About Grant Rodiek

I'm a professional designer of digital games. I design board and card games as a hobby. My first game, Farmageddon, is being published by 5th Street Games. I'm obsessed with my corgi and I love spending too much money on good food with my girlfriend.

Josh and Grant Discuss 3.0

Reinvention

Post by: Joshua Buergel and Grant Rodiek

If you read the Raising My Bar blog post, you may have a hunch that we decided to take another look at Hocus Poker to make it better. Spoiler: We did. We actually really liked Hocus Poker 2.0 and most of our testers did as well. Yes, some didn’t, but I (Grant) have to say it’s one of my strongest testing prototypes with a wide range of players in the past few years. But, after a tough discussion, we decided it wasn’t the game we wanted to release. Not under the Hocus Poker name as a full, published title with Hyperbole Games. Join us as we talk about this decision!

Grant: Let’s get the easy part out of the way. I was really concerned, from a business angle, about including tokens in the game AND not taking advantage of all 108 cards. Generally speaking, poker-sized cards are printed in sheets of 54. Once you have 55, excluding art and other things, you’re paying for 108. This is a bit of a generalization, so bear with us.

Tokens increase the cost of the product. You have to purchase a die mold (one time cost) and they add to the manufacturing cost. Plus, tokens more or less require a 2-piece box, which is expensive. Shifting to 108 cards and no tokens allows for a lower cost and more efficient product that can also be made in a tuck box. That’ll really save on price, which can be passed down to our consumers.

Josh: It essentially comes down to the size of a press sheet. You can fit 55 cards on a half sheet, but that’s it. I’ve worked under similar constraints in the past. For instance, you can fit 280 1/2″ counters on a single 8.5″ X 11″ sheet, so for Prussia’s Glory, I had exactly 1120 counters available on my four sheets (which was harder to fit than you’d guess!).

Grant: So many counters. I think it’s safe to say your cup overran with Prussians. And who wants that?

Josh: Of more concern to me is that the mana tokens would have sucked. I played Hocus with nice poker chips. Little tokens would have been terrible. But leaving them out would have been an incomplete game, and upgrading them would have been prohibitive. It’s a rough spot.

So that’s the commercial side. But there’s another reason why Grant opened a discussion on further design, and that’s skill. In Poker, the skill comes from stack management, understanding odds and pot odds, reading people, and patience. In eliminating betting, a lot of that went away.

Grant: Hocus 2.0 was a nice little game that eliminated play elimination, much of the stress from poker, and was relatively simple. I think with the right audience or publisher, Hocus 2.0 would have done fine. I’m just not sure we could have succeeded with it the way we hope.

There wasn’t much in it to make it sticky. When a game is about $20 (which is approximately the old price with the tokens), you need a reason to keep going back other than “this is pleasant.” You need the ability to improve, the desire to win, a slight need for strategy. We felt pretty strongly the game needed a skill component. Not a big one, but something. We didn’t think that 2.0 had that.

We had Uno Poker and we wanted more Coloretto Poker. I mean that in terms of skill and experience, though I’ll admit right now that is a dangerous comparison in both cases.

I was chasing a lot of random mechanics and ideas. Josh wisely brought it to a very high level. We discussed how other simple card games introduce skill and settles on a few suitable avenues for us to pursue: hand management, timing (of the game, moments to move), action building, and bluffing.

Josh: For a card game, especially one with a broad intended target, you can’t have a huge menu of actions and have things work out. The experience needs to be more focused. I thought we needed to decide what levers we should have players pushing before we struck out on new mechanics. Getting the criteria straight first was important.

And I love timing as a skill component. Knowing when to start buying Victory cards in Dominion is a really fun decision, and it comes down to controlling the pace of the game. I wanted that.

Grant: I agree on timing. Knowing when to strike is a great idea. Before we continue, we should also talk about other things we wanted to address. I was excited to get a chance to start without requiring a round structure. There are times when it’s useful to structure play around rounds, but I felt it had made our game a bit too static and predictable. Every round had a very known quantity and it wasn’t really changing much.

Removing the round also let us remove unnecessary structure and rules. In a way, it simplified the game, while allowing for more options. That’s a good win. It already broadens the game in a way that allowed for us to introduce more skill (timing, as Josh noted) and more variety between plays.

Another thing I brought up were our Spells. We really love the variety they provide, but when we discussed them, we felt they were basically variations on the same thing. Some of our spells were really unique, but most didn’t really change the game. In fact, most were just a slightly different twist on a previous spell. That was a hard one to bite off. We wanted each Spell to be potent and unique and we weren’t getting that.

We also asked the question: do we need Hold ‘em? While we were on the topic of bold changes, we realized it might be time to disengage from Hold ‘Em.

Josh: Just to be clear, Hold ‘Em is brilliant, an inner-circle game that deserves every bit of its popularity. And that’s part of the problem: it is so finely honed that we were suffering by comparison. There wasn’t enough oxygen for our design. Grant and I were independently thinking about changing away from Hold ‘Em, so it was time to take off the shackles. By moving away, we opened up a lot more daylight to explore our chosen space.

Grant: Every design should have a box, so to speak. Limitations to work within. We were limiting ourselves a little too much. Hold ‘Em is great, as Josh noted. But, we were not giving ourselves room to evolve and create something more unique. In a way, we dialed it back to the original idea: poker plus spells. Not Hold ‘em plus spells.

Josh: An element sorely missing from the game was bluffing. We’d heard this complaint from testers, and tried to address it a bit, but it just wasn’t there, not enough. For a game to have bluffing, there needs to be risk, signaling, and partial information. We had a little of the first, some of the third, and not enough of the second.

Grant: These concerns and desires led to some of the most thoughtful design discussions I’ve had. We had those “What is a thing?” type discussions that seem so basic, but reveal so much. When you’re designing, I encourage you do the same, even if only occasionally. We often spend so much time to dig around “what’s cool” or make a broken thing work, but truly seeking to understand something is very useful and interesting.

Bluffing is not only a moment that is rules-light, but crazy deep, but it’s a point of humor for players and a great skill element. It’s a great modifier of randomness as well, which is why it factors in so strongly to so many poker games.

As an example, look how much depth and joy comes from Cockroach Poker, which is a game that contains almost no rules and is pure bluffing. We aren’t Cockroach Poker, but we wanted a sliver of that.

Josh: I had a good time trying to deconstruct what goes into bluffing. I think it’s really easy to overdo that sort of blue-sky thinking and never actually do things, but in a case like this, it was a very useful exercise. Sometimes, a little beard-stroking can be the right thing to do.

Grant: I’m tempted here to post a photo of the last time I had a beard a few weeks ago. I had fun shaving that one down into mustaches.

Josh: But let’s move away a bit from the abstract here and talk about remedies. We wanted to have player input in the pace of the game, we wanted to re-introduce bluffing, we wanted hand management, and we wanted tougher action selection. Oh, and we wanted to completely eliminate non-card components. Tall order!

Grant: We both gravitated early to the notion of cards with variable points on them, 1-5, that would be used to form a pot of some sort. I can’t even remember (already, how sad) how we arrived at this, but the gist was that players would all contribute to a pot. Each of them would know a single card in the pot, but nothing else. The element I thought was really cool was that each player would be dealt these cards randomly at the beginning. I may have a bunch of high value cards, which is scary, but it’s information.

Josh: It was introduced pretty early. Specifically, once we decide that Runes are cards again, making them variable value is natural. From there, given that we want bluffing to be in the game, having the values of the Runes in the hand becomes a really great starting point. For me, it reminds me a bit of the demand tiles in Automobile: you have some idea of the value of a particular hand, but not complete information. Knowing that your card is powerful changes your behavior, and the other players can key off that. But, you might be able to confuse the table and get them to chance garbage. It certainly seemed to have potential.

Grant: I was also thinking a little of Arctic Scavengers. Every round, one player knows the value of the item everyone is fighting over. It’s a fun and simple twist to the competition.

Josh: It’s a mechanic with a grand pedigree, in other words. Stuck at the end of that email was a simple note, which was: “Oh, what if you’re building more than one hand?”

Grant: That was such a genius idea. We did away with strict rounds and had this roving series of hands. Basically, players could fight over the pot whenever they wanted. But, if you only had one hand, it was a bit of a high risk and somewhat of a showstopper for you. You’d spend your hand in the Action and would have to start over. But, if you had two hands, you could pick one to use while building the other. The right tool for the job, so to speak.

Josh: Basically, at any given time, I’m always looking for ways to steal Uwe Rosenberg’s ideas. But not from Agricola, from his early card games. Here, it’s a little bit of a Bohnanza thing. Trying to decide when the right moment was to push in a hand seemed like such a fertile field for exploration.

Grant: I feel there’s a bean joke here.

Josh: You’re the guy with the farming game on his resume, that’s probably your turf.

Grant: Sadly, the bean card is the card I want to replace more than anything. Thanks for bringing up my shame.

Josh: There’s also a little bit of a little-known Martin Wallace here, 1630 Something, which had you slowly building up influence in countries and then trying to decide what the right moment was to cash those in. It’s a mechanic that has always stuck with me. Trying to gauge the table and decide when to commit your resources, when you’ve spent several of your turns building it up and there’s no reward for second place, that’s going to be a tense, difficult decision if it’s done correctly.

We also had quite a lot of discussion on what to do with spells. How players acquired them, what they were going to cost now that we were ditching Mana, what sort of effects there were available to us.

Grant: We shifted to an Action system. On your turn you’d choose one action and do that. We’ve evolved it a little since, but it basically revolves around drawing cards, getting a spell from the few available, USING a spell (which are often enhanced basic actions), or declaring a showdown to compete for the prize of variable and hidden runes discussed above.

Each turn, you’d obtain more cards, but at the end of your turn, you had to add them to one of your two hands that you were building.

Josh: I think the key decision leading down that path was your proposal of a continuous turn structure. Basically, the observation was that the game might be better served by not having the rounds/turns be so predictable. Previously, you knew exactly how many actions you had to improve your hand, and it made the arc of each round pretty predictable. Spell costs could only really increase a certain amount, hands would only evolve so far, it felt pretty static. By making the Showdowns intermittent and dispersed within the regular turns, there was more unpredictability. It also meant that the cost of spending a turn was both a more viable thing for players to do and also harder to evaluate, giving another area for players to be skilled. We both have admiration for the continuous, rapid turns of Ascending Empires, and aiming for that type of pace was a laudable goal.

Grant: There’s a lot of inspirational thievery in our new design. So, let’s recap, because we’re getting a bit long-winded here.

  • Limited information on the value of the pot. Everyone knows something.
  • Brisk turns built around a single key decision. What do you want to do right now?
  • Roundless structure that allows for more variety in play. Do you go for the pot now? Do you continue building your hand? Do you grab a spell? We put the pace under the control of our players.

