Twist of the Orb

Post by: Grant Rodiek

It has been a while since I’ve written about Orb, mostly because it hasn’t moved much. I did an extensive amount of content design, but couldn’t quite shape a rule set around it. I found myself making far too many compromises and moving far too close to other games. It felt too derivative and I slammed on the brakes to just think for a while.

Naturally, this has been an easy delay to accept. Hocus and Landfall have occupied much of my time.

I have some ideas and theories swirling. I’m writing this blog to force myself to put them down on paper and gather some early impressions. Before I talk about the ideas, I need to reset everyone to properly explain what Orb is.

Orb is a 2 player game of infantry combat set in the future when elite special forces are dropped in orbit to assault positions on a variety of planets. I love special forces and the notion of orbital drop troopers. I think it’s an exciting tapestry. The idea is for the game to be deeply asymmetrical between two points:

  • Orbital player relies on a few incredible soldiers who are specialists. They rely on stealth, surprise, great toys, and discipline to get things done. This player’s perspective is that of the commander on the drop ship. NOT a soldier in the field. That is a very important distinction for my design.
  • Planetary player relies on a quantity of more regular soldiers and entrenched defensive positions. They enjoy intimate knowledge of the terrain and a volume of bullets to greet their guests. They also have reinforcements, which are an unexpected problem for the Orbital player. This player’s perspective is that of the base commander responding to a threat.

The first idea had some solid mechanics I want to preserve. These include:

  • When dispatching troopers from the dropship, the Orbital player chooses a role (ex: Sniper) and adds the Sniper cards to his action deck. The player can only use cards from his deck. I like the idea of prepping a team as you go. However, this will be something done at the start of the game while the other player is creating the map.
  • As the perspective of the Orbital player is that of a commander, he doesn’t have to track which character is the sniper, for example. Just that a sniper is in the field. This is a key abstraction of which I’m proud. You’re managing your teams!
  • The game will use a scenario generation mechanic. After Sol Rising, I don’t want to be responsible for hand crafted scenarios. They are so difficult! Instead, I want a randomizing mechanism that defines a location, reinforcements, objectives, and so forth.

This idea had some problems I want to solve.

  • All of the cool mechanisms were with the Orbital player. As my friend Chevee noted, one player gets to be cool, the other is a doof. Both need to feel cool.
  • I was having a very difficult time preserving a stealth mechanism with the setup I was pursuing. The more I lost the stealth, the more the game felt like every other tactical game ever.
  • I want a novel dice mechanic for combat resolution. What I had was basically putting lipstick on a pig. It angered the pig and wasn’t cool.

My solution for the stealth and making the planetary defense player more unique were solved together. I say solved, but really, it’s just an idea. I was inspired by three things:

  1. Tile laying in Carcassonne. I recently played this for the first time and love it.
  2. Map formation in Eclipse. The hex tiles fill in the spaces as players explore.
  3. I played a mock game with pen and paper, just saying the decisions of the orbital player aloud and drawing how the map changed.

Those things lead to this idea: The planetary player will be building the map as the game commences. His or her role will be that of tile laying. This lets them establish their base, build tough spots for the orbital team, create ambushes, and more. Like Carcassonne and Eclipse, there will be connections that matter. For example, line of site, such as a break in the jungle. You can deny cover in the approach to your base, while also exposing your guard towers to snipers.

If you put a machine gun nest way out here, it might be easily surrounded or circumvented. I also thought of a nifty mechanic to connect patrols. Think of it like Carcassonne’s road. Along that line, patrols can and will find you (the orbital troopers). The planetary player might make other concessions to connect those patrols, but having an active patrol line essentially provides a constant living fence.

The tiles should have a small set of symbols on them. Instead of saying “this is always a guard tower,” I would leverage something I used in Sol Rising, which I took from Robinson Crusoe, which is that “this symbol in this scenario can mean A, B, or C.” This gives you flexibility within limits.

Many games do things like this. You know, the conniving game master leaving a trail of sadness for the other player. Claustrophobia, Descent/Imperial Assault, and Dungeon Heroes come to mind. I think the content within this system for Orb can be unique and I believe more twists will emerge through development. They always do if you seek them!

The other neat twist with this is that there will be a few different ways tiles will be added:

  • Initial setup. A varied set of structures and areas will be placed based on the scenario generator. However, the scenario won’t define where the objects are placed, just what is placed.
  • Planetary Placement: During the game, the planetary player will place tiles as one of his or her options to build the board. But, they’ll have to choose this among other options, so they need to choose when something needs to be placed just so.
  • Random Placement: Sometimes, the orbital player will zig instead of zag. Things are outside one’s control in battle. I don’t want a chess-like game. There will be times when the Orbital player will pull a tile at random that the other player must then place in that spot.

