Thursday, February 19, 2015

OrcCon 2015 convention report

Last weekend I traveled to Los Angeles again, as I have done for the last decade or so, for OrcCon 2015. I find it interesting to think back on all the years attending these types of conventions, and how things have changed...

Years ago I enjoyed the Strategicon events (OrcCon, Gamex, and Gateway) for their tournaments. I used to play in a bunch of euro game tournaments, and often I'd win enough dealer dollars to head home with a brand new game.

By contrast, I normally skipped Gamex in favor of Kublacon for Memorial Day weekend. Kublacon had a much different feel for me. they had scheduled events, but they were mostly demos, not tournaments. Their prize vault didn't interest me as much - often not containing anything of interest to me. So I spent most of my time in the open gaming area, playing new hotness or playtesting my prototypes.

I used to track plays, and over a 4 day convention I would easily log 40 plays... in retrospect I'm not sure just how I managed to do that! Nowadays it seems like I spend more time looking for a game to play than I spend actually playing games.

Things have changed over time. I have met a lot of people, and now I seem to use these conventions as a way to hang out with those people. It's much more a social event for me now.

As well as, in some cases, a commercial event. Unlike 10 years ago, now I'm a published designer and I work for a publisher. I frequently run demos of new or upcoming TMG games. I've always had some prototype or other with me, but now I've got more of them at a time, and getting them tested is a lot more important. And now more than ever, designers frequently want me to play their prototypes in addition to my own.

Last weekend was a little unusual in a couple of ways. First off, I didn't play a lot of games. Over the course of the weekend I managed to get into the following:
* Hanabi Race (x2)
* Roll for the Galaxy (x2)
* Concordia (x2)
* Trajan
* Crusaders (x2 - I wasn't actually playing in either game)
* Eminent Domain: Exotica
* Brains, Grains, and Trains (a prototype by Mark Major)
* Oceanica (a prototype by Mark Major)
* Stones of Fate (new release from Luke Laurie)
* Fits (had to leave 1/2 way through to make my flight)

I guess that's 14 games, maybe not too shabby, but only half of what I used to play at these things. Missing were games of Notre Dame, Puerto Rico, and Stone Age, tournaments I used to do well in. Also missing were plays of Glory to Rome, Got It!, Time's Up, Train of Thought, and Werewolf (though to be honest, I've completely soured on Werewolf over the years). I didn't learn any of the new hotness, though it was nice to play Trajan again.

I also had prototypes that did not get to the table: Odysseus: Winds of Fate, and The Pony Express.

I still had a good time at the convention, but I've noticed that I don't play as much as I used to, and I miss that.

Friday, February 06, 2015

Game Design Attack #3 - debrief/report

Last weekend, 4 designers from California and 1 local joined me for Game Design Attack #3, another great weekend of design talk and playtesting. We got a lot done, and everyone got games to the table and seemed to have a really good time.

As these games are unpublished, I won't be able to say too much about them, but I'd like to sum up what went down at the event...

Tim Fowers got in a couple of plays of his upcoming cooperative game, which will be on Kickstarter before too long. It's very thematic, and I think people who like those Solitaire By Committee game will dig this one. We also brainstormed some card abilities and effects for Tim's hit deckbuilder, Paperback.

Ta-Te Wu had a few different quick games: a party style game, a team deduction game, and one I missed out on. He also had a larger 2p game about a sub vs a destroyer which seemed like a pretty cool idea, though it's not so far along yet.

Trey Aslup had his High School Horror Movie game again, which was a bit abstract, but seemed to work well. He also had a Resistance-style game which he's working on with Matthew O'Malley, who joined us last year fro GDA#2. That one didn't work very well, but Ta-Te made a suggestion which we tried out, and it worked a whole lot better!

Trey also described a quick, Love Letter type of game idea he had, and we all thought it sounded like it would work, so over the course of the weekend, he made some proof-of-concept cards and we gave it a try. It revealed some aspects that needed to be addressed, and I think Trey got some ideas to work with.

The other Californian, Rob, is more a developer, and is helping Tim with some of his projects - he didn't have any games of his own.

David Short joined us Thursday night and half of Friday. He was able to get a couple of his quick/micro games to the table, but neither of the larger games he had with him.

I managed to get 3 games to the table: Crusaders, Pony Express, and Dungeon of Fortune. Crusaders and Dungeon of Fortune might be too far along to get a lot of useful feedback from a designer meetup - many of the comments amount to "make another, different game." But I did get to try my new Build Bonus tiles for Crusaders, and I got some feedback on he game end trigger... the short version is that the Bonus tiles seem to be doing their job, the current/original game end trigger is probably fine, and I should increase the Level 4 building score. Most players wanted the Level 4 buildings to have abilities instead of scoring... I'll have to think about that. Tim had a neat idea to have the Farms confer additional cubes for your rondel, which is a cool idea thematically, but I was planning on that for an expansion.