We haven’t yet talked about Spells, problems with people being able to compete for Runes whenever, or Runes being uniformly good and the problems that leads to. We also haven’t discussed why this all doesn’t quite support bluffing, yet. But, it’s a good change and it shows a lot of promise. Any final thoughts, Josh?

Josh: Restlessness is good! Whenever you’ve gotten antsy with this thing, it’s gotten better. And, the nice thing is, the 2.0 version of the game is still there. It’s still good! By the time we’re done, we might actually have a couple of poker-with-spells games when the dust settles.

Grant: Yeah, whatever art we obtain for the final version, I’d like to use some of it to make Hocus 2.0 look nice. We can then make a nice PNP or put it on a POD site for interested folks. I think we can make $8s of dollars with such a venture. I try not to be restless for restlessness sake, but pursue this with the intensity of a bean farmer chasing that gold harvest.

BOOM. Nailed it.

Raising My Bar

weight_bar_rubber_fixed_barbells

Post by: Grant Rodiek

This is a long, very personal, and in parts, difficult post that’s taken me a few days to write and edit. Bear with me!

I noted the other morning on Twitter that one of the more difficult skills I’ve learned as a designer is when to recognize good isn’t good enough. Throughout your design career, you have to recognize when something isn’t working. That’s one of the first lessons. But, knowing when a good thing isn’t a great thing? And it SHOULD be? That’s a bit more difficult and it requires a large scraping of honesty and inward reflection.

Honestly, it doesn’t take much experience to recognize something broken, and if you’re like 99% of us, that’s the majority of every game’s life span. We joke at work (making games) that games suck until they don’t. I stand by this wholeheartedly. When your game is broken, it’s obvious because the tuning is ridiculous, or mechanics just don’t make sense, or people aren’t having fun. This is a skill to develop, of course, but really it requires paying attention.

But, recognizing that good isn’t good enough? That takes a different skill set. That takes a level of honesty, an understanding of your market, both in terms of competition and consumer, and in terms of your own personal goals.

This will be an honest and personal post about my design and entrepreneurial ambitions. I realize these posts are useless if they are solely about me and cannot be applied generally, so I’ll do my best to write it in a way that it’s meaningful for others.

Let’s get to answering that question. How do you know when good is good enough?

One element that has really driven this change in my perspective is working with publishing partners on my games. Publishers have great stakes in your product once they have signed it. They need to publish 2500-5000 (or more) copies, which requires significant capital investment. For that, they need to spend thousands of dollars on art and graphic design. Above all, they need to earn a profit and make enough to fund additional copies or other projects. It needs to sell and it needs to represent their brand favorably. Your publisher not only has a desire for your game to be great, but a fundamental need.

In a few cases I’ve had publishers say “this, this, and this are nice. We need to throw the rest of this away and make it way better.” The good news is, they were right! The important part was that they recognized what worked and what was special. They saw the foundation and knew where to start building. The wheels start spinning and I begin to ask myself if I can begin to apply these critiques myself.

Really, I think knowing when something is good enough is about recognizing missed opportunities. If those opportunities exist, and they haven’t been explored, you may not know it’s good enough. If you find yourself thinking about them, then there may be something lacking in your core experience.

I find this happens not when my game is busted or falling apart, but when it reaches long periods of stability. You need to fundamentally understand your game, both over the span of its life, but in its current iteration. If you’re changing your game every test, this is difficult to observe. It isn’t that you notice imbalance, or even dominant strategies (which you shouldn’t have), but your mind starts wandering. This is difficult to nail down, but walk with me. In a way, it’s a static romantic relationship. You aren’t fighting. You like each other. But, where’s the spark?

To look at some of my personal examples, York had a good card mechanic, solid pacing, a nice action system, a good point structure for 4 players, a nice battle system, and good tactics content. It also had a neat idea involving a fort structure. But, it lacked breadth, theme, variance (for replays), and enough strategic depth. These were missed opportunities that needed to be explored. Its individual elements were almost a bit too trimmed and smoothed. It wasn’t the most elegant game — that’s not what I’m saying. But every part was meticulously tested and refined and before too long, I had this little, lock-step Prussian experience. It needed some spark to it.

Sol Rising (then Blockade) had a solid movement and combined arms mechanic, did neat things combining several ships as a single control group (i.e. squadron), and used a fun circular board. But, it entirely lacked scenarios and breadth, the dice needed to be simplified, it lacked opportunities for player customization, and made expansions difficult due to its costly components. Without changing it to its card based format, it would never have a chance at being a great game.

Here are some quick signs you may have missed opportunities in your design:

  1. You find yourself constantly designing expansions or variants. You’re restless.
  2. You find that you don’t have GOOD answers to questions posed by testers. You’re uncertain.
  3. You find that you have too many darlings you’re willing to kill. You’re reckless. Every design needs a thing or two that’s worth fighting for. You need an Alamo.
  4. You find yourself holding frequent what-if thought experiments. You’re introspective.

The soul of a designer when a game is pitched, self-published, or on a shelf, should be at peace. Rejection should come from customers who don’t enjoy this type of game, or publishers for whom the game isn’t the right fit. But, you should not be restless, uncertain, reckless, or overly introspective.

AND NOW, a detour to provide more context for this post. I’m going to talk about my goals as an entrepreneur and publisher.

While steadily testing Hocus Poker the last few months, I also finally took the plunge to form my LLC. The purpose of the LLC is to self-publish smaller card games as a means for me to learn and grow as an entrepreneur. I won’t divert all of my designs to this, merely smaller ones that fit my brand and can be produced without using my home as collateral.

Hocus Poker is meant to be the first game to be released in 2015. I previously used phrases like “I’m doing this [business] just for fun” and “I just need to break even,” but I’ve stricken those from my vocabulary. Those can’t be my goals or operating motives, because I’ll then act according to them. When the goal becomes self-sufficiency driven by profits, it really ups the stakes. My goal had to change to success by the standard definition, not a lame one. There’s no room for cowards.

Some of the things I’m expecting of my LLC and its titles include:

  • I need to sell 2500 copies in 2 years. That’s over 100 copies per month.
  • I need to get the games into distribution. Without the FLGS, I’m sunk.
  • I need to attend minor, cost-effective cons initially to build an audience from face to face interaction. This means hustle and logistics.
  • I need to pay off the cost of doing business in CA every year. This isn’t cheap. I now know why people form in Delaware.
  • I need to make games with potential to be picked up by foreign partners.
  • I need to make games with expansion possibilities. I intend to support successful titles both to support fans, but also drive revenue.
  • I need to release 1 game per year. Assuming the occasional one is successful, there need to be enough products in the pipe to keep the lights on.

Not all of these have equal weight. By that, I mean these are all part of a multi-year plan and some are more important than others.

I recently heard a Ludology episode in which North Star Games owner Dominic Crapuchettes was interviewed. Something he said really struck me for its boldness and clarity of vision. Dominic noted that they designed Evolution such that it could win the Spiel des Jahres. As Tiger Woods was groomed for golf, Evolution was groomed for the Spiel des Jahres.

Think about that! He publicly stated, with utter confidence, “we seek to win the Spiel des Jahres with our strategy games.”

Obviously, that isn’t my goal. Goals are useful if they are achievable and jokes if otherwise. I probably already have people snickering with some of the notes above. But, I need to target goals within reach that are similarly ambitious. I need to find my relative Spiel des Jahres.

Let’s swing this back around to product development. I’ve returned to my previous hyper price-conscious state. I’ve always been obsessed with price and am convinced it’s a massive component to Farmageddon’s success. Therefore, a $20 MSRP for Hocus Poker won’t cut it. It needs to be $15, tops. Why? It’s an easier purchase for people on the fence, which is pretty much everyone as I’m an unknown entity. It’s also a great value for the game we’re delivering, which is fundamental to drive word of mouth.

Amusingly enough, the COO of Steve Jackson Games also thinks this is a good idea, so maybe I’m onto something! Stop and read his post here. It’s really excellent, not just for publishers, but designers seeking to be published.

If I’m examining Good Enough through the lens of price, I can easily see missed opportunities for Hocus. As we noted in a previous post, we’re essentially paying for 108 cards, but are only using 80 currently. We’re also using punch board components, which make the game a bit more fiddly (components always do!), more costly, less portable (ex: it is more difficult to play at a picnic table in the park), and I would argue that they don’t add enough fun to justify their existence. Plus, if I’m being honest, they’re going to increase the cost to the consumer in two ways: more expensive box and more expensive components, not to mention initial setup costs in molds for the tokens!

That, then, is another way by which to judge Good Enough. Does the cost, product-wise or cost-wise, of a feature or component, justify its existence with positive, fun driving benefits? After some thoughts, I can say with some certainty that the tokens in Hocus Poker do not.

Cost is a big factor and something I’m painfully aware of even as a designer (i.e. when I’m not wearing my publisher pantalones). In addition to the cost per unit, I have to consider the cost per run. The investment in making the game exist at all.

I was always struck by Jamey Stegmaier putting a guarantee on his games. You can return them within the first month, full refund, no questions asked. Am I willing to put a guarantee on the game? I should be. And, whether I use crowdfunding or not, would I be willing to put the full value behind the game to publish it myself? Again, I should be.

A few more notches on the bar, it seems.

The Roles

An insight I’ve gained working in a highly structured, professional game development environment is that different management groups have different priorities and responsibilities. I’m going to toss out an observation that I think is apt in regards to the board game space. The designer’s primary responsibility is the game and the vision. The publisher’s primary responsibility is to the customer. Now, this doesn’t mean the designer doesn’t care about the customer. Nor does it mean the publisher doesn’t care about the game. But, they each have their role and highest priority.

In applied language, this mean’s the designer’s role is to make the game great and find a home for it. The publisher’s role is to find great games and in some ways, act as the gate keeper and make the game successful in the market. This isn’t good enough, we pass. This is going to be good enough, but it needs more work.

If you’re self-publishing, as I’m seeking to do with some of my titles, like Hocus Poker, I suddenly have to fill both roles. I must do so viciously and with clarity. With Sol Rising, I get to wait for my publisher to say “it’s good, let’s ship it.” With Hocus, I have to carry that entire burden myself. Do you see the difference?

I have to bounce between devout belief and idealism in my design, then flip entirely to the side of stern, nigh-villainous publisher. It reminds me of the standard parenting tip that you can’t be both a parent and best friend and also shines light on why so many publishers don’t double as designers. Sure, they design stuff occasionally, but many people who are serious in the hobby focus on one or the other.

Great. Now I need to have long, detailed conversations with myself about my strengths and failings.

