Monday, November 20, 2017

YANGI: Dice Drafting Rondel game idea

Dice Drafting Rondel

You guessed it, I've had Yet Another New Game Idea (TM). This time it's a dice drafting rondel game. I found a note on my desk at work that I wrote a few weeks ago, and I had some time, so I thought about it a bit and pretty quickly sketched out a mechanical idea. Like I've mentioned before, from this point I'd probably need a theme that fits before I could make much more progress.

Imagine a Rondel with black spaces, gray spaces, and white spaces on it.

* Black spaces show specific basic resource icons which allow you to collect basic resources, as well as a higher level resource icons.
* Gray spaces show conversion icons which allow you to trade resources around, and next to each gray space there'd be a building tile with an ability and a resource cost.
* White spaces show coin icons which allow you to collect coins, and next to each white space there'd be a contract card with some requirement and some reward.

Each player has a pawn on the rondel, or maybe there's a single shared pawn -- I suppose either way would work.

I could imagine this rondel being printed on a board, or I can imagine it being assembled from tiles, such that the order of the spaces is not the same every game.

During setup, you'd roll 3 dice into a pool, 1 Black, 1 Gray, and 1 White.

On your turn:
  1. Choose one of the three dice, and move your pawn clockwise on the rondel to the next space of the color matching the chosen die (you could pay some cost in coins to skip that one and move to the 2nd such space, etc).
  2. Resolve that space according to the number of pips on the chosen die:
    1. Black: Either:
      1. Collect PIP of the resource shown, or 
      2. Exchange PIP of the resource shown into the higher level resource shown.
    2. Gray: Either:
      1. For each pip on the die, either make the specific conversion shown, or collect 1 coin (maybe exchanges of advanced resources cost 2 pips), or
      2. Purchase the building tile here by paying the printed resource cost, plus PIP coins (or additional resources?).
    3. White: Either
      1. Place up to PIP of your resources onto your contract cards, in an effort to complete them, or
      2. Pay PIP coins to take the contract card here.
  3. Re-roll the chosen die back into the pool for the next player.
[edited to make the actions interesting for both high and low rolls]

So you draft a die to collect, convert, or spend resources, and you care about the color for the type of action, and the pip value for the value of the action.

Thoughts on this? Any theme that might be a particularly good fit?

[edited to add this theme idea]

Here's a theme idea that may be a bit unusual:
You're an aspiring actor, seeking fame (and fortune?)... but you have to start somewhere. You wander around doing small jobs (voiceover work, perhaps?) to gain experience (collect resources), and maybe parlay some of that into some decent gigs (advanced resources). With enough experience and a couple of bucks you can take classes (build buildings) which give you an edge in certain aspects. Ultimately you're trying to land roles in TV and Movies (contract cards) to earn fame.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Exploring variable player powers

Variable Player Powers

Something that seems to have gone over well with the TMG audience, and with a lot of gamers in general, is variable player powers. Often, unique abilities can lend a sense of replayability to a game by giving the player a different feel, or a nudge toward a different strategic path or goal.

But these powers can be a double edged sword, with the potential for a player to feel pigeonholed into a particular strategy or play style as dictated by their player power, or the possibility (even just the perception) of some powers being significantly stronger or weaker than others.

To be honest, I've historically prefered a game where players start out on equal footing, and quickly differentiate their position through game play. I've always liked it when, based on early choices, you develop your own unique player profile for the game. And I especially like it when you can set yourself up with a different player profile the next time you play (replayability!). However, I'm coming around. I get the impression more and more that variable player powers are worth adding to many types of games.

I've just signed a few new games that will be coming out in the next year or two, and I want to add player powers to two of them.

The evolution of player powers at TMG

In order to inform my thinking on variable player powers, it may be useful to look at the TMG games that have utilized them. Here they are, in pseudo-chronological order:

The first TMG original game that had player powers was Ground Floor, from 2012. Designer David Short included Specialty tiles that gave your business a little nudge in one direction or another. They upgraded one of the 6 starting spaces on your player board -- something you could normally do on your own for a cost. With the Specialty tiles, everyone starts with a different space upgraded. This doesn't make a huge impact on the game, but it does make you a little better at one aspect or another, and therefore better suited to utilize that aspect. Presumably a player with an advantage in a certain area would play in a way that takes advantage of that advantage.

When Kings of Air and Steam came along in 2013, we tried something new. We used 2-sided player boards (A/B), where the A-sides were identical, with each player starting on equal footing. We called that the "Basic" game. In the "Normal" game, each of the 7 possible player characters had a unique board with subtle differences in different aspects, as well as 2 special abilities to choose from, and a specific initiative order. It was a lot of fun to come up with, test, and balance the 14 various abilities, and we used the player board differences and initiative sequence (turn order) to adjust for abilities that were too strong or too weak until we felt we'd gotten a fairly well balanced game.

