Sunday, March 28, 2010

Board game inspired by Craps

On the way home from GAMA Trade Show in Las Vegas the other day I started thinking about using a dynamic from Craps as the backbone of a board game. When I play Craps, I stick to the strategy of "minimum bet on the pass line, maximum bet on the free odds," because as I understand it, that's the best odds you're going to get in Vegas. Most of he bets on the Craps table are lousy, but the free odds are the best deal you're going to get.

So what I do is bet on the pass line, and when a point is established I put full odds behind the line, and then place a Come bet (which is just like the Pass line when there's already a point established). Then I back that up with full odds as well, etc. On a good, long roll where lots of different numbers come up and no 7's come up, it can get to a point where almost any roll is income for me, and the only bad roll is a 7. Obviously if the 7 comes up before any of those bets pay off, then that's terrible, but if those bets hit before the 7 comes up then I haven't lost anything (in fact I've won a little), and if they hit a second time before the 7 comes, then I'm winning money!

So here's what I've got so far for a board game based on this mechanism:

Let's say there's a small deck of cards which have jobs on them, jobs of type A, B and C. Job A is more rare than B, which is in turn more rare than C... Job A is like rolling 4 or 10, B equates to 5 or 9, and C equates to 6 or 8. Maybe there's actually 6 types of jobs, each correlating to the numbers 4, 5, 6, 8, 9 and 10.

There are also cards in the deck that say "Cancel Job A" (similar cards for all job types), and at least 1 "Cancel ALL jobs" card. This deck will replace the die rolls on the craps table. Players will have a small number of workers in their color, let's call them Managers.
There will be generic workers as well, we'll call them Day Laborers.

At the beginning of each round, each player has an opportunity to 'look for work' by sending 1 (maybe more) of their Managers to a particular space on the board (the "pass line" equivalent). Then you flip the top card of the deck, indicating what type of job is available. Your managers must then move to that job, and you are allowed to send some number of Day Laborers with them. The maximum number of Day Laborers you can send will be 3, 4, or 5 per manager, depending on the job (type A = 3x, type B = 4x, Type C = 5x) - just like in Craps.

In future rounds, if a card comes up canceling a job that you have workers on, you'll get your Managers back, but your Day Laborers will get upset and leave (you lose them). If another card for that job comes up before that though, you'll get paid money for each of your Day Laborers, and maybe you get a new Laborer for each of your Managers (but no money), and you get them all back. If you had "looked for work" again that round, you could use these returned Laborers to "bet on the odds" with the Manager you had used that turn. If a "job canceled" card comes up then you lose your bets for that job, but if you were looking for work (a Come bet) then you get something - maybe a new Day Laborer to work with.

That's all I have so far. I think there might have to be something else to do with Managers (and maybe Laborers) so that it's not simply betting on the card flips and seeing who is more lucky. I imagine strategies such as "commit more workers to a particular job, for a big payoff when that job comes up" and "commit fewer workers to each job, but commit workers to more jobs overall, so that you can get more, smaller payouts whose sum will be bigger than the big payout."

Maybe another aspect of the game could involve investing in making you better at particular types of jobs. You could get tiles which give you additional money for particular types of jobs, or which insulate your risk for certain types of jobs (you get your workers back, even if it's canceled for example), or perhaps something that allows you to look at the top 3 cards of the deck and re-order them, giving you a lot of information for the upcoming couple of turns.

I wasn't planning on modeling other Craps bets, but it wouldn't be difficult to mark a subset of the Type A jobs a certain way, effectively making them the "Hard Way bets" - a double 2's version of Job A, compared to the other versions (1-3 or 3-1). Players could easily place a manager on some space that equates to betting on the special case version of Job A coming up.

Overall the main mechanism of the game would be like playing Craps with a "Deck of Dice." Anyone have any thoughts on this??

Saturday, March 27, 2010

GAMA Trade Show

I just got back from GAMA trade show in Las Vegas. I had a fun trip overall with Mike and our friend Tyler. Our mission was to get as many retailers as possible to sign up for Tasty Minstrel's Retailer Mailing List. We got a lot of contact info and handed out a lot of plush dragons. I also got to say hello to some people and do some networking. I looked at some games from some designers, and I believe James Earnest will be sending me one of his games to see if Tasty Minstrel wants to publish it. James no longer publishes his own games, he just takes the ones he thinks are really good and shops them around to publishers. I think it would be good to get a couple good games from some well known designers into Tasty Minstrel's line, so I look forward to seeing what James sends me.

On that note, I got a submission from Bruno Faidutti the other day. I had just enough time to print and cut a copy of it before jumping in a car to Vegas - I'd hoped to get a chance to play it there. Unfortunately that didn't happen, but I hope to give it a try on Monday.

The only games I played at the show were...
Eminent Domain: I played a couple games of ED with a few people, and it went over pretty well.

Terra Prime: I didn't play Terra Prime, but I gave a lot of retailers the quick description of it.

Homesteaders: I demo'ed Homesteaders 2 or 3 times during the PSI sponsored Game Night.

Ascension: Rob Dougherty, a name I recognize from the old Magic: The gathering days, was demoing a deck building game called Ascension. I played 3 games of it (and won all three, yay!) and was interested because I'm also working on a deck building game. I feel that Eminent Domain is a different scope from Ascension, just as it's also not really in the same category as Thunderstone or Dominion as a straight deck building game. The whole idea was to use deck building as a mechanism in a larger game.

At the show I also got my hands on a couple new games that I'd like to try out:
Space Junkyard by Mayday Games didn't look that great at first, but reading the rules it sounds pretty interesting. I also picked up a copy of Merchants, by Catalyst Games - a Reiner Knizia game that looked interesting.

I'm looking forward to playing some of these games!

Monday, March 22, 2010

ED endgame data

Looking through the record sheets for the last few games of Eminent Domain (mostly 4 player, 1 3p) it appears that if I change the end condition to "2 piles exhausted" and then reduce the piles to 12 cards each, the game should end in about 10 rounds for 4 players. The 3 player game would also have ended in Round 10. I think that sounds about right. 8 round games have definitely felt too short. 9 rounds was less bad. The 10 round 4p game we played at Gamesmiths felt pretty darn good. The 13 round 4p game we played last Saturday (2 piles exhausted and VPs ran out the same round) was way too long. In all those cases, a 2-pile exhaustion endgame trigger and 12 cards per pile would have made for a game that lasted 10 rounds.

