Saturday, July 28, 2007

Always re-examine the past, don't take things for granted!

While playing All For One today I started to re-examine some of the rules and it occurred to me that the game could be streamlined and made easier to understand/internalize. One of my least favorite things about the game is the length of time it takes to explain... it sounds very fiddly and complicated, but once you know how to play you realize it's really not very complicated at all. It's the barrier to entry that's always been a problem, and a symptom of the problem is the long, complicated explanation.

I've been so used to the structure of the game though that I was simply looking for better ways to explain it. It only now occurred to me that perhaps the rules themselves could be simplified and streamlined, and would thereby become easier to explain. Here's a somewhat minor change I'm going to try out, which could make the whole game sound a lot less complicated, while not really being very different at all:

First off, I noticed there are certain actions people generally take every single turn. Well, there are Move actions which are taken every turn, and Demand or Mission actions that are taken when applicable, either before or after moving... but almost always the Draw a Card action is used at or near the end of the turn, after spending cards fighting or doing a mission. The thought has crossed my mind a few times in the past, why not make refiling your hand an automatic thing at the end of the turn rather than calling it an action? This would simplify the action list and give players a little bit less they have to think about during their turn, letting them concentrate on the meat of the game, which is not drawing cards but doing missions. I always want players to be asking "how will I do this mission?" more than "when will I draw a mission I can do?" So I'm going to strike the "draw cards" action and make it standard at the end of the turn.

But then I got to thinking that refilling your hand may not be as necessary as it used to be now that the mechanics have changed since that actions inception. In fact, sometimes it seems that other parts of the game are silly (like spending cards to do things) because you can just refill your hand afterwards. The intention of that originally was to help cycle through cards to find missions you'd rather work on. The latest version of the game makes more of the missions more desirable to work on, so I'm beginning to think that a large amount of card cycling is not necessary. So instead of filling up your hand at the end of the turn, I'm going to try "Draw 1 card".

Furthermore, the One For All card - which was an amazing addition to the game - has a funky rule which always sounds strange when I explain it... "Once used, you get your One For All card back at the end of a turn in which you completed a mission." We added "You can skip your turn to get your One For All card back" as a way for a player stuck without their card to get it back in a pinch. These conditions under which you get the One For All card back have been a source of confusion in some playtesters (not many, but more than 1). With this new "draw a card at the end of the turn" rule I think that strangeness can be eliminated... you can either draw a mission card, or draw back your One For All card. Simple as that.

There are some ramifications that I've thought through, but so far all the ones I can think of seem either good for the game, or at the very least acceptable. I'm excited to give it a try and see if it makes the game feel more like a real game or not. Of course there's a chance I'm overlooking something and the change will end up being horrible... in which case we can always go back to the current version :)

The point is, it's good to look back on what you already have once in a while and make sure it still makes sense.

Friday, July 27, 2007

I Finally Lost At Yspahan

As yet I have not lost a face-to-face game of Yspahan... that is, until last night. I haven't played as much Yspahan as I have Pillars of the Earth, and I wouldn't say I was "as good" as it as I am at Pillars, but I was still undefeated. Last night I didn't fare so well though, and ended up losing to Eric (the same guy that beat me at Pillars!) by something like 9 points.

I must be losing my edge!

Sunday, July 22, 2007

I Finally Lost At Pillars Of The Earth

There's a board game called Pillars of the Earth, based on a novel by Ken Follet. It's an efficiency game where each player gathers resources and hires craftsmen in order to "contribute to the construction of the Cathedral". The craftsmen turn resources into victory points, and as the game goes on you can hire better, more efficient craftsmen in an effort to more efficiently make that conversion and in the end, earn the most VPs.

I like the game quite a bit, and until last night the worst I've done is tie for 1st. Sadly, last night's game did not bode well for me. It ended up a very close game between Eric, Michael and myself - 2 points separated 1st and 2nd place, and 2 more separated 2nd and 3rd.There were several instances where Eric thwarted my play, either on purpose or incidentally, but I was able to hang on to a good game... I think the reason I lost boiled down to a particularly big mistake I made in round 5, when I hired a craftsman and had to fire one I already had. I had taken the Tool Maker in the first round, and should have chosen to discard him as he'd long outlived any usefulness he'd had, but instead I discarded the starting Woodworker. This was a huge mistake because I was employing 2 Carpenters, who could convert 5 wood between them. I should have known I would need to buy wood from the market, which I could not do after discarding the Woodworker.

