Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Time is money!

A couple posts ago I had begun thinking about the value of time. The balance between what things are worth and what your time is worth. I've expanded on those ideas as they relate to a game, and here's what I've got so far. You may notice a conspicuous lack of theme, or even title, but the important bits are the mechanics and the ideas behind them at the moment...

The basic structure of the game would be that each player has a set number of Action Points each turn - a constant Action income, if you will. They will also have some $ income, which will start out as a small number, but will grow over the course of the game as players build their income up. So in the beginning of the game, all players are cash-poor, and they all have the same number of actions (let's say 5 of them).

There would be at least 4 different things you could do with your action points:
Step 1) Shop for resources
Step 2) Upgrade your operation
Step 3) Process resources
Step 4) Profit!
The basic premise of the game is that in each step there is a trade-off of what amounts to money vs action points. In general you can spend money (or VPs) in order to conserve action points, or vice versa.

In greater detail:
Step 1) Shop for resources: As described 2 posts ago, the basic idea is that you can "spend time hunting for a bargain" by spending more action points to draw cards to choose from, and then only paying $1 per card you want to buy. These cards would have raw materials or resources that would be turned into something worth VPs later in the turn (step 3).

The current mechanic is that you can spend 1 action point to draw 1 card then decide if you want to buy it for $1. Or, you can spend 1 action point to draw 2 cards, then decide if you want to by either or both of them for $2 apiece. Finally, you could spend 1 action point to draw 3 cards, then decide if you want to by any or all of them for $3 each.

Thematically, when you can afford it you might be willing to pay more money for your resources, because you've got better things to do with your time than bargain hunting.

Step 2) Upgrade your operation: The game needs to have ways to change the resources from step 1 into something worth points in step 4 (via the processing in step 3). In Step 2 you'd spend some action points and some money (if you want) to purchase some form of upgrade - hire craftsmen, buy machines, build buildings, whatever. The net effect is that what you buy in step 2 will give you some abilities, income, or make step 3 more efficient in some cases (like if you hire a better carpenter, then you could do a better job of turning wood into furniture). I imagine the things you'd get in this part of the game would be on par with buildings in Puerto Rico, or Craftsmen in Pillars of the Earth.

Like step 1, the more action points you put into this action, then less money you'll need to spend.

Step 3) Process resources: Through this action you convert the resources from step 1 into something you can sell for money or victory points, using the upgrades from step 2. In this step, spending more action points (putting more time/effort into the conversion process) will yield a greater return per unit input. So if you take 1 Wood resource input, and rush through or do a bad job, you get 1 unit of Furniture. However, if you hired a better carpenter, maybe it takes him longer, but you end up with 2 units of furniture without any additional Wood resource input (like he makes a table, and a chair, instead of a table and a bunch of scrap).

I'm pretty sure the upgrades would have to indicate outputs per input, like the Carpenter could say:
1 ap: 1 Wood -> 1 Furniture
2 ap: 2 Wood -> 3 Furniture

Step 4) Profit!: Finally, you want to profit off of the work you've done so far. In this game there are 2 ways to profit: Money, and Victory Points. Depending on what you have done with your resources, you'd sell the products for money, or VPs, or some combination thereof. It seems logical to keep the same kind of game mechanic wherein you could spend extra time/effort (action points) in order to get a better deal (more money/vp per unit sold).

In the end, the player with the most victory points would win, and I think it would be much better to separate VPs from Money in this case. If it were just all about making money I think it would lose a dimension and be less interesting. I like games where you need to build money income, but eventually have to start generating VPs to win - if you just keep pumping up your income, you'll be rich, but you won't have won the game. I think it's far more interesting that way.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Yspahan - better than I gave it credit for

Evidently you can download Ystari's Yapahan for the PC and play against computer opponents. My original assessment of the game was that the different choices and strategies weren't really different enough to make much difference. After a couple games, I was undefeated but didn't feel like I'd done anything worthy of winning the games. My friend Ray says that with the die roll mechanic, sometimes the strategy you've chosen must be sidetracked because your actions aren't available to you when you need them, and then your plan B ends up getting sidetracked for the same reason. All this switching of plans amounts to the same thing I was thinking - that everyone does a little bit of everyhting, and there's really not much to the game.

Now that I downloaded it and played 25 games, I'm starting to see some subtleties of play. I wouldn't go as far as to say I really love the game, or that it's the deepest game out there, but I think Yspahan deserves more credit than I had originally given it.

Really nice implementation, too!

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Value of money - Rich vs Poor

I was looking through a Family Dollar today and wondering about the difference between people for whom that's the grocery store, and people who can't be bothered to go to a place like that for a few cheap items and then to a supermarket for the rest, even if they pay a few dollars more. It got me thinking about the mechanics of the phenomenon from a game design point of view: why would anyone pay more for the same item? Why does your definition of frivolous change depending on how much money you have?

The reason is that people's time and effort have intrinsic value. I could go to Family Dollar and get 3 or 4 items for about $1 cheaper than at Safeway, but they don't have all the stuff I want, and I'd have to go out of my way to save that money. If I couldn't afford to spend the extra couple of dollars to buy everything at Safeway, then maybe I'd spend the time and energy (resources I did have) in order to save the resource I didn't have.

