Patching York

photo New player boards, new battle board, simple, ink friendly cards.

I haven't worked on York much lately. I crunched hard a few months ago piecing it together and finalizing it to make a nice Print on Demand version. Then, I had a wild idea and contacted a publisher who would be a grand slam for the game. We're talking Hail Mary pass. Dream publisher. I met the publisher at GenCon, showed York, and it went well.

Now, I've been given feedback (after 4 plays in just a few weeks!) that the game is a bit too narrow. It lacks strategic variety and replayability. This is feedback I've received in a variety of ways, but as it's coming from THE publisher, it's the most important feedback.

I emailed a brain trust of pals and asked them at a high level what they thought. I didn't share my ideas, I just said "what do you think?" If you're curious, I pinged and heard back from Chevee Dodd, Ed Marriott, Matt Worden, and Mark Wallace. I picked these chaps because of their diverse tastes, I thought they'd have time to respond, and they've played the most recent build of the game. If you look at the list above, these are guys who veer wildly with a preference towards hardcore euros, trashy games, simple mechanical games, and more.

I also bugged folks from my long-term test group here in SF, guys who have played 20+ games.

The key takeaway was this: the game is too tight. It's so tightly wound that players can't do different things. I, as the designer, put a death grip on the players' decisions.

The solution, as I processed this, was obvious. I gave everyone a .22 caliber pistol. What they needed is one of those automatic shotgun thingers. By and large, I haven't changed the game's mechanics. I've basically just revised the tuning. That's a good takeaway. Sometimes you have a good foundation -- you just need to tweak the digits.

If you're curious, I'm listing my "patch notes" below. Jeremy Commandeur invited me to a really coolprototype event that I'll be attending tomorrow night in San Jose. I could have dabbled with this for weeks, but instead, I got to it and have a revised game in only 3 days. I love deadlines.

We'll see how it goes and if it's the right step.

Patch Notes

Tuning Tweaks: These are basically just number changes, but I think they'll make a big difference.

  • Players start with 5 Units (up from 3) - Do interesting things more quickly.
  • Players hold up to 7 cards (up from 5) - Play more cards and do more.
  • Players have a pool of 20 Units (up from 15).
  • There is no longer a Reinforce or Draw Card phase. These used to be free, obvious, non-choices. Now, they are Actions you take (or don't take). To compensate, the Action phase now gives all players 5 Actions (up from 3).
  • As a result of the above bullet, there are now 4 Phases (fewer): Determine Turn Order, Actions, Battles, Upkeep. Less accounting, more playing.
  • During Upkeep, you only get +3 cards. Which means you'll need to take draw card actions during the game as an Action.
  • Draw card now gives you +2 cards OR +3 if you control a city. I'm experimenting with more meaningful map-related decisions. There could be more, but I'm starting here.
  • Player decks increased to 30 cards (up from 25).
  • Cards in player decks now range up to 4 and 5 (they used to be only 3). In general, there are more higher number cards in your decks.
  • As an experiment, the 5 card can only be played in combat (icon to remind you).
  • Strategic Victory cards are now worth 4 points (down from 5) to encourage more territory and battle conquest.
  • Battles now reward 2 points immediately (same) but no longer reduce a player's Unit pool. I want there to be less fear of defeat. Basically, more carrot, less stick.

Mechanic Tweaks

To make movement more fluid and faster, the mechanic has been changed.

  • Old: Move any number of Units form 1 Territory to any 1 adjacent territory.
  • New: Pick a territory. Move any number of Units in Territory to any number of adjacent territories OR move any number of units from adjacent territories to it into the territory.

Basically, you can spread out and gather your forces more quickly.

Forts are removed for the moment. I received some feedback on them that wasn't conclusive. For now, after taking a move action, players may place a camp token.You can reinforce onto your camp (if the territory is uncontested) or HQ. Therefore, camps work mostly like forts, but do not provide a defensive bonus and can be moved.

Battles and Tactics Tweaks: I think the balance will be off, at best, for these. But, I think the mechanical change is a really strong one. I think it's the right path.

The game doesn't use dice, but it's in need of some form of spectacular variance. Basically, it needs an "oh crap!" moment. Previously, the possibilities were pre-determined. If I play this tactic, it'll do a precise thing. If you attack me with some number of Units, there is no way I can win. Also, all players used to have unique faction powers.

Now, everyone has the same 6 tactics: 3 defensive, 3 offensive. All of them now have a simpler activation cost (instead of 3 precise cards, it may just say "use any of this type" or "you need one of these, then whatever else you want). Furthermore, all of them can be "powered up." For example, if you want, you can throw down 4 Artillery cards to do a massive artillery barrage. You can spend a great deal of infantry to flee and retreat some of your Units. This makes battle outcomes less expected and gives players a better choice -- what are you willing to spend to win this battle? What do you think your opponent will use?

As a side note, the scouts, infantry, artillery, and cavalry are all used more thematically and intuitively now. It's less of the abstract: One Horse Symbol + One Cannon Symbol equals arbitrary cube movement. Cannons explode, cavalry charges, and infantry dig in.

Oh! You both now simultaneously pick and reveal your tactics in secret. Evil, I know. The end result will be that battles have more unexpected, big, explosive moments, and as there will be more Units and some retreating, they won't always be an all or nothing affair.

It's mostly a UI change, but I also completely revised the battle board. The mechanic and end result is identical, but it's significantly easier to learn now. I've done away with the 3 waves. Both players now have a front line (soldiers who will fight and die) and the reserves. Same thing, easier to learn.

