Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Casual Q&A, revisited

A few months ago I made a Casual Q&A blog post, inviting people to ask questions that I could answer, like an AMA, but not confined to a short timeframe, and not on Reddit. Only 1 person commented with quesitons, and I never got around to answering them (sorry Josh). So I thought I'd finally revisit the topic, answer Josh's questions, and renew the offer to post questions in the comments below, which I will (eventually) answer! Josh asked...

- What do you think about Legacy type games? Are they here to stay or are they just a phase? Would you like to make one?
What do I think about legacy games? I think there are 2 aspects to the genre that really define it, that make a game a "legacy" game rather than a regular game.

First thing: Permanence. For the most part, the legacy aspects of the game are basically a glorified tech tree. You make choices that give your character some kind of upgrade or benefit, and you have to choose one aspect to improve over another. Things like writing on cards or applying stickers causes a permanent change, but really it just makes bookkeeping easier. When you play D&D, you simply write these changes on your character sheet: you're carrying a 50' rope and a 10' pole, you've used 3 of your 12 arrows, you know Elvish and Common languages, you have 18 13 9 7 11 hit points, and 2 1 potion of Cure Light Wounds. Bringing that ongoing story element to board games, where you generally don't have a character sheet, means you have to start writing on the board or cards, or applying stickers to things. Done well, this can lead to some good storytelling -- which shouldn't be a surprise, since it has worked for RPGs for decades.

 Second thing: Investment. The above is true of legacy games, but it's also true of campaign games (which you can reset and play through again), or even regular games that have other ways to track status changes. However, legacy games invite you to rip up cards, or write on the game board... these permanent changes can't be undone, which raises the stakes on your decisions. These stakes gets you invested in the game, they make you care a lot more about what happens. I have played countless games of Puerto Rico, most of them very fun and intense, but with a few exceptions, I can't tell you now what happened in a given game of Puerto Rico. I've also played games where I had fun, but ultimately didn't care if I on or not. Amping up the level of investment as legacy games do, and having them play out differently for different groups, adds a bit of investment, and has the potential to make a more memorable game experience. That's the point anyway.

 Legacy games are something of a fad, made popular by the (excellent) Pandemic Legacy. I think that just like Cooperative games, Legacy style games will become a consistent, though small portion of the market going forward. We already have a handful of new ones that have just come out or are coming soon...

Pandemic Legacy Season 2
Gloomhaven Charterstone
Chronicles 1: Origins (and the rest of that series)

I have heard of a few other mystery legacy games in the works, like a legacy card game from Mike Fitzgerald, or My Father's Work, by T.C. Petty III. Very hush-hush for the most part, but I know they're out there.

 I don't think consumable, story-heavy games as a genre are going anywhere, but I don't think they'll take over the industry or the hobby either. For one thing, they take way more work to design, develop, and produce. In an industry like ours, with the tiny margins that we have, I'm a little surprised that legacy style games are gaining the traction that they are. That may be why I don't think they'll ever really saturate the market, but there are people invested in making them, and people invested in playing them, so I don't expect them to disappear. It does seem that, so far, legacy concepts seem to go best with cooperative games. I have a copy of Seafall, but haven't played it yet, and I never played Risk Legacy either, but from what I've read, they pale in comparison to the experience delivered by Pandemic Legacy. Time Stories is somewhat popular, and is also cooperative. As is Gloomhaven. We will have to see how Chronicles 1: Origins, Charterstone, and other competitive legacy games hold up. As for me, while I applaud the effort and the ambition in these legacy style games, I'd just as soon play an intense, interesting Euro-style strategy game with a clever main mechanism :)

- If you could change one thing about each of your games in retrospect, what would that be? EmDo interests me in particular.
Way back in 2010 I wrote a post about lessons learned on my first game, Terra Prime. Fortunately for me, I'm going to have a chance to realize some of those lessons, and make some of those changes, as Terra Prime returns as Eminent Domain Origins. Set in the world of Eminent Domain, as a prequel to that game, Terra Prime will get an update including the changes I noted in that post, as well as a few other details I've thought of over the years, and even the expansion I made way back when. I'm not sure when this will happen, my thought is that it might be a good 10th anniversary thing for TMG -- re-releasing a better version of one of the launch titles. I'm excited about it, because I've played the game recently, and I think it holds up.

