Wednesday, July 08, 2020

Prototypes out of the woodwork and onto Tabletop Simulator

I've spent a few hours recently modding some of my prototypes on Tabletop Simulator (is that how you say that?). Some of them are older designs that I have decided to dig up and revive a bit. I thought I'd take a moment to talk about the prototypes I can currently play on TTS:

Apotheosis

This is my most recent project, a co-design with my friend Rick Holzgrafe, and I've talked about it a lot already. I even shared a screenshot of the TTS mod for it:


Apotheosis is a worker placement game where each of your workers have a type and a level. Many of the worker spaces care about one, the other, or both of those attributes. Blocking is a big dynamic in worker placement games, and in this one you are allowed to use a space as long as your worker is at least tied for the highest level there when you place it. This means there's not as much blocking at the beginning of the game, but as players level their workers up, blocking (and therefor placement tension) becomes more and more of a thing. I like that dynamic in this game.

Another uncommon (though not unheard of) twist on worker placement in Apotheosis is that it's a race to the finish line. Doing adventures advances you up three victory tracks, and the first to reach the end of any one of them wins the game. Players can spend as much time as they want collecting resources and leveling up their workers, but if they are not focused on reaching the end of a track, they will lose to a player that is.

In the TTS mod, there are little tiles indicating the worker's class, with a die sitting on top showing the worker's level as well as the player color of the worker. In my physical prototype, those tiles have squares cut in them, so the dice nestle into the tiles so there's no risk of them falling off when moving the worker. In production I could see these pieces going a couple of different ways. The two front runners in my mind are:

1. Use dice as workers to track levels as I am now, but with a molded plastic holder (much like Coimbra) to set the dice in:

Attached to the die holder could be either a sculpted mini, or a flat plastic standee onto which a full art sticker could be placed to indicate the worker type. Two potential down sides to this... the standees/minis might obscure players' view of the board, and as has been discussed on this blog and elsewhere - when given dice, players want to roll them. It's not unheard of to have dice in a game that solely track status, but there are players for whom rolling the dice is the most fun part of having dice at all, and giving those players dice that they do not roll sort of takes that fun away from them (or fails to deliver on the promise of fun die rolls).

2. Instead of dice, in production I could see the game using a mini or standee with a Heroclix style dial at its base.

This would resolve the concerns above about using dice, it would make leveling p workers a little easier (no searching the die for the next number up), and it would also open up some design space with the adventures, because the max level wouldn't need to be 6 (currently I'm using 6-sided dice, so the max level is 6, and that works out well for this game, but I could open that up if I wanted to).


Automatown

Automatown is another game for which I took on a co-designer. I had largely stalled out on the game, and Mike Brown has taken it to the next level. He also implemented the game in TTS:


Automatown is another worker placement game. In this one your workers are robots, and you use them to get, swap, and upgrade parts to build more robots (more workers), in an effort to raise a robot arm to take over the city!

The twists on worker placement in this game are that the workers you build can have abilities, and so there's some combo-building or engine building going on, and the worker placement spots cycle through from round to round, so each spot will only be there for a few rounds, and then will disappear.


Dice Works

An older design, from 2011, Dice Works (FKA Eureka!) is a real time dice drafting game ostensibly about building different inventions. Your player board has 4 columns, each representing a different possible invention, and the winner is the first player to make ANY discovery. This is kind of the same win condition I used more recently in Apotheosis (see above). The way that you advance on these "victory tracks" in Dice Works is by drafting sets of dice - in real time. Each round you roll a handfull of dice, and players, at their own pace, grab them one at a time and place them onto their board. When those dice are gone, you check your board for errors (in case in your haste you accidentally placed a die in an illegal space), then advance your marker up the columns if the next space is complete. You win by reaching the top of any of the columns, but there's a reward for advancing evenly on all columns.


This one might be difficult to play on Tabletop Simulator due to the real-time nature, and the physical fiddliness of the virtual environment. Then again, it may be even MORE challenging in that environment! However, I suppose a turn-based version could be played... I suspect it may be less fun than the real-time game though. Now that there's a TTS mod for the game, I may be able to find out!

