fighter/Thief would count as either a Fighter or a Thief.
Prestige classes would be like super workers that count as BOTH of two different types (Paladin = Fighter AND Cleric). For these you would probably have to discard your previous worker, therefore they BECOME a dual class worker.

Brainstorming possible solutions

Split/Prestige class workers would be pretty cool. but that sounds like expansion content to me. However adding a 5th (maybe even a 6th?) class to make the adventures more different from each other sounds reasonable. But that idea comes with its own challenges...

In the current game, each worker type is associated with 1 resource, and 3 of them are associated with one of the victory tracks. When you recall a fighter, you advance on the Crown Imperial track, and adventures that require fighters advance you further on that track. Thieves are associated with the Prince of Thieves track, and Mages are associated with the Mastermind track. Clerics are great supporting characters -- they aren't associated with any particular track, but instead give you Blessings, which are sort of like a wild resource that can be used in various different ways.

So if another worker type is added, do we need another resource? That might be a pain, but would be doable. Another victory track? I don't necessarily think that's a good idea (though I suppose it could work). What is another iconic adventurer class anyway?

One possibility is to make this 5th class a sort of Split/Prestige class like I mentioned above. Like a Paladin, which could act as either (or both) of a fighter or a cleric. But that would simply overload the fighter related stuff. So maybe better if whatever the new class is, it doesn't advance any of the tracks, but is otherwise "better" than a normal worker (counts as all types when placing?). Or perhaps it advances the track of your choice, and has some other drawback (doesn't count as any type when placing?).

As for the level caps, one way to fix that situation is to not use dice as workers (even though it's super convenient for prototypes). Instead, perhaps a mini or standee, with a base that has a little pointer, then a dial could be attached to the bottom such that the pointer points to the number on the tile corresponding to the current level. This is a user friendly way to not have to use dice, and therefore not be as limited in their value. The level cap could easily be 8, or even 9!

Another, different possible solution to the over-leveling issue is to limit the level-ups to only 1 per recall turn. This would slow things down considerably, and it would probably matter quite a bit which one you choose to gain levels and which ones you don't. It might also make a much bigger difference between playing 1-2 workers then recalling vs playing 3 or 4 before recalling. I'd be afraid this is TOO slow, but it ought to be easy enough to test. If it works, then that would make a level cap of 6 potentially viable after all.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

A note on "standard" player powers

In a few recent TMG games I've worked on (Harvest, Pioneer Days, and Old West Empresario) I thought a lot about how to do player powers in the game.

In Harvest, the "standard" side of each player board (recommended for first time players) is Wil Plantsomdil, who starts with a basic spread of resources, and gets a big VP bonus at game end. The intent was to allow a new player to play in a game with experienced players, not have to wrestle with a player power while also learning the game, and still get a competitive score. In that game, I wouldn't blame "experienced games" for skipping Wil Plantsomdil and going straight for the "real" player powers. However, I thought we could do better...

In Pioneer Days and Old West Empresario, the Standard Pioneer / Standard Empresario abilities are not just a dumbed down power meant for newbie players. Rather we took one of the more well-rounded or straightforward of the powers we were developing, one which we thought would make for a good first experience, and made that the "standard" power.

The rules for both of those games say to deal 2 characters to each player and let them choose between one unique ability, the other, or the standard ability on the back side. While we recommend that first time players choose the standard ability, we worked hard to balance them all so that the standard power is on par with the unique ones, giving each player 3 solid options.

I fear that players will assume that "standard" implies "boring," automatically skip the "standard" ability as if it didn't exist, and therefore miss out on one of the fun player powers.

Hopefully we can break them of this habit. I played a game of Old West Empresario the other day and intentionally chose the Standard Empresario ability, and I did better than I've done in a long time!

TL;DR: In Pioneer DaysOld West Empresario, and any future TMG title I work on, don't look at the standard player power as "lesser" -- it's designed to be on par with the rest of the player powers!

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Origins 2019 -- playtests and interesting pitches

Due to Corbin being born, I missed all of the conventions last year, so I was excited to get back to them this summer. Last week I flew to Columbus for the first big convention of the season, Origins.

