Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Game Deign Attack #3: This weekend (1/29 - 2/1)

This weekend will mark the third installment of Game Design Attack -- a 3 day design meetup where 6-10 designers sequester themselves in a house and work on design problems and prototypes for a weekend.

Thursday afternoon, 4 designers from California will drive in and stay through Sunday afternoon to meet up with myself and a few local designers. I'm sure everyone will have something to bring to the table.

In previous installments of the event I was able to get in full playtests of Alter Ego, discussion of game ideas such as Scourge of the High Seas, and even design, protoype, and play a full game with Tim Fowers.

This year I've got my to latest projects: Crusaders: Thy Will Be Done and The Pony Express. I have some specific feedback I'm looking for in each of those...

Crusaders: Game end triggers and dynamics, and incentives to go to one hex over another, or to build one building over another in your current hex.

Pony Express: Number of towns/routes, and whether and how those routes can or should change throughout the delivery phase.

I've also got a not-ready partial prototype of a 2 player deck-learning fighting game (code name Draft Fighter) that I am theoretically designing with Brad Talton of Level 99 Games. I hope to get in some discussion of that, although really I just need to sit down and pound out some cards and give it a try.

And who knows, maybe I'll revive Alter Ego again!

Oh, and I've got a "new and improved" version (and prototype) of Odysseus: Winds of Fate that has been just sitting there waiting to be played ever since I updated it in December. Maybe I can get that to the table.

Looking forward to this weekend!

The League Of Gamemakers

I know some people in California who have banded together to form a superhero team... well, it's like a team of superheroes, if you remove the heroics and replace it with thoughts of game design...

The League of Gamemakers is made up of a number of aspiring and professional game designers -- some well known in the industry, and some up-and-coming.  They post regularly in their blog, covering all kinds of topics including design, mechanics, gaming, technical processes, publishing, Kickstarter, features and general musings.

I was recently invited to join their merry band, and have accepted the invitation... already 2 of my posts have gone live on their website:
“You’re Playing Wrong!” – Good play experience and the designer’s responsibility
My first article for the League was about the designer's responsibility to make sure a player cannot screw up so badly that they're not just losing, but effectively disallowed to continue playing the game. In the comments it seemed like some people thought I was advocating some kind of strategic hand-holding, or catch-up mechanisms to ensure all players maintained a chance to win the game... but that's not what I meant at all. Bad play should absolutely lead to a loss. However, I maintain that it's the designer's job to make sure players are able to enjoy the game, even if they lose.

Balancing Game Elements

My second post is actually just a re-posting of my Balancing Game Elements post from a year ago. That post has been referenced a few times recently, so I thought I'd re-publish it in that forum.

I've got one more post written, sort of a follow up to that first one, looking at ways to go about ensuring a losing player can still enjoy a game. I'm not sure when that will be published, but it probably won't be too long.

I've got a few other posts in mind, and a few from this blog I'll probably re-up over there. So if you like reading my ramblings, feel free to check out the League and follow me over there.

Never fear, I'll still be posting here about my own game designs (such as Crusaders and Pony Express), and things like my Game Design Attack -- the third installment of which happens to be coming up this weekend!

See you around!

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Exotica is underway, and how about this new Start planet?

Over the last few months, artist Eric J. Carter has been cranking on Tech Card illustrations for Eminent Domain: Exotica, and I'm loving the images he's been coming up with. You can see some of them on his facebook page, and I'll share one of my favorites here:

This illustration is for a tech card called Space Station, which is a permanent tech you could get that acts like a copy of any Asteroid in play.

Speaking of Asteroids, I was looking at the number of components that will be in Exotica. Based on the size of the box and punchboard, there will be 8 tiles in the game. 5 of those will be mining tiles, and the rest can be Start planets. I had 2 Exotic start planets, and I had also come up with a couple of promo-style Start planets (a Utopian planet and a Prestige planet). Having 1 slot left for a Start planet, I was going to just use one of those promo style planets. but the other day I had a better idea...

