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

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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

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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

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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.

Hocus Problem Solving Part 2

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We could discuss every problem in every version of the game, but we think it best if we focus on the problems we identified and how we fixed them, roughly chronologically, for Hocus Poker as it exists today. If you have follow up questions about a specific portion of this, comment below and we’ll be happy to answer. This is Part 2 in this series. You can read Part 1 Here

If you want to try Hocus Poker, you can get the PNP here and read the rules here.

Josh: We left off last time with the economy in pretty good shape. We had the market more or less sorted out, inflation sorted out, and the end game condition was feeling pretty good and, more importantly, testing well. But we weren’t satisfied yet. There were still concerns nagging at us.

Multi-Round Decisions

Grant: We had the concern that the game didn’t have enough multi-round decisions. It’s something you brought up and it was very insightful.

Every round was too self-contained. We wanted a way for a decision in round 1 to affect round 2, other than points. We brainstormed quite a few things, one of which was the Jokers and black magic mechanic. I miss that. Risk versus reward, but unfortunately too complex for what it gave us.

Here was the gist: If you had a joker, you could play it as a wild card. If you won the hand using it, you had to take a black magic token. This was worth negative points (back before our ultimately solution for the end game). There were some odd issues with risk avoidance and tuning and it was an oddly out of sync feature for what it provided.

Josh: Man, I still love this idea. It might be my favorite of the various ideas we’ve cut. In general, I really enjoy ambiguity in scoring like this, where you need to consider whether a short-term gain is worth a potential long-term loss. But there were problems with it, issues with how the rule could be written, and some odd incentives. If we could have solved one or the other, it might still be in the game. I still think there’s potentially an expansion in there.

Grant: I wonder if there’s a whole expansion where we just create a meta game out of poker? Both with scoring in examples such as this, but even hands that span rounds more than the “Save 1” notion does now.

Josh: There might be an Arcana suit in it, anyway. The costs/activation of everything are costly and double-edged. What about just having to spend a Rune to activate an Arcana card?

Grant: I’m curious if people would do that? It would need to be very powerful. That would work I think in longer games, but I question the value proposition, at the very least for player perception, in the regular length game.

Fold was the simplest idea that emerged from that conversation and stuck ever since. If you Fold, you can’t earn points. But, you get to Save a card, which gives you a future bonus. Instead of starting the round with 2 cards, you start with 3. The Mechana Suit also does this. Players who Build a Mechana card gain a semi-permanent passive ability, much like constructs in Ascension.

Josh: The nice thing about First Fold (which later became Yield) is that it’s simple and easy to understand, but it adds weight to one of the more significant decisions. We don’t want it to be trivial to decide what to spend your mana on, and we want people to have to at least think about if they stick in the hand at all. But making it only the first player had the fun side effect of lowering the incentives for subsequent players to bail out. That helps ensure that most hands end up in a showdown, which is fun.

There’s another area that we had a close look at, which was reintroducing something like a raise in poker. It was actually inspired by tester par excellence Robin Lees. He was playing a lot of two-player games, and he felt like it was too hard to drive the other player out of hands, that the decision to stay in was always the right decision. And it was basically true: once down to two players, it was very rare for players to drop out. The problem, then, was to ensure that there was still decision pressure even when there were only two people left in the hand.

Grant: We solved this in one way then, and added a new layer recently. With Robin’s help, we came up with Hocus Poker’s version of Raising — Surge. It was originally a 2 player only idea, but we liked it so much and there was no reason to remove it from the rest of the game. Raising provided a few elements to the game:

  • It gave players  a way to punish competitors who were too liberal with their spending. Money management is a subtle, but important part of the game that first time players miss.
  • It gave players a way to increase the pot on a hand in which they were confident. You want to stay in? It’ll cost you.
  • It gave players a way to make it difficult to make a spell they really didn’t want used too expensive. I’m looking at you, Tidal Wave and Swapsies.

The second way we solved it is by adding a simple rule that if the winner of the round wins because everyone else Yields, the winner earns a bonus Rune. This is most effective in 2 player, but still valid in 3+ players. This keeps a single player from constantly folding and saving a card to win big. As he does this, he’s just feeding his opponent.

Josh: This was inspired by the observation that, due to the way the economy is now zero-sum, you can just keep folding over and over in a 2 player game and just seal off the action until you have a saved card you’re happy with. That’s annoying, and it doesn’t make much to make that behavior unprofitable. A single Rune is enough to really defang the Texas Stall ‘Em strategy.

Spell Evolution

Grant: Something else I’d love to discuss is the evolution of Spells. When the game was first tested, every player was dealt 1 permanent spell at the beginning of the game. Then, the rest of the available spells were purely random from the deck.

There was a clear problem in that not all spells were equal. A spell that let one player draw a card, for example, was far superior to the spell that required a very specific situation to be utilized. This led to the suggestion: why don’t you have some spells always be in play?

Summon and Cauldron were the result.

Josh: I never saw the version with the first set of spells, so when I first encountered things, the idea of the basic spells were already in play. It’s a great idea, by the way. It strikes a fine balance between having things be too static and having too much stuff change between turns. That set of four spells available each turn is something that’s been basically constant. I guess in that version, there were only three spells each round in two- and three-player games.