Eminent Domain is far and away my most popular, and best game yet. I realize I haven't gotten much published yet, but I think I'll be hard pressed to outdo EmDo. I continue to be impressed with how well it holds up, and delighted to see people still playing it or discovering it for the first time. The next (and probably last) expansion, Eminent Domain: Oblivion, the one with political agendas, will be coming out soon, and I hope that we will see another surge of interest in the game at that time. So what would I change about Eminent Domain? Not a whole lot, actually. In the base game, I released errata cards for Abundance, Bureaucracy, and Logistics, which fixed most of what annoyed me about the game, though I kinda think Fertile Ground might be a bit too strong.

 In Escalation, I think I added too much technology to the stacks. If I had it to do again I think I would save some of that for future expansions.

 In Exotica I made a boo-boo on one of the Scenarios (Espionage), which is kind of broken as written. I would change that so it worked better. As written, if playing against a Scenario that starts with a permanent tech card, you can just steal it right away. Espionage's special text says you can ignore Reparations, which on Stolen Trade Secrets is giving up the card to the opponent. This just automatically shuts down most other scenarios, and was a mistake. I believe the intention was that the special text wouldn't shut down the reparations on Stolen Trade Secrets itself... online I suggested playing as if it said "Ignore all Influence Reparations on cards you play" -- so if you get other cards with Reparations, you can ignore that. Another fix might be to say "ignore all reparations except when targeting a permanent technology", or "ignore all reparations. You cannot target permanent technologies". Any of those might have worked better.

I've always been pretty happy with how Eminent Domain: Microcosm came out. I still feel like it's got a lot more game than most microgames (many of which aren't interesting to me). If I had it to do again, I think I would do the static effects a little differently. they were admittedly sort of an afterthought, and I don't know how much they really add to the game. I'd also try to do a better job with the rules sheet. A lot of people had trouble with it, and even if I think it should have been sufficient, the fact that they had trouble means it could have been better.

Outside of TMG I have 1 design credit... I feel like Isle of Trains, from Dice Hate Me Games, co-designed with Dan Keltner, is a pretty strong design. It was in a 54 card game contest, and while they did let us go with 56 cards for publication, the deck is a bit small and players complain at having to shuffle a lot and use "phantom cards". If we could have added an extra 9 train cards (1 more copy of each car type), that would have cut down on those complaints significantly, I think. I'm told that the expansion, which we finished almost a year and a half ago, should be on Kickstarter in 2018. It's a long time to wait, but I think people will be pleased with what we've come up with.

All my other games on BGG are not yet published, and maybe some will never be. There are all kinds of things I wish I'd done differently in some of them!

- What game mechanisms do you feel get too little love? Which are "overhyped"?
I'm not sure I feel any mechanism gets "too little love", and my philosophy is that it isn't game MECHANISMS that get old, it's game EXPERIENCES... so I'll answer a slightly different question: which mechanisms do I like best, and which do I like least.

I really like Role Selection games (Puerto Rico, Glory to Rome -- but not the Black Box!), as evidenced by Eminent Domain being a role selection game. I feel like the fact that everyone gets to play on everyone else's turn really keeps players interested in the game, and I think it's one of the more interactive forms of indirect interaction out there because your choices literally allow your opponents to act.

I also really like the Rondel mechanism (Antike, Navagador, Shipyard), as I think it does a great job of forcing players to plan ahead and sequence their actions well.

I enjoy the time track mechanism where the player at the back of the line is the one to play next (Glen More, Olympos, Thebes), because I think it does a great job of simulating the time it takes to do a task (the bigger the task, the more time it takes), and it makes time into a valuable resource.

