Thursday, June 23, 2022

"Challenge" vs "Difficulty"

I was thinking about Challenge vs Difficulty (particularly in cooperative board games) recently. At a glance, they sound like the same thing, but if you think about it, they're really not.

Definitions

I looked up "challenge," and the definition in this context is: "a difficult task, especially one that the person making the attempt finds more enjoyable because of that difficulty," while "difficult" is simply defined as "hard to do, requiring much effort." For the purposes of this post, I will sum those up as follows: 
Difficulty in a game is the extent you're unlikely to succeed.
Challenge in a game is the extent to which overcoming the difficulty is fun or rewarding.

I've found that these terms come up a lot in the context of cooperative games, where the players need some sort of AI or algorithm to play against rather than the cunning and guile of a human opponent. A good cooperative game is challenging, it sets a task for the players, and they have fun trying to overcome obstacles to accomplish that task. One of the nice things about these games is that an optimal set of plays is not clear, and the whole point is to make that optimal set of plays, or close enough, that you achieve the goal of the game in the time allotted.

However, some cooperative games aren't challenging so much as just difficult. In those games, the chances of losing even with an optimal set of plays is too high, so it doesn't feel as fun or rewarding when you win.

The Components of Difficulty

There are 2 major things that can make a game more difficult - they both reduce your likelihood of winning: Increased depth, and decreased fairness, where depth is the amount of good play required to win, and fairness is the degree to which that good play determines the outcome.

  • In a fair game, the outcome is less often dominated by factors outside your control. If you play well, you'll win more often.
  • In an unfair game, too often the outcome is outside the player's control. There's a significant chance you'll lose even if you were to play optimally
  • A deep game has a high skill ceiling. You have to build up to the point where you can hope to play near-optimally
  • A shallow game has a low skill ceiling. You can be confident your play is near-optimal without too much time, effort, or study

In order to examine this more closely, I thought I'd make a graph of Depth to Fairness. Plotting a game on that graph could allow us to visually see some of these relationships and make sense of them:


WAIT! Why am I using UNfairness on the bottom axis instead of Fairness? Difficulty comes from both depth and unfairness. A deeper game is more difficult to win because it requires better play. A more unfair game is difficult to win because despite good play, you might lose due to chance. So both of those things can increase difficulty. I use Unfairness for the axis so that moving away from the origin in either direction makes the game harder.

Now we can locate games on the graph, draw a vector to them from the origin, and the length of that vector relates to how hard the game is to win: 

Magnitude = Difficulty

"Challenge," then, is how fun or rewarding it is to overcome that difficulty. In this graph, the slope of that vector (rise over run: depth over unfairness) relates to the amount of challenge the game has to offer. The deeper the game, or the fairer the game, the more rewarding it is to overcome its difficulty, and therefore the more or better challenge it presents.

Practical Application

Let me lay some ground rules on what this graph applies to, how it can be helpful, and what it's limitations are.

For one thing, you'll notice that there are no numerical values on these axes. I am not sure how these aspects could possibly be measured! Also, those gray, labeled boxes are completely arbitrary, and can be deleted or redrawn wherever you'd like, so a single data point on this graph is meaningless. This graph only allows us to make relative comparisons between multiple games. As soon as you get 2 data points, you can begin to compare them and see, in a qualitative sense, which is more Fair, which has more Depth, which is more Difficult, and which is more Challenging.

This information might work best for 1-player games, solo modes, and co-operative games, when the "opponent" has a consistent skill level. It does not make as much sense for a multiplayer game, where the difficulty depends on your opponent's skill level as well - although you might be able to gain insight into questions like "how hard/challenging is it to play various different games vs Steve?" If the opposition is fixed as that particular opponent for each game, then I think the model will still allow comparisons, which could be fun to do amongst a group of friends who play vs each other a lot. 

Similarly, I think this could be used to compare factions or characters in an asymmetric game - not in general, but if you look at various factions/characters vs a particular faction/character, then you might be able to lean some useful balance (or strategic) information about matchups.

Something I think might be a stumbling block in reading this graph is that we're not talking about the outcome of a particular match here. We're talking about the difficulty of the game in general -- overall win rates, not whether you win or lose this instance, or this play of the game.

A Worked Example

Pandemic is a popular cooperative game for 2-4 players, and you can adjust the difficulty from "easy" to "expert" by using 4-6 Epidemic cards in the deck. The game is obviously harder with more Epidemic cards, but I've also observed that the game gets harder the more players you have due to logistical concerns. Let's take a look at some of the configurations you can play Pandemic in, and plot them on this Difficulty chart:


The way I drew that I'm saying that 2p-expert and 4p-easy are approximately the same difficulty, but in 4p it's more rewarding to overcome that difficulty

Good Difficulty vs Bad Difficulty

We have learned that Difficulty comprises two aspects: Depth and Unfairness. One of those increases Challenge, and the other does not, but both increase difficulty. I don't think I'm out on a limb saying difficulty that increases challenge is "Good Difficulty," and difficulty that does not increase challenge is "Bad Difficulty." 

There do exist cooperative games where added difficulty does not seem to increase the challenge. I remember when Ghost Stories came out, it was the talk of BGG.con that year, and all the buzz was that the game was really difficult. After finally playing Ghost Stories I remember thinking "I'm not sure a higher chance you can't win is the kind of 'difficult' you want in a game." Of course, that hasn't stopped the game from being incredibly popular over the years!

