Friday, November 28, 2008

BGG.con 2008 report

Last week I made my annual pilgrimage to Dallas to visit my friend Brian and to attend BGG.con - the annual open gaming convention put on by the guys who run the BoardGameGeek website.

BGG.con is my favorite convention for a number of reasons: the people, the new games (it's hot on the heels of Essen), the atmosphere, the timing... it's a lot of fun, I haven't missed one yet, and I don't plan to miss it in the future.

I wrote up my experience at this year's convention in a Geeklist. Feel free to peruse it if you like.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

A flurry of Cooperative games!

No fewer than 6 cooperative games came out recently, and I was anxious to try some of them to see what they're gimmick was, and to see how they tried to make a game where multiple players can (or better, have to) work in concert to win rather than the loudest, most experienced, or bossiest player playing while everyone else watches.

Space Alert has time pressure and hidden cards indicating what players have the possibility of doing, making it hard or impossible for one person to micromanage everyone's turn. That's a step in the right direction, though I'm not sure if Space Alert succeeds - I liked it at first (played it 6 times in a row, training through 1st mission), then later played it once and thought it was horribly boring.

Battlestar Galactica has the traitor mechanism from Shadows over Camelot, and it has it in spades. BSG isn't so much a cooperative game as a team game, maybe that should really be it's own category. In any event, it tries to keep 1 player from playing everyone's turn by stating up front that player could very well be working against you!

Ghost Stories felt like a step backwards in the development of the genre. It makes no attempt to fix what I believe is the biggest failing of most cooperative games (and perhaps, the entire genre) - it's solitaire.

It's not even multiplayer solitaire... one person can just play the game all by themselves. All weekend at BGG.con people were loving the game and talking about how hard it was, but I'm not sure that "hard" should correlate to "chances it's impossible to win, whether you know it or not." Pandemic suffers from that, some games you can't possibly win, but you don't know that until after you play.

So far the cooperative game that I think promotes teamwork the best is Pandemic. Space Alert with a crew that does a better job of communicating (as opposed to everyone shouting out what they can do, which I heard a lot this weekend) might do a better job, but so far I've not seen it. It's odd to say that Pandemic promotes teamwork when people can just turn their hands face up and one player can play the whole game... but in my experience if you don't turn your hand face up, you actually have to talk to your friends to formulate that good plan, and somehow that feels more like teamwork to me.

There are some more cooperative games that I didn't try, such as Red November, whose gimmick I heard was that any player can turn traitor at any time, but if you don't do it right then you lose. I didn't hear much good about Red November. I did play a prototype of a Pandemic expansion - that was pretty cool. There were new roles, some more similar to the old ones than others. Also they added Viral Epidemics - which make one color (at random) worse than the others. When an Epidemic is drawn, it indicates something bad that happens with the viral color. It serves to prioritize the colors differently because even if Yellow isn't as bad off as Black on the board, you have to count each Yellow outbreak twice (for example).

I'm convinced that a real cooperative game, a game in which players are doing they're own thing but are encouraged to cooperate, will require some hidden information that can't be known by all players. I think time pressure will help keep one player from playing for everyone else as well, but there has to be some ability to overlap my task with yours so I can help you if you need me to. Maybe with this flurry of cooperative games on the market I'll attempt to put my vision for that genre together. My chosen theme so far is the TV show 24, where players play CTU agents cooperating to thwart a terrorist plot. Players will be able to utilize Jack Bauer as an NPC, but they are all generic agents, and at a certain point in the game you can find out that you're actually a traitor. If that happens you'll need to bring the game to a close quickly, because if you wait too long, you may turn back into a non-traitor player! It seems to me that kind of thing happened all the time in the first season.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Rules for "Alternate" Winds of Fate

15 Destiny cards (5@ Safe/Death/Stranded)
50(?) Adventure cards (2 suits, Help/Hinder)
30 Crew tokens
1 Odysseus counter
1 Round counter
30 Player markers in 5 colors
supply of scoring chits
supply of Bet Chips
5 Turn Order tiles
8 Reward Tiles
9 Encounter Tiles
6 God Cards

Each player begins the game with:
3 Bet Chips
3 Destiny cards (Safe/Death/Stranded)
6(?) Adventure cards in hand

The board is set up as normal - 9 Encounter tiles distributed randomly. Odysseus marker begins at Troy. Starting crew depends on number of players:
3 players: 20 crew
4 players: 25 crew
5 players: 30 crew

Each round consists of an Encounter phase followed by an Adventure phase. In the Encounter phase, Odysseus and his crew travel from one Encounter tile to the next. The path taken (Calm vs Stormy) depends on the outcome of the previous Adventure - if Odysseus won the adventure, he takes the Calm path. If he lost the adventure, the stormy path is followed. The Encounter tile will indicate any effect it has, follow the instructions on the tile before proceeding to the Adventure phase. Reward Tiles are drawn (as many as there are players in the game) and displayed.

