Saturday, April 11, 2015

What kind of chicken do you like? Caribbean, jerk!

I have never been much for cruises - my parents like them, but I've never been on one, nor have I ever been particularly excited about them. is a very handy website, and if you're reading this then I assume you know about BGG already. You probably also know that they host a convention in Dallas every year, and I've attended every BGG.con since it's inception over a decade ago. When they announced BGG@SEA - a small game convention aboard a cruise ship - I was torn. On one hand, it sounded potentially awesome... like a regular game con, but with all the food and entertainment options available on a cruise. On the other hand, it was super expensive, and I wasn't sure how well I'd be able to handle the constant motion of the sea.

After some consternation, I decided this could be a good opportunity to see if I liked cruises, and to go on a vacation with my girlfriend, so I went ahead and signed Michelle and myself up for BGG@SEA. I spent last week aboard Royal Caribbean's Navigator of the Seas, unplugged from the world, soaking up the extravagance, and playing some games!

Some of the highlights of the trip included...

  • Hanging out with Peter Hawes (game designer from Australia), Jeff Anderson (one of the BGG crew that runs the conventions), and even Scott Alden (owner of BGG) for a little bit.
  • Winning a copy of Royals in the Royals tournament for scoring highest in the tournament (despite losing in the semifinal round).
  • Swimming with a dolphin in Jamaica - though I kept thinking "smartest species on the planet, and we make them do tricks for us?" Michelle pointed out that the trained dolphins are well fed, and that it's not dissimilar to paying an athlete to play professional basketball.
  • Thinking up ideas for a cruise themed worker placement game.

Some time ago, the League of Gamemakers had a blog post called Steal This Game Idea, which inspired me to write this comment:
The basic idea is that you place workers in different locations, and then when it comes time to resolve each location, you zoom in and it’s another worker placement game.
So you have workers that are essentially groups, and you assign 1 group at a time to the areas, and upon resolution of that area, you reassign the members of that group to the worker spaces in that area.
I imagine the different areas would be sort of themed – like if you’re gathering resources, you assign a worker group to the Resource acquisition area, and if you’re expanding your borders you assign a group to the Expansion area… then within each area there are multiple spaces (collect wood, collect stone, collect ore… move 3 units 1 space each,move 1 unit up to 3 spaces, etc)
I suppose you could start with groups of 1 or some small number of workers in them, and over the course of the game you could maybe increase the size of your groups, or maybe split a group into 2 smaller groups. It’s also possible that the groups could be “better” at certain types of actions, so the way you distribute workers between your groups might make a difference in your strategy.
On the airplane to Texas for the BGG cruise, I started thinking about the cruise, the excursions we'd looked into, and I started formulating a game structure. With that idea for a worker-group placement mechanism rattling around in my brain, I started putting these two ideas together, and I think I've started a design that could work. I thought about it on and off over the course of the cruise, even sketching out how I thought the board and some of the cards could look. Basically, it'd be like this:

Imagine a board with 4 major quadrants - maybe each quadrant is a different cruise line (like Royal Caribbean, Princess, carnival, or Celebrity for example). [Alternatively each quadrant could be a part of the world where one might cruise (Caribbean, South Pacific, Alaska, etc)]. Within each cruie line are a number of standard worker placement spaces that do startndard actions such as get money, get VP, translate money into vp, or get discounts on future placements on that same cruise line. In addition, each cruise could have between 1 and 3 Excursion spaces - blank spaces the size and shape of a 1/2 size poker card. These spaces woul house Excursion cards drawn from a deck (perhaps that deck is sorted by type, or by area of the world perhaps?

My thought is that some of the standard worker spaces would be exclusive, like most worker placement games. Others might fit a specific maximum number of workers at them, and perhaps the excursions can fit any number of workers, and the player who places the most workers there gets to keep the card for additional bonues or something (a little bit of area majority).