I think a 10/11 round game is a good length. 9 is acceptable for a "short" game (not a typical game), and 12 rounds should be fine as a "long" game.

In addition, I think I'll start finishing out the round once the endgame is triggered so that every player has the same number of turns. It is so disappointing when you get fewer turns then someone, and they end the game while you are 1 action away from Colonizing a planet or trading a bunch of resources. If you can't reasonably do anything on your turn, then so be it, but if you CAN, it's too annoying not to be able to. If everyone has the same number of turns I think it'll feel more fair.

If this game end condition holds up and proves to work for all player counts, I'll be impressed, surprised, and happy! :)

Friday, March 19, 2010

Recent Gaming: Macao

I finally got a chance to play Macao last night with Wystan and John. I've been looking forward to trying it because it has a really neat sounding mechanism wherein you choose resources based on die rolls, and the larger number of resources you take, the longer you have to wait to get them. Specifically the game works like this:

Each round (there are 12) you first draw some cards which will be available for the players to draft. 2 of these cards are known ahead of time, but the others are drawn randomly. Each card has numbers in the bottom left and right corners that are summed to indicate the cost of buying Prestige at the market this turn - the left numbers make up the cost in gold, the right numbers make up the amount of Prestige you get.

In turn order, players must draft one of the cards and place it on their player board, which is like a buffer or way station en route to getting the card into play. If your buffer is full when you draft a card, you simply remove a card to make space - and you incur a penalty of 3 points, so you are encouraged not to let that happen.

After this draft is complete, some dice are rolled - there are 6 different colors of resources in the game, and there is 1 6-sided die for each color. Once rolled, each player may choose 2 of the 6 dice for which to collect resource cubes. The number on the die indicates how many cubes you can collect, but the catch is that you don't actually GET the cubes for that number of turns... so if you choose the 6 blue die, you'll get 6 blue resources, but not until 6 turns from now. This is tracked by placing the cubes in the appropriate location around your hexagonal player aid tile, which you then rotate 30% (1 space) and collect any cubes it's now pointing to. I'll note that since you rotate the thing right after choosing the cubes, you really only wait N-1 turns to get them (or 5 turns for those 6 blue cubes in the example above). If ever you collect zero cubes after rotating your thingamajig, then you are penalized another 3 points! So it's always good to make sure you'll have something coming each turn.

Now, in turn order, players execute their turn doing any or all of the following, in any order they like:

Activate a card: I dislike the word choice here, but Activating a card means means purchasing the card from your buffer board and putting it into play in front of you. Each card indicates its cost in cubes. Activating a card has nothing to do with USING the card!

Use cards in play: Once cards are in play, many of them can be used once per turn to do something: Collect a cube of a certain type, Trade in a cube of a certain type for a Gold coin, etc. Those are the main abilities, but there are a few others like "advance on the turn order track if you are the furthest behind on it" and whatnot.

Purchase *1* City space: On the board there are a bunch of city spaces that cost some number of cubes. You're allowed to buy at most 1 per turn, and when you do you collect the Goods marker that was placed on it (randomly) at the beginning of the game. The rest of the board depicts sea routes and islands which you can sail your boat to, and when you get to one of these islands you can deliver the goods you have collected to it and score some Prestige.

Purchase Prestige for Gold: Once per turn you can purchase some number of Prestige points for some number of Gold coins. These numbers were set at the beginning of the round by the randomly drawn cards from 7 paragraphs ago. These values fluctuate so some turns it's more efficient than other turns, but even if less efficient VP/$-wise, there's also the once per turn limit to consider. If you have the money, then buying 9 VP for $7 might be a good idea even if it's a bad conversion rate, because it's still 9 points you weren't getting otherwise.

Advance on Wall: The "Wall" is a track on which each player has a turn order marker. It works a lot like the People track in In the Year of the Dragon or the Popularity track in Ground Floor. Furthest down the track goes first, and turns proceed in order down the track. If multiple markers are stacked on the same space, then the one on top goes before the one below it. It costs 1 cube (any type) to advance 1 space on this track, and 2 cubes to advance each additional space, so if you want to go first, you can spend some of your cubes to do so.

Advance your boat: You can spend as many cubes as you like to advance your boat that number of spaces. There are specific routes printed on the board going between 6 different islands. Each island demands one of the types of Goods, and will pay 5 Prestige for the first, 3 Prestige for the 2nd, and 2 Prestige for the third good delivered. It's possible to score multiples of these at once if you arrive at the island in possession of multiple goods.

At the end of the turn, any cubes you have leftover are discarded, so if nothing else you end up using them to move your boat or advance along the Wall.

That's it - once each player has taken their turn, you move to the next round... reveal new cards and start the whole shebang again. Near the end of the game, when there are fewer than 6 turns remaining, die values which are too big to be realized anymore are treated as if they rolled 1.

I found the game fun and interesting, though frankly I was a bit put off by the lack of ability to plan. Short term planning is sketchy because you don't know what will be rolled and therefore have no idea what cubes you'll have access to (or when) as you draft your card for the round. Long term planning is also sketchy because while you know a couple of the cards that will come out down the road, you will likely prefer different ones when the time comes, so you have little to base your choice on what larger quantities of cubes to take. Don't get me wrong, I don't think the game needs to have perfect information or the ability to know exactly which cubes you'll need 7 turns down the road, but I do think it would be if you could plan a little better.

