Saturday, August 17, 2019

Recent playtesting: Apotheosis (FKA Worker Learning)


Apotheosis

Since I last posted about it, I've had the opportunity to play Apotheosis (the current title for my Worker Learning game) about a dozen times. We've quickly iterated on a couple of different aspects, going from 8 starting workers (one level 1 and one level 2 of each type) to 4 (one of each type, some level 1, some level 2, depending on turn order), adding a space to recruit more workers (I'm torn on this), adding a space to pay a chunk of resources for steps on the victory tracks, and tweaking the resolution of the Recall turns and the requirements and rewards for adventures.

The current version looks something like this:

You start with a Fighter, a Cleric, a Mage, and a Thief, 0/1/2/2 of them are level 2 at the beginning if you are player 1/2/3/4 (the ones that start leveled up are dealt to you randomly, and no two players will have the same combination of upgraded starting workers).

You take turns either placing a worker and gaining the benefit of that space (your worker must be at least tied for the highest level in that area), or recalling your workers and sending them on an adventure. Most spaces are better if you are higher level, or the right class. You can gain resources, train (level up), claim adventures (so nobody can do them out from under you), buy progress on the victory tracks, turn resources into blessings, which are like wild resources, visit the Throne Room to earn royal favors, or visit the tavern to recruit more workers.

When you place a worker, you have the opportunity to play a Side Quest card for either of 2 effects (one cares about what type of worker you are placing that turn, the other doesn't). When you recall workers, you earn steps on the three victory tracks, and if you qualify, you may do an adventure to earn more steps. The adventures have 3 tiers, and the higher the tier you do, the better the rewards. After returning from an adventure, your workers level up, becoming better at their jobs.

When you do certain Side Quests, or tier 3 adventures, you get a special resource called Spoils. You can visit the throne room to turn those Spoils into Royal Favors, which you can use at certain points on the victory tracks to take a "shortcut" as well as earn a Boon (reusable power card).

Design concerns


I'm noticing a real tightness in the design -- a difficulty creating adventures that are both doable by a player who has not recruited any new workers, but also doable by a player who has. The current level cap is 6, and so I wanted the adventures to require max 6 levels of any one class. If you hire a worker, then place it, and recall once, then you have 2 workers who's levels total 4 or 5 -- that's almost maxed out already! I am considering making the level cap 8 instead of 6, but d6s are easier to use in the prototype. Doing so would allow for more variety and more texture in the adventure requirements. It's also possible that not every adventure needs to be doable without recruiting another worker.

With just 4 types of worker, many of the tier 2 adventures require 3 of the 4 types. So you basically need to train up all of your workers if you wan to use them at all, there's not really such a things as choosing a class and neglecting it. I'm considering adding a 5th worker type to help with this -- it would allow the adventure requirements to be much more diverse.

Another thought is to add Split and/or Prestige classes:
Split classes would be like regular workers, that count as either one or the other of two types (like a Fighter/Thief would count as either a Fighter or a Thief.
Prestige classes would be like super workers that count as BOTH of two different types (Paladin = Fighter AND Cleric). For these you would probably have to discard your previous worker, therefore they BECOME a dual class worker.

Brainstorming possible solutions


Split/Prestige class workers would be pretty cool. but that sounds like expansion content to me. However adding a 5th (maybe even a 6th?) class to make the adventures more different from each other sounds reasonable. But that idea comes with its own challenges...

In the current game, each worker type is associated with 1 resource, and 3 of them are associated with one of the victory tracks. When you recall a fighter, you advance on the Crown Imperial track, and adventures that require fighters advance you further on that track. Thieves are associated with the Prince of Thieves track, and Mages are associated with the Mastermind track. Clerics are great supporting characters -- they aren't associated with any particular track, but instead give you Blessings, which are sort of like a wild resource that can be used in various different ways.

So if another worker type is added, do we need another resource? That might be a pain, but would be doable. Another victory track? I don't necessarily think that's a good idea (though I suppose it could work). What is another iconic adventurer class anyway?

One possibility is to make this 5th class a sort of Split/Prestige class like I mentioned above. Like a Paladin, which could act as either (or both) of a fighter or a cleric. But that would simply overload the fighter related stuff. So maybe better if whatever the new class is, it doesn't advance any of the tracks, but is otherwise "better" than a normal worker (counts as all types when placing?). Or perhaps it advances the track of your choice, and has some other drawback (doesn't count as any type when placing?).

As for the level caps, one way to fix that situation is to not use dice as workers (even though it's super convenient for prototypes). Instead, perhaps a mini or standee, with a base that has a little pointer, then a dial could be attached to the bottom such that the pointer points to the number on the tile corresponding to the current level. This is a user friendly way to not have to use dice, and therefore not be as limited in their value. The level cap could easily be 8, or even 9!

Another, different possible solution to the over-leveling issue is to limit the level-ups to only 1 per recall turn. This would slow things down considerably, and it would probably matter quite a bit which one you choose to gain levels and which ones you don't. It might also make a much bigger difference between playing 1-2 workers then recalling vs playing 3 or 4 before recalling. I'd be afraid this is TOO slow, but it ought to be easy enough to test. If it works, then that would make a level cap of 6 potentially viable after all.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

A note on "standard" player powers

In a few recent TMG games I've worked on (Harvest, Pioneer Days, and Old West Empresario) I thought a lot about how to do player powers in the game.

In Harvest, the "standard" side of each player board (recommended for first time players) is Wil Plantsomdil, who starts with a basic spread of resources, and gets a big VP bonus at game end. The intent was to allow a new player to play in a game with experienced players, not have to wrestle with a player power while also learning the game, and still get a competitive score. In that game, I wouldn't blame "experienced games" for skipping Wil Plantsomdil and going straight for the "real" player powers. However, I thought we could do better...

In Pioneer Days and Old West Empresario, the Standard Pioneer / Standard Empresario abilities are not just a dumbed down power meant for newbie players. Rather we took one of the more well-rounded or straightforward of the powers we were developing, one which we thought would make for a good first experience, and made that the "standard" power.

The rules for both of those games say to deal 2 characters to each player and let them choose between one unique ability, the other, or the standard ability on the back side. While we recommend that first time players choose the standard ability, we worked hard to balance them all so that the standard power is on par with the unique ones, giving each player 3 solid options.

I fear that players will assume that "standard" implies "boring," automatically skip the "standard" ability as if it didn't exist, and therefore miss out on one of the fun player powers.

Hopefully we can break them of this habit. I played a game of Old West Empresario the other day and intentionally chose the Standard Empresario ability, and I did better than I've done in a long time!

TL;DR: In Pioneer DaysOld West Empresario, and any future TMG title I work on, don't look at the standard player power as "lesser" -- it's designed to be on par with the rest of the player powers!

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Origins 2019 -- playtests and interesting pitches

Due to Corbin being born, I missed all of the conventions last year, so I was excited to get back to them this summer. Last week I flew to Columbus for the first big convention of the season, Origins.

Origins has been growing in the last few years, and it seems to me like more exhibitors are launching games at the convention. I think that with GenCon pretty much outgrowing Indianapolis, people are sick of not being able to get a hotel room, and are starting to attend Origins instead. This has led me to my hypothesis that Origins is the new GenCon.

For the time being, that's great! The convention is still much smaller than the behemoth in Indianapolis, so the crowds aren't so bad, hotels are still obtainable, and restaurants don't ALL have a horrendous wait at all hours. Sales won't be as high as at GenCon, but as they expand their dealer hall, and more and more publishers launch games there, I suspect it is very worthwhile to have a booth. I don't know that I'd recommend Origins as a publisher instead of GenCon, but I think things are moving in such a direction that pretty soon, that trade off won't seems so crazy.

Interesting Pitches

Andy and I scheduled a dozen or so pitch meetings with designers. We are getting better at weeding out unlikely candidates, so we're getting a higher rate of pitches that are interesting to us. We ended up seeing several interesting ones, and Andy took a few back to the office to test out.

Game discovery is tricky though. A good pitch can make even a bland game sound interesting, so it's important to remember that no matter how good a game sounds, no matter how good the story of the game is, you really can't make a good decision about it until you actually play, often more than once, and possibly with various different groups of people.