It may have been a mistake to take the Tool Maker at all - that craftsman isn't particularly good... but we were playing with a house rule that he earns 2 gold per metal owned, as opposed to simply 2 gold if you own any metal, and Eric already had the first round Woodworker (who changes Wood into money, our house rule was that the exchange is for $3, not $4). Eric also went into the Tax Shelter space first (so he'd get a metal cube), and I couldn't bear to see him get the new and improved Tool Maker as well as the Woodworker. I stand by that decision as being "not that bad," though through course of circumstance I didn't end up getting any Metal until round 3 or 4.

It was actually a really good game of Pillars and I enjoyed it very much - even if I didn't end up winning. Unfortunately, even though he won, Eric is certain that he doesn't like the way the game works in some respects. He probably won't play it with me very often.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

All For One epiphany

There's always been a concern that a competitive player might maliciously drop all tokens off any character they activate to keep other people from completing missions. It's always been a threat that this kind of play would ruin a playtester's experience, though it hasn't seemed to come up in practice. Still, it's something David and I don't like in the game, and he's gone as far as to make a rule about when you're allowed to drop things in order to control such malicious play. I haven't been satisfied by any rules I can think of to control this kind of thing because players are supposed to be able to use characters to move tokens around the board. I think the answer just came to me this morning while composing an email to David... if dropping items is causing a problem, why not simply disallow dropping items? It's so simple, and it automatically solves the problem and at the same time encourages more use of the other actions in the game in order to move the tokens between characters.

I'm going to put that rule in effect for the very next playtest!

Sunday, July 15, 2007

A thematic movement mechanic, but what theme?

I have this movement mechanic, and I wonder what kind of game it would go well in.

The point is that the board would have some topography, like each space has a number representing it's relative elevation. Players would have some tokens/chits/cards/whatever representing energy, and you pay some amount of energy to move from one Elevation to a higher Elevation (you pay the difference in elevation). Moving to a lower elevation would cost less, probably 1 energy per 2 elevation levels. And if you don't move on your turn (rest) then you get 1 energy in addition to your regular income.

So moving from Elevation 2 to Elevation 5 costs 3 energy, while moving back down from 5 to the 2 costs just 2 energy. Climbing from Elevation 1 to Elevation 6 costs 5 energy, jumping back down would cost 3.

I'll keep this one on the back burner for a while until I can think (or someone can suggest) a theme in which this mechanic would fit. Maybe hiking/trailblazing, looking for something (set collection, pickup/deliver - could use some mechanic to represent GPS... Geocaching maybe).

I think each player should have multiple pawns to move (but just 1 pool of energy to spend from).

Monday, July 09, 2007

Playtests at Spielbany

I attended Spielbany, a meeting of game designers from the Board Game Designers Forum, last weekend and I managed to get some playtesting done. Of the games I brought, All For One, Terra Prime, Blockade Runner, and Wizard's Tower were played. I also managed to play games by other designers:
Acts of the Disciples by Jeff Warrender
Push and Shove by Tom Kiel
Prolix by Gil Hova
Love Means Nothing by Ariel Seone
Othberon by Tom Kiel

I also saw but didn't get a chance to play Wag the Wolf by Gil Hova and Lost Adventures by Jeff Warrender and Steve Sisk.

Since this is my game design blog, I'll only post about the games I'm working on here. If you want to know about the others, check out BGDF! The only game I have
extensive comments on is All For One...

All For One
Of course I'm always happy to play this game... I've been working on it with Scurra (David Brain) for something like 3 1/3 years - my first email correspondence with David is from March 2004. In that time, this game has gone through waves of development followed by waves of sitting on the shelf. For the last 2 years there have actually been 2 different versions, "my" Identity (ID) version, and "David's" Story version. The main difference being that David's crew added Story tracks instead of the secret identities in order to try and (a) separate the players from the characters in a more complete way, and (b) make for a more thematic, King vs Cardinal feel overall (maybe adding some story arc to the game). His 3 Story tracks had a player goal at each end, and each player got a goal card indicating which goal they wanted each track to lean toward. Points were scored depending on the position of the tracks... you would earn points for each track if it were further toward your goal than the opposite one.