I've recently gotten to try The Princess Bride Adventure Storybook Game, and it strikes me as a game with a low skill ceiling. It's fairly easy to figure out what to do, and you can go through the motions to do it, and then you see if you were able to finish in time. You can reach the point where you can achieve optimal or close-to-optimal play with some confidence, but even with optimal play, often whether you win or lose a chapter seems to come down to chance. In this game's defense, I've only played it with 2 players, and it's possible that, like Pandemic, the game is more challenging (or at least harder) with more players.

To be fair, that's always the case with cooperative games -- given optimal play, there's still a chance you'll lose the game. Most (all?) cooperative games have that dynamic, lest they become "solved," and that's probably a good thing. But perhaps each game has an Unfairness threshold, a percentage chance that you lose anyway, even with optimal play, that is acceptable. Under that threshold, the game could be considered "Fair" (or fair enough). Above that threshold, the game could be labeled "Unfair." In a good cooperative game, the amount of Unfairness would be closer to that threshold, whereas in a bad game, the Unfairness might be much higher than the threshold. Unfortunately, I don't have a good feeling for where that threshold should be, and it is almost certainly different from game to game.

Conclusion

The best case scenario in my mind is a deep/fair game, where winning correlates to amount of good play, and the chance you lose even with good play is within acceptable limits. This offers more challenge, and it's therefore more rewarding and more fun to overcome the difficulty. A bad game in my mind is one that is shallow and unfair, where winning does not take much good play, but does require a lot of luck.

I'll try to keep this difference between "challenge" and "difficulty," and this Depth-to-Fairness ratio in mind when designing, especially when working on a cooperative game. For example, if I ever finish up Alter Ego, maybe I'll apply these lessons to ensure that to the extent the game is difficult, it provides "good difficulty," not "bad difficulty." It's important for games to be challenging, not just difficult!

Post Script on Effort

Another thing that could be considered is when a game requires more effort: doing lots of simple math, moving pieces around, grinding actions, that sort of thing. Busywork. Since these things don't require any particular skill (except maybe stamina to endure them), I'm not sure they make a game harder to win, they just make it more annoying to play. They could be said to reduce the Challenge, because they make it less fun and rewarding to overcome the difficulty of the game, but they do not themselves contribute to the difficulty. Therefore I don't think we need to consider Effort in this model.

Friday, May 27, 2022

3 new ideas... 1 new game! ... Part 3: Micro Worker Placement

 In part three of my 3-part post, the 3rd (and final) idea I'll discuss was inspired by another comment on Twitter, this one about designing an 18 card game. I recall that Eminent Domain: Microcosm was originally a 16 card game with some tokens -- those tokens became cards as well, and in all the game has 32 cards and nothing else.

This time, the idea is a worker placement game, where each card has a worker on one side, and a placement space (or "building") on the other:

Micro Worker Placement

In this idea, a deck of 18 cards would be shuffled, and some cards would be dealt out building-side-up to make a board. Here were my initial thoughts on how it could work: 

Use a 3x3 board of worker spaces, then that leaves 9 workers for the players to use.

If it's a 2p game, maybe 9 is more than enough, maybe you start with only 2 workers, an can get 1-2 more over the course of the game, and the rest of the cards can go into the board (and maybe they add in over time, like Agricola)

OR, maybe (like Microcosm) you DON'T start with workers, but they're in a deck/supply, and on your turn you draft 1 and place it on one of the spaces

Obviously, the spaces resolve based on what's printed, but maybe they get better based on color matching or printed info on the workers/spaces.

Maybe you play multiple rounds, where each round is:

1. Shuffle all 18 cards, deal a board
2. draft and place 8 or 9 workers
3. reshuffle for next round

If you draft and then play a worker from a supply, there's no real ownership of workers... but there IS a record of the type/color of workers in play -- like Splendor, perhaps that could matter: Something is cheaper for each Gold worker in play, or you get more wood for each brown worker in play. All of that doesn't care who placed the worker

Quick progress

While visiting a design-minded friend, I described this idea, and we had a pretty good discussion about it. Mohan talked bout defensive drafting, and we ended up with an idea to have 4 or 5 buildings in the supply, and on your turn you'd choose 1 to add to the board (pre-seeded with 3 buildings), then you'd choose another card from the supply, turn it face down, and place it as a worker into a building. This sounded neat, because it would offer multiple chances to draft each turn (which building to remove from the supply and turn into a worker, then which building on the board to block up with that worker).

Since it seemed so simple, we ended up making a quick mock-up and giving it a try! The first draft game worked alright, so when I got home, I made a few tweaks for version 1.1, and made a Tabletop Simulator module for the game. Perhaps I'll get a chance to play some more soon. Here's what the current version (v1.1, as of 5/22/22) looks like:

GOAL:

Be the first player to gain 4 Stars. Gain stars by accumulating resources of 3 types, and exchanging them for stars.