Grant: It also has the subtle benefit of making it so players don’t have to constantly re-learn things. We have SO much content in the game and if everything shifts every round, it can be overwhelming. When I teach the game, I always clearly call out “you don’t need to relearn these. They are going to stay the same.” It’s comforting for new players. I wish the idea for the basic spells was mine. My good friend Matt suggested it.

Josh: In that version, the game still had the notion of players owning spells. One goal of the original design was to try and keep everybody in the game, so the players who were behind were awarded the two Advanced Spells from the middle. They could then use those on subsequent hands, giving them a broader set of choices. That rule had its heart in the right place, but there were a lot of issues with it. Among them: it divided player attention for where they should look for actions, it complicated the interactions in the game, it required additional rules in costs to handle, it provided occasional perverse incentives for players to try and game things to gain a spell, and as a catch-up mechanism, it didn’t really do a whole lot. Despite those issues, it persisted for a while.

Grant: One of the earliest ideas, which mostly died after the first test, was the notion that players were building a tableau of abilities throughout the game. Balance was such a massive issue, though.

Ultimately, the notion of keeping spells died less for the reasons Josh listed (which in hindsight are all fantastic), and mostly because the mechanic simply didn’t provide enough fun for the complexity it added. It required quite a few rules for a variety of edge cases and different player variants. That’s one of my favorite development tools. For any given feature, ask if it provides more than it takes. Provide being fun, the take being complexity. Little complexities over time feel like a death by a thousand cuts.

Josh: One problem that dogged us for a long time was interesting spells. I think you’ve kept track of how many spells we’ve cut over the course of the game, but it’s been a lot (Grant Note: We’re at 25 cut spells). And that cut count only counts the spells that actually made it onto the table. There were plenty of spells that never even got to that point, that had issues right out of the gate (Grant Note: As in, ideas we brainstormed but didn’t bother testing).

There are things that all of our quality spells share:

  1. They should be broadly useful and not narrow (so spells with trigger conditions are bad ideas). For example, if a spell is only useful 1 out of 10 rounds, based on a specific layout of cards, it’s not good.
  2. They should be easy to read and understand. At times we’ve gotten carried away with too many conditional statements, such as if, then, and so forth. Our best spells, typically, say: Do this thing.
  3. They should be able to be cast many times in a round. Our spell cost mechanic is based on spells being used multiple times with an increasing cost.
  4. They should be fun. That criteria really narrowed things down. It’s probably worth looking at some spells that got cut and why.

Grant: Good call. I just opened up the Photoshop file to stroll down memory lane.

Some Cut Cards

  • Shared Pain: Essentially, you and a number of other players had to reveal some cards. This wasn’t fun and was rarely useful. If you know somebody’s cards, that doesn’t help you WIN. So why would you pay for information you may not be able to act upon?
  • See Thru: This let you view another player’s hand. Again, sounds great in actual poker, but not useful in Hocus Poker.

Josh: These are both good examples of things that seemed like a better idea on paper than at the table. I think both were fairly early, and it was at a time when we were still in a bit of a poker mentality. It sure seems like it would be tremendous to get a sneak peak at things, but it was pretty much always going to lose out to trying to chase cards for your hand.

Grant: (More Cut Spell Commentary)

  • Chicken: This created a side pot between two wizards. So much complexity and exceptions for a single card. Cut.
  • Bribery: This let you buy runes regardless. But, this defeated the core purpose of the game. Not fun.

Josh: I repeatedly chased this basic idea of things manipulating Runes instead of mana, cards, card state, or other stuff. It sure seems like another interesting thing to play with. It’s a currency in the game, after all, so it seems like you could make trade offs with it. But, compared to winning a hand, getting a small number of Runes was not very interesting. And it’s very important that people have the win-or-nothing mentality which makes the economy go. Softening that in whatever way is mostly a bad idea.

Grant: (More Cut Spell Commentary)

  • Spectral Wild: This card and others introduced the “Last Wizard” mechanic, which was this King of the Hill style activation scheme where only the last person who used the spell gained its benefit. A tracking nightmare and very confusing.
  • Numeras: This let you change the strength of a card, so, I could turn a 2 of Hearts into a King of Hearts. We had quite a few cards that used to change the state of a specific card. This caused a massive tracking issue where multiple people would have to remember what multiple cards changed to. This was a sad cut, but so necessary.

Josh: These were relatively late cuts. We really wanted these to work, because they’re fun and provide for some skillful play. We tried assorted tracking mechanisms, different ways to place cards, different orientations, all kinds of things. None of them worked. We just kept getting feedback from testers that they were confused. Sad, but we finally had to just dump them. They also fed into the problem we’ll talk about below, which was certain hands dominating winning pots.

