Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Quick RR thought

The significance of the Largest Network is an idea that I think drives a lot of interesting stuff in Reading Railroad - you get more tiles faster if you build all over the board, not next to your existing network. So rewarding a player for their largest network is a perfect balance for that, but how to reward it?

The original/current rule is that you can't use more City tiles in the endgame than you have cities in your largest network. This is a great idea, and will likely remain to the final version of the game. I've been pondering other potential rewards instead or in addition to that, such as...

* Earn 1vp per city in your largest network
* When building words during the game, you can only use as many resource letters as you have City tiles in your largest network.

That last one just occurred to me - might it give players incentive to build 1 bigger network, so they can make bigger words and earn more Coin? Would it only effect the 'wordsmith' who will be able to make bigger words? Is it important to force the wordsmith to build a big network?

The reason it occurred to me was because I was thinking about the possibility of a player ignoring City tiles altogether and simply going all-out for Coins. That player would want to get some city tiles in order to increase their Tile income and make bigger words, but after a while they might just ignore the board altogether, which is kind of boring. Maybe that's only bad if it proves to be a winning strategy...

Anyway, it was just an idea. I don't think I'll monkey with that particular mechanic until several other things are worked out.

Political themed Area Control idea

Last Friday I was thinking about Area Control mechanics, and a game idea snuck into my head. I just re-read it, and here's a couple things that snuck in this time...

There could be some sort of Motion cards - representing an effect or event. A committee would vote on whether or not it would come into play. There could be different categories of Motion, and for each there'd be a different committee. When it comes time to vote, players would choose PASS/FAIL simultaneously, and when revealed the vote would be tallied. Each member of the committee would vote according to how his controlling lobbyist (player) indicated. Perhaps players would get some victory points at that time as well if their members voted in the majority - I could see someone putting a member in the committee at the last minute, not necessarily to influence the outcome, but to sneak a few points if they can manage to vote right.

I could see these Motion cards indicating a time value, which is the number of rounds until the vote occurs. A die or counter could be placed on the card, and each round it could be incremented (or decremented, whatever) until vote time, then the vote occurs and another Motion comes up (or doesn't until next 'term')

A 'term' could be a number of rounds. Actually, maybe better a 'term' is made up of 2 'years' - and a 'year' is made up of several rounds of play. congressmen could advance from level 1 (newbie) in their first year, to level 2 in their second year (worth 1.5 influence perhaps). Then they'd either go away or get re-elected. Maybe better they are level 1 (weak) in their first term, and become stronger if they get reelected.

I had mentioned that the congressmen might be able to be reelected, so they either go away or don't, and maybe you don't know for sure which it'll be. Players could take actions to improve the chances of their congressmen getting reelected... a simple way might be that the general rule is:

Roll 1d6 for each congressman, on a 6 they are reelected, otherwise remove them from the board.

Then via some actions, players could gain +1 modifiers to that die roll, probably for all of their congressmen as opposed to individual ones (just because of the scope of the game). In other words, through some investment, players could end up with Influence that sticks around for a second term, and maybe they carry more clout (are worth more influence) at that point.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Reading Railroad V2 playtest

I finally got a chance to try out the latest version of Reading Railroad! Tyler, Lowski, Michael and I played a game of it last night (before an 8 hour Magic: the Gathering binge *shudder*). The changes worked for the most part, but of course there is still a lot of tuning that needs to be done.

From a previous post:
* Start with 3 tiles in hand
I think this was fine - but 3 out of 4 people could not make a word on the first turn. I feel like the early game is a little boring just drawing 1 tile at a time, but maybe that's OK, as you ramp up to 2 tiles pretty quickly. The worst part about it is when you have all consonants and cannot make a word.

Hmm... I wonder if it wouldn't be good to go the Prolix route and allow any word to be made, and you get paid for the letters in that word that you use - so there's never the "I have no vowels!" case. Is that too much of a ripoff of that wonderful game?

Failing that, I think Reading Railroad needs the standard word game rule that you can dump tiles and replace them, in case the tiles you have simply don't spell anything (Q-F-Z-J).
* Turn options are
- - Make a word, get paid 1/3/6/10/15/21/28 coins for 2/3/4/5/6/7/8 letters
- - Buy track (costs vary) OR a Factory (cost 4 <- who knows if that's good?)
- - Draw tiles (1 + 1/4 city tiles). Factories count as 4 City tiles.

The pay schedule was pretty good. I was thinking that I might even bump it up a notch (so 2 letter words are worth $3) to make sure people can lay track even if they can only make a 2 letter word. Especially when we're only drawing 1 letter a turn. I worry a little that the 15 point 5-letter words in that case would be too many, but it's well worth a try.
* Investor (!!!) tiles only hurt the player drawing.
- - Pay 1 coin/letter, take 1 debt for each letter you can't pay for.

This was certainly better than punishing everyone but the player drawing tiles. The big question that's come up in my mind is whether the investor tiles are even necessary. Their purpose is to keep people from hoarding tiles, but maybe there's built in incentive to not hoard tiles (limited letters on board, maybe limited cheap spots to build), as well as incentive to hoard tiles and make longer words (bigger coin payout). I might try the next game without the Investor tile.

If games are consistently won by the player hoarding tiles and amassing coins rather than by players going for the endgame scoring words, then it might be necessary to add the Investor back in. Another reason to remove the investor is that sometimes the only reason you're "hoarding" tiles is because you have FCZMQ and can't make a word out of them. That's not the kind of thing that ought to be punished. If the investor tile is used, an alternate rule for it would probably be this:

"If you draw an investor tile and have more than 3 (2?) tiles in your hand, then you get 1 Debt chip. At the end of the game, Debt chips are worth negative points - 1 for the first, 2 for the second, 3 for the third, etc. So 4 debt chips would be -10 points."

