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:


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.

Deck Learning Rails - revisited

About 3 years ago I started working on a game that used the deck learning ideas from Eminent Domain, but in a different game. I based that design on one of my favorite games, Railroad Tycoon (AKA Railways of the World).

I built a prototype and took it to BGGcon with me back in 2014, and I got a chance to try it out there. To be honest, I didn't like how it felt. However, I do think the structure is fine -- using deck learning to drive a game about building and operating rail networks, and possibly replacing player interaction via role selection with interaction on the board. It might be the case that role selection is the best fit for deck learning, because it has the inherent possibility of wanting cards in your deck to take advantage of the things your opponent is doing, but I'd like to think the engine could work alright without role selection, so long as the interaction is there somewhere. I keep waffling back and forth on this.

Recently I've been revisiting this game idea, because I feel like it should work. I took a step back (easy to do after 3 years), and looked at the parts I didn't care for the last time around, and brought some fresh ideas into the mix. Here's what I would like to try:

Brand new Research (R&D) scheme

In Eminent Domain, one of the complaints some players have is that there are so many technology cards, it's hard to get into the game. For other players (like myself) this is more of a feature than a bug, but the point is well taken, especially in today's "cult-of-the-new," 1,000+ new games a year climate.

An idea I had which may address that concern is to remove the tech cards from the game altogether, and replace them. I'll see if I can describe this well:

Imagine a rondel, or ring of spaces with various techs printed on them. Each player would have a pawn on that ring. When you do a Research action, you'd move your pawn 1 space clockwise on the tech ring, changing what special ability you have access to. Maybe some of them have an immediate effect as well, but mostly they'd be like permanent techs from EmDo (in play), but temporary because they'd only apply while your pawn was on them.

When you do a research ROLE (boosted), you'd move your pawn farther around the tech ring (1 space per icon played). When you get to the starting space again, you'd get to add a 2nd pawn to the ring, so you could start having 2 abilities at once.

So if you don't concentrate on Research, you could slowly advance your pawn to the tech you want using research actions, or following research roles. And if you DO concentrate on it, then you can lap the tech ring once or twice, and end up with multiple abilities

New City/Board format

I also thought about modifying the city/board system like this:
This version of the game is train themed, so instead of planets like in EmDo, we have cities on cards. I could see a few different ways to do this:

  1. Personal tableau, which is a horizontal line of city cards. When you get a new one, you have to add it to one end or the other. Like RftG windfall worlds, cities come populated with a cube (the card probably tells you what color the city produces, and what color the city demands). Delivery actions allow you to move cubes from one city to the next, eventually getting to the right color city that demands that cube (and scoring it). delivery ROLES of course let you move multiple steps at once.
  2. Personal tableau, which is an implied grid of city cards. The supply that you draft cards from has cards at N/S/E/W, and if you take the N one, it has to go N of one of your existing cards. Otherwise similar to above.
  3. Shared tableau, each player has a train piece on a shared grid of city cards. You get rewarded for adding cities to the tableau, and you can deliver cubes to other cities in the tableau by moving your train piece (delivery action). Of course a delivery ROLE (boosted) would let you move farther. you can take cubes with you as you move, and if you deliver them to a city that wants them, then you score. I guess this could also work without train pieces on the board, just moving cubes from wherever to wherever -- I thought a train piece might add a geographical component (you could tell if a cube was "safe" if nobody else's train was near it).

I like the idea of the N/S/E/W city card supply, but removing Survey, Warfare, and Colonize reduces the roles in the game from 6 in EmDo (S/W/C/P/T/R) to just 3 (Produce, Deliver, R&D).
What else could be done in this format?

What about stocks..?

Stocks are a natural fit for train games, and to be honest, I don't like that aspect most of the time. I'm not a fan of the 18XX style games, which are primarily stock manipulation games, where the board play (building rail lines and making deliveries) is merely the manner in which you manipulate stock values. However, Railroad Tycoon represents stocks in a way I don't mind at all -- you simply take them when you need money, and they serve as a penalty (round by round reducing your income, and at the end of the game reducing your score). So maybe there's some way I can include it in a way I don't mind so much. Get ready for some ideas, stream of consciousness style:

Action: Buy or sell 1 share at the current price
ROLE: Buy 1 share of stock for current price, less $1 for each Invest icon played

Stocks could go up in value as they're taken, and be worth points at the end of the game (more points if more are out? Or maybe points based on some other measure of how that color is doing - like how many of that color city is in play at game end)

Stocks could come in maybe 5 colors, and relate to the colors of the city cards. Adding a city card to the board could increase the value of the stock. Making a delivery to a particular city could increase the value of the stock (maybe by simply rewarding you with shares).