In the Adventure phase players play cards to aid Odysseus in the adventure or hinder him. At the end, the gods Athena and Poseidon weigh in and the Adventure is resolved. In player order, players take turns either playing an Adventure card face down in front of them, or passing. Once a player passes, they no longer participate in the Adventure. Once a player has played an Adventure card to either Help or Hinder Odysseus, all subsequent Adventure cards played during that Adventure must follow suit. When a player passes, they take the lowest turn order marker available such that the first player to pass will play last in the following round, and the last player to pass will play first.

After all players have passed, reveal the top God card and all played cards. Athena cards count toward Helping Odysseus, Poseidon cards count toward Hindering. If the total value of all Help cards meets or exceeds the total value of all Hinder cards, then Odysseus has won the adventure! Otherwise, he has lost the Adventure, and a number of crew is lost equal to the value of the God card (even if the God card pictures Athena).

After the adventure is resolved, players take the consolations listed on the turn order tiles and in turn order draft the Reward Tiles on display. These rewards indicate some number of cards or Victory Points, or the opportunity to take a new Bet chip, place a bet, or move a bet. After the rewards are taken, advance the Round counter and move Odysseus to the next Encounter tile along the appropriate path (Stormy/Calm) depending on the outcome of the last adventure.

Scoring in this version of the game is based on placing bets. There are 2 types of bets players will place, a Destiny bet (HOW the game will end - what Odysseus' fate will be: Safe return home, Death, Stranded at sea) and a Timeline bet (WHEN the game will end). The game ends when one of three things happens:
1. Odysseus arrives at Ithaca and survives the Adventure there
2. Odysseus loses all of his crew
3. Odysseus runs out of time (12 rounds)

At the beginning of the game, each player takes one of their Destiny cards indicating which of the 3 game end conditions they think will occur, and place it prominently in front of them face down. At certain points during the game (when passing in an Adventure without having played a card) the player can switch their Destiny card with one of the other 2. At the end of the game, the Destiny cards are revealed and a 10 point bonus is scored by all players who's Destiny card matches the actual game end condition.

When instructed to PLACE A BET, a player may take a Bet chip (assuming they have one) and place it on the Round track. They are betting that the game will end on that round. Additional chips are added to the bet from the supply - 1 for each round between the current round and the round the bet is made on. For example, if it is currently round 2, and you place a bet on round 6, 4 additional chips are placed on your bet chip. The player then places an ownership marker of their color on the stack to indicate who's bet it is. At the end of the game players are paid for their bets. Each stack is paid to it's owner, with a penalty for inaccuracy: players are penalized 1/3/6/10/15 chips for being off by 1/2/3/4/5 rounds in either direction. For example, our round 6 bet, made in round 2 has a total of 5 chips (the bet chip plus 4 additional chips). If the game ends in round 8, our payout is 5-3=2.

After all bets are paid out players score 2 points for each Bet Chip they have. This score is added to the victory points collected during the game and the 10 point bonus for the Destiny bet for a final score. The player with he most points, wins. In the case of a tie, the player with the earliest final turn order is the winner.

Alternate Winds of Fate structure

Randall McClain (Nando on BGDF) - the person who's original idea Winds of Fate was for a Game Design Showdown entry - has been thinking along other lines for this game. Here's what he feels is probably the best structure.

Like my basic skeleton, his idea still has episodes, resolved one at a time via card play as I've suggested (a la Beowulf or Taj Mahal), but instead of this new "invest in Odysseus' safe return" mechanism, Nando suggests players place bets on 2 things:

(1) A timeline - WHEN will the game end? How many more rounds?
(2) A result - HOW will the game end? Will Odysseus return safely home? Will he die trying? Or will he become stranded at sea?

