Monday, January 27, 2014

Captains of Industry playtester credit - Don't get missed!

We're finally wrapping up the art on Captains of Industry this week, and I want to make sure I don't forget any playtesters...

The designer has posted on his own blog about this, and I want to make sure my players also get their due credit. Some players just played the game, some offered feedback, and some helped me do analysis and computer simulations! I appreciate each of those types of players, without you guys, game design is very difficult and boring - games are meant to be played!

I'd love to give thanks to each and every player who's sat down to a game of Captains of Industry (even under the old title: Titans of Industry), but there's only so much room in the rulebook - so we usually only name those players who played many times through many iterations, and players who gave significant feedback that got incorporated into the game. So if you don't see your name listed individually, please know that your participation in the process is still appreciated!

So leave a comment if you ever played a game of Captains of Industry WITH ME OR MY COPY (no need to tell me if you played with Michael - he should have you on his list).


Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Scoville on kickstarter!

We had planned to launch the kickstarter project for Scoville last November, coincident with BGG.con, however we ran into some delays (that seems to be the standard, no matter how hard we try to avoid it).

Today, only 2 months later than planned, the Scoville project went live! I'm really happy with the reception so far - 400 backer and $16,600 as of this writing, and it's only day 1 of the project!

If you haven't been following this game, it's about pepper farming. Colored cubes represent various peppers, and players will plant them, cross-breed them, harvest them, and turn them in to fulfill orders or make Chili recipes.

Each round of Scoville has 4 phases:

  1. Auction: Bid for turn order
  2. Planting: Place peppers onto the game board
  3. Harvest: Navigate the game board to obtain new peppers
  4. Fulfillment: turn in sets of peppers for points and other benefits
So far, everyone I've played Scoville with has really enjoyed it! The game can play with up to 6 players, but in order to get enough components into the box to support that we're going to have to hit some stretch goals. But with the start that we've had, the quality of the game, the reputation of TMG for putting out great games of this type, and the stellar art of Josh Cappel, I think we'll be able to get there.

So please, check out the project, and feel free to sport this avatar to support it on social media:


Monday, January 13, 2014

Random thought - communal farming vs personal farming (my ideas for a Keyflower expansion)

A few months ago I was chatting with my friend Sebastian Bleasedale, who's had a pretty good run recently of having his games published!

One of which was Keyflower with Richard Breese, an expansion to which just came out. I remember talking to him about a possible expansion idea I had for that game, which I thought could be a thematic fit, but he didn't think it worked with the game...

But the idea had an interesting mechanism in it, so I thought I'd jot it down here where I could find it, just in case I want to use it in some future endeavor:

So Keyflower is supposed to be about people coming over o the new world on the Mayflower, right? Maybe something about Native Americans, and Thanksgiving?
The event that Americans commonly call the "First Thanksgiving" was celebrated by the Pilgrims after their first harvest in the New World in 1621.[2] This feast lasted three days, and was attended by about 53 Pilgrims and 90 American Indians.[3] The New England colonists were accustomed to regularly celebrating "thanksgivings"—days of prayer thanking God for blessings such as military victory or the end of a drought
I'm surprised Wikipedia says "American Indians" rather than "Native Americans"
Americans commonly trace the Thanksgiving holiday to a 1621 celebration at the Plymouth Plantation, where the Plymouth settlers held a harvest feast after a successful growing season
So like at the end of the year you have the harvest Feast, which is like a special additional scoring maybe?
Squanto, a Patuxent Native American who resided with the Wampanoag tribe, taught the Pilgrims how to catch eel and grow corn and served as an interpreter for them (Squanto had learned English during travels in England). Additionally the Wampanoag leader Massasoit had donated food stores to the fledgling colony during the first winter when supplies brought from England were insufficient.
So you can get additional animals (fish, corn - different from grain in the first expansion), but not unless you interact with the Native Americans. These would help you with stuff, maybe including the Harvest Feast scoring.
The Pilgrims held another Thanksgiving celebration in 1623, after a switch from communal farming to privatized farming
Ooh... Switching from Communal farming to Privatized farming (!) the game could start with communal farming, and players could work toward making their own little farms (which is better for them). So like you have a harvest scoring phase at the end of each year, maybe it's sort of a set collection type of thing - there are various things you can bring to the celebration, and the more variety you bring, the better (?)... there's communal farming, which switches to private farming over the course of the game. As players switch over, they contribute less to the communal farm, therefore players still relying on the communal farm get less stuff from it.
You can get more stuff (fish/corn) from your farm if you go out of your way to interact with the Native Americans, which will help you score more at the harvest, but which of course has a cost involved.
I kinda really like the idea of a communal farm transfering to private farms. I imagine a Communal Farm board, with each type of thing you can farm on it, and a player piece from each player on each of them. When you get stuff, you get as much stuff as there are player pieces by that thing. When you plant your own stuff, you take your player piece off of that thing, and now you get your stuff (because you've planted it), and everyone who hasn't gets less stuff (because you're player piece isn't on the communal board anymore).
So like you get a tile that has, I don't know, a Carrot farming space. You now grow your own carrots, and when it's time to get carrots you get like 5 carrots. And because you grow your own carrots, you no longer contribute to the communal carrot making, therefore everyone who does not make their own carrots gets 1 fewer carrot per time they get carrots. Eventually the last 2 people to make their own carrots will only get 2 carrots each, while everyone else gets like 5.
So give a cost to planting (a cost involving existing resources), and give each player a set of player tokens with the different things you can plant on them (for the side board). When you plant something, you take your token off the side board and put it on your own tile.