Peer Pressure

As a final parting note, good enough is defined by one’s peers. Nobody joins the NBA and says they aspire to be that second string dude who never gets to breakaway his breakaway pants. Note: That’s a John Mulaney joke I’m stealing. No, you point out the biggest, baddest dude (or dudette) and set that as your goal.

My adult life has been spent in PC games, so I look to Valve and Blizzard as standard setters. Firaxis too. You know, the guys who made Half Life 2, Portal, World of Warcraft, and X-Com.

In board games, I look to those who fill my shelf with great games. Gamewright, Academy, Plaid Hat, Portal, and GMT. They set the bar in my eyes, which may be the most ridiculous  thing I’ve stated yet. Selling 2500 copies pales in comparison, right?

It’s a long term haul, but it’s worth it. Look at how Blizzard could sell 10 million copies of a ham sandwich to their legion of fans. Look at how Plaid Hat redefines what one should expect to sell in pre-orders. Look at how Imperial Settlers sits comfortably on top of the Hotness the last few days, even with the Kennerspiel announcement (I realize this isn’t scientific AT ALL). In this excellent story about how Sid Sackson developed Acquire, I took note of how the author devoted a paragraph to praise Hans im Glück for their push to develop greatness. An excerpt:

“There are a number of exceptions, however – and none greater than the German publisher Hans im Glück.  They _actively_ rework designs; more than any other publisher I’m familiar with they are willing to completely rework a game in order to get more out of the central design that was submitted.”

That’s the reputation I seek, potentially foolishly. I seek it with the knowledge it may be 10 years and a half dozen games out. I also realize my little LLC might not survive that long.

Concluding Thoughts

I’ve gone over quite a few of the tools I use to gauge whether something is good enough. These included:

  • Among other things, if my mind is restless with the design, it might not be good enough.
  • Does the price per copy provide enough fun for my customers?
  • Is the game good enough to sell through in a marketplace full of excellent games?
  • Can I proudly put the game next to those of my favorites on my shelf?
  • Would I give it a guarantee?
  • Would I self-finance it?
  • Can I sign off on it both as a designer AND a publisher?

Is this good enough may then be a very easy question to answer with so many tools and data points. The hard part might not be answering it, but instead recognizing the answer and using it to inform your next steps.

Thoughts?

Table Top for Four, Please

Sol

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Sol Rising is about to enter the development phase with my publisher, Victory Point Games. They had a few existing obligations, such as their recently concluded Kickstarter for I Say, Holmes, and other games already in development. But, I’m happy to wait and I am SO thrilled to have the additional help and professional eyes on the project.

One of the first elements we’ve begun discussing are the components. Where to use tokens versus cards? How to maximize the efficiency of our token sheets and allow for enough space on the board. One thing we’ve discussed to reduce crowding is to make environmental effects like asteroids flat card stock pieces and Units thicker punch board that goes on top of it. Basically, make these flat pieces extensions of the board. This gives us the visual effect without requiring a massive board filled with bulky pieces.

The other cool development is the challenge from the publisher to create a proper 3-4 player mode. This has come to light in a few ways, some simpler than others.

  • We have proper rules and components to support space brawls (i.e. free to play mode) for 3-4 players in either team or free for all modes.
  • We have added a variant to 11 of the 12 campaign missions to allow for team play. Have an extra friend over and want to still play Mission 7? Okay! Add a few destroyers, modify this one rule, and go!
  • We’re trying to design a mini-campaign (3-6 missions) designed from the start for up to 4 players.

Now, all, some, or none of this might make it into the final version of the game. I want to be clear that in development, things can change. The good news is, this is a priority for VPG and me and we’re taking it very seriously.

So, what does it mean to craft a campaign that works with 4 players instead of 2? My immediate thought was to simply add more units. Just make every fight bigger. But, that seemed really boring. Players already have big fights in the 2 player campaign. The last 3 Missions are already large fleet battles that don’t need modifications to support 4 players. Teams just divide up ownership, like they would in a big game of X-Wing, and go at it.

We return to the question. How do we make a campaign that is unique and interesting for 4 players? The answer was staring at me from the 2 player campaign. One of my goals for the campaign was to make it highly replayable and make every scenario unique for both players. In most missions, opposing players have divergent objectives. One might want to capture something, whereas the other is simultaneously trying to escort ships to safety. One is on a mission of destruction, whereas the other is trying to bide their time for reinforcements. Each player had a unique perspective and outlook on the mission.

Therefore, the task was simple, at least in thought: give each player in the mission, all 4, a unique perspective. Give every player something special. The hope, then, is that each player has a lot of replayability. “Ooo! I really want to be in command of the landing force next time.” Or, “Playing as the station commander looked interesting.”

There’s a rabbit hole of complexity I can chase, but I think if I frame it from the outset, give myself a box with limits, it’ll lead to faster development and stronger, simpler choices.

Neptune

Fictionally, this will be a separate story that takes place after the events of the campaign in the Jovian belts. At the end of that campaign, the Martian squadron in Neptune departs to reinforce the Jovian fleet, which has left Neptune exposed. Not so much to Terran forces, but to the pirate fleets that raid planets in the outer rim. Unlike Mars and Terra, Neptune doesn’t have an official navy per se, but a police force. I’m introduce Fleet Marshal Georgia Ark, who has been tasked to use her limited resources to track down the pirates and put a stop to them. In the absence of Martian fire power, and with the knowledge that they won’t return soon, the pirates have grown more aggressive, violent, and greedy.

HAE_6

Within this fiction, I see some opportunities:

  • The pirates should behave differently.What this means right now, I don’t know. But, thinking in the spirit of organizations not strictly hierarchical, I see pirates as being more independent, more nimble. I see them having less firepower, but also more tricks. Component wise, my challenge is to do this without adding new cards. I can probably add some cards to help clarify rules, but I’ll need to re-use existing ships.
  • The police should behave differently than the fleet. They won’t have the same resources as the military. They won’t have as much firepower. I want to make Fleet Marshal Ark a crafty character. She knows she has her hands tied. She knows her task is difficult. Thinking like an FBI agent on a stakeout, what can she do to bring down the pirates?
  • Every player should have one Objective. This will be geared towards the Units assigned to them. The Objectives of players on the same team might not always complement each other. This means teams will need to decide where to focus. Or, perhaps really crafty (and lucky) teams can pull off both.
  • If the campaign is shorter, I can experiment with more pronounced persistent effects. It was important in the longer, 12 mission campaign to not completely hose one-side after a single misstep. If the campaign is 12 sessions, and half of them are a foregone conclusion, that’s not fun. But if there are only 3-6?
  • Continuing that previous bullet, I can try to really work within a few settings. Perhaps Neptune orbit, a nearby asteroid, and one of Neptune’s moons. If I know these are my 3 stages, there could also be a very limited choice structure. Perhaps the cops can say “we’re deploying these guys to investigate a lead on the moon.” Again, with greater constraints in the setting, I have more flexibility.

Pirate_flag_ship_bridge

The initial process here will be lengthy. It will take time to get the first one right, then the second one as I incorporate new persistent elements and mechanics. But, I imagine like with the first campaign, once I pin down the formula and the system, it’s just a matter of work. Write it, script it, test it.

What about this setting excites you? What would you like to see? Your ability to evolve Sol Rising is quite high at this point! We’d love to know what you think.

As you were, Fleet Marshal.

Farmageddon Time Traveler

d775b1e4cb20831a8de9651fbe496756

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Farmageddon isn’t my first design, but it’s my first published design and arguably my first good personal design. I designed it in 2011, back when my board game collection had fewer than 10 games and my knowledge of the hobby was quite shallow. Put as simply as I can do so, 2011 Grant is not nearly as good or experienced a designer as 2014 Grant.

Mostly, I’m very pleased with Farmageddon. It has sold well, been well received by those interested in such games, and I still enjoy playing it. When I go home, my brother and I play it constantly and his wife is a total shark. But, the years have given me time to really think about some of the issues that bother me about the game. Some are small nubs, some bigger issues.

Today, I wanted to write about how 2014 Grant would fix the game if he could go back in time to do so. Or, perhaps looking to the future, if the 2nd printing sells out with enough momentum to justify a third, perhaps what you might see in a proper 2nd edition.

Word(s), homes. 

An area of design in which I’ve improved massively is wording on cards. Looking at Hocus Poker or Sol Rising or York versus Farmageddon is night and day. I would probably re-write every card to use a small set of core terms, very similar syntax, and more future proofed terminology.

It’s difficult to provide examples, but things like Fertilize, Harvest, Destroy, Steal could be easily improved upon.

I would also want to include an example of every card in the rules. There would be a longer rules document, but fewer questions would be asked, guaranteed.

Graphic Design

One piece of feedback is that some people don’t immediately see the difference between Crops and Action cards. Fair enough! This can be done with a color scheme (for the color-seeing) and an icon on the card (for the color blind).

I would also incorporate some of the lessons from Sol Rising and Hocus Poker, both inspired by Dominion, to incorporate some limited iconography into the body text of the cards. Things that easily convey Fertilizer and such. This would require an overhaul of the iconography.

Inspired by Dave Chalker’s Heat, I would put Action summaries on the left side of Action cards. For example, Thresher and Dust Bowl would indicate “destruction.” Crop Rotation and Foreclosure would indicate “theft.” Bumper Crop and Pesticide already indicate a change in value, so this would be consistent overall.

Action Items

I have some Action cards that I’d like to smooth out. Some of them need just a tiny tweak to really notch them up.

Thresher: To simplify this card, I’d change it to: “Destroy a Crop.” Right now it has you destroy the Crop, but the owner also gets the Fertilizer back. I’d like to test this, but I think it’s simpler and won’t change things much.

Bumper Crop: Right now, technically, Bumper Crop can be played on any Crop and the OWNER of Bumper Crop gets it when the Crop is harvested. So, player A can put a Bumper Crop on player B’s Crop. Player A gets Bumper Crop when player B harvests his Crop. This requires you track who owns the card. Is it a problem? Honestly, not often. But, it’s just sloppy design.

I’d change this card to: “Play on Crop you own. Place Bumper Crop in Harvest Pile when Crop is Harvested.” This is a good card because it makes Sassy Wheat more valuable.

Crop Insurance: This card causes a slight confusion as people think they get it even if the Crop is Harvested. The reality is that it’s insurance — it only pays off if you lose the crop that’s covered. To clarify, I’d change it to: “Play on Crop you own. If you lose control of Crop, place Crop Insurance in harvest pile. Discard Crop Insurance if you harvest Crop.”

This is a great example of where using common terms and structure could simplify card text. Right now, I’m not doing that.

Genetic Superworm: Farmageddon’s most confused card! The intent of this card is that you play it on a Crop to halve its Fertilizer requirement. So, a 4 cost Wary Squash now costs 2. People have interpreted it to many things, including it means they can steal a crop, or instantly harvest a crop.

