Thursday, May 21, 2015

Status report: Current active designs

At the moment, I have no fewer than 5 active designs in my prototype bag.

That might be a little bit of an exaggeration, as I am not physically working on all 5 right this minute, but they are all playable, and have all had progress made recently.

Here's a rundown of each of those games and their current situation. If you want to try any of them out, let me know! You can probably find me at a local game store meetup.

Crusaders: Thy Will Be Done

Crusaders is my 45-60 minute euro style Mancala-Rondel game wherein you move your knights around Europe, fighting crusades, erecting buildings, and spreading the influence of your order until such time as the orders become so influential that King Philip disbands them.

Crusaders is in a weird place, as I feel like it's done to a certain level - ready to be pitched to publishers - but there are things that could be added to make the game more complex. In fact, the guys at TMG would like to see the game more like Terra Mystica, where each faction is unique - significantly different than the next... not like now where the factions are very similar but for the faction card. We're talking different upgrades on the rondel pieces, and maybe even different building abilities to build.

I have some thoughts on different abilities which I'd discussed for a potential expansion, but I lack the impetus to change a game I feel is done. So if TMG will publish the game, I'm hoping to pass on the intricacies of unique player boards to the team in Utah to develop.

The Pony Express

Play as a rider for the Pony Express, risking life and limb for profit delivering parcels in the old west!

Pony Express is an attempt at a low-bid auction game, using a variant of a Dutch auction. I was calling it a "count-up auction" - the auctioneer gets $10, chooses a parcel and starts counting up (from 3 to 8). At any point, an opponent can claim the parcel ("I'll do it for that!") and receive the last amount declared (e.g. "3...4...5...6..." "I'll do it for 6!"). The auctioneer retains the other 4.

This game has gone over much better with random players than it has with designer types. It's not intended to be deep and thinky. One comment that's come up a couple of times is that I could replace the count-up thing with a blind bid using bidding cards. I'll give that a try, but I'm not super excited about it because it replaces what I see as a fun, tense dynamic with a quiet, dry one. Sure there's still tension of choosing the right value, and technically it's the same mechanism, but with the cards it really looks like blind bidding, while with the count-up thing it feels less like blind bidding. And nobody in their right mind likes blind bidding! Also, that adds like 28 cards to the game to do a job that currently doesn't require any components.

Other than that, the game seems to be working well at the moment. I need to figure out how to make more delivery cards, especially if I want to bring it back up to 5 players (currently it's only 4). A player had a good suggestion last test - something that rewards doing many deliveries in a round. Kind of the opposite of the Express deliveries which reward being done first. As for the express deliveries, it's possible I should just cut those and reward money based on the order players return.

Alter Ego

A cooperative deck learning game of vigilante heroism. In order to become a stronger hero (necessary to win the game), you must necessarily neglect some aspects of your Alter Ego life: your Job, your Family, or your ties to the Community.

This one has been around for years with no real progress made in a long time. I have always loved the story of this game, but I never liked the state of it. It just wasn't working to my satisfaction. Now I finally have it where I think it needs to be, and so I'm excited to work on fine tuning it and finishing it up.

Michael's always been fond of this one, so TMG might want to publish it - which means maybe Andy will help me finish it up. Currently it just needs some tweaks for pacing and scaling, unique Arch Villain game text and flavor, and possibly Nemesis cards (an idea which strikes me as the kind of thing that would be a Kickstarter stretch goal - a little extra that's not the main focus of the game).

Odysseus: Winds of Fate

Play as the Fates, watching Odysseus' journey from Troy to Ithaca. Place bets on his path and destiny, and use your influence with the gods to try and make your bets pay off.

This is another one that's been around for years and years, through iteration after iteration, and just hasn't been working out. I like the story of this one as well, but so far I haven't been happy with the game experience. The latest version is probably the best one yet, but it still needs some work - and I've got some interesting ideas from the last playtest to try out.

Frontiers [TMG Submission]

Frontiers reminds me of The Oregon Trail, and indeed I feel like it would be cool if we could get ahold of that license for the game. In Frontiers you draft dice to take actions, moving your wagon train across the frontier, collecting townsfolk, specialists, wood (to repair your wagons), medicine (to heal your townsfolk), and cattle. Whichever die is not drafted by players advances one of four disasters, which will affect all players when they occur.