Idea: When making a delivery, you get $X (where X is the 'length' of the delivery -- number of icons spent), and with that money, you're allowed to buy stock in that company (1 at a time) if you want (you probably want). So making a big delivery gets you more stock/money.

Idea: When a City is built, you get to choose 1 of 2 different colors of good to put on it (and maybe when you produce as well). Or maybe you choose any color (not the same as the color of the city itself)?
So building a city should help stock value, and creates demand for a certain color good, and creates supply for another type of good. Delivering goods should increase stock value.

Investing in stocks could be useful for game end scoring, and could maybe be useful as a way to get money (get stock from doing a delivery, then sell it to get money to buy a new station (city card) or technology).

Delivering should probably be worth some straight points in addition, so that it's not idiotic to sell your stock (which could be VP at game end). Maybe the stock should start at NEGATIVE vp, so if you're stuck with shares of a color that didn't get used much, then at game end you LOSE points -- so selling that stock would be welcome, or else boosting that color would be welcome.

It would be nice and clean to have a small, limited number of shares of each color, but I worry that they'd run out and there would be weirdness. But like what if they cost 1/3/5/6/7 or something? Maybe when they're out, you can't buy one? And if they're out and you are supposed to get one as a reward, it triggers an event ("dividend"?) where everyone gets 1vp token per share of that color, then puts one share back?

Like maybe you get a share when you add a city to the board, which means you may get VP for it, or sell it for $, and you add a cube to the board that someone can deliver.

Maybe cities should only be able to take 1 delivery (leave the cube there), so that you can't deliver over and over to make the stock skyrocket.

To sum up:

City cards in multiple (5? 8?) colors, coordinating with "rail line" colors.

Stock exists in each color. The more shares of a color are out (owned by players), the higher the value of that color stock (both money-wise in-game, and vp-wise at game end).

2 ways to get City cards into play:
BUILD: add track tokens until there are "enough" (maybe like 4 all the time?)
BUY: pay a $ cost depending on how many shares of that color are out (maybe 2-6) -- early game buying is cheaper, but by late game, building would be cheaper, so starting out building means late game you can maybe be adding enough track to build multiple city cards with 1 big role.

Maybe city cards have a standard build cost, and then have a "kicker" cost for an immediate bonus effect. So you could build a city without too much trouble, but if you concentrate on it and get big Build roles, then you can get either multiple cities worth of builds from a single role, or you can get a city and an immediate benefit. Buying the city wouldn't give that bonus.

Strategic Paths

Here's a summary of the strategic paths I could see being available in this game:
  1. Build a lot: like connecting major lines in RRT, score for some specific configurations of city cards in play -- maybe like the cards from Takenoko
  2. Build+Deliver: take advantage of the free cubes when building a city by placing them near their demand (and/or near your train) and delivering them with Deliver actions or follows
  3. Produce+Deliver: build a little to get a network going, then stop (or let others build, in the shared tableau scheme) and concentrate on producing and delivering. Look for long routes (for more points, and to avoid snipers?) and maybe chains (pick up a black good from a yellow city, deliver to a black city where there's a yellow good to return)
  4. R&D: primarily to support one of the above strategies, but heavy R&D could mean multiple active techs, and potentially points somehow. Maybe you get points for how far along the tech ring your pawn is at the end (so lapping the board and keeping going means giving up points in exchange for more power? Maybe you collect VP tokens if you do that). Maybe the tech ring would have L1 tech first, then L2, then L3, in random order each game (within appropriate tiers)?

Maybe I was on the right track the first time with having 2 ways to add a city, "build" one by piling up track tokens until there's enough, and "Buy" one right out.
And maybe Survey could be like in EmDice, where you see what you're getting -- instead of the N/S/E/W thing? I kinda like the N/S/E/W thing though.

A simpler personal tableau might be good. There's something nice about a single line of city cards.
The more cards you have, the longer your deliveries can be.

For Major Line type of strategies, maybe you should be rewarded for having certain sets of cubes undelivered on your cards. Or maybe that's a tech you can get?

That's about all I have for now. Maybe soon all of these ideas will coalesce into a rule set, then I can update my old prototype and give it a try.