Horrible Person Proofing

real_loophole

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Update: I just want to note that my game, Wozzle, isn’t broken. I didn’t write this post to declare that to the world. I merely found a way for people who play games for the sake of trolling to troll my game and that, to me, seemed like an interesting topic for a larger discussion. And now, the post. 

I recently made a big change to Wozzle that addresses a core issue with its economy. The change has worked really well, but it opens up a very tiny loop hole that can lead to a lame experience. I’ve discussed it a bit with Chevee Dodd, solid, well-hatted pal, and we came up with a bunch of solutions. But, are they needed?

The question is, should I introduce a complex rule to patch over awful, degenerate behavior that won’t help win the game? Basically, do I need to horrible person proof my game?

A Story

A few years ago when I was pitching Farmageddon, one publisher brought up a point that I’d never heard after a lot of testing and blind feedback. His concern was that there was no rule to force players to plant. Therefore, if nobody plants, the game stalls and nothing happens. It breaks the game.

Now, you cannot earn points in Farmageddon without planting. You have to harvest crops to earn points. The objective is to earn points to win. Therefore, if you aren’t planting, you can’t win.

Secondly, there was at the time, and still is, a rule that forces you to fertilize. This is a subtle way to force players to take risk and keep planting. Because you must fertilize, even someone else’s, you might as well plant your own crop and fertilize it.

But, neither of these forced players to plant in the first place. I wanted to get published, so I began thinking about solutions to address the concern. The problem was, there weren’t any easy solutions. The rule had to be conditional. There are limited fields and if I say “You must plant each turn,” but if you can’t get a field (for whatever reason), then you can’t satisfy that rule. There’s one exception. What if it’s the end of the game and you don’t have crops in your hand to plant? And, do I do away with the Fertilizer rule?

Ultimately, I asked: Is this such a problem that we need to add a very complicated rule this game? And keep in mind, Farmageddon‘s target audience is not one that enjoys heaping complexity. I ended up not working with this publisher for a few reasons, but I never did add a rule to force planting and to my knowledge, it hasn’t come up. It turns out the 3,000+ people who bought it so far are pretty reasonable people.

The Wozzle Concern

Wozzle had a problem when Coins determined the winner. Coins are won in pots, much like poker. This created a huge disparity, especially in games with more players. Players who won early pots would have a massive coin advantage and I had to create a few catch up mechanics to keep others in the game.

Instead of fighting against this, I worked out a solution with one of my testers, Joshua Buergel. Points determine the winner. After each hand, the winner of the hand may purchase Points (and only at this time). The cost is 1 coin paid to each other player and 1 coin to the bank. This reduces the chip leader’s stash and increases everyone else’s.

This change has been incredibly successful. It’s elegant and it has even removed the need for my 2 catch up mechanics (Cash Out, Purge) which are now removed from the game.

There’s a problem, though. Somewhat.

The winner, if they want, could buy no Points. They could sit on a pile of coins and hinder other players’ ability to play. Coins are spent to activate spells (abilities). But, if you have even 4 coins, you can do quite a bit in the game. Having more than 10 really doesn’t provide you much advantage. There isn’t a betting phase where you can bully/force others out of the pot. Really, having 10+ coins just means you can spend recklessly.

But, if someone wanted to, they could slowly choke the economy. At least for a hand or so until someone else inevitably wins (it is poker-ish, after all). The counter to this is having a superior hand, which is possible without spending money. Or, simply folding. Or, managing your Coins better, which is a good strategy regardless.

But, if everyone is just folding, players will devolve into a stare-off while the jerk sits on his non-game winning pile of Coins. You can’t take it with you in life OR Wozzle.

So, do I begin to introduce rules? Do I force players to buy points? If so, how many? 1 Point? A minimum of 2 (but if able)? The thing is, the incentive to not buy points is to be a jerk. The incentive isn’t victory. The incentive is trolling.

If someone wants to in Pandemic, they could spend their entire turn going back and forth between two adjacent locations. Should Pandemic have a rule that says: “Hey man, you really shouldn’t be a jerk. You should play efficiently.” How do you quantify that? At what point, how many rules should you introduce to solve for horrible, nasty people?

Action Items

I’m at a point where I’m more and more happy with the mechanics of Wozzle and its Spell content. The rules are a trim 3 pages, it’s testing well locally and in blind testing, and it offers a nice bit of game for a very light component set. That means I’m focused primarily on balance and really eeking out the fun. I can be in this phase for a long time.

As I test and review feedback, I’ll be working to find out a.) how many people abuse this potential loophole and b.) whether those people actually win. If it becomes a winning strategy (which I don’t believe it is)? It’s a problem. If it’s not, and it just leads to unhappy people, then I believe the action is to add a note in the rules and warn against being a turd. The rules for Once Upon a Time do this, and I think they do so well.

If your game encourages degenerate behavior, or behavior you don’t want, with victory and rewards, you need to address it. People will do awful things if it lets them win. You need to remove those cases.

If your game allows for degenerate behavior in a way most reasonable people identify quickly, but it doesn’t provide an incentive to do so, make sure your rules clarify that the behavior is in fact, not useful. And, make sure your mechanics enforce this over and over. Your mechanics should drive towards what players should be doing.

All games, to some degree, allow for degenerate behavior. I have a friend who literally ruins every game we play because he solely targets me. He turned Shogun into an incredibly aggressive war game and boy does he make Tammany Hall difficult. When we played Mice and Mystics, he stood in the corner with Filch and did his own thing. Do I fault the designers of these games for his antics? No. Do I think they need to complicate their rule sets to fix him? No.

Be careful to wave off concerns like these. Investigate them, test against them, and verify your solutions work. But, don’t put the burden of humanity’s jerks on the shoulders of your game. If your game encourages the right things, that’s what you’ll get.

Thoughts?

The Creative Editor

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Post by: Grant Rodiek

On the drive in this morning I was thinking about my role as a designer with Wizard Poker. Clearly, I didn’t conceive of the mechanics of Poker or Texas Hold ‘Em. Nor did I conceive Action cards and such. I’ve done a great deal of work designing the mechanics surrounding the economy of this game, its balance, and its structure, but nothing in particular is new. No individual piece is wholly unique.

But, the experience is. The compilation of things is. I thought to myself, does this make me in this case more the editor? The herder of concepts?

Other artists quickly come to mind. Girl Talk is one of my favorite musicians, though I suppose one could make the argument that he isn’t a musician. He doesn’t write or conceive original music, but instead, edits and combines music from others. His mixes commonly fuse hip-hop lyrics and bass beats with classic rock and alternative samples. His work is really amazing, intense, and I can listen to it over and over. Is he less of an artist?

Blizzard is one of the most successful video game studios on the planet. Their games sell millions of copies for years and years. Yet, their games don’t feature massive quantities of innovation. Instead, games like Hearthstone and World of Warcraft borrow heavily from other games and polish, refine, and distill. In many ways, you can say the same of Lords of Waterdeep. It doesn’t add a wrinkle to the worker placement genre. It does make it incredibly accessible and smooth. From what I can tell, it has sold well.

Games aren’t merely comprised by designers, though we often get the vast majority of the credit. There are also a string of contributors, including developers and testers. I can say right now with certainty: Wizard Poker would not be very good without Joshua Buergel or Jay Treat’s testing input. It just wouldn’t. I would have potentially arrived at the place I am now at some point without them, but it’s doubtful.

Perhaps I’m not the editor, but I’m the project lead, or lead editor, of the Wizard Poker project? I’ve taken a well-known classic and fused it with other ideas to make something that is fresh and unique as a whole, but not bolstered with individual specific items of innovation.