The Excursion cards I imagine would come in various types:

  • Adventure: Zipline, Bobsled, Dunn River Falls
  • Archeological: Chichen Itza, Tulum Ruins, Cuzco
  • Aquatic: Dolphin Swim, Stingray Bay, Barrier Reef Snorkeling

Stuff like that. I imagine some excursions could be in multiple categories. Each excursion would have a cost to go on (payable when placing the worker on it), and my current thought is that it would have a game effect you get immediately. Perhaps every worker who goes on an excursion collects Excursion tokens according to the category (in addition to the afore mentioned game effect, or that IS the game effect), and the player with the MOST workers (tie break to first player to get there) collects the card a well, for extra such icons and/or end game set collection scoring.

The game structure would have players playing stacks of workers to the quadrants in turn order. I figure players would start with 3 worker groups, with 1, 2, and 3 workers in them. When placing in a quadrant, you'd place a whole group on the next available (numbered) space, so the first player to place in a particular quadrant would place in space 1, the 2nd player to do so would place in space 2, etc.

Once all players have placed the worker groups, the game would zoom into the different quadrants to resolve them, and they'd be resolved by placing the individual workers from the group into the individal spaces in the quadrants, one worker at a time, in turn order based on placement (the numbered spaces). Therefore if I go to space 1 of Quadrant A (let's call that A1) with a 3 worker group, and you go to A2 with a 1 worker group, and Bob goes to A3 with a 2 worker group, then when resolving quadrant A, placement would go me-you-bob-me-bob-me.

I figure the quadrants would just be resolved in order, A-B-C-D, but to spice that up, perhaps players could go in a strict turn order, and on your turn you place any worker (or workers) where you are next in line? That's nearly the same thing, I tink, with the exception of some timing bits.

Anyway, that's the crux of it. The unique mechanism is placing worker groups into super-spaces, then distributing them (in commpetitive worker placement style) to sub-spaces within those super-spaces.

For some reason I really like the Excursion aspect. I think I like the idea to have them spice up what actions are available for the round, but for some reason I really like the idea of set collection scoring for the various excursion symbols (maybe you score for 1-of-each symbol, and also majorities for eah one - or perhpas you have a secret goal with respect o symbol collection - the Thrill Seeker is eager to have Adventure excursions!)

I currently have just money, VP, and Ecursion icons as resources, but perhaps one more wold be good, to allow for more standard spaces. I would like to focus each quadrant on a particular apect of the game, like maybe all cruise lines have a Buffet that collects you 1vp, but one line has a 5 star restaurant that earns more VP, or a better buffet where you get 1 point per worker assigned to that space (max 3). I could see a Casino which doubles your money up to a certain amount, or another location which just gives you a couple bucks. Maybe another resource such as Stress (people go on cruises to relieve stress, right?) could be involved... though that might start to be imilar to another prototype that TMG might pick up anyway.

That's the basic idea. One stumbling block (thematically) is what the actual role of the player is. You're sending people out on cruises and excursions - different groups of people... maybe you're a travel agent? but then why do you get money when your clients go to a Casino?

I'll keep working on it. Let me know if you have any thoughts about this game - do you like the sound of it? Would you like to see it become playable?


Sunday, March 01, 2015

Tips for Rules Writing

Rules writing is HARD!

Rules writing is a pain, but it's super important. Players will not be able to play your game if they cannot read and understand the rulebook. The number of people who are willing to put in the effort to research rules online and figure out how to play your game is embarrassingly small, and it's equally embarrassing to expect people to go through that effort. Players should be able to learn a new game easily, and the rulebook is the only interface they are guaranteed to have. The increase in great how-to-play videos and reviews has done wonders for the hobby, but, as designers, we cannot rely on them for players to learn our games. Too many games have poor, unapproachable, or useless rulebooks. If we expect people to actually play our games, we cannot allow that trend to continue.

Correct, but approachable

Historically, I have considered rules writing to be like technical writing - it has to be precise, and it has to cover all cases. I used to write rules as concisely as possible, following good technical writing protocol such as "don't repeat things, reference them instead," like one would write computer code.

But there's a problem with that: users have a tough time reading technical manuals! Nobody enjoyed reading the instruction booklet that came with their VCR. Nobody really understood it. As a result, it became cliché that nobody knew how to set their clocks.