Playtests

I managed a few tests of two of the games I've been working on:

* Sails & Sorcery x3 (Mike's game that I'm helping develop)
Most if the time, I go to conventions with a bag full of prototypes, and between booth stuff, meetings, and everything else going on, it can sometimes be like pulling teeth to get the TMG guys to play them with me. This time was different. One of the prototypes I'm working on is Michael's game, which I'm calling Sails & Sorcery for lack of a better title. Which meant Michael was interested in it, and he encouraged several playtests.

In total, the game got played 3 times at Origins, with varying levels of success. I was fairly happy with the state of the game in my recent tests with my regular playtesters (note: mostly 3p lately), so I was pretty disappointed with the first play (4p) with Andy, Michael, and Michael's friend when a few problems reared their head:

- The downtime was too much

The current format of the game was that you take turns doing 2 roles at a time. To be honest, that format felt a little old fashioned, but I had convinced myself it wasn't that bad, and that in this type of game, some downtime and AP potential is common. But playing with people less familiar with the game (because they haven't been playing weekly like we had) was a harsh reminder that new players will suffer those effects much more than experienced players. The game took far too long, and much of that time was spent waiting for your turn to roll around.

In some of the later playtests of the weekend, we tried breaking the rounds into twice around affairs, with players getting 1 turn at a time. Initially I didn't like the sound of that, so I hadn't tried it yet, but it did help decrease down time. I'll have ti investigate that some more and figure out how to do it and maintain some of the other aspects of the round structure.

- Plunder was too prevalent,

Sails & Sorcery is an area control game, where you deploy your pirates to islands and build structures in order to vie for the most influence in the scoring areas. One of the things you can do is Plunder other pirates, removing them from the board, and collecting a bounty for doing so. If you are behind in an area, you can take the lead by adding more of your pirates, or by plundering your opponents' pirates. Plundering scores you some treasure, and the short term benefit of taking the majority in the area, but the plundered pirates go back to their owner's ship to be re-deployed later. On the other hand, adding pirates to the board not only helps take over majority, but those pirates stick around to continue to have an effect on the board. So there's a theoretical balance there, and in my recent tests (mostly 3p), the balance was holding fairly well.

However, in that 4p game, plunder was far too prevalent! The rewards were a little too high, or the costs were a little too low, or the cost to recruit and deploy pirates were a little too high in comparison, so everybody went heavily into plunder, and nobody deployed pirates to the board, which meant that all pirates were swept off the board pretty much the whole game.

Some of that may have been down to groupthink, and I would have liked to see what would have happened if a player did some big recruit/deploy actions. But even still, it was clear the balance was not correct. I had some adjustments in mind already, but had previously thought they might not be necessary -- now I will definitely try them out.

- The game appeared too tactical.

In this game, there are a number of areas, and originally they all scored once in the midgame and again at the end of the game. When I first played the game, I was immediately turned off by the tedium of counting up and scoring all the areas at once, and I developed a different way to do it -- first simplifying the scoring values (now you just grab a few gold and silver coins), and also scoring just a couple of areas every round rather than all of them at once. They still all scored at the end of the game, but as a sort of final scoring phase I didn't have as big a problem with that.

One potential problem with this is that some players feel forced to fight for whichever area is scoring this round, and there's not much in the way of strategic, or long term, planning. I'm not sure that's 100% true, but even if it's not, that's what many players will feel when they first play. I'll have to watch out for this to make sure the game isn't entirely tactical, because Michael and I both want there to be a strategic aspect.

So there were some issues with that one, and I've got a list of changes I'll be trying to address some of that.

* Worker Learning x1 (Mike suggested Apotheosis as a title)

My latest game design is a worker placement game where your workers level up and get better as you play them. I had this idea a while ago, but got busy and stalled out on creating a prototype, so I recruited a friend to help co-design the game, and he was able to get a prototype together and test it, and even iterate the design a few times. Now I've been testing it and iterating a bit as well, and I got one play in at Origins.

The game worked, but wasn't well loved by the players (I played a 3p game with And and one other designer in the Unpub room). Some of the changes I already intended to try would address some of the issues the players had, and I've tried a few of those since Origins, and I think I've made some progress in that regard. I'll probably post separately about this game, so stay tuned if you're interested in more info.

Wednesday, May 08, 2019

Recent playtesting - Sails and Sorcery: some details

The last few weeks, my Saturday playtest sessions have been spent playing Michael's game, Sails and Sorcery. It's kind of a mashup of my game Eminent Domain and the area control classic El Grande.

In Sails and Sorcery you are a pirate captain, sailing your ship from island to island, recruiting and deploying pirates, building structures, and summoning monsters in an attempt to make off with the lion's share of treasure when it's found in those areas.

Michael had been working on it for a while, he talked about it on the TMG podcast last year. In October, Mike figured it was time to get my input, so he brought the prototype to town with him for Rincon, we played a few times, and he left it with me to work on.

Role Selection


Because it was based on Eminent Domain, the game had a role selection mechanism (where opponents can follow your role). Michael had noticed an issue with that however, and he had disallowed following in the last round of the game. The issue was that if I make a play -- putting pieces on the board, or moving them around -- it's really easy for other players to undo my play by simply following. Disallowing the follow in the last round didn't fix the issue in the other scoring rounds earlier in the game though.

So one thing I suggested as we played was that maybe it should not be a role selection game at all. In other words, maybe there doesn't need to be following in the game. Role selection (the lead-follow dynamic) is the entirety of the player interaction in Eminent Domain, but in this game there is interaction on the board as players vie for control of different areas by having the most pieces there. With that interaction, the role selection isn't as necessary, so we tried it without.

However, without being able to act on other players turns, we wouldn't be able to get as much accomplished. So in place of following, we just did an additional role each turn (I'm going to continue using the term "role" here to mean "thing you get to boost with other cards," even though the terminology isn't as accurate any more. "Action" simply means playing 1 card for it's effect, no boosting). This seemed to work fine, and so the first few tests I did recently continued to use 1 action and 2 roles per turn, in that order.

One of my playtesters really wanted a more flexible turn order, because frequently you want to do your 2 roles in different locations (you act in the location where your ship is located), and so he wanted to do role/action/role, using the action to move his ship. I was hesitant to try this because Michael and I had said the same thing back in October, and we tried it, and I immediately did not like the results. This was partly because the "action" part of your turn was really resolving your whole ship, which had multiple things you could do.

However, I acquiesced to try it again, but with a simplified ship such that your abilities from your ship we're more static (like role icons), so it was just the card action you would be doing "out of order." We tried it, and it wasn't too bad, but I still didn't like it, maybe because I prefer the organized turn structure.

Then that player had an additional suggestion, to replace the action with another role. Most of the actions are miniature (1-icon) versions of the role anyway, so if we didn't have actions and just did 3 roles, then a bunch of rules overhead drops out, and the turn flexibility increases without feeling too weird or out of order. In addition, we said that taking a card for the role from the stacks (another aspect based on Eminent Domain) was optional. If you did it, then you'd have an additional icon for the turn, and another card in your deck. If you didn't, then you would miss out on that icon, but you could avoid bloating your deck with the card if you wanted. You only have so many cards in your hand, so often times one of your roles will only be for 1-2 icons. In that respect, the role/role/role format isn't really all that different from action/role/role after all.

We tried this new format once, and I was skeptical. I thought it would produce too much AP, or have other issues. However the first play with that format didn't take any longer on the clock than the game we had just finished using the old format. So I'll try it again next time.

Monsters and their cost


Another aspect I've been tinkering with is the monsters in the game. Originally, you could use a build role to build a building, which gave you permanent influence in an area, and unlocked some ability (like the buildings in Crusaders), or summon a monster, which had some cool effect, but was otherwise similar to a building. Michael had envisioned pieces like in Blood Rage - large miniatures with player colored bases that you could snap on to show who had summoned the monster. You needed to know that, because often times the monster counted as influence toward scoring (just like your buildings did).

My opinion was that the monsters and buildings were too similar, so I suggested making them more different from each other. Buildings give you influence and power ups, so I thought monsters should give you some awesome immediate effect, and then stay in play with some global effect for everyone, like it or not. I liked the image of summoning a force of nature and then being unable to control it.

My first draft of the monsters was to make them the high end of the build role. For 2 or 3, you build a building. I tried the monsters costing 5 (and if you were really interested in summoning them, there's a way to get a build icon from one if your buildings). This was too high a cost, by the time we were ready to summon the monsters, the game was over. Michael wants them to see play every game, not just some of them, and not just maybe, and not just at the end. And I agree with him.