Another TMG game to get variable player powers around that time was Dungeon Roll, and while the other games were complete games without these powers, in Dungeon Roll, the powers play a much larger role in the game. Each hero in Dungeon Roll has a Specialty and an Ultimate ability, one or both of which gets better when the hero gains enough experience to level up. Dungeon Roll shipped with 8 heroes (9 if you count the kickstarter Guild Leader promo), and has since gotten two boosters of 8 more heroes each, as well as the holiday themed Winter Heroes pack, and the Time Traveler promo hero. Kind of like Dominion and Bridge rely heavily on having a new situation each hand (new kingdom cards, or a new shuffle and deal), Dungeon Roll relies on using different heroes to make the experience interesting. However, many of the heroes can offer at least a handful of games before they get boring, and with 30 heroes so far, there's a decent amount of game there. Without the different hero powers, I think the game would get old pretty quickly.

Bomb Squad is a cooperative game from 2013, and designers David Short and Dan Keltner used player powers similar to what you'd see in Pandemic, and to much the same effect. In my opinion, the base game play of Bomb Squad is so solid and fun that the player powers aren't really necessary to play the game over and over, but their effects do add to the experience. Since the game is cooperative, the player powers don't need to be as balanced against each other, they just need to be useful and fun twists on game play to let players feel like they've got an extra, unique way to help the team.

Belfort, released in 2011, never had player powers. But when the Expansion Expansion came out in 2013, it added assistants that you could draft each round, which approximated a player power in that game. Not really the same as a standard variable player power, but worth mentioning the approximation.

My deck learning card game Eminent Domain was also released in 2011 without variable player powers. For many players, the best part of the Escalation expansion from 2014 was the Scenario cards, which altered your starting deck and gave you some technology to start with. They were so well received that I added 5 Base Game scenarios as a promo in Microcosm, and a handful more came in the Exotica expansion. They haven't come to fruition yet, but I talked on my blog about another possible promo item: Emperor Avatars (described here). Emperor Avatars would be a set of two player powers that you would draft before starting the game.

Steam Works, in 2015, was the next big game to have player powers. This time we repeated the A-side/B-side player board idea from Kings of Air and Steam, but rather than having the A-sides being identical, they were unique. The B-sides had even more diverse or crazy abilities.

2015 also brought us Harbour, by Scott Almes. The base game of Harbour is a solid, compact worker placement game with an interesting market mechanism, but like Dungeon Roll, the real attraction for players (I think) comes from the host of player characters in the box. Since Harbour we've set a couple of games in the same universe (with more to come), and one of the things I've tried to do with each of those is maintain that format by providing diverse and colorful player characters with fun abilities.

2015's Dungeon of Fortune is basically a card game version of the press-your-luck dungeon crawl that was Dungeon Roll. Different mechanics, but the same theme and setting. As such, it made sense to add player powers to that game as well, and we tried to model them after some of the heroes in Dungeon Roll.

I wasn't involved in Andy's Bottlecap Vikings (also from 2015), but I know that he added variable player powers in the form of different upgrade powers on your player board in that game.

Variable player powers in today's TMG titles

This year (2017) has brought us a handful of TMG titles with player powers. In Exodus Fleet (which I didn't work on) you choose one of two factions, and that lets you start with a slightly different starting ship, and a unique card or two which could give you a nudge down a different strategic path. I don't think the differences are so substantial that you'd feel forced to pursue a particular strategy though.

I had a big hand in their development of the rest of the 2017 titles, including the variable player powers:

Chimera Station follows the Kings of Air and Steam tack of A-side (identical) and B-side (unique) player boards. That game originally didn't have player powers, and I decided they could be a good thing to add. In Chimera Station, you modify your workers by adding 4 different types of components to them: Brains, Claws, Leaves, and Tentacles. It also happens to be a 4 player game. So for unique player powers, each faction/player is kind of "good at" one of the components. This may be a little heavy handed, pushing you fairly hard toward using a bunch of the type of component that you're "good at." However, you have several workers, and it's still worth getting other components than the one you're "good at," so I think it works out.

