Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Alter Ego rules update

Alter Ego v2.3
A cooperative deck building game of vigilante heroism

You won't see Crime City on any map, but that's how people have come to know your hometown. Sadists, Anarchists, and the Mafia each carving out portions of the city they call their own. Hundreds of innocent bystanders caught up every day in their turf wars, or held under their oppressive thumbs. Precious few have the time, the money, the guts, or the wherewithal to do anything about it. You're one of those few... Of course it means you'll have to give up that happy home life, or that cushy job. The paper paints vigilantism in a negative light - you'd be viewed by the community as a monster. But your city bleeds... the city bleeds and it calls your name. Will you answer?

You're a vigilante hero, one of the few in Crime City who have come together to put an end to the reign of terror the city's been trapped under. Banding together, you'll fight through a swath of henchmen in order to find and defeat several Arch Villains. But as you get stronger as a hero, you'll have to neglect some parts of your Alter Ego life - your family, your job, and your community.

XX Hero cards (5 types)
XX Alter Ego Cards
- XX Family Cards
- XX Job Cards
- XX Community Cards
XX Henchmen Cards
XX Arch Villain Cards (3 types)
XX Nemesis Cards
XX Equipment Cards
XX Civilian (CIV) Tokens (3 types)
XX Teamwork Tokens
XX Cop Tokens

1. Shuffle the Henchmen cards to create the henchmen deck. Place this deck in the middle of the table.
2. Randomly choose 1 Arch Villain of each type. Those will be the Arch Villains used this game, put the rest back into the box.
3. Sort the Hero and Equipment cards by type and place them in piles in the center of the table, accessible by all players.
4. Give each player 4 of each Alter Ego card (Family, Job, and Community). Sort the rest of the Alter Ego cards by type and place them alongside the Hero cards.
5. Each player shuffles his deck of 12 Alter Ego cards and deals 4 cards face up into his "display" area, then draws a hand of 4 from the remaining cards in his deck.
6. Sort the Civ tokens by type and create pools of each. Also create a pool of Teamwork tokens.
7. Deal each player 1 Nemesis card, which they keep hidden from other players.

Players take turns one at a time resolving each phase of their own turn before the next player plays.
Patrol phase: On your turn you must first bring a henchman into play:
* Draw 1 card from the Henchmen deck.
* If you have any face up Community cards in your display, draw 1 additional Henchman card for each Community card.
* If you have at least 1 [Should this be "For each"?] Community card in your display, draw 1 additional Henchman card for each Community icon on henchman you have defeated (in your play area).
* Choose 1 Henchman card to put into play, and discard the rest in a face down discard pile.
* If you have at least 3 Community icons in play and played at least 1 Community card, then you may "Call the Cops" - discard a Cop token from the group's supply and remove 1 Henchman card in play from the game. Any hostages on that henchmen are considered rescued and are returned to their supply pools. No player takes the Henchman card into their play area.

When a henchman comes into play he takes some number of civilians hostage! Place CIV tokens on the Henchman card as indicated. If a CIV token must be taken but the supply is empty, then the game is over and the Villains win!

Support phase: After a henchman has come into play, you may gain support from your family, allowing you to draw cards from your deck:
* For each Family card in your display, draw 2 cards from your deck.
* If you have at least 1 [Should this be "For each"?] Family card in your display, also draw 1 card from your deck for each Family icon on henchman you have defeated (in your play area).
* If you have at least 3 Family icons in play and played at least 1 Family card, then you may collect 1 Teamwork token from the supply.

Equip phase: You may spend money on fancy equipment to make you a stronger hero:
* For each Job card in your display, collect $1
* If you have at least 1 [Should this be "For each"?] Job card in your display, collect $1 for each $ icon on henchmen you have defeated (in your play area).
You may spend these $s to buy or activate Equipment this turn.

Crime-fighting phase: Now that you have geared up and garnered the support of your friends and family, it's time to go fight some crime!
* Hero cards in your display may be spent to rescue CIV tokens currently being held on a Henchman card. Hero cards spent must match the icons depicted on the Henchman card. The rescued CIV token is returned to the supply.
* If you have at least 1 [Should this be "For each"?] Hero card of a particular type in your display, you may use the matching Hero icons on henchman you have defeated (in your play area).
* You may "request help" from another player. Give an opponent 1 Teamwork token in order to use one of the Hero cards in their display (they need not discard it). You can only request help from each other player once per turn, and each request requires a Teamwork token.
* You may discard 2 Teamwork tokens to the general supply in lieu of any 1 Hero symbol.
* If the last CIV token on a henchman is rescued, that henchman is DEFEATED, and the you may keep that henchman in your play area and gain the printed benefit (usually an icon).
* Whenever a henchman is defeated, check to see if it has any Arch Villain icons. For each Arch Villain icon, place a token on the matching Arch Villain card. When enough tokens are placed on an Arch Villain card, that Arch Villain will come into play and terrorize the city by KILLING civilians (removing CIV tokens from the game) until he is defeated!

Recoup phase: After you're all spent from fighting crime, you get a chance to recuperate and plan your next turn.
* Discard all cards in your display.
* Play 4 cards from your hand face up into your display.
* For each Display icon on henchmen you have defeated (in your play area), you may play an additional card face up into your display.
* Choose a Hero or Alter Ego card from the supply stacks and place it face up in your display.
* Discard the rest of your hand, and draw 4 new cards from your deck (shuffle your discard pile as needed) plus 1 card for each Hand Size icon on henchmen you have defeated (in your play area).

Play continues with the next player in clockwise order.

When the last Arch Villain is defeated, then the game is over. The Heroes have saved Crime City from the clutches of evil and everybody wins!


When the last Arch Villain is defeated, then the game is over. The Heroes have saved Crime City from the clutches of evil! Any player who has defeated their Nemesis wins a Personal Victory, while all players win a Cooperative Victory.