Origins has been growing in the last few years, and it seems to me like more exhibitors are launching games at the convention. I think that with GenCon pretty much outgrowing Indianapolis, people are sick of not being able to get a hotel room, and are starting to attend Origins instead. This has led me to my hypothesis that Origins is the new GenCon.

For the time being, that's great! The convention is still much smaller than the behemoth in Indianapolis, so the crowds aren't so bad, hotels are still obtainable, and restaurants don't ALL have a horrendous wait at all hours. Sales won't be as high as at GenCon, but as they expand their dealer hall, and more and more publishers launch games there, I suspect it is very worthwhile to have a booth. I don't know that I'd recommend Origins as a publisher instead of GenCon, but I think things are moving in such a direction that pretty soon, that trade off won't seems so crazy.

Interesting Pitches

Andy and I scheduled a dozen or so pitch meetings with designers. We are getting better at weeding out unlikely candidates, so we're getting a higher rate of pitches that are interesting to us. We ended up seeing several interesting ones, and Andy took a few back to the office to test out.

Game discovery is tricky though. A good pitch can make even a bland game sound interesting, so it's important to remember that no matter how good a game sounds, no matter how good the story of the game is, you really can't make a good decision about it until you actually play, often more than once, and possibly with various different groups of people.


I managed a few tests of two of the games I've been working on:

* Sails & Sorcery x3 (Mike's game that I'm helping develop)
Most of the time, I go to conventions with a bag full of prototypes, and between booth stuff, meetings, and everything else going on, it can sometimes be like pulling teeth to get the TMG guys to play them with me. This time was different. One of the prototypes I'm working on is Michael's game, which I'm calling Sails & Sorcery for lack of a better title. Which meant Michael was interested in it, and he encouraged several playtests.

In total, the game got played 3 times at Origins, with varying levels of success. I was fairly happy with the state of the game in my recent tests with my regular playtesters (note: mostly 3p lately), so I was pretty disappointed with the first play (4p) with Andy, Michael, and Michael's friend when a few problems reared their head:

- The downtime was too much

The current format of the game was that you take turns doing 2 roles at a time. To be honest, that format felt a little old fashioned, but I had convinced myself it wasn't that bad, and that in this type of game, some downtime and AP potential is common. But playing with people less familiar with the game (because they haven't been playing weekly like we had) was a harsh reminder that new players will suffer those effects much more than experienced players. The game took far too long, and much of that time was spent waiting for your turn to roll around.

In some of the later playtests of the weekend, we tried breaking the rounds into twice around affairs, with players getting 1 turn at a time. Initially I didn't like the sound of that, so I hadn't tried it yet, but it did help decrease down time. I'll have to investigate that some more and figure out how to do it and maintain some of the other aspects of the round structure.

- Plunder was too prevalent,

Sails & Sorcery is an area control game, where you deploy your pirates to islands and build structures in order to vie for the most influence in the scoring areas. One of the things you can do is Plunder other pirates, removing them from the board, and collecting a bounty for doing so. If you are behind in an area, you can take the lead by adding more of your pirates, or by plundering your opponents' pirates. Plundering scores you some treasure, and the short term benefit of taking the majority in the area, but the plundered pirates go back to their owner's ship to be re-deployed later. On the other hand, adding pirates to the board not only helps take over majority, but those pirates stick around to continue to have an effect on the board. So there's a theoretical balance there, and in my recent tests (mostly 3p), the balance was holding fairly well.

However, in that 4p game, plunder was far too prevalent! The rewards were a little too high, or the costs were a little too low, or the cost to recruit and deploy pirates were a little too high in comparison, so everybody went heavily into plunder, and nobody deployed pirates to the board, which meant that all pirates were swept off the board pretty much the whole game.

Some of that may have been down to groupthink, and I would have liked to see what would have happened if a player did some big recruit/deploy actions. But even still, it was clear the balance was not correct. I had some adjustments in mind already, but had previously thought they might not be necessary -- now I will definitely try them out.

- The game appeared too tactical.

In this game, there are a number of areas, and originally they all scored once in the midgame and again at the end of the game. When I first played the game, I was immediately turned off by the tedium of counting up and scoring all the areas at once, and I developed a different way to do it -- first simplifying the scoring values (now you just grab a few gold and silver coins), and also scoring just a couple of areas every round rather than all of them at once. They still all scored at the end of the game, but as a sort of final scoring phase I didn't have as big a problem with that.