SETUP:

  1. Shuffle deck and deal 3 buildings into play
  2. Deal 4 (or 5?) more buildings into supply
  3. Take turns until there is 1 card left in supply
  4. Reshuffle cards and repeat setup

TURNS:

  1. Place 1 building from supply into play, adding it to the board
  2. Place another card from supply face down (as a worker) in an unoccupied building in play
  3. Resolve that building as much as possible
  4. Replace the 2 buildings from the deck

  • Use tracker cards to track resources (rotate/flip as needed)
  • When getting more than 7 of a resource, gain a star and reset that resource to 0 (extra is lost)
  • Note that some buildings let you exchange resources for stars at a better rate than that
  • First to 4 stars is the winner

Untested ideas - already

While I'm pretty confident that the above game will work (indeed, v .0 technically worked), I'm not sure it'll be any good. I've already got some ideas of things I might like to try out once I get a playtest of the above v1.1 in:

It might be nice if the 3 different resources had a different feel or flavor. For example, maybe overshooting a resource dial (getting to 8+), instead of just getting a star, maybe 1 resource gives you 2 stars, one gives a star and another resource of your choice and the 3rd gives you 3 resources of your choice (then you play to 7 stars instead of 4, probably)

Currently there's no much in the way of "player positions" in the game... you temporarily have certain resources, but those are ephemeral, and it doesn't strike me as being really enough to base your moves on. But if you gained power/benefit somehow as you ratcheted up your trackers, then that might give a more lasting effect of your actions, and make it matter more whether you went for red or for blue. I've been talking to Keith Burgun, finally learned his 2p card game Dragon Bridge, and playtested his next evolution of that game into a deck building game. Dragon Bridge is pretty cool, actually -- it's a back-and-forth game where you're on a bridge with your opponent, and there's a dragon at one end, and you either want to push your opponent into the Dragon end of the bridge, or escape through the other end. However, every once in a while the dragon moves, making both of those objectives more difficult.

I wondered if I could take a lesson from Dragon Bridge and apply it to this worker placement game. I think what I'd need is incentive to go for one resource over the others, where that incentive changes over time. Well, it might take a few more cards (just 1?), but I think I figured out ho that could work:

Of the 3 resources, let's treat one of them like an "econ" strategy, where you build up some sort of resource, and then later turn that into power somehow. Maybe that's the resource which, when you overshoot it, you gain 3 resources of another type instead of stars.

Then let's treat the other 2 as sort of opposed to each other, maybe blue and red. Like in Dragon Bridge, where you're MOVING toward escape, and BUMPING your opponent toward the dragon, only in this case, each of those is just ratcheting up a tracker. 

So what if there were another tracker card, which was red on one side and blue on the other. Like the resource trackers that you rotate and flip to track your resources (0->1->2->3-FLIP->4->5->6->7->REWARD), this red/blue tracker would count down and flip. This countdown tracker could be an always-available worker placement space (maybe one that can take multiple workers) that lets you exchange a particular resource for stars at a really good rate (so it's great to use it) - and which resource it takes depends on which side it's on (red vs blue).

Since the other worker placement spaces basically let you gain resources, and trade them back and forth (or trade them for stars), this would be kinda like "I'm building up X, because that's what's "good" right now -- but pretty soon, the card will flip, and Y will be better, so then I might try and exchange my X for Y to score that better," like you're switching direction

Thinking about it even further, maybe the effect shouldn't be a worker placement space, but instead (or in addition?) should be that when you collect your 8th resource of a particular type, it should be much better if that countdown tracker matches the resource you pegged than if it doesn't. Like maybe you get +1 or +2 stars in addition to what you were already going to get. So based on whether you think the card will flip too soon, you might do well to stick with what you were pursuing (X or Y, or Z which is Econ, which would help you get more X or Y), or you might do well to try and exchange it, via some building that says like "pay 3 X, gain 4 Y" or something. Or maybe it could act as a modifier for the buildings that allow an exchange of that resource for stars (like: "pay 1 less resource of that type, get +1 star")

Some of that might add incentive to go for one of those 2 resources over the other. But they key to Dragon Bridge is that the dragon moves. Without that aspect, it's just a game of Tug-o-War. So in this game, the "dragon moving" would be that card flipping over, reversing which of the resources are super-efficient to go for. Some effect that happens regularly could tick down that tracker, which would go 4->3->2->1->FLIP, the card would flip over and the countdown reset. I'd like for that trigger to be intuitive or elegant and easy to remember.. Here are a few thoughts that might work:

  • Whenever anyone flips over a tracker card for any reason (going from 3 resources to 4, overshooting a resource tracker, or spending down from 4+ to 3 or less)
  • Whenever someone buys a star
  • Some buildings could say to advance (or turn back) the countdown timer as part of their effect

There may be other possible triggers, maybe some combination of those will make sense when I try it.

If I can manage, in the scheme outlined above, I'd like to differentiate "red" and "blue" more than just "this one's "better" right now because of the state of the countdown timer" as well. As I said, maybe overshooting red could give you *2* stars instead of just 1, while blue gives you 1 star and 1 resource (or you steal a resource from the opponent?). Maybe along with that, red is slightly harder to collect a lot of at a time. Maybe blue-gaining actions tend to steal resources from your opponent, or otherwise make things harder for them?

Oh, and one more thought... perhaps the effectiveness of some buildings, at least in part, could be tied to how many of a particular resource you already have.

Like maybe resource Z is good at getting more resources (economy)  so maybe a building says something like "gain Z/2 units of X, or gain 1 Z" (meaning if you have 3 Z, you'd get 2X, but if you have 7 Z, you 'd get 4X).

Then there could be buildings for X and Y that somehow care how much you have already, like "gain Y/2 units of Y" perhaps? Or "gain X/3 stars, then lose 3X"?

I'm sure more of this will become clear with a little playtesting. In a way, it might be cleaner just to have a simpler, more straightforward microgame like v1.1 as-is, but all of this sounds good to me right now.

3 new ideas... 1 new game! ... Part 2: Trick Taking as a Movement Mechanism

 Continuing my 3-part post about 3 new game ideas I recently had...