I read the rules for Tash-Kalar last night. The core player action is very straightforward and borrows heavily from abstracts ranging from Checkers to Go or Chess. BUT, the method by which you activate its action cards is the wrinkle and I think it’ll fundamentally change the experience. Is that wrinkle a unique mechanic, or just a re-translation of well-worn, yet fantastic texts?

I’m not sure what I’m getting at, but I suppose my point is this: don’t discredit your ideas for not being the most unique, SdJ garnering ideas. Don’t fail to pursue something because it may seem less ambitious or less innovative. Our task, as designers, is to create small packets of fun for as many players as are interested. We aren’t just inventors, but are entertainers, storytellers, ring leaders, and yes, editors.

Many directors in Hollywood don’t write the screenplays. But, their compilation of the vision of dozens or hundreds of other artists wins them accolades. Being able to cement a great vision is, in itself, a form of invention.

Sometimes it’s okay to make a mixed tape. You don’t always need to make Dark Side of the Moon to be an excellent contributor to our space and hobby. If what you made is fun, and some aspect is unique, be it an individual mechanic or the overall compilation, then your contribution has merit.

Pursue it!

Have a good weekend, folks. Be industrious.

Interview with Maverick Muse

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oddball Aeronauts by Maverick Muse is on Kickstarter now. This clever 2 player game requires no surface to play, has gorgeous art, and has been in development for 2+ years. I really wanted to ask some questions of the lads who made this thing possible. 

My questions will be preceded by HG, with their responses as MM.

Hyperbole Games: Nigel — Welcome to Hyperbole Games!

Maverick Muse: Thanks Grant and thanks for this opportunity.

HG: Tell me about yourself, your brother, and Maverick Muse.

MM: Maverick Muse is actually 3 people. Myself – primarily game design, my brother Ash – primarily artist, and Debs our Creative Director. Between us we do everything including website design, fulfillment, administration, branding, legalities, accounts, customer service. Everything. I haven’t worked out yet whether we’re gluttons for punishment, stupid, or inspired? But we have a lot of fun with all of it.

Obviously, Ash and I grew up together and we’ve played and designed games together, as well as created worlds for those games, for as long as we can remember. As the game designer and artist you really get to see what we do – it’s right there in your face.

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Debs, my wife, grew up playing lots of traditional card and board games, but she’s really embraced modern games. As Creative Director, she’s our designer and graphic designer. She looks after the brand which means she’s had a major input into the look and feel of the world, the game, the company and, well, everything. Her contribution isn’t always so obvious as Ash’s and mine but no less impactful for that. We work really well as a team and without each of our contributions, oddball Aeronauts wouldn’t have been half the game it is. So it would have only been 23 cards . . . hehe!

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HG: Your first game, oddball Aeronauts, is currently funded (past its goal!) on Kickstarter. The most important question on all of our minds, firstly, is: Why don’t you capitalize the “o” in oddball?

MM: Because keeping it lowercase is in keeping with the world itself. It’s oddball. It’s a bit maverick. Simple as! It’s one of those branding thingys!

HG: Now that that’s out of the way, tell us about the game?

Right – oddball Aeronauts is a light strategy, play in the hand, no surface required, card game of dirigible dog fights in an oddball fantasy, steampunk-esque world for 2 players, ages 9 and beyond. A game takes about 15 to 20 minutes to play, but don’t be fooled into thinking there’s no depth to the game. A lot of reviewers and gamers have been happily surprised on this score.

Yep, you can say all of that in one breath! Test it for validity!

HG: Many Kickstarter games get the reputation for being under developed. I was really impressed by the fact that oddball has been in development for over 2 years. Walk us through your process. What was your inspiration for the game?

MM: I don’t think we do anything too different to other designers. The idea first, work out some rules, create a very rough prototype, play it a bit in house, fix any broken rules and smooth out the rough points as much as you can, then take it to beta testing and through blind beta tests polish the game off. As simple as that really. I know I can say that to you jokingly as it’s never that simple in practice but maybe one day, for one of our projects, it will be!

In all honesty, I don’t know how any small or start up publisher can bring a game to market in less than 2 years. They’re obviously doing something we’re not and I’d sincerely like to know how they do it. It’s the number of beta tests which are absolutely needed that takes the time. There’s a lot of back and forth in that period. Once we’re more established we’ll be able to get a lot of beta testing going at the same time, and so reduce the time it takes to thoroughly test games but until then its a slow-ish process. If you want to create a good game you can’t skimp on the beta tests unless you’re very lucky.

When it came to oddball Aeronauts, I grew up playing Top Trumps as a kid. It’s an incredibly simple game and really only suitable for very young gamers. I used to play it in the school yard a lot. Then a few years ago I stopped doing that and I thought it would be great if there was a game with more depth that kids could get into but with the same play in the hand, no-surface dynamic as Top Trumps. That was the impetus and when I nailed the core mechanic the gameplay slotted into place quite quickly. Then it really was a case of testing, testing, testing. Plus a bit of testing as well. Along with some testing that is.

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HG: What were some of the early problems you faced with the game? How did you solve them?

MM: The biggest issues have been around balancing the two factions. When you’ve got a primary and secondary stat on each card – the Skill Level and Skill Bonus – and one of those stats comes into play twice as often as the other, it makes it a bit trickier. We had to look at all 24 cards of a single faction as a whole and ensure that in their entirety these 24 cards balanced out with the other faction’s 24 cards. Solving it was a case of 1 part maths and a lot more parts trial, error and testing. We’re back to that testing thing again.

HG: What would you say are the top things that make oddball Aeronauts a must-own game? Who would love it?

MM: oddball Aeronauts is an incredibly portable game and can, literally be played anywhere two people can get together. It’s a fact. I’ve even seen someone play it on a ski lift. And up a tree. It’s the start of ‘extreme oddball Aeronauts‘!

So it’s an ideal travel game and great for “killing time” – say in a convention queue. Also, its so quick to play that you can play it in between long games or, with some of the games out there, while you are waiting for your turn to come around. You can also easily pause a game of oddball Aeronauts and come back to it later – simply put your deck away mid-game and get it out again later – it’s easy to carry on from where you left off.

As for ‘who would love it?’ Tough question. We know it goes over really well with kids and its great for parents to play with their kids as the game has enough depth to keep us oldies interested. So, we’re thinking anyone!

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HG: When did you decide to publish oddball yourself instead of using the traditional method of finding a publisher?

MM: Right from the start. As a studio we’re more than just the game design. We really enjoy creating worlds for our games and so with an artist, game designer, graphic designer, writers and world ‘builders’ between the three of us, we decided from the outset to publish our own games.

What’s fascinating is that we’ve found the game adding elements to the world and the world adding to the game. It’s an interesting experience. For example, we’ve been working on the ‘of Shot & Blade’ adventure game and from a game perspective have a number of skills that are used to overcome threats and obstacles – think scouting or sneaking – and so worked out all the different combinations of those skills. Then we look at the world and see if there is an obstacle or threat that would match the different skill combinations. Let’s say you’ve got scouting and sneaking as your combination and the obstacle is an enemy patrol – you can get by the patrol by either scouting a route, or sneaking by. For some skill combinations there just wasn’t an obvious world threat or obstacle to use so we had to get imaginative and create one. The result, we hope, is a game that fully complements the world and vice versa.

HG: You are both designers and artists, correct? Tell us about your art background.

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MM: I used to draw reasonably well when I was younger but never pursued it. Debs is an artist herself and uses that skill with the graphic design and so on. Ash is the illustrator and is mainly self-taught. He’s become as good as he is through hard work and a lot of practice plus innate talent.