Grant: (More Cut Spell Commentary)

  • Peek-A-Boo: I loved this spell. It let you flip any card in play to its opposite side. What often happened, though, was that people would reveal all cards in the square, then there’d be nothing left to reveal. If people tried to flip them back down, they’d be automatically revealed at the end of the action phase. It was, more or less, a broken card.
  • Dispatch Goblin: This is a good example of a spell that was fine, but too complicated. You chose another player, who had to pick one card to show just you. You could then tell them to keep it, or you could take it from them in exchange for another card.

Josh: At any given moment, we tried to identify what the weakest spell or two was, and then just be ruthless about it. Even when the spells might have been “good enough”, it was still possible to identify what the worst spell was. The question then became if we could improve it by changing it or replacing it. It strained our creativity times, but it was always worth looking at the runt of the herd.

Grant: For a few weeks, every Friday night would result in an email from one of us that would start with “What do you think about <spell name>.” I don’t think any spell mentioned in those emails lived until Sunday.

Starter Spells

Grant: Interestingly, some of these problems evolved into other solutions. For example, remember the cards that were one offs, as in, they were only interesting once in a round, therefore violating Rule 3 Josh listed above? We turned them into Starter Spells. For these, we gave every player a single card, all matching, that could be used once per game.

Banish was one of them. Once per game, each player could use Banish to declare a single hand (ex: Flush) that was illegal for the current round. These were neat, but inelegant. They were also somewhat expensive. For each starter spell, we’d have to print 5 cards (1 per player). That meant 2 starter spells were the same as almost a third of our total spells. Not a good use of components.

Josh: I still think that stuff like that might show up as an expansion. Having a one-shot Banish was actually a really interesting strategic decision, and it meant that you could never truly feel safe with your flush if it looked kind of obvious. It gave a nice bit of cross-hand thinking, but component-wise, it was probably just not going to fit in the first go around of the game.

I also think that the notion of manipulating the ranking of Sets is something we’ll play with later, if we’re fortunate enough to be able to add some expansions to things.

Grant: I’d love to add expansions. If the ability were simple enough, we could just use a token instead of a card.

For a moment, we cut the starter spells. Then, Josh came up with the idea of Arcana. These were Suits that were normal cards, plus they had text you could use as specified. We wrote about them extensively here. They were one-off, nuanced abilities that violated 2 of our Spell rules, but that was fine because this was the appropriate medium for them. We cut Starter Spells and doubled down on Arcana.

Josh: What it does is gives us a looser set of requirements. After all, an Arcana card is useful on its own — it can form parts of Sets. That’s an extremely powerful base power. So, if the spell associated with it is kind of dodgy, or strange, or hard to deploy, that’s OK, you still have the card to use. It allowed us to unleash some more creativity, which is great.

Dominant Hands

Josh: From fairly early on, there was another thing we both noticed: there were a lot of flushes and especially full houses winning hands. It was somewhat exacerbated by the spell mix we had at the time, but it was still present. At some times in the game, it got to the point where if I didn’t see a flush developing, I’d just fold. That’s really bad.

What was happening, basically, was that if you look at the distribution of probabilities for poker hands, there’s a big gap in probability between full house and four of a kind. As you have access to more cards, four of a kind is still really rare. As a result, accessing more cards tends to bunch the winning hands up right around that cliff, around flush and full house.

I’d like to go into it in a lot more detail in the future, but I had a simulator that I wrote early on in the project to test the probability of various goofball hands (three pairs, two threes of a kind, others). I took a look at the probability of various hands winning in a four player game given certain sizes of hands and community cards, and full house just dominated.

We’ve tried a lot of fixes for this, which is probably worthy of its own post, but for this purpose, what we did eventually is disarm the environment. We took the number of cards in the community down to just three, and took each player’s hand cards down to just two. Without adding additional cards, you only have access to five. So, if you gain a couple cards (through various means), that just puts you back at the familiar seven-card probabilities, which is totally fine for our game.

Grant: I think the simulator you created is incredibly cool and it definitely deserves its own post. Typically designers rely on gut checks, or personally tracking data between tests. With Hocus, we gained the advantage of those two plus hundreds of thousands (not kidding) of simulated hands. It was incredibly useful.

One more thing to note is that although we managed to smooth out the probability of flushes and straights, we never quite solved it for full house. The hand is just too commonly obtained relative to its strength in the hierarchy. We had two choices, really:

Lower the strength of a full house, which is really non-intuitive.

Get a new hand. That is ultimately how we came about with the Crossways. However, I think it took us 2 weeks just to discover it.

Parting Notes

At over 3000 words, though, this post has reached its end. Until next time!

If you want to try Hocus Poker, you can get the PNP here and read the rules here.

Designer pal Corey Young will be handing out TEN copies of Hocus Poker at the Origins Game Fair. Track him down and request a copy!

Back_Spirits

Hocus Solitaire

Euros

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Note: The image shown above is courtesy of Mike Mullins, one of our awesome testers. These are the new, fancy Euro-sized cards obtained from Printer Studio. Corey Young will be handing out TEN sets of these for FREE at Origins next week!

I’ve been so overwhelmed by work this week that I’ve neglected the blog. I’d like to cap off this week with a quick treat for those of you testing Hocus Poker. As always, you can find the PNP for Hocus Poker here. You can read the rules here.