When the last Arch Villain is defeated, then the game is over. If all players have defeated their Nemesis, then the Heroes have saved Crime City from the clutches of evil and everybody wins! Otherwise, the Nemeses who were not defeated rise up and overtake Crime City!


When any player defeats their Nemesis OR the last Arch Villain is defeated, then the game is over. If the game ended because a Nemesis was defeated, then the player defeating their Nemesis wins. If the game ended because an Arch Villain was defeated, then the Heroes have saved Crime City from the clutches of evil and everybody wins!

If at any time a CIV token must be taken but the supply is empty, then the game is over and the Villains win!

Sunday, November 27, 2011

EmDo Expansion progress

I got a few chances to play with the latest EmDo expansion cards. It went fairly well, and then I made some adjustments based on the few games we played.

I thought it was too annoying to have additional tech stacks and to check the specific planets required for the Double Time cards, so I changed that to 1 specific planet plus any other planet, so it could just go in the corresponding tech stack. I had meant "any 2 planets", but maybe it should be 2 different planets... not sure if that matters. It's supposed to be for people who get a variety of planets, not people who specialize, so I'll probably stick with "Any OTHER planet" there.

I changed some of the costs of some technology to "either research icons or fighters" and added a level 1 tech in each stack called Warfare Technology, which allows you to pay fighters as if they were Research icons. The purpose of these is to allow players to add tech cards to their deck without having to add Research cards to their deck.

I added a few other new technology cards to the piles as well, some requiring all 3 different planet types, some requiring a Destroyer rather than research symbols (or fighters). As described in the prior post, I also added Resources and Fighters to the icon area on some of the new tech cards, meaning you can discard that card from your hand as if it were a resource/fighter in your empire to trade or attack a planet. I added Destroyers and Dreadnaughts to some of the more expensive techs, so buying that tech is like buying a Destroyer or Dreadnaught into your Empire.

I also added a card/tile that each player will start with called Fleet Upgrade... it confers additional actions a player can do in lieu of playing a card during their action phase - exchange 3 Fighters for a Destroyer, or exchange 2 Destroyers for a Dreadnaught. It also serves as a reminder that while you have at least 1 dreadnaught in play, your Warfare costs are -1, and you can discard a Dreadnaught in lieu of any number of fighters to attack a planet.

I like the idea of offering Actions that are available each turn without requiring a card, so I added a series of planets that each have one of the basic actions on them. this means that every turn, whether you have a Trade card in hand or not, you can use your Action for the turn to trade 1 resource for 1 Influence. Those planets cost either 5 colonies or 1 Destroyer.

I also made "Hostile" planets, which require 1 Destroyer to attack and cannot be colonized. those each provide 1 Fighter whenever you're spending fighters (so effectively -1 to Warfare costs, as well as usable for things like Fleet Upgrade).

And finally, I created "Civilized" planets which cannot be attacked, only colonized (they have defenses and stuff). Each of those have the ability "gain 1 Influence whenever you Dissent instead of following a Warfare role." I hope that this will help counterbalance the things I added that emphasize Warfare role.

As a sort of teaser, I included Exotic icons on the Double Time cards, and I came up with 6 Agendas which could be used as an optional rule... Put 2 of them at random into play each game or something like that. In a future expansion I still intend to add a Politics role and more Agendas, and I even have a better idea how I think they'll come into play:

I think players will use the Politics role to either choose an Agenda to bring into play, or choose an Agenda in play to discard. Players will 'vote' for or against by boosting and following the role, each card played will count for 1 vote, with Politics cards counting as 2 votes. It seems like a simple system that could be fair and work the way I want it to. I could always specify icons on the agendas that indicate what you need to play in order to vote for or against that Agenda.

I'm more happy with the expansion progress now than I was before, and I've sent PDFs to a couple of friends to let me know what they think. One more round of edits and I might open up a print and play to people interested in commenting on it!

Alter Ego - clarification of the theme

Alter Ego is not about Superheroes.

I feel like this will be a point of contention, as people have already mentioned that they "did not feel like they had super powers." People refer to Batman as a "Superhero," but he has no super powers... he's just some bad-ass who's trained various skills and bought awesome equipment in order to become a vigilante crime fighter. THAT'S what Alter Ego is about... Vigilante heroes like Batman or The Watchmen. There are no super powers here. How can I ensure that point comes across?

The main mechanism of the game is that each turn you choose what aspect to 'train' - and thereby get a card of that type for your deck. So it doesn't make sense if the cards are powers like Flight, Heat Vision, Teleporting, Telekinetics... "I think I'll work in my ability to fly today!" - just doesn't make sense.

Instead, each Villain card indicates what skills are needed to defeat it (Strength, Speed, Smarts, Luck (I know you can't train luck, but I needed 5 things), and um... one more (maybe Focus?). There's a stack of cards for each of there (like there's a stack of cards for each of the basic actions in EmDo), and each turn you take 1. You also have cards for Family, Job, and Community - representing your ties to each of those Alter Ego aspects.

The game is about beating up bad guys in order to eventually beat up an Arch Villain, but the play revolves around constantly having to choose between your Alter Ego aspects and your Hero aspects. Which do you neglect in order to fight crime? Your family and friends? Your job? The community? Each of those comes with a benefit that you lose if you don't play those cards - but in order to beat up the bad guys, you really need to play Hero cards instead - and you can only play so many cards per turn.

I currently think there could be both a cooperative win condition and a competitive win condition in this game, and players who would like to play a fully cooperative game can do so, while players who would like individual wins could go for that. The team wins if they defeat one of the Arch Villains, while an individual wins if they defeat their own personal Nemesis. Everybody loses if the city is overrun with crime though, so players will have to make sure that doesn't happen, and that might even mean working together.

I think I even have a mechanism for working together - Teamwork Tokens. If you want a player's help (you need to use one of their hero cards in play), you give them a Teamwork Token and you get to use their card (they don't lose it). Teamwork Tokens can also be discarded 2 at a time to make up for any symbol in the game. I don't know if this will feel like teamwork or not, but it sounds like it might be a good way to allow "teamwork" in a competitive game.