I also thought it was weird that the same resource both built you buildings and summoned monsters. So I made 2 changes... First, I separated the roles. You use build roles to place buildings for influence and abilities, and you use summon roles to summon monsters. I set the summon cost of the monsters to be 2 summon icons, plus 1 more for each time that monster has been summoned in the past. This is easily tracked by dropping a token on the monster card after you summon it.

I have iterated through a few versions of each monster, but I am now super happy with this format and the current effects of the monsters. Splitting up the resources was great, and this cost structure is perfect. The monsters all start out cheap, so they get used. Then they get more expensive over time so that in the late game it's hard to afford them if you haven't been summoning all game long.

Buildings


The monster cost structure worked so well, I wanted to try it with the buildings too. The buildings on your player board (your ship) are in 4 rows of 2 columns, and for each row you must build left to right, just like Crusaders. Originally, the buildings in the left column cost 2 build icons, and the buildings in the right column cost 3. Additionally, each area had a certain number of build spaces (usually 2 or 3), and no more than that number of buildings could be built there.

Thinking about the escalating monster cost, I tried eliminating the build limit and old cost structure, and instead tried "buildings cost 2 icons, plus 1 more for each building already in that area. This way, you can build cheaply if you spend time sailing around or get to an area first, but once there are 2 buildings in an area, you will have a hard time building there again if you haven't specialized in it a bit, either by investing in the building that gives you a build icon, or by obtaining a number of build cards into your deck.

This works well because each building also increases the value of the area for the 1st place player during scoring.

The effects you unlock from moving these buildings off of your player board have also changed a bit. Originally, some of them were static effects, such as a role icon, or a hand size increase, and some were additional actions you could do at the beginning of your turn. While it was fun to do an extra action at the beginning of your turn, it often wasn't as useful as you wanted it to be. A free deploy doesn't help if you need to recruit pirates. A free plunder doesn't help if there aren't any opponents where your ship is. This is the kind of frustration that prompted the desire for a more flexible turn structure, but it's also the reason the more flexible turn structure was problematic. The game action happens with the card play, so it made sense to me that the buildings could all be static effects rather than additional free actions. Removing the game action from there made the flexible turn structure a lot more acceptable feeling. I've been tweaking and trying different combinations of unlock abilities, but most of them are the same as they were back in October. I'm trying to make sure there are a variety of strategic paths available in the abilities, but also make sure that you aren't forced to build a certain way (or at all) in order to succeed. Like the technology in EmDo, I expect players will build at least a little each game, and if they concentrate on it, maybe they'll build a lot. I expect most players to end the game having built anywhere between 2 and 6 of the 8 buildings and still be able to be competitive.

There are a bunch of other details I've been working on, but these were some of the biggest (and most recent) changes I've tried. Perhaps I'll post again later about other aspects, such as the scoring round format :)

Tuesday, April 02, 2019

AZ Game Fair 2019

Last weekend I attended AZ Game Fair 2019 in Mesa. It's just up the road from Tucson, and as a "special guest" I get a free badge, so it's usually a very inexpensive weekend of gaming. However, this year my wife and baby came with, which meant a full price hotel room for 2 nights, so it wasn't so cheap after all.

I did not arrive at the convention until 10pm on Friday, so I might as well have just come up Saturday morning and saved the cost of the room that first night... oh well.

Saturday and Sunday, however, I did manage to spend a lot of time at the convention, and actually play some games for once!

Old Favorites

Puerto Rico
After hopping into a game or two of The Resistance with Sean Ramirez of The Dukes Of Dice podcast, I taught his friends Puerto Rico, which sat at the top of the "best games" list for a decade (and with good reason). Sean and I had played before, so of course it boiled down to a contest between him and me. I haven't played that game in years, but it's definitely one of my favorites, and I pulled out the victory.

Game Design Panel
After that, I was on a game design panel with another local designer, David Short, as well as Canadian special guest Daryl Andrews, and the guest of honor from Italy, Vital Lacerda. The panel was called The Secret Lives of Board Game Designers, but had no real direction or moderator, so I tried to sort of direct traffic. We mostly took questions from the audience.

Railroad Tycoon
After the panel, my friend Hoss was running a game of Railways of the World (FKA Railroad Tycoon). There were only 3 of us, Hoss, myself, and a new player Hoss had just taught how to play. We used a map of Great Britain, which I'd not seen before. I kinda liked the map. It was a tight game, and in the last round I had to go to the bathroom, so I made my last 3 plays out of turn (they didn't affect anybody else anyway) and ran off. When I got back, they'd just finished counting points, and Hoss had won by 1 point! I don't know if I trust him though, the first thing he said that game was that I should be banker because he was bad at counting, and the first thing he did in the game was grab $10k bills in lieu of $1k bills... :)

New Hotness

Underwater Cities
In addition to those old favorites, I got a chance to try a few of the new, hot games. Saturday night Hoss and I sat down to figure out Underwater Cities. The rulebook took about 45 mins to learn from, mostly because they repeated the "play a card and place a worker, and if your card color matches, you get the bonus" text at least 4 times.

I was enjoying Underwater Cities while we played, but thinking about it afterwards, I am not sure I'd want to play it more than maybe twice. The "play a card and place a worker, and if your card color matches, you get the bonus" thing is cute. I did feel like I never really wanted to play an off-colored card, even though I had something in play that gave me a consolation prize when I did that (though I probably should have done it once or twice).

We had to stop 1 turn before the end because they closed up, so I don't actually know how my strategy turned out, but I got a pretty good feel for it. I saw maybe 2 real paths I'd want to try (the one I did, and 1 other). I'm sure there's more, but it wasn't obvious what else you could really do.
The collect-cards-in-play part was a lot like Terraforming Mars, and I definitely liked this A LOT more than I like Terraforming Mars.

Wingspan
Wingspan was solid. I enjoyed most of it. Probably the only thing that I thought was weird was the random-and-variable resource pool. You need resources (in 5 types) to pay for playing bird cards, and there's an action where you take some resources (you can upgrade that so you take multiples, 1 at a time). The resource pool is 5 dice, rolled into a supply. When you take a resource, you remove the die from the supply, reducing what's available. Caveat, if all remaining dice in the supply match (there's only 1 resource option available to you), then you may choose to re-roll all of the dice, resetting the whole pool to 5 random things before taking one.

I could see wanting a random resource pool, and I could see wanting a competitive resource pool (like dice drafting), but I'm not sure the way they're combined here is the best way to do the job.
One of the types of reasons I don't like it is because there are a bunch of card effects that are like "take a [specific resource] from the supply, if it's there" - which is therefore super variable, based not just on what's rolled, but also based on how many dice happen to remain in the supply. Worse, there's a card type that says "when [X happens and succeeds], take a die from the supply," where the likelihood of X happening depends on what opponents do (which is fine), but the likelihood of X succeeding increases as the number of dice remaining decreases... so while it looks like this card gives you flexibility when it hits (you choose a die rather than get a specific resource), in reality, this card is not likely to hit at all, and if it does, you probably get some random resource, not a real choice. I could argue that's just a lame card effect, but I think it's a symptom of a lame resource system.

But other than that, I thought the game was fun, and solid.

Just One
Not as hyped as the previous two games I mentioned, Just One is a hot new cooperative party game where the goal is to get one of your teammates to guess a word by giving 1-word clues. The catch is that after each player writes down their 1-word clue (but before the guesser sees then), any matching clues cancel out. So it's scary to use the obvious clues, because if someone else does that, you don't get them, but then everybody avoids the obvious clues, and you still don't use them!

It's a fun party game, would play again, even at 2 in the morning :)

My Own Games and Prototypes

Crusaders: Thy Will Be Done
Crusaders came out just a few months ago, and so far it seems to be very well received. The production is very nice, and several people approached me at the convention to tell me how much they were enjoying the game play!

One guy who had backed the Deluxified version of the game was trying to read the rules while his friends played another game, so I offered to teach. In the end it was just 2 of them (the other 2 kept playing that other game), so I sat in and made it a 3 player game.

It's been a while since I've played Crusaders, but I still liked it a lot!

Crusaders: Divine Influence
I had made an expansion to Crusaders about a year ago, and I had thought it was probably done. I sent it to Utah with Michael in October so the TMG team could play it, and I just got it back about a week ago.