Exotica is all about 2 things: Exotic planets (with civilized aliens), and Asteroids. I had Exotic Start planets... why not try an Asteroid start planet? That could be interesting, but what does it mean exactly?

Well, Asteroids are kinda like low-value prestige planets in that they don't count toward technology pre-req's. So I could make an Asteroid start planet, it could cost 2/2 like all the standard Start planets, and it could have a Crystal resource slot (Crystal is a new resource that can be found on Asteroids and Exotic planets). But a standard Start planet would count toward one of the tech stacks, so an Asteroid Start planet would be at a bit of a disadvantage... the same was true for the prestige Start planets in Escalation. For the Prestige planets I added Role icons -- what could be added to an Asteroid start planet?

The solution presented itself fairly quickly: "Ignore planet requirements on Asteroidal technology."

The whole point of Asteroids, and the thing that makes them different than Prestige planets, is that they count as "Asteroids." There are a couple of cards in each tech stack with the word "Asteroidal" in the title, and they get better the more Asteroids you have in your empire. So it makes sense to me, both thematically and mechanically, that starting with an Asteroid as a Start Planet that you could access those technologies.

I'm getting excited about this one again, as graphic designer Ariel Seoane got to work this week on putting the package together. If you're interested in where the game is out, or want to give the Print & Play files a try, check out this forum on BGG.

Pony Express - full playtest #5

Last night at out local Gamesmiths meetup I managed to get Pony Express to the able for the 5th time, this time with 5 players. As yet I haven't played with that many. Since playtest #4 I added town #6 to the board, and I inflated the route costs (2's became 3's and 1's became 2's) .

One thing I'll say is that with 5 players, the game took a LONG time. I'm fairly certain that's a product of the number of players - not some fatal flaw. However I'd really  like this game to clock in at about an hour, not the 100+ minutes it took us last night.

As for the changes, I think I liked the inflated route costs. They seemed to do the job they were meant to do in that they differentiated the amount of money players were paying to travel. I had hoped that it would also mean that when a count up auction gets up to 8 or 9, there's a realistic chance the Auctioneer will actually get stuck with the parcel for $10. So far when the auction gets that high, it's worth just about anybody's time to claim the delivery. In fact, in last night's game Matthew proclaimed "Nine dollars? I'll FIND a way to do it for $9."

After last night's playtest, I'm pretty sure I need more towns, and more routes. The game worked alright, but with the new board there just aren't that many distinct paths from one post office to the other, and it was suggested that more routes would lead to more possible paths, and therefore better route planning.

On that note, it was also suggested that there ought to be more instances of the routes changing DURING the delivery phase. The Shotgun and Guide sort of do this, but for the most part once the hazards have been drawn, you know your route, and it's just a matter of waiting for your turn to take the next step on it.

I feel like there are 2 ways to address that...
1) View the delivery phase as simply a resolution of the route building done in the Auction phase. In this case the fancy turn order mechanism from Thebes/Glen More/Olympos is probably inappropriate and should be cut. I'm not entirely sure how to resolve the routes, but in this case it should be quick and simple.

2) Keep the turn order mechanism, which I like, and somehow make it matter more - find a way to make the routes change during the delivery phase so players need to reconsider their path choices turn-to-turn.

Of the two options, I prefer the 2nd one, because I really do like that turn mechanism, and I think it works well here. I'd also like the game to be about more than just the count-up auction.

I think for my next playetest I'm going to try going overboard the other way and just see how it feels - I'll mock up a new board with 12 cities in a 3x4 grid, horizontal and vertical routes at 2 cost, diagonal routes at 3 cost, and at most 1 hazard per route instead of 2 (to keep clutter down). I think

But how to make routes change in cost over the course of the delivery phase? Maybe a "Mystery" hazard where as soon as a player crosses it, it gets replaced by a new draw? I wouldn't want too many of those, as I want players to be able to plan.