This does a number of things...
1. Protects the player who has a couple lousy tiles
2. Punished players who hoard tiles, but only really punishes them if they consistently hoard tiles.

So I think it's a better rule. But again, maybe the investor is unnecessary altogether.

EDIT: I think if using the investor tile, draining peoples cash is maybe not the best way to go. I might rather see just the debt chips, meaning an end game penalty, not a mid-game penalty - you risk losing all the cash you've been saving, so what's the point in saving cash?

* Investor (!!!) tiles are replaced
- - Always draw the right number of letter tiles each turn.

This is absolutely better than not. If there is an investor tile, it should get replaced when you draw it. Unless a Coin strategy is super-dominant, this rule could be reversed as a subtle way to hinder it a little. I think people feel cheated if they cannot get their full allowance of tiles though, and I don't want players to feel cheated by the game.

* Game ends when someone collects their 16th City tile from the board.
- - Factories count as 4 City tile toward this.

I'm still not positive I like the game end trigger here. Maybe I'm just bad with game end triggers in general (see: Terra Prime development). I like limiting the number of City tiles players will have, so that endgame scoring won't get too ridiculously out of control, and I like the game ending early enough that it's something of a challenge to connect the 9 or so cities you want to be in your largest network (unless you purposely build together). I like that the Factory fills up your slots, but I don't like that after you have 12 tiles you can end the game at any moment by buying a factory.

I'm thinking that the Factory should be a single tile, taking up 1 space, and it should say "draw 1 extra tile" on it... so it's really 5 tiles with regard to how many resources you draw, but only 1 with regard to ending the game. On the down side, that negates a lot of the nifty "you'll have fewer city tiles to work with" effect. However, that effect isn't as big in a game with targeted endgame words, and you still lose out on a city tile the turn you buy the factory... so maybe it balances itself out. I think I'll try it with the factory being just 1 City tile (instead of 4).

Also, I had allowed only 1 Factory to be bought, because I didn't want someone to be a jackass and buy 4 factories in a row and end the game. With a "smaller" Factory, I could allow more to be bought. Not sure what the costs should be, and whether they should increase or not (to help dissuade people from buying a bunch of factories). Or... maybe 1 Factory is enough, and maybe taking up 4 spaces is good. there could be a caveat that you can't buy a Factory if it'll take you to 16 tiles or more... which would keep the jackass factor down.

* Maximum total City tiles you can use is based on your largest connected network.
This is a great rule, and I think it's one of the solid backbone rules of the game. I think it works well.

* Endgame words are free form.
- - Points are based on number of letters in the word, squared.
- - I still plan on having some sort of targeted endgame words in the end.

Per a prior post, I finally made some endgame scoring words. In that post I detailed what I liked about the words I chose, and what I didn't like. After playing with it once, I am of pretty much the same opinion. Though I think it would be better if there were more overlap between the small (3 letter) words and the big (7/8 letter words) - so if you are going for a big word and you fail to get the whole thing, you could get a sort of partial scoring from the small words. Alternatively, each City tile could be worth 2vp at the end (any tile used in a word is worth 3/4/5/6/7/8 vp, depending on which word) - which would help reward people who got letter tiles but didn't get to use them. It sorta seems like everyone should have almost the same number of letter tiles though, so this really just adjusts the City tile scoring vs the coin scoring, which may or may not be necessary.

As I mentioned, I think the game ought to have some rule allowing a player to dump their tiles and replace them. I think I'd phrase it like this:

"Instead of making a word, you may set aside any number of resource tiles from your hand, draw replacement tiles from the bag, then discard the set aside tiles into the bag. If an !$! tile is drawn this way, pay taxes as normal and replace it."

Then you would still do the build phase and draw phase of your turn as normal. One more thing that was discussed was that hard-to-use letters could have a coin printed on them, rewarding an additional coin when used in a word. Similarly, easy to use letters could have a red number, and when an investor tile is drawn - instead of punishing a player per tile, the player would just add up all their red numbers and pay that amount. This way hard letters like Q and Z would have no Investor penalty associated, and if you save E's and S's then you'd have to pay for it.

In our game it was difficult to get the letters you needed for the endgame scoring, but that's mostly because the distribution of letter on city tiles was completely independent of the distribution of letters in the endgame scoring words. The tiles are definitely going to have to be re-done to better represent what's needed for endgame scoring, so for the 'current' set of words, there need to be more O's and R's for example, and probably at least 2 of each letter, more of commonly used letters.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Area Control mechanics

I was thinking about Reiner Kinizia's upcoming release Municipium (which I don't know much about) and an old favorite of mine In the Shadow of the Emperor. Both are Area Control games where you move your influence around the board. In ItSotE your influence also "ages" and falls off the board, which I find a very interesting twist.

I was wondering how I would go about an Area Control game, and with the thoughts of those other two in mind, the following popped into my head:

Players are lobbyists for special interest groups, with congressmen in their pockets. 'Assign' your congressmen to various committees in an attempt to control them, and earn the benefit of the committee while you control it. Over time Congressmen's terms come up and they go away, or maybe they have some chance of being reelected so they only MAYBE go away.

Regarding committees... maybe each congressman gets a vote, and you might want the same thing out of the committee as one of your opponents, so you don't need majority control of a committee all by yourself yourself to get what you want. I imagine the committees would be in charge of making some kind of decision which would affect the game state, so players would have a stake in what their 'decision' will be.

These were just some thoughts I had, so I thought I'd jot them down in case I ever want to pursue the idea further. for the time being I'm working on Reading Railroad for the KublaContest, and on getting Homesteaders (and Terra Prime?) published.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

I'll try this...

I settled on the following for endgame scoring, at least for a first try:

Things I like about it:
* Good distribution of word sizes: 3/3/4/4/4/5/5/6/7/8.