My current preference is to write the rules in the 2nd person, as if you're talking directly to the reader. Don't say "each player takes..." Instead, say "give each player..." Don't say "On his or her turn, the active player chooses..." Instead, say "On your turn, choose..." etc. I find that this simplifies the language and becomes a lot easier for the reader to understand and follow.

Word choice and consistency

In a rulebook you have to be very careful about language, word choice, and consistency. Grammatical correctness is important, because bad grammar sounds awful and makes people lose confidence that you know what you're talking about. Writing clearly and correctly is the best way to ensure the reader will understand what you are trying to say.

Terminology needs to be consistent. Using two different terms for the same thing, or the same term for different things, is bound to cause confusion -- don't do that!

On a similar note, consistency of punctuation and capitalization helps people read and understand rules better. It's easy to want to capitalize lots of game terms that might not be capitalized in regular English text. My current preference is not to do that - it just invites mistakes, and It Can Be difficult and Annoying to Read sentences Where Every third Word is Capitalized.

The same thing goes for bold and italics... too much of that is also annoying to read, so that type of emphasis should be used sparingly, if at all. Sen-Foong Lim just told me his current preference: use bold for key game terms in their first instance, then never do anything special with them again after that. To me that seems better than emphasizing every instance of a key word, but I'm not sure it's really necessary either.


It should go without saying, but have your rules proofread. More than once. By different people. It's easy to miss mistakes that you yourself made, and it's easy to follow what you've written because you already know what you meant to say! Get someone else to read your rules and comment on what's clear and what's not.

Reading your rules backwards -- from the end to the beginning -- can help you spot typos and spelling errors.

Images, images, images!

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. The more images and illustrations you can use, the better. The best rulebooks include images of each component as well as graphical examples wherever possible.

Political correctness

Gendered writing is something that has always been an issue, but today more than ever is on the forefront of people's minds. No matter what your opinion is on the matter, antagonizing anyone is a bad way to get more players playing your game! Inclusiveness is important.

That said, reading "he/she" or using the singular "they" can be confusing or off-putting as well. Careful word choice and sentence structure can avoid most of that, and using the 2nd person (as mentioned above) helps as well. I like to use specific characters/people in examples to avoid these sorts of problems completely -- just make sure to include women in your example characters!


Most rules list components first, with images. That's nice. I like to flip back and look at the images while I read the setup. You know what might be better than that? Combining the components and setup sections so that I don't have to flip back and forth! TMG developer Andy Van Zandt taught me this trick, and I have yet to use it on a big box game, but picturing a component and then describing what to do with that component during setup seems like a great idea.

Rules organization can really help players understand the game better. Every rulebook should include the following items:
* Thematic Overview (including your role as a player and your goal in the game)
* Components & Setup
* Game Overview (including your ultimate goal, and what you'll be doing each turn in pursuit of it)
* Outline of game structure
* A Game Turn
* Game End
* Determining a Winner
...and in that order.

Writing for different readers

There are really 3 audiences you're writing your rules for:
  1. The first time player looking to learn the game
    The new player is the most important audience; you must ensure they can follow and understand the rules or they will never be able to play your game! All of the information above is aimed at writing rules for players that are completely new to the game.
  2. The intermediate player looking for reference information
    Often times, even when you know how to play a game, you find yourself looking up certain reference information. "How much money does each player start with?" "How many cards do we deal out in a 3-player game?" "How many Dragon cards before you have to fight a dragon?" It's best to break any such information out in some way -- put it in a boxed note, a chart, or summarize it in a sidebar -- to make it easy for players to find without reading through the rules text. For example, never write "Deal 5 cards each for 2 or 3 players, and 4 cards each for 4 or 5 players." Instead make a little chart like this:
    2 players: 5 cards each
    3 players: 5 cards each
    4 players: 4 cards each
    5 players: 4 cards each
  3. The expert player looking for loopholes and edge cases
    While you're not really writing rules specifically for a rules lawyer, it's best to ensure your rules stand up to such careful scrutiny. I said before that the rules need to cover all cases. If a situation can occur that is not covered by the rules, then the players may be unable to continue the game. Don't leave such edge cases undefined! Even if a situation never came up in your playtesting, once thousands of people are playing your game, the edge cases will eventually occur. A proper rulebook will not leave loopholes or edge cases undefined.

