Sunday, December 01, 2013

The Lesser of Two Evils, Winds of Fate v5.0 and MicroCiv v3.0 - More testing and Further updates

Josh Tempkin is a guy from Maryland who comes into Tucson once a year for Thanksgiving. A few years ago he contacted me out of the blue saying he would be in town and asking if there happened to be a chance to do some gaming while he was here. So every year since then Josh will come over for an evening or two for some games, and since he's a designer type, we'll often play some prototypes. So there you go, when going to a new place, sometimes you can contact the gaming community there and make a new friend, just like that! As a side note, last night I found out that I went to high school with his cousin (small world, I guess).

Friday and Saturday Josh came over and we played a few games, including a dice game of his called Lesser Evil, Odysseus: Winds of Fate, and my attempt at a deeper-than-average microgame: MicroCiv.

Lesser Evil

Since this is Josh's game, I don't want to say too much about it (I don't know how public it is). As a dice game, it wasn't my favorite type of game to begin with, and in this case I didn't feel like I had the flexibility I would have liked in using the tools I was given to deal with my die rolls.

There's a dynamic that I dislike in games wherein you are forced to make a choice, then find out later (based on a die roll) if you chose correctly. This dynamic exists in some well respected games such as Stefan Feld titles Macao and Bruges - so it's obviously not a "bad" dynamic... just one I don't care for. Lesser Evil had a bit of that in it.

Finally, as the title suggests, it seems like when presented with a meaningful decision in the game, it's often trying to decide between 2 bad options... which is a feeling I also don't care for.

So all in all, while Lesser Evil was a solid game mechanically, it was really not my style of game, and it served to reinforce in my mind how I don't care for that "insufficient info" dynamic.

Odysseus: Winds of Fate

After the recent playtests of WoF at BGGcon, and the revamping of the game that followed, I was really excited to play the latest version of the game. I spent much of Thanksgiving day updating the prototype, and I was all ready to see a great leap of progress when it hit the table, as I was finally incorporating some of the comments from several years ago that have been percolating but have never been tried.

While some of the additions did feel good, unfortunately the playtest was pretty much a "crash and burn." This was pretty disappointing, because I expected it to work at least as well as last weeks games... though to be honest I did have some reservations about some of it.

Some designers will tell you that you shouldn't change more than 1 variable test-to-test, so that if the game stops working you'll know what broke it. I don't subscribe to that. Not to pat my own back or anything, but I feel like most of the time I can compartmentalize how a given change will (or has) affected the game, and so I don't mind changing multiple variables, and if/when that does screw the game up, I don't mind (I actually kind of enjoy) figuring out which thing (or combination of things) caused the problem. I find that progress is far too slow if I only change 1 aspect or variable at a time. Testing time is a commodity in short supply, and there just isn't time to play a whole game just to make sure one small tweak does what I thought it would do.

In this case, I made several big changes. Some of those did not work like I wanted them to, while others did seem promising. Here are some of the things I tried, based on old ideas from years past, as well as recent comments from BGGcon playtests:

* Change payout for Timeline and Destiny bets.
I had most recently been using 30vp divided evenly between players who bet correctly. Some of last weeks players didn't like how that didn't work the same way a bet on a horse race would work, and they suggested making the payoff based on the total number of bets. So instead of 30vp, make it Xvp divided evenly between players making the correct Destiny bet, where X is some multiple of the total number of Destiny bets placed (correct or incorrect). That way, when placing a bet, you're adding to the prize pool, rather than further subdividing a static number.

I wasn't in love with this idea, as the 30vp seemed to be working the way I wanted it to, and this new system seemed like it would likely be very similar, but more mathy and confusing to explain, but in principle it did seem stronger thematically, so I thought I'd give it a try. While explaining the game I immediately realized it was going to be a problem. The comment had come up late in the game at BGGcon, when there was already a number of bets out there, so there was something to be won by placing a bet. But when there are no bets out there, the incentive to put one out there is very small. There would need to be some starting prize pool, or there's no reason to bet. One solution is to force people to begin the game with some Destiny bets, which might be a good idea anyway. That would seed the prize pool with N bets worth of prize. Another solution to that is to remove the standard 2vp per bet in your inventory, so the ONLY way you can score is by placing that bet... but I don't like that for a few reasons. Another solution is to add a minimum payoff, which is just more pieces and more rules to govern this small piece of the game. A variation on that last solution is to make that minimum 30vp and then never increase it - that is to say go back to what I had that worked :)

* Remove all in-game vp and make it all Bet cubes.
I thought this sounded very elegant, but in combination with another change it caused a bit of a problem. I will see if I can salvage this idea, because if I can avoid a score track, or vp chits, then that would be nice. I'd love to just count up score at the end of the game.