* Uses all letters of the alphabet.

* Reward (letter count squared) increases a lot as the word length increases.

* Largest word is 8 letters, worth 64 points - no scoring 170 or 200 points off a really long word!

Things I don't like about it:
* Not thematic or at all related to the game. I thought about using


But that (a) doesn't use all the letters (and would therefore require me to remove some of the City Tiles, and there might not be enough left) and (b) Doesn't have a good distribution of word lengths.

* Not a lot of overlap - many letters (even "common" letters) are only used in 1 word. I think the City Tile distribution would need to change to reflect this.

I hope to get a playtest of reading Railroad in tonight and see how it goes now with targeted goals and proper (?) coin rewards for words in-game.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

No news is good news?

Jay Tummelson of Rio Grande Games took a copy of Homesteaders to The Gathering of Friends with him to test out. That's pretty exciting news, and as you can imagine I'm anxious to hear back about how it went. I emailed Jay once since the Gathering ended, but have received no reply, so I really have no idea what his thoughts are on the subject.

However, I've managed to deduce that at least 3 sessions of Homesteaders have occurred, 2 at the Gathering, and 1 last Saturday (in Maryland it would seem, though I'm not sure about that). I've talked to a couple of the people who have played in these sessions, and it seems the players have enjoyed the game from what I can tell. 2 players rated the game on BGG - a 6 in one case and an 8.5 in another.

I have not been able to glean Jay's reaction as yet... so the wait continues!

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Reading Railroad - Endgame scoring

There have been a number of different schema discussed or suggested for endgame scoring in Reading Railroad. The "current" scheme, and the only one used in any of the 3 playtests so far, has been "Free-building" - free form word building with your collected Letter tiles, where you are limited by the size of your largest network as to how many tiles you can use. Scoring is based on the lengths of the word or words made, squared.

This was the original rule in Scott's first draft of the rules, and it was nice because it didn't require any components like scoring cards, nor any work to figure out whether the goal words should be private or public, and how you actually go about getting them. However, it defeats the basic design goal of the game, which is that the game is not a word game, it's a connection/set collection game with word building as a main mechanic.

The heart of the game is supposed to be collecting the correct set of City tiles in order to satisfy the Goal cards. Reading Railroad could be expressed another way, and it would look more like a euro cube pusher: the City tiles could be colored cubes, and the Goal cards could indicate an assortment of cubes in demand The game is about collecting the appropriate cubes to fulfill the demand cards by connecting cities on the board. It just so happens that the mechanic for connecting cities is spelling words out of scrabble-style letter tiles. This is exactly the game I'm trying to make out of Reading Railroad - a cube pusher with word building as a mechanic. I thought it would be more fun to go with the theme of word building and make the cubes into letters (i.e. there are 26 colors of cubes). The Demand cards are specific groups of these cubes (letters) which happen to spell a word. I feel this emphasizes the uniqueness of word building in a non-word game.

What Reading Railroad is not is a word game at heart. That's the whole point.

So it's always been my plan to replace the Free-building endgame with some kind of targeted word scoring. Some kind of card or list which tells you which set of letters to collect, so you can reasonably plan which cities you want to connect. I'm as yet unsure how I want to accomplish that. here are some of the ideas that have been floating around thus far...

* Each player gets a secret goal card with some 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and maybe 8 letter words on it. These are the words they're trying to spell with their City tiles. Maybe one of these cards is face up for everyone to use as well.

* There could exist cards which have 3/4/5/6 letter words which build on each other (add a letter and anagram to get from 1 word to the next) which are either available to purchase and would be secret, like Tickets from Ticket to Ride, or which are in a face up pool for players to claim at some point during the game. there would be N-1 pools to ensure competition, and there would be an innate risk/reward in whether you claim the card with a 3 letter word, or hold out for that 4th or 5th letter (because it would score better that way) and risk someone else taking it from you.

* There could be stacks of cards for 3/4/5/6/7 letters, the top of each face up for players to claim during the game. the deck of 3-letter words would be the largest, and the deck of 7 letter words would be tiny. This could result in a viable small-word strategy vs a long-word strategy. In general small words will pay off worse than long words, but they're much easier to accomplish.

* There could be a set of words (a thematic phrase) printed on the board which constitutes sets of letters to collect. The scores for these could be printed on the board as well, right under the word. This could be by itself, or in addition to some hidden goal scoring.

* There could be a deck of cards with 8-letter words on them, and each player could be dealt 4 or 5 of those, from which they choose 2 to keep. In order to qualify to win the game, the player must be able to spell both of their 8-letter words using their city tiles. Players that qualify then use the Free-building endgame scoring.

Today while considering which endgame scoring system to use, I thought of this hybrid:
* Pool of N-1 cards - each card with 3/4/5/6 letter words that build on each other.
* When you would take a city tile you could instead take a card, as long as you can spell one of the words on it.
* At the end of the game City tiles are used, once each, and no more of them than the number of cities in your largest network, to spell the words on the cards you've taken.

I am going to continue to ponder this, but I need to make a decision soon. I need to send the game to the KublaContest in about 2 weeks! If worst comes to worst I could submit Reading Railroad with the free-building endgame, but I'd rather not... it's a whole different game!