When properly understood, it’s confusing because its effectiveness scales with its target. It reduces the value by half, rounded down, and makes Sassy Wheat free.

Hoo.

This would require testing, but I think this card should change to: “Play on Crop you own. Crop requires 2 fewer Fertilizer before it can be Harvested.” This means the net effect is identical for Wheat, Squash, and Melon. It would only affect corn differently and would make Corn free to Harvest.

Foul Manure: I love this card and have spent years trying to make it better. It’s so flexible and acts as both a defensive and offensive card. It’s a real turd. Heyoo!

Right now, the crop this targets is immune to all actions and can’t be Fertilized or Harvested. The Manure is removed if a Dust Bowl is played or someone discards 2 Crop cards. Eesh.

Here’s how to fix it: “Play on any planted  Crop. Crop requires 2 more Fertilizer to be Harvested. Crop is immune to all Action cards. Remove Foul Manure if Dust Bowl is played.”

In the top left corner you’d see a +2 Fertilizer cost. The net functionality is identical, but with a cleaner setup. It would no longer prevent farmer actions like Harvest and Fertilize, but those would be baked into its new tuning.

Crop Rotation: This one slips up a few people. It lets you swap ownership of two crops. Some people see that as they get to take the crop outright. But, the intent is that the crops trade places. Here is how I would change it: “Choose 2 Planted Crops from two different owners. Swap ownership of the Crops.”

Foreclosure: This is another card with dynamic calculation for its cost. Basically, I was over thinking the need for balance here. The text should change to: “Steal a planted Crop from any player. Give that player 2 Crop cards from your hand.” This makes it more expensive to Steal a Wheat or Corn, but you’re unlikely to steal them. And, paired with a Genetic Superworm, it evens out.

FrankenImprovement

The FrankenCrops were an idea that came about during the Kickstarter campaign to address the need for stretch goals. Neither Phil nor I thought the game would do so well and in early 2012 the notion of Stretch Goals wasn’t so firmly entrenched in the ecosystem yet. By and large the FrankenCrops work really well and we’re even adding 15 new ones with the soon to arrive FrankenCrop Kicker Pack. But, I have a few that I’d love to send to the compost heap for a scrub.

Helpful Tater: This card gives you $4 if used as a Fertilizer. In actuality, this just means whomever draws this card gets a free $4. It’s not a choice, then, and that means it’s not terribly compelling, at least not to me as a designer. Farmageddon’s a silly game with luck, though, so it isn’t a game killer.

I do like the idea of the Helpful Tater, though. I like trade-offs of helping others for a benefit. Something simple along the lines of: “Use Helpful Tater to Fertilize an opponent’s Crop. Draw 2 Crop cards.” Or: “Use Helpful Tater to Fertilize an opponent’s Crop. Draw 2 Crop cards or 1 Action card.”

Mirror Bean: This is the card that has led to the 2nd most questions in the game. Considering how many rules questions it leads to, it’s definitely not worth it. Mirror Bean is immune to Actions. You can’t use Bumper Crop to increase its value, Thresher to destroy it, or Flame Fruit (a FrankenCrop) to destroy it. The balance is that it costs 2 Fertilizer and only pays out $3.

The rule is crazy simple. Nothing can target it or affect it. But, people always seek exceptions. Well, I can put Foul Manure on it, right? No, nothing. I can put a Bumper Crop on it, right? No, nothing. Well, Dust Bowl kills it, right? No.

In fact, I just got a question writing this crop about Mirror Bean. And it was asked in a thread where I had previously answered the same question.

That’s not on my players, that’s on me.

The other problem is that people can plant it and then just sit on it. It’s not terribly worthwhile to harvest, but you can use it to eat a field. Because it’s immune, if you want, you can turn the game into a 2 field game.

I don’t think this core concept can, nor should be fixed. Can we take advantage of the art, though? In addition to reflecting (its current thematic tie), mirrors also duplicate or copy. This is dangerous — tracking information on the board is always hazardous. I think there’s a simple visual indicator, though. The Mirror Bean has a set value when harvested and fertilizer requirement. But, it can also mirror/copy the Cost and Fertilize requirement of another Crop you own. They must be Harvested at the same time. Set them together in your Harvest Pile.

That’s fiddly!

Perhaps the Mirror Bean has a standard Fertilizer Cost/Harvest Value. And the text says: Discard planted Mirror Bean you own to duplicate effects of Action card you played this turn. That’s fun and simple. One and done.

Stinky Truffle: Any time a game has you dig through the Discard pile, it really needs to matter. Stinky Truffle lets you add 1 card from the discard pile to your hand when planted. That slows down the game for a relatively minor decision, which means it can be improved.

Perhaps: “Add one Crop card from the discard pile at random to your hand when planted.” That just expedites things.

Zombo-Weed: This card is relatively simple and has a powerful effect, but it doesn’t really trigger. The card removes all Fertilizer in play when it is planted. That sounds strong, but players generally don’t sit with a ton of Fertilizer lying around.

I like the idea of Zombo-Weed being aggressive and Zombie-like. So, how about: Plant on any Field in play. Discard any Crop and all Fertilizer or Action cards on Field.

This means you can use it to kill a Grumpy Melon, but they’ll still get something out of the deal. It’s a kinder, sweeter, zombified Thresher.

A Better Tango (It takes 2. Get it? You will. I hope.)

Two player Farmageddon has had an interesting life. When I first released the game on The Game Crafter it was an afterthought and it just didn’t work. I spent a lot of time developing it and did so with the help of a few couples, one in particular that played it for months before we Kickstarted the game. Ultimately, I’ve heard very few complaints about our two player mode, but I’ve never been fully satisfied with it.

To support two player, the game is modified in the following ways:

  • Players draw more Crops at the beginning of their turns to expedite the game.
  • Players must Fertilize more to increase risk.
  • Players draw fewer Action cards to decrease aggression as in 2 player you’re only punching the person across from you. It can get a bit brutal.

My concerns are as follows:

  • I really dislike rule modifications, even tiny ones, as they make it difficult to remember the rules between variants.
  • As you have fewer cards, the fun of the game — combos — is essentially removed. You don’t have enough cards to combo them.
  • I don’t like that one person can draw better Action cards, and as there aren’t other players or additional draws to fix this, one player can just get hosed.
  • Mirror Bean, which I noted above has issues, is really a problem in 2 player. Helpful Tater can also give one player a very swingy 4 points for zero effort.

Two player games are either incredibly close — like, one point close — or an incredible blow out — like, 50 points blow out. In three and four player I think every game tends to play very evenly and well. Two player can be a real crap shoot.

I think part of the problem with 2 player when it was first created was that several Action cards didn’t work for 2 players. That’s just bad design and frankly, that’s not an issue now.

Here are the changes I’d like to test:

  • In a 2 player game, discard 15 Crop cards at random, then shuffle in 10 FrankenCrops. This means you’ll have 55 cards total, down from 60. And, the higher percentage of FrankenCrops will help upset jarring flows.
  • Add 1 Planting Field. That would bring it to 4 total. This makes it more difficult for a single player to dominate a field and makes the increase in aggression less problematic.

That’s it. Players will now draw the same number of action cards, the same number of crop cards, and there’s no change to Fertilizer. I actually tested these rules when testing 2 player Livestocked and Loaded and I enjoyed the game much more.

Conclusion

Thanks for reading! If you’re familiar with Farmageddon, what do you think? Anything stand out?

Death in the Family

WozzleNew

Post by: Joshua Buergel and Grant Rodiek

This post is a part of our weekly series discussing Hocus Poker. You can always read the rules here, or download the 80 card PNP here.

Grant: Game development is always about choices, opportunity costs, and making the best feature set. One of our goals for Hocus Poker has always been to create an expandable, highly replayable game with a ton of variety. You can see it throughout our mechanics.

  • 26 Spells that are randomly drawn to create a new pairing every round.
  • Spells are chopped up into 3 tiers so new players can ramp up simply without being overwhelmed or confused.
  • Hexis cards and other Arcana, which introduce yet another layer of hidden information as you build your hand.
  • Variants to support 5 and 6 players.

Sometimes a feature doesn’t work out, and then you have to ask yourself: Is this worth developing? Or, should we set it aside and move on?

Choosing the latter is you admitting to failure and you may not have a replacement.

Josh: At various times in this project, I thought that we had hit the bottom of our creativity in developing spells. We were still finding bad ones, and I was really skeptical of the idea that we’d be able to cook up better replacements. That fear turned out to be unfounded, as we did manage to basically land that ship, but the thought was in the back of my mind: had we done all we can?

Recognizing that you cannot go further, that’s a tough thing to think about. It feels like admitting defeat because, in a lot of ways, it is. It’s also hard to look at a thing you created and proclaim that it’s not good enough. If it’s just a single card, component, or other piece of content, well, that’s not so bad. But what if it’s an entire thing?

Grant: We should stop beating around the bush. While Hexis, as an Arcana Suit, works really well and has tested well many times, Mechana and Alchemis just don’t work. The reasons they don’t work are pretty clear, too.

Briefly, let’s talk about why Hexis works. For one, you can always activate them. The only requirement is that you Show the card by placing it in front of you. Hexis card isn’t always useful to play, but that is fine and intended.

Josh: It fits seamlessly into the flow of the game, providing more options and more color without gumming up the works.

Grant: Therefore, we went and violated that for both Alchemis and Mechana. Both of these have very specific requirements to play, which means they rarely actually happen. And when they do, they have questionable value.

Josh: That, incidentally, was a conscious choice at the beginning. We both thought that it would be an interesting thing to have additional suits that provided a qualitatively different way of approaching the game. It would allow players to have options in what sort of game they were playing. At least, that was the idea.

Grant: Alchemis, for example, requires you have a very specific set of cards and that you discard them. Not only do you need to get incredibly lucky, but then you have to toss them in the hopes you get something better! Sadly, this is the second time we’ve tried it. It was my first idea actually for how to activate spells – discard things to use the spells. Josh, not knowing this, independently came up with a similar idea. It seemed better. Sadly, it works about as well.

Josh: Sometimes parallel evolution leads you down the same blind alley. Here’s the thing: discarding cards in most card games is fine. It’s a cost, sure, but it’s a straightforward cost for players to evaluate, and it can be a simple way of balancing strong abilities. That logic just doesn’t really work for poker, apparently. Players have to constantly re-evaluate what the hand they’re holding is worth, and that dynamic is apparently toxic when combined with having to discard as a cost.

Grant: But, let’s say there’s value in making the trade-off. Getting it alone is nearly impossible. You’d have to chase the entire round hoping you get the cards. It became another game all by itself, but it just didn’t really work. We evolved the mechanic so that instead of discarding all the cards, you’d just discard the Alchemis card. And instead of having to have them all in your hand, you just needed them in your possession.