Poker is such an incredible breeding ground of games. We have so many ideas for Hocus Poker we’ve had to put aside to focus on the BEST version of the game. But, something we’d love to see emerge is a home rule, variant driven community that loves to mod the game. To kickstart that, I created a twist on the classic game of Solitaire that uses Hocus Poker’s cards.

My grandfather was one of the most influential people in my life. He loved to play cards. I would wake at 6 am at the ranch growing up to find him sitting at the couch, playing solitaire. He’d perk up and challenge me to a game of war. But, he’d always go back to solitaire. He just loved it. Inspired by this, I wanted to make a twist on Solitaire. Nothing ground breaking, but it meant something to me.

I began with the basic rules of solitaire, which I’ll list here.

Setup: This is a game for a single person. You will need 48 Spirit cards from Hocus Poker.

  • Take the 48 Spirit cards (Froggles, Goblins, Ghosts, Hexis) for Hocus Poker and shuffle them.
  • Deal the cards in front of you in 7 columns. The left most column should have a single card. Each subsequent column should have 1 more card. Ex: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 cards.
  • Set any remaining cards above the column in a face down pile, or hold them in your hand. This is your reserve.
  • Flip the top card of each column face up.

The Goal: The goal of the game is to have an ascending stack of each suit, so 1-12 for each, each with their own foundation.

Playing: There are no rounds or turns in the game. You can do the following actions in any order until you win or lose. You lose when you’re unable to take one of these actions.

  • You may place a 1 of each Suit on one of four foundations above the columns. Only one suit may be placed on a foundation, and they must be sequential in ascending order.
  • You may draw the top 3 cards of the reserve and place them on top of one another. You can do these, 3 cards at a time, until the reserve runs out. If you want to draw again, pick the reserve up, preserve its order, and deal from the top again.
  • You may move the TOP card of the dealt reserves onto the top card of any of the columns. Cards must be placed in descending order (ex: 12, 11, 10, 9). Cards of the same suit cannot be placed sequentially (ex: I cannot place a 12 of Goblins followed by an 11 of Goblins. A 12 of Goblins followed by an 11 of Ghosts is legal.)
  • You can move the TOP card of a column onto the top card of any of the other columns. You must follow the same two rules listed in the previous bullet.
  • You can move any number of sequential cards in a column to any of the other columns. All of the cards moved must be sequentially ordered obeying the rules listed in the previous bullets and their placement must be legal. (ex: I can move a legal 9, 8, 7 onto a 10. The 10 and the 9 can’t be matching suits.)
  • If a column is empty, you may move a 12 (or any number of legal sequential cards beginning with a 12) into the open space. You always have 7 possible columns.
  • Whenever the top card of a column is face down, you immediately flip the card face up.

Essentially, you are trying to manage your cards to create descending stacks in the hopes that you can create ascending stacks in the foundation. Everything above is standard, except no suits may match. In traditional solitaire, it’s a matter of color, as in you cannot place sequential reds or sequential blacks.

Here are the tweaks for Hocus Solitaire. These rules are unique to the Suits and ONLY trigger when you’re using the top card, either of the reserve OR a column.

  • Goblin Hoard: Once per column, you may match two matching strengths sequentially as long as the second card is a Goblin. (Ex: I can place a 6 of Goblins onto a 6 of Ghosts. This can only be used once per column!)
  • Ghost Float: Ghosts can be placed within a column and don’t need to be placed at the top of a column. (Ex: I move the 10 of Ghosts off the reserve and tuck him above the 9 of Froggles.)
  • Froggle Friendship: Froggles MUST be placed sequentially with other Froggles. Note that this is an exception to the rule that matching suits cannot be placed sequentially. Remember, this is ONLY if the top card is a Froggle.
  • Hexis: Your score is the highest Strength Hexis on a foundation. Typically, it’ll be very low, or a 12.

I’ve played about 10 times and tweaked it. The above SEEMS to provide a challenging experience with a few neat twists. I’ll keep testing as we go.

Enjoy, and tell me what you think!

You can find the PNP for Hocus Poker here. You can read the rules here.

Sol Rising Signed by VPG

Sol

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I already announced this on Twitter, but my game Sol Rising has been signed by Victory Point Games for development and eventual publication. I’ll share details about the final game, release date, price, and so forth as they become available and I’m allowed to do so.

I wanted to write briefly about how this came about, but also share some advice for other designers who, like me, are at the beginning of their design careers. It can be tough sometimes and I want to offer some hope.

From Concept to Signed: I began working on Sol Rising as Blockade last spring. The game originally featured blocks that you’d move around the board in formations to defeat your enemy. It was a neat, light tactics game. About a year ago in the Summer, Josh Neiman from Victory Point Games contacted me about the game. Someone who read my blog and saw my videos had told them about the game. They were interested!

Note : Sharing my games drew attention from a publisher. 