* Cube icon = Get cube OR place bet.
This was a way to get more betting into the game, but in combination with the change above (get cubes instead of vp), there were an awful lot of these icons around, and as a result, players could place an awful lot of Timeline bets and Destiny bets, potentially more than 1 at a time. I didn't like that dynamic, especially if not restricted as to where you can place your Timeline bets. It led to a lot of last second betting on the obviously correct outcome.

* Path bets are all free, and every turn.
Something I tried at BGGcon (in the 2nd game, but not the first) was allowing players to place a 'free' Path bet (from the general supply) each round. This turned out to be a really good addition, and one I'd intended but forgot about. The idea is that path bets communicate your intent and allow for temporary collaboration or alliances between players. When you had to place earned bets as path bets, there were far fewer path bets out there, which was not as good.

Path bets used to pay off 6vp divided between bets, and I liked that level of payoff. However, originally it cost you 2vp because you had to give up a bet chip, so the net payoff was 4vp if you were alone, or 1vp if another player shared your bet. When moving to an "all cubes" payoff/scoring system, the idea was that you would simply collect the cube off the board (which came from the general supply), netting you 2vp. If you were alone in the bet, you get an additional cube (net 4vp). This seems in line with my desired balance. I think I liked this change, so maybe possible to maintain the "score only at the end" format. I might restrict the Path bets to 2 cubes per path, to avoid all players piling on to the same path, further differentiating them, and maybe strengthening the temporary alliance aspect.

* Timeline and Destiny bets are earned, you CAN place Timeline bets where other bets are.
At BGGcon we played that you got a free Path bet each round, AND each round you could place one of your earned cubes onto either a Destiny card or the Timeline. However, I restricted Timeline bets to placing only where no other bet exists. There was some discussion about whether that was necessary. I think it's absolutely necessary at the outset (Troy Encounter) to create player differentiation, but I'm not sure it's really necessary for earned Timeline bets. I still like that restriction though, as it lends a lot of value to the "move Bet" reward tiles, which I even powered up to "move your bet up to 2 spaces" rather than just 1 space.

In this new test I removed the restriction for earned bets, and it became a big problem, especially with the frequency players could earn bets. When it becomes obvious the game will end, you can pile 2-3 bets on the correct Timeline space fairly easily, which is a bit ridiculous - it's supposed to be a long-term, strategic bet. This will get better with more limited opportunity to bet, but I still think I prefer the restriction (especially with the beefed up Move Bet reward).

Rather than giving each player the opportunity to place their cubes as Timeline/Destiny bets each round, I would like to go back to an "earned bet" format, where you have to get some reward allowing you to place those bets. So the main betting will be the free Path bets, and the initial Timeline (and Destiny) bets, and there are several opportunities to place more Destiny bets over the course of the game, just not every turn for all players.

I like that the opportunity allows you to invest early in a particular outcome, but if it becomes clear that another outcome will occur, you can start investing in that one... but if you can get your early investment to come true then you will make out ahead. I don't like multiple Destiny bets at the last minute dropped on to the clearly correct outcome. This will likely fix itself when bet opportunities are reduced.

* Adding God tiles to locations, and gods to the Olympus deck.
A suggestion from the Spielbany group (circa 2009) was to add more gods to the game. They thought there wasn't enough reason to want Odysseus to go to one location over another (which really means my Encounter effects aren't pulling their weight - I've since amplified them, but they're still not enough), and one suggestion to make such incentives was to add god tiles to the locations, which players could collect and score as set collection. I would have preferred if the encounter effects offered players the incentives they needed to drive Odysseus around the board, but I did very much like the idea of adding more gods to the game. Over the last 4 years I'd considered many different ways to accomplish this - restructuring the Help/Hinder decks to include more gods than just Poseidon and Athena, etc.

