Wednesday, May 16, 2018

"Gamegineering" and the role of the game developer

More and more lately I've heard people talk about the role of a developer in boardgames. The idea has certainly existed for many years, and every game on the shelf has undoubtedly gone through some level of development, but only recently has the role of board game developer been recognized in the industry.

When Dominion was coming out in 2008 was the first time I noticed game developers being named. It was about that time I was realizing that, while I enjoyed designing games, my real strength was in game development. So I guess it was good news the role was beginning to be highlighted in the industry!

A decade later, very little progress has been made with respect to recognition for developers. I think there are more of them nowadays, and if you check the back page of your favorite games' rulebooks, you can probably find out who they are. But I don't think many consumers have any idea...

People frequently look out for new games by their favorite designers, and these games often come from different publishers. Which means they're often worked on by different developers. Depending on how much work each developer puts into each game, "shopping by designer" may end up being a misleading metric to find a game you like.

People also frequently look out for new games by their favorite publisher. And it might be the case that most or all of those games were worked on by the same developer (either in-house, or perhaps 3rd party). For a small publishing company, the publishers themselves may be the ones doing the development. So in some cases, if you enjoy many games from a particular publisher, it might be the case that what's drawing you to those games is that publisher's development skills. Or it might be that publisher's judgement when choosing which games to publish.

This kind of thing is difficult to even talk about, because the role of the developer is so inconsistent from publisher to publisher, and from game to game. Even from developer to developer! Very recently I've seen a number of prominent people in the design community taking on developer roles, either freelance, or for a particular company. And more power to them! Sometimes I'll listen to a podcast interview, and I'll hear the role of the developer defined, and it makes me cringe a little bit because what they describe, to me, sounds more like an insightful playtester than what I consider a developer.

Maybe I've been putting too much work into games I develop, but to me the role of the developer isn't just to "make suggestions that are in line with the designer's vision for the game." The developer's job is to bring out the full potential of a game. I don't feel like I can do a proper job as a developer without taking the game under my wing, so to speak, and treating it as my own. I don't propose changes, I make those changes, try them out, and then explain why they did or didn't work. When a mechanism is just not working right, sometimes I re-design that mechanism from the ground up to accomplish what I think the designer was going for with it. Like I said, perhaps I've been putting more work in than necessary, but I'm not so sure.

I had hoped that, over time, players who found themselves liking the big box TMG titles would start to see a pattern. No matter who's name is on the front of the box, they'd see the green dragon logo, and hopefully they'd see "developed by Seth Jaffee" on the box back. But 10 years in, that doesn't seem to have happened. Maybe they see the dragon logo, but an innocuous mention in the rulebook or box back does not seem to have put my name into the minds of the end user.

One thought I've had, and that I might one day make good on, is to create a logo for myself:

Not final. I'd prefer if the typed "SETH JAFFEE" were taken out from beneath the signature, and put in the circle in lieu of "BOARD GAME"

Maybe adding that logo to games I have a big hand in would lead to a higher level of recognition. I like the composition of that logo, because it looks like a professional's seal, like my engineer's stamp. This communicates that the game literally has the seal of approval from a professional game developer!

But there's another aspect of "developer" that I think may be lacking: the word itself. I’m considering proposing a new term, because “developer” carries so much baggage, and so many different meanings to different people. In the video game world, it’s synonymous to both “designer” and also “programmer,” which doesn’t help matters. Even in tabletop gaming, it’s been used to mean everything from “insightful playtester” to “product manager” to “uncredited codesigner.” Depending on how thorough a job the designer does in the first place, there may be more or less work required of a developer. That doesn’t help matters either.

On many of the TMG big box games, my efforts have been closer to a co-designer than an insightful playtester. For that role, I’ve been tossing around the term “Gamegineer.”

What do you think? Do we need terminology to differentiate various levels of "developer?" And if so, how do you like "gamegineer," on the end of the spectrum closer to "co-designer" then "insightful playtester?"