Trick Taking as a Movement Mechanism

The 2nd idea I'll discuss was inspired by a comment on Twitter about trick taking being used as a movement mechanic. Here's the outline of a pretty simple game idea where you race through a web of terrains:

Give each player a matching deck, with cards like 1-6 in each of 4 or 5 suits. Use a board that's basically a square grid, where players start on the corners and race for the center space. Each round, the leader chooses a terrain (suit), then each player plays a card that moves their piece on that terrain. The winner of the trick (player who moved the most in the led terrain) gets to be the leader next round and pick the next next terrain type. If you can't (or don't want to?) follow suit, maybe you just move 1 space in the terrain that was led, or not at all. 

There could be effects on the cards (inversely proportional to card value, so low cards have stronger effects), and you get that even if you play off-suit.

I have not yet prototyped this, but I think I know just how I'd do it:
  • I'd use a standard card deck for starters, so 4 suites, give each player A-6 in each suit.
  • Make 44 square tiles with a card icon (spade/heart/diamond/club) on each side, randomly distributed but with each icon on each tile.
  • Make 4 corner tiles, with 2 icons on each of 2 sides (nothing on the exterior sides)
  • Have players race from their corner to the center space (and maybe back, depending on the theme) 
For a first draft, I'd probably have each player shuffle their personal deck an draw a hand of cards from it -- because holding 20 cards would be annoying. Maybe a hand of 6 or 7 cards would work?

... Actually, it might work to use a single deck (of 24 cards, A-6), deal out 6 to each player, then reshuffle after some number of rounds of play.

Randomly choose a start player, that player will lead a card, and move their pawn a number of spaces equal to the rank of that card. You'd have to use all your movement, going from one space to the next (adjacently) moving over icons matching the suit of the card played. With a grid of tiles the way I described above, each interface would have 2 icons (or possibly 1 icon twice), and you could move over an interface if either of those match the suit of your card. No backtracking would be allowed, and if you moved across a double-icon edge and still had more movement, I think that would be a dead end (stop there).

In addition to moving, you'd note or resolve the game text on the card you played.

Then each other player would play a card. In order to move, they'd need to follow suit, but maybe following suit wouldn't be required. When playing off suit (either because you had to, or you wanted to), I think you'd still get to do the game text on the card, but you wouldn't move at all. 

The goal of the game would be to get to the center of the board, or to a series of specific spaces (to the center and then back to your starting space, for example).

I don't know exactly how big a board would be needed, or if the format I described will really work out for the board, but at the very least this idea sounds like it would work alright!

3 new ideas... 1 new game! ... Part 1: Telescoping game idea

 Recently I've had 3 new game ideas, inspired by something I saw on Twitter or heard on a podcast, one of which has already graduated to a physical prototype with 1 test, and a TTS mod (as yet un-played) with some adjustments!

Lest this post get overly long, I'll break it into 3 parts, one for each of the game ideas...

Telescoping game idea

The first idea I'll describe was inspired by something I heard in Keith Burgun's interview with Soren Johnson on his Strategy Can Be Fun podcast. Keith had said something about how Civ games have an interesting aspect in the beginning of building up a city, but after a point, you have so many cities that it becomes tedious to micromanage them all. My thoughts went immediately to "If it's fun to micromanage a city up to a point, then after that point, what if you didn't have to micromanage it anymore?" I'm effectively unfamiliar with everything in the realm of digital games, so I wondered if there existed a game that lets you micromanage a city or something, then at some point takes control of that city away from you, essentially letting it exist as a single unit with some stats associated with it.

Of course, I think of things in terms of tabletop, so I imagined a game divided into 3 or 4 Ages, where in the first age your units are individual humans (or maybe families), and you build up a city. Then in Age 2, your units are cities, and you build up a country. Then in Age 3, your units are countries, and you build up planets. Then finally in Age 4, your units are planets, and you build up a galaxy.

  • Age 1 would be kind of you-vs-the-game, like standard euro-style multiplayer solitaire (or maybe even intentionally, actually solitaire). 
  • Age 2 would be kind of you-vs-your-neighbors. 
  • Age 3 would be kind of you-and-neighbors-vs-other-"teams" (since countries would be made up of cities from multiple different players). 
  • And (here's an interesting twist) Age 4 could somehow be your-table-vs-another-table(!). Like, maybe Age 4 is cooperative, and it's just comparing your score vs other plays of the game

I used to have an idea for a "4X" game that was actually a series of individual games that could be played independently, or in succession, where for example, the end state of EXPLORE becomes the setup/start state for EXPAND. Maybe this could be like that, where each of those Ages is actually an independent game, and you could play them in succession, "attaching" them to each other if you want.

This sounds ambitious, but for the most part it sounds to me like it could work. And if each of the ages is a separate game, then (like my previous 4X idea) they could be played individually as standalone games, or combined to create a bigger game. As for theming, a little thought on that led me to a potentially promising idea... I've always wanted to do a game based on Moana - specifically that song The Way, which describes the people as voyagers, going from island to island (and presumably setting up camp on them). So with that in mind:

Age 1-- Let's make this tribespeople building up the best island they can. There could be "stats" such as population and boats - maybe the same resources builds both boats and houses, so you either have big population and few boats, or small population and many boats, stuff like that. Also, maybe you can do some farming/fishing to get an export good type of thing. For the most part this would be a multiplayer solitaire style game, where you perhaps draft things from a common pool, but otherwise the interaction is very low as you concentrate on your own player board.

