Sunday, July 17, 2011

Protospiel 2011

In 8 years of game design I've always wanted to go to Protospiel - a convention for people to play each other's prototypes and comment on them. Three whole days of design talk. It sounds perfect, but the timing was bad - always about a week after my annual 11 day trip to Seattle (something I was unwilling to skip). This year however, with Tasty Minstrel things going strong, I figured it was a bigger deal to finally make my way to Protospiel, so I cut my Seattle trip short and finally got a chance to attend.

And it was great! I met a lot of good people, played a lot of games, gave a lot of comments, and even managed to get everything I brought to the table at some point (some of it more than once!) - I received good comments on each game as well.

Here's a rundown of what I played or saw at the con:

Thursday 7/7/11
Andy Van Zandt's goblins-bombing-buildings game
The basic idea was that players control goblins that are intent on blowing up buildings with bombs. They run around clamoring over each other trying to light a bomb adjacent to a building, then retreat far enough to survive the blast, but they want to be closest to the blast in order to claim credit for setting the bomb (even if they didn't). Mechanically, there's a nifty card drawing mechanism that essentially allows players to draw the good cards played by their opponents. I like the general idea of the game, but currently the mechanisms don't really come through the way I'd like to see them. For example, you currently get credit for setting the bomb whether you blow up or not, which means it doesn't matter if you survive, and in fact you are probably better off NOT surviving to ensure you get the points. In my mind it makes more sense for all the goblins in the area to be fleeing the blast, and if you look back and see someone behind you, you cannot refute their claim that they set the bomb... if the actual bomber dies in the explosion, then they also cannot refute any claim... so I think you should want to be closest to the blast without dieing. I think that works better mechanically as well.

Also, the action point system is currently a little cumbersome for the type of game it is, with 15 action points to spend and things costing anywhere from 1 to 8... I think the system should be a lot simpler than that for this type of game. I do like what the card drawing mechanism was going for (playing a card makes it available for later players) - and I gave Andy an idea for another way that could go.

Friday 7/8/11
I played a submission to Minion games called Wizard's Ring. It was kind of like a simplistic version of Small World. I was not impressed.

I got a game of Exhibit in - that's the Bluff Auction game I've posted about. It went over well - one suggestion was to change the Art bonus to be 1vp per tile in the set. The reason behind this was that it seemed disappointing to get a set of Art, because at 3vp bonus per tile you might prefer to break that set up and score just 1 tile at a time, the set would have to have 7 tiles in it to outscore several 1-tile sets. I tried that in a later game, but I think it just double rewards a big set! I think maybe a better reward is just 2vp instead of 3, so you only need 4 tiles to break even, and it is worth getting a 5 or 6 tile Art set. That way in the early game you have to choose between a 1 tile Art set that scores like a 2 tile set (for dice) and a 1 tile weapon/tool set for an ability. That sounds good to me.

Thursday night I was explaining to some people what I didn't like about trick taking games, and my ideas for a trick taking game I might enjoy. Francois said he had a game that sounded like exactly the kind of thing I was describing. I got a chance to try King Leech on Friday, and I was kinda disappointed - not in the game itself... it's a fine trick taking game, I just don't like trick taking games, and this was no exception. It did not really address any of the things I dislike. I also thought it was a bit fiddly (lots of exceptions and special cases it seemed).

I got Scott Slomiany's My Little Vineyard to the table 3 times over the weekend, I'll discuss it more later. I also got in a game of Dice Works with Nicholas Vitek and Kevin Nunn... Seems to be working fine. I still want to try the Martian Dice version, as soon as I get my hands on some Martian Dice :)

Exhibit hit the table, and I got some good comments on that one which might address one of the few things I am still unhappy with for that game - there's something not quite right about the feeling you get when you are outbid by 1. On one hand, that's kind of the mechanism - and if you make a bid, you have to know that you could be outbid and you should be OK with that. But it still feels crappy, and you can't really be all that accurate in knowing the true value of each auction (especially with the purples being wild). If you have a weapon, then an overbid by 1 makes the other guy's bid automatically worthless, which in some ways I feel is OK, but in other ways I don't like it either. The suggestion that addresses this is to award 2nd place a tile as well, if there's one in the discard pile for that auction.