Monday, May 14, 2018

The List -- more thorough this time

Ever forward flows the sands of time, and as such, a look at The List is long overdue... Time to once again take stock of my published games, as well as current and back-burnered designs and prototypes... this time a more thorough list:

Published Games:
Terra Prime (BGG)
Eminent Domain (BGG)
Eminent Domain: Escalation (BGG) (expansion)
Eminent Domain: Exotica (BGG) (expansion)
Eminent Domain: Microcosm (BGG)
Isle of Trains (BGG)
Eminent Domain: Oblivion (expansion)
Crusaders: Thy Will Be Done (BGG)
Dungeon Roll: Winter Heroes (BGG)
- Gold West: Bandits promo (BGG)
- Gold West: Trading Post promo (BGG)
- Yokohama: Achievements & Free Agents promo (BGG)
- Brainfreeze

Finished But Unpublished Games:
Exhibit (BGG)
Eminent Domain: Chaos Theory (dice game)
Dice Works (BGG)
Wizard's Tower (BGG)
Now Boarding
Isle of Trains: All Aboard (expansion)
Suburban Sprawl
- Watch It Played

Current Active Designs:
Deities and Demigods
- Crusaders expansion
- Eminent Domain Origins

Recent Designs That Are Not On The Front Burner:
Alter Ego (BGG)
The Pony Express
Moctezuma's Revenge
Joan of Arc

Old Standbys - games which have been around, 1/2 done and untouched, for years:
8/7 Central
Hot & Fresh
Reading Railroad
All For One (BGG)
Odysseus: Winds of Fate (BGG)

Old Ideas that Haven't Gone Anywhere (Yet) - some of these have been getting stale as well:
Investigative/Tabloid Journalism
Red Colony
Clash of the Kingpins
Time = Money
Dating Game
Ticket Please
Scourge of the High Seas
Rondel Role Selection
- "Worker learning" adventure game
- Cruise line game
- The Untouchables
- Day labor job based on craps

Misc and Really Old Stuff:
- Blockade Runner
- Roman Emperors (my version of someone else's game)
- Admirals of the Spanish Main (my version of someone else's game)

Let's take a closer look at some of these:

Published games:
Crusaders: Thy Will Be Done (BGG)
Deluxe and retail versions of Crusaders are being manufactured as I type this. Estimated delivery is this summer (June or July, 2018), though I wouldn't be surprised if it turned out to be a little late.
- Promos (Dungeon Roll, Gold West, Yokohama)
I added some promos to TMG games that I designed and that are now out there in the world. I did not design the original games, but I did create those promos.

Finished But Unpublished Games:
Exhibit (BGG link)
No change here. I'm still disappointed in the status of Exhibit. A European publisher was very interested, but a difference of opinion on whether a certain person's IP rights were infringed caused it to be canceled altogether. I checked with an IP lawyer to ensure that my understanding was correct, which it was, but I don't blame the publisher for not wanting to get into the middle of it. The whole thing left a sour taste in my mouth. It's too bad, because the game is good.
Now Boarding
I worked on this with Tim Fowers, who's since published several games via kickstarter: his co-op game Burgle Brothers, his 2 player deduction game Fugitive, Paperback, and Hardback. He took Now Boarding in another direction, finished his version, and I'm currently awaiting my kickstarter copy. I don't expect I'll do anything with my old version.
Suburban Sprawl
My entry to the DHMG/GTG dexterity game contest also fits their previous contest, using only about 56 cards. In Suburban Sprawl you toss cards into play to build Residential, Commercial, Industrial, and Civic buildings. I'm going for a light, quick game with a sort of SimCity feel that's easy to learn and play. Matthew Dunstan helped with this one, but it did not win the contest. Maybe it'll see the light of day some day, but I haven't tried to pitch it to anyone yet. I was thinking maybe TMG could set it in the Flip City universe, with similar artwork, but I'm afraid that perhaps a dexterity game might not go over too well with our audience.
Isle of Trains: All Aboard (expansion)
Dan Keltner and I created an expansion to Isle of Trains for Dice Hate Me/Greater Than Games to follow up our contest winning entry. We submitted the final game to them quote some time ago (December 2015 I think), and they kept planning a Kickstarter, then delaying it for various reasons. However, Chris Kirkman assures me that they're still excited about it, they've started getting art done for it, and that it will likely go up on Kickstarter in 2018. I'm still waiting to see if that occurs :)

Current Active Designs:
Deities and Demigods
Another attempt at Deck Learning, Deities and Demigods is like a role selection game, but the game calls the roles, and in random order. Players will have some control over which roles are in the deck, and can upgrade their efficiency at each role. The effects of the roles will allow players to move armies around a map in an effort to complete quests/tasks and control cities.