I played the game (such as it is) with my incomplete prototype a couple of times in the last week, and I've solidified a few things...

- I like the basic structure, and the game flows the way it's supposed to.

- There needs to be piles for Family, Community, and Job cards alongside the Hero aspects for players to take if they want to.

- I like the game loss condition of running out of any single color of "civilian" tokens - and there needs to be a fairly small number of each (maybe only 5 or 6) for that to feel right, at least with the current set of Villain cards.

- I like the idea of each Arch Villain being associated with one of those colors (civilian types), and when they come into play, each Patrol Phase (so every player turn) they KILL one civilian of that type (remove a token of that color from the game). this is supposed to be a really big deal, and force players to deal with this baddie as soon as possible.

- There could be different types of each Arch Villain, so if you activate the Sadist for example, maybe he takes a lot of hostages, and waits for his minions to finish the game off... or maybe he kills civilians as described above. Or maybe he just forces more Villains to come into play, accelerating the potential game loss condition. Each Arch Villain could have several types, so you don't know which one will pop up each game.

- For the standard coop game, players would need to defeat only 1 Arch Villain. for a harder game they could need to defeat 2 of them, and for an Epic Win they could try and defeat all 3.

- Players could have a nemesis card (cards?) which represent their personal Nemesis, and you win a personal victory by defeating your own Nemesis before the group loses or wins as a team.

- It could be the case that the game is still fully cooperative, but you 'score better' if you defeat players' Nemeses as well as the Arch Villains (so a perfect game would be to defeat ALL of the Nemeses and also all of the Arch Villains).

- There could be some small supply of COP cards, and players could "Call the cops" if they play 3 or more Community cards (well, Community icons) in addition to their turn. This would remove a Villain from play, rescuing the hostage, but nobody would collect the card and therefore the benefit on it. Some Villains benefits would be that they return COP cards to play, giving the players more uses.

- Of course there could be Villains who provide more Teamwork Tokens.

- I need to completely re-do the Equipment deck (I already knew that). there could be some equipment that stays in play, some that is one-use only, and some that cycle through your deck.

- I need to design the Arch Villain and Nemesis cards to give players something to build their deck towards.

EmDo and Belfort are going strong!

Maybe it goes without saying, but I couldn't be more pleased with the general reception that both Eminent Domain and Belfort have received. Of course I've got a lot of personal attachment to Eminent Domain, but I also put a lot of care and effort into Belfort as well. It's so exciting to hear the news that Tasty Minstrel has sold out of it's 2,000 copies of Belfort, and that EmDo is selling into the 2nd 5,000 copy print run!

I'd like to take a moment to thank all of the people who have bought, played, taught, and enjoyed either of those games, or anything published by Tasty Minstrel Games. It's a great feeling to wander around BGG.con and see these games being played and enjoyed!

I put some work in on EmDo expansion ideas, and I hope to get that into print-and-play testing fairly soon. It was much easier to get to work on that after seeing how much people are liking the base game! :)

Saturday, November 26, 2011

BGG.con 2011 recap

I spent last week at BGG.con again, and I had a TERRIFIC time this year! First, let me be clear... I've attended all 7 BGG.con events, and I've enjoyed every single one. However, the last couple of years (since Tasty Minstrel Games got started) my con experienced has been affected by having to man the booth much of each day. I've already got too many things to do and too many people I want to see than there is time in the week, so spending all those hours in the booth have put something of a damper on my vacation. It's not all bad though, as the whole TMG experience has been rewarding in its own right. This year however, Michael decided to sell TMG product through the Funagain store, freeing us up to play games!

I got to play a lot of mew games, with a lot of old friends. Here's a little recap:

Tuesday, 11/15
I arrived at 3 or 4 in the afternoon, made my way back to the convention area, and offered a little help setting up. I moved some boxes of giveaway games into a closet with Mischa and Adam, and then I stuffed envelopes for Yehuda's con-wide meta-game. I met Jess Danhurst, who's tireless work (along with that of Beth, Aldie, Lincoln, and everyone else) made the Essen reporting a joy to watch.

Envelopes stuffed, I bumped into Travis, a friend from a few years ago when I was hanging out in L.A. a lot... he's been touring the globe, and has just returned. Travis is a game designer type, and I had a nice chat with him about Social games.

The first game I played at the con was Kingdom Builder, with Steve and David. I played a second game with Steve, Sean, and Alex Rockwell. I'm not sure how much I really like the game - it's not terribly, but not amazing either. I've found that it can really hurt to draw the same terrain card in the first 2 turns of the game. It also seems like in games with the Boat action (move a house onto water), that ability is key, and the 1st 2 people to get it will be at a huge advantage.

The next game of the con was one that was high on my list of games to try out. Trajan (with Travis, Alex, and Gil) had a lot of neat things to do, many ways to pursue VPs... however the Rond-cala mechanism was a bit opaque. I'd have to play the game again to feel like I was doing anything on purpose. When I heard about the mechanism, my guess was that you would choose an action and it's intensity would be based on the number of bits in that actions bin... then you would Mancala those bits around the Rondel. It turns out I had that backwards - instead you pick a bin and Mancala the bits from it, and you take the action at the end of the line. That's a lot harder to wrap your head around, and I wonder if it wouldn't be worth trying my mistaken guess out as a main mechanism in some game of my own! To make the Rond-cala even more opaque, the bits are colored, and sometimes it matters which color combos are in which bins. Turns out to be a bit of a pain in the butt, but the game seems worth it. I wish I'd gotten a chance to play the game again during the con, but I did not.

The game took a long time, but went MUCH faster when Travis had to bow out to return his rental car, and we continued with 3 players who finally knew the rules than it did when we had 4 players trying to figure it out.