I hope there is some tension between ideal placement, but also needing to manage troops and other items. I believe the planetary player will have a face down stack of tiles. He or she will pull tiles and place them behind a screen to evaluate, as well as troops to manage and other special tricks, like reinforcements (tanks!?) and surprises.

The orbital player will have 1-4 markers on the board which indicate possible teams. As the orbital player uses cards to attack and use special abilities, he or she will indicate the marker used. This essentially will note that someone is for sure at that position. Therefore, the orbital player is managing a hand of cards and their position on the board, which is ambiguous. Remember, stealth!

In addition to these mechanics, I’m taking great pains to simplify things like line of sight, movement, and range. I want combat resolution to be simple. I want complexity in the form of results and the terrain, units, weapons, and tactics shining through. I want the decisions to be interesting, not the framework underneath them. I think this is a huge opportunity for improvement and I want to grab it.

I haven’t spoken about the dice mechanic yet because I simply don’t have one. Which means it’s time to stop writing and craft one.

Balancing the Asymmetry

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Welcome to the end of Asymmetry week. On Monday we discussed the different types of asymmetric design at a high level. On Wednesday, we discussed how to begin an asymmetric design. Now, let’s discuss ways in which to balance an asymmetric design.

One of the first things you need to recognize with asymmetrical design is that perfect balance may not be attainable. By its very definition an asymmetrical design contains 2 or more unique, unequal elements. Furthermore, the appeal of asymmetry is giving everyone something that is so powerful and special that at times it almost feels like they are cheating.

If you play a game of Rex (or really, any good asymmetric game), you’ll constantly exclaim “UGH, THAT IS SO UNFAIR!” Then you’ll do something unfair and it somehow all balances out. The key is to examine balance from a high level, meta standpoint and evaluate how asymmetrical abilities balance over the course of the game, not in finite moments.

For example, while one player may win more auctions due to his income advantage, another player may even this out over the course of the game in that he can own more buildings overall. In York, one player was able to hold more territories more easily, but another player could move about to take specific, high value territories more surely.

In Rex, one player has an overwhelming number of cards. They constantly have cards. They have a greater hand limit and they are given free cards whenever they make a purchase. Another player gets to view every card before they are purchased, whereas other players must buy them blindly. This player therefore has fewer cards, but they have the best cards (and the knowledge of everyone else’s cards). These things even out over time and it brings attention to one of the simplest form of asymmetry: quantity versus quality.

Quantity may win more battles, but quality will win the more important ones. Quantity may sell more often, but quality will sell at the optimal moments. Remember the roles discussion from the previous post? It’s less important to consider them from the viewpoint of individual moments, but more how they will engage in the entire conflict or economic spectrum.

When balancing for asymmetry, you need to keep track of several stats between games. Think about the actions one can take, or conceive of miniature goals and achievements sprinkled within the game.

For York, I would consider things like:

  • How many territories did each faction claim?
  • How many battles did each faction win?
  • How many battles did each faction lose?
  • How many Cities (important territories) did each faction hold?
  • Which factions won which strategic victories?
  • What was the point spread?
  • Against whom were each faction adjacent (to consider individual pairings)?

In an auction game, you might consider:

  • Who won the most auctions?
  • Who ended the game with the most money?
  • How many points did someone get for selling versus investing?

In Summoner Wars, one might consider:

  • How many Units does a faction tend to kill?
  • How many Champions does a faction tend to summon?
  • How many rounds does it take a faction to win, on average?
  • Who does the faction tend to play best against? Worst against?

Over time, you’ll notice trends, ideal strengths, ideal weaknesses, and less ideal side effects. Naturally, if you’re like me, you’ll just observe this without the data. However, the data is a fantastic thing to point to when trying to solve the problem of balance.

So far we’re considering the macro over the micro and we’re using observation and data to track trends around identified goals. What else?

It’s very important for an asymmetrical game to give every faction player something fantastically fun to chew upon. Everyone must feel special. Everyone should feel a little giddy when they execute a move that is spectacular when compared against their foes. In the rush for balance, don’t strip the screw, as they say. Leave a little roughness that translates to pure fun for your players. I would say it’s better to lose a few percentage points towards perfect balance than to sacrifice something that is just awesome to do.

That’s the joy of asymmetry and I’d argue one of my favorite aspects of games. Asymmetry, like life, isn’t always perfectly reasonable. But, it should be fair.