I like to think game design is part art and part craft. Then I can say I’m an artist and use that to excuse my eccentricities and oddballnesseses.

HG: How did you pick the theme for oddball Aeronauts? The art is outstanding. It’s an 18th century steampunk style thing with animals. It’s really fantastic.

MM: Thanks. Ash has done a great job of visualizing all our oddball Realms ideas. And Debs steered it in the direction of steampunk. I just sat back with my feet up and cracked the whip!

The world of the oddball Realms came first. We all had a hand in creating that and still do. We wanted to have a setting that would have as broad an age range appeal as possible and so using anthropomorphic characters was ideal. Then we fleshed the world out (to a point) and established its look and feel. So the world building came first. We’ve got several ’worlds’ created specifically for backdrops to our games.

So when the game design for oddball Aeronauts came to me, we looked at what would best suit it. We wanted this game to have a broad appeal as possible and so the oddball Realms was the ideal world fit. And as any reasonable person would do, we decided on the specific theme of duelling dirigibles. I mean, who wouldn’t?

HG: What did you learn through iteration with the art? What were some of the challenges you faced?

MM: We’ve got a big advantage in that we have both an artist and graphic designer as part of the company. This means we can all work very closely together to ensure all aspects fit. The challenge was working out how to produce the art in such a way that all three of us were happy with the results. Over the course of this project we’ve learnt to take the art in steps just like you do with game design. We start by going over a concept – or concepts – Ash then starts with concept sketches and runs these by myself and Debs. We then tweak the look and firm up the sketch before moving on to line work and finally colour with input from Debs and me at each point. We’ve streamlined this process along the way and the results speak for themselves.

Another great advantage we have with an in-house artist is the ability to tweak and adjust at any point. For example, during the Kickstarter, one of our backers had the idea to put a monocle onto one of the bots. We thought this was really cool and relatively quick for Ash to add the monocle in, so in it went! We’ve really enjoyed this kind of interaction with our backers and want to keep going with this after the Kickstarter when we start work on the expansions. So you can expect monocles on everything!

HG: What are some of your favorite games to play? Did they influence oddball in any way?

MM: We definitely prefer games that can be learnt easily. That’s a primary factor as we don’t have a lot of time to game. And we play the same games a lot before getting new ones. Recently we’ve been playing a lot of older games – Ghost Stories, Elder Sign, Blood Bowl Team Manager, Escape: Curse of the Temple and The Hobbit. None of them directly influenced oddball but you’ll see some key elements in common – player choices, random elements, easy to learn, different characters or factions, special abilities, variety and replayability. We definitely aim to include all of these elements in our games.

HG: What are your plans for oddball, aside from the obvious of publication? Is this a game that’ll work with more players? More complex deckbuilding? Peel back the curtain and tell us how the sausage will be made, if you don’t mind.

MM: Well, we’ve tested out a 3 player version and some of our backers are currently testing 4 players. In fact, one of them came back with a great suggestion that we need to fully test that I’m excited about. So, oddball Aeronauts does work with 3 or more players but we’ll always market it as a 2 player game with rules available for 3 or 4 players. The main reason for this is that you’ll need 2 sets to play 3 or 4 players and we have no plans on creating a version with 3 or 4 factions in the one box.

As to the future, we have 6 factions already worked out that need to get beta tested fully. These will be the first couple of expansions. We’ve also been playing around with Upgrade and Damage cards. Basically, the concept is that if you’ve got an oddball Aeronauts session going, after each game in that one session you play you select one Upgrade Card of your choice and add it to your deck. However, you also randomly pick one Damage card that you also add to your deck. There will also be Trophy cards to represent the winning of a game. It’s just a little thing but your deck changes over the time of the session which is fun – a ‘flash’ campaign almost.

And we’ve got ideas for giant dirigibles. These would be twice the size of regular dirigibles and so the 24 cards representing them would have higher stats and so on. You could play giant dirigible vs. giant dirigible or you could have 2 players with regular dirigibles go up against 1 player with a giant dirigible – 2 versus 1.

As you can see we’ve got a few ideas we’re working on and it’s possible that not all of them will work out. When it comes to more complex deck building I’ve been thinking about deck ‘rigging’ where players can decide the exact order their faction cards are in at the start of the game – so there’s no shuffling. This is literally just an idea as I haven’t even tried it out myself. The question is what to do with the Event cards? Maybe still pick 2 randomly but, again, you can put them anywhere you like in your deck? If someone out there wants to give it a go and let me know the results that would be great.

HG: Do you have any other games you’re working on? I remember you had a few when you contributed to my community preview article. I’d love to know what else is coming from you guys.

MM: Yes we’ve got quite a few games lined up in various stages of design. Some are just pure concepts whereas others are on the verge of going to beta testing.

We’ve got another 3, play in your hand, surfaceless card games. These all use the same core mechanic that’s in oddball Aeronauts but do provide different experiences in different worlds to the oddball Realms.

Then there’s the oddball adventure game where up to 6 players split into 2 teams of up to 3 players in each. Each team then takes on roles of officers and crew of an airship and the two teams race across the oddball skies from air island to air island in search of fortune and glory. It’s a modular board game that allows for many different adventurous scenarios and a lot of variety. I don’t think I’ve seen a game like it and that’s why we’re creating it. We’ve got a similar game to this called ‘of Shot & Blade‘ but set in our own fantasy world of Edath.

Those are ones that are closest to beta testing.

We’ve also had a request to produce an RPG in the oddball Realms and I think role-playing in the oddball Realms would be a lot of fun. Ash and I were RPGers before we were board gamers. I’ve got ideas on how to make it a bit different to other RPGs…but our focus right now is on our board and card games. If there’s enough demand though…

HG: Where do you see Maverick Muse headed as a company? Focused on your own games? Do you see yourselves taking submissions? What do you think defines a Maverick Muse title?

MM: We’re definitely focusing on our own games and the worlds they’re set in. We’ve started discussing the idea of taking submissions but haven’t decided on a policy as yet. If we did take submissions then those games would have to fit into our studio criteria and that leads nicely into your last question about what defines a Maverick Muse title.

Our worlds are designed to be adventured in and so our games are designed around the fundamental themes of adventure and action plus we aim to instill story and narrative into them. If our games can get players groaning, fist pumping, moaning, cursing, laughing and celebrating then I think we would be very happy.

HG: Anything you’d like to add?

MM: 3 + 3 ?

I just wanted to thank you for this opportunity and say that I’ve been following your blog for a while – your posts on game design are always interesting and get me thinking. So thanks for that as well.

I want to thank the folks at Maverick Muse for helping me with this interview. If you’re interested in oddball Aeronauts, it’s on Kickstarter (already funded) for another week!

Wizard Poker Development

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You can read the rules here.

Post by: Grant Rodiek

One of my goals for 2014 was to design smaller, simpler, weirder games that, if possible, can support a larger number of players. I’ve been making a lot of smaller prototypes, typically involving cards (Draftaria, Fool’s Brigade, Wizard Poker, Clarity) and it has been very productive and very fun. I really recommend wild, mass experimentation. It strengthens your other designs, is good design practice overall, and is just really fun.

I’ve been crunching on York and Sol Rising lately. Also, a little bit of Flipped. All of these are bigger, more complex games. Wizard Poker is one of my simpler little prototypes, and it’s been really fun to play, so it has received most of my attention these past few weeks after I finish the high priority work. It’s always easier to work on something like this. Diving headfirst into a problem child is less fun.