We also discussed the possibility of putting a "recommended" number of players on the box, in addition to the full range of players. For example, Exhibit works for 2-5 players, but is probably best with 3-4 players. Some thought this was a good idea, so that first time players don't load up a game with the maximum number of players (as people are wont to do) if that's not the best number... others thought that it was a bad idea, because people would say "why even call it a 5 player game" or whatever. It was an interesting discussion, and in the end I think my opinion is to leave things like "best for X players" to BGG.

Next we played Andy's post-apocalyptic card drafting game called In Ruins, which I played at Spielbany in April. I think the game is pretty solid, but I'd like it to be a 1-hour game, not 90 minutes (and not 2.5 hours for advanced game, though maybe 90 mins for advanced game would be OK). I'd like to play this again and see how I like it on repeat plays.

Dice Works hit the table again real quick before a game of My Little Vineyard, where it came up that sacrificing a book as if it were a die of that number could be a good way to insulate against rolling extra dice to ensure a desirable result and then not getting a desirable result after all. I ended up trying this change in a later game and liking it, but I think the books, as good as they are (especially with this change) definitely need to cost a pair of dice (making them harder to get).

A suggestion I got for this game (via email, after the con) was that the main issue with the game at present is that while it's a neat idea to agonize over whether to roll extra dice to ensure your action is available, in reality the actual cost of doing so is too high compared to the benefit of die-starving your opponents, so once the pool drains, players tend to just roll 1 die and then use it. Andy's suggestion was to add a potential for failure - for example, instead of "any 1 die," something could cost "any 1 die with value 3+." This would mean there's a risk of rolling a 1 or 2 when rolling just 1 die, meaning you get nothing.

Another suggestion from that same email was to force a player to 'call their shot' - to choose which action they want to go for BEFORE rolling their dice into the pool. This way they couldn't fall back on a simpler-cost backup plan. I'm not sure if I like this idea or not, but it might help fix the 'problem,' it might help encourage people to want to roll more dice than the minimum.

Another idea that has crossed my mind is this: why does each player have their own 10 dice to roll? Why isn't there just 1 big pool, and on your turn you roll dice from the pool? Each round could start with 4 or 5 dice rolled into the pool, and each player could then be simply forced to roll a minimum of 2 dice or something (rather than the current 4 dice on the first turn of a round, 1 die thereafter). There is something interesting about budgeting your own dice, but I'm not sure it's really all that different from not doing so.

Saturday 7/9/11
I played a card game by TMG fan Alan Gearding. It was really not my type of game, and it was evidently based on some silly role playing world or something. I didn't feel like I had a lot of choices - the main mechanism was something like Rummy... you draw a card every turn until you think you have a 'good enough' hand, then you attempt to "go out" - other players can (in fact, must) "sabotage" you by playing a card to potentially damage your hand's strength... you have to play a sabotage card even if you'd prefer not to, which didn't sit well with me.

There was a game being played that looked like just my type of game, and I discussed some aspects with the designer without having played... later I was able to play the game (called Industrialist), having benefited from the prior day's playtest and discussion. The discussion mainly focused on the turn order mechanism, which at first was borrowing from Brass' where the player who spends the least money goes first, etc. I love that mechanism in Brass, but in this game, which is a worker placement game where the money you spend does not really correlate to the actions you take or your performance in the game, I don't think it was appropriate. When I played the game that was replaced with a simpler method to determine turn order, but one which was still lacking because it essentially still depended on money spent to buy Businesses/Factories, which all cost about the same anyway. There was a worker placement space which allows you to take over 1st player, but that was only for buying businesses, and then turn order was reset - so taking that worker space almost never actually meant you get to go first. After our test, he updated the turn order again to remove any link to money spent, which I think is the right move.

Industrialist featured a mechanism in which players could place their workers on Factories to get goods (1 worker per Factory), or Businesses to sell them - but more than 1 worker could go on a business, and the number of times you can sell that Business' combination of resources in a turn is equal tot he total number of workers on the Business. So by going there together, 2 players could each do 2 sales. At first glance I thought that would be totally new and different, but after playing I wasn't all that impressed. It's a solid mechanism, and it works well enough, but it didn't grab my attention during play like I thought it would. It did it's job, so maybe I'm being too harsh on that mechanism here.

Maybe I just didn't like that it introduced negotiation into the game - people saying "don't go there this turn, wait until next turn and I'll go there too, and we'll sell more stuff" - and I just don't enjoy that kind of negotiation in games.