Victory Point Games is not a typical company. Their roots are in war games shipped in plastic baggies with little to no art production. Their games are print on demand using their own facilities. Josh from the start told me to do some research on them to make sure I was cool with what they offered. I was! A few things really stood out to me. One, all of their games now ship in what they call their Gold Banner Editions. They ship in a nice box, have professional artists and graphic designers on staff, and have components that are comparable to most games. The most important thing I noticed is that their games are generally well received and that they have a very loyal and growing following of customers. That’s important. I felt that if I worked with them, they’d make Sol Rising a superior game.

An early ship card after getting rid of blocks.

An early ship card after getting rid of blocks.

Since this initial encounter they’ve grown quite a bit. They’ve launched a new website that is quite nice and even their first Kickstarter, which has raised just shy of $35,000. That’s awesome.

They asked to see a copy of Blockade, even though I told them it was quite early. I sent them the same version (wood blocks and all) that I took to GenCon 2013 for testing. After the convention I had a list of changes, which they agreed with, but they also challenged me to make some modifications to the game.

  1. Although they insisted there were creative alternate component solutions for the blocks, they challenged me to work within what they produced. I too felt the need to distance myself from the blocks.
  2. They felt the game was an Alpha (it was) and wanted to see the full Beta — 100% content (scenarios, ship content, and more).
  3. They wanted to see environmental content, like asteroids and such. I played the game with a publisher at GenCon I respect greatly who had a similar desire.
  4. They challenged me to modify the game such that it allowed for player customization. As in, I can create a different fleet assortment. At this time, the blocks were all relatively the same. It made the game a bit shallow.

I took this feedback, went into my office, and locked the door. I converted my movement and combat mechanics to go from 16 custom dice to 5 plain six-sided dice. I set aside the blocks and changed to a system where I had 55 double sided cards, each of which represented a different ship to use. I created a scenario system with which I designed 12 unique scenarios, each of which can affect the next, and no two which are entirely alike. The scenarios feature different ship setups, environmental elements, unique objectives, and persistent effects. I hired John Ariosa, an artist I love, to help me make the prototype more visually appealing.

A Battlecruiser with Shields Up

Throughout this period I would keep up with Victory Point Games. I didn’t annoy them, but I made sure they knew I still existed and I was working on the game. Finally, about 3 months ago (right at the year mark), I finished the beta. I asked if VPG was still interested (they were!), I built a copy, and sent it.

There was a brief waiting game. It happens. People are busy and one must be patient. I lucked out by the fact that VPG, specifically Josh and their graphic designer, Barry, came to Santa Clara a few weeks back for the UnPub/Protospiel. They gave me an hour of their time to test the game and listen to me blather about it. Ultimately, our industry is built on relationships and personal meetings and this is no different. We both left the event excited, contract stuff took its course, and here we are.

I’m SO thrilled.

Some Acknowledgements: I’ve pitched Sol Rising as my love letter to science fiction and tactics games and it’s so true. The fictional works of James S.A. Corey, Walter Jon Williams, and David Webber had a huge impact. I have no doubt they also affected the narrative portions of my scenario booklet.

Star Wars and its combined arms approach of fighters and capital ships was another inspiration.

Regarding game mechanics, I was constantly thinking about Summoner Wars and Memoir ’44. My campaign/scenario work was heavily inspired by Mice and Mystics, the Memoir ’44 Campaign books, and Robinson Crusoe.

For individual scenario balance and design, I looked to Starcraft and Starcraft II, actually, and was heavily inspired by a Wired article that was an analysis on the Galactic Empire’s maneuvers at the Battle of Hoth.

I believe on the whole my game will feature a great combination of new ideas paired with new ones to create something special. We’ll see!

The guys in Madison agreed to test an early version of Blockade. My thanks to Jeremy Van Maanen, Adam Buckingham, Ed Marriott, and the others who tried my rough, ugly prototype. Thanks to Brett Meyers, someone I greatly respect, who gave me the early nod with the concept. Thanks to Ignacy Trzewiczek who told me the game “looked slow.” That tiny comment had a big impact. The folks at Blank Wall Games in Arkansas took the time to make a PNP of the game and test it. Their enthusiasm was just awesome and really pushed me forward.

Plus, Matt Worden, Chevee Dodd, and AJ Porfirio, who are on IM daily to listen to my rant, pitch, and discuss whatever’s on my mind.

If I forgot to mention you, I’m sorry. I love you too.

Some Advice: Game design is a very difficult, long, frustrating, lonely process.  I’ve spent many months on games that never went anywhere.I spent 14 months on Farmageddon before it was signed. After Farmageddon I thought I was on my way! Foolish me.  I had some good pitches here and there, but 2012 ended without another game signed. Then 2013 came and went. York turned 3 this year. Sol Rising is 1+.

At some point you begin to question why you’re wasting your time on this fool’s errand of design. This long term time investment with seemingly zero payout isn’t exclusive to me. Geoff Engelstein on the Ludology podcast noted that all of his games are 3-4 years old before they find a home. Colby Dauch began as a community member and tester for Hasbro with Heroscape. That’s a long road.

Here’s my quick advice. It’s something I must remind myself of constantly.