Wizard Poker has provided a lot of interesting lessons. The idea for the game came to me when discussing using Poker for a deckbuilding engine. That original idea is now buried under about 5 iterations, but the heart remains: What if you could play a poker-like game with wild abilities that lighten the spirit? What if poker were a filler that could be enjoyed at lunch or at the start of game night by people who don’t like poker?

Terminology and Key Words: When you’re building an engine atop a game as popular and well-known as poker, you need to tread carefully. You need to adhere to the proper terminology and NOT change what those terms mean. I tried to use “Fold” differently for quite some time and it caused a great deal of confusion. This applies to other games. If you’re making a deckbuilder, you need to not use a term that Dominion uses and change its meaning.

Really, using key words in a game that has abilities is so fundamental and crucial to your game playing smoothly and being easy to learn. Magic: The Gathering is a great example of this. Hearthstone is another. They create a glossary of terms, such as Wall, Battlecry, Haste, Flying, and they adhere to them. If you’re making a game that uses text and actions on cards, try to re-evaluate it through the lens of “what key words can I use repeatedly?”

This is something I started doing in Sol Rising and York and it really helps. It’s also something I’ve done in some parts in Wizard Poker, but as I develop the game, I’ll need to do it more thoroughly. For me, these are things like:

  • Draw: This single word means “draw from the top of the deck,” which is less text than “Draw from the top of the deck.”
  • Reveal: This single word should mean “place one card from your hand face up in front of you.”
  • Flip: This single word should mean “flip one card in the center to its opposite side.”

And so forth. Remember, key terms reduce text, simplify cards, and essentially act as building blocks for you to craft more complex, nuanced experiences. Instead of having one wild idea, have several simple ones that work in concert with one another.

Expectations: Another interesting thing to remember is that people have certain expectations when they play a poker-like game. And, for the sake of this being broadly applicable, you can replace “poker-like” with any classic game or standard genre. For poker, players want to bluff. They want to bet. If you jumble those concepts or overlook them entirely, there will be a lingering hint of dissatisfaction in players’ minds.

When writing rules for a game built on a common framework, it’s doubly important to not gloss over those features. If you begin tweaking things, even tiny things, your omissions become enormous, gaping holes. It was like I had to learn how to write rules all over again. Never assume that because something seems obvious or seems familiar, your players will just get it.

For me, this was really made clear when I introduced the concept of a final betting round. I did this to provide an opportunity to bluff and bully, but I did so in a way that doesn’t conflict with one of my core goals: no player elimination. My initial rules for this were two sentences. Oh, how wrong I was! The current rules are longer and they precisely outline every step. Never assume, unless your assumption is that you need to over explain.

Eliminating Elimination: It has been a real challenge to design a poker game that doesn’t involve player elimination. The winner is the player with the most Coins at the end. Coins are also used to activate special abilities, called Spells. Therefore, Coins are both points AND currency.

My first idea, which has persisted, is to give players a way to earn coins through, essentially, folding. Now, I had to revise the wording because using Fold for this caused a great deal of confusion. “Wait, he folded. Why did he get coins?”

Now, it’s called “Cash Out.” Initially, using Cash Out was too good, so players simply did that instead of playing. Not good. I then decreased the amount given, but it was still too good.

I then made it so Cashing Out helped you AND the pot, which meant those still in the hand would also benefit. Close.

Finally, I put a limit on who could use it, which meant the player in the lead couldn’t simply stay there by using Cash Out. There are still some quirks, but it is ultimately a relatively simple way to make it such that players who are losing can quickly Cash Out to get back in, but also, the best way to earn coins is to win the pot. The incentive should be clear.

Catch Up Mechanics: In a game like this, where players can lose a lot of coins quickly AND I don’t want elimination to exist, there need to be more catch up mechanics. It can’t just be tacked on. It needs to be core to the experience.

I gave players a way to gain spells for themselves. This was actually one of my first ideas, but back then it was the game, not a catch up element. There are two Basic Spells that exist in every hand. They are constants that never change. There are then 20 Advanced Spells. In a 2 or 3 player game, you draw 1 per hand to pair with the Basic Spells. In a 4 and 5 player game, you draw 2 per hand. This means every hand is unique and offers different abilities and bonuses to take advantage of.

In the original version, the player who won the hand gained all the coins in the pot AND a spell of their choice. There was a spell for everyone, so the game was about tableau building. The problem was, not all spells are created equally. If a player both won the hand AND took the best spell, he or she would be very difficult to take down.

This was also very complicated. Players weren’t sure if they were vying for spells or coins (it was both). It meant I needed to balance everything very differently, which I didn’t really want to do. Not because I’m lazy, but because it’s fun when wild, ridiculous things come out in this game. It’s only for one turn for everyone and part of the game is using this power.

I reduced the number of Advanced Spells out each hand and made it such that the winner of the hand took the coins. Then, the players with the fewest coins gained the spells. This worked, mostly, except if a player won early hands, his opponents would have so many powerful abilities. They could easily out-spell him. It discouraged winning early. I guess when I said it worked mostly, I mean it didn’t work at all. Your game should never discourage victory, or at least not confuse it.

A few iterations passed, and ultimately I’ve settled on this (until it turns out it doesn’t work): The player(s) with the fewest coins at the end of a hand take the Advanced Spells. They may use them once only by paying to the Pot (like normal spells, which simplifies the rules). Once used, they are removed from the game. Players may instead Purge them, which means the Spell is removed and the player gains 2 Coins. It’s a catch up mechanic with 2 flavors: coins or a powerful ability only you can wield.

The PNP: I’ve never designed a game that was simple to Print-N-Play. I released a PNP for York and one for Sol Rising. The former had zero plays, the latter 2 or so (which was immensely helpful). Even Farmageddon‘s PNP, shared during its Kickstarter campaign, required you print and cut 108 cards. Wizard Poker is the simplest PNP I’ve ever made and I’ve already had at least 4 people cut it out. Hopefully more?

Four may not seem like much, but I think it’s pretty good. The game has “poker” in the title, so I know that’ll turn some folks off immediately. Which is why I need to change the name.

The point here is that if you make a PNP, try to make it simple. Make it easy to print, easy to learn, and give folks a good reason to try it out. Joshua Buergel and Jay Treat have been giving me piles of feedback and it has been immensely helpful. PNP is a great route to take if you’re interested in it.

The Next Trick: I don’t know what will happen with Wizard Poker. It’s testing well and it’s a game I really like. It’s fun to play and fun to develop. I feel like it’s this odd combination of Texas Hold ‘EmCoup, and Ascension rolled into one. It’s a good candidate for Drive Thru Cards or The Game Crafter, so perhaps I’ll do that and watch tens of cents roll in!

Thanks for reading. If you have any questions or comments, send ‘em below!

Sol Rising Mid-Mortem

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Post by: Grant Rodiek

I hit a very big milestone for Sol Rising last night: the campaign is content complete. That’s right! After about 6 months I’ve completed 12 scenarios that tell the story of the Terran invasion of the Jovian system. This was a really big undertaking, arguably the greatest thing (using great to mean large) I’ve designed.

Every scenario includes a composition of ships for both sides, their starting positions, interesting objectives (other than just destruction), new Events, new rules, and story moments to precede and modify every mission. Just typing that gives me flash backs. The campaign booklet is 28 pages and over 11,000 words.

I’ve learned a great deal doing this work, much of which can be applied to other designs and work. The game is not finished, obviously, as it needs to go through more testing and iteration, but I thought it would be fun to draft a “mid-mortem” to write about what I’ve learned so far.