Mechanics for this have been floating around in my mind, but basically they're to the effect of this: Players would begin the game with some limited supply of Betting chips - like the Coins I've been talking about perhaps. At discreet times during the game, players will be allowed to place these bets on the timeline, thereby betting the game will last a certain number of turns. The further away that point is from the time of the bet, the higher the maximum payout will be, and that payout will be reduced for inaccuracy. A nice way to calculate the payout is that you bet the game will last N more rounds, and the payout is = N-(1/round missed by). For example, if you be the game will last 8 more rounds, and it ends in 6, then you are off by 2. Your payout is 8-2=6.

In addition, players would place a side bet on HOW the game would end - Safe Return vs Death vs Stranded (I'm not really sure there needs to be a difference between Stranded and Death, but maybe 3 possibilities is better than 2). At the end of the game players would earn a bonus if they have bet correctly as to how the game ended.

Initially I thought the HOW bet would be a secret, and could change at certain times during the game (at a cost), and that the WHEN bet would be public info. However I quickly realized that your HOW bet might become obvious through your actions, while your WHEN bet would not, so the other way around would probably be more fun.

Then again, the mechanisms I have in mind for making these WHEN bets involve public info, so maybe everything could be in the open. Or - if there are 3 HOW results, maybe secret goals there is ok... "Is he aiding this adventure because he want's Odysseus to make it home, or because he wants to strand Odysseus at sea?"

I'll keep this in mind as an alternative 0 I'd like to try both versions and see which is more fun.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Another Winds of Fate epiphony

As I've mentioned, I've been trying to work on Odysseus: Winds of Fate recently. I haven't been as diligent as I'd hoped, but I did get a chance to discuss the game with Mike Nickoloff at RinCon the other week, and think about a couple of aspects. The current plan is to have a prototype to test at BGG.con this week - which gives me about a day and a half to get it ready.

I gave some thought to the player rewards for each adventure, and I'm (finally) making tokens for them. Here's the epiphany I had today though:

In Taj Mahal there is an additional reward for dropping from an auction without playing any cards. This makes sense, you're giving up any chance of gaining any points at all in order to sort of reload. Since my main mechanism for resolving adventures is similar, it stands to reason that there should also be some reward for dropping without playing any cards - a consolation for not having any say whatsoever on the outcome of the adventure, which contributes to the outcome of Odysseus' overall journey.

Originally I thought maybe drawing additional cards would be the obvious way to go. Then I realized that maybe that would be a good opportunity to allow additional opportunities to 'invest' in the game end! If a player drops early (without participating in the Adventure) then they get no say in the impact that adventure will have on Odysseus' "stock" (the value of a Safe Return). So it would be cool if that's the price you have to pay to make a (potentially lucrative) investment.

The cost of that investment (I'm going to talk about it like "buying a share" in Odysseus' safe return home) will depend on Odysseus' current position on the board. The board is a 3x3 array of Encounter tiles which Odysseus will traverse more or less from left to right. The left column will amount to a cost of 1 coin per share. In the middle column a share will cost 2 coins. In the rightmost column a share will cost 3 coins.

I like the sound of this!

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Recent gaming: Shadows over Camelot: Merlin's Company and Dominion

Shadows Over Camelot: Merlin's Company
My roommate won Merlin's Company in a drawing on BGG, so he bought Shadows Over Camelot in anticipation. For a long time the expansion never came, and when I asked him about it he said he tried to email Days of Wonder about it, but he wasn't sure if the email actually went or something, and that he didn't want to deal with it. "That's silly" I thought, so I emailed Days of Wonder on his behalf inquiring about the prize, and they said it had been returned in the mail back in August! While I don't know why they wouldn't have tried to contact Ben about this, I gave them the correct address and they said they'd resend it the next day - and what do you know, a few days later it arrived!

Friday I finally got a chance to try the game with the expansion, and with 8 people, 1 traitor in the mix for sure, probably 2. The group may not have been the best for that kind of experience, as one loyal player did some blatantly awful things like a false accusation, letting a fairly obvious traitor out of prison* and suggesting they also make a (false) accusation. If not for his behavior, I would have been convinced I knew the identity of the other traitor (and would have been correct), but he talked me out of it.