Fianlly we talked about the VP balance (vp/cube), which looked like it was a little out of whack on some cards, and we talked about changing up the factories / businesses a bit. I think the game was pretty solid, and I'd actually like to play it again sometime - but I think there are a few more adjustments that need to be made overall before I'd call it "done."

Ken (who I met at Spielbany) and his friend Quintin had a very cute kid's game called Dragon in D(u)ress. I thought it seemed like fun, but don't know if kids would like it or not, seeing as I'm not one, nor do I really ever talk to them about this sort of thing! We
talked about card balance, my opinion is that they should be fair, and that it doesn't matter if people notice that. When they are unfair, people feel screwed when they see someone else get something better than they get. With a more fair distribution of cards I thought the game was really cool, for a kid's game.

I then taught Eminent Domain (learning game) to Ken, Quintin, and 2 others. Someone asked why we were playing that game at protospiel, and I replied that #1, Ken and Quintin specifically asked for a demo, and #2, I wanted to test the Exotic expansion I'm working on, but I had to teach the game first!

After a dinner break, Ken, Quintin and I DID play 2 games with the expansion as well, and I got some comments out of them, such as maybe the translators work both ways (making the cards with Exotic translators more versatile). And Quintn would have liked more ways to use the Resources, like sacrificing them to do something. Maybe in a future expansion... I don't think that would fit into this one.

I played a game called Dice Workshop, by a BGDF member. Not a bad dice combo game, but I didn't feel like there was any real "hook." To me it felt similar to "To Court The King," another game I don't feel the itch to play. I might like it better if it had a stronger theme... the mechanics seemed solid enough. The card balance was way off, because of what I assume was faulty assumptions in the math done to balance them. he next day the designer came back with a re-balanced deck with better assumptions and I thought it was much improved balance-wise.

Another game of My Little Vineyard, this time trying some different rules:
* any 2 dice to produce wine (instead of any 1)
* sacrifice a book like a die of that value

After playing I thought I'd like to go back to producing with any 1 die, but make books cost a pair. I liked the Sacrificing a book thing, as discussed before, but I can't think of a good thematic reason for it. Gil noted that not being able to ship only 1 barrel from your cellar with a pair is annoying - that should be "up to 2" or something. Another idea for shipping barrels is to number the categories, and you pay any 1 die to ship a barrel of that category from your cellar (discount: 1-6, table: 2-6, cultured: 3-6, gold medal: 4-6, Premier: 5-6).

Note: I played with this rule last night, and the entire final round both my opponent and I simply spent 1 die at a time to ship all of the wine in our cellars. It was boring. I don't know if that was this mechanism's fault or not.

A suggestion came up that Barrels should ferment at different rates - maybe ferment 2/3/4 units at a time depending on barrel (Kentucky/Alliere/Limousine). The reason for this is to balance the power of the different barrels - currently for the same cost you get either 1 Limousine barrel or Alliere barrels, and a Limo barrel is NOT worth 2x an Alliere barrel! I like this idea, and think I will start working that in. I'd still like to try basing the market on the grapevine type (Merlot, Moscato...) rather than the wine category (Discount, Table...). I think that would be much more interesting.

I still also think fertilizer should be cheaper, maybe 3/2/2/1/1 tiles for any 2/any 2/pair/pair/triplet? Note: I tried this last night, it seemed OK, but I'm not sure there should be anything that costs "any 2 dice" - as I think that exacerbates "the problem"
The Fertilizer values could basically be 1/2/3/4/5, plus a little bit extra on the higher level wine (so like in Chardonnay, Fruit Compost is 1 point, maybe in Pinot it is worth 2... Mushrooms are 4/5/8 vp in Chardonnay/Moscata/Riesling. Etc)

And finally, I still think the VP per barrel should come from the category, not the actual value
that defines which category it is. Thus, adding Volcanic Ash does not simply add 2 points, rather it helps you get your barrel 2 steps closer to the next category for a VP bump. I also think that Fermenting should be a major way to get that bump.

Sunday 7/10/11
Francois described to me his game called Code of the West. The game was (coincidentally) thematically similar to another prototype I'd seen before called Spaghetti Western, but I think this game might be better. It was a worker placement game with simultaneous worker placement, and a sort of combat system for when there's a conflict. At each location you can choose to Protect it or Rob it - be a good guy or a bad guy (Spaghetti Western had the same type of thing).