You may read the rules for Sol Rising here. You may read the campaign here.

Remove Passive Effects: This is a lesson that took a few iterations to really drive home, but it’s such an important one. Most of the ships in the game have abilities you can activate. The majority of them were abilities that you’d activate and use immediately. Cause and effect. However, about 25% of them were passive defensive abilities that would leave a status on the board. For example, you could activate shields that would modify a ship’s defensive properties the next time it was attacked.

This caused some issues:

  • I needed to design a method to easily track this. This meant more tokens.
  • Tracking these effects increased complexity in a bad way. Players had to pay attention to more to make decisions and play.
  • I had to craft rules to deal with odd situations. What if the ship isn’t attacked? How long do the shields last?

On two occasions, my friend and design peer Cole Medeiros noted I needed to simplify them. He kept stressing cause and effect and how that simplifies things. After the first time I addressed some, but others remained. I thought it was better. After the second time, he offered the feedback with a twist.

“This ability prevents one damage when attacked next. Instead of forcing me to remember that, just remove a damage that’s already on the ship.”

Much. Simpler.

I applied this to all remaining abilities and removed them. Now, every ability in the game has an immediate effect. This has simplified the rules, simplified the abilities, removed components, and removed edge cases.

Passive abilities have absolutely ruined some games for me. I quit playing Seasons because I was sick of tracking what seemed like an endless stream of passive effects. I should have paid attention for my own game, but it took time to do so. Nonetheless, the lesson has sunk in (again).

Remove Conditional Abilities: In a game where you have activated abilities, it is crucial that in as many cases as possible you remove conditional requirements. By this, I mean: If X is the status, then do Y.

This is bad for a few reasons. One, it’s more complicated. The simplest form is to say: Do Y. By adding a layer, you’re making it more difficult for players to do things.

You’re also removing flexibility from the experience. Instead of letting players use simple abilities in new, unexpected ways, you force them to use the ability the same way every time. It makes the game more predictable and static.

Finally, and this was often the case for my game, I was creating conditions that were so unlikely to setup. They didn’t sync with the experience or the mechanics, which essentially rendered the abilities useless.

Your task when designing abilities is to focus on simple, flexible, highly usable abilities that excite the player. Give your players the tools to craft dynamic experiences. Don’t give them rigidly scripted game cards.

Design Mechanics and Content for the Game you Want: This sounds silly, but it is something you can overlook and fight against. In Sol Rising, I made the decision a few iterations ago to make the game a simpler, turn-based structure. This meant 1 player activates a squadron (move and attack). Then, the next player did so. And so forth.

However, I would frequently design odd mechanics or abilities that would fight with this structure. This continues the previous lesson, but I would craft abilities that would state: If 2 squadrons are in this specific position, you can do a thing. However, because players moved 1 squadron at a time, not 2 or more, it meant these systems weren’t playing nicely with each other.

Eventually, I found a way to keep the main mechanics very simple. Turn based, 1 at a time. However, I crafted a few simple, non-conditional abilities to let you move or attack with additional units.

The key lesson is to not fight against the framework you’ve created. Determine the experience you want, then craft a framework and the content to provide it. Keep your goals and mechanics in sync with one another.

When creating scenario based games, focusing on replayability at the outset is key. As a lesson from York, which has received feedback that it lacks replayability, and recognizing some of the faults with some scenario based games, I decided to really focus on replayability from the outset with Sol Rising.

Some games accomplish this better than others. With Memoir ’44, there isn’t much change between plays of the same scenario. The cards aren’t highly varied and the units remain the same.

One of my favorite scenario games, Mice and Mystics, adds in more varying elements. These include:

  • Players can choose different characters.
  • Players can choose different Abilities for characters.
  • The item deck is large, so what players “find” as they play changes.
  • The enemies that spawn in most rooms are randomized.
  • The timing of surges really changes things.
  • Optional side quests and routes to take.
  • Dice based combat system.

One more good example is Robinson Crusoe. It randomizes scenarios in a few ways:

  • You choose a random subset of Event cards every time you begin the scenario.
  • You choose a random subset of Inventions every time you begin the scenario.
  • The Event decks for each action are quite large and varied. Your successes and failures will change every game at different times.
  • The order in which you unveil tiles on the island will change things.
  • Players can choose different characters.
  • Dice based resolution system.

For Sol, I started with “what good looks like” and evolved it for my own game. Although I pre-define ships and starting positions, I hope advanced players will modify these things. Other variables include:

  • Dice based combat system.
  • Events that take effect at different times, or not at all, and affect players differently.
  • Completing bonus objectives.
  • Persistent campaign effects as a result of bonus objectives.
  • System failures to change how ships behave as the battle continues.

Finally, unlike Mice and Mystics and Robinson Crusoe, you’re fighting against a human opponent, not an AI. I’ve found this makes a huge difference on how missions play out.

The lesson, overall, is that if you prioritize something like variance and replayability at the beginning and factor it into your designs, you’ll see much better results. This isn’t something you can typically just layer in afterwards. The fact is that most players won’t play missions twice. I doubt most players even finish the scenarios shipped with campaigns. But, I want them to know they CAN play them multiple times and have a lot of fun.

Focus on the core first. This is definitely something for the “win” column so far. I knew from the beginning I wanted to make a scenario driven game of some sort. However, I didn’t even touch scenarios for roughly the first 6 months of development. Instead, I worked on how you command ships, how ships attack, how turn structure works, how abilities work, and more. This took a long time and in fact, I’ve continued to develop and change these things since I began scenarios. But, trying to build scenarios is very difficult. Doing so on top of a wobbly core foundation seems impossible.

The lesson is that before you go content crazy, or design scenarios, focus on the core. Make sure you know what a player’s turn entails and how your game works from start to finish.

Focus on one piece of content first. Another win, and a continuation of the previous point, is that I worked on Scenario 1 of Sol Rising far longer than any other. Before I made 12 scenarios, I needed to make one that worked really well. I had to revise the writing style for the narrative. I had to figure out what sort of Events were interesting and which ones weren’t. I needed to get a feel for objectives and communicating unique rules.

I’ve tested the first scenario far more than any other, but the lessons learned from it have informed and aided every other scenario. If you’re crafting a game with scenarios, or content sets, make one really really good before you make any more. Otherwise, you’ll be doing a lot of tedious iteration that could have been avoided.

The longer you work on a game, the more comfortable you’ll be with it.  I have a few games I’ve been working on for a year or longer. Farmageddon and its expansion, York, and Sol Rising all qualify. What I’ve found with Sol, like I’ve found with the others, is that by spending a long time on something, the more comfortable you’ll be with it. Many of my best revelations and ideas for these have come about as a result of truly understanding the game, its strengths, and its weaknesses.

Obviously, if you can get a game signed quickly and it all works out, awesome. Congrats. Enjoy this heaping pile of my jealousy. But, if you’re working on more complex games (as I have a habit of doing, curses), give your game time to grow. Give it time to mature and evolve as it needs to. There are so many avenues these days to rush out a game, but I think you’ll find determined patience will render its own rewards.

At least, it has for me.

I’m excited to take Sol Rising into the next stages. I’m also chasing down some publishing leads and hope it’ll be something folks can experience in their own homes before our sun collapses.

Questions? Comments? Put ‘em below!

Wizard Poker Print-N-Play

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Full credit for this image goes to the artist ragweed of Deviant Art. I Googled “Wizard Poker” and was shocked to find something so perfect.