So how could this be applied to a board game? This is what I came up with so far...

Suppose in a game, each player gets a set number of action points each turn, the same number all game. Players also get some income each turn, and at the beginning of the game that income is small. Over the course of the game, players' incomes will grow such that later in the game they are making a significant amount more than at the beginning. In this game there's a deck of "stuff" that you can purchase by going to a store, and there are 3 stores characterized as follows:

Lower Class store: spend 1 action point to draw 1 card from the "stuff" deck, and then pay $1 per card you want to keep.

Middle Class store: spend 1 action point to draw 2 cards from the "stuff" deck, and then pay $2 per card you want to keep.

Upper Class store: spend 1 action point to draw 3 cards from the "stuff" deck, and then pay $3 per card you want to keep.

Thus as you get richer, you may be willing to pay more money for the same items if you can do so more action efficiently. In effect, you're buying more actions with that extra money you're spending, and in most games, extra actions is a good thing. Of course players would spend those actions (and "stuff") on things that get them points or increase their income, or whatever else the game does.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Blockade Runner (formerly Kessel Run)

I discussed the Kessel Run idea at length with a friend of mine, Boyan Radakavich, who then proceeded to build a prototype and fill out some more specifics of the game. We now have a working game which is called Blockade Runner.

In the world of Blockade Runner, the ominous Empire has imposed a blockade on one of the systems within its borders because the governing planet in that system (which for now we'll call Kessel) was "out of line" politically. Imperial Gunships patrol the borders of the system, and merchants are forbidden by law to trade with any planet in the system.

As rogue merchants, the players have broken through the blockade, and are trading their way to Kessel. An Imperial Gunship is on their tail, and if they can make it back to the Blockade without getting caught then the player who's earned the most Prestige on the Blockade Run will be the winner!

The blockaded system is made up of 10 planets and Kessel. To get from the Blockade to Kessel and back, players pass by 5 planets in each direction, making a loop - they can't go back the way they came, because there's an imperial Gunship after them! 5 of the planets are smaller, uncivilized planets which won't trade with the players. The the other 5 are civilized and will trade for the resources players can deliver.

The game is played in a series of rounds, each round containing 5 phases. Each phase is played simultaneously, so game play can be fast - games take 15-30 minutes depending on the number of players. In each round players first allocate 2 of their resource cards (if they don't have enough resource cards, they use Bluff cards to hide their intentions) to each section of their ship - Engines, Tactics, Bridge, and Cargo. Then, each of those sections is used to Move, Fight, Earn Prestige, and Trade (respectively).

When a player (or players) finish the round at the Blockade then the game is over. The players who return to the Blockade earn bonus Prestige, and players who didn't lose some prestige, and the player with the most Prestige wins.

The game is not as deep or epic as I'd originally hoped, but it is tight and quick playing. We're going to enter Blockade Runner into a game design contest in Italy, and if it wins, DaVinci games will actually produce 100 copies of it, and offer us a contract to publish the game.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Card game designs

Kessel Run

I'm sure I'll have to rename this (maybe Blockade Run or something), but in the meantime Kessel Run is a race between smugglers (a la Han Solo) to smuggle contraband to various systems en route to Kessel and back.

The 'board' is a series of planets which will purchase one or some of the various resources in the game, and will pay a certain amount for them. Your ship can move to the next system on your turn, OR you can initiate your hyperdrive and 'jump' several systems down the line. However the Hyperdrive must be charged.

For each system you stop in, you take a Parsec card (indicating that you have travelled through a parsec), then you can deliver goods. Payouts for a delivery is drawing more cards, you assign some of the cards to charging your Hyperdrive and the rest are goods to be delivered later. At the finish line, your score is the number of goods in hand minus the number of Parsec cards you've collected.

The idea is to choose efficient stops where you can make good money off your deliveries, and choose wisely how much of your payoff to put into fueling your Hyperdrive (up to it's capacity) and how much to save for later. The sooner you return to the starting planet, the fewer points you lose for mucking about in outer space.

In an attempt to capture the feel of 9-ball, I'm working on this card game.

On your turn you first play a card either from your hand or from a face up pool. The difference being that your hand does not refill until the end of your turn, while the face up pool refreshes after each shot. Thus, if you make several shots in a row, your hand size will decrease and eventually you will run out of plays.

Then you would follow that up with another card, either from your hand or the draw pool, and you would keep doing that until you decide you're done, or until you play a [BALL -> POCKET] card, sinking a ball in a pocket. After the shot is complete, you may perform a "Leave" if you wish, which consists of discarding one of the face up cards from the draw pool and replacing it either from your hand or the deck.

Finally, you refresh the draw pool to 3 cards from the deck. 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. If you happened to Table Scratch (not hit the Object Ball first, and not play a SAFETY card), then you opponent gets to discard a card out of the draw pool or his hand and replace it from the deck before starting his turn.