The cards had poker symbols on them (like 4 of hearts, or Queen of Clubs) - I suggested he use that instead of the more complicated combat system he had... when there's a conflict, all players involved play their cards (which was already the case), and then the single highest poker hand is the winner of the conflict. This system actually fit right in and worked well with several other mechanisms already in the game, and it really sounded fun and interesting to me. It worked pretty much like this:

Each card has 1 or maybe 2 poker cards on it. Your personal character card has a Joker (wild). Cowboys have an A, K, Q, J, or 10 on them. During combat you play a hand of cards - 1 cowboy (could be your character), and at most: 1 gun, 1 hat, 1 horse(?), 1 boots, 1 buckle... a shotgun has maybe 2 cards on it (low pair or suited cards) compared to pistol which has 1 low card or rifle which has 1 middling card. Make best 5 card poker hand and compare, best hand wins. Each location has a Protect and a Rob action, and each is guarded by an NPC guard. Guard's hand is represented by the 5 cowboys in the display (another space allows you to draw from them which would replace some/all of them), so you know how strong the guard is when you choose to Rob or Protect. Fights only occur if there are players/NPCs on both sides, otherwise...
... Protectors get Protect action which maybe lets you draw cards into your hand for immediate use.
... Robbers get Rob action which is probably a little bit better - but requiring you to gain cards into your discard pile to use later (as opposed to immediately)
... Upon losing a fight, the Cowboy used goes to jail, other played cards are discarded to a personal discard pile.
... Upon winning a fight, you get the appropriate action, AND, as Protector, you score points based on opponents WANTED value (which is based on their score)
... Other than that, you score points by getting money onto stage or train and protecting it, or maybe robbing the stage or train I guess. Also there are animal cards which you can score with, so there's a sort of Rancher strategy (Horse that you can use to fight might count as an animal for Ranch strat - pairs of like animals in your deck at game end could be worth vp, but they choke up your deck during the game (no poker cards on them, except horses, which are lower vp value than cows and sheep)
... Various cards like equipment for combat and animals appear at General Store for purchase/stealing

I'm not sure simultaneous worker placement is the way to go. Maybe just worker placement rounds.

Francois had another game, one I played a few years ago at Gamestorm in Portland, called Catch of the Day. I's a sort of structured storytelling game where players program their movement in secret, then iteratively reveal which location they'rey visited at each hour of the day, attempting to claim scoring tokens for various types of things (fish, birds, bugs, beasts) - or thwarting other players' attempts to collect by either having been there first, or spying on them at the same time they claimed to collect the prize. "At 11am I was at the bridge,and I caught a fish the size of my arm!" "No way, I was by the old oak tree at 11, and I saw you at the bridge! You weren't fishing, you were taking a nap!" Stuff like that. When you interrupt the story like that, you take over control of the turn, and you go on from location to location (in order) until you are interrupted or until you get to a part of the story you've already told.

The game seemed to me to have more interruption than I remembered from last time. I think it would flow better with less interruption, like the "me too" type of interruption gets you a score, but not takes over the story... I think that would lead to more continuity of story.

What if being the on-turn guy was better than "following" such that you might not "me too" because you want to play that tile later for the "leader" benefit on your own turn..? Maybe you would do that anyway to spy on someone (if the score were poor for example). I'm not sure.

Gil Hova had a game a while back called Wag the Wolf, but he didn't like the way it was turning out, so he took the very clever, brutal auction mechanism from that game and is using it in another game called Prime Time. Having worked on a game about TV networks (my friend Mohan's 8/7 Central), I know how hard it is to make that theme work without being too tedious. I am happy to report that Gil has done a good job abstracting the theme so that it's not tedious. On the down side, it also doesn't feel as much like running a TV network, but it seemed to me like an appropriate level of abstraction. I thought the game was pretty good, but we all thought it needed some work. The auction was too brutal, the winner reaped reward on top of reward while the losers had to pay for the privilege of getting nothing. We thought the reward for winner of auction needed to be toned down, and that bailing from the auction should EARN you money, not COST you money. We also thought Stars sghould be a little more avaiulable, since you need them for getting better shows - though I wouldn't want them to be TOO prevalent. I would like to see a couple of them for sale as turn action, maybe stars not obtained by auction are available as an action? Though, that sort of negates the Underbid mechanism, so maybe not. Or maybe all bids and underbids get a director, and winner gets a free star as well? I may be reconsidering this comment (or, auction prices might be too high). I really liked the upgradable tracks for Income, Stars, and Viewer conversion (ability to change money into VP). We all thought the Star track could be a bit stronger.