And because you don't want a ton of currencies, maybe make these things that aren't spent, just scored, in a way that having more different things is good, and maybe having multiple sets of things is good (like a set is any number of different items, and each set you have scores with triangular (or something) scoring).
That's about it, copied, pasted, cleaned up, and edited from chat transcript. As usual, thoughts are welcome in the comments below!

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Another microgame: Burgoo

I met with an old friend from BGDF, Dan Manfredini, at BGG.con last November so he could show me his wares. He had a couple of games with him, one of which had an interesting theme...

It's called Burgoo, which is a term I wasn't aware of. Burgoo is a community made stew, and apparently it's a common thing in the Midwest and Southern US.

In the game of Burgoo, there are 6 different ingredients, and as a player you start with a line, or "batch," of 2 of each ingredient in random order. You also start with 1 of each ingredient hidden in your hand. Any leftover ingredients are placed in a communal pot in the center of the table.
On your turn you have 3 options:
1. Sample the stew: take an ingredient of your choice out of the pot and put it into your hand.
2. Split a batch: return an ingredient from your hand to the pot and split one of your batches either above or below an ingredient matching the one you returned.
3. Add to the stew: return an ingredient to the pot and call "top" or "bottom" - EACH PLAYER may take that type of ingredient from the top (or bottom, whichever you called) of any/all of their batches and throw it into the pot.

The goal is to get rid of all of your ingredients first. Since you can split your batches, its possible to add multiple ingredients to the pot at the same time... and that's obviously a good thing. It's really important to watch what ingredients other players put on the top/bottom of their batches so you can take advantage of their plays and add to the stew during their turns!

If you add to the stew and it causes your neighbor to add the LAST ingredient from one of their batches to the stew... you CAPTURE that ingredient - putting it into your hand instead of the stew! This is a big deal because while the goal is to be the first to get rid of your ingredients, there are often ties, and the tiebreaker is number of ingredients in hand!

I really enjoyed playing Burgoo, but at first I wasn't sure this game would be TMG material. I informed Dan that I would tell Michael about it, but that I didn't think it would fit into the business model Michael was shifting toward. We were playing with wooden vegetable pieces (from At The Gates of Loyang) and a little physical pot for the stew - this was too small for a "big box" TMG game, and too big for the microgames Michael has been looking for.

But when I was telling Michael abut the game, it occurred to me that it could be done with cardboard tokens and a physical pot isn't really necessary, so perhaps that would fit the microgame model after all.

Indeed, Michael thought so too, and as of today Burgoo is live on Kickstarter as another Pay What You Want ($3 minimum, $5 recommended) TMG microgame!

And it's off to an impressive start. As of this writing (midnight AZ time) there are 1,176 backers pledging a total of $6,483 for between 1589 and 1919 copies of Burgoo! That's an average of about $4 a copy.

In my not-so-humble opinion, as microgames go Burgoo is a REALLY good deal! The art is good, the game really is fun, and you can get 2 copies for less than the price of my Arby's lunch today. So check it out!

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Balancing game elements

Game balance is tough to achieve. It takes more than a little bit of art, and more than a little bit of science too. Each game is different, and each game requires different levels of balance in each of their elements to work properly.

It can be difficult even to discuss game balance, because there are different things that term could mean. Brad Talton of Level 99 Games posted about 5 Schools of Thought on Game Balance on his blog as part of a series of Core Design Articles. Since I like my games to be fair contests between the players, I put a lot of thought into what Brad refers to as Local Balance. Every designer has their own method for balancing game elements, such as Buildings (Homesteaders), Tenant Improvements (Ground Floor), Technologies (Eminent Domain), Helpers (Last Will), Recruits (Euphoria), etc.

No matter how they are represented in the game, here's a 5 step process that I often use to make sure these game elements are balanced - that is to say similarly powerful. This is especially important when the elements are obtained by a random draw.

Step 1: Find the unit.

There's usually a baseline resource, or unit, such that other game elements can be expressed in terms of that unit. For example, in Ground Floor each worker costs $3 per round, and gives you 3 Time discs per round. Each player has a Meeting Room which will turn 1 Time disc into 1 Info. So as a baseline, $1 = 1 time unit = 1 info... that's the unit. You spend the game trying to alter that, buying floors and remodeling rooms in order to get a better return out of your worker placements than just 1 unit, but in order to determine how much better a return, it's useful to have that baseline for comparison.