I put a lot of work into this one, and I think it's close to done. I had added a bunch of player powers to try out, and I did a little of that, but I think there's a balance issue with one of the roles (Hephaestus is too big of a deal), so I stopped testing player powers until I fix that. Unfortunately, I haven't played it since September 2017. I do not think co-designer Matthew Dunstan has either (or if he has, I haven't heard about it!)

A new idea that I quickly made a prototype for and I've tested a few times so far. The idea is that you work in a factory making robots, so you make robots to work the assembly line for you. But why stop there? With an army of robots behind you, you could take over the factory, the city, or even the world! It's a worker placement game where you get and exchange resources in order to build more robots from blueprint cards. Each blueprint has a specific cost, a strength, and an ability, but any blueprint can be built out of scrap to just be a simple robot with no ability. So far it seems to have potential, but it still feels like an early design.

Recent Designs That Are Not On The Front Burner:
Alter Ego (BGG link)
Mike's always been a fan of this one. Alter Ego finally shaped up a while ago, but I just haven't been playing it, so it hasn't finished up. I had hope that with a little TMG Utah input and some nice art, this could potentially be ready for a GenCon 2016 release, but that never came to pass. I need to get this one back on the front burner and finish it up!
Moctezuma's Revenge
This one ALMOST returned from the dead, as John Gilmour started to work on it with me, but that was short lived, as he had something come up and couldn't devote the time to that project anymore. Still, revisiting the game brought some improvements to it, so some progress was made. I don't know if or when I'll revisit it again though.
I had an idea to do a follow up game to Orleans about Joan of Arc, co-brand it and put it out as a TMG/DLP partnership. I have made some good progress so far, but I still have a lot of work to do on it. In the game, players are each a different saint, giving visions to Joan of Arc. That is to say all players control a single Joan of Arc figure on the game board. You'll move her around, train her in different weapons, and have her win battles for points or in-game benefits. The action is driven by a bag building mechanism, where you draw tiles out of your bag and place them on your player board, then activate certain subsets of them. Unfortunately, I got really busy with other games, and this one slipped to the back burner.

Old Standbys - games which have been around, 1/2 done and untouched, for years:
Odysseus: Winds of Fate (BGG)
I keep circling and iterating on this one. I need to implement the most recent change ideas and try it again. This is basically the story of this game's life... so I've moved it to the "Old Standbys" section.

Misc and Really Old Stuff:
In an attempt to capture the feel of 9-ball, in this game you play cards from your hand or from a face up pool to represent making a shot. You keep playing cards until you decide you're done, or until you play a [BALL -> POCKET] card, sinking a ball in a pocket. If your shot both began by hitting the Object Ball and ended with sinking a ball, then you may begin another shot by playing another card. Otherwise, you refill your hand and it's your opponents turn. The player who sinks the 9 Ball wins the round.
Blockade Runner
Originally designed for a card game design contest (never entered), then co-developed with another designer, this game was intended to be published at one point but that fell through. Then later it was intended to be published by another publisher, and I sold my rights to it in order to facilitate that. The game never did come out, which means I believe any rights I signed away have reverted back to me, but I'm not sure what good that does me. This quick game of bluffing and double think is destined to live on the shelf.
- Roman Emperors (my version of someone else's game)
BGDF member Juan Carballal had a game I found very interesting in which players take turns running the Roman Empire. It's not a cooperative game, you want your stint as Emperor to be remembered as the greatest time in Roman history - but since players take turns controlling the Empire, the resources are largely shared. I think the game has a ton of potential, but I don't think the designer and I were seeing eye-to-eye on some of the specifics of how it should work. I'm also not sure what the designer did (if anything) with it since I saw it. I think it would be fun to one day take a stab at making "my version" of that game.
- Admirals of the Spanish Main (my version of someone else's game)
Another game by Juan. we were trying to make a "dice building" game which did a better job than Quarriors, and he came up with a game about hunting pirates in the Spanish Main. It was a good start to what I was looking for, but it was too random, and my friend Andy Van Zandt and I worked on trying to mold it into what I was really looking for... in the end though, many playtesters said that if they're playing a pirate game, they want to BE the pirates, not hunt them, so we eventually gave up on it. I think the game had some good things going for it, but for whatever reason it just wasn't all the way there.

Monday, May 07, 2018

Quick Crusaders expansion idea so I don't forget!

Last week I tested a first draft of the new Influence action, and while it could use some tweaks, it worked alright.

The other day I thought of something I could add as a reward on the Influence tiles other than simply 1-shot and permanent icons...

What if you could, upon taking an influence tile, immediately distribute one of the other bins on your action wheel?