But my favorite mechanism is probably Multi-use cards (Glory to Rome, Race for the Galaxy, Oh My Goods), because they are such an efficient game component, and they have built in opportunity cost (and good choices in games are all about opportunity cost).

 Two game mechanisms come to mind as my least favorite. I'm personally pretty bad at trick taking (Bridge, Hearts, Wizard), and similarly, climbing games (Tichu), and they don't interest me at all. Somehow I don't mind Diamonds, by Mike Fitzgerald, because there's more to the game than simply trying to communicate your hand in code to your partner and then deduce who has what cards.

The other mechanism I dislike, and think in many cases might be a demonstrably bad game mechanic, is Simultaneous Action Selection (especially with arbitrary resolution order). This includes blind bids, as well as "everyone choose a card then reveal". It's a little less bad when the resolution order is known, because you can use that information to help you decide what to choose.

The only thing that really redeems this mechanism for me is getting to make decisions after the reveal as well. Take Kings of Air and Steam for example... you must pre-program your movement (choose your move cards simultaneously), and then each turn you must reveal the next one and move that amount. But you get the freedom of moving wherever you want, only the amount of movement is pre-programmed, and then you get to do an action of your choice after that. If something goes awry and your plans are interrupted, you have reasonable ability to change them in a productive way. This also means that when planning your movement, you can reasonably have a plan B, in case your preferred plan does get scuppered by a faster opponent.

Thanks for the questions, Josh! If anyone else wants to ask anything in the comments below, I'll happily answer them... eventually :)


Josh 'Dagar' Zscheile said...

And thank you for answering! Very interesting insights, and I think it is a good sign for a designer when he can look back on his creations and would not change anything major on any of them.



Seth Jaffee said...

Thanks for the kind words, but I would say the Terra Prime changes are pretty major. there's probably something major I would change about EmDo if I had to do it again, but I'm not sure what.

When a designer looks back and says he wouldn't change anything in his own designs, to me that's not the sign of a good designer, but an egotistical one! We all learn over time... I would think every designer looking back on an old design would change SOMETHING if given a do-over :)

Patricio said...

How much of an impact do you think board game reviewers have on board game sales?

Do you think companies that already have the funds to make a game should use Kickstarter as a pre-sale tool?

Do you have a board game designer you saw as an inspiration and influence when you began to design board games?

Seth Jaffee said...

How much of an impact do you think board game reviewers have on board game sales?

I think popular reviewers have a decently large impact on the gamerati - the influencers that are deeply entrenched in the industry. However, unless they're on the level of Wil Wheaton (spoilers: they're not), their impact on the larger market is a bit limited.

So for games targeted at the hobby market, the Vasels, Rahdos, Eddys, Vikings, etc have a decent impact on launch (or kn a kickstarter project), which is important. But it's not the be-all-end-all of board game sales.

Do you think companies that already have the funds to make a game should use Kickstarter as a pre-sale tool?

I think those things are not mutually exclusive. Kickstarter is a tool that can be leveraged for cash flow and advertising, and it has pluses and minuses. The question is meaningless -- everyone can "have the funds to make a game" through money in their pocket, loans, investors, or whatever. Kickstarter is just another way to get that funding.

Cash flow is different than simply having funds or not, and kickstarter helps with cash flow tremendously.

I get a little irritated when people complain that someone is "using kickstarter wrong"... do those same people complain when someone uses a screwdriver to pry a nail out of the wall instead of using the back of a hammer?

Kickstarter is a tool, and there are costs and benefits to using it. If it makes sense for your company to use that tool, then yes, that company should use that tool. It would be foolish not to.

Do you have a board game designer you saw as an inspiration and influence when you began to design board games?

Yes and no...

I was always impressed with how prolific Knizia was, and I really liked the simplicity and elegance of some Leo Colvini designs. But mostly I lumped published designers into a group, and aspired to be like that group.

Thanks for the questions!