Saturday, August 25, 2018

Dice drafting + worker placement?

Thinking some more about the new dice drafting idea I had the other day, and discussing it with my friend Steve, some new thoughts have come to light.

Actually, Steve suggested something that I don't think I've seen before... combining dice drafting with worker placement. Suppose the cards you play (perhaps from a public supply) have worker spots on them, and after drafting a die, you place it in a worker spot. You'd have a home spot that said "collect resources according to the die," and then the cards would have other actions on them. Perhaps there's a coin resource, and placing a die costs PIP coins, but the effect is often based on the pip value as well, so a higher pip value means a stronger action, but at a higher cost.

With that in mind, I think I like the format of 2 dice per resource type, plus 2 dice for "build," and I like the idea of a face up public pool of buildings to choose from (like in Lords of Waterdeep).

Just wanted to jot this down so I don't forget!

Monday, August 20, 2018

Movies nowadays, Ready Player One, and how I would have written Solo: a Star Wars Story

I wouldn't call myself a die-hard fan, but I like Star Wars pretty well. So like many people, I saw Solo: a Star Wars Story on opening weekend.

I'm 43 years old, and I saw the original trilogy in theaters. Many people my age grew up thinking Han Solo was one of the coolest characters around. We waited 30 years for Episode 7, and if the internet is anything to go on, many big fans of the original movies were split on whether the new films were worth the wait, or whether they "ruined their childhood." Personally, I would have preferred if they had done the new movies a bit differently, but it's not really up to me, so I have tried to enjoy the movies as they are.

For the most part, I think the reason I don't like the newer movies as much is less to do with whether or not it feels like Star Wars, and more to do with my distaste with how big budget movies tend to be made nowadays. To me they feel rushed from action scene to action scene, with the minimum character development they can get away with. I don't see the passage of time done well, which hinders story development and any semblance of an epic feel.

My go-to movie to show what I mean is Starship Troopers. In that movie, we follow the main characters from their utter beginning in high school, through their respective neophyte military careers, through their veteran status, where they have gained a ton of experience, learned, and grown a lot. I feel like Starship Troopers does a great job of this, and I feel like those characters really did grow and learn over time.

I recently saw Ready Player One, and while I enjoyed the movie, I don't even consider it to be the same story as the book, and it's not nearly as strong or epic a story. Much of the reason for that, I think, is because events just sort of happen to the characters. They're thrown from scene to scene in quick succession, and the whole movie takes place over the span of what, 1 day? Without time for the events to sink in, the characters don't learn anything, they don't grow, they hardly even have any agency. In the book, events occur over big lengths of time. Wade's relationship with Artemis grows over many interactions over time (never mind how sort of stalker-y it is). Solving the puzzles takes time and thought. Wade spends time hiding from IOI, planning his infiltration of it, etc. It's not all just immediate idea-to-resolution.

After reading Ready Player One, I also read Ernest Cline's other book, Armada. To me, Armada feels like an earlier book, which was probably written first, and some parts of which Cline probably built upon when writing Ready Player One. One of the things that made me feel like Armada was an early attmempt was that the entire epic-seeming story takes place over the span of 1 day. People can't process such epic events, learn from them, and grow over such a short timeframe -- it doesn't sound right, it doesn't feel right, and it doesn't come across right.

But that seems to be how they make movies nowadays. Maybe not every movie, but the big budget blockbuster movies seem to go that way. Certainly the new Star Wars movies have. And that brings us back to Solo: a Star Wars Story.

Let me be clear, I am exactly the audience for a movie about a young Han Solo. I heard a great point made, that it really should have been a Lando Calrissean movie -- we met Han in a dive bar, and nobody cares how someone ended up a loser in a dive bar, but when we met Lando, he was king of a mining colony, and it would be cool to see how a lowlife grifter became king of a mining colony. That may have been a better idea to start with, but I'm still in for a Han Solo origin story. There are all kinds of things they talk about or hint at in the original trilogy that would be fun to see on the big screen, even if they're not new and surprising.

I went into Solo with low expectations as far as that origin story goes. I fully expected a modern-style movie, with the characters rushing from action scene to action scene, but at least it would be in the Star Wars universe, with cool Star Wars stuff, and plenty of references to the original Star Wars movies. In that I was not disappointed. I enjoyed the movie well enough, but it's definitely not how I would have written a Han Solo back story...