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Reading Railroad rules updates

I updated the "official" rules doc. for Reading Railroad in anticipation of the next playtest - which will be who-knows-when. Here's the current value of the things in flux:

* Start with 3 tiles in hand
* Turn options are
- - Make a word, get paid 1/3/6/10/15/21/28 coins for 2/3/4/5/6/7/8 letters
- - Buy track (costs vary) OR a Factory (cost 4 <- who knows if that's good?)
- - Draw tiles (1 + 1/4 city tiles). Factories count as 4 City tiles.
* Investor (!!!) tiles only hurt the player drawing.
- - Pay 1 coin/letter, take 1 debt for each letter you can't pay for.
* Investor (!!!) tiles are replaced
- - Always draw the right number of letter tiles each turn.
* Game ends when someone collects their 16th City tile from the board.
- - Factories count as 4 City tile toward this.
* Maximum total City tiles you can use is based on your largest connected network.
* Endgame words are free form.
- - Points are based on number of letters in the word, squared.
- - I still plan on having some sort of targeted endgame words in the end.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Reading Railroad playtest

I had a good test of Reading Railroad on Friday in which I got some good suggestions from players and cemented an opinion about the Investors that I've been worried about... basically that they don't do what they're supposed to. But that's easily fixed.

The Investor tile makes everyone pay (lose points) for each Resource tile they have in hand. It's supposed to punish people for building up tiles in hand. Of course, that's sort of like gibberish if there's not a good reason to build up tiles. Under the current rules, the only real reason to build up tiles is because you have letters you can't make a word out of. There's not really a strategic reason to build up tiles in hand. I tried to add a strategic reason by adding the coins, but I failed to reward longer words with enough coin for it to matter.

So number 1... I need to change the coin payout to (much) better reward building a longer word, and number 2... the Investor needs to punish the player hoarding tiles, not all the other players. Currently drawing the Investor tile has the following effect: You get penalized a little, but no much because you just spent most or all of your tiles, and everyone else gets penalized for all the tiles they drew at the end of their turn - even if they spent every tile they had before drawing new tiles. That's the opposite of the intent. The Investor should only tax the player drawing tiles.

A minor rule change to go with that... if the Investor hurts only you for hoarding tiles, there's no good reason not to draw another tile to replace it (currently you don't). It would be pretty harsh to get double punished because you happened to draw an Investor tile!

The players had some suggestions about the endgame scoring target words, which have not been implemented yet, but I described after the game. The suggestions were along the lines of having cards with words on them, rather tan the idea I had about having a set group of words (a thematic phrase) on the board. Several of these cards would be face up, and as soon as you've collected the right City tiles to make the word, you can claim the card. You'd 'cash in' your letter tiles to do so.

One suggestion was that there be a larger number of 3 letter word cards (maybe 10), fewer 4 letter words (8?), maybe 6 5-letter words, 4 6-letter words, and 2 7-letter words, and the game would end when one (or 2, or whatever) of the stacks ran out. This would lend validity to a 'short word' strategy vs a 'long word' strategy, and sounds pretty good.

Another suggestion was that the goal cards be like the Tickets I described in my last post in that they have several words on them, so you can choose to score a smaller word, or go for a longer word and risk someone else taking the card out from under you. Under this scheme, there probably wouldn't be private Ticket cards, and there would probably be a pool f N-1 face up cards to work towards (where N is the number of players). When one is scored, another is turned up to replace it. The game end in this case could be all city tiles on the board are used, or the deck is exhausted, or a single player scores 4 cards, or a single player collects a certain number of City Tiles, or anything, really - I'm not sure what would be best.

I'll have to talk to Scott and put some thought into the game end conditions and how exactly to do the endgame scoring words. I think he'll be happy if I quit pushing for private Tickets which you buy - I think that was adding too much complexity for his liking.

In Friday's playtest I also tried another new idea. I thought (and still think) there ought to be a way to invest in getting more tiles at a time, so that you can build up to a bigger word, which you'll play for more Coin. The investment should end up costing you potential endgame, since it will help you get more points in game. It would be an option for someone going for a "Wordsmith" strategy. My idea was to have a "Factory" which you could buy for a number of Coin, and the Factory would count as 4 City tiles, so it would put you up to the next threshold so you would draw 1 more tile per turn. I used a game end trigger of 15 City tiles, so buying a factory means you'll have a MAXIMUM of 11 tiles to use, which seems like it would impact the endgame pretty significantly. In the end though, no one bought a Factory, and the 15 tiles may have proven to make for too short a game. Although, when one player got 15 tiles, another had 14 and the third had about 12. Maybe that's a good enough number of tiles... then again there were several tiles left on the board, and I think it might be better to allow players to collect them.

I think the coin value of letters which I used did not properly reward longer words, so there was still no incentive to save tiles. Therefore the wordsmith strategy didn't make much sense, and nobody was interested in a Factory. Next time I will a triangular payout for words - 0/1/3/6/10/15/21 for 1/2/3/4/5/6/7 letter words. That should give a lot (maybe too much) incentive to store up letters to make bigger words. Contrast that with playing small words to get first dibbs on City tiles, and to get more City tiles overall, not getting hit as hard by the Investor, and not having to know big words and I think that will better represent a wordsmith strategy vs a non-wordsmith strategy.

So to get this game ready for the KublaContest, I need to try it with the new coin payout, see if any sort of Factory idea will work, and figure out endgame scoring. I think it can be done in the next 2 or 3 weeks, and then I can send it in!

Wednesday, April 09, 2008


I just watched a movie with Nicholas Cage called Next, a wholly unspectacular movie about an exceptionally cool character who constantly sees 2 minutes into his own future. Anything that will directly affect him within the next 2 minutes he can see. The implication here is that he can start to do something, and if he doesn't like the outcome (up to 2 minutes down the road), he can instead do something else.

I've been thinking about that ability a lot, and in some respects it's challenging teleportation as the coolest impossible ability ever! Just think - infinite do-overs! And it's "balanced" (to use game terms) because often there are long term ramifications of actions, which won't manifest in 2 minutes. In light of that the ability suddenly doesn't sound so great. However it's still a huge advantage over someone who doesn't get infinite do-overs!