I finally figured out a way I thought would work better, and I finally updated the prototype to include those god tiles! First of all, the bonus for highest contribution to an adventure is that you get the god tile (rather than a bet chip, or some VP). At the end of the game, each god scores 0/1/3 cubes (which is to say 0/2/6vp) for having 1/2/3 of that god's tiles. In addition, I've added those 3 gods to the Olympus deck (which makes all kinds of sense), and when they come up they trigger an effect for players who hold their tiles: Hades allows the player to choose to have Odysseus lose crew, Dionysus allows the player to choose to have Odysseus gain crew, and Hermes allows the player to draw some Adventure cards.

I like the way this worked, EXCEPT, as evidenced by the speed at which this particular game ended, there isn't enough time to collect these things and have them trigger. So I've got some revisions which I hope will help that out.

There might have been some other details that probably didn't go as well as I would have liked, but that was the main stuff. So here's the new plan, which I already incorporated into the prototype:

* God tiles and stuff...
For one thing, I didn't have a god tile at Troy or Ithaca (and Ithaca is a double adventure), so I made 3 Zeus tiles. Zeus does not give any in-game benefits, but he'll act as a wild for end-game scoring. Maybe I'll limit it to 1 Zeus per 'set,' so you can't get 2 Zeus and 3 Hades and score a bajillion points off of that.

I revised the Olympus deck so that each card has 2 Gods on it. Now each of the triggerable gods appears on 3 different Olympus cards, and therefore will trigger more often.

I added "draw an Olympus card and resolve its effect" to one of the Encounter tiles (I should probably add it to another) to get more triggering in there.

I added Reward tiles that you keep in front of you as a God tile (Hades, Hermes, and Dionysus). I also added Reward tiles that basically trigger your god tiles (i.e. "Lose 1 crew per Hades god tile") which will therefore have variable value for different players.

I added cards to the Help/Hinder deck that you keep in front of you as God tiles as well, so it should be much easier to get God tiles (there are a total of 6 of each), as well as cards that trigger your god tiles (which you would play as a special action instead of contributing to the Help/Hinder total). Side note: I wanted those special actions to count against your personal contribution (toward the bonus, now a god tile), but not necessarily count against your overall contribution to the Help/Hinder total. So what I think I'll try is that if you play any card face up for the special action, you are simply disqualified from the bonus altogether, then there's no confusing negative numbers in there. And of course the value on the face up card becomes 0 as well.

So in the end I think I'll reward 0/1/3/6 cubes (that's 0/2/6/12vp) for 1/2/3/4+ god tiles. I could maybe go on another step and reward 10 cubes (20vp) for 5+ god tiles of a type, but that seems like an awful lot, especially with how much access I've added now.

* Reward tiles...
As I mentioned, I added gods to the reward tiles. I am unsure which way I want to go, so I actually added 2 sets... 3 tiles with just the gods and 3 more with the triggers, and then another 3 tiles that act as both (take this as a god tile, then trigger your god tiles of that type). The latter seems really busy, so I'm leaning toward the former.

A suggestion from a player came up that actually reverts back to one of the original ideas for determining crew loss... instead of all of the reward tiles contributing to crew loss, I could reveal N+2 reward tiles, and have only the unclaimed tiles contribute to crew loss. This does a couple of things...
- It allows players to simply grab the tile they want (then deal with it and discard it back to the supply), which is an instinct that many players have had.
- It allows for later turn order players to get more choice of reward, rather than being forced to take something that may not be useful. This may backfire - if there are enough "good" tiles to go around, then players may just pass early. I guess we'll see. This might be why I moved away from that mechanism.
- It allows players to influence crew loss more directly, especially later turn order players. If you want Odysseus to die, maybe leave the reward tiles with larger numbers. If you want him to survive, maybe prioritize those. I expect this consideration to be secondary much of the time, but it could be really interesting, and it harkens back to one of the original mechanisms which got removed somewhere along the line.
- It might also allow for simpler setup, as if there's always N+2 tiles, then there's a constant average crew loss over the different player counts, so there could be the same starting crew across all player counts.
- With this sort of control over crew loss, maybe it would be wise to simplify the Crew Loss rules to say that no matter whether Odysseus wins or loses, he always loses crew according to the unclaimed Reward tiles... rather than "Lose 1 if he wins, X if he loses."