Exhibit: Artifacts of the Ages

Many years ago (2007!), I discussed the idea of using Liar's Dice as a main mechanism in a larger game with a then-friend of mine. We worked together to try and build a game based on that main mechanism, and in the end we never finished. A few years later (2011), I decided that the main Liar's Dice mechanism (which we were calling a "bluff auction") was going to waste just sitting in that unfinished game, so I started over and made a different game using it. That game is Exhibit: Artifacts of the Ages:


In Exhibit, you are bidding for artifacts at auction before their true value has been assessed, and if you bid more than the assessed value, your funding will not come through, and you bid won't count! So the goal is to bid highest without going over the true value... but you only have partial information about that value, and you'll have to deduce the rest from the behavior of your opponents.

I think this game is great, and it was even signed by a European publisher at one point (circa 2014, I believe), but never got published due to that "friend" claiming I'd stolen his intellectual property and was trying to claim it as my own :/

At the time, that person was a big deal in the game industry, and the publisher didn't want to piss him off even if he didn't have any legal standing (and though he used legal sounding language, I am unsure he would have pursued any legal action if they'd published the game). That is no longer the case now, so maybe one day this game could potentially get published after all.

In any case, now it's on Tabletop Simulator, so maybe I'll rustle up a game of it sometime, so at least *I* can enjoy the fruits of my labor, even if nobody else will get to!

Isle of Trains boardgame

Dan Keltner and I took 3rd place in a game design contest, some 6 or 7 years ago now, with a multi-use card game called Isle of Trains. The prize was publication, and the game did well enough at the time that the publisher had asked for an expansion. Dan and I submitted something, but as of 2020, the expansion has not seen the light of day. In fact, a couple of years ago the publisher asked if we could do something a little bit different, they were interested in a bigger-box version.

So Dan and I set about making a board game version of Isle of Trains. We did some brainstorming, and after a little iteration I think we've made some headway... we're unsure whether to try and keep the game on the lighter, more accessible end (like the card game), or make it a deeper, more complicated game. I made a TTS mod of the "simple/accessible" version, but I think I'm coming around to agreeing that it ought to be different (specifically that the train car effects might ought to be more unique):

Kilauea

Another really old design of mine that is being given new life by way of a co-designer is Kilauea. In Kilauea, you use a Mancala mechanism to spread your tribesmen around the island of Hawaii, and make sacrifices to the volcano goddess Pele in hopes that she'll spare your tribe when the volcano erupts. In the original version (pre-2006), you scored points for all the spaces your tokens occupied, but spreading out made your tribe (a) more vulnerable to attacks from opponents, and (b) more vulnerable to the lava flow. Moving tribesmen onto a Altar allowed you to sacrifice them, and the player with the biggest sacrifice each round got some control over the direction that lava turned when the volcano erupted at the end of the round. The game might have had some potential, but it had been on the shelf for so long that I really haven't considered working on it anymore.

Thiago Jabuonski liked the sound of the game, and offered to jump on board as a co-designer when I put out a call for them at the beginning of this year. He has proposed a big change in how the board works, but the game still features most of the same details it always did. I haven't had a chance to play his version yet, in fact i'm not sure he's even written down the rules, but he sent me some files, and I made a TTS mod so that maybe one day I'll be able to give it a try:



Reading Railroad


Yet another one from the back catalog... I've always been enamored with Reading Railroad, a connection game with word building as a mechanism:


Since deciding to try and revive it recently, I've been describing it as "Ticket to Ride meets Scrabble," but that's not terribly accurate - the word building is simpler and more forgiving, and you don't place the letters on the board like yo do in Scrabble. Rather, you spell words to get coins, then spend those coins to build track connecting cities. When you add a city to your network, you collect one of the Alphabet blocks in that city, which you ill use to score points in the endgame by spelling specific words (i.e. collecting a specific set of Alphabet blocks). The number of Alphabet blocks you can use to score is limited by your largest network, so it matters a bit where you build (or at least hat you connect up your network before game  end), and you can build a Factory, which blocks up spots to store Alphabet blocks (limiting your endgame scoring potential), but allow you to draw more letter tiles to make words with - and longer words pay out much better than shorter ones, and leftover coins are worth points, so if you're good at word games, you could pursue that strategy and end the game with a bunch of points from coins saved up.The point of the game however is that if you're NOT particularly good at word building, you can still get along fine (so long as you can at least spell some short words!).

