Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Another Alter Ego playtest: Gamesmiths, 3/17/14

At Gamesmiths last night I hosted a game of Alter Ego in which David, Eisen, and John Morgan took on an Anarchist...

It was an informative playtest. From the outset, David saw some equipment that looks like it would work well together - one that allows you to buy 1 (or 3) Speed icons for $1 (or $2), and another that allows you to spend $1 to change a Speed icon into any other icon. He was very proud of this combo, and while he was sure it was a great combo and a great strategy, it being his first game he may have concentrated too heavily on setting it up in the early game and not enough on defeating Henchmen... which is a "trap" I sort of want in the game. Trap isn't the right word really, one of the main strategic decisions is when to focus on your Alter Ego life and when to focus on your Hero life. If the players spend too much time building their engines, then by definition I want the city to be overrun by Henchmen.

Morgan on the other hand began by going for Hero cards - mostly Smarts at first, but he ended up with a little bit of everything. As such, he was the one to beat up Henchmen, and he racked up a number of trophies (boost icons) - many of which were Hero icons... eventually he had one of each Hero boost icon in play except for Speed. So in the late game he was able to beat up a whole lot of henchmen.

Eisen didn't really specialize in much, he played Family cards a lot in order to get some teamwork tokens, and he beat some Henchmen up here and there, he ended up being more of a support character... which I think is fine, but I'm not sure if it was as much fun.

One thing I've noticed over the last several tests is that the Henchmen build up (as they're supposed to) and then the players struggle to catch up and stabilize (as they're supposed to), but if they make it over that hump, then it's smooth sailing all the way. This climax comes at the wrong time, because the Arch Villains aren't triggering early enough. I need them to be coming into play just about the time the players have stabilized and feel like they've caught up to the henchmen, so that rather than relax, BAM - there's a new, bigger challenge thrown at them.

What I think this means is that the Henchmen deck needs some tweaking. There need to be fewer Henchmen with no affiliation, and maybe more with multiple affiliations. David suggests the deck should be smaller, but I don't know if that's necessary. I still think the costs are OK as they are.

Another thing that has come up almost every time I've played the game is that the feeling of neglecting your Alter Ego life isn't coming through like I want it to. My personal opinion is that it's actually working darn near perfectly - if you neglect your family, your next turn's options are limited to what you've drawn... if you neglect the Community, you're at the mercy of the deck as to which Henchmen enter play... if you neglect your job, you don't get to use fancy equipment. But the big problem is, rather than that feeling like a result of your actions, people tend to feel like it's the luck of the draw... they don't recognize that they had some part in it, and they prefer to blame the deck for pulling out too many Sadist affiliated Henchmen when they wanted to fight the Anarchist (or whatever) rather than play more Community cards.

So, because it's come up more than once, and because the current version is failing to communicate the point of the game, I'm going to try the following... You never skip any of the phases. Every turn you have each phase of the game - Income (Job), Support (Family), Patrol (Community), Fight (Hero), and Recoup. Boost icons will go back to how I had them in the last test - more like EmDo planet symbols, boosting the phase, not each card of that type played in the phase. Here's the kicker - during each phase (Income, Support, and Patrol), if you played no card of the appropriate type (Job, Family, Community), then you put a counter on your player board in that phase. During Recoup, when it's time to take a card from the stacks, you check your player board... if you have 3 (2?) counters in any phase, then you MUST choose that phase's card from the stacks (rather than any card you want). Then you clear out those counters. If you have too many counters in 2 phases, then you must take cards of both of those types from the stacks, and then you'll have to play fewer cards from your hand (you'd take the required cards, then play from your hand to reach your display size).

This way it will be more obvious that if you're neglecting your job, then you get penalized for that. My concern is that it may sort of force players to just do a little bit of everything, and I do want them to have the ability to choose the cards for their decks. But I could see this potentially working out, it's definitely at least worth trying.

After some discussion, I have another thing I want to try - it's kind of a combination of the current "Arch Villain" thing and the ideas I've had for a Nemesis. And it could potentially increase the cooperative feel of the game as well. I think I'm going to give each player their own player colored tokens (ideally they'd be cardboard tokens with their insignia on them), and whenever you defeat a Henchman, you put YOUR token on he Arch Villain. Once in play, ONLY the player (or players) with the most insignias on the Arch Villain can actually engage them in their Fight phase. So not only are the Arch Villains getting upset that their Henchmen are getting beaten up... they're specifically getting upset AT YOU for beating them up. This way I think it could be acceptable to have to fight multiple Arch Villains in a game, maybe as a difficulty knob for example.

We talked a bit about some possible static effects that the Arch Villains could have. David suggested that each Villain could have multiple effects, and for an easier game you just use the first one, while for a harder game you use both the 1st and 2nd one. That could be doable, but I'm not sure if all the ideas I've got for static abilities will scale so easily.

I do like the idea of static effects, and I'm excited to figure some out and get them in the game. I think they could be thematic, like the Sadist abilities would kill off Civilians, removing them from the game, while the Anarchist abilities would change up the rules, and the Mastermind abilities would make the game become harder by removing options from the players.