Maybe more random package deliveries like I have?

Maybe just more shotguns and bears?

Maybe the Maps should act as shortcuts to that town from wherever?
John Lonacker mentioned weather effects, which got me thinking of possible ways to add those in...

For example, towns could have 2 states - good weather / bad weather - and some way to toggle back and forth between them. There could be Rain (raindrop icon) and Snow (snowflake), each adding 1 to the route cost of any route to that town... and there could be items to help with each (Stetson lets you ignore Rain, Poncho lets you ignore Snow). But how to trigger that toggle?

I'm open to ideas... leave a comment if anything strikes you!

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Pony Express - full playtest #4

I've posted previously about full playtests #1, #2, and #3 of The Pony Express, and how I'm using it for my "Gil Hov 4p challenge" game. After my last test, outside of the few tweaks I listed (change Guide, changed Compass, replaced one Spur with a New Delivery), the main thing I needed to do was re-design the board.

Yesterday I got together with Dan Keltner to talk design stuff, and one of the things we did was look at the board. Dan fired up Inkscape and helped me whip up a new map, with one Post Office in Missouri and another in California. Here's a schematic of the new board...

 I managed a playtest with the new board today. Here's how it went:

In an effort to make a 2-endpoint board that resembled the previous one, I just sort of picked the original Post Office and town #6 and stretched them out... and I added 1 route because it looked pretty bare.
I realized later that I had inadvertently REMOVED town #6, turning it into a post office... I should have instead ADDED a post office. I was able to play around that, but I think I want to keep at least 10 towns, if not increase to maybe 12. I think 10 towns might be enough.
I guess if the CA Post Office in the map above were replaced with Town #6, and a new CA Post Office were added to the left of that, with a 1-cost route to town #7, a 1-cost route to Town #6, and a 2-cost Route to Town #5, that would probably work. If another route were added from #6 to #2, then the board would be sort of symmetric, but I think it might be better if it's not symmetric.

I'm still thinking of inflating all the base route costs to 2 and 3, instead of 1 and 2, to make the item bonuses mean more... and new I'm actually leaning toward that. It seems like too often currently players are reducing the cost to 0, and having to pay 1 anyway. I think it would be better if the items helped you approach that, but didn't reach it as often.
I'd like to label the routes (near the route costs, I guess) with small letters (a, b, c, ...) so that they can be referenced, and also to imply an order for putting down hazard tiles. If you just go in alphabetical order then there's no question whether you've added one to each route or not (did I miss one? Did I add 2 to this one?)
Ideally, each route would have an obvious graphical space for the (1" square) hazard tiles (like the dashed squares here on either side of the route cost), and each town would have an obvious graphical space for the (1" square) item tiles. Of course, a town could have as many as 4 items (starts with 2, gets 1 more at the end of rounds 1 and 2), and I'm not sure there's space for that many at each town - maybe a large-ish space near each town that "items" are stashed in would be good, without being specific as to how many?

So I have some tweaks to make, and I think a friend might help me create a more attractive version of this board. I'll be sure to report back the next time I play :)

Friday, January 16, 2015

Recent Gaming - Hospital Rush, Staufer Dynasty, and Orleans (now on Kickstarter!)

Last October I got the opportunity to go to Essen again. I saw a lot of the new stuff coming out, heard some buzz on a few popular titles (Aquasphere pretty much sold out at H@ll Games booth!), and even tried a couple of games.

One of the games I tried was Hospital Rush - a worker placement game that I did not enjoy. I felt like it was too easy for a player to undo anything another layer had done.

The other new game I played in Germany was The Staufer Dynasty, by Andreas Steading, who designed Hansa Teutonica which I liked very much. I picked up Staufer Dynasty at BGGcon and was able to play several times over the holiday break.

A couple weeks after Essen I went to Sasquatch in Seattle, and there I got a chance to play several of the new games that debuted in Germany. Of those, one of my favorites was Orleans. Orleans was at Essen, and seemed to have good buzz, but I didn't get a chance to check it out.