One more tactics change is that you can now spend cards to power your Move action. You can spend Cavalry cards to increase your movement. More ways to spend your cards and it's much simpler than my special maneuvers of old. Very similar experience, much simpler, and more choice. There are a few other simplifications around this, but you get the gist.

Something New: Events

I'm testing this Thursday as a way to introduce more variance, some neat, narrative style events, and generally, just to give players an "ooo what next!" every round. The idea is that at the start of every round an event card is drawn from a new deck. Let's say there are 30. This event will add something to the board to change the state of things.

My goal is this: These add an opportunity. They are not a "whoever is on this space loses all of their units." My two go-to examples are:

  • Spies have located an old imperial armory. Get here to get a bonus 3 Artillery card. If you think to the current conflict in Syria or even the Texas Revolution, these moments really matter.
  • The peasants have risen up in the cities. Add a neutral color of Units to the city spaces. You'll need to deal with them.

Events will hopefully give players neat tools to use, an alternate way to earn points, and just throw a wrench in everyone's perfectly laid plans. Note that I need to figure out a clever way to figure out where the Events land. I don't want a card to always affect the same space.

Factions?

As I noted above, for now, Factions don't exist. For the longest time York was purely an asymmetric faction game. Then, to make it more accessible, I introduced a generic, shared faction for players to learn when beginning to play. What I found is that it was actually still really fun. It didn't feel like baby mode.

The factions have greatly hindered accessibility, have added a not fun learning curve to the game, and, due to how I implemented them, added a bit more AP than I'd like. For now, I'm doing away with them. I have ideas on how to bring them back, notably just the 1 passive attribute of every faction, which was really one of the most important parts anyways. We'll see.

Regions

An idea I like (from Chevee) but won't implement yet is the notion of territorial regions. A single territory is worth 1 point, but if you get all 3 of a region together it's a +3. Chevee stole this from Risk (his words) and noted that it fixes the "eh, I'll just go around and take this territory instead" vibe. I like this, but feel I need to dial back all the changes. I'll hold this one in my pocket.

In conclusion

What do you think? Thoughts? Concerns? Thanks for reading!

Comments

I like what I hear, especially the move and fort changes. It seemed a big commitment to build a fort. You pretty much had to commit some of your precious troops to hang out there forever.

The blind battles sound good to. It reminds me a lot of battles in Dune (and I assume Rex). Lots of bluffing/reading the other player and potentially wasting resources to guarantee a win.

Alternate battle maps isn't so much a problem really, but it isn't a direction in which the publisher is interested. And, for a base game, I must admit I'm not sure it's necessary either. I'd rather focus on the variance of choices within the space, instead of keeping the same choices, but a different setup. It's a good idea and something I've toyed with on and off since the beginning of the game.

How hard would it be to vary the battle maps? Either by using something similar to Columbia Games' tactical map or different types of engagements - meeting, ambush, raid, with different layouts, reinforcements, and starting states for each side?

Exactly! Those things are much easier to learn and are very potent. A good example for me is Eclipse, which does this all over the place. Bonuses are provided for building ships, or gaining science income. It doesn't force you to re-learn the game, you're just more optimal at various things.

Grant-

Lots of good looking stuff.

An option might be to have each faction have a different hand size and replenishment rate. This was a truly cool feature in Avalon Hills Up Front. So, your rebels could have a larger hand, say 7 cards, but poor replenishment of 1 card per turn to reflect lots of capability but crappy command and control, while the imperials could have a smaller hand of 4 cards, but replenishment of 3 cards per turn to reflect better control, but less flexibility.

This might allow you to vary the factions other abilities more.

Yes, don't worry about that too much. I can give players the "nothing" card, or they can select in their hands privately and play at the same time -- it's a simultaneous blind bid. Nothing new or revolutionary here. Very solvable.

It won't be "you're not doing something?" but "This is what we both did."

Yes, I'm not sure how it'll go! Many people like the old, precise style of tactics, but people frequently ask things like:

Can I play multiple tactics?
Can I play a tactic multiple times?

And, others feel that battles are foregone conclusions. They feel they cannot win, and whether that's reality or a perception, it isn't always fun for many people.

I don't know if this is better and like you said, it may alienate others.

For selecting, players basically pick the cards they'll use and flip 'em. Boom, I'm doing barrage. Oh yeah? I'm doing dig in.

Definitely stick around. I'll appreciate your input as I go.

Consider finding a way for players to choose no tactic without revealing this to their opponent. Unless you like the back-and-forth of:

"You're not doing something? Then I will."
"Okay, then I will, too."
"Well, wait, maybe I don't want to."
Etc.

Maybe in practice it's not a big deal.

This all sounds very interesting. I'm not sure how I feel about the uncertainty of battles. This is something I liked in the last iteration. But without seeing it in action, it's hard to judge just how uncertain the changes make it. How are you implementing tactic selection since it's simultaneous now?

You are definitely making cities more attractive. I thought they were already attractive enough. I guess it makes it more interesting to control a city early instead of timing it with a scoring round.

I was a little sad to see factions go, and was thinking "Why not just keep one special ability to add a little variation?" But then you addressed that precise idea.

I'll definitely stay tuned to see how it all works out.

These changes sound awesome. I don't know much about the game since I am new to reading your blog but it served as a good ideology to keep in mind as I work on my own game. Tuning so well that all choice is lost is definitely something I could do.

Plus being able to do more stuff and play more cards is just something that sounds more satisfying on a base level.