Well, time to do some updating so that I can bring the game to MidSouthCon this weekend!

Monday, March 10, 2014

Alter Ego: Game Design Retreat playtest (3/8/14)

I got Alter Ego to the table during my Game Design Retreat last weekend, for the first time in a year and a half (!)... and with a few caveats, it went VERY WELL!


* The game took a very long time. I was not surprised to have a pacing problem, but I think it can be overcome - At this point I'm not as worried about the amount of time it takes as I am about whether or not the game works!

* I want to re-do the Henchmen deck. I knew this would be true.

* I probably need to reduce the number of tokens it takes to trigger an Arch Villain. The players were too strong by the time the Arch Villain arrived, and the ending was a bit anticlimactic.

Good stuff:

* The new version of Equipment seemed to work much better than the old version! I used some cards that you buy directly into play (they do not count as being in your display), and have activation costs. That way in order to make use of them, you have to constantly play Job cards to get $s to spend. I want to make some that are also good to buy if you don't concentrate on money, they'll have some static effect you don't need to pay for each turn. Also, I'd like some Equipment that goes into your deck as well and does stuff, so I'll make some of that again, but with an eye toward the right type of effects (and maybe I'll call them Events instead of Equipment).

* The Teamwork tokens really seem to make the cooperative feel in the game. The fact that players can use each other's cards by trading Teamwork tokens back and forth had everyone talking on everyone's turn about what card they should add to their deck, which Henchman they should go after, etc. It sounded a lot like other "real" cooperative games sound during play.

* The player boards and turn sequence (skipping phases when no cards are played) also worked well.

* The players really seemed to like the game! They appeared to be having fun while playing, they claimed to really enjoy it, and they were even sort of role playing up their roles. For example the guy who concentrated on money and equipment really felt like Batman, using all his wonderful toys to fight crime, and throwing money at problems.

* The limit of 5 Civilians of each type seemed like it worked alright. That could obviously change with other tuning to get the pacing right, but in the early game the players did say they felt like they were on the ropes with respect to the Civ tokens.

Changes and updates I'm making for the next playtest (hopefully Friday):

* I added and tweaked Equipment cards (and events) based on the playtest commentary and seeing it in action.

* I had forgotten that the boost icons were intended to be PER CARD PLAYED, not per phase... so a $ icon is supposed to give you 1 additional $ per Job card played, not just once no matter how many Job cards you play. That's a pretty big difference, especially once you get a few of them into play. The idea though is that I want every Job card not played to feel like a big deal. I don't want players to build up icons and think "ok, well I better play 1 Job card, but the rest aren't a big deal" - I want EACH job card to be worth a lot, so it's painful to play Hero cards instead. I have to be a little careful not to make the Equipment so good that you can ignore training and Hero cards altogether and just go all JOB all the time.

* Similarly, I think the Hero boost icons are supposed to boost each card OF THAT TYPE that you play. So if you have a Speed boost icon, it'll trigger when you have a Speed card in your display, but not when you have only a Will card. However, it'll trigger twice if you have 2 Speed cards in your display! This means getting a Hero boost icon trophy makes it much easier for you to defeat things that have THAT symbol, but not things that require diverse symbols. For example the 5-cost Henchmen that cost 3 of one icon and 2 of another.

* I re-did the Henchmen deck... I added some easy-to-beat Henchmen that take 2 of the same colored hostage, to make the deck a little more scary. Before I had henchmen that either attracted the attention of Villains, or else gave the players some benefit. I changed that to make most Henchman do both. I especially like that for the early game (cheaper) Henchmen, because that way going after boost icons will also usher in the Arch Villain, and players will have to be careful. I might have overdone it though, I want to make sure players have the ability to rescue hostage without accidentally summoning the wrong Arch Villain.

* I also added Teamwork icons to the Henchmen as well as Display +1 icons.

* For reference, Calling the Cops on a Henchman saves 1 Civ, and if that's the last Civ, the henchman is removed from play, and does NOT trigger the affiliated Arch Villain.

* I haven't done it yet, but I intend to revamp the Arch Villains, adding a status effect when they come into play. For example, maybe 1 version of the Mastermind has created distractions to occupy they police, so once they're in play you can no longer Call the Cops.

* It was suggested as well that one of the Arch Villain types require a broader range of icons to defeat. Where the other types encourage you to specialize in an icon or two, currently none require a more balanced assortment of icons. That was sort of on purpose, so players could reasonably build their deck toward defeating the Villain... but maybe a Villain requiring all the symbols would be interesting.

* I'm going to update the player boards as well, just to make sure everything is up to date. I'm considering reducing the card draw of Family cards to 1 per card, +1 (or 2) automatic during the phase. I.e. as long as there's a Family phase, you draw N+1 (or maybe N+2) cards, where N is the number of Family cards in your display. This way the Card draw boost icons might feel a little more strong and useful. Currently you draw 2N cards, which seems like a lot.

