Friday, September 27, 2019

Alter Ego progress

Alter Ego has been around forever, and it's about time I finished it up! In order to light a fire under myself to get it done, I actually hired an artist and graphic designer to start working on it...

So last week I brought Alter Ego out again with my playtest group. Looks like it's been about 2 years since it hit the table! I think the overall structure of the game is solid, but there are still a lot of details I think need work. Here's some stuff that's happened just in the last 2 playtest sessions:

Deck Size

I have always used a starting deck size of 12 cards -- 4 each of Job, Family, and Support cards. Actually, since I added "character" cards (each with a unique fight icon and a specific starting deck configuration), the decks started with 13 cards. The game takes about 5 rounds to play... I could lengthen it, but I think it would drag a bit. However, this means that you only add 5 cards to your deck, which isn't very many for a deck learning mechanism...

I don't have much in the way of deck thinning in this game. There are a couple of equipment cards that do it, but mostly I had decided that instead of thinning your deck, players could focus on Family, thereby drawing a ton of cards instead. This is equivalent in some way to deck thinning, and it means that if you want a "thinner" deck, then you have to focus on Family. If you focus on other things and neglect Family, then you will suffer from deck bloat.

I think I chose 4 of each card (plus or minus) so that you could reasonably have 3 of them at a time. If you play 1 Family card, you avoid a penalty and draw +2 cards next turn. If you play 2, then you draw +4 cards. But if you commit 3 of your 5 cards to Family in one turn, then you draw + cards AND you get a Teamwork token, which is valuable.

Similarly, if you play 1 Community card, you avoid a penalty and draw 1 extra henchman to choose from. 2 is a little stronger (draw +2 henchmen to choose from). 3 Community cards means you draw + 3 henchmen to choose from AND you get to call the police on one of the henchmen in play.

Job cards are a little different in that you gain $ tokens, which you don't have to discard. Playing 3 at once doesn't do anything too special, but most of the equipment costs about 3 to obtain.

Anyway, because of all that, I wanted to make sure players had enough cards to invoke those more powerful plays if they wanted to. However, I might try reducing the starting decks to 3 of each (10 cards if you include the character). Then if the game lasts 5 rounds, then at least a larger portion of your deck will be changed. Also, with the changes below, it's possible I could add a few rounds to the game, further impacting the amount your deck changes over the course of the game.

Villain Format

Since the games inception, the Arch Villains would sit there, out of play, until one (or more) of them were triggered to enter play. Part of the point of the game was to make sure the "right" one came into play, the one you'd have an easier time beating based on the cards you'd taken into your deck throughout the game.

Last week I tried a slightly different format, which I think has a lot of good things going for it. Instead of being "out of play," the three Arch Villains could be in play the whole time. When henchmen come into play, they are placed in front of their affiliated villain, in a way protecting them. During the game, you can't attack an Arch Villain if there are henchmen in front of them. Theoretically, this could lead to more interesting decisions about which henchmen to defeat (you want to save certain colored civilians so you don't lose, you might want particular trophies, you might want to defeat what you can afford to defeat, and you might want to "dig" toward one of the Villains in particular). This way you could also have to face decisions mid-game such as "do we defeat this henchman over here, or do we hit that villain while we have the chance, since he has no henchmen in front of him?"

This format seemed to work, though it'll require some tweaks and changes to fully implement. I think it feels more like a real game this way. It might mean cutting the few henchmen that are affiliated with multiple different villains, and I'll have to decide if unaffiliated henchmen are in front of no villain, or all villains.

Turn Structure

It had come up before, more than once, that the turn structure was not intuitive. I have considered changing it, maybe even tried changing it once, but never liked the results. After playing a couple games with my regular testers, I finally conceded that the turn sequence needed to be different. What I had was this...
1. Income phase: collect $ based on what you have in play
2. Support phase: draw cards based on what you have in play (now you have cards in play, a hand of cards, a draw pile, and a discard pile)
3. Patrol phase: draw henchmen based on what you have in play
4. Fight phase: spend icons in play to defeat henchmen. Once in a while you maybe have a card you can play from your hand, but mostly you have a hand at this point to help decide what to do this turn based on what you could maybe do next turn.
5. Recoup phase: discard everything in play, play new cards from hand to use next turn, then discard hand.

The long and short of this was that players were having several problems:
* Confusion between the hand, draw pile, discard pile, and display
* Planning the turn, then having to re-plan the turn once new henchmen were revealed (in the patrol phase, right before fighting)
* Confusion between cards in play that they could use this turn, and cards in hand that they can't use until next turn

There had been suggestions of putting the Support phase right before Recoup, so you draw cards right before using them. I think I even tried this once, but it didn't really solve the problems, and I didn't like it.

I have finally decided to re-organize the turn to actually address those problems. The new sequence is:
1. Support phase: draw cards and play some of them into your display
2. Income phase: collect everything you collect ($, teamwork tokens, penalty tokens)
3. Fight phase: use icons in play to defeat henchmen currently in play
4. Patrol phase: NOW bring new henchmen into play
5. Recoup phase: note how many cards you're supposed to draw, then discard EVERYTHING, hand and display.