When it comes to this lack of ability to plan I think the culprit is the fact that all of your cubes spoil at the end of the turn. I think it's neat how the game encourages you to get cubes each round, and encourages you to use them all up, but I definitely think the ability to store at least SOME cubes would help a lot. Suppose for example each player started the game with a Warehouse building, which allowed them to store 1 cube of any type. There could also be Warehouse cards that would come up who's effect would be to allow a player to carry over 1 cube of a particular type to the next round. I would like that a lot better than the actual rules under which you cannot save any cubes from turn to turn. I wouldn't mind trying a variant of the game in which the cards that allow you to sell a Cube for a Gold also acted as those Warehouses, either in addition to selling a cube, or instead of (i.e. tap the card to sell a cube for 1 GC OR tap it to hold a cube for next round).

When setting up the game, Wystan forced the 'random' setup of the goods tiles such that exactly 3 of the Joker goods were located on city spaces costing 1, so that each of us could get 1. He cited previous games where those tiles happened to end up on the more expensive spaces which turned out to be annoyingly slow and had players complaining. I have not played in such a game, but if that's the case I'd wonder why each player doesn't simply start with a Joker tile, and maybe have the City spaces cost 2/3/3/4 rather than 1/2/3/4. That's just a thought off the top of my head though. It does seem like an advantage to go first if there were, say, only 1 Joker on a 1-cost City space.

Overall I think Macao is an interesting little game, and I can see myself playing it a few more times, but ultimately I'd like it better if you could save a few cubes and/or plan a little better.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Even More Eminent Domain playtests!!

I have had the opportunity to play Eminent Domain a few more times. We played a 4 player game at the inaugural meeting of the Gamesmiths game design club, and last night I played again with 3 players at my friend's game night. Both games went really well, and all the recent changes have proven to be good:

Combination of Trade and Harvest into 1 card
Ever since I combined the Trade and Harvest roles, that aspect of he game has been a whole lot smoother. It would be more accurate to say I combined the Trade and Harvest CARDS, not the Trade and Harvest ROLES, because the roles are still separate - when you choose the Trade/Harvest role you decide whether it's Trade or Harvest this time - players can only Follow the role you have chosen.

I did a little math to compare the approximate average number of points you get per action for Settling and Attacking planets and how many points you get per action for Harvesting and Trading resources. The current incarnation seems to have the following property, which I think is good (and that would explain why it feels like it works now): In the beginning of the game, Colonize/Warfare is a better deal (vp/action) than Harvest/Trade. As the game goes on, Harvest/Trade picks up in efficiency and after a point surpasses Colonize and Warfare to become more efficient. In the late game, Harvest/Trade can be much more lucrative than Colonizing or Attacking planets. It becomes a question of when the game ends, and how much trading a Trade player gets done before that time comes.

I like this dynamic, and the only challenge I have now about this aspect of the game is the main challenge I have overall - controlling the game end. Why are game end triggers always so difficult?

Game End Trigger - Pile / VP Exhaustion
I am happy with the trigger event of the endgame in Eminent Domain: When you run out of VPs, game over, or when one of the Role card piles is exhausted, game over. I like it because it is simple to track, no one has to remember anything, and furthermore every turn you progress the game toward the end because you are compelled to take a role card from one of the piles. The question is, how many cards should be in each pile (and how many VPs in the supply) to make for an appropriately long game? Also, how do you keep the game length from varying too wildly if everyone decides to use a Colonize strategy, and everyone is choosing the Colonize role frequently? A 4 player game could be over in 4 or 5 rounds if that happens! Too quick!

Another option I've considered is when *2* piles are exhausted. I don't like that as much though, for one thing, what do you do with the empty pile? Can you still take that Role? If so, do you still get a +1 to it (even though you don't get the card)? Ooh, here's a thought - suppose a card s printed on the space where the rest of those Role cards will be stacked, and when they're gone the printed card indicates the action you can do - and suppose that version of the card printed on the board is BETTER than the regular card actions - then you might really want to get to the bottom of the stack for your strategy so you can use the better version of the Role. That could be interesting...

The biggest problem with 2 piles exhausting is that I think it would be very easy for 1 pile to exhaust while none of the other piles are even close, and by the time the 2nd pile does exhaust, far too many turns have gone by. I'm very tempted to just stick with 1 pile exhausting (including VP as a pile).

The Politics card
Version 1: No action, contained all 6 symbols so could be used to boost any Role. This was a problem because having the Warfare symbol means that you effectively had Warfare cards in our deck, and the whole point of adding the Politics card was to remove Warfare from the starting deck! Oops! Easily fixed, I could simply not include a Warfare symbol on the Politics card... but I never tried that. Instead I switched to...
Version 2: No Role or Follow ability. Action: Take any Role card into hand. Thus, it acted kind of like a wild in that you could get the card you want to boost your Role, but it took up your action to do it, and it also put a card into your deck. I kinda liked that as it could be used later to push the game end trigger. After playing with it though, it seemed like players could really race through the decks and end the game before it should be over. The danger is that if I make the decks bigger to accommodate, then if players DON'T do that the game will go on too long. So I made a small adjustment for...
Version 3: No Role or Follow ability. Action: Take any Role card into hand and remove this card from the game. This seems best so far, as it helps a player customize their deck a little bit at the beginning, but doesn't put a continual drain on the piles. Unless something better comes along, I think this is the winner.

I made a game record sheet which makes it very easy to record what action and role each player chose, and how many turns the game lasted. Last night's 3p game took about 45 minutes and each player got 13 turns, which is just about what I want. Monday's 4p game took 1 hour and each player got 10 turns, which is also about right I think. The more players in the game, the fewer turns it could take - I'm OK with that. I suspect that a 2p game will last about 15 turns (plus or minus) and take around 30 minutes - that seems to be how recent 2p games with Tyler have gone.