Ben and his daughter were looking to play one of my prototypes, and so as the last game of the convention, I taught them Divine Influence. Emma had not played Crusaders before, but she picked the game up just fine, even with the extra expansion rules. It went well, though I think the free movement from the Influence action is too fiddly, hard to visualize, easy to forget, and usually unnecessary. I should either cut it, or make it simpler -- maybe something like "you may freely move between adjacent hexes with your influence marker on them" (a dynamic known as "railroading" in some games). Maybe better would be to simply cut it, and save having to make components for influence.

David's doggo card game
Late Saturday night I played one of David's quick card game prototypes. It's intended to be a sort of follow up to AEG's Cat Lady. Indeed, much of it was super similar to Cat Lady (collecting similar types of sets from a 3x3 grid), however this game was a step up in complexity, as you could buy upgrades to the patterns of cards you're allowed to pick up.

I gave him some feedback, hopefully it was helpful. Mostly it was "once a player replenishes the board, their turn should be over," which I think he agreed with in the end. The rest was about a special card called "fetch," which did something thematic that David liked, but I thought should probably instead just be "get a card from the discard pile," which also seemed thematic to me. The way David wanted to do it, in my mind, subverted the main mechanism in the game, which is something I don't like doing. The recent game Noria does that, and I wish it didn't.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Prototype feast or famine

Ever since Corbin was born (last summer), I have felt like I've been in a relative famine with regards to playtesting (and gaming in general). I have tried to make up for that with online play at BoardGameArena.com, Boiteajeux.net, Yucata.de, etc.

In October, Michael was in town for Rincon, and I manages to get a couple of plays in with him. Then I sent 4 of my prototypes to Utah with him in hopes that they would get played in the TMG office.

Finally, after 8 or 9 months off, my playtesting group is back up and running again! This was great news, and it came just in time to finish up last minute development on Eminent Domain Origins, the reboot of my first game, Terra Prime.

Now that that's done however, I've run into a problem. All my prototypes are in Utah, what do I test next? Fortunately, I had something. TMG is doing a Deluxified version of Emperor's Choice (I'm in charge of the art direction and rules updating, like I did for Yokohama), and someone suggested we add a 2 player variant to that 3-5 player auction game. So I came up with something, and the last couple of weeks we've been testing that.

Yesterday, I came home to a box at my door containing my prototypes! They appear to be in fine condition, and now I've got the opposite problem: which of these should I test next?

* Crusaders: Divine Influence (expansion)
* Deities and Demigods (now Olympus on the Serengeti)
* Eminent Domain: Chaos Theory (dice game)
* Alter Ego
* Sails and Sorcery (Michael's mash-up of EmDo and El Grande)

In addition to that, pretty soon I'll have a version of Worker Learning to test as well!

Crusaders: Divine Influence (expansion)

Since Crusaders: Thy Will Be Done arrived a couple of months ago, it seems to be very well received. This makes a perfect window for a Deluxified expansion to go on Kickstarter, along with the opportunity to get the Deluxified base game again, later this year. In anticipation of this, I designed an expansion before my playtesting haiatus, and I'm pretty happy with it so far.
Divine Influence adds 4 new building tracks (16 more buildings per player), a revamped (more involved) Influence action, and a few new knight orders to go with them.

Olympus on the Serengeti (fka Deities and Demigods)

I posted before about the theme of Deities and Demigods changing to re-imagine Greek mythology in an animals of Africa setting. Art is underway on this one, and I'm a little worried how it will turn out. I think that, like Eminent Domain's title, when players see everything in context, it will work well.

This one doesn't really need more testing, unless I want to add that Hades module to the game.

Eminent Domain: Chaos Theory

Last I checked, with the final tweak to 5p (and maybe 4p) games (everyone starts with 1 tech advance), I think this one is ready to go. It is in line to get art done after the more pressing Divine Influence, which will start as soon as we wrap up art for Eminent Domain Origins which is happening right now (about a month late, which means it probably won't make GenCon, unfortunately).

Alter Ego

I finally hired an artist and a graphic designer for this age old prototype, though I haven't seen anything from them yet. The game could use some finishing touches, but nothing that would change the major art pieces, so I figured starting art would be ok. There's no deadlude for this one at the moment per se, so maybe starting art now will mean when it comes time, I'll actually make it for once!

Sails and Sorcery

Michael impressed me with the thoroughness he was putting into his mash-up of EmDo and El Grande when he talked about it on the TMG podcast. He didn't really have a title, so I made this one up for now. He didn't want to let me in on the game until he'd gotten it far enough along - perhaps for fear I'd sort of take over the design (that's kind if my MO). In October, he brought the game with him and we played a few times. I think it was an excellent start! He was ready to let me start doing my thing...

Right away I had a few course grained suggestions, some of which we implemented on the spot. Others Michael didn't necessarily agree with. He left the game with me to work on, but my testing was on hiatus at the time, so beyond editing the rules to include what I wanted to try, I wasn't able to do anything.

Come December, Michael was in town again for the holidays, and I sent his prototype back with him, with my rules edit inside, so they could try it in Utah. I don't think they ever got to it though.

Now that I'm playtesting again, I asked for this prototype back, so we could give it some plays.

Worker Learning

I think I've mentioned that I recruited my friend Rick to help co-design one of my more promising ideas. After some good discussion back and forth, some solo testing on his part, and a couple revisions of the prototype, Rick tells me this game just got its first live playtest! Sounds like it went well, and generated good feedback. Rick will be bringing an updated version to Gamestorm next weekend, and after incorporating that feedback, I'll make a prototype and bring it to my group.

I'm excited to see this game in action! But some of the others have a little higher priority, so it might be several weeks before I get to try this one.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Recent gaming -- online

In the past, I've spent a little time playing online versions of board games, from Puerto Rico on Brettspielwelt.de to Vinci on boiteajeux.net, to Magic: the Gathering on MTG online, but I usually lose interest after a while. I much prefer irl board gaming, face to face with real people.

I recently posted that my game Eminent Domain is available for free online play at BoardGameArena.com, and that I'd been exploring some of online boardgames that site has to offer:

Well, I've been continuing to play games online -- my current makes that much more viable than getting to a live game night. I mostly play 2p games late at night with my friend Steve. I like 2p best, since otherwise it can take a frustratingly long time for my turn to roll around, and I will have forgotten what was going on in the game.

Games I've been playing since my last post include:
  • Caylus - an old favorite, still a great game, but not a very modern feeling one
  • Hawaii - a neat game I'd played once before, a long time ago
  • In the Year of the Dragon - one of my all time favorite games. 2p is weird because turn order can be such a big deal
  • Penny Press - a neat auction sort of game, but feels a bit one dimensional (after only 1 play)
  • Ponte de Diavolo - an abstract game that it turns out I'd played before, but forgotten. Not my type of game
  • Race for the Galaxy - I haven't played much RftG irl since EmDo became a thing. It's a solid game, and I like 2p better than multiplayer because I feel like playing 2 cards at a time gives me more agency and feels more fun
  • Seasons - a decent card combo-y game, but one I got a little bored with after a handful of plays
  • Signorie - a "heavy"-ish game that got good buzz. It's OK, I guess, but I really didn't feel like there were different approaches like there appeared to be
  • Takenoko - a very nice, very fun game by Antoine Bauza. Works well with 2, and didn't really seem to get old
  • Tokaido - another very pleasant, very good game by Antoine Bauza. 2p has a neutral pawn that the player farthest ahead gets to control, which is a really neat aspect. The game is great, but many of the player powers seem lackluster (at least in 2p) because they're so narrow and easily blocked. Still a great game though!
  • Tash Kalar - a largely abstract game, which is usually not my thing, but this one is pretty interesting. Cool how the scoring goals (Tasks) are what's important more than simply placing pieces and taking opposing pieces (Nexus Ops had some of that going on, and I guess Twilight Imperium did too)
And I've started a game of The Castles of Burgundy on boiteajeux.net with Steve. I like that game, but when I play it in real life I feel like it takes too long. I'd REALLY like the game if it only took an hour, but it consistently takes 2 hours when playing with 4 players. So maybe it's better online? So far, yes and no. It's nice to log in, think about your turn, and do it... but it's real easy for me to ignore my opponent and play solitaire that way, which has hurt me in this game. Also, just like irl, the game has the dice luck that can really be annoying sometimes.