Finally, when balancing asymmetry, you need to give a cookie to each of your players. Asymmetric content forms a little bit of a funnel for players that constrains their sandbox in some ways. You should be better at some things, worse at others. Building intuitive goals into your game is a great way to improve the accessibility of your asymmetric game, which is important (as many are just overwhelming).

What do I mean by cookies or intuitive goals? Let’s say your game has three methods of scoring: investing in property, selling produced goods, or prestige for having a good business. In an overly simplistic example, let’s say you then had 3 factions, each of which tended to be better at one of those 3 methods of scoring points. From the very start, each player tends to have a bearing for what they should be doing. They have a sense for what good looks like and can begin working against that.

Now, the true strength of your design shows when they don’t HAVE to follow this to win. In fact, for replayability that’s essential. You also want to encourage them to dip their toes in elsewhere, not just to fully take advantage of their engine, but to hinder an opponent. But, as a starting point, in game one, a nice balance goal is to give everyone an intuitive goal they can set for themselves.

This concludes Asymmetry Week (and a half). I hope it was interesting and fun. Please share your comments below!

Asymmetric Beginnings

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Maybe it’s the simple fact that I managed to write a post at all, but I was so excited about my asymmetry post from Monday that I decided to make it asymmetry week here at Hyperbole Games! Woohoo!

Now that we’ve discuss asymmetry at a very high level in terms of symmetrical, light asymmetry, content-based asymmetry, rules-based asymmetry, and 2 games in 1, we now have a foundation upon which to craft a design. At least, a theoretical one. For this post, the goal is to discuss how to go about beginning an asymmetrical design.

Therefore, where does one start?

Step 1: Identify Purpose

I think the key to a solid asymmetrical design is thinking about what every role means. What makes it special and unique? Where does it excel? Where does it fall flat? This was fairly simple to answer in York, at least at the outset, due to the clear thematic inspirations from the time period I was sampling.

  • High mobility army: Moves quickly and can reach distant battlefields quickly. Inspired by the Wehrmacht’s Blitzkrieg, Israel during the 6 Day War, or the American army today (carriers that give long reach to distant lands).
  • Highly disciplined, defensive army: Can hold ground better with fewer men. Tough to dislodge, but also, less mobile. Inspired by the British army of the 18th and 19th century or the Japanese in the Pacific Theater of World War II.
  • Guerrilla Army: Can appear and disappear and hit their foes anywhere. No ground is safe. Their mobility is exchanged for difficulty in holding ground. Inspired by the Vietcong or Spanish Guerrillas of the Napoleonic Wars (the origin of the name).
  • Irregular army of peasants. A people’s uprising. The idea is that they would avoid direct conflict, and instead work behind the scenes (assassination, spycraft), or have sudden popular uprisings to disrupt the status quo. This idea was inspired by French and Polish partisans during World War II, the French Revolution, the American Revolution.

If you’ve read my blog, you’ve probably heard me promote the notion of goals early in the design process to preserve focus and move things along. Asymmetry is no different. Now that I had 4 high level ideas, it was far simpler to design content that fit with each of them.

Really, every asymmetrical component should have a very clear purpose or theme. If it doesn’t need to exist, if it doesn’t have a purpose? Cut it and move on. In fact, if you can’t justify the exception at an early phase, and asymmetry is just that — exceptions — you should focus on a symmetrical design.

Step 2: Recognize the Knobs

Remember in the previous article when I discussed the various nobs available to the designer in Summoner Wars for content-based faction? At a very early level, you need to think about the important factors that can be modified through tuning for your game.

If you’re making an economic game, your knobs might be:

  • Selling cost
  • Buying cost
  • Taxation and Upkeep values

If you’re making a game that involves hand management, your knobs might be:

  • Rate of drawing cards
  • Discard rate
  • Modifiers on drawing (ex: draw 2, keep 1)
  • Hand limit
  • Limiting or de-limiting the number of cards that can be played

If you’re making a military game, like Risk, with spatial elements, your knobs might be:

  • Movement properties
  • Army size limitations
  • Number of dice that can be rolled in combat
  • Rate of recruitment

You’ll notice for each of these that I only list a few nobs and if you’re using Content or Rule based asymmetry, you only need a few! Keep it simple! One of the key challenges — and thrills — of asymmetrical design is squeezing blood from the turnip. Seek to fully exploit your systems as they stand without adding too many exceptions and one-offs. Remember that asymmetrical games are fundamentally more difficult to learn for your players than symmetrical games. Keep that in mind as you design.

Therefore, try to identify the parameters you need from the outset. Think about all the different things you can do with them through the lens of your roles.