When I visited London in November I finally had a chance to play the Story version, and while I like the results it tried to achieve, I did not like the way it went about trying to achieve them. After some thought and some discussion with other testers, I came up with a sort of hybrid Story Track version of the game - one which attempts to achieve the same goals (fixing some of the more common complaints about the game), while preserving the good things about the ID version that I liked and that have earned compliments from many testers. This Hybrid version was the version I brought on Saturday, and Saturday was the 2nd time this new version had ever been played. Important to note may be that we played a 5 player game, and I'm happy to report the potentially unfair distributions of goals did not appear to be a problem at all. I had originally forgotten about the handicap I intended to give the players who started at a disadvantage until someone suggested the exact thing I had in mind...

Of the 5 players, 3 had played once or twice before and 1 was brand new. I of course have played more than probably anyone else on the planet. I was very interested to see how the people who'd played before fared this game, and what they thought of the new version.

I didn't take any notes, but from what I recall the consensus was that the Story Tracks were an improvement over the secret IDs. Everyone managed to do 3 or 4 missions (which is typical) except for Jeff. I couldn't figure out what was holding Jeff up, but according to his report it appears he was trying some longer term planning. Unfortunately, this game with 5 players doesn't really allow for much long term planning. With 4 players it's ore possible, and with only 3 players it's VERY possible to plan long term plays (spanning 2, 3, or 4 turns), but with the chaos introduced by 5 players it's simply not a viable strategy to plan much more than 2 turns out. 2 turns is still very possible, because a player can get 2 turns in a row using their One For All card. That being the case, it's not impossible to really plan a 3 turn play if people don't seem to be using the character you need... beyond that, all bets are off - too much stuff happens between your turns to count on the board position more than 2 turns down the road.

Since the chaos is a feature of the 5 player game, and the game still works as a tactical game that way, it doesn't concern me too much. That said, Jeff's suggestion of a 7th character for the 5 player game is an interesting one which deserves consideration. I'm not sure how that would work in, perse, but it may be worth trying anyway. I'm not sure it would really help the situation though. Perhaps a hand size of 3 instead of 4 (so there are fewer mission cards out there) may help, but I doubt that would be a net gain either because 4 Missions sees to be the sweet spot with regard to having a play you can reasonably work toward without having way too many options.

I'm fairly happy with the game as is, and wouldn't mind sending it off to publishers this way. The only thing I'm currently considering as a change is trying to find a way to inject some long term strategy into the game. So far I've had 2 ideas to do this, one of which I didn't like when I tried it, and the other of which has sounded pretty bad to the testers I've mentioned it to...

I had tried a system (the last iteration) in which you got Blue points or Red points depending on which character did the mission (Musketeer or Agent), and then only counted one of the two depending on how the game ended. I thought it was too swingy or "all-or-nothing" for my liking, but it does offer the benefit of a long range plan. I'm not entirely sure how this would jive with the story tracks, but I think it can work - maybe I'll try that again.

The more recent idea had to do with set collection - I didn't want to change the game at all, so I was looking for some way to reward stuff players already do if they plan ahead to do it. Since at the end of the game you can see which missions you've done (they're lined up in front of you on the table), it would be easy to give a bonus for some configuration of missions. The regular scoring rewards doing any mission, and the Story Tracks reward using the same character a lot, so I wouldn't want to reward, say, 3 missions by the same character. Nothing in the game rewards using a variety of characters... so my thought was to give a bonus for using each character at least once (with "any character" missions counting as wilds). The down side there is that you really only do 3 -5 missions per game, and there are 6 characters... I suppose there could be a reward for 3 different characters, and a bigger reward for 4 different, but that sounds a little weak to me, and as Jeff mentioned there's already a lot of functionality to the mission cards.

If anyone can think of a reasonable way to add long term planning to the game, please let me know - or if you think it's really not necessary, let me know that too.