To Do List
I would like to continue to think about the following items:
* Consider changing the Tech cards such that the Level 3 tech is just a big bonus in points, like Puerto Rico's big buildings. They seem to take too long to get the neat ability into play. However, they ARE worth 5 points (which is kinda a lot), and leaving the ability on doesn't hurt as long as in at least some circumstance (if you try really hard) you can reasonably get it into play and use it a few times.
* Consider reformatting the Planet draw pile to mirror the Technology decks - 3 piles by type, 3 levels of planet within each... Level 1 planets like what I have now, Level 2 a little better (maybe 2 icons, or more vps), and level 3 being the Big Bonus scoring things. Like Tech cards, Level 1 would cost 3 Survey icons, Level 2 would cost 5, and Level 3 would cost 7 - and to keep people from just getting a ton of Settle icons in their deck and going for a Level 3 planet every time, there would be a prerequisite of 1 L1 planet to get a L2, and 1 L2 planet to get a L3. In theory, the gu who only has a couple Survey cards in his deck and relies on following other payers' Survey roles to get planets in play will only get L1 planets, while the player who calls Survey more and has more cards in his deck ("is better at surveying") will be pulling down better planets. I like that this setup is symmetric with the Research system, but I keep thinking it sounds too complicated. Honestly I really like the system as it is right now.
* Consider alternate themes for the game. I don't like that as-is the game can be so closely associated with Race for the Galaxy, and I don't want all of my games to be space themed either. Eminent Domain is in the same category as games like RftG, Glory to Rome, Dominion, San Juan, and Thunderstone - I wouldn't want it to resemble any of those too closely. I'd prefer a theme that is significantly different than those themes. The front runners are...

  • Classic Civ: I'd always intended to switch to a Classic Civ theme, but now I'm not so sure it sounds as good as I'd like. Maybe just too generic?
  • 16th/17th Century Colonization: Anything you can do in space can also be done on the ocean, with islands instead of planets, right? So you find Fertile islands, Mineral Rich islands, or Inhabited islands. This might be about the same as "Classic Civ" (or close enough that a distinction is unnecessary).
  • Business: Play as the Ruthless CEO of a company in the 1980's and climb the corporate ladder via Mergers and Hostile Takeovers... I actually like this theme, but I'm not sure if a "business" theme really sounds that FUN. My friend made an interesting comment: "If you're Freidman Friese you can design a game about managing a factory... you're not Friedman Friese yet." One more downfall of this is that I'm working on David's board game about Entrepreneurship: Ground Floor, and it's possible we'll work on a Ground Floor Card Game as well.
  • Mafia: Tom Lehmann suggested a Mafia theme, which I noted could be combined with the business theme above. This seems promising, but the last time I tried to use a prohibition era bootlegging theme (which is similar to a mafioso theme), Mikey shot me down because it offended his Mormon sensibilities. So I don't know how he'd feel if the "types of planets" were illicit businesses such as Casinos, Brothels, Speakeasies, or Bootleggers.

In the end, I'm enjoying the space theme pretty well, so maybe before I worry too much about a theme change I should wait and see if the potential comparisons to RftG do materialize.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Gamesmiths

The inaugural meeting of the Gamesmiths, a newly formed Game Design Club, occurred last night at Hat's Games at 6:30. Michael Eskue, David Short, and I were in attendance - we'll have to do some better advertising next month.

To start with we played Eskue's abstract game called Mosh Pit. MP is a bit like Hive in that you place tiles on the board and move them around in an attempt to assemble a particular configuration. In this game your tile types are each one of the stereotypical internet Memes: Ninja, Pirate, Monkey, Zombie, and Alien (which could be Robot instead). On your turn you can do 1 or 2 actions, and you get a total of 5 actions each round - so you can do more up front if you want, or stall and save up for a larger action later. Each round the start player shifts, so in a 2 player game you can actually get 4 actions in a row if you budget your actions carefully!

The 5 actions you can do are pretty simple:
1. Place a tile
2. Move a tile
3. Shove a tile (which is like moving actually)
4. Turn a tile face up
5. Activate a tile

Each type of tile has a different effect when you activate it, and activating the tile turns it face down. The effects will move tiles around the board or flip them face up or face down.

The goal is to make a contiguous group of your face up tiles including 1 of each type.

In general I do not like this type of game - I played Hive a couple times and I am not a fan - mostly I'm not too fond of abstract games and I'm also not fond of 2 player games. I have to say I was skeptical going in that I would like this game at all. However I'm happy to report that I did like Mosh Pit, a lot more than I thought I would! I don't know if it's because the chaos/craziness of the abilities allows for more sneaky, tactical play, or maybe it's the ability to take more than 1 action in a row that allows for setting up a chain of moves to surprise your opponent. It certainly wasn't the theme! I am not a fan of Hive's theme, but I also don't care for the internet memes much, nor the pasted on "galactic concert at which these characters are moshing, and want to mosh with their buddies." It's not like I could think of a better theme though, and it didn't kill my enjoyment of the game or anything.

I think if using the internet icons, it would be good to somehow include that in the theme (and title) of the game. I ended up suggesting Meme Mosh Pit, which sort of does that, and phonetically sounds kinda funny, like imagine the title in a talk bubble from one of the Zombies, sounds kinda like he's stuttering or something. I don't know, it's a lousy pun that kinda amused me.

After Mosh Pit, we set up Eminent Domain. Simon Stump showed up just in time to get in on the game, which was perfect timing. We played a 4 player game and I used a record sheet I'd made to record each player's turn.

For those that don't already know, Eminent Domain is a civ building card game with a deckbuilding central mechanism - as you take actions, cards for that action go into your deck, making you "better" at doing that action (or at least, more specialized at it). The theme right now is sci-fi/outer space because it was initially supposed to be a sort of card game version of Twilight Imperium. I would like to re-theme it to a more classic (ancient?) civ theme.

In Eminent Domain, your turn consists of a Action phase, a Role phase, and a Cleanup phase. For the Action you may play a card from your hand for it's Action effect. For the Role phase you MUST choose one of the 5 roles in the game, taking a card for that role from the respective stack. You can boost the Role by playing additional cards of that type from your hand. After you resolve the Role effect, each player has the opportunity to also partake in that role by "Following" it - playing cards from their hand of that type and receiving the Follow effect (mostly the same as the Role effect). If a player does not wish to Follow the current Role, he may draw 1 card instead. Finally, in the Cleanup phase you discard any unwanted cards from your hand, then reset your hand to 5 cards. There are some planets which you can eventually get that increase your hand size.

This game may have been the most interesting multiplayer game of ED yet - 2 players were using Warfare, 2 were using Colonize heavily. Only 1 person (me) did much Research (ended up with 2 2vp tech cards), and 3 people were harvesting and trading. The game ended via VP exhaustion, and the final scores were all very close: 22-19-18-16!