Orleans is sort of like a deck building game, but instead of a deck of cards, you draw tokens out of a bag. The tokens represent workers, who you assign to various tasks -- each task requires a specific combination of worker types. Many of those tasks hire you a new worker of one type or another, thereby adding tokens to your bag, in addition to giving you some kind of effect.

I like the deck building mechanism in general, and drawing tokens from a bag is largely the same thing. This game differs a little in that you return all used workers to the bag every turn -- compare that to shuffling your discard every turn in Dominion. In deckbuilders like Dominion, players choose to add a card to their deck because they want that card in their deck, and that's about it. Orleans takes a page out of my own Eminent Domain's playbook, workers are added to your bag as a side effect of taking an action. That's a dynamic I am partial to (obviously).

I enjoyed the game a lot. So much that I was super excited when I heard TMG had signed on as a partner and would be offering a DELUXE VERSION OF ORLEANS ON KICKSTARTER.

The KS price for a standard copy of Orleans is $45, comparable to online retail prices considering the $60 MSRP listed on the KS page.

The price for a deluxe version, with upgraded worker discs (wooden discs with stickers) and coins (metal coins instead of cardboard) is $57.

And as a kicker, for just $2 over the deluxe version price ($59 total), you can get a brand new small box TMG game ($20 MSRP) as well! This extra game, Bottlecap Vikings, is a Rondel game by my friend / TMG developer Andy Van Zandt (Grave Business, Zero Day). Bottlecap Vikings packs a lot of game into a small package (on the order of Harbour) and it has a variable rondel who's action order will be different from game to game. It's a solid game for the $20 price point, but for $2 it's a no-brainer.

Maybe a better way to look at it is this: If you're interested in Orleans enough that you want to get it for sure, then you're in for $45 already. For just $14 more you can get a $20 MSRP TMG small box game, and your Orleans copy will come upgraded to the deluxe version :)

If this interests you, then check it out, and if you want the deluxe version then be sure to pledge for a copy - the upgrade won't be reprinted after the first run.

Oh, did I mention we've hot a couple of stretch goals already? Which means not only will there be metal coins and wooden discs and stickers for the workers, but also now wooden wheels for the Technology tokens, and wooden meeples for the Citizen tokens! I don't think it's a stretch to say we will probably hit the next goal and be able to add 4 custom player pawns to the game as well, in lieu of the generic ones in the base game.

A new stretch goal was just announced, but it's going to be expensive... 90 custom wooden resources to use in place of the cardboard chits!

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Crusaders - end game triggers

Ok, after some thought and soliciting opinions on Twitter, here's how I might try an alternate game end trigger for Crusaders:

Instead of emptying the supply of VP (and taking vp for every single action in the game), I might try ending the game if any of the following occurs:
* Any player builds their 16th building
* 10 of any 1 Enemy are defeated, or at least 5 of each enemy are defeated
* Influence pool is depleted (smaller pool, maybe 20vp per player).

WHY would I want to change the game end trigger? Well, there are at least two reasons:

1. It's anti-climactic to be playing and having fun and then someone says "oh look, I took the last vp. I guess the game's over now." Sure, you can see the VP pile dwindling, but in my experience many players don't notice, or don't get a feeling of pressure that the game will end from that.

2. It's fiddly to have to take some VP tokens every single turn, and it could be easy to forget. All of the Troop and Building tile have their VPs printed on them, so it's easy to add those up at the end. The only thing I need vp tokens for is the Influence action, and Crusades. Crusades could have discrete scoring chits on the strength track (with 3/4/5... vp printed on them), obviating the need to take the right number of VP from the supply - that's almost as much work, but it's a little more elegant in that you don't have to worry about how many your taking. That leaves just VP from Influence.

The you would just add up all your VP from buildings (printed on board) Crusades, Influence tokens, and any bonuses at the end of the game.