Timing-wise, I always say that you resolve the action, THEN distribute the action markers. I realize that players frequently do this in the wrong order, distributing first, then resolving the action. I even catch myself doing that sometimes. This idea could be prone to error if players insist on distributing cubes before resolving the action, but maybe this rule will encourage them not to do that, and it shouldn't be too hard to fix if someone does that.

You see, because if you do an influence action that earns the right to distribute a bin, that could put tokens into the current bin, which would further be distributed at the end of your turn. So if you distribute, THEN take the tile (allowing you to distribute some more), you could en up with some cubes in the wrong place.

Realistically it would probably be just 1 cube, and the error might not even be in your favor very often, so maybe I shouldn't care about people who do it wrong.

Anyway, I think this is a neat ability, and I could also add it to some of the expansion buildings -- like maybe all the vaults (the ones that give an upgrade), and the level 3 keep and chapel.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Crusaders - expansion thoughts

Spurred by a request from Michael, who's eyes got a little big at the sight of Pandasaurus' Dinosaur Island expansion kickstarter funding, I have started thinking about expansion content for Crusaders, in case it goes over well upon release.

My first thought was that (a), the game isn't even out yet, and (b) for many reasons, a kickstarter for a Crusaders expansion won't bring in any 2 million dollars... but Michael had a good point that waiting until the game comes out to work on an expansion just means it'll be longer before one comes out... and it would be better to "strike while the iron is hot," so to speak.

So now that I (finally) have declared Old West Empresario (a sequel to Pioneer Days, by a different designer) development to be DONE, I brought my trusty old Crusaders prototype to playtest day. One Two of my testers have played it, but not recently (one of them hadn't played since I was struggling to fix the Wave of Destruction endgame scoring!). Another had never even heard of the game. So a couple of weeks ago I taught them the game anew, just to get them familiar with it, so we could start thinking about expansion content.

Last week, I (finally) made prototype pieces for the only expansion idea I've had so far -- new buildings that can only be built where other players have already built something. I wasn't sure how well these would work, their goal was to add some more interaction (whenever you build, you open a building opportunity for an opponent), as well as some more choices in build paths.

NOTE: If you read the linked post, I had called the building that builds on Churches "Monasteries," but I will be referring to them as "Chapels" instead. Also, I swapped the Marketplace to be the one built on a Farm, not a Bank.

The first game (3 player) we played with them, they didn't seem particularly interesting. For one thing, I didn't like the idea of getting rondel control as you built buildings, so I just left off buildings that you build over Banks altogether, and only used 3 new building types. It didn't help that several players built a lot of Banks, so not many new building opportunities ere opened up. So we didn't really see the new stuff in play very much.

For the second game, a 4th player had arrived, which I figured might lead to more buildings in play, and therefore more building opportunities. Also, we decided it might not be so bad to be able to build the expansion buildings over your own buildings -- that way if you want a Keep, and nobody builds a Castle, you can still build a Keep... You just need to build your own Castle first. So we allowed that. Sure enough, with the ability to overbuild your own buildings, and the extra buildings in play from a 4th player, the new buildings saw a lot more action!

I was worried that if you could simply overbuild your own buildings, that players would simply move-build-build, move-crusade-build-build, and the game wound't be any more interactive than it was before. However, I was happy to note that only about 50% of the new buildings were built on players' own buildings, and the other 50% were built on opponents' buildings. That was pretty cool.

One more tweak we made was this: We felt like, in case of emergency, you ought to be able to build an expansion building even if nobody had built the pre-requisite building yet. To facilitate this, we said you could build the expansion buildings at cost+3 if the appropriate building was not present. After trying that, I felt like +2 would be enough. The final wording will probably be something like this:

Original buildings cannot be built where there is an enemy or a building (from the original rules).
Expansion buildings can be built for [cost] where there are no buildings, or for [discounted cost] if the appropriate building has been built in that hex already (by any player).

I'll show both costs in the upper right corner like this:

[cost +2]
[building: cost]

The Keeps (the ones that give you an upgrade) seemed a little weak. You can get an upgrade any turn you want, and you don't have to afford a building to do it. Building a Keep gave you the upgrade AND a couple of points, but it did seem a little unattractive, so we decided to try upping the point values on that one by +2. This way, if you build a Keep, you get an upgrade, and 3/4/5/6 points (instead of just 1/2/3/4). This also helps the fact that the level IV Keep (1vp per upgrade) maxes out at 6, while the original level IV buildings max out at 8 or higher, and the Church scores 6 points with no work needed.