Another thing I did was add an "Advance Round Marker" reward tile, and a "Place Timeline Bet" reward tile. I'm tempted to keep the restriction of placing where no other bet exists, but as this may be the only way to actually add timeline bets now, maybe it would be acceptable to allow placing where bets already are. Should it be disallowed to bet immediately in front of the round marker (like Path bets are disallowed immediately in front of the boat)?

* Destiny.
There are still 2 Reward tiles which offer a Destiny action, and I've added a special action in each deck which allows a Destiny action as well. I added Destiny actions to 3 of the encounter tiles (each player in turn order would take a Destiny action), and I hope that doesn't lead to players all piling onto the same Destiny card. I guess we'll see. I believe I will return to the 30vp prize pool for both the Timeline bet and the Destiny bet.

* Stranded at Sea.
There's always been a concern that it might be much harder to strand Odysseus than it is to kill him or get him home safe. There are several ways to advance the round counter: 1 card in each deck, 1 Encounter that advances it, one encounter that advances it twice, and 1 additional advance each time Odysseus revisits any number of face down encounter tiles in a row. I'm not sure why that isn't "for each" face down encounter tile - I probably thought that would be too much advancing of the round counter. Well, I thought I'd try changing that, and adding a Reward tile to advance the counter as well. Hopefully now the game end will be approximately evenly split between Stranded, Dead, and Home Safe.

* The Death Spiral.
The board includes a "death spiral" - a series of encounters that, once visited, create a loop, and if revisited (by definition taking a Stormy path) will result in the game end, as Odysseus will lose all his crew, 1 by 1. With the addition of an hourglass symbol (which advances the round marker) to the backs of the tiles, now that death spiral does not have an obvious effect. Sure, if he enters the loop the game will be over, and Odysseus will not make it home, but it's not clear on which round the game will end, nor whether it will end due to the crew dying, or due to the round counter flying off the track. I mean, it'll be calculable when it happens, but the point is that depending on the game state (what round it is and how much crew Odysseus has left), the Death Spiral could support either a Dead result or a Stranded result, and it could end the game on a variety of rounds.

MicroCiv (v3.2 PnP PDF)

Wow, that got long. I actually started this blog post to talk about the updates to MicroCiv! I played a few games of it with Josh and also Dave and John, and I like the direction it has gone. However, I still felt like certain things weren't right. After the latest games and discussion I have updated the prototype again (see link above for v3.0 PDF). Here's a summary of changes:

* Territories.
I like the mix of Territories, but I thought the 2-cost ones weren't good enough, and 2-cost is almost trivial, while 3 cost requires a little more investment. So I changed all the 2-cost Territories to 3-cost, added a Population (1vp) to each, and gave them colors as well.

I like the 2 different 4-cost territories, one that gives +1 defense but no extra points, and one that gives a lot of scoring potential, but has relatively low defense. I thought it would be good to add a 3rd 4-cost into the mix, which gives a straight 2 Pop, and has 5 defense.

* Techs.
I'm pretty darn happy with the techs, but the +1 Pop tech seemed like something to be avoided, just not attractive enough to give up in-game benefit for. Josh suggested making it 2 pop, but I thought it would be much more interesting (and possibly better thematically) to make it a City instead. So now it's worth 0-2 points, depending on how many Politics cards you've got. Maybe it would be interesting to make it *2* cities... maybe that's a metropolis or something, worth 0, 2, or 4 Population. Too much?

* Cards.
For the most part I'm happy with the cards. I did think it was a little too easy to double up on the Discover action, especially with a Discover icon available in the tech, so I upped that to 4 icons required. I feel that puts it more on par with the big Explore and Conquer actions.

The Politics card (Scout) that says "play another card" - I realized that what I really meant was "play another Action" (in other words, instead of playing a card, you could choose to pick up your discards). So I've made that change. I also added "play another action" to the Culture card that lets you swap with the supply. It seems like that card isn't as useful as I'd hoped, and now it allows you to grab a card that you want and then use it right away, maybe that'll make it useful enough.

The other Politics card (Trade) that attempted to allow a player to trade Territories or Techs with another player or the supply just did not work right. I have redone that card, based on a suggestion from Josh... apparently there's some game which has a similar mechanism, and it has a card that allows you to swap the card with a card from your opponent's discard pile. So why not try that? I am not certain I like it, and I think it'll mostly be used at the last minute to grab up good scoring card (or snatch one away from the opponent), but maybe that's ok. As a Politics card, it also permanently reveals a Territory (owned or not).