In a lot of ways this ties in to something I've thought about before - the parallel between precogniscience and simply the ability to anticipate really, really well. In the case of the movie, the guy could see things that would affect him, irrespective of where they're coming from or what he could observe otherwise. That's clearly different from observing something and then using logic or physics to determine what will occur next. For example, if I let go of this pen, it will fall to the table - that much I can tell you. In fact, I can "see" enough into the future to put my other hand in the right place to catch the pen. However, I could never anticipate that a bird my boss just let into the office will come screaming around the corner and catch the pen between the time I let go and the time it hits the table - which this guy would see.

My friend Mike was telling me about a game idea he had stemming from a similar precognition ability of certain characters in the book Dune (which I'm not familiar with). His idea was that you could put Prescience tokens on the board, and if an opponent's piece were close enough to it, it would have to do a particular thing... the long and short of it is that you could control your opponents' pieces to an extent by basically saying "I looked into the future and saw you do that" - and therefore they have to do that. He's got some further ideas how that might develop, so I'm interested to see where he goes with it.

I on the other hand am thinking more along the lines of the movie... suppose each player had this ability to see their own future up to 2 minutes. On your turn you could do whatever you want, and if you don't like the outcome you could change your mind and do something else. But you wouldn't be able to repeat the same action looking for a better result, and you wouldn't be able to try everything and pick the outcome you liked best. Any strategy you choose will take more than that turn to unveil, so you wouldn't get complete control over your destiny - but each step along the way you'd get as many do-overs as you like.

I have no idea what the theme, story, or point of this game would be, but I'm amused that this really cool ability could so easily be modeled in a game.

Pop Culture Literacy - Pop Quiz

Comment on this blog post if you caught the Reading Rainbow reference in my previous post.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Butterfly in the sky? No wait, this is Reading Railroad

Scott finally got a chance to playtest his build of Reading Railroad, and since it worked I finally got off my ass and finished my prototype as well. I played a 3 player game using the updated rules Scott sent me after his test. I knew going in that there were a few things I wanted to watch for and likely change. The test went well overall, we were able to play through the entire game, we had fun, and the system definitely seemed to work.

The things I'm looking to change are basically things intended to steer the game toward my original design goal - that you don't have to be a wordsmith to play the game. Also, I'd like to emphasize the in-game point scoring (by making longer words than necessary to connect cities) more, so that it can be a significant source of points in the game.

In game design terms, that is to say terms I personally use when thinking about game design, I'm trying to emphasize a particular SvB. In this case, I'm trying to create interesting choices stemming from the ability to score points either by building bigger words over the course of the game while laying track as cheaply as possible, and forgoing those in-game points in favor of building track to specific cities in order to get the "right" City tiles for endgame scoring. The former strategy I expect will score more points over the course of the game, but will probably end up with suboptimal City tiles or a smaller "biggest network". The latter strategy I expect will yield bigger endgame scores, at the cost of in-game scoring. Thus, we have 2 extreme strategies of which players will do some of each in order to collect enough points to win.

In addition, I'm trying to encourage an additional SvB in the endgame scoring - I plan to have multiple words that can be spelled with City tiles, some small, some large. I'm hoping that there might be a viable "short word" strategy as well as a viable "long word" strategy. The scoring for words will probably continue to be Scott's ingenious idea: [#letters]^2, which would make a longer word worth more points. However, a longer word ought to be more difficult to complete, so shorter words, though less points, could be more guaranteed.

Finally, one more idea I've recently had is to have additional scoring cards one could buy, like a Ticket in Ticket to Ride, which have 3/4/5/6/7 letter words on them which build on each other... for example:
Where you score for the longest word on the card which you can make out of your City Tiles. You would basically pay points for these cards, an investment in the possibility of more points later.

I intend to enter this game in the KublaContest (KublaCon game design contest) this year, which means I should probably get it wrapped up and in the mail fairly soon, it has to arrive by May 12th!

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Details of games played at GameStorm

Before the convention I played a game of Culdcept Saga on the X-box with Jeremy. We had some fun with Culdcept on Playstation a few years ago, so it was nice to reminisce and play the game again. Culdcept is a board game, like a cross between Monopoly and Magic: the Gathering. You roll dice and move forward, but instead of buying properties you play cards with creatures on them to control the space. When landing on an opponent's space, you can pay the "toll" (rent), or you can fight their creature with your own, potentially gaining control of the space. Before rolling the dice, you draw a card and you're allowed to cast a spell (play a card) as well. You can build a deck out of all your cards, much like you can in Magic. It's pretty fun, and sometimes I wonder if it'd be possible to make a board game version - since it is really a board game being played on the console.

Jeremy's game which he invented when he was in Tucson last holiday season. It's a card driven miniatures game with a hex board. Two players face off with 4 characters each. The cards in the game are used for any of 3 possible things - each has an attack and defense value for use in combat, a Special attack/defense/effect that can be played before or instead of combat, and a movement value which indicates both speed (how far you move) and initiative (turn order for the following round). His thoughts were that many games have dual uses for cards, but he couldn't think of any that had 3 uses. Also, one piece of information on the cards (the Move value) is printed on the back of the card, and so is public information which your opponent can use. Honestly, I didn't think i was going to enjoy the game very much, as that kind of thing isn't really my favorite type of game. However I found when playing it that I actually enjoyed it more than I thought I would. It was pretty fun, and in some respects very clever.