  1. Stick with it. Your diligence will pay off.
  2. Take it seriously. You will take out what you put in.
  3. Ask questions constantly. Seek to learn from those better than you.
  4. Only work on projects you love. Every game you work on should be a love letter. Note: I mean that metaphorically. I’m not referring to the AEG game.
  5. Target publishers that are right for your game and will be great partners.

Thanks guys. I can’t wait until you all get to try it.

Problem Solving for Hocus’s Design

problem-solving-concept-in-word-tag-cloud-on-white-background

We could discuss every problem in every version of the game, but we think it best if we focus on the problems we identified and how we fixed them, roughly chronologically, for Hocus Poker as it exists today. If you have follow up questions about a specific portion of this, comment below and we’ll be happy to answer. This post grew a tad long (we’ve done a lot of work!), so look forward to a part 2 (or even 3) in the future.

If you want to try Hocus Poker, you can get the PNP here and read the rules here.

Post by: Joshua Buergel and Grant Rodiek

Grant: The starting point of the game was “Texas Hold ‘Em plus Spells.” In the first iteration, the cost of the spell was to discard a defined quantity or set of cards. For example, “discard a pair from your hand to take this Action.” The problem was, the actions weren’t very good and you needed a crazy good draw (basically a pocket pair) to do the Action. And, why would you get rid of a perfectly good hand to draw something random?

Next, I tried reducing the cost. Discard a single card, or a single card of a defined rank (ex: face card), but still it was a problem. I changed it to coins. Spend coins to activate a spell.

The problem then was that if a spell was really good, people would just activate the same one over and over again. Economics acted as the guide. With every use, I made it so the spell cost more. This naturally caused players to use different spells. It added a layer of resource management to the game and opened up for a lot more interesting decisions.

This is one of the game’s oldest and most important mechanics. Now, how we’ve gone about indicating the increase in cost is the topic of an entire post, so we’ll cover that in the future.

Josh: This all happened before I ever saw the game. In the first version that I ever saw, it had the basic structure of paying mana (then called coins) to buy spells, with the increasing cost in place. It’s just a huge mechanic, truly crucial to the game, but I didn’t have to worry about it. What makes it work is that it creates a market at the table. At every action of the players, each of their various actions has a different cost and benefit, and they weigh those and take what they regard as the best value. But then it changes! The next player has to pay more as things are bought, which is more or less micro-economics 101, and it works as well here as it does with idealized widget firms. I’ve never had a moment of doubt about that mechanic.

Grant: We wanted to eliminate player elimination. This is something I think is not fun about real poker. Really, I don’t think it’s fun in most games with more than 2 people.

Josh: I think there are specific cases where it can work well, but they’re rare, and certainly not appropriate with this style of game.

Grant: My first take was to add a way for players to regain currency. Players could fold in order to gain a payout of Mana. The problem with this was that the rich remained rich and the poor had to not play to get a little bit of money. It’s rare that telling someone to not play will result in a fun experience for them. That’s another problem with typical poker — you’re supposed to fold most hands. Also, in this setup the chip leader could just squash the poor players.

It was also non-intuitive to receive money for folding. People didn’t get it.

Josh: I first encountered the game with this mechanic in place. During my first playtest, there was still betting during the game, and folding (called “Cash Out”) pulled money back to players. It was an attempt to keep a lid on the problem of a big stack pushing the table around, providing a method for players to recover cash without winning a hand. The money in question came from the bank, meaning the economy slowly (or not so slowly!) grew over the course of the game. It diluted the big stacks, yes, but it was kind of confusing and also didn’t really dilute the big stacks fast enough. It just kind of didn’t work.

Added to that was the fact that the original rules didn’t really cover what happened when someone made a bet that was too large for the table to cover. It was effectively limit Hold ‘Em (bets were capped at five Mana), but it was easily possible for that to still be too much. I was advocating for “you can always call” rules, but those are really, really hard to write from scratch (give it a try!). The economy was neither fish nor fowl at this point.

Grant: I did write them. They were bad and I think they took an entire page just to cover the concept. There was a brief phase where we toyed with having betting as a means to bring bluffing back. It was a lazy attempt. But, in doing so, I think it demonstrated to us that we needed to be more or less like poker. We chose less and it was a good, pivotal decision. You can’t keep everything. But, by freeing yourself, you get to do new stuff.

Josh: Stack management is a huge part of no-limit Hold ‘Em. It’s kind of what separates great players from so-so players. Understanding things like pot commitment, pot odds, all that junk – it’s huge, and it’s an important part of skill, and it’s really beyond the pale for a casual game like this. Having any of that stuff be part of the economy in a lightweight card game was a mismatch.

Coming away from that first playtest, this was my biggest concern with the game. The economy just had to change. There were really two games here fighting each other: on one hand, this light-hearted game of spellcasting, hand and card management, which encouraged wishcasting and chasing hands; on the other, a darker, deeper game that reflected its poker roots, of ruthlessly bleeding out your opponents in Hold ‘Em fashion.

Grant: This also brings up the similar symptoms of runaway leaders. It was often clear that after a win or two, the chip leader was going to win. They could even just park it, add no Mana to the economy to be won, and win after a number of hands were played, which was the end condition.