Next was Nefarious, with fellow Tucsonan Brian Poe, Steve, and Andrew. None of us liked the game at all. It seemed like Speculation was very weak - taking something like 5 rounds to pay off vs just playing Work for $4. our game didn't last a whole lot of rounds. We looked through a few of the other Twist cards, and they didn't excite us to play again.

Since Brian and Andrew had not yet played Kingdom Builder, we played that one more time. This time I finished dead last!

Wednesday 11/16
I started out the next day by demoing Eminent Domain. I was happy to see that game being played all over the con... and happier still that I didn't have to spend all con teaching it :)

The first game I actually played on Wednesday was Pantheon, with Snowden and Wystan. As we were starting to unpack the library copy, Travis came by and offered to teach us. I liked Pantheon pretty well, and played it 4 times total during the con.

Next up was another game from my "to-play" list - Singapore. Snowden taught Steve, Wystan and I, though we had a couple significant rules wrong (didn't know we could build roads for $1, thought we couldn't activate the tile we started on, a few other little things). The incorrect rules kinda killed the game for me, so I wanted to play again with the real rules to see if I liked it or not.

At 8pm I had a scheduled demo of Kings of Air and Steam. I had 12 people signed up for this, and I THOUGHT I had 2 copies of the game with me... however it turned out I only had 1 copy, so I was only able to run 1 game of KoA&S instead of 2 :( The game went alright, though some players seemed put off that 1/2 their final score came from Depots... though in reality, they paid money (and money is points) for the depots, and they collected a lot of money from deliveries, but spent it on upgrades and depots. In fact, the same players complained that they "did nothing but build depots" in some turns, so it seemed like they didn't feel like building depots was making progress... weird. I wonder if there's a better way to present that.

The last game for Wednesday was Pantheon again. Since I'd learned it earlier I was able to teach Andy, Herman, and Chris. I This game was a little weird, with Andy and Herman drawing fistfulls of cards, and Chris drawing every foot in sight, and doing the walk action really often. I am not a huge fan of how the Walk action (since everyone gets to "follow" it) can make a round end before everyone even gets a turn (this happened to me in round 4 or 5). One round I spent my last card buying the last God tile and ending the round, and the following round the event was the reset to 7 cards.... Andy and Herman had to discard 6+ cards each, while I drew 7 :) I guess that's the price you pay for hoarding cards. In the end, Chris won by a lot, getting all of his columns on the board. The sentiment at the table seemed to be that the game is primarily about building columns, and the god tiles and other points are secondary... but I don't think that's true. I've definitely seen a Column strategy lose to a God strategy. My concern at this point is that the game may be all about drawing either feet or money cards (especially early). Also, the 4 suits of cards you use to buy God cards seem so inferior to money and feet.

I started Thursday by bumping into Eric Burgess and John stumbling through the rules of Helvetia. They invited me to join, and it looked like the kind of euro game I would enjoy, so I sat in. Interesting mechanisms there, with the marrying of your dudes to your opponents in order to gain access to their buildings. Definitely wanted to play again so I could try to combo my buildings by placing them where 2 complementary buildings could both be woken up by the night watchman ability. I ended up winning by 1 point over Eric, but I didn't think I would. I took several majorities (for action tiles) away from him in the last round. I had built maybe 3 of the 3vp buildings, but didn't do as much trading. Also, due to poor turn management, I failed to score any points for completing my city, when I could have had 4 for doing so first.

At 1pm I had another scheduled demo of Kings of Air and Steam, and this one went much better. Everyone liked the game, and picked up the rules very easily. Afterwards I asked some questions about the depots to see if anyone had the same reaction as the players from the night before, but they didn't. We talked a little bit about the restriction of gentle turns and whether that should be stricken or not - everyone thought it was sufficiently thematic that it wasn't hard to understand or remember.

I got a chance to pay Singapore again, this time with Brian, Alex, and Steve. We played by the right rules this time, and it was better, but I have a new concern. It seemed very good to be in last place, so that you get to choose where to place your buildings - you can store up cubes over the coarse of the game, and score many points in a row near the end. I tend to dislike games where it's a fight to be losing in order to maintain preferential turn order (I dislike that dynamic in Power Grid and in Wildlife). I did not mind the Opium trade penalty system as much as I've read some people dislike it.

I played a game of EmDo with some new players, and did poorly. But I managed to finish 2nd (17-16-11-10). You can't win them all!

I played that tower building/smashing dexterity game in the lobby with Andy, Henry, and Alex... that game is almost cool, butt he destructive power of the destructor tools far outweighs the stability and structural integrity of any tower you can possibly build. The balls need o be less dense and/or smaller, and the tower pieces need to be more dense and/or bigger for the game to really work. As it is, you really never score any points for being the builder, while it seems like that's supposed to be possible.

Next I got Mikey, Gil, and Dave to play Exhibit. The game went well, using the most recent rules addition (for the first time) - when a tile is not won, it's available for the 2nd highest bid in the following round. I need to replace the "change die" (stage 1) tile though, I don't like that effect.

Gil went to bed after that, but we grabbed Brian Poe for a game of Andy's In Ruins, which I wanted Steve to try. I've actually played Andy's game at Brian's house, but he was busy with some other game at the time. I like in Ruins, and this game went well. There were some suggestions afterwards which were good - one which could really make the Danger mechanism feel more dangerous (and at the same time less fiddley). The other suggestion was to make the initially seeded buildings all have some scoring condition on them, something to give players some direction to head in. They may still get other scoring cards over the course of the game, but this would ensure everyone has a way to get Civ tokens, and would also inform their future draft decisions. Both good suggestions.

I learned that there was a disc golf outing, so I got up early on Friday morning to attend. I didn't love missing sleep, and I didn't love missing a couple hours of proto alley, but it was a fun outing, and I won one of the "closest to pin" holes and was rewarded with a new putter! It was fun, i might try to do it again next year.

After returning from Disc Golf, I tried to take a nap for an hour or two, but I don't think I really fell asleep at all :( So I was a couple hours late to Proto Alley. When I got there, I played a cooperative real time game where you build towers with blocks. It was pretty awesome, and I think Chris from Asmadi Games seemed really interested in it.