Frontiers is a solid submission, but we're looking at some tweaks to the townsfolk to make them more interesting, and we're examining the specifics of some of the disaster resolution.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Scaling Alter Ego

The other day I played a 2p game of Alter Ego, and it seemed easier than the recent 3p games I've played. It makes sense - with fewer players, each player gets more time (more turns) before the Arch Villain enters play. Therefore they get stronger, and they stabilize sooner, getting to the point where the game becomes trivial.

On the other hand, with fewer players, there are fewer people to get and use Teamwork tokens as well. But experience tells me that's not as big a deal. I needed to find a way to scale the game for player count...

When I made the Arch Villain cards, I used a particular threshold for triggering their coming into play. So far, that threshold has seemed to work decently well, though lately I've been thinking that the game may be too easy, and maybe I should reduce those thresholds. But in thinking about it, the thresholds seem better with higher player counts - they're probably good for 4p games. It's 2 and 3p games that need a tweak.

So tonight I played another 2p game, and I decided to pre-seed each Arch Villain with 2 tokens (I'd try 1 token for 3p games). That's it, no other changes.

This 2p game felt much tighter than any of the recent games. I felt a lot more like we were in danger of losing for much of the game, like we needed to be careful each step of the way. In fact, we lost the game 1 turn before we would have won! This is the first loss I've seen in a long time.

I've been much happier with the last few tests than I have ever been before with this game. I'm looking forward to playing some more!

Side note about equipment...

I think the way to go with the Event cards is to not put them into your display, but instead play them from your hand during your turn. I'm sure I'll have to revisit those cards and make sure they make sense under that rule... and I'll have to clarify what happens when you don't have enough cards to play into your display (because 1 of them is an event) - maybe I could make the events count as a certain type of card if played to the display, or an effect if played from hand?

I used No-Doze tonight, which says "1x/turn, pay $2 to play an additional card to your display" - but I forgot about the 1x/turn bit. I was paying $2 more than once and adding multiple additional cards into my display. For a moment I thought it seemed strong, but in retrospect I'm not so sure. $2 is 2 Job cards worth of money, so trading that to put 1 card into play might be OK. Then again, if you have the right hero card in hand, then you can effectively buy a hero icon for $2 which seems too cheap. However, it's dependent on drawing that card, so it's limited. I was also using the No-Doze to avoid penalties, and even earn Teamwork tokens by playing additional Family cards. Is that OK? Maybe it is.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Playtest Day! Frontiers, Pony Express, and Alter Ego

I had 7 friends over tonight for a great night of playtesting...


First up, old friends Brian and Mandy joined new friends Garrett and Lucy for a 4 player game of a newly signed upcoming TMG title: Frontiers. Frontiers reminds me of The Oregon Trail, and I think it would be awesome if we could figure out a way to get a license to use the Oregon Trail branding.

Unfortunately, Mandy had to leave 1/2 way through the game, but the other three were able to play the rest of the game as if it were a 3 player game. The game went well, everyone seemed to enjoy it, and I got some good comments.

Pony Express

Michelle, Russell, and Dave played a 3 player game of The Pony Express. I spent much of that game talking to the Frontiers group, so unfortunately I didn't get to watch the entire game. It wasn't the type of game Dave normally likes to play, but Michelle liked it the last time she played, and seemed to like it this time as well... though there was some confusion since I wasn't there to answer some of their questions.

In general, I've noticed that when I play Pony Express with designer types, it doesn't go over too well (such as the playtest from the last Game Design Attack). But when I play with regular folks, it seems to go just fine. It's definitely not the type of game I normally design, or play... that's one of the things that makes it interesting to me.

Russell had an idea for a new delivery type... sort of the opposite of the Express Delivery idea: a bonus if you delivered at least X parcels. There could probably be only 1 copy of that, and the Express Deliveries haven't been impressing me. I still need a few more delivery cards than that though.

In a previous playtest the idea came up to have deliveries that require 2 different locations - like "Visit towns #5 and #12" - I'm not sure if that will be too similar to just doubling the deliveries at each location though.