The player who sinks the 9 Ball wins the round. The game can be played to any number of rounds, or you could score per round as follows:
Score points equal to the number of the ball you've sunk. So the 8 Ball is worth 8 points. Sinking the 9 Ball in this case should count as some kind of bonus as well. The game could be played until a predetermined point total is met, or the player with the most points at some particular time could be declared the winner.

Table Tennis
The genesis for this game was the following:
First, consider Rock paper Scissors. Not much player decision there, you pick either R, P or S, and you see if you win or lose.

Now consider a similar game where there are 5 choices (A, B, C, D, and E), and each choice 'beats' 2 of the other choices (A>B,C; B>C,D; C>D,E; D>E,A; E>A,B), and instead of player simultaneously choosing, these choices are on cards an you take turns playing cards back and forth - where you have to play a card that 'beats' the last card played. So if you play a C card, I have to play either an A card or a B card. This gives me a choice to make, but not much to base that choice on, so it's still not terribly interesting.

Next, let's say that we each have a deck of these cards, and we turn 3 of them face up - and when playing a card, it must come from that face up pool (and then replace that card from the deck). Now that we can see what options the opponent has available, we have some information on which to base our decision. It's still not a terribly interesting decision though...

Finally, let's add time pressure. Each player has 5 seconds on a chess clock, and if your time runs out, you lose, and if you have no legal play you flip cards off the top of your deck until one is legal to play. After you play your card you hit the clock and my time is ticking: I have 2 basic options... make the first/fastest legal play I can each turn and hope to stay ahead of you so that your flag
falls first, or look at what plays you have available and try to play cards you cant respond to immediately, costing you valuable time cycling through your deck looking for a play. The catch is that even such a simple decision will take a little time, and you only have 5 seconds total.

I think that could make for a fun and interesting game.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007


I wrote up a big post about a new game design, and I fell asleep without saving it. In the morning I found my computer had rebooted, and thus my unsaved post lost.

The bitter irony is that I was composing the post in ScribeFire, an addon for Firefox which is mildly less infuriating than the Blogger user interface. Evidently ScribeFire doesn't autosave, while the piss-poor Blogger interface at least does that.

Gah! Maybe I'll get around to re-writing that post. but if there's one thing I hate more than actually doing something, it's doing that thing again.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

In the meantime

Those Strategy & Tactics articles are still in the works. In the meantime, here's what I've been playing and thinking about recently, in no particular order:


Tom Jolley's a pretty nice guy, I've met him at a couple different game conventions. Last February at OrcCon in Los Angeles I hung out with him a little and checked out a couple of his prototypes. One in particular was very interesting... it's called Fermat, after a mathematician. The board is a grid of tiles, each with either a number or an operation on it (+, -, x, /). The game
is kind of like Set, but instead of racing to find patterns, you're racing to find an equation in the grid, made up of exactly 5 contiguous tiles, which equals a particular number.

At the con Tom was saying he didn't think he could sell the game, but it seemed wildly popular among the people walking by. I'm glad to report that last I heard, Tom has sold this game to a company specializing in educational games, which I presume means it will be published! In the meantime, I've made my own copy and have been playing it with my friends - we can't get enough!

Pillars of the Earth

I saw this game at BGG.con last year, and I spent the whole con trying to play it - to no avail. Since then I've talked to some friends who have played it, and they all think it's pretty mediocre. I finally got a chance to play the game a couple of weeks ago and I've found that I like it very much. I got a copy the day after it hit the shelf at Game Daze, and I've now played the game a total of 4 times - I can honestly say I don't know what my friends were talking about, the game is great.

Pillars of the Earth is all about efficiency. Everyone starts with the same set of Craftsmen, which give you the ability to convert resources into victory points. Over the course of the game you upgrade these craftsmen, get resources, and convert them. One friend's complaint with the game was that the conversion was so direct that he felt like the game was boring and the choices were obvious. What I think he missed was that the point of the game isn't to convert the resources into VPs in clever and different ways, the point is to do it efficiently. If you end up paying too much for your resources or the actions you want to take, then your score will suffer. If you don't pay enough, you may not get to do what you want (because an opponent will beat you to it).

The only complaint I've heard which I feel is valid is that at times there is a big advantage to being the guy who goes first - which in itself isn't too big a problem because for most of the game you can make a play which allows you to go first next round. However, there is a phase of the game where players turn order is assigned randomly, and while the first person to get to play during that phase does have to pay more, sometimes the cost isn't as big a deal as the valuable first action, and there's really nothing you can do about that.

A complaint my friends and I have come up with on our own isn't something that's ruining the game (for me anyway), but it's something that might cut down on replay value... in the game there are 4 new craftsmen that become available each round, and they are predetermined, and are always the same each game. We'd like to see 6 new craftsmen per round, only 4 of which are used. This would not only allow for more variety of what comes out game to game, but would also add variety to the types of things you can do (strategically) by adding different ways to convert resources to points, or to money, or to other resources. The main thing that drives your strategy is the capabilities of your craftsmen, so more variety there would do the game some good. We even have some ideas for additional craftsmen abilities that could be used.

I wonder if auctioning off each Master Builder placement instead of randomly assigning it would help remove that bit of the game everyone complains about...