I played a game that was made for one of the BGDF Game Design Showdowns called Nightshade VS Milkweed by Chip Beauvais. It was exactly the type of game I'd expect to see in a GAMES! magazine, and hopefully Chip will find a way to submit it to them.

I also played Chip's Protospiel contest entry, Mission Control - it didn't win the contest, but it made the final round of 4 games, and I hear it was a very close finish between Mission Control and the winner. Mission Control had a little bit of deck building, and what was referred to as 'map building' - turn by turn you create a little map of cards, and you move your pawn from card to card. For an almost-winner of a contest, I fond it kind of disappointing. You build a map, but you don't really traverse it, and you start over each time you get to the end of the path.

I played a sort of connection game called Lemuria by Dave Ross. I thought it was a pretty cool game, though it lacked a real hook to make me want to play it again. However in talking about it afterward I think I liked it more and more. We discussed some little things to make the game better: allow trading (since you can approximate it anyway), remove the yellow cards (their direct interaction is a little out of place in that type of game, and they ONLY hurt an opponent, never help you), maybe add vp to cards, so trading could be more of a strategic path.

I was happy to have gotten as many games to the table as I had over the weekend, but I still had one more I wanted to playtest - upcoming TMG release Kings of Air and Steam
. Luckily I was able to get that to the table Sunday night. A lot of good comments were generated from that playtest, even if in the end I'm not sure if the comments about multicolored factories will make the cut. I have always known that the boards need to be examined, and some of the comments gave me an idea about what to look for.

Since that test I have discussed some things with the designer and updated the prototype to go back to 6 rounds, and I think we've corrected something I wasn't entirely happy with - Depots. For the next test I'm going to try depots costing $4, $6, or $8 depending on whether it's the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd+ depot on a link, and at the end of the game Depots will be worth 10 points. The fee to use the depot will also go down to $1/cube to make the balance work, but I think the value of cubes on the market board will start at $4 (not $6) and go up from there.

In order to fix some other things and normalize supply and demand, we're going to try upping the demand of cities on the board to 5-dots, while new Demand tiles will average 3 dots each - and there will be 4 of them per color no matter how many players are in the game, meaning the prices for each color will only range up to $12.

I think that with Depots being worth points, those couple of passed actions at the end of the game will turn into useful things to do, and I liked how the 6 round game felt.

LATE Sunday night I played another of Andy's games called Broker. It was intended to be a trading game that works with only 2 players - because most trading games break down with 2. In Broker there are trade cards with 2 sets of resources pictured. You can initiate a trade by taking 1 card and putting up one of the sets of resources on it. An opponent can 'trade' you the other set of resources for that set, and if they don't then on a future turn you can choose to release that trade offer and score points. I thought it was a really cool game, though a bit thinky, and it suffers from the same sort of dynamic as Kill Doctor Lucky does - when someone threatens to win, the player before them is sort of expected to stop them, so everyone can be on the verge of winning, with their right hand neighbor stopping them until someone cannot stop the win. Also, consider a 3 player game where 1 player threatens to win, the next player also threatens to win, and the 3rd player cannot stop them both - a complete kingmaker condition.

Monday 7/11/11
On the way to the airport on Monday, Andy and I stopped for lunch and discussed some aspects of cooperative games. In the process I think we stumbled onto a coop game design that I formalized on the plane and have since made a prototype. I don't really think this game will be "the best coop game ever," it's more like an experiment in the genre. Hopefully I'll get a chance to test it out soon!


LaMont7 said...

Seth, I had a chance to play prototypes with Andy at SaltCon back in February (My design got second in the strategy category and is being reviewed by White Goblin games). He's a good guy and I had a some good impressions of In Ruins. I'm in Southern Cal and I've actually had some e-mail communication with Michael at TMG. I'd love to demo and rep some of your stuff at the Gateway convention in LA over Labor Day weekend. Brett Holbrook

Chip Beauvais said...

Thanks for the write up. Having read your blog for a while, it was nice to get to meet you in person.

Take Care,