I have found myself editing a lot of rules lately, and I have started to adopt these guidelines. I'm liking the results so far, and I'm hoping to find that players have an easier time learning and understanding them. They'll be able to enjoy the games so much more without the rules getting in the way.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

OrcCon 2015 convention report

Last weekend I traveled to Los Angeles again, as I have done for the last decade or so, for OrcCon 2015. I find it interesting to think back on all the years attending these types of conventions, and how things have changed...

Years ago I enjoyed the Strategicon events (OrcCon, Gamex, and Gateway) for their tournaments. I used to play in a bunch of euro game tournaments, and often I'd win enough dealer dollars to head home with a brand new game.

By contrast, I normally skipped Gamex in favor of Kublacon for Memorial Day weekend. Kublacon had a much different feel for me. they had scheduled events, but they were mostly demos, not tournaments. Their prize vault didn't interest me as much - often not containing anything of interest to me. So I spent most of my time in the open gaming area, playing new hotness or playtesting my prototypes.

I used to track plays, and over a 4 day convention I would easily log 40 plays... in retrospect I'm not sure just how I managed to do that! Nowadays it seems like I spend more time looking for a game to play than I spend actually playing games.

Things have changed over time. I have met a lot of people, and now I seem to use these conventions as a way to hang out with those people. It's much more a social event for me now.

As well as, in some cases, a commercial event. Unlike 10 years ago, now I'm a published designer and I work for a publisher. I frequently run demos of new or upcoming TMG games. I've always had some prototype or other with me, but now I've got more of them at a time, and getting them tested is a lot more important. And now more than ever, designers frequently want me to play their prototypes in addition to my own.

Last weekend was a little unusual in a couple of ways. First off, I didn't play a lot of games. Over the course of the weekend I managed to get into the following:
* Hanabi Race (x2)
* Roll for the Galaxy (x2)
* Concordia (x2)
* Trajan
* Crusaders (x2 - I wasn't actually playing in either game)
* Eminent Domain: Exotica
* Brains, Grains, and Trains (a prototype by Mark Major)
* Oceanica (a prototype by Mark Major)
* Stones of Fate (new release from Luke Laurie)
* Fits (had to leave 1/2 way through to make my flight)

I guess that's 14 games, maybe not too shabby, but only half of what I used to play at these things. Missing were games of Notre Dame, Puerto Rico, and Stone Age, tournaments I used to do well in. Also missing were plays of Glory to Rome, Got It!, Time's Up, Train of Thought, and Werewolf (though to be honest, I've completely soured on Werewolf over the years). I didn't learn any of the new hotness, though it was nice to play Trajan again.

I also had prototypes that did not get to the table: Odysseus: Winds of Fate, and The Pony Express.

I still had a good time at the convention, but I've noticed that I don't play as much as I used to, and I miss that.

Friday, February 06, 2015

Game Design Attack #3 - debrief/report

Last weekend, 4 designers from California and 1 local joined me for Game Design Attack #3, another great weekend of design talk and playtesting. We got a lot done, and everyone got games to the table and seemed to have a really good time.

As these games are unpublished, I won't be able to say too much about them, but I'd like to sum up what went down at the event...

Tim Fowers got in a couple of plays of his upcoming cooperative game, which will be on Kickstarter before too long. It's very thematic, and I think people who like those Solitaire By Committee game will dig this one. We also brainstormed some card abilities and effects for Tim's hit deckbuilder, Paperback.

Ta-Te Wu had a few different quick games: a party style game, a team deduction game, and one I missed out on. He also had a larger 2p game about a sub vs a destroyer which seemed like a pretty cool idea, though it's not so far along yet.

Trey Aslup had his High School Horror Movie game again, which was a bit abstract, but seemed to work well. He also had a Resistance-style game which he's working on with Matthew O'Malley, who joined us last year fro GDA#2. That one didn't work very well, but Ta-Te made a suggestion which we tried out, and it worked a whole lot better!