Aside from the fact the balance of the abilities was bonkers, it still wasn’t really something you could count on. At most, it’d be like “oh! Hey! I can do a thing.” Which isn’t really what we were going for.

Josh: Well, in my head, I had pictured the this suit being high-value and rare, but that dynamic is really only appropriate for a game with longer hands, I think. Here, there are only three action rounds you have in which to make it happen, and you can’t even count on saving to help you out, because the rest of your hand gets cycled. It’s not a game where you can simultaneously build a winning hand and put together a tricky formula.

Grant: Players just have to juggle too many things. It’s impossible to properly gauge the value of choices.

Josh: I do think that maybe the concept could be rescued down the road. But it would be a more radical change to the game’s structure: playing with hand limits, number of action rounds, the activation mechanism. Stuff like that. But that’s a tough road, and not really appropriate for an in-the-box thing.

Grant: I agree. I think the 3 Action Phase structure right now is too short and limiting. It needs to be paired with a longer game. Perhaps something a bit more meta than Hocus Poker.

Let’s discuss Mechana a little. The idea here was inspired by another original mechanic in the game — building a tableau of abilities. Which we tried in a variety of ways, including owning spells after a round if you lost. They were also inspired by Constructs in Ascension, or Star Bases in Star Realms.

The idea was that if you lost the hand, you could “build” a Mechana card in your possession. You would then gain its passive bonus if it was triggered. You could also use them in a hand, but then you’d lose their bonus. Clean trade off, right?

Josh: Sure sounded that way! I really liked the concept, anyway. There wasn’t anything else persistent in the game, with the exception of Runes/Charged status, so this seemed like a great way to fill that gap. But, the first problem with this suit can be summed up in one word: flush.

Grant: Yep. If every player has a Mechana suit in front of them, well, they are 20% on their way to a Flush. Guess what? In many tests, the two people with Mechana suits would tie out with a Flush in the same Hand.

Josh: It seems obvious now, in the cold light of day. I’m not sure why we didn’t spot that right away in the design phase.

Grant: Especially after we spent SO MUCH TIME balancing hands. Did we learn nothing? Answer: No.

Josh: Sometimes, it’s nice to be reminded that we aren’t so smart.

Grant: The other problem is that Mechana added yet another thing to track. So, players would need to worry about the cards in the Square, the cards in their Hand, the 4 spells (2 of which change every round), and the status of the Actions. Our players’ cups had runneth over. I’ve maybe played more Hocus Poker than anyone else and I constantly forgot to even use the ability.

Josh: This is a reprise of the problem we used to have with giving Spells as rewards. People would just forget about them. In some ways, this objection is not as bad as any of the other problems we’ve discussed, as people can train into being able to pay attention to this. But it’s a bad first impression, and having it in the box of the basic set gives people the idea it’s going to work.

Grant: The other issue is that in shorter games (2-3 players), they rarely mattered. You MIGHT see the trigger occur…but you probably won’t. So, now they were only really good with 4-5 players and even then, if it’s not interesting most turns, why add the complexity of the feature?

Oh, and it was super easy to forget which card in front of you was your Built Mechana, and which one might just be Shown.

Josh: Here’s the thing: we already have a way to play the game where you’re not getting cool abilities from the cards. You can ignore the Hexis abilities. And it works fine! We don’t need two other, fancier ways of not having cool stuff to do with your cards. It sounds cool to have these powerful, rarely activated things, but it just doesn’t fit with the snappy, rapid nature of Hocus.

Grant: On a slight tangent, we both clearly want a proper meta for Hocus Poker and really, if this thing funds and is successful, that’s what we should pursue. We’ll make a Trajan styled Euro where Hocus Poker is our Mancala Bowl.

I can begin speaking German, if it expedites ze process.

Josh: You people don’t even know. I have this idea of using Hocus Poker as the resolution mechanism in an adventure game, sort of like the way that you pull poker hands in Doomtown, but so much heavier.

At any rate, we have a problem. One of our cool ideas, of swapping out Hexis for entirely new suits, isn’t working. What now?

Grant: The idea was super good as a really clean expansion. In the same way that in Dominion you set up 10 different Kingdom cards, our thought was that you’d swap out your Arcana for an entirely new mechanic and experience.

Josh: It’s a great idea, I’m still convinced. But, this experience has taught me that maybe, what we should have is alternate Hexis suits. But that’s down the road, I think.

Grant: I am too. I just think, like the Hapsburgs, our pool has run a bit dry. That’s a genetic joke, so we’re clear.

Josh: A HISTORICAL genetics joke.

Grant: I might tap myself while laughing so hard, which will cause me to bleed unceasingly due to my hemophilia.

Here’s the other rub; it’s approximately the same cost, manufacturing wise, to print 80 cards as it is 104 cards. Cards are, typically, printed on sheets of 54 cards. If we print 55, we’re paying for 104.

Josh: The full press sheets are 108, but printers all can do half-sheets. It’s why you see those magic numbers come up in so many designs. You also have to worry about the size of your punch boards and whatnot, but the cards are a killer for printing costs.

Grant: We’re basically throwing away 24 cards now that we don’t have Alchemis and Mechana. Now, it isn’t a black and white issue. The art for these 24 cards would/will cost money and these cards also increase the weight, which could affect shipping and so forth.

The other cost, though, is quality. If we have a really good game with 80 cards, but 24 cards that are only so-so, that’ll bring down the overall rating. People won’t give us an 8+ because they like most of the game. They’ll give us a 5 because it all isn’t good.

You see this on Yelp reviews. I always laugh when someone raves about the food and the service, but gives a restaurant 2 stars because the music in the bathroom was weird.

Josh: I imagine someone playing a first game, then deciding to play a second with an Arcana suit. They pick one of the ones we’re discussing here because they like the theme, and it just does nothing. Nobody hits a formula. One play number two, they tried to use an advanced rule and it didn’t change the game at all except make it play slower. That’s a terrible, terrible experience, and even if we tell them that those suits should only be used after 20 games, or whatever, some people are still going to ignore that advice and jump right in.

Grant: The first few times I played the Power Up expansion for King of Tokyo, none of us evolved anything. We kept thinking “what’s the point?” Now, I’ve played it many times since and that opinion has changed, but initial impressions can be damming.

Josh: The standard has to be different for stuff in the basic box. Everything in there has to work great, essentially from the word go. Unless you seal it up in a separate envelope, Legacy-style, some subset of your audience is going to jump in head-first. And that’s great, the game should accommodate those people. It’s not for us to tell them how to play their game. It’s theirs! It’s presumptuous and strange for us to think we get to control their experience that way.

Grant: Both of us, potentially because of our background in software and design, are really into the idea of people creating variants and “modding” Hocus Poker. We’ve have testers sometimes say “well can I play this way?” And we always wink and say “we’re not in your living room. Go for it!”

So, let’s say we want to take advantage of those 24 cards. Technically, 28. What do we do with them. There are some easy ideas, including:

  • Adding 2 Joker cards. Shuffle them in. If you draw one in your hand, it’s a wild-card.
  • Adding 4 more Reference cards so that every player has one. I don’t think this is necessary, but we might as well.

Is there something cooler we could do?

Josh: Those are very prosaic and utilitarian. Nobody would object to that stuff, but nobody is going to get excited about them either.

Grant: Now now, Josh. There are some very weird people who will.

Josh: No dividers either!

More ideas that we’ve pitched back and forth, plus some new ones. Live brainstorming, people! Some of these ideas will suck out loud:

Grant: “Suck out loud” is one of my favorite phrases. It cracks me up every time.

The Brainstorm

Josh: Events in the main deck. This was Grant’s idea. This is a grand tradition in card games: you turn over a card to add it to the community, whatever, and Something Happens. I like this idea, with one of my favorite games that does this being the aforementioned Doomtown. You don’t want too many of these, though, or the impact is dulled. It seems like maybe you have a set of them, choose four, and randomly shuffle them into the deck. The advantage is that it’s low overhead in terms of people’s thinking. This seems like a pretty reasonable thing to do with at least some of our card budget.

Grant: The Arch Wizard draft. We create a deck of cards, from which the Arch Wizard has 4. He plays one at the start of the round that is public or kept secret until the end. It changes the rules. The Arch Wizard passes the 4 remaining cards, 1 more is drawn, and the next Arch Wizard chooses. This would be an advanced variant.

Josh: I thought that this style of deck could also work without drafting. Basically, you flip over one card each round that changes up the game. Sort of like how you reveal two Spells each turn, but a different type of card. What this would do is provide more options for players, because there’s a third card being added to the middle of the table, but it limits things to just that one extra card each turn. If they were something more environmental than the current Spells, you’d end up with a very different feel to the game.

Grant: Yahtzee style Hand scoring. We have a card with points on it tied to every hand, so one card for a Three of a Kind, one card for a Two Pair. If someone wins a hand, they claim the card tied to it. Obviously, only the first player to do so can claim it. When the game ends, you tally Runes earned normally, the person who won while charged gets a few bonus Runes, then people score Runes for scoring their collected Hands. A slight meta-game.

Josh: I’ve been sort of noodling with some scoring variants off on the side as well. There’s some possibility there.

Here’s a new one: what about a variant suit for one of the regular suits? But instead of being spell-like effects, like Hexis, the new suit would play around with values. So, the 1 might actually be a 1 or 2. The 2 would count as both a Goblin and a Froggle. The 3 would…well, you get the idea. Here, where recognizing that the Hexis works in part because it doesn’t provide a bunch of new options for players, and gives interesting private information for the players. A replacement suit that has fun stuff baked into the values continues in that vein.

Grant: I really like the hybrid, weird thing. Many of these cards wouldn’t even need text, like Hexis. They could just have alternate symbols and such on them to communicate their purpose.

Josh: Note that we have a budget here of 28 cards, so some of these ideas could be combined. 2 jokers, 8 Goal cards, and an 18 card Environment deck provides new modes of play and all kinds of fun stuff without over burdening the player. Maybe you end up with even more variety than just the original “swap out the Arcana” thing.

Grant: The question now is focus. Player accessibility. In a sense, what if someone sees this as the “full game” and instead of picking and choosing variants, they toss in the whole mess when they start?

Josh: In some ways, I think it comes back to what we want from this game. If we want to keep it pretty light, and I think we do, that informs the maximum amount of stuff that we reasonably can cram in. We have to see what the full kit and kaboodle looks like and say “does this seem like it would be overwhelming to most of our audience.” Jokers don’t have that problem. Some of these other ideas might. It’s hard to tell right now. But there’s another issue, which is that we have to decide which of these ideas to pursue as well. We don’t have the energy or creative juices to chase all of them, at least not right away.