I'm having a lot of fun playing these games online, though it'll never be as good as playing in real life. It's especially fun to play and chat in real time, though with my schedule I can never commit to actual real time games, just turn based ones where we take our turns in quick succession for a while.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Eminent Domain Origins playtests - 2p and 4p

Today I got a couple more "last minute" tests of Eminent Domain Origins in, one 4-player (using the 2-5p starting cards), and one 2p (turns out I hadn't tested 2p since making all these updates and changes).

In the 4p game, Dan joined Dave, Jesse, and me. He played the game once about a year ago, so was basically a new player, so I asked him to just play normally and let me know what was fiddly, odd, hard to understand, or easy to forget. Dave and Jesse each tried the new 4-5p starting cards (Jesse started with a colony marker loaded, an energy, and $10; Dave started with 2 crystal and an energy). I decided to try alien hunting, since I hadn't seen it much lately, and so started with a weapon and a crystal. I gave Dan a basic $30 starting card.

In the end, the game was quite close, with Dave winning out 60-50-50-49. I may have missed a round or two, but I counted 17 rounds -- I thought I remembered Terra Prime lasting more like 20-24 or so. Jump starting the game a little bit by giving players starting resources and cutting the phase 1 reward cards, and allowing colony spots (planets) to exist in adjacent sectors, may have sped the game up a little bit, but I DID add 3 tiles to the phase III rewards, so we were only really net down 1 reward tile total. It's likely players just did more scoring actions (colonizing and defeating aliens) than what sometimes happens so the game was on the short end.

Dave's winning 60 points came on the back of quite a lot of delivering. He used his 2 crystal start to quickly (turn 4 or 5) get a Matter Converter, and soon after delivered a bunch of cubes for a fistful of credits and bought 2 Thrusters in one turn. Dave is usually partial to Afterburners, but I guess he decided he didn't have the energy economy for it this time. In any case, he had 5 actions while the rest of us ad only 3 for a while. Dan and Jesse eventually got Thrusters of their own, for some reason I didn't bother, which may have been my downfall. The verdict on the starting card is that it's probably fine. The verdict on Matter Converter is that it's potentially very strong, probably not a problem, but might ought to be worded such that you still have to carry the correct cubes according to your holds, and then deliver/upgrade as if they're wild, rather than letting you convert them to whatever you want whenever you want, which just encourages you to visit your own places.

Jesse's downfall may have been poor rolls combined with potentially ill advised pathing. He kept crashing into asteroids, and hadn't bought shields first. This cost him 3vp on more than 1 occasion. Had he just rolled a little better (or spent the action and $20 to get and charge shields), he could have been neck and neck with Dave in the end. Never mind that one of the collisions cost him an engine, about 1/2 way through the game, putting him out maybe 7 or 8 actions! However, his start was strong, Starting with a loaded colony marker was pretty great, it allowed him to usurp a colony spot from player 1 (Dan, who might have been better off doing something a little bit different), and as Jesse pointed out, irrespective of turn order, starting with a loaded colony means that he's the ONLY player who could colonize 2 spaces from TP on turn 1. It also means that players earlier in turn order have to be a bit more careful and hedge their bets if they're not colonizing on turn 1, lest their colony get sniped. That's probably OK, but we decided to take away the energy, so that if there's an asteroid in the way, at least you have to risk losing 3 points to do that.

I tried to do some alien hunting, and I did an alright job, my big errors were getting an early Battle Station instead of selling cubes to afford a Thruster, and not setting up any accessible early game colonies for other players to use. The only planet 1 step from TP was a green one off to one side, and since Dan didn't take it, I decided to colonize it on turn 1. Nobody used it all game, and I didn't drop any colonies in high traffic areas, so I didn't get to leach any points off of other players.

Any way you look at it, that score was pretty darn close all around.

After Dan left, I mentioned the board scaling for 2 players (2 fewer tiles in each row, and only 1 of each tech upgrade), and it occurred to me that I hadn't played 2p in this new version of the game. So I had Jesse and Dave play 2p while I watched. They ended up choosing the sort of standard $20 and $30 for starting resources, and while I lost count half way through the game, I'm pretty sure it lasted about 20 rounds -- just a few more than the 4 player game. I noticed that in the mid-game, both players spent time upgrading their ship rather than dropping colonies or killing aliens, which dragged the game out a little bit, but also was fun for the players to really pursue a strategy. Dave ended up with a Thruster and 2 Afterburners (with Additional Module Slots), so was doing 8 actions per turn. Jesse had 2 Thrusters for 5 actions per turn. Both geared up for alien hunting, but neither did a whole lot of it until the end of the game. Between the two of them, they explored every tile, but they also left a lot of maybe lower scoring colony spaces alone... had either of them grabbed a Cryo Chamber (or Cargo upgrade) and started dropping multiple colonies per trip, the game could have been considerably shorter (on par with the 4p game perhaps).

The verdict was that the 2p game seemed fine. I think we don't need to do any further scaling such as removing any reward cards. It felt like the game dragged a little, but that was because (a) players drew it out a bit, and (b) Dave's turns started taking incredibly long as he hemmed and hawed over planning out his 8 actions!

All in all, I think it was a fine test day. I made a tweak to one of the starting cards (take the energy off the loaded colony marker one), and I might tweak the wording on Matter Converter. I might also add a reward card or two (probably double up on existing ones) just to make sure there's enough time in a 5 player game for players' strategies to develop.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Deities & Demigods face lift - need a new title!

When getting serious about the production of Deities & Demigods, I had to face certain realities about the theme:

Tropes vs Cliches


On one hand, using a familiar theme is useful, because tropes are like pictures -- worth 1000 words. People can recognize things like "Ares is the one that moves your troops" because of what they already know about the Greek gods. Knowing that information up front reduces the cognitive load on the player, who can spend their cycles thinking about whether they want to build stuff rather than having to think "wait, what does Hephaestus do again?" Read this whole twitter thread for a good, technical description of what I've been thinking for years, but didn't have the knowledge or vocabulary to express properly:


On the other hand, gamers tend to complain when a theme is overused. To be honest, while that complaint does come up at times, I suspect it's more of a complaint that the theme was used poorly than that it's really overused, because there are several popular themes that occur in many, many games every year that don't receive that complaint. However, a bigger issue may be presentation...

Looking at the many Greek mythology themed games out there, they all look exactly the same! The typical (maybe stereotypical) depiction of the Greek pantheon may be a good example of a "trope" that has become "cliche." It's difficult to tell any one of those games from another just looking at the artwork. Santorini does a good job of setting itself apart, with the awesome chibi-style artwork, but that's a rare exception:


The chibi style is cute, and works very well for that game, but (a) I'm not sure that kind of style would work as well for Deities & Demigods, and (b) it's been done already!

So how do I make Deities & Demigods stand out from the crowd? I had a few ideas about this...

1. Allocate a large art budget, so that if the game had to look like other, similar games, maybe it could look better. However, looking at some of the Greek mythology art from recent games, it appears they've already done that!

2. Change pantheons, moving from Greek mythology to something less commonly used, such as Egyptian mythology. For a while I thought this would be the right decision, as the art could look different, and people could comment on the unusual theme rather than the same-old same-old of the overused Greek setting. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that while the outfits would look different, the artwork would still probably look similar to the Greek games, and I wasn't finding Egyptian gods that fit as well with the game action.

3. Find a new style, like Santorini did. I came across the art for SPQF in the portfolio of one of the artists I was considering, and it got me thinking. SPQF is a card based civilization building game, with very nice art of anthropomorphic animals. There have been a couple other games with anthropomorphized animals lately -- one might even say it's the start of a trend, however I don't think we're there yet. This led me to consider a cross between Clash of the Titans and The Lion King... what if we re-imagined the Greek pantheon as animals of the African plain?

Clash of the Titans meets The Lion King


In the end, I liked the sound of this third option best, and have decided to go that route -- re-imagining the pantheon as anthropomorphic animals. This allows us to keep the tropes of Greek mythology, but use art that differs significantly from other Greek themed games, and could look pretty cool.

Photo of SPQF cards by BGG user lovemyfire
My initial picks for animals to represent each deity looked like this:
Zeus (king of the gods) -- the obvious choice is a lion
Hermes (messenger of the gods) -- a macaw seemed like a good choice
Ares (god of war) -- an elephant, or possibly a wild boar
Hephaestus (blacksmith to the gods) -- an ape of some kind (the opposable thumbs could help him build)
Hera (Zeus' wife) -- at first I thought maybe a peacock, but probably better would be a tiger, jaguar, leopard, or cheetah

With a change of theme, a few details will have to change as well. For example, animals have no use for gold, so perhaps food would be a better thing with which to show devotion. That said, perhaps Artemis (goddess of the hunt) would make more sense than Hermes, and as an added bonus it would get more goddesses into the game (something I'd been wanting to do anyway). To represent Artemis, perhaps a bird of prey would make sense.