So... is that better?

Friday, January 09, 2015

Killing your darlings... Crusaders end game scoring, revisited (also potential expansion content)

A couple of days ago I posted an idea I had to simplify the end game scoring for Crusaders: Thy Will Be Done.

Basically, I had this convoluted end game scoring phase, that was based on a relatively simple concept, but was very time consuming, confusing,and cumbersome. It was the Wave of Destruction scoring, which I liked thematically (and even mechanically) - but in the interest of player understanding and ease of play I wanted to simplify it or replace it with something else.

First i tried simplifying, removing a range and thereby reducing the amount of work, but only by a tiny bit. Then I tried replacing it with something else - a majority bonus for Land Value of each type of building. That did simplify it, a bit. It was tough because I didn't re-print my prototype map, so players couldn't simply add up their own Land Value, but I was able to try it a few times with me adding things up...

I GUESS it was simpler overall, but it wasn't great. It was still fiddly and cumbersome, and it was no longer as strong thematically. I just wanted something to hang my hat on when a player has to decide which building they want to build, and where they want to build it. In the end though, maybe that's not really as big a concern as it used to be. Since the game's (and this mechanic's) inception, I have added the end game bonuses for the level IV buildings - maybe that will suffice as end game bonus for buildings.

With the game as it currently stands, I think maybe the buildings do a good enough job of supporting different strategies, so maybe it doesn't matter which ones are built where, specifically - players will have buildings they want to build for their benefit, or to build toward that level IV end game bonus.

So maybe the correct decision is to eliminate the endgame scoring for buildings altogether - just lop off the Wave of Destruction wholesale. THAT would certainly simplify it! I tried it in a game tonight, and compared it to both the original Wave of destruction scoring, as well as the newer Land Value scoring, and it turns out the finish order was exactly the same in all 3 cases. Both the Wave and Land Value cases ended up with a much larger spread between 1st and 3rd, while not counting any bonuses resulted in a much closer game (14 points vs about 60).

I think I like just leaving off the end game scoring. As a result I may have to revisit a few other things...

* The majority bonus for Slavs and Prussians are potentially too high at 9 (4 for 2nd in a 4p game). but maybe not.
* Should there be a majority bonus for Saracens now that Buildings don't confer endgame bonus? I don't think it's really necessary - the end game bonus for the other 2 is to differentiate them from each other.
* Maybe I should add a few points, or points for specific buildings, built at the edges of the board, to maintain a desire to fight your way out there. Either that or maybe there should be fewer spaces on the board, so you MUST fight in order to clear spaces to build
* Without the end game bonus calculation, maybe I should try harder to figure out a different game end trigger, then instead of awarding Influence as each building is built and each Crusade is fought, I can just add all that up at the end. Most 3p games had been going about 27 rounds, with a few more like 23. Maybe a turn timer that just lasts 25 rounds is in order (like each round is a Month and the turn track is a calendar). I'd prefer if the game end were a little bit variable and relied on player action, but maybe a strict 25 rounds would work.

In other news, I was thinking about what could possibly be in an expansion for this game (down the road, if appropriate). The obvious answer was more Factions, though I've just about run out of things to try for that.

I also thought of a few new Building type that players could have...
* Monastery I: No effect
* Monastery II: +1 Action Cube (add an action cube to your Rondel (in the active Build bin))
* Monastery III: +1 Action Cube (add an action cube to your Rondel (in the active Build bin))
* Monastery IV: +1vp for each Action Bin with 2+ cubes at game end.
This would require 4 building tiles and 2 cubes for each player.

* Keep I: Upgrade one Action bin
* Keep II: Upgrade one Action bin
* Keep III: Upgrade one Action bin
* Keep IV: +1vp for each upgraded Action Bin at game end
This would require 4 building tiles for each player.

