Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Chrono Gallery - Gamesmiths

Monday night at Gamesmith's we had a great turnout and a great test of Chrono Gallery. Chris and Melanie (From Stratus Games), David were there, and Simon brought his roommate Matt with him. After all the great development recently I was really looking forward to another test of the game, and I was happy to see how it went with 5 players.

The game ran longer than I would have liked - we were at about 55 minutes going into the last round, but by the time it was over we were looking at about 90 minutes. I don't know why the last round went so long, and I don't know how much of the time-sink was due to player count.

Other than that, the game went pretty well. I learned a thing or two that will be very important for scaling the game for different numbers of players, and I may have found a better theme for the game.

One thing we talked about after the game is the theme. While technically speaking, the time travel theme fits the mechanism very well, it really doesn't feel much like that's what's going on during play. It's kind of a stretch and it feels forced. I think that's kind of a shame, partly because I couldn't think of anything that really matched the "bid highest without going over" mechanism better, and partly because I really liked the idea of displaying things like Excalibur and other mythical artifacts in your museum!

We talked about a few different ways to present the time travel portion of the story, but realistically, a better theme that evolved from our discussion was that you are bidding actual money (like a normal auction), and the reason you want to bid "as high as possible without going over" is that you are not sure if you'll get funded or not.

Suppose the number of green dice represents the actual value of the green artifact, which is unknown when you're bidding (though your research has given you partial information). You bid based on that, and then when all bids are in the artifact is assessed and the true value is determined. If the highest bidder has bid too high, their financial backers refuse to go through with the purchase, so the next lowest bid is checked - the highest bid that is not greater than the true value is the one that gets the artifact.

This theme seems more easily grasp-able, which is a plus. And it means I need to find a more catchy and more appropriate title. While I liked the subtitle Museum of Lost history," perhaps that's also a plus.

One thing I noticed about the 5 player game was not too surprising - the Consolation rule came into play. With 5 players each with only 2 bid tokens, and some artifacts going unclaimed due to overbids, it's fairly easy for a player to go a round without winning an auction. The rule I used was to give such a player an additional die, to give them some power in future auctions. In order to keep from having to supply a ton of dice in the game, I had limited the number of dice per player to 6 (for the 5p game), which you get as you cash in sets. I said that the consolation die came from that supply (i.e. one of your 6 for the game). That seemed to work alright, but an alternative was suggested which I'd like to try as well: any player who does not win an auction in a round gets an additional bid marker for the next round. I don't know if that will prove better, worse, or simply different, but I'd like to find out.

Also as expected, players were not acquiring as many tiles as we did in the 3 player game, or even the 4 player game. Therefore the players' displays were not filling up and they were not forced to cash in any sets. It made me think that perhaps the number of tiles you can hold should decrease a little bit, like only 5 tiles for a 5 player game. Maybe even 4 (and then 5 slots for a 4p game) - but I think that would be too few. This however was not the biggest problem I saw with the 5 player game.

The biggest problem I saw with the 5 player game was that it was very chaotic. Players do not have enough information to perform very well, they begin with a mere 20% partial information. In comparison, the 33% partial info in the 3 player game felt much better. The easiest solution I can think of to increase this percentage is to add some Community Dice - a couple dice rolled in public which people can take into account when bidding. If there are 2 community dice, then in the 5 player game you start out knowing 4 of the 12 dice... 33% like the three player game. David suggested that wouldn't be enough, and that the more info you have, the better the auction would be. I might agree with him, so I might make it 3 community dice for a 5 player game (and maybe 2 for a 4 player game and 1 for a 3 player game). That would make the percentage of partial info known about 40% in 3, 4, and 5 player games. I think this will help keep the bids from becoming too frustrating. In general I prefer the simpler setup/play of NOT having these community dice, so it's possible the 5 player game should simply be more chaotic (or in fact should not exist).

With three community dice, the total number of dice needed for the game would be 40, which may not be too many.