Alter Ego

Russell, Dave, and I played a 3 player game of Alter Ego. I haven't played that game in quite some time, and I just sent the files to Andy to see if he could make any progress on it.

I put tokens on the Arch Villains as henchmen were drawn rather than as they were captured, and that worked very well. In fact, the entire game went very well. Russell and Dave thought it was appropriately difficult, that we were on the ropes for pretty much the whole game. They thought it felt pretty much like a cooperative game - in fact, a little less solitaire than some solitaire by committee games. That's pretty much what I was going for, so that's good news!

I felt like the game was a little too easy, but I think that's just a matter of tweaking and instituting the Arch Villain game effects I've got planned. Also, it could be argued that we played on "easy" level, only needing to defeat 1 Arch Villain. I am not sure I actually want players having to face more than 1 of the Arch Villains though, or it messes with the long term deck building goals.

All in all I'd call this a successful playtest night!

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Worker placement ideas based on a probably unpopular opinion

John Oliver recently did a segment for Mother's day pointing out that the US and Papua, New Guinea are the only two countries in the world that do not provide any paid time off for new parents. In his usual fashion, Oliver makes fun of this and asks, if we really love mothers so much, why doesn't our country back legislation that makes life easier for them...

After reading a couple of Facebook comments about this in my feed, some of which arguing for federal regulations providing paid time off (citing that it works for every other country in the world), and some of which arguing "if we want the government to support new parents financially, why not do it directly by just giving them a stack of cash, rather than regulating businesses to do it - that way it'll be more fair, and not just for employed women who have kids."

I REALLY dislike talking about this kind of thing, because pretty much no matter which side of the issue you're on, you're going to sound like an incredible jackass. So I guess here's my chance to sound like an incredible jackass... and then I'll tell you how that relates to a potentially interesting worker placement mechanism.

First of all, the jackassrey: Why is it that people (not just women, but couples) get to treat the ability to have children as some sort of unalienable right, no matter what? And by "no matter what" I mean "no matter what their situation." Why can't people be expected to be responsible about reproducing? Isn't a child important enough that a couple should ensure they're able to support it before having one?

What do I mean by that? Well, if you're in a situation where you will not be given paid leave, and you can't afford to take the time that you need, then might it be irresponsible to have a child under those circumstances? Never mind that if you're any good at your job, and work for a reasonable person, you shouldn't have to worry about job security - they should look forward to your return, even if they can't afford to pay you for the leave.

I'm sure it's an unpopular opinion to say that some people (based on their situation) shouldn't be having a child, though I'm not sure why that should be so unpopular.

Now, to lighten the mood, a little absurdity. Let's take my statement above to an extreme conclusion... I feel like this would make a really good book, movie, or Netflix miniseries:

Let's say that for some reason everybody decided (maybe by government mandate, or maybe by some sudden enlightening or some such) that they'd be more responsible, and not have children unless they could afford to support them properly. The extreme then is that poor people don't have children, and rich people do. Over time, the poor people get old and close to dying out, while the rich people continue to procreate and live their lives as usual. In a way, maybe this paves the way for some utopian society... as the poor people get old and die off, nobody complains about the distribution of wealth anymore, as pretty much everyone is wealthy. I could see it portrayed in a movie like something out of Demolition Man or the capital city in Hunger Games perhaps.

Then maybe there's the twist, the liberal message hidden in the fiction... the rich people, in an effort to stay wealthy, expect their kids to grow up into high paying jobs, there's nobody around willing to take $20k a year to be a teacher, and nobody's willing to pick up trash.

I dunno, I feel like there could be a good story in there, and I'm not sure what the moral would be. But enough absurdity, I promised game design!

In thinking about this, I considered putting it into game design terms. The argument I read about "why doesn't the government just give women $20k when they have a baby" has some obvious issues... if there's a reward for something like having a baby, then there will be people who will try to game the system, people who have a baby to get that reward, without any regard to what happens to the baby afterwards. In fact, I think this already happens to an extent. In any case, this is obviously bad, as it leaves a real, live person out in the cold.