I did get some good feedback on Pony Express though, that game is in a much earlier state, perfect for a design meetup.

I had hoped to get Odysseus: Winds of Fate to the table, or some discussion of Draft Fighter, a 2-player deck-learning fighting game I'm working on with Brad Talton. But alas, there's only so much time in the day! Maybe next time.

Pony Express - full playtest #6 (Game Design Attack #3)

I got Pony Express to the table Friday night at Game Design Attack #3. I watched and ran the game, as 5 designers sat down to give it a try. Unfortunately, in several ways this might have been the worst session of the game to date :(

After the Gamesmiths 5p game, I made a new board... I intentionally went overboard with routes, making a 3x4 grid of towns connected horizontally, vertically, and diagonally with routes. The base route costs for the horizontal and vertical routes is 2, and for the diagonal routes is 3, and each route has space for 1 Hazard (the diagonals actually share a hazard where they cross). I had been happy with the inflated route costs last time, so I figured they'd be OK here as well.

One player (Trey) keyed right in to the crux of the game, and he went right for the "bid 3" strategy, claiming parcels right away for $3, choosing towns along a single route to California. Other players weren't catching on as quickly, and some (especially David) were confused why Trey would make such plays, citing that he's only getting 3 points while giving his opponent 7.

I read a cool article online one time, many years ago, which talked about deal making in a multiplayer game. Unfortunately I cannot find the article, and I can't recall the author. As an example, the article used a hypothetical gem trading game, where each player had a supply of their own colored gems, and could trade them to opponents. Scoring was 1vp for each gem of an opponent you have (your own gems were worth nothing). In that example game, the article suggested that a player could trade away 2 of his own gems for 1 of an opponent's gems. Looking at a trade like that you might think it's a bad deal, you only get 1 vp while your opponent gets 2! However, the rest of the players get nothing. Also, suppose you made that same deal with each other opponent as well... in a 4 player game, each opponent would get 2 points, while you would score 3!

I think that philosophy applies here to an extent - you can accept only $3 from each opponent, giving them $7, and as long as you do it 3 times then you're making out ahead -- as far as the auction is concerned.

However, in Pony Express there's another factor... the cost of delivering. The idea is that the cost of delivering parcels is high enough that you can't really afford to just take everything for $3.

In this play, Trey was able to do very well with his "claim for $3" strategy in the first round. So well in fact that the other players decided to adopt the same strategy in later rounds. It got to the point that people were claiming the parcels before the auctioneer even started counting. Almost nothing went for more than $3. This is obviously a problem, as the entire auction broke down.

Oddly, this is the first time that's happened. In thinking about what contributed to it, I believe it's the following:
* 5 players is more susceptible to this dynamic than fewer players, because you can take more deliveries along the same route, thereby making more money even if taking things for $3.
* The new board layout allowed for just about ANY route to be viable, and at about the same cost. I suspect this is the major culprit.
* Too easy to get several deliveries on the same route, especially when you can get 2 parcels bound for the same town.

Players in this game all seemed to want a different auction mechanism, but I would like to see if I can bring the count-up auction back to a place where it works. I think I might be able to do that with the following ideas:
* I can increase the costs for some of the routes, making some of them more expensive -- maybe so expensive they're effectively not there anymore. I might also make a couple more "terrain" type Hazards to be put out in the first round - "Mountains" that cost 5 to cross for example.
* I can cut the deck down to just 1 parcel for each town (instead of 2), that way it's not possible to get 2 deliveries to the same town. The only reason I didn't do this before is that when there were 10 towns, there would not be enough deliveries to go around. Now that I've gone up to 12 towns, that's technically enough deliveries for 4 players, though not for 5 players. However, I have 2 possible solutions for that...
 -- I can add "Express Deliveries," which reward you for getting to the Post Office early. For example, "Collect $10 if you arrive at the Post Office first," or "Collect $8 if you are the 1st or 2nd rider to arrive at the Post Office."
 -- With the back-and-forth format of the board, players are already required to get to the opposite Post Office, so dealing out a parcel at random is less necessary. So maybe I only need 2 Parcels per player (plus 1) for each auction. On the down side, if I want to keep the Random Delivery item tile, I will still need a few more than 1 parcel per town will give me.

For the next playtest I plan to make the adjustments above for the next playtest, and as Orccon is coming up in 2 weeks, I had better hurry up and do that!