Trey also described a quick, Love Letter type of game idea he had, and we all thought it sounded like it would work, so over the course of the weekend, he made some proof-of-concept cards and we gave it a try. It revealed some aspects that needed to be addressed, and I think Trey got some ideas to work with.

The other Californian, Rob, is more a developer, and is helping Tim with some of his projects - he didn't have any games of his own.

David Short joined us Thursday night and half of Friday. He was able to get a couple of his quick/micro games to the table, but neither of the larger games he had with him.

I managed to get 3 games to the table: Crusaders, Pony Express, and Dungeon of Fortune. Crusaders and Dungeon of Fortune might be too far along to get a lot of useful feedback from a designer meetup - many of the comments amount to "make another, different game." But I did get to try my new Build Bonus tiles for Crusaders, and I got some feedback on he game end trigger... the short version is that the Bonus tiles seem to be doing their job, the current/original game end trigger is probably fine, and I should increase the Level 4 building score. Most players wanted the Level 4 buildings to have abilities instead of scoring... I'll have to think about that. Tim had a neat idea to have the Farms confer additional cubes for your rondel, which is a cool idea thematically, but I was planning on that for an expansion.

I did get some good feedback on Pony Express though, that game is in a much earlier state, perfect for a design meetup.

I had hoped to get Odysseus: Winds of Fate to the table, or some discussion of Draft Fighter, a 2-player deck-learning fighting game I'm working on with Brad Talton. But alas, there's only so much time in the day! Maybe next time.

Pony Express - full playtest #6 (Game Design Attack #3)

I got Pony Express to the table Friday night at Game Design Attack #3. I watched and ran the game, as 5 designers sat down to give it a try. Unfortunately, in several ways this might have been the worst session of the game to date :(

After the Gamesmiths 5p game, I made a new board... I intentionally went overboard with routes, making a 3x4 grid of towns connected horizontally, vertically, and diagonally with routes. The base route costs for the horizontal and vertical routes is 2, and for the diagonal routes is 3, and each route has space for 1 Hazard (the diagonals actually share a hazard where they cross). I had been happy with the inflated route costs last time, so I figured they'd be OK here as well.

One player (Trey) keyed right in to the crux of the game, and he went right for the "bid 3" strategy, claiming parcels right away for $3, choosing towns along a single route to California. Other players weren't catching on as quickly, and some (especially David) were confused why Trey would make such plays, citing that he's only getting 3 points while giving his opponent 7.

I read a cool article online one time, many years ago, which talked about deal making in a multiplayer game. Unfortunately I cannot find the article, and I can't recall the author. As an example, the article used a hypothetical gem trading game, where each player had a supply of their own colored gems, and could trade them to opponents. Scoring was 1vp for each gem of an opponent you have (your own gems were worth nothing). In that example game, the article suggested that a player could trade away 2 of his own gems for 1 of an opponent's gems. Looking at a trade like that you might think it's a bad deal, you only get 1 vp while your opponent gets 2! However, the rest of the players get nothing. Also, suppose you made that same deal with each other opponent as well... in a 4 player game, each opponent would get 2 points, while you would score 3!

I think that philosophy applies here to an extent - you can accept only $3 from each opponent, giving them $7, and as long as you do it 3 times then you're making out ahead -- as far as the auction is concerned.

However, in Pony Express there's another factor... the cost of delivering. The idea is that the cost of delivering parcels is high enough that you can't really afford to just take everything for $3.

In this play, Trey was able to do very well with his "claim for $3" strategy in the first round. So well in fact that the other players decided to adopt the same strategy in later rounds. It got to the point that people were claiming the parcels before the auctioneer even started counting. Almost nothing went for more than $3. This is obviously a problem, as the entire auction broke down.

Oddly, this is the first time that's happened. In thinking about what contributed to it, I believe it's the following:
* 5 players is more susceptible to this dynamic than fewer players, because you can take more deliveries along the same route, thereby making more money even if taking things for $3.
* The new board layout allowed for just about ANY route to be viable, and at about the same cost. I suspect this is the major culprit.
* Too easy to get several deliveries on the same route, especially when you can get 2 parcels bound for the same town.