But in a board game, that's not so terrible. In most worker placement games, it's key to get more workers as quickly as possible. Many games attempt to make this less trivial by assessing some kind of fee for workers - for example in Agricola you need to feed each worker during the Harvest phase, and there's a steep penalty if you are unable to do so. Similarly, Stone Age requires the feeding of workers - though in that game starvation could be a viable strategy. Even with these requirements, it's generally considered best to get more workers.

So what if there was a board game where getting a new worker was something of a chore... many games make you wait at least until the next round to use your new worker, and many require a big investment to get the new worker in the first place. Imagine a game where getting a new worker didn't cost anything up front, but instead came with a stipend. Then, before you can use that worker, it has to go through a "training" process which has some resource cost each step of the way. The stipend should cover the cost of those resources (at average price anyway), and failing to pay the required resources would come with a steep penalty, akin to the Begging card in Agricola.

So, a player who has a store of resources could comfortably afford to get a new worker, spending their accrued resources as necessary on the "training" process. This player could then afford to spend their stipend on whatever they wanted. Meanwhile, a player without a store of resources could still get a new worker, using the stipend to purchase the required resources for training. Finally, a player without a sore of resources could get a new worker just for the stipend, deciding to deal with the resource requirements later - perhaps via an engine that required that stipend to get running.

And of course, a player who just wanted the stipend could get it by recruiting a new worker, and then ignore that worker and take the penalties related to not paying the training resources. This would probably not be a winning strategy in the game, but it's a possibility, and maybe it illustrates the whole idea above of  offering a reward of some kind for having children, and the consequences of doing so.

Ok, I feel like I've thought about this more than enough for today.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Pony Express surprise playtest

I stopped by a game store today, and got a chance to play a 3p game of Pony Express! After updating it today while waiting for my car, that was a pleasant surprise.

Bottom line, it worked pretty well. Remembering that this is a lighter game, not a heavy strategy game - it worked pretty much as intended. Chris and I were neck and neck for the first 2 rounds, but he outscored me by about 20 points in the last round. That was 50% because of an Express Delivery, and 50% because he did a better job than I did.

I'm actually not sure I like the Express deliveries. Currently they award money if you're 1st to the post office, but cost money if you're not. It's supposed to be sort of risky, but rewarding. I don't mind the idea of it, but I am not sure I like the cards themselves. They seem like no-brainers - you take them for $X, and worst case you lose some or all of that - better than letting someone else potentially get it. Because of that dynamic, I doubled the value that you get/risk... which maybe helped, but maybe just over-rewards people. maybe it should be more like "+$5 if you succeed, -$10 if you fail" or something.

People have asked for a type of delivery that could be to either of 2 towns. I can't think of a reasonable way to do that and stay in theme though!

We discussed possible types of cards to add, and one thing that came up was a card that requires you to go to 2 specific towns. I'm not 100% sure how that would work logistically, maybe you just remember that you've been to the first when you get to the 2nd. Im also not 100% sure what the theme on that is... 'we heard there was a parcel to be picked up and delivered, visit towns #1 and #12!" I think you'd have to do it in whichever order you choose, since you might be starting in MO and you might be starting in CA.

In order to add a 5th player, I'd need something like 6 more cards. I've currently got enough cards for 4 players, but I'm not super thrilled with the Express deliveries. I do like the New Delivery items, but that means I need cards to draw from, and I don't know what to do if you draw a card that needs to go to the same town you're in.

I don't love the map items... I like the idea of them, and players have liked them, but there are so damn many of them, and they seem so useless. Maybe I should make the maps work for 2 different locations? I don't know, maybe it's fine. They would work better if the game were longer than 3 rounds, I think. Or maybe if they somehow let you teleport to a particular town or something (thought at would be crazy). Or maybe "go directly to that town in 1 action, though you pay all the costs of a route" or something. Not sure how useful that would be.

Anyway, it was a decent test, and I think I will still try to play on Saturday.

One thing I might tweak... I'd like the Land Features (Mountains, Rivers, Lost!) to be on the board at the outset, because it makes sense you would know where those were (well, mountains at least), and because they are so impactful. I have a thought how to do that... during setup, put out those tiles along with enough other hazards, and treat all the other ones as Tumbleweeds... so you start by knowing where the land features are, but not the snakes, bandits, or bears. Then after the first auction, add Snakes+Tumbleweeds, then after the 2nd auction add everything else. I think I'd need a lot more tumbleweeds though.