The Chapels (the ones that give you extra cubes for your action wheel) were pretty cool. I had worried that ability would be super strong, so I made the first one give no effect, while the next two give you a cube. After playing, we didn't think it would be too strong to have a cube on the level I Chapel as well, so we tried adding that. The level 4 Chapel (1vp per wedge with 2+ cubes) also only maxes out at 6 points, and might be really hard to actually max out, so I might raise the VP value of that one by a coupe of points. Or, if the cubes do turn out to be strong, maybe it's ok for that one to score fewer end game points.

We played a 3rd game with those tweaks, and it worked out pretty well! After the game we talked about options for the 4th new building type, because I'd like there to be a new building for each of the original ones. Dave suggested adding powers, similar to my original rondel control, but more like some of the player powers I'd tried (like "you can build two buildings per action"), but I think that's a little too crazy - I'd rather have something you can show with icons. We tossed around other ideas:

* "+Travel"
I thought about how to reward someone who has built up a lot of travel... Dave suggested it might be cute to reward being close to Paris at the end with your Knights (like 2 points per Knight adjacent to Paris), because you generally end the game on the side of the board, and if you had a ton of Travel you could race back.

*  "+Troop"
This would theoretically reward having a lot of troops, but the Farm already does that. but then again, you could build these INSTEAD of Farms, so maybe that's OK. And if you try really hard, maybe you could build all of these AND all your Farms, and score really well off of your Troops. But I didn't want it to score in the exact same way as the Farm, so I thought maybe "score VP according to your biggest troop" might work. I'll probably try that, although it too maxes out at 5vp... maybe I could add some VP to the building to compensate for that.

Before this weeks session I plan to update my prototype again, making all the changes I've been talking about:
* Swapping the Castle effect (+Upgrade) to the building that's built over a Bank (I need a name for that one),
* Upping the VPs on the +Upgrade buildings by 2 each
* Trying the [+Troop/+Troop/+Troop/VP based on biggest Troop] effect for the Keep.
* Listing both costs for the expansion buildings
* maybe upping the VPs on the L4 Keep and Chapels

In addition, I have another idea for expansion content! this one is based on a suggestion that League of Gamemakers member Luke Laurie made, but I had decided not to pursue for the base game. I could replace the Influence action... instead of just collecting points, there could be a token on all (or most?) hexes indicating a number (cost to influence the hex), and an icon. When doing an influence action, you need enough cubes to cover the cost of the hex. When you do it, you take the token and put your player marker (a crest or coat-of-arms) on the hex to show that you have influence over that hex. The cheap tokens (3-4 cost) would have a 1-shot icon that you could discard for a +1 in that action on a future turn. The more expensive ones (5-6 cost) could have a permanent icon for one of the actions that you can use for the rest of the game.

Also, you could travel out of a hex that you have influence over for -1 cost (so influencing hexes helps you move around the board), and there could be a majority bonus at the end of the game for most influenced hexes, just like there is for most of each enemy defeated.

I like the sound of this, but I don't necessarily like the sound of losing the "just gain vps" aspect of the influence action, so I might make it so that you can still do that, OR you can influence a hex.

Finally, I'll want to come up with a few (maybe 4) new faction abilities to add to the game. I have nothing yet for those, the factions that didn't make the cut for the original game are pretty bad. it would be good to come up with a few that interact with the new aspects of the expansion (this new influence thing, or the expansion buildings) somehow. That'll take some more thought, and will have to wait another couple of weeks I think.

I'm excited to be working on a Crusaders expansion!

Saturday, March 17, 2018

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

The Beginning of the End

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

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

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

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

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

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

Game End Dynamics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Immediate End

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finish Current Turn 

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

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

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

Finish Current Round 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Lap 

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

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

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

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

Set Number Of Turns 

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

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

One More Turn For Other Players 

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

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

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

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

One More Turn For All Players 

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

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

Monday, February 12, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

v2.0 By Seth Jaffee 2/12/18


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

You are ready to begin!

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Choose a landscape region to trade from.

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

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

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

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

Game End:

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

Monday, January 29, 2018

Getting into the game

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

Complicated rules vs a complicated game

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

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

The more you know...

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

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

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

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

Getting into the game

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

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

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

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

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

Easing players into the game

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

The question is... how?

Post script: Reviving old games

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

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