Josh and Grant Discuss 3.0

Hocus

Post by: Joshua Buergel and Grant Rodiek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BOOM. Nailed it.