For the player boards, I figure smaller animals would make sense, something like meerkats, gazelles, monkeys, and I don't know, some bird species perhaps. These are animals that are found in packs or groups, so it would make sense that you have 12 of them under your control. To represent your troops on the board, a regular meeple doesn't really evoke animals, so I've been thinking of something better. One thought is a sort of generic "animeeple" -- a 4 legged something-or-other which is not necessarily related to any of the player boards. The graphic designer suggested a paw shape, which could be cute, and would stack well, but might not be as fun for players to move around the board.

I'm open to suggestions for a meeple shape that would be good. I don't think it can really relate to the player board animals, or else (a) the player who insists on playing red all the time would always have to be meerkats, and (b) if we add more player boards with player powers in an expansion or something, we'd have to add 12 meeples to go with it!

What's in a name?


Deities and Demigods was a title I was kind of OK with, but it was always only a placeholder. 90% of the people who play the game point out that there's an old Dungeons and Dragons sourcebook with that title, which I don't actually think matters. In any case, I've always wanted a better title.

About 4 months ago, I finally put some effort into finding a better title, but didn't come up with anything fantastic. Some of the options were:

Titan's Tribute
Divine Interest
Quid Pro Quo (change pantheon to Roman deities)
Chrysos (Greek for "gold")
Favor of Olympus
Buy The Gods (pretty good, but maybe too "cute" for a real/serious title)

And for a good laugh:
In Gods We Trust
Invest In Vesta

However, now that the game is about animals in the African plains or Savannah, I don't think any of those would really work anyway. I could really use a title for this game, and the sooner the better so the graphic designer can make a logo for it! Please comment with your suggestions.

So far, the only idea I've had that I like at all is Pantheon of the Plains, but I'm sure there could be something better...

Saturday, February 09, 2019

Eminent Domain Origins - starting resource testing

I got another 2 playtest games in today...

Game 1: simulated 5p game (Dave and I played 2 seats each)

I wanted to test the 4-5p starting resources, but there were only three of us. Dave has played a handful of games (last year), while Hoss hadn't played at all. I wanted feedback from fresh eyes on the game in general from Hoss (mostly about fiddliness and grokability), but had Dave and myself each play 2 seats so we could see the 4-5p starting cards in action. Dave had the Afterburner to see if he could abuse it. I had the Upgraded Cargo Hold to see if it felt way too good.

Playing multiple seats is never ideal, but it wasn't too bad. The worst part was probably when the blue player scanned, and then the purple player (both played by me) was able to act on that info :/

In the end, the 5th player (Upgraded Cargo Hold) won, but I don't think it was really due to the starting resources. In fact, I felt like I kind of squandered my start, but that seat just played a good game otherwise.

Dave tried to get the Afterburner online as quickly as possible in seat 4. He ended up in 2nd place by only 6 points. Only two points back was Dave's other seat (P1), who started with $20 and tried avoiding buying a thruster (he got a Hyperdrive).

My other seat (P2-shield +3energy) and Hoss (P3-Cargo Hold) tied at about 10 points back, both seats playing loie n00bs :)

Game 2: 4p, but with starting resources of players 2-5

Russell showed up right at the end of that first game,so next we played with 4, but to test more if the 4-5p cards, we just skipped the 1p ones. Hoss and I started with 2-3p cards cryo Chamber and Weapon+Crystal, respectivly). Dave starter with the Upgraded Cargo Hold and Russell started with Additional Module Slots+$20.

Hoss, still a newbie, didn't do great. He was doing better until a pretty devastating mistake - he left the Outpost to Colonize but forgot a colony marker! I worry a little bit that this may be a common error, but other than warm about it in the rules, I don't think there's anything I can really do about it witjwit making significant changes to the system :/  I did about as badly as Hoss, just taking way too long to actually put my plans into action.

But more importantly, how did the 4th and 5th players do with their starting resources? We'll, Russell had a pretty strong showing, getting 2nd place without ever using the Additional Module Slots. Though all three of us were close packed in score.

Dave however finished 25 points ahead... Which is like 2-3 big plays in this game. How much of this was due to the Upgraded Cargo Hold? We'll, probably at least 10 of it was from capitalizing on Hoss' mistakes, but he was also able to do a lot with the ability to hold both 2 colony markers and so many resources.

In the end, the Upgraded Cargo Hold is probably overpowered, and the Additional Module Slots is probably underpowered. That technologhy just isn't a "starting resource," and as such is not a useful thing to get at the beginning of the game. I'm going to try "$10+1 Energy+loaded colony marker" and "2 brown + 1 energy" instead of those two starting cards.

Also, originally each player started with 3 VP, in case you ran into an asteroid in the early game and didn't have shields. I've been trying the game without that, but I realized today that starting with 1 energy is irrelevant if you have nothing to lose by crashing into asteroids. So I think I'll add VP to all of the cards so that starting with 1 energy is relevant again. I think most of the cards will get 3vp, but I can tune up or down for cards that feel a little strong or weak.


A few other little details...

With the inclusion of the starting resource cards, I have deleted the stage 1 rewards, because they served the same purpose. This shortens the game a little bit, but I did add 3 tiles to stage 3, so it should not be too different than the old version. However, one of the stage 3 rewards is a free Thruster module, which is great (better the earlier you get it), but comes out fairly late, so there isn't much time to use it. But without the stage 1 rewards, that one can come out all the earlier, which may be too strong. I might move that one to stage 4 instead.

As for the Wormhole physics I talked about last time, I worry that "any OTHER wormhole" will be one of those easily forgotten rules. I guess the game doesn't break if players go in and out of the same wormhole, I've been playing that way. But should I have an easier to remember rule?

Monday, February 04, 2019

Eminent Domain Origins - final playtest phase

Starting Resources (and turn order advantage)

Yesterday we tried a tweak on that rule: "Use 1 action to move into a wormhole and then out of any OTHER wormhole." This meant that the first wormhole (which will now be in the center of the green zone every game) doesn't really do anything at all, until a 2nd one is found. No more jumping over a hex, or using that starting wormhole to dart out into deep space! This seemed to work well, and made the wormholes behave like I'd intended -- in the midgame they start shrinking the board.

So in an effort to do some house cleaning, I decided to try removing that portion of he turn. Instead, I've simply said you can always pick up a resource at a colony, and just limited that action to 1x/colony/turn. That way there's no need to explain production, no chance to forget to do it, and the board is a bit less cluttered.

It's been over a year since my last post about Eminent Domain Origins, and one of the last things I was trying out was a starting resource draft. Inspired by Mark Major's Chimera Station, I thought it could be fun to mix up the starting resources in the game by drafting starting resource cards. Rather than draft them in reverse turn order though, I decided to make a subset of cards for 1st player, 2nd-3rd player, and 4th-5th player, and deal out 2 of those cards to each player based on their turn order. You can choose one of the two for your starting resources.

I had played a couple of 3 player games with these new starting resource cads, and yesterday I finally got the game to the table again, and we tried them one more time. So far they have worked out well, and I think I have mix I'm happy about (for up to 3 players anyway, I haven't tested the 4-5p ones yet). I hadn't made physical cards for the 4-5p ones yet, and I had forgotten what I'd wanted to try, so yesterday I thought of what might be a good mix:

* 40 credits
* 30 credits and 1 energy
* 20 credits and 1 crystal
* 20 credits and Additional Module Slots tech
* Afterburner module
* Upgraded Cargo Hold module (holds 2 resources or 1 colony marker)

I thought the Afterburner might be crazy, but then realized that in order to take advantage of it, you'd have to buy and charge shields, which means you'd have to do a delivery first. So after a few turns you could get your starting Afterburner online, and you'd have to "stop for gas" every once in a while to keep it going. I actually think it is valuable, but won't be overpowered after all. Looking at my previous post now, I see that I had a similar thought a year ago :)

An Upgraded Cargo Hold sounds potentially problematic as well, but I doubt it will turn out to be overpowered either. I hadn't thought of this before, but I like the idea of it better than what I had originally written (Cargo Hold + 10 credits, and Cryo Chamber + 10 credits).