So now you still technically have a hand, display, draw pile, and discard pile, but you don't access them at weird times. You draw cards ant the beginning of the turn, use them during the turn, and then discard them at the end of the turn.

Putting Patrol after Fight means you only have to plan each turn once. This is not only less confusing, but it speeds things up quite a bit, and makes a lot of sense. It also approximates other cooperative games in which players get a turn, then the AI they're fighting against gets a turn.

So we tried that a couple of times, and it definitely seemed smoother. I personally sort of missed the ability to know what you would be able to do next turn, but I also didn't have a problem with the old turn sequence. Other players weren't using the info about next turn, and were getting confused, so the obvious right thing to do seems to be reorganizing the turn like this. Also, while you don't know exactly what you'll be able to do next turn, you DO know the general contents of your deck, so you should know what's likely or possible.

On the down side, this new structure introduced a new issue. Now you plan out the turn at the beginning, and then you resolve it. As nothing changes between when you play your cards and you resolve them, there was something a little off about the very end of the game. When you could win, you would know it during the planning stage, and that felt bad somehow. You're sitting there figuring out your turn, making your plans, etc, and one of the other players just says "GG guys, we win this turn." So anti-climactic.

Sure, at SOME point in every game there will be an instant when you've realized you will win. But that should really be you're resolving the action, not when you're planning it. What really ought to happen is that you play the cards, then something happens such that you don't know for sure whether you'll win or not. In the old format, you'd plan your turn, maybe see that you can win this turn, then you had to add new henchmen which might lose you the game before you resolve the fight phase. that wasn't perfect, but it was enough to counter that anti-climactic feeling which appeared as soon as I changed the turn sequence.

So, how to solve this problem, while keeping the improvements of the new turn order? Well, I need something that happens between card play and resolution that could change or foil your plans...

Villain Events
Fortunately, there's something I've been meaning to add to the game anyway: effects each villain could have, which make the game harder, and make the villains feel more different from each other. I hadn't designed those, but I had a few ideas for some effects. For example, the Sadist could kill civilians (you don't get them back when you defeat henchmen), and the mastermind could block access to some of the rules (no calling the police, for example).

So I made a small deck of cards for each villain with some effects on them. At the very beginning of the Fight phase, before anything else happens, you'll flip the top event card for each villain. Their effect will occur, which may be immediate, or may be a static effect that stays active until the next turn's fight phase when a new card replaces this one. These effects could very well foil your plans, making them exactly what I need to keep the game interesting. For example, if you plan the turn and decide that you're able to win this turn, and then all of a sudden, the Anarchist makes you draw new henchmen, and they happen to go in front of the villain you were going to defeat, then you'll have to wait until next turn. Or perhaps the villain you were after suddenly requires 1 more Strength icon to hit -- can you still afford it? Or perhaps they take an extra hostage - can you hit them one more time? Maybe next round...

Further, I wanted to make sure it wasn't all about picking 1 villain, and just piling up the other two with henchmen while you beat up the chosen one. Therefore I put 3 effects on each card, each more severe than the last. The effect in play depends on the number of henchmen in front of that villain. The first tier is currently "no effect" for 0-1 henchmen, but it could also be some small, mostly insignificant effect. This way, if you have the villain's henchmen mostly under control, then the event won't hinder you that bad.

The 2nd tier (2 henchmen) is a bigger effect, often local to the villain and his henchmen. Things like "my henchmen cost an additional Smarts to defeat" or "I cannot be attacked". This has the potential to mess with your game, but not in a huge way.

The 3rd tier (3+ henchmen) is an even bigger effect, often global, affecting all villains or henchmen. Things like "ALL henchmen cost an additional Smarts to defeat" or "no villain can be attacked this turn".

I brainstormed enough effects to make 5 cards per villain:
* The Mastermind effects mostly limit your access to rules (can't call the cops, can't use Teamwork, Equipment costs extra to buy/use).
* The Sadist mostly deal with henchmen and hostages (bring new henchmen into play, rescued hostages are removed from the game, remove civilian tokens from the game, take extra civilians hostage).
* The Anarchist has wild or chaotic effects (players take penalty markers, players draw fewer cards, players draw fewer henchman to choose from)

This is just the first draft, but I'm excited to try it out tomorrow. Assuming the structure works, then I think a little testing and development of those abilities will really make this game feel like a proper co-op.

Tuesday, September 03, 2019

Riders of the Pony Express - current status and new ideas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 02, 2019

Playtest day: revisiting Automatown and Riders of the Pony Express

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Riders of the Pony Express

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Sails & Sorcery progress

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

The Plunder Role

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

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

Re-imagining Plunder

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

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

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

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

A word on theme

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

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

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

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

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Recent playtesting: Apotheosis (FKA Worker Learning)


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

The current version looks something like this:

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

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

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

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

Design concerns

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

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

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

Brainstorming possible solutions

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

A note on "standard" player powers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Origins 2019 -- playtests and interesting pitches

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

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

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

Interesting Pitches

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

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


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

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

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

- The downtime was too much

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

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

- Plunder was too prevalent,

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

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

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

- The game appeared too tactical.

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

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

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

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

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

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