In my view, there are certain obvious items that must be included:
* The Kessel Run -- what is it, and how did Han Solo do it in 12 Parsecs (what does that even mean)?
* Chewbacca -- how did Solo earn his life debt?
* Millenium Falcon -- what happened between Han and Lando that resulted in Han owning the Falcon?
* What was Han like when he was younger, and how did he become a smuggler?
* How did he become the scoundrel we meet on Tatooine, who we know has the strength of character to become a hero of the rebellion?
* And perhaps we should see him drop his cargo at the first sign of an imperial  starship (because hey, even he gets boarded sometimes).

To be fair, Solo: a Star Wars Story did address most of that, but to be honest I don't like how they did. It's possible that some of the story was taken from or inspired by the Star Wars expanded universe stuff that I'm not familiar with, but that doesn't make it any better. So how would I have liked to see the story go?

For starters, the Kessel Run... I would have preferred to see it be established that the Kessel Run is some well known thing in smuggler society, like a dangerous route (via Kessel) from one important area to another, a route so dangerous that the Empire doesn't bother patrolling it. So smugglers who want to avoid imperial entanglements do a "Kessel Run," through this longer, more dangerous route. The more brazen the pilot, the more dangerous route they're willing to take, and the less out of the way they need to go, and it's well known that the shortest, reasonably safe path is on the order of 20 parsecs (and that takes a skilled pilot with some savvy navigation software or whatever). Maybe this is well known because for fun (or for gambling), smugglers regularly attempt to outdo each other, with the leaderboards in bars around the galaxy showing 20 parsecs as the current record.

I would like to see that established early in the movie, perhaps referenced later as well, to give the idea that it's a well known, ubiquitous thing, but it shouldn't be a record that Han Solo is out to break. I'm not sure he should even start out as a smuggler. You see, Han Solo tends to sort of bumble through life, occasionally doing big things almost by accident. So instead of being some hotshot smuggler pilot, I'd like to have seen him sort of fall into the role of smuggling something for Jabba the Hutt, drop his cargo when approached by an imperial starship, flee along the dangerous "Kessel Run" path, and while fumbling with the computer and trying to escape the imperials (not a stupid space squid), he accidentally takes a shortcut that nobody in their right mind would try on purpose. But due to luck and the fact that he's inherently a decent pilot, and maybe the Falcon's really good navigation system, he manages to survive, making the Kessel Run in only 12 or so parsecs. Of course when we see him on Tatooine a decade later, he's bragging about the feat, but it's not something he did on purpose, nor something he'd likely try again. Some of that is similar to what happened in Solo, but I'm not a fan of the space squids, and I don't think they established the "Kessel Run" as a thing people would be talking about years later.

Next, Chewbacca. Simply put, my understanding is that Han somehow rescued Chewbacca, and as a result Chewie owes Han a life debt, and so follows him around and they became friends. Solo did show something to that effect, and I didn't mind how they treated that relationship per se, but I might have written it a little differently. First off, the rescue in Solo didn't seem like that big a deal. Would that type of thing justify a "life debt"? Also, Han did it to save himself as much as to save Chewie. I think it would have been cool if, maybe again almost by accident or as an afterthought, Han did something to really save Chewbacca (and other Wookiees?) in a big way, but didn't take Chewie with him and be buddies right away. Like maybe he somehow saves Chewie's life, then later he's in trouble, and Chewie is there to help out. Then Han's like "thanks" and leaves again, but later hooks up with Chewie again and is like "why are you following me around?" And Chewie says he owes him a life debt, and Han's like "whatever *shakes head and goes about his business* -- maybe he lets Chewie tag along (like in Solo, when he finds out he's a decent co-pilot). Like Han and Luke in A New Hope, I could see Han initially being reluctant friends with Chewie, but then having the hairball grow on him over time.