Catch of the Day
This prototype by Francois was very different from other games I've played. It's about a group of friends camping, telling tall tales of the fish they caught or the birds/animals/flora they saw. the point of the game isn't so much to actually get the biggest catch of the day, but to claim that you did without anyone being able to refute it. Each player has 12 Time tiles, one for each hour between 7am and 6pm. On a private dry erase board, each player plans their travel for the day - which area on the 4x4 board they plan to spend each hour. Areas on the board have numbered tokens on them in 4 types: Bird/Animal/Flower/Fish. You can stay in the same place hour after hour, or you can move to an adjacent location. After everyone's day is planned out, starting at the Cabin and ending at the Campsite (or vice versa) one player begins to 'tell his story' about his day. Starting at whatever time slot he likes, the 1st player places their tile for that hour on the board and indicates what type of token (bird/animal/fish/flower) they claim to have seen/caught. if noone interrupts them, they take the next sequential hour tile and place that on the board, etc. until they come to 6pm or a time which they've already played, at which time the turn passes to the next player.

Players can interrupt other players in one of 3 different ways. Irrespective of which way the story is interrupted, the interrupting player becomes the active player and can continue to tell his own story. The three ways to interrupt a story are:
1) Spy. From a diagonally adjacent space only, a player can spy on another player. By placing their tile for the same hour as the active player, they can refute the active player's claim, canceling the active player's action and taking over the turn.
2) Pre-empt. By placing an earlier time tile in that same location, a player can assert that "they were there first," thereby taking the token which the active player was claiming for them self.
3) Co-exist. By placing the same time tile in the same area, a player can assert that "they were there too." If 2 or more players were in the same location at the same time, they can negotiate as to who saw what (who gets which tokens). If they cannot agree on who gets a particular tile, then neither one gets it.

The order you play your tiles in is very important for collecting tokens, which count as score. In addition, the largest valued 'catch' for each type each day scores a bonus. You can only keep 8 total catches, so get foiled or spy too often and your score will suffer.

I liked this game a lot. The testers in the game all agreed that the timing rules should be more explicit, and that there could be a way to tie the three days of the game together (long term strategy). But with a few tweaks I think the game is certainly playable and maybe publishable. the fact that it's so different, and that it encourages and rewards storytelling without having to rely on subjective role playing types of rewards is refreshing.

Wabash Cannonball
Wabash Cannonball is a much quicker and more straightforward game than I imagined it would be. I liked the action selection mechanism, but I didn't love the game. At it's core, WC is a stock game, where you invest in the 4 different stocks, and then you try to increase the value of what you invested in. The way you invest is via auction. The way you increase value is by building track. One cool bit is that track is built by the rail company, out of money that was paid by players for stock, not by players themselves.

Some of the things that annoyed me about the game weren't really game issues at all, but production issues. I play a lot of prototypes, and I have no problem playing a game on laminated cardstock with little wooden cubes and cardstock side boards. But when playing a published game, I prefer something nicer looking than a prototype. I wouldn't be interested in paying money for a game that looks like I scrounged it together from what I had at home. In addition to the physical quality, there are player aids packed with information, much of which could easily have been represented better. One type of space on the board shows cost/income bump without development/income bump after development. Another type of space just shows cost, and in the player aid it says that type of space increases income by 1 when built onto, and by 2 when developed. Why would they not simply print that the same way? Why do they even need a player aid?

But that's all cosmetic. The game was somewhat interesting, and I'd play it again, but as I said, I didn't love it. Much of the board felt fairly unnecessary, and it felt a lot like a race toward Chicago, with stocks. Maybe that's just not my thing. I know some people who really like this game and are not fans of economic engine games. I'm the other way around - I prefer economic engines to stock auctions.

Race for the Galaxy
My feeling about Race for the Galaxy is that it's really good 2-player, and it's not that great with 3 or 4. I know some of my friends disagree, some like it better multiplayer, and others don't like it at all. To me, RftG is like Magic. 2 player is a good contest, and you have the right amount of control over what goes on, you can play off your opponent, etc. With more players and just 1 action per turn the game is not as much fun for me, it takes longer, and it seems more chaotic. I wouldn't turn down a game of Race with 3 or 4 players, but I'd much prefer to play 2 player.

Lost Adventures
I've discussed Lost Adventures before - the Indiana Jones game by Jeff Warrender and Steve Sisk. I continue to like the game, and wish I could play it more often. After this weekends playtest I exchanged some emails with the designers. Jeff sent me the latest rulebook, and I noticed the following in the back. It made me feel warm and fuzzy :)
"The designers wish to especially acknowledge the helpful and enthusiastic assistance of Seth Jaffee. Seth has been kind enough to play the game extensively and provide valuable input that has considerably improved the game."

Stone Age
I've been referring to this as "Agricola Light... VERY Light." It's thematically similar, you have a family of tokens which you place to the board to get resources and to do things (in this case buy buildings and cards). Then you have to feed them with food. there's a big penalty if you can't afford to feed people, just like in Agricola. The thing that makes this so much lighter than Agricola is (a) you don't have 14 different things to manage, and (b) the amount of resources you get is somewhat random and determined by rolling dice. You send a number of workers to the Forest, and they come back with some wood. To find out how much, you roll 1d6 per worker and divide the total by 3, rounding down. For clay, divide by 4, stone: divide by 5, gold: divide by 6. So you can send more people to increase our chances, but you can't really guarantee anything. One thing you can do to help get more resources is to get tools, which can be used to increase the die values.

The overwhelming thing that I noticed in Stone Age was that the turn order seemed really significant. New cards and buildings come up each round to replace those bought, and if you're first to go then you get first crack at the cheap or good cards/buildings. In particular there are 2 buildings for which you can use between 1 and 7 resources in any combination, and you get points based on the resources used. These buildings are strictly better than any other building int he game, and in our game they both came up very late in the game when people had resources stocked and enough people and tools to get a lot of resources at a time. So while most buildings are worth 12 or 14 points, these buildings could easily score upwards of 35 points, to a maximum of 42 points if you happen to have stored up a lot of Gold. In our game, one player had stocked up on gold, but the building came up the turn after he was first to play, and of course the new first player chose to build it. She didn't get the 40 points the other guy would have, but she got a decent score and denied him a big score. In the following round the other building like that appeared, and I was first to play. I had very little int he way of resources, but of course I placed on it anyway. then I placed the maximum amount of guys in the Stone-getting space, to get as much Stone as possible. I spent all that stone (7 total) on the building for 35 points. if those building come up late, it's a huge boon for whoever is first player. the cards are similar, but not as bad - no single card seems to be worth tons more than any other.