David continues to be disappointed in the randomness of the Survey action, but everyone else thought it was fine. I am still on the fence about changing the system out for one which separates the planets into piles by type, and sort of mirrors the Technology/Research part of the game.I see pluses and minuses both ways.

I'm still struggling with/worried about the game end conditions. I think they're evolving toward something good, but it's not easy to figure out how many cards should be in the Role card piles or how many VPs should be in the supply!

All in all a good test I think!

Afterward, David and I chatted about how a Ground Floor card game might work. Sounds like it could be very doable!

Friday, March 12, 2010

Politics in Eminent Domain

I got a chance to play Eminent Domain again tonight, 3 players this time. I tried out the stuff I talked about yesterday - namely the Politics card switching to say "Action: Take 1 Role car into hand." That's it, that's all it does. Well, maybe that's misleading as it has some other implications... the biggest of which may be that it gives players a way to help rush the game end by digging through a pile of cards faster. This sounds like a neat thing, but it also means the potential of a MUCH faster game. I don't know how often it would be the case, but if players use the Politics card a lot then it could either make for a short, unsatisfying game, or else require a bunch more cards to maintain a decent game length.

My current thought on the matter is that the Politics card should be removed from the game when used - so the player can replace it with an action card of their choice, maybe customize their starting deck a little bit. I think I'll try that next time.

The combination of Harvest and Trade appears to be working well. Mathematically I think it's the right way to go - in comparison with Warfare and Colonize. I tried removing the "Action: Collect 1vp" (Trade action) and making the Trade role exchange resources for VP at a 1-to-1 ratio (rather than 2vp/resource). I think that's the right way to go now that the Roles have been combined. The only remaining issue I have with the Role is that it seems VERY easy to have too many Trade/Harvest cards. It seems like you only ever need 3 or 4 cards at a time, and you start with 2 in your deck and get 1 every time you choose the role. So what can I do to make having more Harvest/Trade cards more interesting???

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Recent playtesting: Ground Floor, Eminent Domain, Belfort, and All For One

I've gotten a lot of playtesting done lately, which is great! I've been able to play several games each of several different prototypes. In no particular order...

Ground Floor
In the last game of Ground Floor I tried a few of the new tweaks I've been talking about:
Remodeling (for $5,i5) allowed at any time, not just at the end of a round
I'm not sure how much this will really get used, but it's certainly better than having to wait for the end of the round. I believe it was used twice this game. I think it's a keeper! I do wonder if ($5,i5) is too expansive for a remodel - mathematically it's not too much, but realistically I think it might get used more if it were ($4,i4). The question is whether that's "too good" or not. It would certainly be the thing to do at the end of the game - rather than pay ($3,i3) for a VP players would sooner remodel their rooms. Maybe that's OK though, as you only have so may rooms to remodel.

I'm probably full of crap - ($5,i5) is a fine cost - especially considering one of the other tweaks...

Boosts based on Popularity
David and I settled on some specific little boosts, chosen in Popularity order at the end of the round, like Age of Steam has. We decided to have 5 choices, and the least popular player in the game doesn't get one. You can choose between:
Temporary Employee: +(') next round
Money: +$2 ("Petty Cash"?)
Info: +i2
Supply: +1 Supply
Remodel Discount: ($1,i1)

The Remodel discount could be applied more than once in a turn, so that reward could be worth a bit more than the others if you set yourself up for it. Other than that, they're all worth about the same, but depending on your situation at that point in the game you might really rather have the $2 than the i2.

The point of this is to make Marketing more important, and in that I am not sure it's successful. I guess we were spending more time and money on Marketing, but then we were getting a little more [something] back in return... so what's the difference, really? Getting the rewards is kinda fun, and it helps differentiate people's income a bit, but I wonder if it's really worth the effort. It does take some time to deal with, and just 1 more thing to think about both when placing Time units (do I try and get popularity?) and when choosing the reward (should I take the supply, or do I need a little extra Info to do what I want to do next turn?). I expect it to add 15+ minutes to the game length all told, and that's the opposite of what I was trying to do (which was reduce the game length).

There were some questions such as when exactly do you get the boost. We did it at the end of the turn, after dropping popularity (should be before though - especially considering the "No Drop" TI). It worked fine, and people liked it, but I'm not sure I liked all that much. Maybe it helps give people a little income boost (customizable), which might help make up for the weakening of the Phase I TIs - but I think it will add a significant amount of time to the game. It's a decision point, and you don't always know just what you want. In Age of Steam it works better because it's a bigger portion of the game - in Ground Floor it's just "a little more income" and so I don't know if it's worth the extra effort or not. I guess we should try it a few more times and see how it goes, and how much time it takes.

Starting job market
Starting with the option of hiring an employee (at $5,i5) seemed a little overwhelming to me. It was certainly an interesting thing to consider, but I found myself missing the succinctness of the first turn where you had like 2 good options - either you buy a TI, or you start investing in income with Production and Consulting. This time I also had to consider Marketing, and hiring an employee... I felt like this bogged down the first turn more than it served to jump start the game. I would like to try it again, but I'm skeptical that I'll love it.

Hiring prices
For a 7 round game at least, I think the hiring prices should shift down a notch to 2/3/3/4/4/5/6/X and maybe the marker should start the game on the 5. This should make them a little cheaper so that they more likely pay off over the course of a shorter game, and get them in play sooner to jump start the game a little. Honestly though, I think I liked it when you couldn't hire in the first turn, it focused your first turn onto fewer options, which felt less overwhelming and kind of made the first turn go faster. Thematically it makes sense too that you're not hiring right out of the gate. So I'd also like to consider the cheaper track mentioned above, with the marker starting on X, so that you're hiring people on the 2nd and 3rd turn (and they're cheaper so they pay off better/sooner) rather than turns 1 and 2. But maybe it's OK to have a first turn option of hiring an employee. this would be especially attractive to the player with the Training specialty.