Age 2-- Your tribe starts with 1 island, with stats (like Population, Boats, maybe Export), chosen from a few possible options. The one you start with could depend on the configuration of your island board at the end of Age 1, or if you skipped Age 1, then you could just start with a random island. The map has many uninhabited islands, and during the game you'll move your boats and settle them. Maybe your tribe's Population and Boats stats inform how much/how far you can move, and how many/what size settlements you can place at a time. Maybe Exports comes into it in a set collection way (exports of new islands could be printed on board, maybe the ones that match your starting one - or that DON'T match it - are more valuable to you). Now you're competing directly with your opponents for islands but maybe the map is big enough that you're effectively only competing with your neighbors.

Age 3-- Let's divvy the ocean up into regions, where you get 1 cube for each of the islands you had in that region. The regions are now interacting somehow (trade? war?), and you are aligned - at least a little - with the players who share your region, maybe in an area control way. Maybe the goal here is to add cubes of your color to other regions via trade (swapping cubes? adding cubes?) or war (replacing a cube), and scoring is by area majority.

Age 4 -- Maybe it's a little crazy, and outside the scope of the game, but maybe Age 4 could be a cooperative game, with all the players trying to make the best "global" community they can (maybe this is just the whole ocean area where these islands are). Then other groups can compete with that via score.

In talking this through with my friend Mohan, it occurred to me that maybe a 3-act structure would work better... Multiplayer solitaire -> Interactive -> Cooperative, and again, each of those being playable as a standalone game. For players committing to the entire 3-game "campaign." it might be very interesting to see how the culmination being cooperative affects the dynamics in the earlier games. In fact, it might be more interesting if that 3rd game were only MAYBE cooperative, so players could be presented with meta-dynamics like you see in Battlestar Galactica: "My 1st loyalty card says human, so do I try hard to make the humans win? Or hedge my bets and try to keep us on the edge, just in case I turn out to be a Cylon when the 2nd loyalty card comes out?"

I feel like this is a fairly ambitious idea, but it sounds kind of attainable - maybe more-so than the 4X series game idea. Maybe it's got some legs?

Thursday, May 12, 2022

Keeping up with Keeping Up With the Joneses, take 2

Time for a status update on Keeping Up With the Joneses:

I've recently tightened up the card pool, replacing some sub-par cards with ones that feel much more useful. At present, you basically get 2 track bumps on your turn, one from your card, the other from your rondel movement. In addition, the Joneses move N times per round (where N is the number of players in the game). One concern I have about that is in a 2-player game, you get about as many track bumps as the Joneses, which might make it too easy to keep up with them. Then again, I do scale the definition of "close enough to score," so maybe I'm overly concerned about that for no reason. If it does prove to be a problem, I suppose I could just start the Joneses marker up 1 notch for 2 players.

One other thing I've never been 100% on in this game is the effect of the Charity vs Social tracks. They both directly allow you to turn money into points, although they do it a little bit differently:

Charity: You must either pay the listed cost to advance on the track (and collect some points), or else go down on the track and gain 2 money.
Social: Advance on the track, then you may pay 1 money for 1 point up to a certain number of times.
I keep going back and forth over whether those are too similar or not. Nobody has ever brought it up other than me, and while I tend to either ignore the Social track, or else advance on it without spending any money, perhaps that's just my play style (I tend to spend my money on Home and/or Kids).

I do like the dynamic of the Charity track, so if anything were to change, it should probably be the Social track. That said, I do have a few ideas for an alternate Social track effect - something along the lines of:

Score 15/9/6vp. When you advance here, each other player may pay you $3 to advance here as well.

I think this idea has the potential to really feel social. The scoring is 50% higher than standard, so there's some good incentive to get up the track - be that by landing there, or by paying money when someone else does.

One other new twist I tried was moving the Joneses pawn the same number of space the player moves, rather than a random number (from 0-3). I have always been skeptical of this due to the potentially high variance in the game length, and the possibility that it might overload the decision of which card to take by adding another potentially important factor to that decision. I have tried that once so far, and in that game it did not seem to feel like it overloaded our decisions, the length of the game ended up being within the same range as using the random numbers, and the resolution of the turn went a little bit smoother. On the down side, that decision did tend to take a little bit longer on average, and I kind of miss the possibility of the Joneses moving 0 sometimes. 

At this point, I can't make any further progress without getting more testing in to try that new version of the Social track, and make sure all the other details hold up to multiple plays.

Saturday, May 07, 2022

New games discovered recently on BGA (2 hits and a miss)

 Ever since the Pandemic... really ever since my son was born (4 years ago now!) I've done most of my gaming online rather than in person. To be clear, I strongly prefer in-person gaming, but playing online is a lot better than not playing games at all, and in that respect, BoardGameArena has been a lifesaver!

In the past I've played on other online portals, such as Yucata.de, Boiteajeux.net, MaBiWeb.com, etc -- they all have good games, and good implementations, but none of them really stand up to BoardGameArena when it comes to look and user interface. When I started playing online all the time, I roped a couple of friends into playing with me, and pretty quickly decided not to try and get them all to follow 3 or 4 different portals just to play games with me. Instead, we've stuck primarily to BGA. It didn't hurt that about a dozen of my/TMG's game were being implemented there over the last few years! 

Sure, there are some titles on Yucata or wherever that aren't available on BGA, so being exclusive to one portal misses out on those, but that hasn't bothered me too much yet, perhaps because BGA is adding new titles all the time, and there are already a ton of great games on there to begin with.

My friends and I usually find a game we like, play it a bunch of times in a row (all asynch, which is the only way I like to play -- based on my situation I find it difficult-to-impossible to schedule a couple of uninterrupted hours to sit at the computer and play a game), and when we get bored of it, we move on to another for a while. Usually my friends don't care too much what we play, so they leave it to me to find/suggest/start games, and that means I occasionally browse the available titles looking for something interesting that I've been meaning to try. Sometimes a game comes up that I've never even heard of, and if it looks or sounds interesting I like to give it a try.