Grant: Stamina really comes into it. We’ve worked very intensely on the game so far, and that’s been the case since February. It doesn’t seem like a long time, but we’ve done a lot of development and testing in those 5 or so months.

The other is art. We’re going to begin art production soon. We can prioritize these features last as we have lots of other work to cover first. But, can can’t keep an artist dangling on the vine.

There’s a lot to think about. But, I think we can both say that Alchemis and Mechana, right now, just don’t work. And, we have an opportunity to fill this box with one, maybe two more special things that really make it an incredible value and joy to play.

Josh: It’s tough to admit, but yeah, these forms of Alchemis and Mechana have to go. I really liked the names of the cards, too!

Grant: Goodbye, Ornithopter.

Mech12

Josh: You fly forever in our hearts.

Cucumber Pun Pack

Cucumber on White

Post by: Grant Rodiek

My desk, at work, is in the middle of a way over-crowded collection of producers, designers, a QA tester, and some engineers. At first we scoffed at how cozy it was, but now many of us have grown quite fond of the close quarters. We’ve developed this barracks mentality where the humor is constant and makes working fun. We jokingly refer to this little area as the “Prod Hole” (Prod as in Producer).

I don’t know how it came about, but a producer mentioned Farmageddon and I was telling him about the new FrankenCrops. Now, the topic of puns is like candy to weird people and another co-worker tossed out “Cucumbear.” Like, a cucumber that’s also a bear. This cracked me up and I suggested we make a Cucumber Pun Pack for Farmageddon.

It actually isn’t a bad idea.

We immediately started listing the good ones. We took it with us to a meeting and even our VP started chiming in. Then I tossed it on Twitter and my friends there started chiming in. I thought I’d share some of my favorites. It’s funny how many of us arrived at the same conclusion independently. Great minds think alike? Or perhaps idiots all think the same stupid joke is funny?

  • Cucumbear – Rawr!
  • Cucumbare – Imagine a naked, shamed Cucumber.
  • Cucumbarista – Get caffeinated!
  • Cucumberto – The Cucumber from south of the border?
  • Cucumberry  - Refreshing.
  • Cucumbarry Manilow
  • Cucumbarry White – Ladies….
  • Cucumbarry Bonds – With small berries.
  • Queuecumber – This one kills me. From Couple vs Cardboard.
  • Cucumbrrr – The Arctic Cucumber. From Danny Devine.
  • Cucumbawhumba – He gets knocked down, but he gets up again. From Danny Devine.
  • MooCumber – Why by the cow when the milk is pickled? From Mark Wallace.
  • Cucumberbund – For those fancy evenings. From Mark Wallace.
  • Cucumpatriots – Witty!
  • Cucumpair – Why settle for just one?
  • Cucumpear – Fruit puns.
  • Cucumburr – Like, a burr under your saddle. From Couple vs Cardboard.
  • Cucumbro – Totally.
  • Cucumburt Reynolds – MY FAVORITE.
  • Cucumbrella – Ella, eh, eh, eh, under my cucumbrella, ella, ella…
  • Cucumbersome – Why bother?
  • Cucumburrito – Actually, not a bad idea.
  • Cucumbird – Caw!
  • Cucumburger – Also not a bad idea.
  • Cucumbeware – Danger.
  • Coupcumber – SUPER clever. From Adam Buckingham.
  • Cucumburglar – He’ll steal your flavor! From TC Petty III.
  • Cucumbert and Cucumbernie – This is just genius. From AJ Porfirio.

Note: If I didn’t credit you, it’s because we already came up with it here, or I forgot.

Thanks for participating. It was fun and honestly, I’d love to make this expansion.

The Love of the Craft

article-2206050-0059AA091000044C-332_964x756

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Just some musings tonight.

I had a really rough day at work, and frankly, it’s been a rough few weeks. We’re in the final stages of The Sims 4, a team I’ve been on a few years. It’s a big deal and it’s a game that means a lot to my studio, my company, our shareholders, our fans, and all that. Long hours and tough decisions.

I lean on my comforts in these times. The things that just bring basic joy and don’t task me. Taking an extra lap at the park with the corgi and Beth. Getting Chinese food on a Wednesday night when we should cook the groceries in the fridge. Also, tinkering with my games.

It’s maybe silly to say, but it’s almost like medicinal design. There’s a rhythm to reading my rules documents. Creating new card mocks for ideas dancing around my head. Laying out the ships for Sol Rising for the millionth time in piles according to ship type and rethinking each one for its relative balance and cost. Evaluating the wording.

There’s a flow to it all. I’m constantly learning, as if I’m in a class in which I’m both the student and syllabus creator.  I get to learn about creative and technical writing. I study economics, “realistic” space combat, and often overlooked historical periods. I experiment in graphic design in order to better learn the visual language that fuels our medium and so much of our lives.

I don’t fully understand how people function without such a hobby. If I didn’t have this second career to drive me, teach me, and entice me with creative freedom I would just spin into madness. There is a joy to this toil that supersedes the end goal. I’m legitimately delighted to watch my game played, watch it work, watch it provide enjoyment, then see a way to improve it.

It wasn’t always this way. It took years, really. I remember when I first started I kept asking how many times I had to type, print, cut, and glue the damn cards together. Would it be after every test? Would the game ever get better? No. It wouldn’t. But, the next one did. The next a little more. There’s an awkward discomfort initially, even in the privacy of your own study, that is the result of your incompetence. Others may not yet know you’re terrible, but if you’re honest with yourself, you do.

You develop a thicker skin, but with time, confidence and comfort in what you do at least know. I’ve always found beauty in routines, which is why I shave most days, exercise, walk my dog, all without a misstep. I like the feeling of it and game design is no different. As I sit down every day with a notebook to doodle, or a rule set from a respected designer, or an in-progress mess from a respected peer, or the tattered desk chair I’ve hauled around since college, I find solace in the work.

Therefore, on this day of disappointment and frustration, I think about the craft fondly as it’s a perpetual bright spot in my life. It’s my thing. Not uniquely, but still entirely and unquestionably mine. I’m fueled by the work, the sparks, and those euphoric moments when contracts arrive and fans tell you they had a good time with your creation.

With design, I get to craft worlds and be a little tiny Willy Wonka. I think that’s so very cool, and it’s a thought I cherish. Today was rough, but I re-balanced my Bomber squadrons and I feel so much better.

The Strategy of Hocus Poker

Euros

Post by: Joshua Buergel and Grant Rodiek

You can read the Rules for Hocus Poker here. You can download the PNP of 104 cards here. We need your help testing Arcana balance!

For this week’s Hocus Poker post, we thought we’d take a break from writing about developing the ins and outs of the game and instead write about some of the strategies and ways to play. The game has a high element of luck in the cards dealt and drawn, but that doesn’t mean one can’t be skilled at Hocus Poker.

Terminology Note: If you haven’t played Hocus Poker yet, Runes are points. Mana is used much in the same way as chips in standard Poker. The player who wins each hand purchases Runes with all the Mana spent in the round.

Grant: Something new players always miss, but more experienced players tend to grasp, is learning how to chase in Hocus Poker without spending the bank. Chip management isn’t quite as important in Hocus as you can’t get knocked out and if you lose, you’ll get more chips at the end of the round. However, every chip you waste pursuing a hand is a chip you give to the opponent who does win to buy Rune. Essentially, your rabbit hole dive is fueling their victory.

Josh: Pot management is still there, it’s just more subtle than in poker. If you can get away from an obvious loser of a hand while giving up only a couple of Mana, that’s a solid result. I always try and think of how many hands someone needs to win. If my bailing out means that they can only really afford three Runes without crippling themselves, that’s a big win.

But the equation changes for heads up play, of course.

Grant: Yes, in 2 player, the landscape really changes. If you Yield, you DO get to save a card, but you’re going to give your opponent a guaranteed Rune. You really need to consider it carefully. This makes paying 1 to The Void a better option than it typically is in a 3-5 player game. Surging is another good choice here. Spend 2 to hinder your opponent’s chances of building a winning hand. Arcana is another good way to be thrifty as choosing one for your action doesn’t cost any Mana. It preserves your purchasing power while also denying it to your opponent.

Head to head actually has a lot of tactical choices. There are fewer parameters to consider and the game is more in control of each player, whereas in 3-5 there are just more things outside your control. This makes penny, err, Mana pinching crucial.

Josh: I really like the third round Surge as the non-Archwizard in two player games. You’re basically grabbing a Rune either way, forcing your opponent into a spot where a fold is less painful and hopefully nailing down the hand.

In 3-5, a Surge is dicier. I actually like pulling those early in the round, to try and knock out some people chasing. It’s akin to a pre-flop raise in Hold ‘Em, making people pay for trying to fill in those Flush hands. If you have a good hand from the initial draw, forgoing that constructive action can still improve your odds more than a spell, by knocking out competitors.

Grant: The Surge is a great way to protect Square cards that are precious to you, especially when a Fireball or Tidal Wave style spell is in play. Surge is a great way to price them out of “chase” range and potentially net more overall Mana.

It isn’t always the best strategy as more Mana in the pool translates directly to more Rune purchasing power, but I’ve seen a few people VERY successfully slow play (me) by using the Void and Surge. I don’t think there’s enough bluffing in the game to refer to it as a bluffing game, but I’ve seen people let me fruitlessly spin while they sit on an okay hand. I think their thinking is that they have something okay and they’re betting very little that I’ll bet more to end up with nothing. Sometimes it works. And, if me or another player is stuffing the Square with more cards, they are basically getting free cards.

Josh: There’s certainly a tendency to overrate Cauldron in particular. It looks like a free card, but your hand cards had better be on the high side or you’re just as likely to help your opponents. If I have a four-flush, with three in the Square, I won’t churn the Square unless I’m holding a high card of that suit. Don’t get so caught up in your own hand that you ignore what other people are doing. The chase can be addictive.

But the Void is a good thing to drill deeper in, I think. When do you use it?

Grant: I typically use The Void if my hand is set and I don’t want to spend more in the event things go sour. But, my first preference is to Surge to better control the board. I may also use The Void if it’s a matter of timing.  For example, if I can maximize the effectiveness of a Spell, or an Arcana, The Void is a great way to cheaply bide my time.

In a 3-5 player game, The Void is also really useful to let other people feed the Square and reveal what they have. If they are using Summon and many other Spells, they’ll Show me things, which helps me assess the situation. If I have a trash deal, I can use The Void on the first Action Phase, assess my chances, then use Spells or Yield more intelligently (to Save 1 card).

To be honest, I’m really bad at chasing. I would be much better if I used The Void a bit more often, even just to see what else will reveal in the center to better assess things. Any insights I missed?