Players in this game all seemed to want a different auction mechanism, but I would like to see if I can bring the count-up auction back to a place where it works. I think I might be able to do that with the following ideas:
* I can increase the costs for some of the routes, making some of them more expensive -- maybe so expensive they're effectively not there anymore. I might also make a couple more "terrain" type Hazards to be put out in the first round - "Mountains" that cost 5 to cross for example.
* I can cut the deck down to just 1 parcel for each town (instead of 2), that way it's not possible to get 2 deliveries to the same town. The only reason I didn't do this before is that when there were 10 towns, there would not be enough deliveries to go around. Now that I've gone up to 12 towns, that's technically enough deliveries for 4 players, though not for 5 players. However, I have 2 possible solutions for that...
 -- I can add "Express Deliveries," which reward you for getting to the Post Office early. For example, "Collect $10 if you arrive at the Post Office first," or "Collect $8 if you are the 1st or 2nd rider to arrive at the Post Office."
 -- With the back-and-forth format of the board, players are already required to get to the opposite Post Office, so dealing out a parcel at random is less necessary. So maybe I only need 2 Parcels per player (plus 1) for each auction. On the down side, if I want to keep the Random Delivery item tile, I will still need a few more than 1 parcel per town will give me.

For the next playtest I plan to make the adjustments above for the next playtest, and as Orccon is coming up in 2 weeks, I had better hurry up and do that!

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Game Deign Attack #3: This weekend (1/29 - 2/1)

This weekend will mark the third installment of Game Design Attack -- a 3 day design meetup where 6-10 designers sequester themselves in a house and work on design problems and prototypes for a weekend.

Thursday afternoon, 4 designers from California will drive in and stay through Sunday afternoon to meet up with myself and a few local designers. I'm sure everyone will have something to bring to the table.

In previous installments of the event I was able to get in full playtests of Alter Ego, discussion of game ideas such as Scourge of the High Seas, and even design, protoype, and play a full game with Tim Fowers.

This year I've got my to latest projects: Crusaders: Thy Will Be Done and The Pony Express. I have some specific feedback I'm looking for in each of those...

Crusaders: Game end triggers and dynamics, and incentives to go to one hex over another, or to build one building over another in your current hex.

Pony Express: Number of towns/routes, and whether and how those routes can or should change throughout the delivery phase.

I've also got a not-ready partial prototype of a 2 player deck-learning fighting game (code name Draft Fighter) that I am theoretically designing with Brad Talton of Level 99 Games. I hope to get in some discussion of that, although really I just need to sit down and pound out some cards and give it a try.

And who knows, maybe I'll revive Alter Ego again!

Oh, and I've got a "new and improved" version (and prototype) of Odysseus: Winds of Fate that has been just sitting there waiting to be played ever since I updated it in December. Maybe I can get that to the table.

Looking forward to this weekend!

The League Of Gamemakers

I know some people in California who have banded together to form a superhero team... well, it's like a team of superheroes, if you remove the heroics and replace it with thoughts of game design...

The League of Gamemakers is made up of a number of aspiring and professional game designers -- some well known in the industry, and some up-and-coming.  They post regularly in their blog, covering all kinds of topics including design, mechanics, gaming, technical processes, publishing, Kickstarter, features and general musings.

I was recently invited to join their merry band, and have accepted the invitation... already 2 of my posts have gone live on their website:
“You’re Playing Wrong!” – Good play experience and the designer’s responsibility
My first article for the League was about the designer's responsibility to make sure a player cannot screw up so badly that they're not just losing, but effectively disallowed to continue playing the game. In the comments it seemed like some people thought I was advocating some kind of strategic hand-holding, or catch-up mechanisms to ensure all players maintained a chance to win the game... but that's not what I meant at all. Bad play should absolutely lead to a loss. However, I maintain that it's the designer's job to make sure players are able to enjoy the game, even if they lose.

Balancing Game Elements

My second post is actually just a re-posting of my Balancing Game Elements post from a year ago. That post has been referenced a few times recently, so I thought I'd re-publish it in that forum.