This turn order effect is a big turn off, but it might not kill the game for me altogether. If nothing else, one could simply remove those 2 buildings, or cap then at 4 resources instead of 7, which would put them at best just a little better than other buildings.

I've always liked Homesteaders, which may explain why I'm such a sheer leader for it. I wanted to make a copy, so I actually designed tiles with all the info for each building because Alex's original prototype had cards in sleeves for each building and it took up way too much space. I don't play the game very often, but I would never turn it down, I just have trouble finding people to play prototypes with me.

Homesteaders is like a cross between Vegas Showdown and Caylus, 2 of the designer's favorite games. Each round (of which there are 10) there is first an auction phase, and then a building phase. At the beginning of each round income is collected from all of your buildings - some buildings automatically generate money or cube income, others need workers present. Then auctions are held for the right to build a certain type of building - there are Residential, Commercial, Industrial and "Special" buildings. There's 1 fewer auction than number of players, so at least 1 player will not win an auction - there's a passing track which is a sort of consolation prize for players who pass rather than win an auction. the rewards for that increase each time you pass, much like the Favor tracks in Caylus.

After the auctions are over, they are resolved - players winning auctions are able to build their choice of buildings in the appropriate type from those available. Buildings cost cubes, and each has some combination of income, effect, and point value. Players can also utilize the market to buy or sell cubes and hire workers. After 10 rounds there is 1 final income phase, and all players get a final chance to use the market and pay off their debt, and then final scores are tallied.

Homesteaders is a very solid, deep, good game. It's the kind of deeper game I'd like to design one day. It's very well balanced and definitely worth being published. I'm excited that Jay is checking it out, and I hope to hear that he wants to publish it! I guess I'll find that out in a couple of weeks.

GameStorm weekend

Last Wednesday I flew to Portland to visit my friend Jeremy from college and to attend GameStorm. GameStorm is a convention with lots of stuff going on, but I was only interested in 2 things, board games, and Protospiel West. In fact, I didn't do much except the Protospiel stuff for most of the weekend. Protospiel is a convention for playtesting prototypes by other designers and giving feedback. Protospiel West is being put together by Travis Ball and Mike Nickoloff from Los Angeles. Mike has a company called Sorvent which is intended to help designers get their games to market. Here's how it went:

First, I spent Thursday with Jeremy and Amelia in their apartment in Salem. We played 2 games of Pandemic, which I'd gotten them as a gift for putting me up all weekend, and Jeremy and I played some Rock Band, Culdcept Saga on the Xbox, and even drafted a couple packs of Magic. We also played a game of his design called Arena, which he'd thought up when he was in Tucson over the holidays. He'd put together a prototype and so we played a game. It took a long time, but I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would. I'll give more details on the game later.

Friday morning Jeremy and I drove up to Portland where he has a condo they're going to move into soon. The condo is brand new, and has absolutely no furniture, so we were "urban camping" all weekend. After a stop there and a quick lunch, we ended up at the convention in time for the first Protospiel West event of the day. Both Jeremy and I played a game called Catch of the Day by Francois (I didn't catch his last name) from Canada. I'll describe the game later, I enjoyed it quite a bit. Much more than I thought I would. I also played BrainFreeze! with Jeremy, and showed Love Means Nothing to him and Francois.

In the Friday night session of Protospiel I ran Terra Prime with myself, Travis, Jeff, and Jonathan playing. The game went well, and the players seemed to like it. Many of the comments afterwards focused on things that could have improved the prototype, and about how many games should be played to test balance. Having played 50 games of Terra Prime I think the balance is pretty good. there were some good, meaty comments made as well, one in particular which I'd like to explore is making the blue and green planets in the further reaches of space produce more than 1 resource at a time. this might help increase their value. Other questions I'm pondering are whether there needs to be a VP given when someone uses your colony (though I like that, even if it doesn't necessarily do anything), or whether to change the way movement works, as some players feel that many of their actions are "wasted" moving from sector to sector.

Jeremy played Arena with Mike, and got some interesting feedback there.

Jeremy and I checked out the main board gaming room as well, and in particular we learned how to play Wabash Cannonball by watching the explanation. Since the game is short, we stuck around and played it after the first group finished. I'm not sure I love the game, but I don't think it's bad either. I don't like that the production quality is so low... I'd left the prototype room and here I was playing a game on laminated cardstock...

In the interim between some of these things I talked Jeremy into playing some Race for the Galaxy, which I know he hates, but which I though he'd like better after playing some more.

Late Friday night we played a few games of Werewolf, which is always fun. There were 32 people though, which means it's a little crazy, and people pretty much avoid logic and go by mob-rule often. Nonetheless, the first game we played I was a Werewolf, and if I do say so myself, I did a really good job :) I threw a fellow werewolf to the wolves (?) for the good of the team, and I convinced several people I was a villager... In the second game I was a werewolf again, but frankly I didn't stand a chance - partly because of he previous game, and partly because (as Jeremy noted) if I were a villager, the werewolves would likely have eaten me very early. They of course did not, and that was something of a giveaway I guess. In one other game I was a villager, and we were down to the wire - one more incorrect lynching and we would lose. It so happened that the seer knew who *2* of the werewolves were, as well as 2 villagers, but she didn't say anything! Needless to say we lost that one.