Since we'd just played a real time game, I brought out Dice Works. That went over OK, but what I really wanted to try was Martian Diceworks... but people had been waiting to play another designer's game, so we played that instead.

This game was by the guy with the werewolf style board game from last year (which I was not a fan of at all). This one was about a presidential election, and was pretty good. First we booster drafted a deck, then we used that deck over the course of the game to place influence in different states, trying to win over the state's electoral votes. The main problem with a game like this is that I thin kit either has to be historic, like 1960 the Making of the President, so people recognize the major players; or it has to be super generic, so as not to be dated. Nobody will know most of the people referenced in the game (except maybe Obama) in a few years. I did like the mechanisms though, and with some polish, I think the game could be very good - IF it could be genericized enough. I think the goal would be to model the Electoral Vote system, not any specific campaign.

My longtime friend Brian arrived near the end of that game, and so I gave up my seat... my next 3 turns were going to be completely non-productive anyway, and someone sat in for me. I told him what I was planning on, and I heard later that I actually won the game! I thought I'd have a shot, but I thought it would be very, very close between me and the designer.

Once Brian arrived, we grabbed a game we'd played last year - Navegador - to play with Snowden and Steve. Then we went to dinner at Red Robin, which I saw on the way out to disc golf that morning. When we got back I taught Brian, Steve, and Eric Carter (who did a lot of illustration for EmDo) Helvetia, which I'd just learned the day before.

Brian went home to have dinner with his family, and I finally got a chance to play The Manhattan Project. Too bad Brian had to leave, I think he would have liked that one. I played with Steve, Brian Poe, Henry, and Jennifer Geske, taught by the publisher James Mathe. James did something I don't like when teaching - he made strategy suggestions such as "you probably won't do mush Espionage, that actions not too good" and "There's no reason not to put all of your workers out at once..." I don't like that because (a) that's what the players are supposed to figure out on their own, and 9b) sometimes when people do that, they're just plain wrong! In this game I frequently DIDN'T place my workers on the buildings as soon as I built them, because frankly there was nothing stopping me from doing it next turn, while if I did put them out, there's no changing my mind later. It's simply better play, like using Fact or Fiction at the end of your opponent's turn rather than during your own Main Phase in a game of M:tG - you just don't do that unless you have some compelling reason.

In any case, I was at first annoyed that all the buildings I wanted were being taken by other players, a few of them by Steve. As a result I decided to use Espionage in order to take advantage of those buildings. Since I was not placing my guys as quickly as other players, I also wasn't pulling them all back as frequently. This seemed to annoy the other players, especially those who's buildings I was squatting on via Espionage! I was trying to time my Vacate turns for when I thought Steve would have to Vacate as well, so I could then Espionage him again and use those buildings I wanted! It worked, but apparently my play did not make my opponents happy. Eventually they decided to bomb the crap out of my board, damaging every single building pretty much beyond repair. Luckily I was able to collect enough Uranium to complete a bomb and load it into a plane for enough points to trigger the game end, winning the game! I liked the game very much, but I thin it would play out very differently the next time, or without the teacher coaching against using Espionage. I was the only person to use it, and I think I used it 4 times - and each time you can use one more building on an opponent's board.

Finally, Andy and I were going to work on the board for Admirals of the Spanish Main. Since Henry was there we thought his input would be good, but we decided to play a game with him first so he'd know how it went. I am dieing to use the new static abilities, but without the new board structure we've got in mind, one of them doesn't really make any sense, so we used the previous rules. In retrospect I think we could have used the static abilities and just said "move 1 space per blue die" for use with that board. Instead of discussing the new board, Henry had many suggestions to remove the board and make the game more "dynamic" - but Andy and I are not sure we ever figured out what he meant by that, or what 'problem' he was trying to fix. I think anyone playing a game like this will want to see a map board to move around on. One comment that does have some merit is that players may prefer to BE pirates, not hunt them.

Saturday morning started out with another game of Pantheon with Steve, Brian, and Snowden. I liked that game pretty well!

Then it was time for the puzzle hunt, one of my favorite events of the con. My team was me, Brian, Steve, Mike, and Jenny joined us part way through. I feel like Mike is interested in puzzles, but if he gets stuck on one he seems to lose interest altogether, so his attention kept drifting off. I really liked the format for this year's puzzle hunt, but we only got through 6 of the 7 rooms worth of puzzles :/ One of the bits of the puzzle hunt game me some info I might be able to use to one day make a board game based on the 12 trials of Hercules - something I've always sort of wanted to do.

All week I kept running into Cynthia Landon, but one of us was always on the way to eat, or play a game, or something. Finally we were able to get in a game together - Lancaster, with her brother,Eric Burgess, and one other guy whose name I didn't get. Eric was not thrilled with the game due to the way you lose your 'bid' if someone outbids you. Cynthia was kicking butt the whole game, and I was able to keep pace except for 2 blunders, and 1 unfortunate incident. There was a Law that would score me 9 points and the Other Guy 6 points, and not score anything for anyone else. However, rather than vote that one in, he actually voted it DOWN - intending to maintain a law that was already in play (a bad choice because (a) the law he wanted to maintain would only stay if ALL THREE new laws were voted down, and (b) the old law did not score points at all, and was not that amazing. So my vote was wasted, and I believe Cynthia was able to push through her "I score 8vp and nobody else scores anything" law that same round. That swing right there would have made it a very close game!

After Lancaster I got a chance to play a few short games with Miguel, who I often see at KublaCon. Toc Toc Woodman was a cute little dexterity game I'd heard people playing left and right. It was silly, you hit a plastic tree with a plastic axe, trying to knock off the bark without actually knocking down the tree. very silly! We also played some Fermat... it wasn't much of a contest, I doubled everybody's score every round, but it was a fun exercise anyway :) Wystan and Andy joined us. After Fermat, I asked Andy to pull out Ribbity Flickit, his frog flicking game where you pick up metal flies with your magnetic frog while you try to land on lily-pads. I like this game, and I'm looking into a possible supplier of magnets.