One potential problem with this is that some players feel forced to fight for whichever area is scoring this round, and there's not much in the way of strategic, or long term, planning. I'm not sure that's 100% true, but even if it's not, that's what many players will feel when they first play. I'll have to watch out for this to make sure the game isn't entirely tactical, because Michael and I both want there to be a strategic aspect.

So there were some issues with that one, and I've got a list of changes I'll be trying to address some of that.

* Worker Learning x1 (Mike suggested Apotheosis as a title)

My latest game design is a worker placement game where your workers level up and get better as you play them. I had this idea a while ago, but got busy and stalled out on creating a prototype, so I recruited a friend to help co-design the game, and he was able to get a prototype together and test it, and even iterate the design a few times. Now I've been testing it and iterating a bit as well, and I got one play in at Origins.

The game worked, but wasn't well loved by the players (I played a 3p game with Andy and one other designer in the Unpub room). Some of the changes I already intended to try would address some of the issues the players had, and I've tried a few of those since Origins, and I think I've made some progress in that regard. I'll probably post separately about this game, so stay tuned if you're interested in more info.

Wednesday, May 08, 2019

Recent playtesting - Sails and Sorcery: some details

The last few weeks, my Saturday playtest sessions have been spent playing Michael's game, Sails and Sorcery. It's kind of a mashup of my game Eminent Domain and the area control classic El Grande.

In Sails and Sorcery you are a pirate captain, sailing your ship from island to island, recruiting and deploying pirates, building structures, and summoning monsters in an attempt to make off with the lion's share of treasure when it's found in those areas.

Michael had been working on it for a while, he talked about it on the TMG podcast last year. In October, Mike figured it was time to get my input, so he brought the prototype to town with him for Rincon, we played a few times, and he left it with me to work on.

Role Selection

Because it was based on Eminent Domain, the game had a role selection mechanism (where opponents can follow your role). Michael had noticed an issue with that however, and he had disallowed following in the last round of the game. The issue was that if I make a play -- putting pieces on the board, or moving them around -- it's really easy for other players to undo my play by simply following. Disallowing the follow in the last round didn't fix the issue in the other scoring rounds earlier in the game though.

So one thing I suggested as we played was that maybe it should not be a role selection game at all. In other words, maybe there doesn't need to be following in the game. Role selection (the lead-follow dynamic) is the entirety of the player interaction in Eminent Domain, but in this game there is interaction on the board as players vie for control of different areas by having the most pieces there. With that interaction, the role selection isn't as necessary, so we tried it without.

However, without being able to act on other players turns, we wouldn't be able to get as much accomplished. So in place of following, we just did an additional role each turn (I'm going to continue using the term "role" here to mean "thing you get to boost with other cards," even though the terminology isn't as accurate any more. "Action" simply means playing 1 card for it's effect, no boosting). This seemed to work fine, and so the first few tests I did recently continued to use 1 action and 2 roles per turn, in that order.

One of my playtesters really wanted a more flexible turn order, because frequently you want to do your 2 roles in different locations (you act in the location where your ship is located), and so he wanted to do role/action/role, using the action to move his ship. I was hesitant to try this because Michael and I had said the same thing back in October, and we tried it, and I immediately did not like the results. This was partly because the "action" part of your turn was really resolving your whole ship, which had multiple things you could do.

However, I acquiesced to try it again, but with a simplified ship such that your abilities from your ship we're more static (like role icons), so it was just the card action you would be doing "out of order." We tried it, and it wasn't too bad, but I still didn't like it, maybe because I prefer the organized turn structure.

Then that player had an additional suggestion, to replace the action with another role. Most of the actions are miniature (1-icon) versions of the role anyway, so if we didn't have actions and just did 3 roles, then a bunch of rules overhead drops out, and the turn flexibility increases without feeling too weird or out of order. In addition, we said that taking a card for the role from the stacks (another aspect based on Eminent Domain) was optional. If you did it, then you'd have an additional icon for the turn, and another card in your deck. If you didn't, then you would miss out on that icon, but you could avoid bloating your deck with the card if you wanted. You only have so many cards in your hand, so often times one of your roles will only be for 1-2 icons. In that respect, the role/role/role format isn't really all that different from action/role/role after all.