The Millennium Falcon and Lando. I think Solo did a pretty good job with Lando. Or at least Donald Glover did. But the poker style game where Han won first lost to Lando due to cheating, and later won due to counteracting his cheating, was disappointing. Who is this guy, and why is he so confident at this game? James Bond spent an hour of screen time in Casino Royal "outplaying" Le Chiffre at poker, and if you ask me, they blew that (there was a great hand where Bond DID out play him, but that didn't amount to anything in the movie. I found it anticlimactic when Bond finally won simply by drawing the best possible hand, not due to any skill). If that's the way they were going to go, I would have preferred to see some reason to believe Han could outplay Lando, or some reason he thought he could anyway. Lando cheating was probably good (I think Han accused him of that in the original trilogy), and catching him cheating like he did in the movie was good too, I just didn't like the "oh, poker? Turns out I'm like, really good at poker!" (I know it wasn't "poker" -- but that Sabat game or whatever it's called seemed pretty similar to poker to me). All they really had to do in the movie is show Han playing Sabat in the beginning of the movie to hustle people out of their portions or something and that would have played better for me. Other than that, I think the movie did an OK job of summarizing things between Lando and Han, I guess.

Overall, I wouldn't have made Han Solo's back story a heist movie. I think I would have liked to see Han as a more regular (if mischievous) guy, who for one reason or another gets in over his head. I guess Solo did portray him as trusting, and then he got betrayed, and maybe as a result he's all hard and cold by the time we see him in Mos Eisley. I guess that works, but I'm not sure I liked how it went down in the movie.

I'm no screenwriter, so I don't know that I could really write a Han Solo origin story as a movie, but I do think I would have preferred to see some of the things I mentioned in lieu of some of the stuff that they did in Solo: a Star Wars Story (preferably done by someone who's good at writing movies). And I would like to see the action unfold over time, not over a day or a week, but over enough time the the actions have some long term effect and meaning.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

[YANGI] Dice Drafting - collect or pay?

A thought crossed my mind the other day about a dice drafting game where it could be good to get either high numbers OR low numbers. The basic idea was that after drafting your die, you would choose to either collect a number of resources according to its value, or you would spend that number of resources to purchase something instead.

That thought quickly developed into having 1 die for each of several resources, and EITHER choosing one of them to collect that many of that resource, or else playing a card which has a cost in some subset of the resources. For example, if the dice are brown/wood, gray/stone, white/marble, and yellow/gold, and the roll were brown-2, gray-3, white-5, yellow-5, you could either collect 5 gold resources, or you could play a card that costs wood and stone for 2 wood and 3 stone.

Perhaps it's not a dice draft per se, maybe taking that 5 gold doesn't preclude someone else from doing the same. Or maybe it is a draft, and that yellow-5 can only be chosen by 1 player. Either way, the overall mechanism sounds like it's starting to shape up.

This morning I thought about an alternate mode of this mechanism... let's consider custom dice (which might be cool to help control the relative supply of the various resources, and to help control how many resources can be collected at a time), each face showing some number of the resource, and a + , a - , or a 0. This would also require a pricing chart, kinda like the one in Clans of Caledonia, indicating the current value of each resource. Each round you would roll the dice, maybe it's 2 dice for each resource, and adjust the chart based on the +s or -s that show up. If both wood dice came up with a + sign, the value of wood would go up twice. In addition to the resource dice, there would be two Build dice, that allow you to play a card in hand, with the additional cost of X (one side would show +1 of each of the different resources, one side would show +2 of any resource(s), and the last side could be no additional cost).

Then it could be a true draft, where you roll the dice, adjust the values, then take turns drafting them (collecting resources or building cards). Again, the cards would indicate which resources are required, you'd have to check the chart to see how many of those resources need to be paid. Note also that a card could list stone twice, which means you have to pay the amount of stone shown on the chart x2. I'm not sure what these cards would do exactly, but presumably it would be things like "+1 of a particular resource when you take that resource," or "score points based on some condition." Presumably the cards would be worth points in various ways (either directly, or via some set collection, or based on some condition).

This format sounds a little less elegant, but I think I see it working a little better in my mind (at first blush anyway).

A side thought I had was that if you collect resources and spend resources based on the die rolls, it might be the case that you spend more time collecting resources than you do actually advancing the game, so maybe when collecting resources it would be good to get an extra one, just so that you don't have to spend as many turns building up resources before you get to actually get to use them. I guess in that last format it doesn't matter as much, since the payment amount isn't based directly on the die roll.

Worker Learning progress -- what makes Worker Placement tick?

Worker Learning Progress

I haven't posted much about some of my latest game ideas here. In the case of my Worker Learning game, I've only made these two posts in this blog. I had written elsewhere about it, in a Slack channel, but unfortunately it was an unpaid channel, and the general chatter in that Slack drowned my posts about this game... they allegedly still exist, but someone would have to pay to access them at this point.