Josh: Personally, I almost never use the Void. If I do, it’s almost always third round when I’m holding something I can’t reasonably improve, and First Yield is gone. To me, it’s a half-measure that I don’t like to take. But I’m not shy about Yielding. If I don’t think I have it, I bail to limit the pot and regroup next turn with a bigger stash of Mana.

Grant: Once another player is charged (and I’m talking 3+ players here as obviously you can’t Yield in head to head when your opponent is charged), I’m massively gun shy about Yielding. I hate the thought of giving the game to someone else who can’t keep the leader back.

Josh: Oh, I don’t mind passing the buck on that. I’ll take the extra card and force my other opponent to stay in. Not always, of course, but I’m not shy about it either. Maybe a bad move, but I try and keep in mind that I need to win several hands (at least two) if I’m not Charged, and that probably means I’m going to need help from the rest of the table sometimes.

But, as you mentioned before,  Hexis are perfect in this kind of spot, allowing you to stay in and not increase the payout. It’s one reason I usually save Hexis for rounds without a compelling reason otherwise.

Grant: A jerk move I like to do when able is if I know an opponent needs to use a specific Spell, I like to use it simply to increase its price. It’s a jerk move that warms my heart. Summon’s an easy one to peg — you can see when someone is really digging for something.

Josh: Reading what people need from the Square is huge too. There are a lot of ways to screw up the Square, and analyzing what people care about makes a big difference. I love leaving false trails there – showing a card to make it look like I’m pursuing a straight, say, when I actually might be chasing something else.

Grant: I think this is one of the most compelling elements to Hocus Poker. At its simplest, you’re wisely spending money to build a good hand. But, based on your experience with the game and skills you may bring from proper poker, elements of bluffing, deduction, and not just building your own hand, but foiling the hands of your opponents all come into play.

Timing is really important with the Spells Embiggen and Phantasm. For those not familiar, the former can turn 2 of your cards into a pair using the value of one of the cards used. The latter is the same, but the cards share suits. If you use Embiggen too early, people may Yield (and deny the pot Mana), OR, you’re telling them how to defeat you.

Josh: I can’t count how many times I’ve gotten nothing because of using those spells too soon. But, that can also be a decent bluff.

The question of improving your hand versus trying to trash others is interesting. It depends on your tools, how many outs you have, the Charged state of players, and which action it is. Oh, and of course, if your target plays after you in turn order.

Should we set up some hypothetical situations and see what we’d both do?

Grant: I’m game!

<Much time Passes>

Actually, I’ve been sitting here trying to come up with some cool situations and I can’t help but think we should just play each other and write about it. You have game night tonight (Sunday). This seems like a good article for next week?

Josh: Next week it is! We’ve talked about Surge and Yield, and about the Void. But we haven’t talked too much about individual spells. Any stand out as particularly subtle?

Grant: I’m known for my subtle designs. I really love Abundance where you draw 2, choose 1 to keep for yourself, then 1 to give to someone else. The fact that you get to choose from 2 cards makes it worth giving a card to an opponent. But, it’s not an obvious choice, which I love.

Gust is very interesting, especially if it’s used multiple times in the round. With Gust, every player must pass 1 card to the player on their left. Typically people pass garbage, but in Hocus Poker, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Plus, Gust paired with the Hexis card (the name of it fails me) that lets you name a card and force someone to discard it is devious. For example, I pass a 2 to Merlin on my left. I know he has a 2. I can then play my Hexis card to force him to discard that 2.

I really love the fear that Maelstrom instills in players. Maelstrom forces everyone to discard one. However, everyone then gets to draw a new card. If you’re dealt great cards, you desperately need to play a Summon or gain cards another way to pad your hand. The best way to deal with Maelstrom is to Surge it out of the price range.

One of my favorite Hexis cards, which was originally one of our Starter Spells, is the one that lets you declare a set to be invalid. For example, if I see Josh is about to complete a Flush, and I don’t have one, I can play this card and declare Flush to be invalid. Whoops! No more Flush for Josh. But, if Josh didn’t have the Flush either, I just wasted a play blocking his non-existent hand.

Josh: I think of things like Daemonus,  Twilight, Swapsies, and others which also force cards out of hands. There’s a real cost to dropping to one Hand card, especially by playing a Hexis early, which can really mess you up with one of those other cards in play.

Grant: I love how subtly aggressive Daemonus is. Yes, sure, the recipient gets a new card, but they MUST discard a different card. If you draw garbage using Daemonus, you can really mess with folks.

I fear this post is skewing a little “inside baseball.” Tune in next week to witness a play between the self-proclaimed Hocus Poker masters. Perhaps we can organize a live game on Hangout or something?

You can read the Rules for Hocus Poker here. You can download the PNP of 104 cards here. We need your help testing Arcana balance!

Diagramming for Clarity

diagram1

Post by: Grant Rodiek

A fundamental problem with every board game is that a game designer doesn’t ship with every copy of the game to teach it to customers. This is a difficult problem to solve before the advent of cloning or teaching droids.

If you’ve read my blog, you know that I believe very strongly that accessibility, or the lack thereof, is a key component to the growth or stagnation of our hobby. Therefore, today we’re going to talk about diagrams and how this very crucial element should be used to improve even the simplest game.

Every player learns to play your game differently. Some people like to read, some love to watch videos, others insist on being taught, and finally, some may simply be visual learners. Most likely, most people are a little bit of everything. Every designer has the budget and time to write clean rules — it just takes practice. Furthermore, every designer has the skills to create even the most rudimentary diagrams to illustrate even the simplest point.

Remember, a picture is worth 1000 words. And a picture paired with 1000 words is a far superior rules document. My goal for this post is to give you a variety of examples and cases from my own games and others to demonstrate how to use diagrams to improve your rules.

One Quick Note: Do not bother with diagrams until your rules are relatively stable. You’ll kick yourself if you have to constantly re-make the diagram to match your shifting rules. Wait until you’re at a point of relative stability, or a big moment (Con, pitch) to do it.

If you want to see my words in action, check out the Hocus Poker rules. They now contain diagrams for many aspects of the rules.

What should diagrams teach? Diagrams should teach anything that can be misconstrued with written communication. A board game rule booklet is a construction manual, a how to manual, and a trouble shooting manual all in one.

Construction Manual: For construction, let’s look to some of the best manuals in the business: Lego and Ikea. Without a single word, they teach people how to communicate elaborate, intricate things. Or, cheap plywood stools.

Therefore, a standard for game diagrams is how to setup the board and play space. Unless your game has a single deck as a component, this holds great value. Not only does it clear up any confusion surrounding the interpretation of the text, but it is your chance as the designer to show your players the ideal way to setup the game to maximize their space.

HocusDiagrams

In the diagram above, I demonstrate how to setup the Actions and Spells. I provide context and examples for how the Mana and Rune tokens will be used. I give an idea for how players should sit, and remind them subtly that hands are private (face down). Finally, I show where to setup the square. This is all fully explained in text in the rules, but providing an image with captions really drives it home.

Use diagrams to demonstrate how precisely to setup the game so that there are no questions from your players on whether they read correctly.

How To: There are some standards in games that don’t need visual backups. Shuffling, for example. Then again, Pandemic, which I consider a standard setter for accessibility, has a diagram that shows you how to hold cards in your hands (in the first edition, at least)!

Here: Just go read Pandemic’s rules.

What do I want you to take away from this? Pandemic uses a visual to help explain every single choice you can make in the game. They tell you how to move your pawns, what cards you spend to cure, how you remove cubes, how to travel. All via diagrams. I assure you that a large part of Pandemic’s main stream success is how difficult it is to screw up your play experience. People hate feeling stupid. This is one of the reasons they don’t play board games. Pandemic does everything it can to ease this.

For Hocus Poker, we created diagrams to cover a few things with which people might have confusion, each shown below: Paying to activate spells, creating a hand, and tie breakers.

Each of these is backed up with a text explanation, but each is intended to drive home things that should be relatively simple.

HocusSpellActivation

The key element we’re trying to communicate in the diagram immediately above this is that you stack your Mana and that you do so above the Spell cards. The text explains the finer points, but driving home visually what it means to “stack” is really key.

HocusReleaseDiagram

Here, we used this snapshot of a game to outline several points. One, a player’s possession and that it includes both their hand and shown cards. We also wanted to highlight that players can build hands using their possession and the Square. Thanks to a tip from a reader, we used blue and red outlines to note one example player’s hand from another. Finally, this helps reinforce that some hands are better than others.

Hocus_TieBreaker

For this last one, we’re explaining the tie breakers. You see three hands in the third image, each a pair of 2 matching cards. The first tie breaker is that 11 is better than 3. That knocks out Merlin. The second tie breaker is that the best Arcana card in ties wins. Morgan is the only one with an Arcana (the 11 of Hexis), so she wins.

One thing you hopefully noticed in both my examples and the far superior Pandemic ones is the sense of context. The diagrams are not just useful for teaching a single item, but multiple items wrapped together in context. Every diagram is an opportunity to teach a new thing and remind the player about another thing they just learned.

The Trouble Shooting Guide: We use diagrams to teach players to setup correctly. We then use diagrams to teach the basics. Diagrams should then be used to teach the difficult stuff.

One thing I like about the rules for Horus Heresy is that within their diagrams, they not only show you what you can do, but what you can’t. Check out the movement diagram on page 22.

If you’ve ever tested a game, you know that immediately after you or your rules explain what a player can do, players will ask if they can’t do something. I have mixed feelings on how to solve this. If your rules specify everything a player can’t do, the document will soon grow to 300 pages. However, diagrams are a great way to highlight the most often asked issues.

In Battle for York, players are allowed to completely abandon a region on the board. This is different than Risk. Therefore, I used a diagram to show that you could move all your units and therefore subtly teach that, yes, it’s okay to leave a territory naked.

In addition to edge cases and examples like the ones above, diagrams can be used to demonstrate written rules whose implications may not be immediately clear. For example, in Sol Rising, activated Units can Move, Attack, Change Formation, and Activate Abilities in any order. However, players who have played Memoir ’44 or Summoner Wars may think they need to move first, then attack. OR, they may think that they can attack, then move, but they need to do them entirely as a chunk. Not true!

Therefore, I used diagrams to show an activated Squadron moving one space, attacking, then moving the remaining two spaces and changing formation. This would have been a cumbersome and easily misinterpreted paragraph in the rules booklet. But, as a captioned image, it illustrates the point perfectly.

How should you create your diagrams? You have so many tools at your disposal! Google Drawing is FREE and is really fantastic for creating simple diagrams. Their tools let you create simple shapes, like cards, very quickly. And, you can import images to use as well. You can also setup your prototype and take a Photo using a smart phone.