I've got one more post written, sort of a follow up to that first one, looking at ways to go about ensuring a losing player can still enjoy a game. I'm not sure when that will be published, but it probably won't be too long.

I've got a few other posts in mind, and a few from this blog I'll probably re-up over there. So if you like reading my ramblings, feel free to check out the League and follow me over there.

Never fear, I'll still be posting here about my own game designs (such as Crusaders and Pony Express), and things like my Game Design Attack -- the third installment of which happens to be coming up this weekend!

See you around!

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Exotica is underway, and how about this new Start planet?

Over the last few months, artist Eric J. Carter has been cranking on Tech Card illustrations for Eminent Domain: Exotica, and I'm loving the images he's been coming up with. You can see some of them on his facebook page, and I'll share one of my favorites here:

This illustration is for a tech card called Space Station, which is a permanent tech you could get that acts like a copy of any Asteroid in play.

Speaking of Asteroids, I was looking at the number of components that will be in Exotica. Based on the size of the box and punchboard, there will be 8 tiles in the game. 5 of those will be mining tiles, and the rest can be Start planets. I had 2 Exotic start planets, and I had also come up with a couple of promo-style Start planets (a Utopian planet and a Prestige planet). Having 1 slot left for a Start planet, I was going to just use one of those promo style planets. but the other day I had a better idea...

Exotica is all about 2 things: Exotic planets (with civilized aliens), and Asteroids. I had Exotic Start planets... why not try an Asteroid start planet? That could be interesting, but what does it mean exactly?

Well, Asteroids are kinda like low-value prestige planets in that they don't count toward technology pre-req's. So I could make an Asteroid start planet, it could cost 2/2 like all the standard Start planets, and it could have a Crystal resource slot (Crystal is a new resource that can be found on Asteroids and Exotic planets). But a standard Start planet would count toward one of the tech stacks, so an Asteroid Start planet would be at a bit of a disadvantage... the same was true for the prestige Start planets in Escalation. For the Prestige planets I added Role icons -- what could be added to an Asteroid start planet?

The solution presented itself fairly quickly: "Ignore planet requirements on Asteroidal technology."

The whole point of Asteroids, and the thing that makes them different than Prestige planets, is that they count as "Asteroids." There are a couple of cards in each tech stack with the word "Asteroidal" in the title, and they get better the more Asteroids you have in your empire. So it makes sense to me, both thematically and mechanically, that starting with an Asteroid as a Start Planet that you could access those technologies.

I'm getting excited about this one again, as graphic designer Ariel Seoane got to work this week on putting the package together. If you're interested in where the game is out, or want to give the Print & Play files a try, check out this forum on BGG.

Pony Express - full playtest #5

Last night at out local Gamesmiths meetup I managed to get Pony Express to the able for the 5th time, this time with 5 players. As yet I haven't played with that many. Since playtest #4 I added town #6 to the board, and I inflated the route costs (2's became 3's and 1's became 2's) .

One thing I'll say is that with 5 players, the game took a LONG time. I'm fairly certain that's a product of the number of players - not some fatal flaw. However I'd really  like this game to clock in at about an hour, not the 100+ minutes it took us last night.

As for the changes, I think I liked the inflated route costs. They seemed to do the job they were meant to do in that they differentiated the amount of money players were paying to travel. I had hoped that it would also mean that when a count up auction gets up to 8 or 9, there's a realistic chance the Auctioneer will actually get stuck with the parcel for $10. So far when the auction gets that high, it's worth just about anybody's time to claim the delivery. In fact, in last night's game Matthew proclaimed "Nine dollars? I'll FIND a way to do it for $9."

After last night's playtest, I'm pretty sure I need more towns, and more routes. The game worked alright, but with the new board there just aren't that many distinct paths from one post office to the other, and it was suggested that more routes would lead to more possible paths, and therefore better route planning.

On that note, it was also suggested that there ought to be more instances of the routes changing DURING the delivery phase. The Shotgun and Guide sort of do this, but for the most part once the hazards have been drawn, you know your route, and it's just a matter of waiting for your turn to take the next step on it.