When we signed Harvest, the game was simply about growing crops. It didn't have any characters or payer powers. But I decided to set it in the Gullsbottom universe, like Harbour before it. So naturally, it made sense to add player powers like we had in Harbour. At first I thought it would be good to take some of the actual Harbour characters, and see if we could interpret their abilities to make sense in the context of this game. However, we instead made new characters for this game. Designer Trey Chambers, taking a cue from The Voyages of Marco Polo, thought it would be good if the player powers in Harvest were more than just a tweak here, or a nod to a specific strategy there, so his first draft of the player powers were very powerful, very unique, and very diverse! We embraced that strategy for this game, and came up with a set of 8 characters with crazy powers. Mixing that with the A-side/B-side format, I wanted to have the common side be something basic, but I decided this time to make the A-sides playable along with the B-sides. So the basic character, Wil Plantsomdill, has a well rounded spread of starting resources, no particular abilities, but gets 15 points added to his score at the end of the game. This way, you can deal 2 player boards to each player, and they can choose between one character, the other, or Wil, and if I've done my job, the game will be fair.

I was working on Pioneer Days at the same time I was working on Harvest, and I decided to try the same thing with the player powers in that game. Originally there were none, and I decided to add some. Like Kings of Air and Steam or Chimera Station I wanted a basic side and a unique side, and like Harvest, I wanted it to be comparable to the unique side. What I decided to do was to take the designers' proposed standard player power (before we had unique ones), and make it the standard power. It's straightforward, and recommended for first time players, but it's not just vanilla like Wil Plantsomdill is. We called this the Standard Pioneer, and put it on the A-side of each player board. Then on the B-side of each board is one of the unique powers. Again, you can deal 2 player boards to each player, and they have 3 options to choose between: the 2 unique characters, or the Standard Pioneer, and whichever they choose should be competitive.

We have two upcoming titles that have been announced so far for 2018:
Crusaders: Thy Will Be Done is my next title, and in that game you get a knight faction tile with an ability in it. Most of the abilities have to do with controlling the distribution of your action tokens around your action wheel, which was their purpose. These aren't big effects, but they help you work with the rondel mechanism to pursue your chosen strategy.

I wasn't involved in Downfall at all, but that has player powers too. I think they're pretty low impact though, you get a Leader unit, which is like an upgraded regular unit, and you get a special card which is more powerful than normal. It's a card drafting game, so if you pass your special card and another player uses it, then you get a small owner's bonus while they get the better than usual effect.

Let's think about these games and how they use player powers, and consider what we can learn from them. This will help me design and test player powers for the two new games I mentioned earlier.

Good vs poor player powers

I think the kinds of things that make good player powers are things that either:
  • Give you some sort of starting advantage, then you don't have to worry about them again. These are straightforward and good for new players or those prone to being overwhelmed, however they're not ideal since they don't necessarily affect the way you play.
  • Give you static end game goals, such as bonus points for certain things, which give you a nudge toward a long term plan. These help drive your choices, but really they just weigh some choices more than others because you want to do things to increase your end game bonus.
  • Give you reasons to make choices you wouldn't otherwise make. This is probably the most ideal kind of power, provided it's balanced, but there's a danger of feeling like you're not even playing the same game if the incentive is to do something TOO different than normal.
  • Give the you agency to control something you couldn't otherwise.
  • Give you an incremental bonus when you do certain types of things, as long as you set them up correctly.
I think the kinds of things that make poor player powers are things that:
  • Introduce additional decision points which other players have to wait for, especially during maintenance phases. This can break up the flow of the game, or create timing issues
  • Are easily forgotten. If an ability is so seldom used, or so easy to forget you have it, then what is it really doing for you?
  • Occur based on chance, such that you might not get an opportunity to use your power, or such that a power could be significantly more or less valuable each game just due to randomness.
  • Slow down the game or are hard to keep track of.
  • Are directly interactive in a negative way (this is OK in some games, but in most games I work on it's probably not OK).
Are these lists exhaustive? I doubt it. If you have types of powers you'd like to add to either the "good" or "poor" list above, please mention it in the comments!

What do you think? What makes a good player power? What are some examples of successful powers in games, and what are examples of powers that are unsuccessful?

Latest and Greatest EmDice (Eminent Domain: Chaos Theory) prototype files

For those following along, or those who are interested in following along, I thought I would post the latest and greatest prototype files for EmDice. Some years ago people printed and played the game. For those people, you'd only really need to do two things to update your copy:

  1. Print the new tech board, 
  2. Mark the dice to change the Produce and Trade sides to Produce/Trade and Politics.

The planets and resource/fighter tokens remain the same.

And if you would like to play with 5 players, you will need to create 7 more dice and 12 more resource/fighter tokens.