As a result of all of this, we had a breakthrough. What if the win condition wasn’t Mana, as it is in poker, but points? Suddenly, having a lot of Mana meant you had a large amount of currency, but it wouldn’t mean the win.

Josh: I think both of those are worth unpacking further. The first is points. There were a few ways to fiddle with the economy. One idea would be to reset each hand. Everybody goes back to the same X mana every turn, and then just tries to maximize their result for that hand. That has the advantage of simplicity and draining the big stacks of their power, but it has a downside: folding is meaningless.

Not only would folding be stupid in that setup, but paying big for effects is meaningless. The cost of things isn’t very important, since you would just stay in every hand. It drains too much tension from the game. How do you fix that? Well, we need to have the pot be meaningful each hand, since we need people to weigh how much they’re paying in. But, we don’t want individual people to be able to bully the table just because they won previous hands. The answer suggests itself at that point: you need to record the results of each hand somehow while returning everybody to relatively even footing. That’s where the idea to record points came from.

Grant: According to you searching our email records, we tried four solutions, the last being the right one.

  1. If you win the hand, you earn 1 Point and reset Mana to all players. This has problems, as noted above.
  2. If you win the hand, you buy Points via a complicated rule. More on that in a second.
  3. If you win the hand, you buy Points at a fixed ratio by paying other players. Close!
  4. If you win the hand, you buy Points at the cost of 1 Mana paid to each player. Ding ding! We have a simple, scalable winner!

This solution fixed the economy by balancing it long term, giving weight to your mana expenditures (spending more = more points for the victor), removed the chip leader bullying issue, removed the runaway leader issue.

Josh: Can I just say, I still like the intellectual properties of solution #2?

Grant: You can say whatever you want. Free country!

Josh: The idea, basically, was that the chip leader could buy points with the cost determined by the size of the second biggest stack at the table. You thus could reward somebody who gets far out ahead of the table, but if you had a pursuer, your lead was less valuable. I think the dynamics of that would have been fun to watch. Clearly too complicated for a game like this one, and it was never actually tested, but I think it’s a cool, fun idea that I might re-use in another game.

Note that here is an area where having two designers paid off. Going from a Hold ‘Em  economy to our solution, which stands to this day, required only two games of Hocus Poker. Most of the intermediate steps were hashed out in discussion, saving us from burning out our playtesters too much.

Grant: Our solution did, however, introduce a new issue: hoarding. You could only buy Points if you won. However, a player could decline to purchase points and therefore hold all the Mana. Without Mana, other Wizards couldn’t use Spells. This basically meant they couldn’t win and it made the game really not fun.

To make a simple comparison, it’d be like a worker placement game where one player had the option to hold onto your workers.

My first solution was to ignore it. In the, put my hands over my ears and go “na na na na na” method.

Josh: I can remember you trying to talk yourself into this not being a problem. And it wasn’t a huge one, honestly. Most players would just buy points as they had a chance, no problem. But some players would think one step deeper and decide that there was no point in buying points if they couldn’t buy a winning set, and they’d sit on their Mana.

Bullying was back in the game, in a much more minor form. We needed a way to force Mana redistribution. It seemed obvious: just make them buy points. Heavy handed, but sometimes problems have easy solutions.

Grant: I tried to convince myself that I shouldn’t have to design mechanics for awful people. And I still somewhat stand by that. However, awful people do exist. We debated whether to make it a minimum number of points, but that led to weird side issues, especially when players had to split the pot (which we later removed). Ultimately, the clean, global issue was to force players to spend Mana until they were equal to or less than the starting amount.

Josh: The line between “awful person” and “ruthless optimizer” is pretty thin. Speaking as someone that sometimes falls in the latter camp (I’ll leave the first for others to define), it was an issue. Maybe in 80% of games, it wasn’t a problem. But 20% is still an issue.

Grant: It’s a good lesson, really. Just because I personally don’t think like that doesn’t mean others don’t. Your design shouldn’t have huge opportunities just screaming to be, exploited.

Josh: It can be easy to say that a particular audience won’t have an issue. But why not try and solve it for as many audiences as possible. I have a bunch of math majors in my regular gaming group. The game should work for them as well.

Grant: We then needed to solve our endgame, which was incredibly anti-climatic. When you played a set number of Hands, players in the lead would have an incentive to play cautiously and withhold potential winnings. For example, if someone had the most points and knew the game would end in 3 hands, they would slow play those 3 hands to choke the economy. If a player doesn’t win any Mana, they can’t buy points.

Josh: In my first several games, there were players who were eliminated before the end of the game. There was literally no way that they could possibly buy enough points in the final hand to win the game, even if they won every mana chip at the table and bought points with them. That’s a bad thing.

Grant: People in that position leaving our game feeling awful. They might as well have spent 30 minutes being insulted.

We tried a race solution: first to 8 points wins. This felt lame, especially as in some rare cases, the game could end really quickly. We then tried first to 8 points, plus one final hand. In one out of about nine tests this final round mattered. In the remaining eight, it was a waste of time. A foregone conclusion.

Fundamentally, we had an issue where players in the lead remained in the lead. Players in the back felt terrible, especially if they lost without any points.