Late Saturday night Andy, Henry, and Eric somebody played a game of Alba Longa that I got out of the library. It seemed like we all did the same stuff, and maxed out our win conditions in the first half of round 3... we ended up with a 3 way tie, with Andy 1 resource short of a 4-way tie. :/

I generally don't sleep the last night of the con, and this year was no exception. I found Stephanie and friends playing Hanabi, and when one of them went to bed, I jumped in. Hanabi might be the best cooperative game I've ever played, and we played a number of games in a row. In one of them, Adam gave a poor clue right near the beginning, and I had to spend an additional Clue token to 'fix' it later. We managed a score of 24 that game - the best I'd ever done! If only that early clue were better, maybe we would have gotten a perfect score! (I actually doubt it, because that probably would have netted us 2 clues, but we needed 3 to 'win')

After some more Hanabi - I wanted to show Brian and Mike - we played 1 more game of Pantheon. I wanted to show that one to Mike as well, and he beat us all soundly.

Next I finally got a chance to learn Minion Games' other new euro release, Kingdom of Solomon. I liked that one alright, but was a little disappointed in the market mechanism. I made some bonehead plays, such as placing in a building that had no possible way of getting me any resources (I forgot they were piece limited)... and I managed to lose to Mike by only 4 points. I feel like I could have won that one :(

The last game of the con was Grave Business. Andy was about to teach some players, and he asked if I wanted to jump in. I actually like that game a lot more than I feel I ought to, so I sat down to play. I started by making several extra zombies, and using them to pull other zombies away from where they were in contest with my zombies for tiles. In the penultimate round I noticed that the three pieces of the Master were out, and I placed zombies so as to steal them (successful! 1 was for sure, the other was 50-50). So the following round I (going first) placed in my own Lab so as to fend off steal attempts. I also had 4 zombie part tiles to pad my stash. Alas, I ran out of zombies, and in the end someone got a chance to steal from me - and they made the 42% chance and drew one of the pieces of the Master. In fact, the guy who did that managed to win.

After that, Mike and I packed it up and headed to the airport. I felt pretty darn good for no-sleep! Another great BGG.con down, and I already can't wait for next year!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

False Decisions and Distracting Decisions

Lately I've been thinking a bit about False Decisions and something similar which I've been referring to as Distracting Decisions.

False Decisions
False Decisions in a game are choices presented to the player which are so one-sided that there is really only one decision worth making. Any other choice is a red herring, or is simply so worthless that anyone who knows what they're doing would not take that option. These act as traps for new players who haven't learned about them yet, and they act as unnecessary time sinks as players. I view False Decisions as a design flaw - I prefer choices in a game to all be viable, or at least situationally viable. However I know at least 1 friend thinks differently - that red herrings are good to have, and that they are traps for new players acts as a test of skill at the game. As you get better at the game, you don't fall into those traps, and therefore you win against someone who does. While I see that as a valid idea, I still prefer choices to be viable depending on your situation, and I think False Decisions should be avoided in design.

Distracting Decisions
The new idea that I've been pondering is the idea of Distracting Decisions, which I'll define as being options presented to a player that do matter, but are redundant, or are not related strongly enough to the player's focus in the game. I'm not sure if I'm really putting this into words well enough, but the idea is that as I design, I want the players' focus to be on decisions that matter and directly relate to the fundamental problem of the game. If I present the player with a decision that is unrelated with the fundamental problem, or which is redundant to decisions they've already made, then I'm just wasting their time and effort. Does that make sense?

While one could argue that False Decisions are not a terrible thing, or even that they are desirable in a game; I certainly think that Distracting Decisions should be avoided. I suppose someone could disagree with that for the same reason they like to see False Decisions in a game though.

Example of a Distracting Decision
By way of example, I'm working on developing a game right now in which the player chooses one of several colors of dice each turn to add to his supply, and then faces a challenge which requires rolling some subset of dice. So one reason to choose one die over another is because you want to roll that color die in later challenges. That alone is kind of boring, so there's another reason you might want to choose 1 die color over another - the dice offer some benefit or ability based on their color, and that ability is stronger if you have more dice of that color in your supply.

The previous version of this game represented these abilities as a "Dice Action" you could do on your turn, in addition to picking up a die and facing a challenge. You could only choose 1 Die Action per turn, and the color you chose would then not be available to roll when facing a challenge. I believe that this Die Action introduced a Distracting Decision... the player has already been asked to consider the benefit of the die color when choosing which die to pick up. Asking them to choose between the 5 die actions each turn, and then further restricting that choice by saying they can't use those dice for a challenge serves to belittle the choice they made in the first place. In effect, you don't always get the benefit of the die action, while you do always get to roll the color you want, so the choice when drafting a die is too heavily weighted toward the challenge aspect and the benefit of the action is too unreliable or useless. Kinda like in Quarriors, when you roll your high cost creature die and come up with 1 Quiddity - the fact that you cannot count on the die behaving as advertised is a real downer for me in that game, and it's the same thing here. The decision on which action to use should already have been made when the die was chosen, and the player should not be faced with that again.

As such, the new version of the game, which is yet to be tested, but I highly expect to be an improvement, does not feature Die Actions. Instead, the number of dice you have in each color directly affects the actions you already take in the game (moving, choosing a die, facing a challenge). Since they're "always on" - these abilities will matter more, and the player won't be distracted by being asked which ability they want to use this turn. I think this will add weight to the die ability when a player chooses which die to pick up.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on both of these topics:

False Decisions - what exactly are they, and are they good or bad to include them in a game design?

Distracting Decisions - are they different from False Decisions? Should they be avoided in game design?

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Why Deckbuilders seem to "play themselves"

I've read many comments about deck building games (and here I generally refer to "Dominion games") suggesting that the decisions in the game are automatic, or that the game plays itself.