Merchandising price adjustment
I found the Merchandising price adjustment based on the economy to be too fiddly and annoying, and totally not worth it. Though it sounds neat to have the economy affect the price - the price brackets already sort of do that. I don't think I even want to try that change again.

Nerfed Phase 1 TIs
I'd have to try it again, but the weakened Phase I TIs seem so weak! The stronger versions really jump started the game more... the potential down side is that maybe noone ever buys a floor or TI in the first Phase over hiring or saving money for the better Phase 2 stuff. Needs more testing to see if that happens.

We played 4p Belfort with Moneylender, Library, New Bandit, New Spy, and Recruiter guilds. I think the new spy ought to be 2 cards (everyone reveals 1, spy takes 2 of those) instead of just 1. The new Bandit's guild is a less directly interactive guild - instead of stealing resources from players, you get to choose Wood or Stone, collect 5 of it from the supply, then you have to give 1 to each of 2 opponents. New Bandit seemed OK... I personally thought it was boring. I suspect the point leaders will not get the freebie resources and the point trailers will, and I guess that held true. Often the freebies were given to players who had already taken their Action phase, so they couldn't use them that turn. Not sure how much difference that makes in the general case though. It felt more like a Resource guild than an Interactive guild. Not BAD, just not a game changer at all.

I'm not against including these various guilds, but I think I'm leaning toward leaving the old "mean" Thieves and Bandits guilds in as a standard. Maybe the setup for your first game should tell players to use the Spy or Wizards guild rather than the Thief or Bandits.

Otherwise, the game was great!

All For One
Playing All For One was nice, but it really just served to remind me how annoyed I am that all of my balanced and tweaked Mission cards and board layout have disappeared. I guess at some point I'll just have to go through it all again and re-tweak and re-fix everything, maybe it'll approximate what I had before that I was happy with. Let this be a lesson to all would-be game designers: Use computer files and keep them up to date (rather than hand changes on components), especially if you're sending the game off to submit to a publisher or something. More than once now I've lost prototypes or parts of prototypes as a result of submitting them.

Eminent Domain
I played a couple of 2 player games of Eminent Domain with Tyler last Sunday, and a 4 player game on Monday as well. I implemented the "combine Trade and Harvest into 1 card" idea and it seemed to work fine. In retrospect it really seems like that matches the power level (point-getting potential) of Colonizing and Warfare, with a higher top end - which is OK because it's limited by your capacity so it's really hard to reach that high end. When reducing to 5 actions though I put Warfare cards back in the starting deck because I like a hand size of 5 and a starting deck of 10 cards. I liked it better when you didn't start with Warfare though, so I wanted to replace it in the starting deck with something else. I thought about adding another Role to the game, perhaps Politics... but I couldn't think offhand of what it might do - then I thought hey, it could be a sort of wild... no action, but boosts all Roles. So I made 8 of those cards (1 for each starting deck) before we played on Monday. It was an interesting idea but ultimately didn't solve my problem because you still effectively had Warfare cards in your deck! I was going to try removing the Warfare symbol from the Politics cards, meaning you simply can't use them to boost Warfare, but I think I've got a better idea - they should have an action, but not boost any Role. In thinking of what that action might be, I came up with "Take any 1 Role card into your hand," making it still kind of a Wild boost (because you can take a card for the Role you're about to choose), but it costs you your action for the turn, and it puts a card in your deck.

Here are some tweaks and changes I want to try for Eminent Domain:
1. Try multiple pile exhaust as end game trigger (try 2 piles)
2. Make 1 Technology card into this: Action: Place up to 2 Colonies on any 1 planet. Or maybe Play 2 Colonize cards as actions (so you could add then flip, or add to 2 different planets). Maybe make it "Up to 3" since you have to have them in your hand. These would probably be the level 1 X/Colonize techs
3. Remove Warfare from Politics cards.
4. Reconsider Politics cards - maybe only an action and no boosts... where the Action is...
- Take any Role card into hand (which makes it effectively wild, but it uses up your action and fills your deck with that role) <- I think I like this.
- Reveal the top 2 (3?) cards from your deck, you can use symbols on those cards to boost your Role this turn
- Something else?
5. Specify on Harvest/Trade cards...
- Action: Produce 1 Resource OR Trade 1 Resource for 1 VP.
- ROLE: Produce 1 Resources per Harvest symbol OR Trade 1 Resource per Trade symbol for 1 VP each. (not 2vp anymore)
- FOLLOW: Produce 1 Resources per Harvest symbol OR Trade 1 Resource per Trade symbol for 1 VP each. (not 2vp anymore)

Monday, March 08, 2010

Eminent Domain playtest

Two weeks ago I had an idea to try and improve Eminent Domain by combining the Trade and Harvest roles into 1 card. Tonight I finally tried the game again - 2-player with Tyler - and we used that new rule. I think it worked very well.

Instead of having to fill your deck with a bunch of Harvest cards AND a bunch of Trade cards in order to execute a trading strategy, we could simply get 1 card in your deck that did both. I liked the dynamic. I didn't make any change to the symbols - they still either help Trade OR Harvest, depending on the icon. I think that's probably OK.

The worst part about this change is that in order to maintain a starting deck of 10 cards (2 of each action) then I have to include Warfare in the starting deck. I have been playing with just Colonize, Survey, Research, Trade, and Harvest in the starting deck, which I thought went a long way toward balancing Warfare with Colonize (otherwise Warfare seems much easier to use than Colonize). So now I either have to reconfigure the starting deck (but I like 2 of each card - it's simple and symmetric), start with only 8 cards per deck (not sure I like that because a 4 card hand would probably be too small, and a 5 card hand doesn't mesh well with an 8 card deck), OR... maybe come up with another 6th action to add to the game.

So what action, if any, could be added? Maybe Politics... but what would it do? I like Politics being in the game, but I don't think I like Politics being another route to victory. I almost think maybe Politics cards should be sort of Wild, counting for any action... is that crazy? Should there be an action for the card? If so, what would it be? I'm open to suggestions...

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Playtest night!