You may laugh, but it’s possible to even doodle something on pen and paper, then scan it into your rules. You’d be shocked to find what a square with an arrow can teach your players.

What are your favorite examples of diagrams in rules? What are some tricks you’ve found useful for crafting diagrams? What did I get wrong? Share it in the comments below.

Planning the Set List

Euros

Post by: Joshua Buergel and Grant Rodiek

This is the latest post in our weekly series about developing Hocus Poker. If you want to try Hocus Poker, you can find the PNP here. Or, read the rules here.

This week, we want to discuss the sets that players can create in Hocus Poker. By sets, we mean things like a Full House or Two Pair. Just like in normal poker, your goal in every round is to build the best set. Some sets are better than others, and as we narrowed down our list of sets, we found some choices were better than others.

This is a controversial topic and everyone has immediate expectations when they sit down to play a game with Poker in the name. We wanted to take a moment to prove we aren’t nuts and that we’ve made thoughtful choices to choose the right set list.

Josh: Obviously, at the core of Hocus Poker, is, uh, poker. It’s kind of right there in the name. Or, at least, it is now. If you asked people to say what poker is about, they will probably list a few things: betting, bluffing, and the poker hands. One of the earliest things that we tinkered with was exactly which of the poker hands we were going to have in the game.

One of the first questions that Grant asked me, when I came on board originally as a tester, was if I thought that it made sense to expand the number of hands in the game. Being a fan of strange stuff happening in card games, I thought it sounded great. One of the “hands” that comes up in poker is three pairs (ex: two 6s, two 3s, two Kings), which is always good for mocking your friends who have it. That one went in early, along with five of a kind, which was reachable sometimes due to spells.

I was immediately quite curious what the actual odds were for three pairs, which I needed to know in order to slot it into the proper place in the ranking. Being that I’m a software developer, I decided to just write a simulator for the thing. I’ve done that a fair bit in the past for other games, and have always found it to be quite handy.

I could have computed the odds mathematically, of course, but the simulator is more fun to write. It ended up being a tool that we used quite a bit while working on the game. Three pairs was initially slotted below straight, but that turned out to be too low for that hand. We also added double threes (two threes of a kind) at this stage of the game.

Grant: Three Pairs, Five of a Kind, and Double Three (two sets of three of a kind) were all pretty intuitive as far as creating the hand. They also happened with some frequency and everyone always asked about them. Our players had the same gut instinct as Josh — this is already a goofy game, so why not?

This, ultimately, brings us to one of the core issues we’ve needed to deal with for every change in the game: how intuitive is this for players?

The answer was, not very.

For people who have played poker, which is a large number, we had issues when we changed the core set list. This, by the way, is:

  • Straight Flush
  • 4 of a Kind
  • Full House
  • Flush
  • Straight
  • 3 of a Kind
  • 2 Pair
  • Pair
  • High Card

Inserting a three pair in that list means we suddenly have more hands and things don’t mean the same. It’s like changing the meaning of a single word in a language and expecting people to just roll with it. We learned really quickly that we needed to be really thoughtful about how we altered these hands.

This forced us to take a step back and ask: If we’re going to change the hand list, for what reason? What justifies the change?

Josh: The tell (to use a poker term) is that even long-time poker players were constantly looking at the hand ranking list to see where the new hands fell. The upside was novelty, seeing fun stuff happen that you don’t see in poker. But the cost was significant, in terms of down time in the game as people scratched their heads and tried to figure out what they had and what they could make.

Was the novelty adding much? To my surprise, it seemed like the additional poker hands were worse for poker players and not novices. Novices were having to look everything up anyway, so another entry or two on the list wasn’t really hurting anything. But even just a few new entries on the list was almost reducing everybody back to a novice state, at least for a little while. As a consequence, due to that playability concern, we backed off of the goofy hands and went with a straight set of poker hands for a while.

However, there was another issue that was coming up for both of us: how common flush and especially full house were.

Grant: This problem became so bad at one point that if you didn’t have at least a Straight, you should fold. It just wasn’t right. It reduced our eight hand game to a three hand game.

When we started to solve this problem, the approximate setup for each round was 4 cards in the Square, which is our term for community. All players had 2 cards in hand by default. The two spells in EVERY round let you add cards to your hand OR add cards to the square. This meant players could have 8, 9, even 10 cards with which to make a hand.

We had some really crazy solutions to this, including changing the ranking of the hands (terribly non-intuitive), making it so that the same hand couldn’t win sequential rounds (band aid fix, adds new rule), or just cutting out lots of hands (non-intuitive, ruined our nice distribution of hands).

With time, the right solution was the simplest one — we decreased the number of default cards in the Square from 4 to 3. That one solution had a massive impact and largely restored the distribution in most cases, except for the Full House.

Now that we isolated the issue to the Full House specifically, we took the content route, as opposed to the system’s route, to fix it.

The fundamental issue was that Full House occurred too often for its relative strength.

Josh: If you remember, there was actually a period of time when we had 4 cards in the square and 3 in hand. Add in the extra cards from spells, and a full house was almost a minimum to compete.

Before we get to the full house problem, the next big change for hands was thinking about naming. At the time, we were looking at the possibility of pitching to publishers. We’ve mentioned that thought experiment a few times, and it was mostly good, but one of the blind alleys for us was renaming the hands. The thought behind it was that it would give a little bit more theme in the game, it would further distance our game from poker to help manage expectations, and for novice players, it wouldn’t matter too much if things were renamed. We figured that most poker players would probably just keep referring to the hands by their poker names anyway.

Here, again, our expectations weren’t really met. There were references to the hands in various places on the rules and cards, and people were having to unpack that reference each time we saw it. It was an unnecessary cognitive load on our players.

Grant: Just as a general lesson, never force people to re-learn things that are so common. This goes for a lot of things, and is a lesson for pretty much any form of design. For example, a video game developer is foolish if they mess up the super established UI framework of World of Warcraft when making an MMO. Or the FPS developer who tries to reinvent the console control scheme made standard by Halo.

In card and board games, if you have DOMINANT reference points like Dominion, Magic, and Poker, you want to tread very carefully when shifting standards that are just so well known by so many players.

Josh: It was around this time that we also started getting antsy again about the menu of hands. If we’re trying to distance ourselves from poker, the thought went, why not go all the way! Here’s where my simulator came into play again. I could pretty easily plug in a bunch of different hands and try them out. Why not? We could see where things fell in the spectrum and see what might shake out. Grant and I put on our brainstorming hats (Carmen Miranda fruit hats) and decided to see what we could cook up.

8ZJTD00Z

This was also the period of time when we were flirting with five suits.

Here’s the list of hands that were tested in the simulator:

  • Rainbow (one card of each of the five suits)
  • Three pairs (again)
  • Double triple (again)
  • Two pairs, but of adjacent ranks
  • Four card straight
  • Four card flush
  • Skip straight (every other rank), in versions of odd, even, or both
  • All cards ranked below six
  • Three and four card straight flushes

Some of these were clearly terrible, but testing them in simulation was cheap, so why not? Some of them were motivated by an idea that we might be able to transition things to a game where you really only care about straights and flushes, which might be an interesting twist. Due to a bug in my code, it looked for a while like Rainbow was going to slot in at an interesting place, so we tried that one out on the table. Grant played one game with it, and it was ridiculous, which led me to looking more carefully at my code. In the end, most of that junk just wasn’t worth the cost on the brains of our players.

At this point, we basically had the poker hands, minus full house. It was just still a little bit too common, too easy to go for. I want to say that we had also dropped something on the low end.

Grant: We dropped high card as a hand because it never happened and it’s actually not that intuitive. For a while I was really on a warpath about using only intuitive hands. Many of them actually are, except for full house, which is a bit strange.

This was one of those weird phases where we were both scratching our heads and most of our ideas were just bad. For a while I think we both worried about being overly negative — I know I did. Josh would send out a new report from the simulator and even when the probabilities seemed right, some of them just didn’t make sense. Or, they were too clunky.

I especially hated the four card hands. It just felt like a lame, Diet Coke version of the real hand.

Some of the other ones, like “the summed strength of your hand can’t exceed a certain amount” were interesting and may one day become expansions or variants. But, we still had this huge gap in probability between flush and four of a kind. A few times I suggested we just cut straight flush, maybe even four of a kind. Josh, rightfully, thought this foolish.

Many of these ideas never left our emails. For a brief phase, we just tested without a Full House in the set list.

Josh: We did keep getting tester push back about the lack of Full House in the list, though. Players who knew poker wanted it back in there. And, there was a gap in the probabilities as well. The leap from flush to four of a kind was a substantial one, and it would be useful to have something to fill in the gap. Just not Full House – it had proven itself as just a little too easy to get.

We strapped back on the thinking helmets and started firing ideas. What about the four-card straight flush? Would that be confusing? Anything else come to mind? I was standing around at a party holding a beer when I started just visualizing poker hands.

I was thinking that they’re composed of three basic elements: straights, flushes, and sets of same-ranked cards. We had a hand that combined straights and flushes (the, uh, straight flush). What about combining the other ones? Combining a flush with a set doesn’t make much sense. I guess you could do something like two pairs, which are also from the same two suits. But that seemed odd. Straight and set, though, that seemed promising. That’s when I thought about a three of a kind crossed with a three card straight.

As I originally conceived it, the three of a kind needed to be the middle card of the straight, which makes your hand a cross when you lay out the cards. I plugged it into the simulation and, sure enough, it dropped right into the right spot in our probabilities. It then seemed obvious why: this was really just a Full House, but with fewer probabilities for the other two cards. When I proposed the hand, Grant suggested that we loosen it up so that any of the possible straights using the three of a kind would work, and that’s what stuck. It’s about half as common as a Full House, but still much easier to get than a four of a kind, so it slots in really nicely. I also like the way it adds just one unique hand to the list, just to give us that twist.

Grant: I love getting a crossways, so much that every time it happens I send Josh a picture. There’s something special in that it’s a hand that’s Hocus Poker’s. We’re very protective of it. We’re going to patent troll the stuffing out of it.

We did a lot of experimentation, but at the end of the day, the solutions were quite simple.

  • Four suits, not five.
  • Three cards in the square, not four.
  • Two cards in the hand.
  • Crossways instead of Full House.
  • The rest of the hands? Well, leave them as they’ve been forever. Don’t change what isn’t broken.

This exercise was a classic case of experimentation to confirm that things don’t really need to change. Sometimes you don’t need a massive change or complete overhaul. You just need a tweak. Our contributions in changing the game of poker came mostly in the form of removing player elimination, creating a market driven spell activation mechanic, and introducing spells in the first place. The sets? They worked (mostly) just fine.

If you want to try Hocus Poker, you can find the PNP here. Or, read the rules here.