The Culture action that lets you sweep the supply just doesn't seem to get used. I beefed it up in the last update to add "play another card" (and of course by that I mean "action"), but I still don't see it being used much. As a complement to the "swap with someone's discard" card, I have tried adding this "While this card is in your discard pile, you get +1 Defense." I'll see how interesting that is (it seems like a really interesting dynamic). Note also that when picking up your discards, you'll lose that defense! Of course you can get it back the following turn.

Finally, for potentially thematic and potentially logistical reasons, I swapped the Culture actions on the Yellow and Green cards. Probably not a big deal.

New print and play files are available, if you are so inclined. I think the game is really shaping up, and is almost "done!"


Anonymous said...

Hi Seth,

Thanks for sharing all this. I've printed a set of MicroCiv 3.0 and am hoping to play it this weekend. I just have a couple of questions...

To reveal icons on cards, I assume this means play them to your discard pile?

Is it the icon in the corner of the card that counts for adding to actions? I raise this because of the cards with multiple icons: eg. the blue discover card has a discover icon with the action and a conquer icon in the corner, does this mean it produces one discover with the action but can be used to support a conquer action. Can it also support discover?

I'm unclear about "control" and "spoils". You "control" a territory after exploring, right? If you conquer, does that mean it is "controlled" and "spoils"?

There is a blank tech counter. Is that just for a defensive measure, so you can lose that if necessary?

The +1 defence card: I assume this means +1 defence to all your territories?

Sorry if these are dumb questions. I look forward to trying the game out.


Seth Jaffee said...

Thanks for sharing all this. I've printed a set of MicroCiv 3.0 and am hoping to play it this weekend. I just have a couple of questions...

Awesome! I hope you like it, and I look forward to a full report!

I'll answer your questions below:

To reveal icons on cards, I assume this means play them to your discard pile?

No, you need only show them - their position stays constant. So if you reveal cards from your hand, they remain in your hand, you've just shown them.

Cards go to your discard pile only after being played and resolved.

Is it the icon in the corner of the card that counts for adding to actions? I raise this because of the cards with multiple icons: eg. the blue discover card has a discover icon with the action and a conquer icon in the corner, does this mean it produces one discover with the action but can be used to support a conquer action. Can it also support discover?

Yes, the one in the corner is the one that you can reveal. The one in parenthesis by the action is ONLY active/usable when doing THAT action.

So in your example, a card with a Discover action and a Conquer icon in the corner gets 1 Discover icon when you play it as a Discover action, or 1 Conquer icon if you reveal it to support a Conquer action. You may never reveal this card to support another card's Discover action.

I realize this may be confusing, and I think I will be removing the icon from the Action text (and then reducing the costs of everything else so the actual game is the same). The only reason those icons are there is mainly to let you know which icon is which.

Sorry about the confusion!

I'm unclear about "control" and "spoils". You "control" a territory after exploring, right? If you conquer, does that mean it is "controlled" and "spoils"?

A controlled territory is one you have Explored. Spoils are not controlled.

When something is in your Spoils, it is there permanently, and you do not benefit from action icons on your Spoils during the game. You do however benefit from colors and City icons on your spoils at game end.

A controlled territory gives you the benefit of the action icons during the game, as well as the colors and city icons at game end. However, your controlled territories can be taken away with a Conquer action.

There is a blank tech counter. Is that just for a defensive measure, so you can lose that if necessary?
No, that is because there were more than enough spaces for tech tokens than there are actual tech tokens. You can safely discard the blank one.

The +1 defence card: I assume this means +1 defence to all your territories?
Yes, this is correct. There is a Territory that gives you this same benefit, as well as a Culture card that gives you this benefit while it is in your discard pile. Also, don't forget, players get an automatic +1 defense... it's a little bit harder to conquer a player controlled territory than it is a neutral territory!

Sorry if these are dumb questions. I look forward to trying the game out.
No problem - you know what they say about stupid questions... "There are no stupid questions, only stupid people..."

But these aren't stupid questions, they are good ones. When I get around to updating the game to fit the EmDo universe, I will try to clarify these things and remove these questions!

Thanks, let me know how it goes!

Rob Harper said...

Thanks for the clarifications, it all makes sense now. I'll let you know how we get on.