We tried this new format once, and I was skeptical. I thought it would produce too much AP, or have other issues. However the first play with that format didn't take any longer on the clock than the game we had just finished using the old format. So I'll try it again next time.

Monsters and their cost

Another aspect I've been tinkering with is the monsters in the game. Originally, you could use a build role to build a building, which gave you permanent influence in an area, and unlocked some ability (like the buildings in Crusaders), or summon a monster, which had some cool effect, but was otherwise similar to a building. Michael had envisioned pieces like in Blood Rage - large miniatures with player colored bases that you could snap on to show who had summoned the monster. You needed to know that, because often times the monster counted as influence toward scoring (just like your buildings did).

My opinion was that the monsters and buildings were too similar, so I suggested making them more different from each other. Buildings give you influence and power ups, so I thought monsters should give you some awesome immediate effect, and then stay in play with some global effect for everyone, like it or not. I liked the image of summoning a force of nature and then being unable to control it.

My first draft of the monsters was to make them the high end of the build role. For 2 or 3, you build a building. I tried the monsters costing 5 (and if you were really interested in summoning them, there's a way to get a build icon from one if your buildings). This was too high a cost, by the time we were ready to summon the monsters, the game was over. Michael wants them to see play every game, not just some of them, and not just maybe, and not just at the end. And I agree with him.

I also thought it was weird that the same resource both built you buildings and summoned monsters. So I made 2 changes... First, I separated the roles. You use build roles to place buildings for influence and abilities, and you use summon roles to summon monsters. I set the summon cost of the monsters to be 2 summon icons, plus 1 more for each time that monster has been summoned in the past. This is easily tracked by dropping a token on the monster card after you summon it.

I have iterated through a few versions of each monster, but I am now super happy with this format and the current effects of the monsters. Splitting up the resources was great, and this cost structure is perfect. The monsters all start out cheap, so they get used. Then they get more expensive over time so that in the late game it's hard to afford them if you haven't been summoning all game long.


The monster cost structure worked so well, I wanted to try it with the buildings too. The buildings on your player board (your ship) are in 4 rows of 2 columns, and for each row you must build left to right, just like Crusaders. Originally, the buildings in the left column cost 2 build icons, and the buildings in the right column cost 3. Additionally, each area had a certain number of build spaces (usually 2 or 3), and no more than that number of buildings could be built there.

Thinking about the escalating monster cost, I tried eliminating the build limit and old cost structure, and instead tried "buildings cost 2 icons, plus 1 more for each building already in that area. This way, you can build cheaply if you spend time sailing around or get to an area first, but once there are 2 buildings in an area, you will have a hard time building there again if you haven't specialized in it a bit, either by investing in the building that gives you a build icon, or by obtaining a number of build cards into your deck.

This works well because each building also increases the value of the area for the 1st place player during scoring.

The effects you unlock from moving these buildings off of your player board have also changed a bit. Originally, some of them were static effects, such as a role icon, or a hand size increase, and some were additional actions you could do at the beginning of your turn. While it was fun to do an extra action at the beginning of your turn, it often wasn't as useful as you wanted it to be. A free deploy doesn't help if you need to recruit pirates. A free plunder doesn't help if there aren't any opponents where your ship is. This is the kind of frustration that prompted the desire for a more flexible turn structure, but it's also the reason the more flexible turn structure was problematic. The game action happens with the card play, so it made sense to me that the buildings could all be static effects rather than additional free actions. Removing the game action from there made the flexible turn structure a lot more acceptable feeling. I've been tweaking and trying different combinations of unlock abilities, but most of them are the same as they were back in October. I'm trying to make sure there are a variety of strategic paths available in the abilities, but also make sure that you aren't forced to build a certain way (or at all) in order to succeed. Like the technology in EmDo, I expect players will build at least a little each game, and if they concentrate on it, maybe they'll build a lot. I expect most players to end the game having built anywhere between 2 and 6 of the 8 buildings and still be able to be competitive.

There are a bunch of other details I've been working on, but these were some of the biggest (and most recent) changes I've tried. Perhaps I'll post again later about other aspects, such as the scoring round format :)