Last night I had a Tasty Minstrel Playtest night, and about 10 people came over to play Belfort, Ground Floor, and another prototype that was sent to me... I had intended to play Train of Thought (with slightly different rules) but it didn't work out that way.

Train of Thought - new rule:
Train of Thought is a great game, and the only complaint I have about it is the possibility for a player to shortcut the rules and subvert the game by structuring their 3 word clue as follows:

Say the required word, then give a completely unrelated 2-word clue

Last post I said "I'm not sure there's any way to fix the rule, but maybe a simple thing like phrasing the rule as "3 related words, 1 of which is the starting word or a prior guess" - so the words could be related by being part of a sentence, or by free association even, but the unrelated 2-word clue would be clearly outside the spirit of the rule.

I wonder if the game should be tested with merely 2 word clues - one of which has to be the starting word. That would certainly eliminate this issue!"

Until now I've been of the opinion that forbidding this "cheating" type behavior would be bad, because some people have had problems being able to come up with a 3 word "sentence." I don't want to tell potential players "Sorry, you're just not creative enough to play this game. Go play something else!" However after OrcCon's playtest I would really like to try that 2-word clue idea, it sounds better and better all the time.

I had intended to test that last night, but the way things happened it didn't work out that way. Jay and Sen, designers of ToT and Belfort, are meeting this week and promise to try it out and let me know what they think. I should be able to give it a try later this week as well.

I ran a 5 player game of Belfort, using one of the guilds I'd changed but not used yet. I chose for the interactive guild the Spies Guild, which reads as follows:
Each opponent discards 1 Property card. you may take one card discarded this way into your hand.

The original Spies guild was "Look at 1 player's hand and steal one of their cards." I didn't like that very much, and thought this modified one would be better. As it turns out however, I didn't consider what would happen as soon as players ran out of cards (due to playing cards and being Spied on)! It was extremely difficult to ever build another building because if you buy a card during your turn, it will very likely no longer be in your hand by the time you would be able to play it.

This was a very interesting situation, and the purpose of the Guilds (especially the Interactive Guilds) is to change the game a lot so it's different every time... but in this case, no matter how interesting int might have been, all 5 players did not like it. They all seemed to like the game, but they all thought that guild was broken, and that it broke the game. I have an easy fix though, which I still think is better than the original guild... instead of discarding, each player should reveal a card from their hand, and the spy can steal 1 (maybe 2?) of them. That will keep the parts I wanted, without causing the game to lock up. John suggested a corollary: that you cannot steal a player's last card. I'm not sure if I like that or not. I think if the Spies Guild is in play, you probably want to keep your hand well stocked with cards by buying them frequently and by trying to get and build a Library - I think that would be a good effect for that guild to have on the game.

The Belfort game only took 2 hours and 15 minutes, including rules explanation - which is pretty good! However I think that's in part because there were a lot of turns when nobody could really do anything, so that might have sped some things up.

Sebastian's Prototype:
I don't know how much I should say about another designer's prototype (which is currently being reviewed by a publisher), so I won't be specific at all. I printed out the stuff and made a copy of Sebastian's game the other day, and Sunday night I was able to play a 4 player game of it. It went OK, and I communicated my biggest concerns to Sebastian that night. Last night we played a 5 player game, and it didn't go nearly as well. Too chaotic, not enough actions/turns to do anything, and a problem we had with the 4 player game got exacerbated in the 5p game. I sent our comments to Sebastian, hopefully he'll find them helpful. I'm afraid that game simply isn't a 5 player game.

Ground Floor
We ended the evening with a 4 player game of Ground Floor - modified down to 7 rounds. I was hoping this would shorten up the game length (on the clock) without really impacting the feeling of getting stuff done. We also implemented a number of tweaks to the T.I.s based on a lot of analysis and thought (as chronicled in my prior posts).

The long and short of it was that while I liked the shorter game, David was less convinced. I went with the complete opposite strategy from last time - I hired NO employees, just got an Internship Program first turn, bought all of the 'drip income' floors (Network Admin for i3, I.T. Dept for i4, and Investor for $3), and made do with my $12 and i7 income each turn. I used my 6 (')s fairly effectively in Merchandising and at the Consulting Firm in order to make some good money and info when the economy was up. I was able to churn out floor after floor, and finished in the lead by about 10 points (a huge margin). I'm not entirely sure why I was able to do so well, but we attributed it to a couple of things:

1. I was playing like the game was going to be over in 7 rounds... it's possible other players were playing as they would have if the game still lasted 9 rounds.

2. I started with the Meeting specialty, which has already been shown to be "too good." I used it about 2x as much as "average" (the numbers I based the balancing on in the previous post) and therefore gained probably 8-12 extra units worth of stuff compared to other players.

3. The Internship Program, Network Admin, and Human Resources are demonstrably better than most of the other Floors and T.I.s out there. They are nicely balanced against each other, but it's highly possible that all three of them are too powerful. I had 2 of these from turns 1 and 2, while other players had 1 or none of them.

4. It's possible the I.T. department yields too much info, but I'm skeptical about that because it's just info - as Eric pointed out after his last test, there's no way to turn info into money (well, not directly) but there are ways to turn money or Supply into Info. Thus there's a diminishing return to getting a lot of info, in that you need a lot of money to use it all. I might want to reduce IT Dept to i3 to match the Investor's $3, but I kinda like the asymmetry.

Other than that, I just played a pretty good game - the couple mistakes I made were minor, and I had some advantages from my buildings that were a little too good. David got Human Resources, went the Employee route, and got Construction Administration (also under-costed for its ability), but he didn't get it until late game and only got to use it twice. I am still surprised I finished that far ahead of him.

After the game, Tyler and I looked at the possibility of buying the following buildings, which you could do without ever placing a (') anywhere except on your ground floor meeting room (even un-remodeled) and the Construction Company (and one time on Research and Testing to sell your starting cube)...
Turn 1: Network Admin
Turn 2: Internship Program
Turn 3: Construction Admin
Turn 4: IT Dept
Turn 5: Investor
Turn 6: Executive Bonus Floor
Turn 7: Either one of the +3 Bonus Floors, or 2 T.I.s (one of them the Bonus T.I.)