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Don't kill the messenger! A game about the post-funding KS process?

TMG in in the process of manufacturing and fulfilling 5 different Kickstarter projects right now. They are delayed, some much more than usual, and as I have taken it upon myself to handle Kickstarter updates and comments, I am pretty familiar with the kinds of things some backers post when a project is overdue, or when a project update is overdue.

Maybe I can make a game out of this dynamic! I don't think this is limited to KS projects, but for starters let's use that as a setting:

Play as a publisher working on crowdfunded projects. Get info on those projects, make progress toward completion, and post updates to your backers. Each of those steps informed by the real-world dynamics of running a post-funding Kickstarter.

PROJECTS
This game would be from the POV of a publisher, so the logistics of design and development, even the quality of gameplay, could be abstracted away. Perhaps there's a way to pick up future projects (representative of taking submissions or pitches). And maybe the more effort you put into it, the more possible points the project could be worth in the end (representative of quality/sale-ability of the game).

These projects, maybe tiles or cards, could show a combination of different types of work that needs to be done (development, rules editing, blind testing, art, graphic design), represented by different colored cubes. One thing you could spend time or effort on (worker placements/action points) is getting those things together, and the more you have before launching a crowdfunding campaign, the better prepared you are, so the more backers you garner, and the more money you collect.

This could be an interesting sub-dynamic. Ideally, you'll have all the pieces in place, so you'll get the maximum cash when you launch crowdfunding (in this game, your project would automatically succeed, but the extent to which is exceeds would depend on how prepared you were when it launched). However, you may need money to do other things, so it might behoove you to launch early, a little less well prepared, to get less-than-the-max money, but get it now.

The other consequence of launching a project early could be the time it takes to deliver... if you've already completed everything but the manufacturing, and you have everything else lined up nicely before launching, then you'll deliver the game in the minimum amount of time, which would result in a maximal score for it. The more stuff you need to do after crowdfunding, the longer that delivery takes, and that could end up reducing your score (or some other attribute, such as backer satisfaction? Probably easier to just say "score").

Again, the ideal situation would be getting everything ready before launching, however the crux of the game could be finding ways to manage launching early, so that you can afford to do more things.

WORK FORCE
Worker Placement is an excellent mechanism because it encompasses a few different things: it offers interaction with regards to blocking (as players take the actions that other players were hoping to use), it provides a user friendly way to represent budgeting of actions/effort, and it does an excellent job of introducing opportunity cost.

Action Point Allowance is similar, but without the interactive blocking. Depending on the theme, it might not make much sense to have limited access to actions anyway - Agricola and Stone Age famously having the "Family Growth" space limited to 1 player per round, which just doesn't make any real-world sense.

In either of those cases though, it makes sense to be managing your own personal work force (whether or not they directly interact with opponents' workers). One extreme could be a company with a minimal work force, that concentrates on 1 project at a time, maximizing gains from it. The opposite extreme could be a company with a bunch of employees, that take on many projects at a time, even if they launch the early (to get faster income) and therefore don't score the maximum for each. Many economic games have this sort of "quality-vs-quantity" dichotomy, and in those I sometimes refer to the "quantity" side as a "Wal-Mart strategy" :)

CROWDFUNDING
As I alluded to above, the main (only?) source of income in this game would be launching crowdfunding projects. When doing so, the project would automatically "fund" -- so you would immediately receive money. The amount you get would depend on the project itself, and how "prepared" you were to launch it (how many of the required cubes are already on the project).

In an ideal world, you would have all the possible cubes at launch time, thereby maximizing your income for the project. However, just like in the real world, the realities of scheduling and of stretch goals and things like that mean you seldom see projects launched wen they are 100% ready to print. In this game, the abstraction would be that you need money to operate, and the only way to get it is by launching a project, so you may have incentive to launch early if the economy of the game is nice and tight.