To be honest, trying an unknown game has been pretty hit and miss (and probably more miss than hit) -- I've been pretty disappointed in games like Quetzal (though it looks beautiful), The Ruhr: A Story Of Coal Trade, and Small Islands. I've found a couple of OK games such as Nanga Parbat (2p only), Ponte Del Diavolo (not bad per se, but too abstract for my tastes), and Marrakech (a bit of silly fun at 2 players, though short lived). As far as "hits" are concerned, of games I'd tried blind I could only really point to Sobek 2-player (based on a card game I was familiar with)... until recently.

About a month ago I tried a dice-and-card drafting entangled decision game from 2020 called Glow that I rather enjoyed.

A couple of weeks ago I stumbled across a press-your-luck deckbuilding game from 2021 that I'd never heard of called Living Forest -- it has great artwork, plays quickly, and I think it does deckbuilding really well.

Those two hits significantly increased my track record for trying new games on BGA, but as a reminder that looks can be deceiving, I also had another big miss recently. I saw a new game go live called Little Factory, which a few people seemed to describe as Splendor + Res Arcana. Splendor is a solid game, even if it's a little straightforward for my personal tastes and has an endgame dynamic I don't care for. I only played Res Arcana once, and it was asynchronously on BGA, and I really got the impression it was the kid of game I'd strongly prefer to play in real time.

Little Factory is an engine building game with excruciatingly incremental turns - each turn you only do one thing: trade several of your lower value cards for 1 higher value card from the supply, or trade 1 of your higher value cards for several lower value ones from the supply. You can get buildings that you activate which let you do additional , specific trades, so that's the engine building part, except the building only works if the card it gets you is currently in the face up supply! Otherwise it does nothing. It's worth points, so that's good, but an engine building game where your engine doesn't work, or only works once, doesn't excite me.

I may be in the minority on this one, a couple of my friends thought Little Factory was interesting enough, but it was a miss for me. But looking at the last month or so on BGA, with regard to blindly trying new games, 2 hits and 1 miss is not a bad track record!

Thursday, April 21, 2022

A Glowing Review

 I don't generally do game reviews, but every once in a while I come across a game that interests me in one way or another, and I spend some time thinking about it. Most recently this applies to a game I found on BoardGameArena.com -- 2021's Glow, by C├ędrick Chaboussit.

Glow is a "stylish" looking game, with a unique theme, and bold, black and white cover art: 


To be frank, I don't care for the back-and-whiteness of the art. I saw this cover on BGA several times and sort of dismissed it. Then one day I was bored, and decided to check it out.

Very simply, Glow is a card-and-dice drafting game which employs one of my latest favorite mechanisms: Entangled Decisions. You start with a character card, which provides some permanent dice, and has some ability printed on it. Each round you draft a companion card, which has some benefits, is worth some number of points, and has an ability printed on it, and depending on which card you choose, you also get some number (and some type) of dice for the turn. Those dice are basically randomly distributed. So when you draft, you're taking a pairing of a card and some dice, and you need to consider which card you want (based on all it's attributes), as well as how many (and which) dice you want for the turn. 

The dice are colored, and have 5 different resources on them. The resource matching the die color occurs twice on the die, making it more likely to come up. This can be important when choosing your dice, because it relates to the likelihood you'll get what you want or need when you roll.

After the draft, you'll roll all your dice, then get a chance to mitigate them. There are re-roll tokens you can collect, and each one can be spent to re-roll 1 or 2 dice. You can spend 3 re-roll tokens to set a die to any face. the neat thing about re-rolls is that you can "buy" them for victory points in a really elegant way. Some spaces on the score track contain a re-roll icon. If you want a re-roll, you may move your score marker backwards on the track until you encounter one of those icons. the icons are spaced very close together in the early game, when scores are low, but once you start generating points, it'll cost more and more points to buy re-rolls.

Once you're happy with your roll results (or at least, once you can no longer re-roll anything), you get to activate all of your cards. The cool thing to note here is that each die can be used once for each card - not just once total. So you can do well to get cards with overlapping color requirements, for example you might have a character that gives you 3 points and a re-roll for every Air-Water pair you roll, and you might pick up a companion that gives you 3 points per water, and another that gives you 6 points if you roll no Earth icons. In that case, a roll of 2 Air + 2 Water (and no Earth) would generate 18 points and 2 re-rolls! 

Another interesting thing about this part of the game is that you are required to activate all of your cards, and some of them have detrimental effects, from losing points, to killing off the companion.

Finally, after activating all the cards you can, you are able to move your pawn on a board by spending your dice. Path spaces each show one of the die icons, and you advance by using an icon of that type. There's another resource called Footprints that you can get which count as wild for that purpose. There are clearings on the map which require footprints to enter, have some type of reward for entering (like a re-roll token), and show a VP value. Ending your turn on a clearing, you're allowed to move your encampment piece to that clearing, which will now be worth that number of points at game end. Perhaps in a future turn you'll upgrade that bonus by moving to a higher value clearing and setting up camp again.

There are some more details, but that's generally how the game goes, and I've noted some of the aspects of each part of the turn that I find cool and interesting. At first glance, with the black and white art, and a bunch of die rolling, I didn't really think the game would be for me. But after a handful of plays, I can say that I'm actually enjoying it quite a bit! I appreciate a lot of the little design decisions that went into it, and it's actually rather clever. That said, I've found a number of things I'd have done differently, or tried to change if I were developing the game, I'll list them below.