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Truth be told, I somewhat stole Wizard’s Poker from Chevee Dodd. Actually, the game is my idea. I stole the inspiration from him. Chevee is working on a game that uses some poker hand type mechanics to activate abilities and such. He asked me to help brainstorm and I tossed out this idea:

What if you were playing a game where you spent poker hands (ex: Three of a Kind) to activate powerful abilities? These then  let you build a superior poker hand?

In my mind, I envisioned the fun and familiarity of Texas Hold ‘Em Poker with the fun effects and combos of games like Ascension and Dominion.  That sounded nice.

Poker, as an experience, has a few things that may put off some players:

  1. Poker is only fun with real money.
  2. Poker requires you devote 2-3 hours with a group of around 4-5 friends.
  3. Poker has player elimination. Due to #1 and #2, it is a high cost.

But, the game has so many strong qualities! Though it has never tried to pass itself off as a casual lunch game, what if it were? With games like King of Tokyo taking the dice rolling of Yahtzee to new places, and Rise of Augustus almost winning a Spiel des Jahres with a new take on Bingo, and games as simple as Coup and Coin Age gaining (much deserved) attention, why not try something so simple? Why not try to mod poker?

Why shouldn’t I try to craft a micro-ish game?

Poker has great strengths. For one, it’s immensely familiar to millions of people. It’s on TV! Poker is also really quite simple. The rules are clean and the hardest part is memorizing the strength order of the hands (ex: Flush versus Full House). Finally, poker is high luck and high skill. It is thrilling to play and rewards bold moves, skillful play, good mathematics, and gut instincts. Even the worst players sometimes get lucky.

I am not nearly arrogant enough to claim I’m fixing poker, improving poker, or supplanting poker. That’s just absurd. But, I believe I’ve made a neat little game that takes some of the great elements of poker and turns it into a quick and simple lunch game for gamer types. I believe this, for a few reasons:

  • You play the game for points, represented by coins. Thematically it fits poker, but it’s the same as winning Jaipur for having the most points.
  • There is no player elimination.
  • The game plays in 30-60 minutes with 2-5 players.
  • The game uses fun abilities that bring forth some of the thrills and tension of typical poker.

I chose the name Wizard Poker, because it felt appropriate, thematic, and not an overreach. It came to me quickly as it seemed that this would be how magic-users would play poker. Here’s the premise I wrote at the top of the rules:

Nightly, the Wizards of the academy gather in the basement to complain about ignorant nobles, boast of their ethereal exploits, and shed their gold earnings in a high stakes game of Wizard Poker. It is the classic game enjoyed by peasants and nobles alike, only for the Wizards, it is twisted and enriched with the trickery of magic and spells. After all, why play such a typical game when one can add magic?

The game is Texas Hold ‘Em with a twist. Every hand, each wizard is dealt 5 cards and 2 are dealt face up to the center. These are shared. There are 3 rounds of betting. To bet and remain in the hand (i.e. in contention for the pot), players may take 1 of 4 actions.

  • Bet 1 Coin to the Pot
  • Pay to Activate a Spell
  • Sell a Spell for Coins
  • Fold, which earns coins but also contributes to the pot

There are 3-4 Spells in the center. 2 Basic Spells are always there. The 1-2 Advanced Spells are drawn from a stack and only last for that round. The cost to use a Spell keeps you in the hand, and costs 1, 2, 3, or more coins based on how many times the spell has been used. Spells let you do things like draw cards, force others to bet, exchange cards in the center, and more.

To play the game, you only need a poker deck (which you should have if you read this blog, I mean come on!), a set of coins (I use pennies, you can raid your copy of 7 Wonders or Small World or Princes of Florence), and the 16 Spell tiles + 4 Reference tiles. It’s about 10 minutes of work.
I don’t know what I intend to do with the game. I just know I like it, it’s simple, and my early testers enjoy it. I’d love for you to give it a chance and tell me what you think. 
10 minutes to build, 5 minutes to learn, fun for 2-5. Give it a chance?

Update: A handful of people have downloaded and tested the PNP. Now, I’m removing it from the web for a bit. I have a handful of testers, but the game is still in flux for balance and such. You can read the rules here.

Interaction and Variability

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Post by: Grant Rodiek

This week, I want to write a few posts about some of my personal beliefs that drive my enjoyment of the games I play and fuels the foundations of the games I design. I’m starting with the concepts of interaction and variance, two highly contentious topics that are very important to me.

Last week, I Tweeted this very succinct statement that summarizes this post well: I love interaction and variance in games because it more strongly resembles life. I prefer besting the unexpected to solving stability.

To be clear, I don’t necessarily enjoy games with a high degree of luck. I especially don’t like such games that are too lengthy. I do enjoy the tension in games like 1812 or X-Wing when a critical dice roll can decide things. But, if you play those games enough, you should realize that most of the game is decided by planning and human decisions.

I greatly enjoy variance and the unexpected. I love it when a game cannot be solved or predicted, but the players must simply dive in and use their skill, gut instincts, and a little luck to emerge on top. I’m fascinated by the choices players make when they need to derive success from the hand, metaphorical or real, they’ve been dealt.

Let’s look at Summoner Wars, a game I love. In the game, your odds of hitting in combat are pretty good: 3+. That’s a 66% chance of a hit on every roll. That means you can begin to rely statistically on certain things occurring. But, there are other fantastic variables. You might desperately need an Event card, but you haven’t drawn it yet. You might have no Champions out, when your opponent has all three. How do you solve that problem? The beauty, for me, is using the known and making tough choices to survive, outwit, and outlast.

You can see this notion of “use the tools you’ve been dealt” in my other designs. In Farmageddon, I tried to tune the deck of Action cards to almost ensure there are ways to tackle most situations. Yes, you might get stuck. But, the key is, the board changes often. You will lose Crops. They will be stolen. Therefore, the game is not about “what will I do in 3 turns” but instead becomes “what can I do RIGHT NOW to improve my chances?” It’s about triage and risk mitigation. Terrible things will happen, trust me. But, those terrible things aren’t just aimed at you. Everyone is in that mess together.

In York, I apply this philosophy without a take-that attitude, but still, one that requires taking a chance and doing your best. Every turn you have 5 simple cards (though this can be modified in ways). These cards are, more or less, your fuel. Your resources. What is the best thing you can do with your five cards? Which battles can you win? Which might you lose? Where might you exploit an opponent’s flank or take control of a poorly defended city? How will you best use this round to set yourself up for the next scoring phase?

In testing, some elements of York have always flustered, and will always fluster, certain player types. Some people insist on knowing everything, which is odd for me in a game about war. Turn order is not deterministic, so you cannot make assumptions there. What your one, two, or three other opponents have and want to do also can’t always be ascertained. The only fact is what’s in your hand. With it, I force this simple question: what is the best thing you can do that you control?

For York, and many of my games, I’m driven by this quote from Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, the great German Field Marshal: ”No plan of operations extends with certainty beyond the first encounter with the enemy’s main strength” (or “no plan survives contact with the enemy”).

He also said: “Strategy is a system of expedients.” I love that. There is a purity and a truth to it.

The enemy is sometimes other players. It is sometimes the game pushing back against you. Both, for me, enrich the experience and in almost all cases are a requirement for me.

I’ve begun listening to the Ludology Podcast recently. In one episode, Geoff Engelstein wisely notes that planning far ahead and thinking strategically is one skill. However, he noted that being able to manage unpredictable elements is another skill. Often, I feel people in our hobby think that  interaction and things that interrupt a good plan diminish the game’s skillful input, but I disagree. You’re just choosing a different style of mental exercise.