POST FUNDING
I think the crux of this game would be managing your projects post-funding. This means continuing to get he necessary cubes to complete the project, and posting updates to backers to keep their satisfaction high. Perhaps some of the required cubes are only for after-funding, and you can't possibly get them beforehand, but of course you might also still need to collect whatever you didn't already have before launch.

The flow of these cubes would be that they first go below a project card, representing information about the next step in the process for that project, then from there they go onto the tile, representing that progress being made.When posting an update, the relevant thing is the info gathered for the project -- perhaps backers want a particular combination of cubes as  in the
info" position when you update. If you don't have the correct combination of info to share, then your backers may be less satisfied. If you wait until you do have more info, then your update may be "late," and again, backers may be less satisfied. And as a weird quirk of this game, if you "spend" the info cubes (by making progress, thereby moving those cubes onto the tile) then maybe that actually works against the info you need to update (unrealistic, but could help make the game interesting). Maybe this represents that you had the info, but didn't update until the progress was made, so it's akin to being "late."

WHAT'S THE HOOK?
To be honest, it's been about a week since I thought of this and started writing this blog post. I hadn't gotten far past what I'd written above, and while I can see some game mechanics that might work, I can't really see a hook yet. The idea was to make a game inspired by how the post-funding KS process goes. I guess the management of information and progress, as well as the timing of it, while having to also maintain backer satisfaction would be what the game is all about -- is that interesting enough on its own?

This feels like one of those ideas I'll file away, with little-to-no confidence I'll ever get back to it, so if it does sound interesting to you, then be sure to let me know in the comments below. And if you're a designer who wants to work on a game like this with me in a co-design capacity, feel free to let me know that too!

Saturday, June 06, 2020

Recent gaming, online edition

I'd be lying if I said I didn't miss face to face gaming - even though I haven't been doing nearly as much of it these last few years. But as I've mentioned before, I've been able to scratch that itch by playing online at portals  like BoardGameArena.com and boiteajeux.net. Here are some of the games I've been playing online lately:

Yokohama

This popular TMG title is in private Beta right now, and I've been able to get several games in. It's nice to be able to play before the general release and give feedback about not just bugs, but suggestions to make the implementation better.

La Granja

I played this "modern classic" when it came out, and thought it was fine, but I wasn't sure what all the hype was about. It has recently been released on BGA, and the implementation is pretty good. I've gotten a few games in so far, and while I am enjoying it, I'm still not sure it's worth the fuss. So far, the more I play it, the better I like it.

Teotihuacan

I very much enjoyed Tzolkin, so I had automatic interest in Teotihuacan by one of the same designers, as it was touted as a "spiritual sequel" (I hate that term!). When it came out, I never really had a chance to play it, and pretty soon I stopped hearing about it. When I recently found out it was in Alpha at BGA I was excited to finally get a chance to play! I'm currently about 2 games in  and I am enjoying it pretty well. Interestingly, Teotihuacan sort of scoops 2 of my own designs! It has dice "workers" that level up when you use them, which is the main mechanism of my worker placement game Apotheosis, and it is a big rondel made of tiles, like the latest version of the Isle of Trains board game that Dan and I are working on.

In addition to those newer titles, I have been playing some old standbys on BGA as well:

Stone Age

Every time I play Stone Age, I remember how good a game it really is. I haven't played in a while, so it was fun to explore a starvation strategy again (some say in competitive games starvation isn't viable, but in a casual game I crushed everyone with it), and in another game I did the opposite -- I managed to get a bunch of farms right away.

Race For The Galaxy

Another solid title that I haven't really played much since Eminent Domain came about, RftG is a great game. I still think I prefer it 2-player because of the additional agency and ability to sort of combo plays.

Hanabi

I've even tried some Hanabi on BGA. I doubt I'd enjoy that with random people, but with my two Hanabi friends it was a blast. We played a bunch of games, but kinda stopped when we got a perfect 30 points (including the multicolor suit), with no bombs, and almost all of our clues left -- can't possibly do much better than that!