That adds up to 38-40 points (depending on what the Bonus T.I. is worth - we're knocking it down a few points to start). It's worth noting that this completely boring strategy is NOT a winning score! I managed 45 points in yesterday's game - though this 38 points would have beat all the other players. That just illustrated how the Construction Admin and/or Network Admin and Internship are too good.

David made a good point - while it's nice to see a competitive strategy wherein you don't have to hire a single employee, David does not want that to be a winning strategy. A player winning this game should have to have employed at least 1 person, that's his view. And I can get behind that, because the game is about growing your business - not NOT growing your business.

Floor and T.I. tweaks
The resulting tweaks are as follows:
Remodeled Meeting: (')('): i3 (not ('): i2)
Network Admin: i2 instead of i3
Human Resources: discount of $2, i2 (not $3,i3)
Internship: (') (not (')('))
Construction Admin: (')(')(')(') to activate (not (')(')(')) <- mathematically this is right, but with (') limits I'm not sure it's such a good idea*. Another option is to leave the activation at (')(')('), but move the floor back to phase III - then it would be mathematically sound, and might be just the right time to buy it (round 5, in time to help you afford your last 2 floors)

* Alternate idea - rather than make the Construction Admin worse, what about boosting ALL the floors to be worth as much as CA? Then anything you buy instead will net you just as much... Not sure that helps though, because one issue we don't want to see is players becoming completely self sufficient - the Street is supposed to be better than even your good floors.

Other building tweaks which are unrelated to that power discussion...
Marketing: move to Phase 2. This one might be undercosted, but since the benefit is indirect maybe that's OK? I guess we'll see if it gets used now. Makes sense though - no need for much advertising in the last couple of turns.

Public Relations: Make it a T.I. instead of a Floor - it's simply not being used, a TI would be cheaper and that might see more use.

Warehouse: Cut! It's simply not needed... that prompts another change though...
Production Bonus: +3pp per Supply (not +1). So it's 3 or 6, but for 6 you have to flip your Closet.

Customer Service: New name = Premium Product.

Bonus T.I.: 0pp +1pp/T.I. (not 3pp +1pp/T.I.) <- I'm not sure I like this... I think it needs 1 or 2 pp on it. It's a minor point though. My reasoning is that any player will have 1, maybe 2 T.I.s on their board, so buying this late game will be worth just 3 points - no more than any other T.I., though you could build another one after that (or along with it) and get 1 more point out of it. I guess that's reasonable considering how easy it is to afford a T.I. in the first place. For the price of your 4th Floor ($4,i4 + $10,i10) you could get 2 T.I.s - the Bonus one and 1 other... which is probably 4+3=7pp. your 4th floor if it's a bonus floor is probably worth 7-9pp So I guess it's about right, but I think it could use 1pp on it rather than 0. If that 2 TI turn was your 2nd and 3rd T.I. then you're only getting 6vp, just like buying any other T.I. for the same price as that 4th floor...

Rules tweaks
Like I said, I liked the 7 rounds, David didn't. Tyler mentioned that he felt like there might not be enough time for your Employees to pay off, which is a valid concern. Employees turn $3 (3 units) into 3(') (more than 3 units based on building powers). So an employee is probably worth 6 units a turn (so you're paying 3 to get 6, or netting 3 units a turn). They cost a hefty amount (6, 8, or 10 units). This means to break even, you really have to get that Employee by round 3, any employee after that will be a waste unless you get it cheap, or eke out more than 2 units per (') by doing a good job on the street. Currently you can't really afford an employee until round 3 because they start off so expensive. So one Rules Tweak is to start the Employee track with some employees available (at $5,i5), so the first player, and maybe the second player have an interesting choice - they can actually hire on turn 1, spending almost all their money. Another option is to build a T.I. first turn, also spending all your money. And you're other good options are Production and Consulting.

Another tweak is to help make Remodeling more attractive. We considered reducing the cost to ($4,i4), but I'm not sure that's necessary - is it good for the remodeling to be a better deal than the T.I.s in the late game? Or should people want to get into the Construction company? Instead I think we'll try this: David suggested that maybe you
should be able to do a Remodel any time you want - not just at the end of the turn. I think waiting until the End of Turn to do it introduces an unwelcome lag, and by the time you can make use of your newly remodeled room, you don't really want to anymore. If you could remodel and then use the new room right away, then there would be a lot more reason to do it (this is feasible because you get income AFTER you have to remodel - hence the lag).

David had another idea, that the price become ($4,i4) and the action be done at a standard Ground Floor room which costs (') (... so (')+$4+i4: Remodel a room) - which could also work, but I'm not sure I like it as much as just paying ($5,i5) whenever you want and not having to spend a ('). I think the reason is because you want people to remodel in the early game, and at that point they don't have a lot of (')s to be throwing around.

Popularity tweak
Tyler suggested that the Popularity fight wasn't a big enough deal. I was hesitant to agree, because in just about every game I've played there has been some contention for turn order. Some games more than others of course, and in some games there's the guy who ignores it altogether... which is OK too. Popularity matters for 3 things:
1.) Merchandising sales when supply exceeds demand
2.) Turn order - this is a worker placement game, and at times it's good to go first. however at other time's it may be better to go later in turn order, but not usually.
3.) Endgame tiebreaks - the most popular tied player wins. This may not metter very often though.

Tyler had an idea, that there could be some 'roles' which players would choose in turn order and they would gain that role's benefit for the round. This is very Wallace-esque, just like Age of Steam or Automobile. It's not a terrible idea, and in fact some of the Floors/TIs that are unpopular could easily be made into these Roles. We may try that at some point, but what we're going to try next instead is this, and I'm not positive if I like it or not...

We've attached a little income boost to being more popular. At the base level, where everyone begins, you get nothing extra. Each space above that on the popularity track yields a better item...
i1, i2, $1, $2, $3, Supply, Supply, Supply+$1+i1
Thus there's an incentive to fight for popularity even if you don't want to go first. I'm interested to see how this works. I'd also like to see how a Role Selection type of thing would work (and that could reduce the number of Floors/TIs in the game).