Saturday we returned and found that Jay Tummelson of Rio Grande Games was scheduled to meet for 15 minutes at a time with designers so they could pitch their games. I hadn't signed up, and the list was long, but the reality was that there could be time in the schedule as some people may finish early or not be there on time, and it seemed like a bad plan to pass on this opportunity to show my games to a publisher. Jay doesn't accept submissions, he'll only consider games shown to him in person. So I set up Terra Prime and Wizard's Tower on one of the tables in case I got a chance to pitch it. While we waited, we played 2 games of Wizard's Tower. First a 2 player game between me and Jeremy, and then a three player game with Jeff, another designer who had playtested Terra Prime the day before, and who had just pitched his abstract game to Jay right next to us. The 2 player game was incredibly close, a 1 point game, after Jeremy destroyed several of my towers. The 3 player game was good too, with towers destroyed all around.

Unfortunately the session ended before I got a chance to pitch my games, but Travis had set up a time in the morning for me and for Bo to meet with Jay for a longer period of time, since we each had several games to pitch. With about an hour before the next official Protospiel session started, I began to show Jeremy and Jeff my copy of Lost Adventures, the Indiana Jones game by Jeff Warrander and Steve Sisk. we went through the rules and started to play, so when the session started we just kept going. The game ran longer than I'd have thought, but we were talking and sort of messing around part of the time. The turn before the Nazis would find the temple, Jeff revealed it's location to draw some cards. This allowed me to actually dig for the temple before the Nazis found it, earning me the point for that. Jeremy and I headed into the temple with some cards in hand, while Jeff decided to hang back and draw for a few turns. Instead of leapfrogging Jeremy and entering the next room, I decided to let him blaze the trail. This turned out to be a bad idea, as he collected all of the torches strewn about the temple while I got nothing. In the end I delayed the Nazis from finding the grail for one last turn, hoping I'd have a chance to get to the grail room and find the grail, but all that did was allow Jeremy the time to get his pick (he had a 50-50 shot) of grails to a Font and test it... it turned out to be the true grail, so he scored about 5 or 6 extra points for that, finishing the game with 14 points to my 8. Jeff didn't fare as well, scoring only about 4 points. I enjoyed the game, as usual, and I think they did too. we discussed a couple ways to make it better, and the biggest comment was probably to get rid of the revelation mechanic.

At the end of the game Jay was in the room again, and I asked if he had time to look at another game. I had Homesteaders with me which I thought would be a much better fit for Rio Grande, but I wanted to use my allotted time to show him my own games. He said sure, but he had to get back to the main board game room. Unfortunately when I went over there, I couldn't find him anywhere. Meanwhile, Jeremy ran his Arena game again with 2 playtesters.

Later in the evening we saw Jay again, and he said he'd teach Stone Age to Jeremy, Jeff, and I. We had seen the game being played and got a lowdown on the rules earlier in the day, and it looked pretty cool. We sat down to play along with Rachel (the person who taught us Wabash Cannonball), and after about an hour of just talking with Jay and asking him questions, we finally began.

The next morning I didn't want to be late for my scheduled meeting with Jay, so we made sure to get there in time. I pitched Terra Prime and Wizard's Tower to him, and also talked about All For One (but I didn't have a copy with me to show him). As expected, he was not at all interested in Wizard's Tower, as it's an abstract game. However I was surprised at just how disinterested he was in Terra Prime. I'm something of a pessimist, so I didn't expect him to jump at the chance to publish it or anything, but his response was "it just doesn't excite me *shrug*" Maybe for the best, as that game is being reviewed by a different publisher at the moment anyway, so if Rio Grand was all of a sudden interested I'd have other problems.

It had been a while since Jeremy and I had been to a Magic tournament, so we decided to play in the booster draft that was on the schedule: Lorwyn-Lorwyn-Morningtide. We ended up sitting next to each other, and Jeremy passed me good red card after good red card. I passed him a number of good black cards as well. I ended up playing a mono-red deck with a lot of very good cards in it, and I won the whole thing. Frankly though, that's not saying much, as the competition wasn't exactly pro caliber or anything. After one match, my opponent mentioned that there was no need to have more creature D in the deck than your opponent has creatures, and evidently he was passing terrific creature D cards up in favor of mediocre creatures which weren't even in his main color. I didn't feel the least bit bad beating that guy.

After the Magic tournament, the convention had pretty much cleared out. There were a handful of people in the main boardgame room, but that was it. Mike had said he'd play Homesteaders with us after the Magic tournament, but he was nowhere to be found, so after getting some food, Jeremy and I ended up talking to Jay some more as he had just finished teaching Stone Age again. That guy is full of amusing stories! I told him that I had a game to show him that was likely more up his alley, and that we were going to play it as soon as Mike got back, and he said he'd take a look. When Mike arrived we set up the game and I started explaining it. Jay said he had just 1 question... could he bring a copy to the Gathering to test.


I had kinda watched Jay's reactions to the games he was looking at earlier, and he didn't seem very excited about any of them (I heard he was at least a little interested in Catch of the Day). His reaction to Homesteaders looked entirely different, he really seemed interested, and he did ask for a copy of the game to test. Now this game isn't mine, it's my friend Alex Rockwell's, but he's told me before that if I wanted to help get it published, he was all for that. So I left my copy with Jay to take with him, and I look forward to hearing his thoughts on it after the Gathering. It's a good game, and it's the kind of thing Rio Grande would publish, so maybe he'll be interested... who knows? :)

Finally, I ended my weekend by getting up at 5am to make my 7:00 flight. after 5 hours on a plane I went straight in to work, and was so tired by the time I got home that I skipped frisbee practice, fell asleep early, and slept for 11 or 12 hours straight!

I'll post some details of the games I played in another post since this one got long.