In his review of Relic Runners, a game with very little luck, Quinns said the following two things that removed all interest I had for playing the game:

Relic Runners is a tremendously tricky game that’s built almost entirely from perfect information, meaning you know exactly what the consequences of your actions will be, allowing you to plan for your next turn. And the turn after that. And the turn after that.”

And:

“In other words, Relic Runners is a both game where the more time you spend telescoping your turns outward in your head, the better you’ll do, but where no other player is invested in your actions when you eventually decide on them. These two factors come together in a tiny disaster- about half of the turns I took felt like compromises, brought on either by social pressure to not slow down the game, or by my own inability to calculate whether – for example – with an ability to move two paths, I could perform a colossal, game-winning Relic Run.”

This element of perfect information, of solving the game, of extreme predictability, just doesn’t excite me. I want my opponents invested in my turn. I want to evoke an “oh no!” or “ah ha!” based on my decision.

I realize that citing an extreme case is a lazy way to prove my argument. Potentially, though, not as lazy as quoting another author’s words to say it for me. But, I’m trying to prove not that you’re wrong, just help elaborate why it isn’t interesting for me.

Some of my favorite games that also demonstrate my points include:

  • Summoner Wars: Order of drawing, dice-driven combat results
  • Robinson Crusoe: Inventions, Event cards, die roll on adventures
  • Ascension: What’s in the center? What is your opponent taking?
  • Dragon Heart: If you draw the worst cards, how can you trick and mislead your opponent?
  • Legacy: So many cards, so many variables. How shall you make this generation thrive?
  • 1812 or 1775: The order in which certain cards are drawn has a massive impact. Key ones include the warships, for you or opponent. Also, dice!

In conclusion, when I play a game, I’m not interested in planning out a strategy and slowly executing it precisely. I want to pick a direction, sure, but react and evolve accordingly based on every tree that falls in my path. I want to be a problem solver or fixer. I’ll leave deep planning to the armchair quarter backs. Me? Put me in the fray.

This is a more comparable model to our world, which games often simulate, and makes for a sweeter victory. Perhaps, I’m just not very patient or intelligent? Feel free to heap derision upon me in the comments below!

Flippin’ Sweet

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Post by: Grant Rodiek

My last few weeks have been a frenzy of prototyping. Upgrading components (Sol Rising), re-balancing and improving the design (Sol Rising, Flipped), and experimenting with new ideas (not ready to talk about yet). It has been a lot of fun and I’m ready to test again. Before that, however, I’d like to write about how I’ve improved Flipped, both to share with folks and hopefully impart some of the wisdom I’ve gained as a result.

Flipped is intended to be a simple, very accessible light-euro fueled primarily by a worker placement mechanic. It plays 2-5 players in under an hour, typically 45 minutes. I had a few months where I couldn’t work on it, which let me think deeply on the game and really examine what needed to improve.

Let’s cover the basics, first.

To simplify the typical resource complexity of some of these games, I baked it all into the workers. Your workers are essentially your actions and your resources. Instead of the typical “Place 1 worker, get X output,” which you then spend, in Flipped it is Place N workers, gain asset or take action.” Very similar, just a light twist.

The game features an area majority mechanic where, if you build out a certain neighborhood in a certain way, you will score points at the end of the game. For example, a client who wants a rich luxury neighborhood will give you points if there is no infrastructure (i.e. power plant) in the neighborhood. It’ll be up to you to make that happen.

Both of these mechanics have been done before. Thankfully, I have what I think is a simple and fun unique hook. The theme of the game is that you’re rebuilding a city that’s down on its luck. The demands and needs of the city are dynamic. After all, every game would be the same otherwise. This dynamic demand curve influences many things in the game, most notably, points. If you manipulate the needs of Business clients to drive up the Infrastructure demand, you can then build for those clients to score big points.

This was all mostly working, but I had some issues.

Previously, the demand model was very fiddly, mostly from a player updating standpoint. Players had to constantly place chits onto the board and it took time and was just annoying. It felt, to me, like counting out money in Monopoly. I realized that I could simplify this by just tracking the demand with a much smaller chart. Players could then simply pull tokens out of a bag based on the demand number. Easy!

I also realized the game had far more little complexities than it needed. Some of these included:

  • 2 slightly different methods to obtain Client cards.
  • Lots of symbols on the board that could be distilled and eliminated.
  • A few Client requirements that didn’t make sense and slowed the game.
  • A few end game scoring mechanics that always drew confusion from players.
  • Too much info on clients.
  • Too many minor details in setup that didn’t need to be there.

The effect of these tiny complexities was somewhat akin to the death by a thousand cuts. Furthermore, all of them took away from my hook. If my dynamic demand model is the cool feature in my game, then it needs to be THE feature in the game. It needs to power everything, so I set about doing so.

As a result, I baked in quite a few simple changes:

  • One method to gain clients, which is a bit of a push your luck. You choose how many options you want up front.
  • When you build, you don’t get pre-defined points based on the Client. You get points based on the demand curve. If you satisfy higher demands, you tend to make more points.
  • The beginning of the game is more randomly setup. It’ll be equal and fair, but also faster to get going.
  • Client cards have been simplified.

This all shaved about 3 pages out of the rules, simplified the game, and focused everything towards the hook. This is a lesson we should all take to heart every time we make a game. What is your unique hook? What is your theme? What is the best part of your game? Focus all of your efforts towards that and distill and cull the rest. If your game is about battle, simplify the mechanic about giving your soldiers food. If your game is about building the castle? Decrease the time players spend building an army.

Focus focus focus.

Other concepts

I sought input and entertained a few ideas from others. Paul Imboden of Split Second Games suggested I add a few more properties and remove a number of them at random every game. This means you don’t know what’ll come up for sale. I really liked that idea and incorporated it.

I talked to peers Danny Devine and Phil Kilcrease about adding in new bonuses, like gaining free specialized workers, gaining extra clients, or adding in a more detailed infrastructure layer. They all listened and chimed in, but ultimately these things just complicated the game in a bad way.

Focus focus focus.

Rules

You can read the rules for Flipped here. Comments are allowed in the document, or you can email me.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a city to build.

Reverse Engineering

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Post by: Grant Rodiek

A story theme I enjoy in science fiction is when a supreme species gives a lesser species a technology to wield. The lesser species doesn’t understand the technology. They can’t recreate it or repair it. They just know how to use it and often, with disastrous consequences.

Game designers are often the lesser species. We imitate without understanding.

A great deal of game design is derivative. It just is, and that’s fine. The key is to add a twist, craft a unique whole, or abstract things differently. For example, I saw a opportunity to create a shorter, multiplayer war-game and York, a game with many unique elements, emerged. Will it win an innovation award? No. Well, it might, but I would cock an eyebrow at the nomination.

As we design and create new experiences based on or inspired by existing mechanics, it is essential that we fully understand the source material. To reverse engineer something, you must fundamentally understand the original. You cannot be the foolish lesser species.

This requires patience, study, and thoughtful examination. You can essentially tuck it in with so many other design lessons that are learned through experience, failure, and trying again.

Far too often, especially with the recent explosion in our design community, I play far too many games that just seem to miss the point. I’m guilty of it myself! My first design was a horrid conglomeration of RiskMonopoly, and Catan, but it didn’t pay proper homage to any of them. It was a shallow farce. Blockade used a ridiculous dice mechanic that has nothing to do with space combat and it was so confusing for players. Eventually, I had to recognize what it was, what it wasn’t, and evolve accordingly.

Likewise, in the wake of Dominion came an avalanche of shallow, derivative games that didn’t understand why Dominion is great. Same with the  post-Magic CCGs. You can find this in worker placement, set collection, you name it.