Another thought is that maybe there could be some tiles that are temporary... like some of the snakes for example. Then say you remove the tumbleweeds immediately before drawing more tiles, not immediately after. Maybe that just means having some +0 tumbleweeds and some +1 tumbleweeds, and making Spurs trigger on routes with tumbleweeds.

Anyway, a pleasant surprise.

Every designer could use a developer.

I've said recently (in interviews about being a developer): EVERY DESIGNER COULD USE A DEVELOPER. I believe this wholeheartedly, and I'm not exempt from it. Just like any designer, I could use the help of a developer on my games.

I managed to get Eminent Domain through without the benefit of a developer, and it tuned out OK. I'm sure a good developer could have made EmDo even better, but fortunately I'm happy with the job I did, and it seems to be holding up so far. I had some good playtesters that approximated the role of a developer and helped make sure I was on track - a million thanks to those playtesters, you know who you are!

I have a number of game projects in various stages of development, and now more than ever I'm thinking that to get them across the finish line, what I really need is what any designer needs... the help of a good developer. Here are a couple of games in particular that I think are close, but could very much benefit from the outside eye of a good developer:

Alter Ego

My deck building game of vigilante heroism is in a place where it's NEARLY done, I guess, but I have been unable to get it across the finish line. I'm at the point where I feel I should hand it over to a developer and have them figure out how to move it forward from here. Since Michael really liked this one, I suppose I could hand it over to Andy and TMG Utah, and indeed I threatened to do that (though I haven't done it yet).

The problems with it are...
* Length - I think it takes too long
* Balance - need to tweak the power creep of the players and the henchmen so that the game doesn't get to a point where it becomes trivial. That shouldn't be TOO difficult, I think.
* Specifics - there are some specifics of Arch Villain powers and Equipment effects that could use some work (or in fact need to be invented)
* Grok potential - For some reason people seem to have a hard time wrapping their head around the game, like how your turn works. I've run into this on at least one other game, and to tell you the truth I'm a little unimpressed with the average players willingness or ability to simply follow a turn outline, but in the end that's not a good enough answer. Either I somehow streamline the game, or I accept that the audience that will "get it" is smaller.

Odysseus: Winds of Fate

An older design, one of my favorite as far as story is concerned, continues to flounder iteration after iteration. I have a new update that I think is probably the best version yet, but I'm still running into some of the same problems. It's possible that this one is ready for an outside developer to get their hands on it. Sadly, Michael's never liked this one, so TMG is unlikely a good place to look for development help.

Some of the issues with O:WoF
* Fiddliness - similar to the last item from Alter Ego above, there's a bit too much "process" to this game. I think I need to find a way to streamline at least some of it.
* Currently, the way you win the God tile is by having the largest contribution (irrespective of Help or Hinder), while the way you get the best rewards is by staying in longer and playing more cards. I think that might be too similar - the player playing the most cards might easily have the largest total without really trying very hard. I tried to have a large enough range on the cards that a 2-3 card hand with high cards might outscore a 5-6 card hand full of lower cards, and I made the high cards have effects which you could play instead of using the number, but I'm not sure it's working right. Also, if you just draw higher cards more often, then that's all around good for you.

One solution to that which came up at Game Lab is to give each player their own deck of cards. Then it'd be a lot more fair - if you draw low cards, then you'll know you have high cards coming. This led me to think that instead of the God tiles (or in addition?), you could have the God cards which you add to your deck when you win the tile. That is interesting, and sounds like it'll work well. But that doesn't do anything about the problem I mentioned before, that winning the God tile and winning the Adventure are too similar.

* Currently there are 3 rewards for the Adventure... the God tile, the Consolation (cards vs points, depending on how long you stay in), and the Reward tile (variable effect, chosen in turn order, which is based on how long you stayed in during the adventure). I wonder if I can somehow combine some of those to reduce the process of rewards for an Adventure.

* Fairness (or appearance of fairness) in the Destiny rewards - often a player will question the fairness of the destiny payoff. I'm not sure there's really a problem there, but I don't want people to see problems where none exist.