Friday, May 15, 2020

Tabletop Simulator, digital prototypes, and online playtesting

A Virtual Tabletop

Tabletop Simulator is a virtual tabletop with working, realistic physics, which exists to facilitate tabletop gaming over the internet. There's a similar app called Tabletopia that is browser-based, while TTS is a $20 app on Steam.

People have created TTS "mods" of many tabletop games. Somebody even made a mod for Crusaders!


Unlike online portals such as BoardGameArena, Boiteajeux, and Yucata, Tabletopia and Tabletop Simulator do not enforce the rules to these games. They are literally just a digital version of the game on a table, and players can move the pieces around however they want to. So to play a game on TTS, you need to know the rules.

I am not too familiar with any of these programs yet, but designers all over the world are turning to these or other online options in order to accomplish much-needed playtesting, since gathering in groups is ill advised these days (for future readers, we're talking about COVID-19 here, a worldwide pandemic that has people self-quarantining for the most part).

About a year ago I tried to make a TTS mod for my game Alter Ego, and while I got it set up, I did not know how to play it with anybody. By now, the game not only has pretty much finished art, but there have been significant rules and structural changes, so I really need to re-do that one before I can try to test it out. At the time, I was playtesting weekly, so the pressure to create online versions of my games was not there. For the last couple of months though, I have been able to make no progress whatsoever with my games, and that's just not going to work for me!

My Digital Prototypes

I currently have three digital prototypes that are ready to go:

* Apotheosis



I often feel uncomfortable trying to do something I'm not familiar with, and I've been really strapped for time lately anyway, so the first thing I tried was paying someone to make a TTS mod of Apotheosis. It was a snap for him to implement the game, and while the cost was more than I would have wanted to pay, I consider that it essentially included some TTS consultation, which has helped me gain the knowledge and confidence to try the next one on my own.

Once implemented, I was able to get online with my co-designer and my main playtester and give it a play. It worked! We spent some time familiarizing ourselves with the user interface, and fumbling with the components was more fiddly and took longer than simply grabbing things with our hands, but we were able to do the actual game in about 2 hours, and it went pretty well, all things considered!

One nice thing about a portal like this that doesn't enforce rules is that I can change the rules on the fly, or between games, and nothing has to be done with the prototype before playing again.

* Isle of Trains boardgame



Now that I had gained some familiarity with Tabletop Simulator, I thought I'd try my hand at inputting another prototype myself. I chose the Isle of Trains boardgame [side note: this needs a good title. I am fond of Isle of Trains: All Aboardgame, but it's a bit silly for a real title, and also that implies passenger trains, whereas this game is about freight trains], because I thought it'd be the simplest one to do. It wasn't too bad, and I had the whole thing ready to go in a couple of hours...

...until I realized that I did not have updated prototype files for the most recent changes after the last playtest.

Last night I spent another couple of hours updating some of those files and re-creating the TTS mod, and now it's just about ready to play. I haven't added uncoverable bonuses for building (like Crusaders has), which is something we might want to have, but the game is technically playable without that, and that would be pretty easy to add to the mod (once it exists).

* Automatown


I took on a co-designer for Automatown a few months go, and nether of us have had much time to focus on Automatown lately. However, Michael had done some work re-configuring the structure of the game, and I think he even got a test or two in before Stay At Home orders came into effect. Since then, he created a TTS mod of his new version of the game, and I'm ready to give it a try, as soon as I can carve out some time!

Monday, April 20, 2020

Free Roll & Writes for Quarantine-time (including a custom mod of one by yours truly)

These are crazy times we live in. Almost everyone's life has been flipped, turned upside down by a zombie apocalypse. Seriously, COVID-19 is a lot like those zombie apocalypse movies, only the zombies are invisible, and you don't know right away if or when you've been bitten.

Almost everything about these crazy times has been difficult and terrible, but it's nice to catch a glimpse every once in a while of something good. Every now and again you see people doing something nice to try and help their fellow man through this situation-sometimes it's a big, impactful, important thing, and sometimes it's something trivial, but still nice.