So if you're browsing BGA looking for something to play, and have time for a short (8 turn) game, definitely give Glow a try! 

Here are my current thoughts about how I might change Glow:

  • It might be neat (though probably unrealistic) if the dice were d10s with 4 sides matching the die color, 2 sides each matching "adjacent" colors, and 1 side each matching "opposite" colors (like on a Magic color wheel)
  • I've always disliked paying a resource to re-roll a die and getting the same result, so maybe that could be disallowed somehow
  • For the map, I'd like to see some incentive to visit multiple villages, rather than just get to the 20vp one (or maybe the 15vp one) by the end. Currently setting up camp mid-game just insulates you from failing to reach the big ones. Like maybe a couple of points, or a reroll or something when you set up encampment
  • MAYBE have that black die in the game from the beginning, not just if that one bird comes into play (I don't know if I'd actually like that)
  • If you're at the bottom of the score track, the last (first?) re-roll icon could maybe just say "set all your dice exactly how you want them"
  • The spells from that one card: why are they random? let the player draw N, deal out 1 to each opponent (and discard the extra) or something
  • And I wonder about balance on some of the cards, though as a draft game maybe that doesn't matter
  • I'm not sure, but it seems like maybe the icons are treated as if, say, clouds are more common than the others... only they're not

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

The List: circa April, 2022

It's been a while since I've taken a look at The List, and I've got some updates to make! Let's get right to it:  

Published Games - I got to add a little bit to this section:

Terra Prime (BGG)
Eminent Domain (BGG) [new edition coming 2023 from a new publisher!]
Eminent Domain: Escalation (BGG) (expansion) [new edition coming 2023 from a new publisher!]
Eminent Domain: Exotica (BGG) (expansion) [new edition coming 2023 from a new publisher!]
Eminent Domain: Oblivion (BGG) (expansion) [new edition coming 2023 from a new publisher!]
Eminent Domain: Microcosm (BGG) [theoretically signed by a publisher!]
Isle of Trains (Co-Design with Dan Keltner) (BGG) [new edition coming 2022/2023 from Dranda Games!]
Isle of Trains: All Aboard (Co-Design with Dan Keltner) [New edition with included expansion]
Crusaders: Thy Will Be Done (BGG[now available for preorder from Renegade!]
Crusaders: Divine Influence (BGG) (expansion) [finally available for preorder from Renegade!]
- Crusaders: Crimson Knight (expansion) [coming soon (2023?) from Renegade!]
- Crusaders: Amber Knight (expansion) [coming soon (2023?) from Renegade!]
Dungeon Roll: Winter Heroes (BGG)
- Gold West: Bandits promo (BGG)
- Gold West: Trading Post promo (BGG)
- Yokohama: Achievements & Free Agents promo (BGG)
Brainfreeze
- Amun-Re expansion [coming soon from Alley Cat Games with 20th Anniversary edition!]

Finished But Unpublished Games - in line to be published:
Eminent Domain Origins [Ready to print] [theoretically signed by a publisher!]
Eminent Domain: Chaos Theory (dice game) [Ready for art] 
[theoretically signed by a publisher!]
Deities & Demigods (Co-Design with Matthew Dunstan) [signed by a publisher!]

Currently Pitching Games - "actively" looking for a publisher (though I haven't actively been doing much of anything lately!):

Apotheosis (Co-Design with Rick Holzgrafe) [pitching to publishers]
Sails & Sorcery [with Michael Mindes] [pitching to publishers]
Riders of the Pony Express (BGG) [pitching to publishers]
Exhibit (BGG) [pitching to publishers]
Keeping Up with the Joneses [pitching to publishers]
All For One (BGG) (Co-Design with David Brain) [pitching to publishers]

"Finished" But Unpublished Games - abandoned or backburnered designs that are "done":
Dice Works (BGG)
Wizard's Tower (BGG) [Abandoned]
Suburban Sprawl
Watch It Played [Abandoned]
Now Boarding [Abandoned]
Rolling RealmsJaffee Realms (for Jamey Stegmaier's Rolling Realms)

Current Active Designs - these are the games I'm actively testing or working on:

Backburnered Designs - I kid myself into thinking that I'm still working on these:
- Isle Of Trains: The Board Game (Co-Design with Dan Keltner)
Joan of Arc

Promising Recent ideas:
Worker-ception [with David Short]
False Prophet [Mancala/Worker Placement]
Come And Play [Sesame Street memory/rondel game]
Candyland Game [Candyland/No Thanks mashup]


Old Standbys - games which have been around, 1/2 done and untouched, for years:
8/7 Central [Abandoned]
Hot & Fresh [Abandoned]
Reading Railroad [Abandoned]
Kilauea [a designer showed interest in co-designing, but that didn't go anywhere]
Automatown [with Michael Brown]
Dynasty [I still think this one has potential]

Misc and Really Old Stuff - most of this I'll probably never get back to, but I like keeping it around just in case:
9-Ball
Blockade Runner
- Roman Emperors (my version of someone else's game)
- Admirals of the Spanish Main (my version of someone else's game)
-Scourge of the High Seas [deckbuilding game with 2 center rows]

Here are notable comments on some of the updates I've recently made to The List:

Amun-Re expansion [coming soon from Alley Cat Games with 20th Anniversary edition!]
I got a development gig helping Alley Cat Games create expansion modules for their upcming 20th Anniversary edition of Amun-Re. It was fun working on a classic euro, and a game that I've enjoyed for almost 2 decades. I had the opportunity to both develop some of the content created by the Alley Cat team, as well as suggest/create some additional content. I even have some leftover content that they didn't end up using, that I think could still be worthwhile - another module, and a not-quite-finished solo mode. Perhaps some of that will see the light of day in a future expansion (I feel that's doubtful), or in the variants forums on BGG.