Step 3: Test the Base First

If asymmetry is a fundamental element of your design, you should test it sooner than later. However, while trying to test your asymmetrical elements you may overlook the fundamental flaws with your core mechanics. Before you test ANY asymmetry, create a single generic faction or force and test your mechanics in a symmetrical environment. At most, your players should deal with Light Asymmetry, which provides them with variable starting positions, differing initial cards, and so forth.

Sol Rising, a game that features light asymmetry and scenario-based asymmetry, was tested 30+ times before I created a single scenario. I had to validate the core knobs of movement, dice for combat, formations, and ship abilities.

Likewise, York was tested 30+ times before a single faction was introduced. Now, earlier in York’s life I didn’t even know it was going to be a faction game. But, once that became apparent, I still had to ensure my systems of Tactics, Reinforcements, Movement, and Scoring were relatively solid.

Asymmetry is a fundamental pillar for your game, but it’s not the foundation. Design the foundation with asymmetry in mind, but don’t chase the variation too soon. It’s like redecorating your house while it’s on fire.

Step 4: Test 2 sides first

I’m fairly certain Colby Dauch knew he wanted multiple factions for Summoner Wars relatively early. But, he built and tested the game with just two factions to begin with (Shadow Elves and…one other?). In the same way you don’t want to test the core game with asymmetry before you know the core game works, you don’t want to spend design cycles on most assuredly bad content before you have a few examples of “what good looks like.”

As you design and test a few factions, you’ll get a feel for a few key things. How many variations and twists should the faction have? What kinds of things, at a high level, should every faction have? Much of this design work is organic and will be discovered through development and experience.

For example, while testing York, I began to recognize a framework for every faction.

  • A strong, passive quality/ability.
  • At least 1 Offensive Tactic.
  • At least 1 Defensive Tactic.
  • At least 1 Support Tactic.
  • 4 Factions total.

I began to work within these constraints. Initially, I didn’t even have Defensive tactics. But, I realized they were not only essential for the experience, but another knob. Out of this, my defensive/disciplined faction was born. Support tactics emerged due to the need to change things outside of battles. Had I attempted to design all the factions to begin with, I would have spent an extensive amount of time, much of which would have been wasted. Furthermore, updating all of those factions per testing input would have been laborious and would have only slowed improvement in a game when rapid iteration was needed.

Similarly, to create scenarios for Sol, I designed a single one first. I tested it about 15 times before I designed other scenarios. By focusing on one, I learned about troop distribution setup, approximately balance of forces, how to create objectives and persistent effects, how to design dynamic events, and how to write the story.

Identify what good looks like, then spread it to other pieces of content.

Here’s my attempt at creating an early road map for asymmetric design. What do you think? Useful? Where would you start? Leave your comments below!

Apples and Oranges: Joyous Asymmetry

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Last week at game night I was able to enjoy a second game of Rex: Final Days of an Empire, Fantasy Flight Game’s revision of the classic Dune. Once again, I was blown away by the beautiful level of asymmetry, player interaction, the amount of tension, and how often people smile because of their player bonuses.

Asymmetry is one of my favorite elements in a game. It gives you something new to enjoy every game, something special and unique that only you have, and forces you to learn not only how to play to your strengths, but exploit your opponents’ weaknesses.

Many of my favorite games are asymmetrical and the new design I’m working on now is also significantly asymmetrical. This led me to ask: what are the different types of asymmetry available to a designer and what are the implications of such types? I conducted this exercise when thinking about scenario and campaign design, as well as faction design, and I found it very useful for my efforts. It’s a good thought exercise.

This is a bit of an academic or philosophical post, so use that as you will.

Let’s Explore the Different Types of Asymmetry! It is important to note that a game doesn’t have to be, and often won’t be, just one of these. These are very loose, high level categories. Think of this as a Venn Diagram.

Symmetrical Design: It makes sense, to me, to discuss the clear exception first, which is symmetrical design. To me, a symmetrical design is one in which both players have equal opportunities, the same choices, and an identical set of rules which they must follow. Naturally, these games evolve so that options differ, but both players began with equal footing.

In chess, both players begin with equal units, and all units act identically. In Dominion, all players begin with an identical starting hand of cards and have identical options of cards to obtain. Naturally, the games evolve immediately as choices are made.

Examples include Chess, Monopoly, Stratego, Star Realms, Dominion

Light Asymmetry: I define Light Asymmetry as players having identical rules to follow and equal opportunities, but their initial options are varied slightly to differ their paths or provide variation.