Because of early turn order advantage (dibs on the early game colonies nearby the Terra Prime space station, and potentially 1 more turn over the course of the game), the starting resource cards scale up for later turn order players. I am certain that turn order advantage early in the game, and unequal turns at the end, are the types of things players will key into, and therefore turn order compensation is warranted. One thing players don't necessarily notice as often is the inherent DISadvantage for early turn players in a game where you don't know for sure whether you'll get another turn, which is the case here as well. Between this inherent disadvantage, the partial credit for resources and colony markers on your ship at game end, and the turn order compensation, I figure the game is (and looks) well balanced enough that no particular turn order is really advantaged over another.

Setup and exploring the Green zone


One of the things I didn't like about the new exploration tiles was that in the Green zone, most of them are blank. It's not fun to "explore" an area, flip up a tile, and find nothing. Last year my notes suggest I was considering putting weak hazards, like single asteroids, or even boons, like pieces of crystal (fka brownium) for players to find. However, that exacerbates any early turn order advantage. And while it may be neat to find a wormhole right outside the door of the space station, when that happens it really distorts the map, making that entrance much more heavily traveled, and with it, the player(s) whose early colonies are on that side of the board are more heavily used.

I thought of an alternative, and tried it out yesterday... I can just GET RID of the green exploration tiles altogether! Instead, I can just have 1 tile with a wormhole that gets placed on the center green hex (the only one without a direct route to Terra Prime). To be honest, this doesn't really reduce setup very much, you still need to lay out the space hexes, and put exploration tiles on the yellow and red ones. However, it makes the game a little less fiddly (no flipping tiles to reveal nothing), and a little more consistent with the standard placement of the wormhole.

Wormhole physics


Speaking of wormholes, I'd originally used a rule that for 1 move action, you could move into a wormhole, and for another move action, you could move out of ANY wormhole on the board. A few key points about this was that it required a MOVE action, not an EXPLORE action, so players could not legally exit a wormhole at a sector with 2 face down tiles. This maintained a dynamic wherein you NEVER could be in a situation where you were flipping 2 tiles at once. To be honest, I kind of liked that rule, but it did lead to a little bit of confusion at times, and players frequently conflated MOVE and EXPLORE actions, and therefore asked about flipping 2 tiles at once coming out of a wormhole. David Short insisted that while you shouldn't be able to flip 2 tiles at once, you SHOULD be able to flip 1 when coming out of a wormhole, which he held was consistent with a turn where you weren't coming out of a wormhole... that would translate to the rule "you can move or explore out of a wormhole, but not to a sector with 2 face down tiles." I did not agree that that was more consistent (I didn't like the exception clause), but it definitely made clear that some people would try to do that.

A year ago, I decided to simplify the game by basically combining MOVE and EXPLORE into the same action. No more limit of 1 Explore per turn, if you move into a sector with a face down tile, you simply flip it up. This sped the game up a bit, and didn't really harm it any, but it brought up the issue of flipping 2 tiles at once coming out of a wormhole... I decided to try allowing that, and so far it hasn't really been a problem. Exploring comes with it's own risks (encountering aliens or asteroids) anyway. The question is bound to come up: "in what order do you resolve the tiles?" -- I will probably say in the rulebook that you flip them over and resolve them one at a time, however in reality, I don't think there's ever a conflict. Undoubtedly, someone will ask "what if I flip an alien and an asteroid at the same time?" But that's actually already answered if you play the rules as written: When revealing a stray asteroid, you immediately roll to evade them. When revealing aliens you do nothing immediately. At the end of the action, if you are adjacent to aliens, then they attack you. Even though this is clearly defined in the rules already, I will likely address it specifically, perhaps in an example, because I've learned that people have a tendency to conflate or misinterpret rules.

Another change I made at that time was to allow movement into and then out of a wormhole in the same action. This was to speed things up a little bit, and to avoid questions involving ships being "in wormholes" as opposed to in sectors, where they usually are. The rule was"Use 1 action to move into a wormhole and then out of any wormhole." This meant you could traverse a hex (from one corner to the opposite corner) with a wormhole in it for 1 action instead of spending 3 actions moving around the outside edge. It also meant you could jump pretty deep into space with only 1 wormhole on the board, and I had just implemented a permanent wormhole on the green zone (rather than a probable one, which could be off to one side of the board). That's not really what the wormholes were meant to do -- I wanted them to sort of shrink the board once it had been explored a bit.

Simplified turn order / Board clutter


In Terra Prime, the first thing you do on your turn is make sure there is a resource cube at each of your colonies. If there isn't one there, you produce one. If there is, you do nothing. This way, there's only at most 1 resource at each colony, making a little bit of a race to pick them up, however you can be sure hat your own colonies will always have resources available for you on your turn. I liked that dynamic, and it was one of the points of interaction in the game (if I go after you, and I want your Green resource, you can always take it from me... which means I might have to stall or change my plans if I think you'll snake the resource I want). It was also one of the easiest things to forget in the game... your turn rolls around, and you start doing your stuff, forgetting to produce resources. It was very common, even among veteran players. It also wasn't a big deal to forget, because it was very easy to figure out at any given time whether a colony ought to have a resource on it (it would have produced on your turn, and neither you or she picked it up, so it should be there for me now).

Another issue with the production rule is when teaching the game, the first thing you say is "on your turn, you first produce a resource at each of your colonies..." only players don't know what a colony even IS yet, or how to get them! That's always been kind of sub-par.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Thoughts on theme (Deities & Demigods) - and artist needed!

If you've been following this blog, then you probably know that the theme of Deities & Demigods is Greek mythology. You play as a demigod, showing devotion to the gods of Olympus, and asking them to do favors for you (the more they like you, the bigger the favor they do for you).

I like the Greek god theme because it's recognizable. People know that Zeus is the king of the gods. It makes sense that Ares helps you move your troops. Hephaestus is a blacksmith, so obviously he's the one that builds artifacts and buildings... it's the same reason I think generic fantasy works for games like Belfort: it's easy to remember that Elves collect wood and Dwarves collect stone because of the stereotypical traits of elves (associated with the forest) and dwarves (associated with the mountains). While you can argue "that's been done," I believe the familiarity there is useful, it helps the players grok the game.

Deities & Demigods game will be published in 2019 (and incidentally, it could use a different title), and I have been looking for someone to do the art for it. In thinking about the art direction, the Greek god theme looks like a worse and worse idea. While I still like the familiarity aspect mentioned above, if you look at all of the similarly themed games, they all kind of look the same. It's very difficult to stand out and not to get lost among other Greek themed games such as:

etc.

So how do you do make a game with a common theme stand out? Here are some ideas I have had for Deities & Demigods:

First thought was to change the theme to something less common --perhaps Egyptian or Norse pantheons. Egyptian was the front runner here, and perhaps that's the way we'll go. Some of the familiarity may be lost, but to be completely honest, is everyone so familiar with Hephaestus to begin with? And some Egyptian gods, like Ra/Osiris, Horus, etc might be similarly recognizable. Unfortunately, the Egyptian gods seem a little less focused in what they actually do (or maybe that's a plus, as just about any of them could do just about anything in the game).

My first reaction to changing theme was "well, we COULD, but I'd really like to keep the Greek theme." In an effort to do that, my next thought was to just increase the art budget. Try and get some really fantastic looking art, which would stand out amid boxes like Oracle of Delphi. I started looking for artists with this in mind, but I think it's kind of a fool's errand. If you look at some of the games linked above, they've already done that. Not only would the art budget for "fantastic art" be enormous, but it wouldn't even solve the problem of standing out in this case!

Today I had a new idea though, and so far I think it might be a good one. I was looking at games like SPQF and Everdell, and I thought "Would it be totally stupid to do Deities & Demigods as Greek mythology, but with animals instead of people?" And right away the idea began to grow on me. I'm not sure it's the right way to go, but I think it's definitely worth thinking about. It could set the Greek theme apart from other similarly themed games, or it could even work with a change to another pantheon.

Here's a draft of a descriptive blurb I whipped up, which could be the intro in the rulebook, for example:
Atop a hill in the Big Clearing stands a mighty Baobab tree called Olympus. Most days, resting in the shade of Olympus, you can find the lion Zeus, the King of the Jungle. His wife, the lioness Hera, comes around on occasion to make her will known. By the watering hole at the base of the hill, or just inside the tree line, you can always find Hermes, the long-tailed macaw; Ares, the [wild boar][OR][solemn elephant]; and Hephaestus, the orangutan.