We talked about some more specific mechanisms as well. These comments apply to all player counts...
* Originally, I had said that you cannot move a bid you'd placed until you had placed all of your bid tokens, and I'd also said that you cannot bid on an auction you're already on. Those rules just seemed like the obvious rules to have, but I didn't have any specific reason for choosing them. In one of the recent test games somebody placed their first bid token, got outbid, and on their next turn wanted to up their bid on that same auction (before somebody else did). It seemed like a reasonable thing to want to do, so I allowed it, changing the rule to simply be that you either place or move a bid token on your turn, and you cannot PASS unless you have both bid tokens out. That seemed OK for the last couple of games, but led to players holding back their 2nd bid token until the last minute, in order to hide information from other players or something. That didn't seem as good, so it was suggested that it not be allowed. The question remained though, what if you want to bid up on the same track you'd initially bid on, but haven't placed all of your markers yet (especially in 2/3 player games where you have 4/3 markers)? Well, one idea is to allow bidding on the same track. It didn't seem like you'd want to, but in the narrow case that you do - why not allow it? Well - the problem is, suppose you pass with a marker on 3 and another on 7 for the same auction, your opponent having bid 6, and the real number turns out to be 5. Should you win that auction? Having 2 bid tokens makes it more likely you'll win an auction, but at the expense of winning any other auction. Taken to it's logical conclusion, I may bid 1 on an auction I want, and if nobody outbids me I could simply lock it in by bidding 16 as well. Now nobody can possible outbid me, and as long as there's at least 1 die of that color, I'll win that tile. Is that OK? Maybe it is. I fear that such a dynamic will really break down the mechanism in a lower player count game, but it might be worth a try. If the mechanism is OK except for that lock-in exploit, the rule could be that you cannot outbid yourself directly (someone else's bid must be in between your two markers). Another solution is to disallow passing if you have 2 bids on the same track, but that's really the exact same thing as disallowing bidding on the same track (but allowing players to move their bid before placing all of the bid tokens). I'm not sure which way I want that to go. I think I'll try the double bid on 1 auction just to see. Any opinions?

* Purple dice being wild can be really swingy. If you happen to roll 3 purple, you are kind of at a big advantage for EVERY auction. Theoretically your behavior could belie that information, but not always. Is it worth doing something like "purple counts as 1/2 wild?" So like, for every 2 purple there's +1 of other colors? Or possibly distributing the Purple dice (after resolving the Purple auction) to the other columns 1 at a time, and applying only those distributed? that could be interesting, as the Yellow auction (2nd to resolve) would more likely benefit from Purple dice than the Red auction (last to resolve). Again, the SIMPLEST rule of just counting the purples as wild might be best just because it's simplest, even if it makes the game somewhat swingy.

* The Extra Bid Token tile is very good... If it comes out early in the game, a player could gain too much of a benefit. Perhaps the Purple tiles should be staged... I could label 4 of them with a 1 on the back, indicating that they will come out first, then label 4 with a 2, indicating that they will come out next, and then have the last tile labeled 3 - which will always be simply worth victory points (because after that last round, no abilities are useful). I think I have a good idea of which power tiles should come out in the first half of the game and which should come out later, so I will try this next time.

* David suggests a bonus of a couple of points for winning the Purple auction in the last few rounds, since the benefit of the tile will be lessened. Maybe 1/2/3 points for rounds 7/8/9. In that case the 9th round tile would be more like 2vp on it's own (currently 4), plus the 3 for the round is a total of 5vp. I could do this, but it's an added complication which I don't know is really necessary.

* I definitely like the idea of the Consolation rule, and an extra die makes sense... but that removes some of the incentive to cash in a set early. Another idea that came up was to give any player who won zero auctions in one round an extra bid token (for the next round only). I'll try that and see how it goes.

* The One-Shot Double Purple Virtual Dice tile seemed really strong, but at the same time kind of weak. Melanie used it one round, and it turned out there were plenty of purple dice (more than anyone thought) and she was able to win her bids even if she hadn't used her tile. I think it would be better if the tile could apply to any 1 auction (rather than all of them), and you don't have to use it until you see the result of the auction. So procuring that tile helps you win a particular tile that you really want later in the game.

* The Overbid With Tie tile was a little too annoying when all of your bids could do it. It was suggested that you could only have 1 such overbid at a time. I'm not sure I see much difference, but I am willing to try it that way.

* A more fundamental problem I've noticed is that it's too easy to make double sets of 2 tiles for 6vp - this is better than making a 4 tile set! Solution: require minimum 3 tiles per set. that should make it harder to get double points. Also, instead of double points for a double-set, maybe better to just award +3vp? Or +1vp/tile? Any thoughts on this? I'd like the double set to be worth SOMETHING as it's harder to get than a single set - and if nothing else I'm SURE players will ask the question.

All of these things are somewhat minor tweaks as far as I'm concerned - I'm really happy with the way the game is shaping up! Please post a comment with your thoughts - including your thoughts on a new title based on the new theme!

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