* In Merlin's Company, whenever a player tries to move to a quest he has to draw a Travel card which has some effect. Sometimes nothing happens, sometimes Merlin accompanies you on the quest (which is good in general, but if you liked where he was before then it can actually be a detriment to move him away from there)... but most of the time the travel card is a nuisance which makes you discard some cards, fight a siege engine, or simply lose your turn. Knowing the contents of the travel deck one can protect against it by carrying a Grail card and a pair of fight cards that they don't otherwise need (preferably 3's or better, so that you have a good chance vs that siege engine if need be) at all times, but that's a lot of work. If you don't prepare like that then you run the risk of losing your entire turn trying to move and failing. One of the cards is called CAPTURED! which not only ends your turn, but says that your turn is skipped until someone discards a special card as their Heroic action - so not only does the captured player lose their heroic action, but so does one other player, AND the knights lose a special white card, AND whatever quest the captured player was going to advance is delayed AND they have to try and move there again in the future!

I think what I'm saying is that I don't like the expansion much. The up-side is that you get Merlin, who hands out white cards to players for free, but the up side doesn't seem to me to be all that attractive compared to players simply having to lose their turns in a game where you only get to do 1 thing on your turn then wait a while for your next turn.

One good thing about that Captured! card is that if a player who you suspect is the traitor is captured, they not only have to skip their turn (unable to wreak havoc), but at the end of the game, if they're still captured, then they don't get to turn 2 swords from white to black!

In other news, I finally played the "new hotness" - Dominion. I played it "irl" at the RinCon game convention last week, and then I figured out how to make BSW work on my computer again (firewall was blocking it) and I've played a handful of times on there. As with Race for the Galaxy and Magic: the Gathering, I prefer Dominion as a 2-player experience, but in this case I'm more tolerant of the multiplayer game than I am with those other two card games.

Dominion is a game of competitive deck building. You begin with a small deck of 7 coins (copper, value = 1) and 3 Estates (worth 1 VP, but useless otherwise). Each game there are cards you can buy into your deck, there are Treasure cards (Copper, Silver, and Gold) which you use to buy other cards, Victory cards (Estate, Duchy, and Province) which count as victory points toward winning, and Kingdom cards (there are 25 different cards) which do different things to help you build your deck. Each game you use only 10 of those 25 Kingdom cards, so the ones you want to add to your deck will be different depending on what combination of cards are available. There will be 10 of each of the 10 Kingdom cards.

On your turn, you get to do 1 Action, and then 1 Buy, then you put all the cards you played, bought, and those left in your hand into the discard pile and draw a new hand of 5 cards for next turn. Your discard pile will cycle through back into your deck when you run out of cards to draw. An Action means playing one of the Kingdom cards, which give you some effect and might give you additional Actions or Buys to use that turn, or money to spend that turn. The idea is that you buy cards which will help construct a deck that does what you want, with the goal being to have the most Victory Points in your deck when the game ends - when 3 of the piles of cards run out (get bought up).

That's it. Dominion is pretty simple rules-wise. The effects of the cards in combination with each other is what makes each game interesting. You are trying to build a deck which performs well, while other players are trying to do the same thing. The number of each card is limited, and buying the popular ones up hastens the game end. The trick is that all these neat Kingdom cards don't actually count toward winning, so you have to figure out how to translate their effects into buying Victory cards. Some people online have suggested that the hands play themselves, but that there's some interesting decisions in which cards to purchase. I disagree. Of course it depends on which cards are available and which cards you buy - if you only draw 1 Action card, then you can only play that card. In that respect your hand plays itself... but in many cases you can be building a deck that contains card combinations which lend themselves to more choice. Sometimes it feels like I'm playing an old Magic combo deck, drawing card after card, getting lots of actions, and ending up having played half of my deck each turn. And in any case, whenever you have a Buy to make there's a choice which can be very significant.

In the end, I like Dominion pretty well. I think it takes long enough to set up that it can be annoying, but if you're playing several games in a row then maybe it's acceptable. I wouldn't want to lug out all the tiny 10 card decks and everything just to play 1 hand and then pack it all back up. It's cool that you can play online, but with laggy connections and long stings of cards to play I don't love waiting for my turn to come around in a 4 player game. But as I said, multiplayer Dominion is a lot more tolerable than multiplayer Race or Magic. I really like the competitive deck building feel I get from playing Dominion.