This being a game design blog, I assume that any readers, just like myself, are involved or interested in the world of hobby gaming and maybe game design. For most gamers, anything that happens in that realm probably falls into the category of small-but-nice things rather than big-important things. Nevermind those in the industry who are having a much bigger issue, because for us, games are more than just a pleasant diversion. Me personally? I'm lucky, I still have my engineering job which, for the moment anyway, is still going strong (though that could turn in a hurry if our clients stop building houses!) But I digress...

My intent for this blog post is to point out a couple of those trivial-but-nice things I've seen done recently for gamers. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but I was happy to see a few designers and publishers making available some free PDFs of games. Roll & write games are particularly good for this, as you generally just need to printout a scoresheet and scrounge up a few dice. Here are a couple of R&W games that have been made available for free recently that I took the time to print and play, and found to be pretty darn good (in no particular order):

Super-Skill Pinball 4-Cade: Carniball


Geoff Englestein has a R&W game coming out soon called Super-Skill Pinball 4-Cade, which has 4 different pinball tables, each one a different R&W scoresheet. With just the score sheet and a coupe of tokens, you can play a decent approximation of pinball-minus the physicality, of course.

Publisher WizKids has made one of those tables, Carniball, available as a free print and play so you can try it out.

Tiny Farms

I haven't tried this one, but the competent design team of Matt Riddle and Ben Pinchback, now known as Motor City Gameworks, have posted a R&W game featuring a variation on their "Rolldel" mechanism (a combination of dice and rondel). You can download Tiny Farms (with graphic design by DiceHateMe Games) from PnP Arcade or from BGG and give it a shot. How bad can it be?

Rolling Realms

Designer and publisher Jamey Stegmaier (Stonemaier Games) has designed an infinitely scaleable R&W called Rolling Realms, which, if I'm being honest, might be my pick for his best design yet. It features 9 Realms, each based on one of the games that Stonemaier has published. Each round you use 3 of those realms, and roll 2 dice... use those dice in 2 different realms to mark off boxes and collect resources (pumpkins, hearts, and coins) in an effort to score stars.

Jamey has been doing "Teach & Play" sessions on FaceBook live, where he basically plays the game, and you can print out the single sheet PDF and play along with him - you can even play along after the fact with the videos on YouTube. He's iterated through 9 versions at this point, which is basically how game development goes (you play, then you tweak, then you play again).

Jaffee Realms - custom modules for Rolling Realms

This may be burying the lede, but as Jamey mentioned in today's (4/20) Facebook Live video (v9), I enjoyed the concept of Rolling Realms so much that I have been working on my own custom modules based on games that I have designed or developed! If you're interested, you can download the Jaffee Realms PDF and give it a try.

One of Jamey's Stonemaier Champion supporters was kind enough to help me put the PDF together graphically, and in doing so he helped me simplify the realms a lot, since they can't afford to be very complicated (and as per usual, I started out too complicated on most of them). I'm not 100% happy with all of the realms at the moment, so I may tweak them a bit-but I'll be sure to use the same filename so that the link doesn't break :) For those too lazy to click the link, here's what they look like currently (as of v3, 4/20/20):


So take it easy, have some fun when you can, and stay safe!

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Modular vs Integrated expansions

Having recently done an expansion for Crusaders, and having done 3 expansions for Eminent Domain and one for Isle of Trains as well, I have noticed a particular style I like to use when creating expansions, and I've identified two distinct types of expansions: Modular and Integrated.

Modularity

A modular expansion is one with several distinct modules that can be added in various combinations. These can be good because they allow the players to use the modules they enjoy, and simply ignore the ones they don't care for. It allows players to customize their experience. Undoubtedly, this is something that some players will appreciate.

However, it also requires playing each module at least once to determine if it works well for your group, and it requires some effort to curate the expansion content to provide that perfect customized experience. For a group that loves a game and plays it all the time, one that's willing to put in the effort and plays to find the perfect combination of modules, this could be fine. But in today's market, I wonder if players will put in that time and effort? Or would they prefer to just buy a curated expansion, where the "best combination of modules" is the only thing provided?