All other animals look up to these gods of Olympus, showing their devotion by bringing them gifts of [something to replace gold... food?], or begging for their aid -- the more devoted you are to these mighty animals, the bigger favors they'll do for you.

So what do you think? Is this a good idea? And if you had to re-imagine Greek gods as animals, what would you choose? Feel free to take liberties with changing which gods to use, but keep their game effects in mind:

Zeus: moves you up an Olympus track, which gives various bonuses as you go
Hermes: Gives you gold (food?) with which you show your devotion to the gods
Ares: Moves your troops around the board
Hephaestus: Builds you artifacts, buildings, and monuments
Hera: Bestows start player upon whomever best satisfies her demands for the round.

I wouldn't mind getting another female deity in there...
maybe Athena instead of Ares (though Ares works a little better thematically)?
Or Demeter (goddess of harvest) instead of Hermes (especially if changing people to animals and therefore gold to something like food)?

Let me know what you think in the comments below. And if you're an artist/graphic designer and you think you would be a good fit for this project (and think you can finish it by mid-April), please let me know ASAP!


Monday, January 07, 2019

Kingdom of the Crystal Skull: The Case For Aliens (repost)

Yesterday I re-watched Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, because I hadn't seen it in a while, and it's just come to Netflix, so I figured "how bad could it be?" Perhaps related, the other day I re-watched another movie that didn't live up to it's potential after 20 years of waiting, The Last Jedi. Needless to say, neither of these movies were hat I had hoped they would be, but I don't like to whine and complain that someone else created something and it wasn't what I wanted. Instead, I'll just sigh and lament that whoever is doing these reboots of iconic movies from my youth doesn't have the same point of view as I do about them.

But I digress... back when the movie came out and I watched Indy on the big screen for the first time in decades, I had written something about it (elsewhere) that I think holds true. I'll re-post that here, edited a bit to clean it up and make sure it makes sense:

The first time I saw Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, when the movie came out, I kept thinking "... Aliens? Really!?!" 

Then I watched the movie again with my father, and between thinking about it for a week and watching it a second time, I liked it a whole lot better. Much like Star Wars: Episode 1, I was fairly disappointed in some of the silliness (like the blatant racial stereotypes, and Jar Jar's antics), but upon reflection I realized it was Not That Bad. Of course with a franchise like Star Wars (or Indiana Jones for that matter) - why would anyone want to settle for Not That Bad?

I still think it's clear that Kingdom of the Crystal Skull hasn't come close to Raiders of the Lost Ark or The Last Crusade, and I already liked it better than The Temple of Doom, but I definitely enjoyed KotCS more the second time around. Here's what I realized that improved the movie for me...

The Indiana Jones movies that were really good involved Indiana revealing some of the more famous, important, mysterious secrets one could conceive in Archeology - finds of biblical proportions: the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail. Obviously those have been used up, so what famous archaeological mystery remains for Indy to discover? Well, there are several things off the top of my head (which I assert is where the basic idea should come from, so it's recognizable to everyone)... Stonehenge, Easter Island, Egyptian Pyramids, Aztec/Mayan ruins, and maybe Atlantis. All of those are sometimes surrounded by rumors of aliens, and of them, the Mayan ruins come stock with legends of a city of gold. A city of gold seems highly appropriate for Indiana Jones to go after, and the alien bent not only makes sense, but fits perfectly with the pattern of IJ movies - a fantastical explanation of the real life mystery, and a spectacular, paranormal climax to the movie.

I was initially (and still am) disappointed in the process Jones took finding Akator. He did do some figuring and a (very) little research, he followed a clue to Peru, and another to the tomb of the conquistador explorer, sort of followed a clue to find the city of gold, and all the while had a back and forth fight with a ceaseless opponent. However, it seemed like this movie rushed that process compared to Raiders and Last Crusade, and the back and forth with the Russians seemed a lot less epic. In Raiders Indy and Marion were captured, escaped, captured again, rescued, etc. In the Last Crusade there was a constant struggle between Jones and the Nazis in which they key to the movie - information about the grail- was being passed back and forth. In KotCS, the entirety of the conflict was a game of keep away.

While that complaint sums up much of what was disappointing about the movie, it does not speak ill of the basic premise, which is that Indiana Jones uncovers one of the great archaeological mysteries of the world, which turns out to be that aliens were responsible for the hyper-advanced culture of ancient Mayans. They called them "Interdimensional Beings" instead of the perfectly plausible aliens from another planet which could very well exist and keep the mystery in the realm of reality - frankly I'm sorry they chose to go that route. I'm also not sure what was up with abnormally large and aggressive ants, or monkeys which attack Russians for no apparent reason. I'm not sure whether I can abide the whole idea of psychic warfare, but its not such a stretch that I couldn't live with it - after all, the Russians need some reason to be after the lost city of gold, and just money doesn't seem that exciting.

So see the movie, it's honest to god Indiana Jones. Though the character was so cool to begin with, I don't know that he needed to survive a ground zero nuclear explosion, or all of a sudden have ridden with Pancho Villa (incidentally when he was barely older than he was at the beginning of The Last Crusade). Really, it's not as bad as you might think at first.

And by all means, if you dislike the film, don't dislike it because of the aliens!

Edit: that Poncho Villa comment I have heard refers to things that happened in the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, which I never got around to watching.

Thursday, January 03, 2019

Board game inspired by Craps - revisited

Some time ago (almost 9 years??!) I started thinking about a board game using the casino game Craps as a main mechanism. I have mentioned before that I like the idea of a game based on a core mechanism that is itself another, simpler game. So it makes sense that I could see using casino games to drive a bigger game.

When I posted about the game based on Craps, I posited a theme and some basic mechanics, but it wasn't a finished game. Over the years I've remembered this idea, and thought it would be fun to revisit that some day.

Well, recently I started thinking about the idea a little harder. One main problem with a game based on a gambling game is that if it's just a theme on top of craps, then you're just gambling. There's not much agency, and the result is all luck. Gambling can be fun, but not because you're engaging the other players in a battle of wits (or a contest of decision making) -- various forms of Poker excluded -- but because you stand to win or lose actual money. The higher the stakes, the more emotionally invested you are in the outcome.

But in a board game, there's no money on the line. People play board games for very different reasons than they play casino games. Therefore, I believe there has to be something more to the game than simply the gambling mechanics of Craps (or any other casino game). Thinking about it some more, the bigger the effect of the gambling mechanism in the game, the more luck-based the game will be. Any game will have a certain tolerance for luck, depending on the genre and audience, an all-luck game could be just fine. But the games I like to play, and therefore the games I like to make, are ones where luck plays a much smaller role in the outcome.

So, how do you at once utilize the mechanics of gambling games and minimize the role of luck? Well, that's the question I've been asking myself. I haven't got a definitive answer, but so far I've had the following thoughts on the topic:

* In an effort to keep the board game from just being the gambling game on which it's based, there needs to be more to what you do than simply place bets as you would in the casino. Perhaps a good way to proceed is to entangle the gambling choices with other in-game choices. For example, my game based on Craps sounds a lot like a worker placement game -- perhaps the worker spots could resolve to give you game actions, such as collecting, transforming, or cashing in resources, while also acting as bets on a craps table. Thus you may want to go to a space for it's in-game effect, or you may want to go there because at the moment, the gambling odds are in your favor.

* As I mentioned above, if the gambling mechanism is too consequential, then the game may be too much like just gambling. Therefore perhaps the effect of the gambling mechanism should be relegated to a secondary status, a bonus that's not as significant as the basic in-game effect. On the other hand, why base a game on a particular mechanism just to relegate that mechanism to the background?

* In my game based on Craps, about doing projects, I could use the Craps mechanism as I had described in my previous post, but as I said back then, I need something else for you to do with your managers (and laborers). Perhaps you could use them to collect resources with which to finish projects faster, or earn more points for projects. Like when the "complete project" card comes up, you get your payout, and additional benefits for the resources you've collected and spent on that project. Or when the "cancel project" card comes up, you get something for having partially completed the project with resources you have collected (insulating you from losses incurred by crapping out).

A friend of mine is working on a board game based on another casino game (Faro). I'm not too familiar with that one, but I think much of the same logic applies. I intend to get on a skype call with him one of these days so we can chat about ways to implement these gambling mechanisms in the types of euro-style games we like.