* Marketplace I: Remove any level I building from your player board
* Marketplace I: Remove any level I - II building from your player board
* Marketplace I: Remove any level I - III building from your player board
* Marketplace I: Remove any level I - IV building from your player board
This would require 4 building tiles for each player. It would function as sort of like a wild. The Marketplace tiles would be worth 0vp, but you would get the points and the ability of the tile you remove. I think you could remove a building tile even if you haven't built the lower level buildings of that type... for example, say you build your first 2 Marketplaces and remove a Bank and a Farm, and you've built no Castles. When building your third Maketplace, you could remove your level 3 Castle, gaining +1 Knight and +1 Crusade.

I thought it might be interesting if you could only build these buildings on top of existing Churches/Castles/Banks belonging to an opponent (it would be too easy if you could build a Keep on top of your own Castle). That way, when building a Church, Castle, or Bank you open up a spot for an opponent to build a Monastery, Keep, or Marketplace.

I could use 1 more idea for a building to go on top of opponents' Farms (or whatever). So far all I've got is maybe this one:
* Name? I: You may leave unused cubes in their original Action bin
* Name? II:  You may distribute counterclockwise
* Name? III: When distributing, you may skip an Action bin 1x/tun
* Name? IV: When distributing, you may drop 2 cubes into the same Action bin 1x/tun  
This would require 4 building tiles for each player. I'm not sure if this is so good, but it's the only effect I could think of offhand. Perhaps level IV should have some scoring thing instead (2 points per Knight? 2 points + 1 per Knight?)

I also started to think about whether the game could support a 5th player... I think the board might need to be bigger, but maybe I ought to try it just to see.

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Crusaders - better end game scoring?

One of the niggling things that I would like to clean up in Crusaders is the end game scoring. Currently it does what I want it to do, and I think it's interesting and good, but it's definitely cumbersome and I'm sure people will get confused by it.

So far, every alternative suggested by players or thought of by myself to make it simpler has also had the effect of removing some of the interesting bits about the system that I liked... until now?

Yesterday I thought of an alternative that might maintain some of the interesting bits I like about the scoring, but make counting up points a whole lot easier to do and understand:

For each building type (and knights), award a majority bonus like I do for the Slav and Prussian enemy tokens. For symmetry, I might as well start with 9vp for 1st majority, 4vp for 2nd (4vp if tied for 1st - no 2nd in that case, 2vp if tied for 2nd).

To compare that to the current system, consider a player who builds all 4 of their Churches, each one at a different range. With the old rule, that player will get 6 bonus points just from their own Churches, and likely a few more for other players' Churches as well. Under the new rule, a player building all 4 Churches will likely win this new bonus for Churches, scoring 9 points. 9 points doesn't seem too different from the 6+some points they'd be getting now.

For this to work correctly though, I think the hexes need to be labeled differently. I'm going to assign the term Land Value for this - the Land Value (number printed in the hex) should probably range from 2 to 4 rather than from 1 to 5, otherwise building 1 Church at the ends of the board (range 5) would overpower several churches built elsewhere. I'd prefer if 1 church on the edge of the board were more on par with 2 Churches built near Paris.

So my plan is to change the "ranges" as follows:
Paris and Ranges 1 and 2 = Land Value 2
Ranges 3 and 4 = Land Value 3
Range 5 = Land Value 4

I might consider keeping Paris and the 4 starting locations as Land Value 1, but I'm not sure if that would create too much disincentive to build there. With the discount I think the obvious first turn is probably still to build something.

Another thought would be to do 3/4/5 rather than 2/3/4 - to devalue the single late game building a little more. Leave a comment below if you have a feeling one way or another about any of these values.

Saturday, January 03, 2015

4P: Gil Hova's response to National Game Design Month (NaGaDeMon)

I suspect many people have heard of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) - a sort of challenge to get writers writing, with the goal of getting 5000 words written in the month of November. It's a pretty cool idea, and though I'm not a writer, I know a couple of people who seem to have benefitted from that challenge.