Another down side to a modular expansion is that because of that modularity, the pieces of the expansion may feel bolted together and disparate rather than feeling like a seamless experience.

Integration

An integrated expansion is one where the new parts play off of each other and off of the original content. When done well, this type of content fits seamlessly with the base game, and it can be difficult to differentiate the new stuff from the old.

This loses the opportunity for customization provided by a modular expansion, but it gains the curated feel, and doesn't require any work on the part of the player to get to the "best" configuration.

Another down side to integrating an expansion is that it may be more difficult to remove the content when you want to play the game with new players. For an insular group who plays the same game many times, an integrated expansion may be preferable, while for a group where new players come and go with each play, it may be more difficult to pop the expansion content in and out.

My personal preference

It's probably clear in the above paragraphs that modular expansions aren't my preferred format. Well integrated, expansion content fits together with the base game in such a way that it feels like it was always there, or like it belongs. I find something attractive in the thought that the expansion integrates so well that a new player might not be able to identify the new content from the old.

Looking at the expansions I've done, I think it's clear I've attempted to go for integration over modularity:

In the Eminent Domain expansions, you simply add the new tech cards, shuffle the new planets into the deck, and the Fleet, Mining, and Political Influence tiles tie it all together.

When I first played Isle of Trains: All Aboard (which hasn't been published... yet) with the publisher, they were skeptical going into it that the game really needed an expansion. After we played, they said they were surprised how well integrated the expansion was, and that it was not obvious the expansion content wasn't just part of the base game in the first place.

Crusaders: Divine Influence is about to ship from China, so not many have played it yet, but my goal with that one was to seamlessly integrate the new content with the old. I replaced the Influence action with something more involved, and I added new buildings and a few factions. If you know the rules of the base game already, then playing with the new content should be easy to pick up. Learning the game for the first time with the expansion content included will be a bit more complicated than learning just the base game, but I have had some success teaching the game that way most of the times I have played the expansion with strangers.

Conclusion

There might be a temptation to make expansions modular, because as a designer it can be easy to think that's what players want, and it abdicates the responsibility of curating the expansion to the players. My advice for designers is to consider the game you are expanding, and that game's audience. In this day and age, with thousands of new titles coming out every year, is modularity really the best format for your expansion? Or would your audience be better served with a well integrated, curated expansion? For most of the games I work on, I think it's the latter.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Apotheosis - recent challenges and possible solutions

I have been testing Apotheosis quite a bit lately, and on a coarse grained scale, I think it's going pretty well. The structure of the game works and has improved with iteration, and the game action is fun (for me at least). One of my regular testers doesn't seem to love it (I don't think it's really his type of game), but the others still seem to enjoy it.

But games don't get finished on a "coarse grained scale." At least, they shouldn't! When talking about some of the finer details of the game, there are some challenges I'm still facing with it. Until these challenges are overcome, I cannot call the game finished. However I do think these challenges are overcome-able! Here are some of the bigger challenges I'm currently facing, and what I'm planning to try to do about them:

Challenge number 1: The Endgame

One of the biggest problems this game has been facing is an end game dynamic that is disappointing. The game is basically a race up some tracks, and players can see how many turns it will take them to "finish" the race, and can sometimes tell whether anybody can stop them. It's super anticlimactic to hear your opponent say "I can win in 6 turns. Can anybody do better than that, or should we just stop now?"

In an effort to keep this from happening, I was looking for a way to add uncertainty to the end game. I thought I had found something, but in my first attempt I implemented it wrong so it didn't work. But after trying it, I started to think it wouldn't be quite right even if implemented better.