Failing to understand the unit in a game can easily lead to unbalanced or unfair game elements. A card that gives you 4 Food might look similar to a card that gives you 3 Wood for the same cost, because 3 is about the same as 4. So you might think that's an OK balance. But if it turns out that Wood is twice as expensive/hard to get as Food, then those two cards may not be so well balanced after all! You need to know the values of each resource relative to each other in order to balance the game element.

An important thing that factors into these values is opportunity cost. In the example above, I said Wood might be twice as hard to get as Food - but what does that mean? Maybe it only takes 1 worker to forage and produce 1 Food, while it takes 2 workers to cut down a tree and create 1 Wood. If that's the case, the opportunity cost of 3 Wood (6 workers that could have been doing other things) is higher than the opportunity cost of 4 food (4 workers that could have been doing other things). What you have to decide is whether the difference of 2 worker placements worth of "other things" is close enough for those two cards to be considered well balanced, or if 3 Wood is always just better than 4 Food.

Usually there's an easy way to measure those "other things" your workers might be doing instead - and spoiler alert... that's usually how you find the unit.

Step 2: Determine the desired power level of the game elements.

About how strong do you want these elements to be? Should they generate 1 unit worth of effect each time a player uses it? 2 units worth? Should they allow players to make useful in-game exchanges but not net them any actual resource gain?

You can't really move on until this question is answered. If you're not sure, then choose one thing that you have in mind as the quintessential example of that game element, and let that set your power level. Make all other elements comparable in strength to that one.

Failing to do this step is an easy way to end up with an unbalanced game element... if you don't know how strong you want the elements to be, then it is easy to make wildly varying strengths or values - you need a guideline.

Step 3: Design the game elements (keeping steps 1 and 2 in mind).

Here's where you make a pass at designing the game elements. You choose what you want each element to do, how much you want it to cost, and how many points you want it to be worth. There are many knobs you can turn to help you tune the elements to be the correct power level (chosen in Step 2!). If you have 2 effects that you like, but 1 is mathematically worth more than the other, then you can make that one more expensive, or less often useful, or worth fewer points, or make sure it comes out later in the game so it has less time to be used... this will all depend on the game rules and structure.

The key here is to keep Steps 1 and 2 in mind. The goal is not to make every element in the game identical. The goal is to make sure that one element isn't strictly better than another, and that one player doesn't get an big unfair advantage based on the luck of the draw. It's important to remember also that you don't need every element to be exactly mathematically equal to a specific value - the goal is to make all the elements similarly powerful - there can be a range, but you don't want the range to be so big that the high end is a significant advantage over the low end.

Again, this is more important when the game element is distributed randomly. If players are drafting cards, or there's a race to get them (see Rokoko for a great example of this), then it's actually good to have a wide variety of values in those cards to help support that race/draft mechanism.

Step 4: Assess subjective aspects of the game element. Adjust and iterate.

Not everything is easily measured in terms of the unit you found in Step 1. For example, how often an effect is likely to come into play is very difficult to measure - especially if it's based on player action rather than probability. In other words, something that triggers "every time a player rolls a 7" is very different from something that triggers "every time a player sells Coffee."

This step is where you adjust your set of elements based on these hard-to-calculate values, using your gut feelings, your design experience, and trial and error (testing) to finesse things until they feel right.

You may iterate on Step 4 many times before you decide the balance is correct.

Step 5: Weed out elements that are "too strong" or "too weak."

In some ways this may be the most important step. It may seem obvious that a particular element is used before all others, every time. That's an indication that it's "too strong" - and that's boring. You don't want that. When an element is always chosen over all others every time, then it needs to be nerfed or cut.

There's a trap that's easy to fall into when balancing game elements though - and that's being too conservative and making things "too weak." If an element is too weak, then nobody will ever choose it, and if that's the case then why have it at all? When one of your elements is never chosen, then it should either be improved (is there a fun word for "the opposite of nerfed?") or cut.

I've adopted a new strategy when adding a  new element to a game... I purposely make it too strong! This way I know that players will go for it, and I'll be able to see the new element's effect on the game. Tim Fowers just reminded me that in the videogame world they say "you don't know if you've gone far enough until you've gone too far." It may turn out that what I thought was "too strong" really was just fine after all. Or it may turn out that "too strong" really was too strong, and I'll have to tone it down. Either way, I got the information. If I'd made the new element too weak, I might never have really found out how it really works.

There's a further danger in that, as an element that LOOKS weak may be largely ignored in playtesting. But when thousands of players get their hands on the published game, someone will inevitably find out if the innocent-looking game element turns out to be entirely game breaking. I suspect that's how many games that have a dominant strategy came to be - the dominant strategy didn't look so inviting during playtesting.

TL;DR Summary:

5 steps to balancing a game element:
1. Find the Unit.
2. Determine the desired power level of the game element.
3. Design the game elements (keeping steps 1 and 2 in mind).
4. Assess subjective aspects of the game element. Adjust and iterate.
5. Weed out elements that are "too strong" or "too weak."