I think these comments are naive, off-base, and generally are a result of players thinking that the main decision points in the game happen as the cards are being played turn by turn. This is simply not the way deck building games (or Dominion games) work. The main decision points in Dominion are not which cards to play each turn, or what order to play them in... the main decisions in the game are which cards to add to your deck.

One major aspect that makes the deck building work is that early game decisions have a lasting impact on your game. The decision to buy that Silver on turn 1 instead of that Village (for example) will manifest over and over every time you draw that card. The sum total of these decisions (which cards you buy) combine to produce hands which, sure, play themselves to an extent. The point is that playing out a hand is the resolution of the decision, not the decision point itself.

When playing Puerto Rico, when you decide to choose the Trader you've made a meaningful decision. the fact that it seems really obvious which of your goods to trade (most of the time it's the one that will get you the most money, though occasionally complicated by things like which goods are on boats) doesn't mean the game plays itself - I think that's pretty obvious. However, when it comes to Dominion, I think people see the action as the playing of the cards, and therefore expect that to be the decision point.

So that's my theory on why some players think games like Dominion play themselves.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

NYU PRACTICE Game design Conference

I spent the weekend in Manhattan at the "first annual" game design conference called PRACTICE*. I stayed at my friend Gil Hova's house, and managed to get some playtesting in with Gil (Sword Merchants), Andy Van Zandt (Admirals of the Spanish Main), and Michael Keller (Titans of Industry) on Sunday night - and honestly, that might have been the most productive part of the weekend. I also playtested an upcoming game by David Sirlin and got a short game of Admirals in with Robert from Cambridge Game Factory.

I posted the schedule of the conference in a previous entry. As I expected / feared, the talks were heavily geared toward digital game design. I wish there had been more focus on non-digital game design, as ANY of that information is almost always useful to designers of digital games, while a lot of information about digital design is not useful outside of that space (like programming for example). I'll list the sessions again here, and note any takeaway I got from them that could prove useful in my future game designs:

Lecture (Reiner Knizia): A detailed case study of a best-selling board game design

It turns out they were referring to Knizia's new title Whoowasit. New to the US that is - apparently it was the best selling board game in Europe (all of Europe? Did I get that right?) for 2008 and 2009, slipping to #2 in 2010.

I had heard part of this before, but not the new stuff. Whoowasit is a cooperative "deduction" game for kids. I put deduction in quotes because as Reiner said in his talk, it's not really deduction... Someone has stolen something, and you go around getting clues by delivering food to different animals, and those clues let you eliminate suspects, trying to figure out the correct culprit before 6:00 - so you have a set amount of time to get enough items delivered and collect enough clues to single out the thief.

The game uses some technology - a box which talks to you when you touch certain spaces on it - which has evolved from the conductive ink used in the boards for RK's earlier titles King Arthur and The Island (which wasn't ever released in the US). Honestly, those 2 games and the brilliant-sounding ways they used the conductive ink to allow the game to 'know' which piece is where and track virtual pieces around the board sound MUCH more interesting to me than the simplified Whoowasit, where they removed the technology from the board and put it only into a box that accompanied the game. However, while King Arthur and The Island didn't seem to be very successful commercially, Whoowasit seems to have blown up! It sounded like there was subtlety in the design that was lost on the players. For example, there was a Knight in King Arthur who you could interact with in different ways to elicit different results - you could fight him, you could give him an item, etc. however, players seemed to approach him like an obstacle in the way, and chose to fight him... then when encountering him again later they thought "well, fighting worked last time, might as well do it again" and so the full potential of the mechanism was not being realized.

While I don't think that problem is worth removing the technology and all the associated possibilities from the game, I suspect there were also some commercial concerns, like cost of production, and perhaps the conductive ink didn't work or hold up well enough. I don't know.

The Takeaway: The thing I got out of this presentation was 2-fold...
1. When you find a unique mechanism or technology, look for other ways to use it.
2. Be careful with subtle mechanisms - if they're TOO subtle, players might miss them altogether.

Side note: Whoowasit allegedly keeps track of how effectively you play, and helps you out more the more you need it. Cool!

Panel: State of the Art Techniques: Best-practice methods for creating great games

This panel didn't seem to me to live up to its name. There was someone from Popcap (who, despite living in San Francisco, said he'd met Mohan!) talking about prototyping for social games, someone from Wizards of the Coast talked about balancing in a ccg like Magic: the Gathering, someone who'd worked on The Sims and Spore talked a little about math...

The Takeaway: Do the math behind your design, consider how important it is to balance game aspects before you worry too much about balancing them, when setting costs of things, pick a "skeleton" - a generic version of an object and decide what it should cost, and set the cost/power of other cards based on that (like a 1/1 Merfolk for 1 mana) BUT make sure you account for ALL costs of the object, not just resource costs (don't forget opportunity costs). And for social games, you really need...
- Single session engagement
- Retention
- Virulism

Lecture (Steve Gaynor): Helping Your Players Find Their Own Way - Lessons from Bioshock and other titles in progression gating and player tools.

This was a talk about level design in a video game, and as such you'd think it would not be very helpful in the design of non-digital games. However I actually found this talk very interesting, and I think the technique described COULD be used in board game design.

The focus of this talk was a technique called Staged Tool Gating. It's a technique to usher a player down a linear path through a non-linear space. Tool Gating is simply a locked door that requires a key (the door is the 'gate' and the key is the 'tool') - and you can replace Door and Key with any path blockage and anything that would remove that blockage. Staged Tool Gating is placing gates and tools in such a way that they lead the player through the intended path, even if that path crisscrosses a non-linear level.

The Takeaway: I've been thinking a lot lately about how to add a feeling of progression to a board game. Perhaps Tool Gating is a way to do that - making sections of the board, or various resources, unavailable until some other condition is met.

Panel: Designers, Players - Fight! Tournament players and developers on designing for expert play in fighting games.