Josh: Not only that, but there was even a kingmaker problem. In one playtest game I played at this time, a three-player game, I was pretty far in the lead going into the final round. My friend Jarrett was toast, with no hope of winning, and Marc had at least an outside shot if the pot got rich enough. I folded right away, so that Marc’s pot was going to be limited. The only way that Marc could win would be if Jarrett stayed in and paid liberally into the pot. But Jarrett had no way to win. It was a classic kingmaker situation: an eliminated player could help determine who wins with no chance themselves.

Both problems stemmed from the end condition. It comes down to race mechanics. You can only gain X number of points in any given hand, defined by how much Mana is available at the table. X tends to increase as hands go on, but it’s still a limit. Fall more than X behind, and you need more than one hand to catch up. Adding a final hand to the list just moves that threshold to 2X for futility. Yes, it’s better, but it’s still possible to be eliminated before the end of the game. This isn’t a wargame, that’s really not OK. You can keep layering on extra rounds, but that does two things: one, it dilutes the impact of the “finish line”, which is crappy and makes the first part of the game feel futile; two, it doesn’t actually solve the problem, just kind of buries it under the rug.

So, time to bust out the thinking hats. What properties do we want for the game? We returned to first principles: one of the guiding principles of the game was to avoid player elimination. At every moment, people need to have a chance. How do you capture that? Well, you can solve that if, at any given time, a player could go on a run and still win.

That’s when things came together: we don’t want a fixed number of rounds, due to kingmaker/elimination issues. We don’t want a fixed number of winning hands, because we want the size of each pot to be significant. A first-past-the-post victory condition still leaves people possibly eliminated. So we combined a few options. A points threshold added to a requirement to win one more hand. That gives a tangible goal for people to hit with the addition of someone needing one final win. That keeps everybody in it towards the end. If you can keep winning hands, you can still pull things out.

Grant: I love when a game ends with everyone in sudden death. It’s delightful knowing this is the last hand. Whoever wins takes it all.

Josh: I’ve come back from zero points to win the game by just running the table. It’s a great, great feeling. This endgame mechanic is similar to one I used before, in Foresight, and the hybrid of conditions works really well.

Grant: Oh man, we should talk about Antes! I forgot about them. For a phase there, they were so important. We had a problem where some spells were strictly better. You would always use them first. Keep in mind, at this point, all spells had a base activation of 1. Summon, which was then “Draw 1” was simply too good. You would always do it.

Josh: This was a problem I noted in the first playtest. There was just no reason not to use Summon right away. Sometimes several actions in a row. It was just too obvious.

Grant: As a side note, fixing Summon is how we came about the Show mechanic. Summon became Draw 1, Show 1, which meant you had to play a card from your hand. This revealed information, which is important, potentially exposed the card to some spells, but meant you couldn’t Show that card again. Show has since become one of our most important mechanics.

When you get to a point like this, you have two paths you can follow.

  1. Perfect Balance: Make every action balanced, which means it’s fine for them to share a cost. I think this path is very boring.
  2. Economic Balance: Very the cost of every action. This means you can have wildly disproportionate powers which are reigned in with an economic tool. I vastly prefer this and love finding solutions for these in my games.

We chose the economic solution — the Ante. Better spells would have an ante. You would add 1 Mana from the Bank onto the spell, which would increase its starting cost by 1. This would also inflate the economy, which at the time seemed like a good thing. Smaller pots in the beginning, larger pots towards the end.

Inflation had a few problems. Plus, it was a clunky way to include the idea that “some spells should cost more from the start.” There was a simpler solution.

Josh: An ante was suggested after my first playtest to just make the differing spell power levels work. I think it’s more interesting to have variety in spells without having to keep everything leveled out. And the Ante mechanic did work pretty well – we have more or less that same mechanic in the game today. But there was a hidden problem: it pumped mana into the game. Each hand then became more significant as the game went on. In addition, the costs of spells became less significant as the game went on. Both effects weren’t huge, but they were there.

There was also a more subtle problem, which was the cost of production. Having the economy slowly increase meant that the game had to include enough mana to get the players through the game. With 5 players, you needed the start mana, plus roughly 13 hands of inflation (26 spells, two per hand). I sat down to compute out the worst case, and it worked out to something like 84 mana in the absolute worst case. Not insurmountable, but that was a fair bit to produce.

So, we again had an issue. Honestly, we lived with this one for a fair bit. It wasn’t a huge problem, it was a subtle one. The game basically worked under these conditions. But it nagged at us.

I think we both arrived at the same solution. There was no need to pull mana from the bank. It could just be the starting cost. The rest of the economy worked fine, you now had a fixed pool, off you go. It meant that each hand would be of roughly the same importance, encouraging players to go hard right out of the gate. Production was simpler (we got it down to a single sheet of tokens). There were essentially no down sides to it.

Thanks for reading. Hopefully some of these insights and development paths are useful to you in your own design. Potentially, they may aid in your enjoyment of Hocus Poker. If you want to try Hocus Poker, you can get the PNP here and read the rules here