Therefore, how do we reverse engineer properly? How do we gain an understanding of our inspirations?

Firstly, you must play games in that genre to a great extent. Play many of them. Play them repeatedly. You will begin to see a common thread that links the good ones. You’ll also begin to understand the extremes of the mechanic. War games, for example, range from weekend-long, rigorous simulations of a real life battle. They can also focus on a few fictional space fighter craft duking it out during a half hour. Both of these experiences are derived from the same point and it’s important to understand both, at least somewhat, before you can jump in the middle with your own creation.

Secondly, look to the point of decision in these games. Look at where a player is making a choice and what their choice entails. Let’s look at some examples. Note that I’m making some quick, succinct generalizations for the sake of brevity.

  • In a push-your-luck dice game, (Zombie Dice, King of Tokyo), a player is choosing what dice to keep and whether to roll for something risky. They are managing chaos. The joy from these games comes from the adrenaline of “oh my god I rolled that!” and “Should I try to roll for that?”
  • In a worker placement game (Caylus, Lords of Waterdeep), a player is choosing what they want most versus what their opponent needs most. The tension that emerges from potentially losing the spot you desire and the joy of accomplishing a series of unlikely placements is important to preserve.
  • In a CCG (Netrunner, Magic: The Gathering), players experience joy from crafting a deck that matches their style or personality. Players love “breaking” the game and finding exploits. A good CCG should cause someone to shout “I can’t believe this combo exists!”
  • In a tactics game (Memoir ’44, Summoner Wars, Krosmaster: Arena), players enjoy directing a limited number of units to outmaneuver and outwit an enemy. Choices focus on who to move, when, who to target, and in many games, what special (and limited) resources to spend. If you have one devastating artillery barrage, when is the right time to use it?

That is an entirely incomplete listing of game types and it surely isn’t the final word on those game types. But hopefully, I’ve begun to make my point?

Thirdly, you need to examine how your hook or unique twist leverages, strengthens, and preserves the core elements that makes the experience delightful. Your improvements won’t be, ideally, cheap layers, complexity, and fluff.

If your mouse trap still just captures a mouse, but now requires a buffet of 6 different cheeses, a wine pairing, and a velvet coated trap, you haven’t made a better mouse trap. You’ve just added window dressing and complexity. As you reverse engineer, never forget the original intent of the device. Be sure that your new and improved widget accomplishes the same thing but newly so. New doesn’t mean more. New doesn’t mean added complexity.

Fourthly, after your game is relatively settled with core mechanics and a decent tuning pass, sit down and play it side-by-side to your favorite similar game. Discuss with your testers whether you hit the right notes and drive the right emotions.

This is a difficult topic to convey, and frankly I’m not convinced I’ve conveyed it. Perhaps a summary statement will cap this properly?

Seek to understand your inspirations fully. Do not mimic cheaply or thoughtlessly, but embrace that which makes them special and enhance in a meaningful way.

A Haunting Truth

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Post by: Grant Rodiek

The Polish government has a group called The Institute of National Remembrance, created in 1998. As an American, I must say the frank openness and purpose of the Institute is just incredible. Its role is to make known the history of the Polish people, which is often a grim truth, share the archives and secret records collected by the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century, and educate the polish people.

I’ve always been an avid student of history. I know all too well what my history books taught me, or more often didn’t. Knowing there is a government agency whose entire job it is to discuss these things is just incredible. I’d love for such a thing in America.

This is a blog about games and game design, though. Thankfully, the Institute of National Remembrance has the foresight and knowledge that games are an incredible way to teach. Yesterday, I bought Queue, also known as Kolejka in its native Polish.

This game was created to entertain, but also teach people about the absurdity of a centralized economy, how it failed the Polish people (and others living in the Eastern Bloc nations), and what it was like to live in a nation where obtaining common household goods and groceries people like me take for granted wasn’t always easy.

Put simply, it is a game about waiting in line for groceries.

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My copy of Queue, waiting for me to learn.

The game’s presentation is humble, and I mean that in the best of ways. It is clean and almost silly, as it features actual propaganda imagery, cartoons, and goods from the time period. It is lovingly crafted, right down to the fake coffee stain on the back of the board. Everything is top quality.

I haven’t played it yet, nor have I finished reading the rules, but I’ve begun and the game has already greatly interested me. It has affected me and I want to know more. I wish I taught a history class so that I could have my students play.

I’m an American, as is most of my readership, so I’d like to bring up the topic of how we as designers and Americans can inform, learn, and entertain with aspects of our culture other than our wars. This is already being done by others.

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Academy Games released Freedom: The Underground Railroad last year. In it, players act cooperatively as abolitionists trying to bring down the institution of slavery. I’m a big fan of Academy Games and accolades for the game have been numerous, but I must admit the topic makes me so uncomfortable I haven’t been able to purchase it yet. This is very heavy stuff. In their review, the normally funny Shut Up & Sit Down reviewers only made a single joke about how they didn’t feel comfortable making jokes.

I am curious that if a game can be made about the institution of slavery, can one be made about something as dark as The Trail of Tears? This was the government sanctioned act of forcibly relocating and killing many Native American tribes as a result of the Indian Removal Act of 1830.

The experience and game could revolve around trying to survive under such hardships. Gaining food, shelter, and dealing with the oppressive conditions. It could also focus on the results at the end of the trail. How can one begin anew after such a trial?

A game could be crafted to tell the story of Japanese-American Internment during World War II. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the government forced over 100,000 Japanese-Americans to live in internment camps due to fears of sabotage and treachery. These people lost their homes, their belongings, their businesses, and their status in our culture.

Perhaps the game could be about finding happiness in the camp? Or rebuilding life after the war and camp life? The important thing is to teach about the hardship and struggles in a way that is interesting for players.

Something slightly less dark, that nonetheless had a questionable impact on the world, would be how the United States and its allies split and divided the world following the end of World War II. Many new nations were created and merged. Many were split and divided, not among cultural lines, but often arbitrarily, geographically, or as a result of political bargaining. Take a look at how this has affected Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Asia — pretty much every part of the world with combatants.

Players could play as members of the new Security Council, each with interests, each with a task and awkward duty of defining the new countries of the post-war world. This could even be a challenging Legacy-style game. What will be the repercussions of your decisions? What can you learn from them?

There are also positive elements to our history. Let this not be purely doom and gloom. The Marshall Plan helped rebuild war-torn, devastated Europe. Without it, World War III may have emerged from the ashes of a desperate and downtrodden people.

What about the desperate struggles of Hoover and Roosevelt during the Great Depression? What about the innovative, ridiculous, and sometimes unlawful moves to fix the greatest economic calamity our nation has ever faced?

Volko Ruhnke and his COIN (counter-insurgency) series of games let players live and experience history that is sometimes still happening. It is thought provoking and even painful.

What about how immigrants throughout our history have contributed positively to our culture with their cultural contributions, industriousness, and voice? The love of my life is a Cantonese-American and my great grandparents immigrated from Germany. There is an interesting story there and I want to know more.

What about the efforts of Martin Luther King Jr and the NAACP to stand up against oppressive laws throughout the United States in the middle of the 20th century?

My point, is that history is grand, dark, deeply important, and it affects our lives every day. I believe we often simply look to our wars and military conflicts for inspiration. As a result, we’re missing an honest, frank, and enlightening look at the decisions that made our country what it is today, for better or worse. I think there is a great wealth of inspiration to be found and once I’m finished with my current crop of designs, I’m going to try to do something with it.

Games can be more than just games. They can be fun, insightful, and thought-provoking.

What story would you tell with a design? What element of our history would you investigate?