Friday, February 06, 2015

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!

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