Since I'm a member of another creative community, it did not surprise me to see people making a similar challenge for game design with NaGaDeMon (National Game Design Month), which incidentally has a very apt abbreviation, as a Naga Demon is a snake-beast from fantasy role playing games :)

The stated purpose of NaGaDeMon is:

Create a game in November. It can be a boardgame, cardgame, RPG, Choose Your Own Adventure, video game, wargame or anything else you like!  

Play your game in November. By yourself, with a friend, in the attic, on the 'net, out on the street - it doesn't matter where, or with who, just play!

There are people who are interested in games and might like design, and NaGaDeMon is a pretty neat challenge to encourage those people to get their feet wet. I happen to do this all the time, so it's not very pressing for me to dedicate any particular month to it.

My friend Gil Hova had an issue with the whole idea though. In this post on his blog, Gil describes how the idea of focusing on components and rules and only playing a game once is not the correct focus. He says that ideas are a dime a dozen, and the real work of game design is in the iteration from playtest to playtest, honing a game from that initial draft to a final, full fledged game.

I agree with him 100%, and I recommend all amateur game designers check out his post about 4P, where Gil issues a different challenge - playtest the same game 4 times in the month of January, incorporating feedback between each playtest.

As I mentioned, I do this sort of thing all the time, but every designer could probably use more playtesting! As it happens, I have a brand new design that I have started working on. So when Gil started posting about his 2nd annual 4P challenge again, I figured I might as well participate.

I got started about a week early for the official 4P challenge, but so far I've had 3 full playtests of The Pony Express, making changes each time. So far I think the progress has been good. At this point the next major change I need to make is to redesign the board, which I think will fix several issues I see in the game.

I guess that gives me 4 more weeks to design a new board and test again!

Pony Express - full playtests #2 & #3

Pony Express - full playtest #2
After full playtest #1 (12/28), Dan, Steve, Dawn, and I played a full 4 player game on 12/29. I'd incorporated some of the stuff we talked about after the previous day's game...

* Labeled 10 items and the 8 "terrain" type hazard tiles (4 river crossings and 4 winding trails) with a roman numeral 1 n the back, indicating that they are to be used first. At the beginning of the game I put one "I" item in each town, then 1 random item in each town as well, thus insuring that no town would have 2 Saloons, and that no Saloons would come out later, and ensuring items like Compass and Peacemaker are on the board in round 1.

* I took the maps out of the auction deck and said that at the beginning of the first Delivery phase of the game, after seeing the hazards, each player gets to choose one of the 5 maps. Players get to keep this map, and it does not count as an item (if discarded for a winding trail, it's out of the game). Unclaimed maps are discarded.

* Only 1 copy of any given item.

* Tumbleweeds return to the bag. I kinda liked Steve's suggestion that the Tumbleweeds remove a hazard from play, but at the same time, that doesn't necessarily work with how I've got the hazards set up. So instead, I kept the Tumbleweeds as null-hazards, but decided to return them to the bag and institute a limit of 2 hazards per route. If nothing else, this works logistically because there are 14 routes on the prototype board, and 3 hazards per route would be a lot of tiles on the board!

* Tiebreaks are by turn order when multiple players speak up simultaneously.

The game went alright, with the biggest irritation being that the hazards seemed to cost a bit much, and some of the items were out of whack. For example, the Compass is just ridiculous - FAR more valuable than other items. And the new delivery (+$5) was most often not worth taking... there's a chance it'll be a free $5, but more likely the random draw will cost you money. Spurs were just useless altogether.