Eminent Domain: Chaos Theory prototype files (v2.1)
Fighter/Resource/Influence Tokens

And for those interested, but not enough to download files, I'll paste the up-to-date (as of November 2017) rules here:

Chaos Theory: the Eminent Domain dice game
V2.1 11/14/17

35 Role dice (6/player + 1/player for Oversight Committee)
36 Planet tiles (12 of each Advanced, Fertile, Metallic)
+/- 60 Fighter / Resource / Influence tokens
1 Draw bag
1 Tech board
25 Tech markers (5 in each player color)


  1. Set the tech board in the center of the table.
  2. Place 1 die per player near the Oversight Committee tech space.
  3. Shuffle all planet tiles in the draw bag. Draw 5 planet tiles and place them FACE UP above the Survey slots on the Tech board.
  4. Each player takes 6 dice and rolls them into their empire.
  5. Each player takes 1 start planet at random and places it FACE DOWN in their Empire. Return unused start planets to the box.
  6. Each player takes the tech markers that match their start planet border.
  7. Determine a Start player via any method you choose.

Game Turn
Players take turns choosing roles in order to Survey new planets, Settle or Attack them, Produce and Trade resources, and do Research. On your turn, do the following:

1. Choose a Role. 
There are 6 roles to choose from (Survey, Warfare, Colonize, Produce, Trade, Research). You may freely choose any role.

2. Boost the Role.
You may use any number of your active dice with symbols matching the role symbol to boost the chosen role. Place any used dice into your Used pile.

Roles may also be boosted with role icons on face-up planets or techs you own. You also get a leader bonus of +1 role symbol (+2 Role Symbols for Survey, or -1 Warfare cost for Warfare if you choose to attack).

3. Resolve the Role.
Carry out the effect of the role (see below for the effects of each role). Each opponent in turn order may choose to Follow or Dissent. Any dice used by a player to follow are placed in that player's Used pile.

  • Follow: An opponent choosing to Follow a role may use any number of their own active dice with icons matching the chosen role (as well as icons on face-up planets or techs owned by that player) to carry out the effect of the role for themselves. All dice used are placed in that player's Used pile.
  • Dissent: An opponent choosing to Dissent a role may re-roll any number of their active dice that all share the same symbol. This need not be the symbol of the chosen role! IN ADDITION, for each "Re-roll +1" ability that player has, they may re-roll 1 additional die, no matter what symbol it shows. This additional die MAY come from the active dice, or the Used pile!

Remember, whenever a die is used, it is placed in the Used pile!

Game End
Play continues until the last Fighter/Resource/Influence token is taken from the supply, or when there are not enough planets to fully restock the Survey display at the end of a Survey role. When the game is over, count the Influence and determine a winner:

  • Count 2 Influence for each face-up planet (+1 Influence bonus as indicated on some planets), 
  • 1 Influence for each resource traded during the game, 
  • 1 Influence for each Level 3 Technology (as printed on board), 
  • 2 Influence for each Level 4 Technology (as printed on board), and 
  • 3 Influence for each Level 5 Technology (as printed on board) 

The player with the most Influence is the winner!

Survey (Leader bonus: 2 Survey icons)
Above the Tech board there is a display of face up planet tiles that cost 2/3/4/5/6 Survey symbols to take, with the rest of the planet tiles in a draw bag. Choose any of those planets you can afford, then slide the rest of the planets down. Do not draw a planet from the bag (or stack) to fill the missing slot yet! Restock the planets at the end of the role, after each player has followed or dissented.

Warfare (Leader bonus: 1 Warfare icon or -1 Warfare cost)
Collect 1 Fighter for each Warfare icon OR Attack a planet instead, at a discount of 1 Fighter.
When you Attack a planet, discard a number of Fighters equal to the Warfare cost and Flip the planet.
NOTE: Unlike the card game, in this game, you CAN Attack a planet when following! But of course, you do't get the leader bonus discount.

Colonize (Leader bonus: 1 Colonize icon)
Spend as many Colonize icons as the Colonize cost of a face down planet in your empire to Settle that planet.
NOTE: Unlike the card game, in this game, you CAN Settle a planet when following!

Produce (Leader bonus: 1 Produce icon)
Produce 1 resource for each Produce icon. You must store these resources on planets in your Empire. Each planet can store 1 resource. You may not produce more resources than you have planets to store them on (no sneaky triggering the game end when you cannot hold the resources!).

Trade (Leader bonus: 1 Trade icon)
Trade 1 resource for each Trade icon. When trading a resource, move a resource token from a planet in your empire into your score pile. Each of these tokens will be worth 1 Influence point at the end of the game.

Research (Leader bonus: 1 Research icon)
Pay the appropriate cost and satisfy the planet prerequisite to advance your Technology marker on one of the Technology tracks on the Tech Reference Board. There are 4 tracks on the Tech board: Advanced, Fertile, Metallic, and Diverse. The spaces in each track indicate the number of Research icons and planets required.

Each Technology confers a bonus of some kind, as indicated on the Technology board.