David Sirlin started this talk off discussing game balance in a competitive game, and his presentation was very interesting and useful. Seth Killian (from Capcom)then discussed Street Fighter, and finally a high level Street Fighter competitor talked about Street Fighter as well. Apparently, everyone is enamored with Street Fighter...

The Takeaway: From David Sirlin's comments, the takeaways were that when balancing a game, there are some things you just can't do. You cannot change the flavor of a character just because it would make that character more fair. You have to find a different way to balance them. The example given was in his game Yomi, one of the characters is a rock golem who's very tough and very slow. In playtesting he proved to be too powerful, and playtesters suggested he'd be fair if his hit points were reduced from 100 to 70. While that would be fair, you just can't have a giant rock golem with the same amount of hit points as another character in the game which is a little girl, who's not even made out of rock!

From the Street Fighter discussion, the takeaway is that even a small change to a system can have a significant effect on the way the game plays. Speeding up a move by 6 frames (1/10 of a second) could take a character from being among the worst in the game to being one of the best. this holds over to board games as well - small rules changes can have a significant effect on gameplay.

Open Problems: A structured "open mic" session in which conference attendees present works in progress and share design problems for discussion and feedback.

They had more people interested in this than they expected, so each person got about 6 minutes to give their spiel and ask their question. The session went pretty darn well, though I think a little more time per person would be good (like 10-15 minutes instead of 6).

I asked about adding direct interaction in a euro-style game, and didn't get much response. The following suggestions came up:
- "Don't do it"
- "Do like Dominion - have attacks hurt everybody"
- "Attack only to your left" (structured targeting to avoid kingmaker type of attacks)
- "Cost it high enough that players can only do it if they really invest, and then you can see it coming" (this is what I was already considering)

I feel like Josh Debonais had a really good suggestion that I seem to have forgotten... of all the possible things to forget from the weekend, how could I have forgotten that!?

I forgot to ask / ran out of time to ask about what people thought would make a good expansion.

Lecture (Rogers Redding): The Game Design of Football: Evolving the rules of a nation's favorite sport.

This was interesting, though not terribly useful. I am surprised that someone hasn't sat down and rewritten the rules to Football from scratch. It was suggested that people fear change and wouldn't go for such a thing, but I think that's ridiculous considering they make rules changes every year. They're removing the Kickoff, because too many people get injured during the kickoff return.

The Takeaway: Examine your rulesets and make sure there's a reason for each rule. Remove any artifacts leftover from previous iterations and keep the rules as clean and elegant as possible, or you'll end up with a mess of band-aid rules and rules that don't really DO anything.

Panel: Game Design and Programming: A debate on the intersection and relevance of coding and design.

This panel was almost entirely an argument about whether knowing how to program would make someone a better game designer. Chris Hecker and Nick Fortugno talked past each other through 4 or 5 metaphors about a simple concept...

Chris: If you know how to program, than you can more efficiently bring your idea to fruition (rather than having to communicate with a programmer), which translates to a better quality.

Nick: You don't have to be a programmer to be a game designer.

More specifically, Nick suggested that the injection of creative juices by adding that programmer to the mix could provide a better creative environment than a single person designing and programming in solitude. Chris agreed that collaboration is good, but that you could still get that collaboration if you did the programming yourself. I think he missed that what Nick was suggesting is that if you knew how to program you wouldn't have another person there to collaborate with - so if you don't seek them out, then you won't have the collaboration at all.

The Takeaway: Collaboration is good, and so is being able to communicate your ideas to others. I think that panel could use a lesson on the latter!

Lecture (Matt Boch): Break it down: How Harmonix and Kinext taught the world to dance.

This was a history of various iterations and prototypes of the game Dance Central. It was very interesting to watch, and even had some information that could be useful for any prototyping or game design...

The Takeaway: Define your target audience, then be sure you're designing a game that would suit that target audience.

So there you have it. Even though the conference was heavily geared toward digital game deign, I managed to get a takeaway from each session that could help me improve as a designer. I'm not sure it was worth the $500 entry fee, but I'd consider doing it again. I'll just try to become more influential by this time next year so they invite me to speak (and let me attend for free) - then it'll certainly be worth the cost :)

* It was suggested by an attendee during the feedback session that PRACTICE is a terrible name for the convention. I agree with that, though I fear it's probably too late to change it now that they've begun. It just doesn't convey anything about the subject matter.

It was also suggested that the conference could run a bit longer. I believe they'll start Friday afternoon next time. 2-1/2 days isn't much more than 2 days, but it's still more!

BGG.con 2011 coming up!

Michael has made the decision that we should spend more time playing games at BGG.con this year and less time selling them - so TMG products will be for sale in the Funagain store while Mike and I get to play more board games! I have posted a Geeklist about some of the games I'd like to play while at BGG.con this year.

I'll be happy to teach any of the TMG titles while I'm there, including the newly announced Kings of Air and Steam (now on Kickstarter!) and upcoming Ground Floor and I will have some TMG prototypes with me to test as well. I would like to spend a lot of time in Proto Alley of course. The geeklist covers some games I want to play, but I'll list them here as well:

Admirals of the Spanish Main by Juan Carballal
My Little Vineyard by Scott Slomiany
Exhibit: Artifacts of the Ages by Seth Jaffee
Dice Works by Seth Jaffee
Wizard's Tower by John Heder and Seth Jaffee
Eminent Domain Expansion by Seth Jaffee
I should really get a playable copy of Alter Ego together as well, shouldn't I?

Essen Releases:
Trajan by Stefan Feld
Singapore by Peer Sylvester
Kingdom of Solomon by Phillip DuBarry
The Manhattan Project by Brandon Tibbits
Venture Forth by Dan Manfredini
Nefarious by Donald X. Vaccarino
Kingdom Builder by Donald X. Vaccarino

And I was thinking about Urban Sprawl, but I'm quickly losing interest in it.

If you'll be at the con, leave a comment. We could meet up for a game or two! What are you looking forward to playing?