* The new mechanism for Equipment has 3 face up from a shuffled deck, and as a standard option players can spend 1$ to cycle 1 of the cards, or 2$ to cycle all three. This way a player who happened to have 1 Job card could have SOMETHING to do with that money. I'll add these actions to the player board.

* I think I might reduce the display size to 4. I think that will emphasize the main agonizing decision in the game - which cards do I play. I'll keep the hand size the same, so if you play no Family cards, you choose 3 of your 4 cards to play (plus add 1 from the supply). With the addition of Display +1 icons on the Henchmen I think that'll work out well (people can earn a bigger display).

I'm excited to be working on this game again, and even more excited that the prospect looks promising!

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Reviving old games... Alter Ego and Scourge of the High Seas

In the last few weeks I've brought 2 old game ideas back to the forefront of my mind... partly because I really like the ideas and have always wanted to work on them, and partly because Michael would like to see more Seth Jaffee designed games in the marketplace. Many people don't realize that I'm associated with some of the big box games from TMG: Ground Floor, Kings of Air and Steam, and Belfort for example, even though I do have a developer credit on those games. Developer credits in the rulebook and on the back of the box are not as prominent as Designer credits, and on database websites such as BGG there's not a field for developer (though I think there should be). So I've finally gotten around to reviving 2 of my designs that have been sitting around for a few years: Alter Ego and Scourge of the High Seas.

Both of these games are card games with deck building aspects, and both have the opportunity for excellent art... both seem very thematic and fun to me, so i think they could both be well received in the marketplace. In case you're new to this blog, or have simply forgotten since it's been so long, here's a short description of each of these games.

Alter Ego

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 an Arch Villain. 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.

In Alter Ego you play Job, Family, Community, and Hero cards into a display. You can only play so many cards each turn, and as the game goes on you'll need to play more and more Hero cards to defeat henchmen... meaning you'll have to neglect some aspect of your Alter Ego life.

Henchmen come into the game each turn and take civilians hostage. Fight the Henchmen to free the civilians, and defeat them to gain benefits... defeating underlings will eventually pique the interest of the whoever they're working for, bringing an Arch Villain into play! Defeat the Arch Villain to save the city and win the game!

In "expert" or "competitive" mode, each player will also have a Nemesis which they must defeat as well to win the game.

I'm pretty sure I know how the general rules of the game will go, and I have a prototype from before. I'm struggling with how the Equipment cards should work, but I have a new idea for that which I think will be good - all (or most) equipment stays in play, not your deck, and has an activation cost to use. Some can be used once per turn, some more often than that.

I just had a thought about a different way to do a showdown between each player and their Nemesis... maybe once the Arch Villain is defeated, players simply sort out their decks, and if your deck meets certain criteria (enough of each type of indicated card in it), then you are deemed strong enough to defeat your Nemesis. That way you don't need to play out some sort of battle turn by turn (though that might be fun). Defeating your nemesis could simply be worth some bonus points, and defeating henchmen could ls be worth points, and the winner could simply be the Hero with the most points.

Scourge of the High Seas

Yo ho, yo ho, a pirates life for me...

Captain of a ship in the Golden Age of Piracy! Visit Tortuga to recruit crew, buy equipment, and upgrade your vessel in order to engage in trade, treasure hunting, and plunder on the High Seas. Stash your booty away at your island hideout to keep it safe and off of your ship. He who buries the most treasure will be remembered forever as the Scourge of the High Seas!

This one is intended to be like Ascension, but with 2 Center Rows. I have a pretty good idea how I want this game to work as well, but have faltered on creating cards for it. I have a handful of card ideas from a year or two ago, and I just put together a spreadsheet to try and tabulate a bunch more card ideas. I have made some progress, but there's a lot of work to be done balancing and creating all the different types of cards in the game!

On your turn you first visit Tortuga and spend Treasure to get Crew, Equipment, and Ship Parts. You can also condense resources (turn 3 copper into 1 gold, to put it into Dominion terms).

Then you hit the High Seas and engage Ships, Trade Ports, and Buried Treasure cards ("buying" these cards with Plunder, Goods, and Maps which you've accumulated from other cards).

Finally, you visit your Island Hideout, where you man Bury cards to get them out of your deck. Each time you do that, you must take a Hideout card into your deck which is useless, so you'll want to be a little careful about when you choose to bury cards.

At the end of the game (when should this be???) the player with the most Treasure buried in their hideout will be the winner.

I've never been good with game end triggers. This game could end when someone has buried a certain number of Treasure (like Ascension), or it could end when a limited pool of Hideout cards are taken... I can't think of another way that makes a lot of sense.

Game Design Retreat

I'm hosting a Game Design Retreat this week (tomorrow through Sunday), and I hope to get both of these games "to the table" - to discuss with other designers even if not to play. I guess we'll see how that goes. I do not think I'll have a playable copy of Scourge, but hopefully I can get at least a partial test of Alter Ego in and see if I'm headed in the right direction with that one!