My previous posts are not very descriptive of the game, just the main "Worker Learning" mechanism which I described as a sort of cross between my own Deck Learning mechanism from Eminent Domain, and the basic card leveling mechanism in Solforge. So before I go on, here's a brief description of the game I'm working on (which could use a good title, leave your suggestions in the comments below!):

Similar to the theme of Lords of Waterdeep, in this game you will send adventurers out to prepare for, and then go on, adventures. Unlike Lords of Waterdeep however, your adventurers aren't just a resource you collect and spend. Rather they are workers you will place round after round, and after each adventure, they will level up and get better at their job.

You see, you'll have workers in different types, corresponding to typical character classes in the fantasy role playing genre (fighter, cleric, mage, and thief). My current thought is that you'll have two of each type of worker, one starting at level 1, and the other starting at level 2. You will send these workers to various action spaces on the board to collect resources they will need to go on an adventure. Like The Manhattan Project, instead of placing a worker on your turn, you'll have the option of recalling your workers, at which time they will go on their adventures (and side quests), and increase in level.

The various worker spaces will behave differently depending on the type of worker you send, or their level. Higher level workers will be able to go to occupied spaces, so long as they're the highest level worker at that space. Certain spaces may be inaccessible unless the worker is at least a certain level.

I feel like this worker learning mechanism has a good chance to produce a nice dichotomy between trying to slowly level your entire work force evenly, and quickly increasing just a few of your workers to the maximum level. I very much like the idea of his mechanism, but I was running out of impetus to fill out data details and construct a prototype to try, so the game has been on the back burner for a while. Recently I was chatting with my old friend Rick from the Board Game Designers Forum. Rick has a couple of published titles under his belt, and I've seen a few of his other promising prototypes as well. I asked Rick if he'd be interested in jumping in on this project with me, and with his help, the game has finally been making some progress! Watch this space for more info if and when the game progresses any further.

What Makes Worker Placement Games Tick?

Now that I've been thinking more about this game, I've been wondering what it is that makes for a good Worker Placement game. What keeps them from being a dry, "collect resources, turn in resources" exercise.

I asked my friend and fellow TMG developer Andy Van Zandt what he thought made WP games good:

I think most good Worker Placement games have something that causes tension on top of the math. Growing/shrinking resource pools, inbound tragedies, combos that are particularly dangerous if someone else completes them, etc. Basically stuff that makes people have to re-evaluate the perceived tactical benefits of placement spaces regularly. It's usually not the resource conversion that's interesting, it's balancing resource conversion with the changing environment.

Stone Age is a great Worker Placement game, and it features an uncertainty with each worker placed to gather resources. Sending 3 workers to get clay doesn't mean you get 3 clay. In fact, you might not get ANY clay, or you might get as many as 4 clay. In addition to the actions of the other players, you need to contend with the uncertainty of how many resources you'll get with each placement.

Lords of Waterdeep is another solid Worker Placement game, and very accessible. One complaint that can be levied at it is that it's a little bit "flat" (as Andy puts it), the resource collection and conversion is too straightforward and calculable. I don't want my game to suffer from that. I don't know if the leveling up of workers will give the game enough texture. So... how do we ensure that Worker Learning isn't "too flat?" That's the question, isn't it!

An example of something that might help in that regard might be this idea. Rick suggested that the adventures could reward you with a special "spoils" resource. This resource would be worth 1 point each at the end of the game, or you could use a certain worker space on the board to have an audience with the King, turning in your spoils for extra points.

Rick's idea was that there could be some tension between cashing in your spoils early, while you've got the chance, and doing it later, after collecting more, for a bigger score (the reward might be triangular with number of spoils). This might add texture because while you can calculate how many spoils you'll have, it might be uncertain whether or not you'll have access to that worker space to cash them in.

I'm not sure that goes quite far enough, but it made me think of something else that might help. It reminded me of the shields in Louis XIV, which come in 8 different suits, and which you draw at random. Each shield in that game is worth 1 point, and there's a bonus point awarded to the player with the most shields in each suit. Imagine if the spoils worked like that... after each adventure, you draw the indicated number of Spoils tokens from a bag, and they come in multiple types. At the King's Court worker space you could cash in sets of one type for triangular points. That would raise questions like "do I cash in now, or wait and see if my next adventure earns me more matching spoils?"