Eminent Domain (BGG) [new edition coming 2023 from a new publisher!]
Eminent Domain: Escalation (BGG) (expansion) [new edition coming 2023 from a new publisher!]
Eminent Domain: Exotica (BGG) (expansion) [new edition coming 2023 from a new publisher!]
Eminent Domain: Oblivion (BGG) (expansion) [new edition coming 2023 from a new publisher!]
I managed to sign Eminent Domain and its expansions to the publisher of a lot of my favorite games over the years. They haven't announced anything yet, so I won't be specific, but watch for an EmDo big box some time next year!

If that goes well, I'm told the publisher is interested in my EmDo ancillary products as well: Microcosm, Chaos Theory, and Eminent Domain Origins. I put in the contract that they have the option to publish those under the same contract, to make it easy for them to do so. I look forward to more info about this becoming available. Here's hoping the line does well for them!

Isle of Trains: All Aboard (Co-Design with Dan Keltner) [New edition with included expansion]
I was approached by Dranda Games, who wanted to pick up the license for Isle of Trains. Dan and I had created the All Aboard expansion for the original publisher something like 7 years ago, but nothing ever happened with that outside of a little bit of artwork.

Dranda is excited to include All Aboard, and they're running a kickstarter later this year for a deluxe version! They did some development on the game, which I decided ahead of time that I was going to just be OK with. I'm excited to play the game in its final form!

Crusaders: Thy Will Be Done (BGG[now available for preorder from Renegade!]
Crusaders: Divine Influence (BGG) (expansion) [finally available for preorder from Renegade!]
- Crusaders: Crimson Knight (expansion) [coming soon from Renegade!]
- Crusaders: Amber Knight (expansion) [coming soon from Renegade!]
Renegade Game Studios has picked up the Crusaders line. They are reprinting the base game, including the deluxe version, and they're also finally making available the long awaited Divine Influence expansion - the one that's been printed and sitting in China for 2+ years! They'll be reprinting the expansion as well once that stock is gone, and they've also committed to my 5th/6th player Crimson/Amber Knight expansions!

Deities & Demigods [signed by a publisher!]
A publisher signed Deities & Demigods, and we're setting it in their own fantasy universe. They asked me to make the game a little heavier, more "4X-y," so I added a deity who's action is to explore. There are now face down tiles on each non-city, non-quest space, in 5 different colors (or "terrains"). You can use the new deity to move your troops a little bit, and/or explore these face down tiles. It came together pretty well, I think, and I've passed the game off to the publisher's in-house developer for any finishing touches they might want to make.

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Exploration mechanics - revisited

 A few months ago I posted some thoughts I was having about exploration mechanics, specifically for the new deity I was adding to Deities & Demigods. In the end, I decided for that game to go with the higher level action allowing you to explore more than once at a time, rather than drawing multiple tiles from which to choose (representing better preparedness, luck, or more time searching).

Back to the drawing board?

More recently I have been asked to consult on a game, and this game has a different exploration mechanism. In the first version I saw (which I understand was far from the designer's first version) had face down tiles, and player's avatars had some movement allowance, and you'd move however many spaces (skipping over face down tiles if you like), then flip up the tile you ended up on. I commented on this s it's a personal pet peeve of mine: I hate when a game asks me to make a choice without giving me any way to pick between the different options.

The latest version of the game is structurally pretty different, but still has the same exploration mechanism, and it really gets my goat! So the other day I racked my brain and posted on Twitter and a couple of Discord channels looking for various exploration mechanics people had seen and liked, hoping to find something that I felt worked better than having to randomly pick between a few different face down things every turn (even if it's only really in the early game, until the map is mostly face up).

Crowdsourcing mechanisms

Most of the replies I got were not that helpful (and I wasn't particularly specific about the game, so I expected that), but in the end I think my crowdsourcing bore fruit, as somebody mentioned the way resources get revealed in Gold West. I had never thought of that as an exploration mechanism before, but I think in this case it would really work well. 

Gold West style exploration

The way Gold West works is that you have a board full of face-down tiles, with a few of them face-up. On each player's turn, they will claim one of the face-up tiles, which confer resources (in that game it's important that you get resources every turn, so that's mandated by rule). When you claim a tile, you then turn face up each tile adjacent to that one, making more resource options available. This easily works well with an exploration theme, imagine walking through a dark dungeon or cavern, where the surrounding area (1 tile radius) is illuminated by your torch - it's just like that! So you can see what's nearby (not just where you're standing), but the information horizon is still limited. Starcraft and Warcraft do this same thing as well.

This solves all the problems I was having with the exploration in the game I'm consulting on: It allows a player to go to the tile they want (given a subset to choose from), and it maintains a feeling of exploration. In addition, it works to kind of gate the mind- and late-game tiles, because currently you're allowed to just walk past face down tiles and skip them, and that feels anticlimactic to me.

Keep this one in the back pocket

I have not yet pitched this idea to the designer, and it's possible he prefers the feel of the current mechanism better. I will admit that I might not be in line with the target audience for that particular type of thing, and some players might prefer the feeling of discovery when you flip the tile and find out what you'll get for the turn. If that's the case, I'm going to be sure to keep this mechanism in my back pocket for the next time I'm looking for an exploration mechanism in a game!