After that game, I made a few more adjustments:
* Reduced river crossings, winding trails, to +$1 and bandits to +$2
* Increased new parcel reward to $8
* Added a cost of +$5 to the compass, so that (a) it costs you to pick it up, and (b) you give up a lot of time the turn you pick it up - you won't get a turn for a while, and you are likely not going to be the first player back to the post office.
* Changed spurs to "-$1 if 0-1 hazards" so that they're pretty good at first, but become less and less useful each round as more hazards come out.
* Swapped around which items start on the board a little bit, as well as which hazards come out in round 1. I made it the 8 terrain hazards, 2 rattlesnakes, and 4 tumbleweeds, guaranteeing no bears or bandits would appear in round 1, giving players a chance to get items to help.
* Reduced the Parcel deck to 2 cards per town (20 cards total) - enough for 5 players, and  they can simply be reshuffled each round. Fewer components, and fewer instances of multiple cards from the same town coming up.
* Dealt out 2N+1 cards for the auction rather than just 2N, so that the last player has a choice on their 2nd turn (the un-auctioned parcel is discarded). <- better.="" br="" i="" like="" much="" this="">

Pony Express - full playtest #3
Yesterday at Tucson Games and Gadgets, Mark, Chris, Andy, and I played another full 4p game of Pony Express, implementing the tweaks listed above

This went fairly well, though it may have highlighted some fragility in the game. The scores reflected that, at 60ish - 40ish - 30ish - 20ish.

Mark had a GREAT first round, making about $15, while Andy, Chris, and I made about $7 each. However, Andy and I had a lot of items going into round 2, Mark had some, and Chris had almost nothing.

In round 2 I made a killing, delivering 6 or 7 of the parcels (and getting decent money for each). Mark had a very rough 2nd round because he got sniped at the auction twice (maybe he should have been a little less greedy?

I don't recall the last round too well, except that Chris had it rough. Chris basically didn't get anything in the way of items in the first round (and in fact he discarded his Map card to save $1 from a LOST! tile), so come round 2 he didn't have much in the way of discounts, while everyone else did. Then he basically complained that he had to pay too much for his routes Also, he seemed to not quite grasp the crux of the auction mechanism, saying something about how when it got to his choice, there weren't any parcels he wanted to deliver (so far nobody has EVER been stuck with the parcel they chose to auction off, so it's highly unlikely you'll be delivering the parcel you choose as auctioneer). He had a pretty lousy game, and clearly a lousy time.

This reminds me of a dynamic I had in an early version of Terra Prime, when "bad play" of exploring yellow space without being prepared - despite all the warnings the game gives against doing that - is something a player decided to do. Of course they got blown up, and had to limp home to repair. That was a miserable experience, and as much as I wanted to just say "well, don't do that!" I realized I had to actually make that kind of thing a little less bad, so a player who DOES do that (however ill advised) doesn't have as miserable a game experience.

Similarly, I wonder if there's anything I can do here to help keep players from having a really bad experience, even if they play poorly. I'd like them to still have fun.

Some of this may rectify itself when I implement the new board layout I've been wanting to try ever since Dan mentioned 2 bases, one in Missouri and one in Sacramento. Not only is that more thematically accurate, but it would force all players to travel across the board, therefore making more parcels more interesting to more players. That'll be the next big change I make, but I'm not exactly sure on the layout I want, and whether I want to add more towns, or if 10 is enough. I've been liking 10 towns so far.

Until then, I've made the following tweaks...
* Guides back up to 1. I don't like things costing zero.
* Changed a Spur out for another new parcel delivery. I think that's a fun one, though with the new board it may be bad if the new destination is BEHIND you. Steve wanted that to be "draw 3, pick one," but if it's too easy to ensure you get something en route, then it's just free money (like the Tip). Also, I worry that the new version of Spurs ("-1 if 0-1 hazard") is now one of the stronger items.
* Changed the Compass to "-2 on LOST!" Even with a $5 cost I feel the Compass was just too good, and I don't like having a cost on just 1 item. I decided to change it up. I like the sound of the new version.

I thought about upping the base route cost of each route by 1, so they're all 2 or 3 instead of 1 or 2. This would be so the items have more of an effect (especially maps). However, I'm afraid the costs will get too high for the auction, and I would prefer to keep the auction at a nice $10 total (though truth be told, that could change without too much of a problem). I'll have to recalculate that when making a new map layout anyway.