Either way, later in the game, the space is likely more valuable for everyone, and more hotly contested. With the Louie XIV version, you'd have more reason to go to that space more than once, as you could easily collect a few each of 2 or 3 types of spoils, and you'd want to be able to turn in more than one set.

Will that sort of thing help keep the game from being flat? I'm not sure, but it sounds like it has potential. It might be too fiddly. And this is just 1 action space... might the other, more standard action spaces need to be more uncertain?

Let me know what specific feature you like best about your favorite Worker Placement games in the comments below.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Blast from the past! Applying "basic strategy" to Riders of the Pony Express

For YEARS I've been searching for an article I once read about basic strategy, why it's not always bad to make a trade that's not obviously in your own favor. Nobody seemed to recognize it when I described the article, or the hypothetical gem trading game used in it as an example. Google searches had left me high and dry. At times I started to wonder if the article never really did exist...

The other day I was exchanging emails with my friend Rick, who's come on board to help me with my Worker Learning game, and he referenced (and linked to) an old article about "bombs" in games by Jonathan Degann. I clicked the link, and recognized the article. I'd read it some years ago. On top of that, I kind of recognized the look of the page. I wondered what else I had seen on it. I didn't see any navigation buttons, so I deleted the last part of the URL (showing the title of the article), and what I got was a text list of links to different article by name. I recognized that too...

Clicking through some of those links, I saw more and more articles that I remember having seen or read years ago. One of them, oddly enough, I have a printed copy of sitting right next to me at my desk!

And then it happened. One of the links I clicked on made my eyes light up. FINALLY, after all this time, I had found it. I had found that article about trading gems! It's by Greg Aleknevicus from 2004 in The Games Journal: Basic Strategy 1.0

I wholeheartedly recommend reading this short article, which talks about why it's not always bad to make a trade that's not obviously in your own favor. It's insight that applies to games, of course, but also to real life. Here's a highlight, maybe my favorite single line from the article:

When most people contemplate a trade, they consider only the two involved parties and this is why they fail to appreciate the value of "unequal trading". There are really three parties involved: you, your trading partner, and the other players. Even though your trading partner has gained more victory points than you (on any single trade), you've gained on everyone else.

By the way, I also recommend the next article in that series, Basic Strategy 2.0 -- it gives a great and very simple description of how to start considering all the factors in your strategic decision making.

I am SO HAPPY to have found this! Now, to show how it is relevant to a game designer, let's consider one of my own designs: Riders of the Pony Express.

In Riders of the Pony Express, there's sort of a low-bid auction where you receive $10 and a parcel to auction off ("Anyone want to do this delivery for me? I'll give you $3. $4? How about $5?"). If someone claims the parcel for $4, then you keep the remaining $6. Each player will do that twice per round. There's a dynamic that has come up in which players can simply bid the absolute minimum ($3) for parcels, claiming every one right away. Since you only get $3 for doing that, I had hoped that it would not be worthwhile (except perhaps in rare circumstances). But in fact, especially in a 5 player game, claiming every parcel for the $3 minimum bid can be a dominant strategy for exactly the reason outlined in that strategy article linked above!
This is true for 2 reasons:
  1. In a 5 player game, you can get away with significantly more money than each opponent if you take every parcel for $3 (you get $3 x 4 opponents x 2 parcels/opponent = $24, and they each get $7 x 2 parcels = $14). This is less true in a 4 player game (you only get $18 to their $14, which is much closer), and in a 3 player game you don't actually make out ahead. So the issue is most pronounced when there's a full complement of 5 players.
  2. The costs of making a delivery that's out of your way do not appear to be high enough. As one playtester put it, you have to traverse the entire board anyway, so nothing really seemed out of the way. Now, I'm not 100% sure he's right, but it's possible the costs need to be a bit higher to go "off course," in order to make the route planning and parcel claiming properly interesting.
Again, it may be that this is only a problem in a 5 player game, which might just mean the game should only be for 2-4 players. If simply reducing the player count solves the problem, then it seems a reasonable solution. Besides, I've had complaints about game length and stuff in 5 player anyway. However, I'd hate for that to be the solution, I'd rather understand the problem and fix it! And re-reading Basic Strategy 1.0 might remind me how to do just that!