You may see this as splitting hairs, but in every hand of Texas Hold ‘Em, every player has a different hand to act against. In trick taking games, players are dealt out hands at random, which are the players’ options for the trick. Or, in euros like Alien Frontiers, players are given varying initial resources, but also unique Alien Tech cards at the beginning. You can also look at a game like Ascending Empires, where the probability of the planets in your sector tend to guide your technology path in a subtle way.

To break it down simply, this can come about from the hand you’ve been dealt, starting resources, a simple character card (like in the DC Deckbuilder).

Examples include: Poker, trick taking games like Chronicle, Ascending Empires, or Legacy: The Testament of Duke de Crecy.

Content-Based Asymmetry: I define Content-Based Asymmetry as giving all players a symmetrical foundation of rules and mechanics, layered with asymmetrical content, like cards, that tweak the core rules to create a set of advantages and disadvantages.

Content-Based Asymmetry is driven largely by manipulating the tuning variables. This means it’s VERY important that you fully consider the variables your core rule set has to offer. A good example of Content-Based Asymmetry is Summoner Wars. Every player in the game follows the same phases of play. However, each player has a unique army, represented by a deck of cards, filled with a unique Summoner, 3 Champions, and 20 (is that right?) Commons. To further illustrate these variables, let me illustrate the tools the designer has to create asymmetrical content.

  • Move Properties: This includes the number of spaces, moving diagonally (it’s typically just orthogonal), moving in just a single direction, moving through other characters, moving through walls.
  • Spawning: This includes spawning next to enemy walls, certain characters or types, being removed from the board to reappear, or summoning on top of an existing character (ex: The Filth).
  • Attack Properties: Hitting on a different dice value, being able to roll extra dice in some circumstances, gaining or losing hits in some circumstances, gaining re-rolls, gaining bonuses for using Melee versus Range, being able to shoot through other characters, damage multiple characters with one shot (straight line, orthogonal), or shoot through walls.
  • Magic Properties: Discard for extra magic, summon freely in certain circumstances, provide extra or negative magic for the one who destroys it.

As you can see, with just a few high level variables, you can squeeze and extensive amount of content variation out of a game. Content-Based Asymmetry is one of the more accessible forms of asymmetry as players don’t have to re-learn the rules between experiences. These are also highly expandable and provide incredible replayability due to all the combinations in your play experience.

You don’t have to go as far as unique decks and armies. Games like 1812: Invasion of Canada and 1775: Rebellion fully convey the sense of factions and asymmetric play purely by manipulating dice probabilities.

Examples include: Summoner Wars, Theseus: The Dark Orbit, Twilight Struggle, Magic: The Gathering, Tash-Kalar: Arena of Legends, Neuroshima Hex, 7 Wonders, and X-Wing Miniatures Game.

Rules-Based Asymmetry: I define rules based asymmetry as giving players unique strengths and weakness primarily through modifications of core rules and mechanics. This is more difficult to pull off, especially due to balance concerns. Furthermore, it’s a challenge to not go hog wild and create a game that is incredibly difficult to learn and play. Just because you CAN create new rules, doesn’t mean you should.

A favorite game of mine to demonstrate this is Dune, which has a new version called Rex: Final Days of an Empire. This game takes advantage of content-based asymmetry, altering some of the tuning values, but it also gives players entirely new rules, immunity, and so forth to make every players’ experience entirely different.

The other poster child for this type of asymmetry, which is one of the best selling games around right now, is Netrunner. In this game, the Runner adheres to one set of rules, whereas the Corp player adheres to another. Their decks have different types of cards, their phases are different, they have alternate victory paths, and different deckbuilding requirements. Netrunner’s learning curve is understandably steep, but the pay off in depth is just monstrous. This is demonstrated by its sales!

Although I could make an argument for it belonging to content (and really, who cares?), I think Cosmic Encounter would belong in the Rules-Based asymmetry category. The shifts are so big and distinct that I think it is more appropriate here.

Examples include: Dune/Rex, Netrunner, Cosmic Encounter, The Ares Project.

Two Games in One: This may not be asymmetry as much as it is mechanical fusion, but I feel it bears mentioning in this article. Some games are so asymmetrical that different players are playing different games. In Ladies and Gentlemen, one partner in the team is playing a light chit-pulling real-time game. The other partner is playing a set collection drafting game.

Whereas rule-based asymmetry alters mechanics to varying degrees, cases like this create two entirely different sets that somehow talk to each other, but are distant cousins, at best, instead of siblings. For example, in Netrunner, the Corp and Runners are still clearly members of the same family. They just hate each other.

Conclusion: Later this week I may discuss how I’m going to mix some of these elements for my personal design. Or, go off in another direction. Hopefully this was interesting and useful to your efforts. Share any comments below!