I feel like there are 2 ways to address that...
1) View the delivery phase as simply a resolution of the route building done in the Auction phase. In this case the fancy turn order mechanism from Thebes/Glen More/Olympos is probably inappropriate and should be cut. I'm not entirely sure how to resolve the routes, but in this case it should be quick and simple.

2) Keep the turn order mechanism, which I like, and somehow make it matter more - find a way to make the routes change during the delivery phase so players need to reconsider their path choices turn-to-turn.

Of the two options, I prefer the 2nd one, because I really do like that turn mechanism, and I think it works well here. I'd also like the game to be about more than just the count-up auction.

I think for my next playetest I'm going to try going overboard the other way and just see how it feels - I'll mock up a new board with 12 cities in a 3x4 grid, horizontal and vertical routes at 2 cost, diagonal routes at 3 cost, and at most 1 hazard per route instead of 2 (to keep clutter down). I think

But how to make routes change in cost over the course of the delivery phase? Maybe a "Mystery" hazard where as soon as a player crosses it, it gets replaced by a new draw? I wouldn't want too many of those, as I want players to be able to plan.

Maybe more random package deliveries like I have?

Maybe just more shotguns and bears?

Maybe the Maps should act as shortcuts to that town from wherever?
John Lonacker mentioned weather effects, which got me thinking of possible ways to add those in...

For example, towns could have 2 states - good weather / bad weather - and some way to toggle back and forth between them. There could be Rain (raindrop icon) and Snow (snowflake), each adding 1 to the route cost of any route to that town... and there could be items to help with each (Stetson lets you ignore Rain, Poncho lets you ignore Snow). But how to trigger that toggle?

I'm open to ideas... leave a comment if anything strikes you!

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Pony Express - full playtest #4

I've posted previously about full playtests #1, #2, and #3 of The Pony Express, and how I'm using it for my "Gil Hov 4p challenge" game. After my last test, outside of the few tweaks I listed (change Guide, changed Compass, replaced one Spur with a New Delivery), the main thing I needed to do was re-design the board.

Yesterday I got together with Dan Keltner to talk design stuff, and one of the things we did was look at the board. Dan fired up Inkscape and helped me whip up a new map, with one Post Office in Missouri and another in California. Here's a schematic of the new board...

 I managed a playtest with the new board today. Here's how it went:

In an effort to make a 2-endpoint board that resembled the previous one, I just sort of picked the original Post Office and town #6 and stretched them out... and I added 1 route because it looked pretty bare.
I realized later that I had inadvertently REMOVED town #6, turning it into a post office... I should have instead ADDED a post office. I was able to play around that, but I think I want to keep at least 10 towns, if not increase to maybe 12. I think 10 towns might be enough.
I guess if the CA Post Office in the map above were replaced with Town #6, and a new CA Post Office were added to the left of that, with a 1-cost route to town #7, a 1-cost route to Town #6, and a 2-cost Route to Town #5, that would probably work. If another route were added from #6 to #2, then the board would be sort of symmetric, but I think it might be better if it's not symmetric.

I'm still thinking of inflating all the base route costs to 2 and 3, instead of 1 and 2, to make the item bonuses mean more... and new I'm actually leaning toward that. It seems like too often currently players are reducing the cost to 0, and having to pay 1 anyway. I think it would be better if the items helped you approach that, but didn't reach it as often.
I'd like to label the routes (near the route costs, I guess) with small letters (a, b, c, ...) so that they can be referenced, and also to imply an order for putting down hazard tiles. If you just go in alphabetical order then there's no question whether you've added one to each route or not (did I miss one? Did I add 2 to this one?)
Ideally, each route would have an obvious graphical space for the (1" square) hazard tiles (like the dashed squares here on either side of the route cost), and each town would have an obvious graphical space for the (1" square) item tiles. Of course, a town could have as many as 4 items (starts with 2, gets 1 more at the end of rounds 1 and 2), and I'm not sure there's space for that many at each town - maybe a large-ish space near each town that "items" are stashed in would be good, without being specific as to how many?

So I have some tweaks to make, and I think a friend might help me create a more attractive version of this board. I'll be sure to report back the next time I play :)