Crusaders: Thy Will Be Done

My latest "finished" game design... I say "finished" because I'm pretty happy with it as a medium weight game with some depth as-is. However, I see how it could be made into a heavier, more complicated game by giving each player/faction entirely unique player boards... different upgrade paths for their rondel, different benefits from buildings, etc. Sure maybe some of it could overlap - be based on tweaking the "base" game - but the idea is that the game would be very replayable if the factions were significantly different from each other. Like Terra Mystica.

I've said before that variable starting positions (player asymmetry) does not equal replayability, but it does lend itself to an "I want to try all the different faction" mentality, which is good. It would be a lot of work to make sure the different factions are fair and balanced, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. However, would it be good to lead with a simpler game, and then add all the craziness as an expansion? Or to include all the craziness from the get-go? I suppose if it's happening, it probably ought to happen up front.

The trouble is, I prefer games with symmetric starting positions, so I lack the impetus to design crazy factions. I have some ideas for them, ideas I was going to use in an expansion (I've talked about them here)... maybe one faction adds cubes to their Rondel, maybe one faction gets free upgrades to their rondel. I'd probably need to come up with a few more things...

This is what Michael and the TMG guys would like to see, a heavier version with crazy unique faction powers. I don't think that's a bad idea, it's just that I feel like the game is fun as-is, so I lack the impetus to work on it. this is where a developer would come in handy! I would love to send this to TMG Utah, along with the ideas I have so far, and let them run with the development of the game.

There's one more (unrelated) thing that COULD get more intricate... a suggestion from one of the League of Gamemakers: Instead of strict victory points, maybe the Influence action could relate to placing an Influence marker in a region (the region would have the influence cost printed in it), which would give you some kind of bonus to building or fighting in that region, or give you end game points for controlling it, or make it harder for opponents to fight/build there, or something. That might make the geography a bit more interesting, and the Influence action a little less dry, not to mention potentially abusable (I'm not sure it IS abusable, but it might be good to keep people from Influencing for 12 at a time).

I'm sure I have some other projects that will need some help at some point, but at the moment those are the three at the top of the list.

Revisiting Pony Express

It's been a while since I've talked about my most recent project - or any of my projects, really. Today while waiting for my car to be fixed I opened up The Pony Express prototype, re-read through the Game Lab feedback from GameStorm in March, and updated the rules and a few components...

* I was short 1 tile from an iteration ago when I turned a Tumbleweed into a 3rd Mountain tile (+5 cost, intended to mostly remove a path from play for the most part), and I'd been using a Bear tile to proxy a tumbleweed. I decided that maybe I should just leave the Bear in there, so I'll try it that way next time.

* I updated the text of the rules to match the current status of the game. I will have to update this electronically when I get home.

* Currently there are only enough Parcel cards for 4 players, so for now I'm just going to treat it as a 4 player game (not 5). In some ways that makes me sad, but it has the benefit of reducing the potential problem of the "claim everything for $3" strategy... so it's not all bad.

* One complaint players have had is that they want a reward for making a delivery. In fact, they got that reward already - the money they got when they claimed the delivery. Also, discarding the Parcel card absolves you of the responsibility of delivering it, and therefore unlocks the Post Office for you, which is another reward. However, those things don't FEEL like a reward to people. So perhaps I could shift focus by putting in the rules that the money you get for claiming the Parcel goes ONTO THE PARCEL CARD, not into your holdings... and then when delivering the Parcel card, you get to collect that money. Then maybe people will fell like they're being rewarded for making that delivery.

* The latest iteration basically just increased the costs of routes, to ensure that any given route would be different than another route, That seems to have worked at first blush, so I'll keep trying it like that. I am a little unhappy with the sheer number of routes on the board (29). I could re-do the map with a less symmetric route layout to reduce the number of routes, but I definitely think 12 is a good minimum number of towns. I hesitate because I like symmetry, and I like the idea of the Mountain type tiles which EFFECTIVELY eliminate some of the routes, but different ones every game.

I hope to get a chance to play Pony Express this weekend at the RinCon Fundraiser event. Looking forward to seeing how it goes!