My next attempt was a more subtle thing, which won't stop a player from figuring out how many turns it'll take them to "finish," but might obfuscate whether or not someone else can beat them to it (thereby keeping the game interesting enough to play out the last few rounds):

  1. Give players a face-down adventure which they could do instead of one of the face-up ones. This way you can't be sure whether your opponent can advance on a track, or what they need to be able to do so.
  2. Try player screens to hide resources, so it's harder to tell what your opponents can do.
  3. With player screens, maybe add more instances of getting things at random (resource cubes, equipment, Side Quest cards, etc) so that it's not all Hidden Trackable Information (HTI). There are already random equipment draws currently, and we could easily hide the Side Quests in hand, maybe that's enough.
In addition, we required a Tier 3 adventure to actually win the game. That way the final push to win couldn't be sort of cheesed with a surprise bump from a side quest (because that's kind of anticlimactic), or using the worker space that inefficiently moves you up a track (because that's not only anticlimactic, but also basically unblockable, which means you can see it coming several turns ahead, leading to the problem I'm looking to solve)

Having tried this format once so far, I think it has helped a little bit, but may not have completely solved the problem.

One thing that occurred to me as I was thinking about this challenge is that there are games -- popular, well received games -- that have a similar dynamic. Just about every time I played the 2014 title Istanbul, by Rudiger Dorn, I was able to see that I could "finish" the race to 5 gems in 4 or 5 turns, and often I could see whether or not anybody could stop me or beat me to it. That made the last 4 turns or so feel like something of a slog, but the game hasn't seemed to suffer from it.

So maybe I'm overly concerned about this "problem" in my game. I think if you can call the game in 4 turns or so, it wouldn't be so bad, but 6-8 turns out i maybe too much. So maybe I don't need to solve the problem 100%, but rather make sure that if it DOES happen, it only happens within 4-5 turns of the end of the game.

Challenge number 2: Equipment not pulling its weight

Equipment in this game is basically a secondary resource, a little harder to get, and useful mostly for one particular aspect (an aspect that players could mostly neglect if they wanted to, but theoretically is more efficient if they don't). I think Equipment is nice thematically, but the mechanisms for getting it are a bit overblown and maybe too random for the relatively small role they play.

One solution is to cut Equipment altogether, reducing the number of resources (by 4, technically, since there are 4 types of equipment). Some of my testers seem to think there are too many resources in the game, and cutting equipment would certainly help that. But I fear that would just mean you use the stuff you're already collecting to pay for the valuable stuff Equipment was supposed to buy you, which seems lame to me.

Another solution is to make Equipment a bigger deal in the game. My first attempt at this, partly to try and salvage Equipment, and partly because removing it would mean I'd need to do more updating to the prototype and design work before testing again (and I had other things to test), had to do with the attempt mentioned above to add some uncertainty to the end game. That may work in some format, but having tried it, I'm not sure I like it as much as I'd hoped.

My next attempt was to add Equipment as a cost for the 3rd adventure tier. The 3rd tier requires a few worker levels of any type in addition to what's needed for tier 2, and currently has no additional resource cost (but I think it should). The rewards are a handful of Blessings (which are a flexible commodity), and a track bump (vp) of your choice. Originally, instead of Blessings, the reward was a Spoils -- a special resource you need to do a certain thing (it's kind of like 2 points and a power). The only other way to get those is by (a) Side Quest cards, which cost Equipment, or (b) spending a large number of blessings (which is hopefully inefficient by comparison). So maybe putting the reward back to a Spoils instead of Blessings (which is kind of thematic anyway), and adding an Equipment cost, then it makes some sense: Equipment is always for getting Spoils -- if you do it through an Adventure, then you also get VP, if you do it through a Side Quest, then you maybe get something else with it.

In addition, I added some worker placement spaces that care only about your worker's class (that was partly to address some other issue I was worried about), and one of them lets you get Equipment, so now there are a few ways to get equipment, and a few ways to spend it. Since you can't always guarantee you get the TYPE of equipment you want, I also added the option at one of the worker spots to trade in any 2 equipment for the one you want.

So far I think this is promising, so I'll try it again. I'm sure those same playtesters will still complain there are too many different resources :)

Related to Spoils, it might be nice if  there were 1 more thing you could do with it. Because currently you only need a maximum of 4 or 5 in the game, and you can technically finish (though I don't know if you could realistically win) with only 1. I don't know if I like being able to buy them with Blessings, because that means you can avoid dealing with Equipment altogether. Is that OK?