Pre-Baking with Dopamine

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Post by: Grant Rodiek

I’m going to play FAST AND LOOSE with science for this past. I hope you’re ready for it. One of my favorite publishers, Uwe Eickert of Academy Games, frequently talks about the “Dopamine drip” in games. You can read about Dopamine exhaustively via Wikipedia here. One of the brain’s Dopmaine systems is related to reward driven behavior. Scientists believe it plays a part of our “seeking,” as in, we’ll do things in order to get the reward.

What makes a game rewarding? What are some rewarding things one can do in a game? What are things you the designer can insert into your design that’ll bring plays back for another go and deliver that satisfying brain tingle?

Using my own brain as a guide post, which I realize is questionable at best, I’m going to identify a few of the ways to get your Dopamine Drip installed. You’ll note that I don’t consider victory or scoring points to be good examples.

Surprise: Or, more specifically, the delivery of a surprise. You ever see someone give another person the perfect gift? Notice how the giver was almost, if not more, excited than the recipient? The same holds true for a game. If you’re in a battle and you execute the perfect unseen maneuver, you’ll get a surprise. The traitor mechanic in Dune/Rex is perfect.

One example of a simple recurring surprise is removing the box at the start of Cube Quest to see how your opponent setup his side of the board. Or, in a CCG, when an opponent plunks down an enormous card using a combo you never conceived. That’s one many of us have felt.

Drafting a card that affects many others is another great case. To continue on that last thought, drafting games and games with simultaneous play are outstanding for delivering constant and delightful surprise. Look at the popularity of Gravwell and Get Bit!, both of which are built around HIGHLY interactive simultaneous choices that lead to surprising outcomes for everyone at the table. That, potentially, is another key: everyone’s choice in those two games affects everyone else at the table. That’s a surprise in a big way.

You may not be making a drafting game, so let’s bubble this back up to a higher level. A great surprise must be something within the players’ control. It isn’t just a card flip off the top of a huge event deck. A great surprise effects most, if not everyone in the game. A great surprise should cause an audible reaction. Examples include “Nooooo!,” “Ah!,” and “You bastard!”

It’s a big impact “no vote,” a disastrous left turn, the ultimate betrayal, or the nuclear option on turn 2.

The Likely Outcome: This may seem counter to the previous statement, but I think the likely outcome can be a great additive for your game. One game that comes to mind is Summoner Wars. Your combatants hit on a 3+, which means each die has a 66% chance of delivering a wound to an opponent. However, you still frequently see a roll of five dice result in no hits, or 2 CRUCIAL dice landing both hits to seal the game. I’ve often said Summoner Wars has the perfect probability on its dice and I happily copied it for Sol Rising.

The British Regulars in Academy’s 1812 and 1775 games is another great example. They are the only faction without a Flee option on their die. They also have more Hit faces than the others. This means they won’t retreat and they will cause more casualties. But, sometimes they peter out (sorry readers named Peter) and don’t deliver the hot mortal broadside. Yet, they often do.

Star Realms, which is devilishly popular right now, is full of likely outcomes. The decks never get that big and the parameters of the cards are quite simple. Mid to late game you’re hoping to begin drawing a full hand of Blob ships to deliver that 20+ damage turn. You SHOULD get that. But, it might elude you. The small deck and quick pace of Star Realms make it a game where you’re constantly chasing that one perfect hand. It’s so close, it should turn up, and often, the player who receives it first will win.

Look to the cube tower in Shogun/Wallenstein. If you chuck a pile of cubes inside it, there’s a likely outcome. In fact, there’s a Ludology podcast on this somewhere in their catalog that I listened to recently where Geoff Engelstein studied the probability.

A final example are simply weighted dice rolls. Think about those tense moments playing D&D when your rogue steps forth to sneak past the guards. He has a big bonus to his stealth and should be able to knock it out. There’s satisfaction in that knowledge, and joy and surprise when it overwhelmingly succeeds (big surprise?) or dramatically fails. I think there’s joy in failure and I think the likely outcome is a great contribution. Never forget that Probability is a cruel mistress. Set her up to delight and disappoint you spectacularly.

Passive Interaction: My posts are often very example driven. I come up with a thesis and try to defend it. This one just came to me while looking at some of my games and thinking of moments that lead to sheer joy in the players at the table.

I think this is one of the reasons Euros are so popular. They are full of passive and often subtle interaction. Worker placement is essentially a series of passive aggressive prioritization of need and nitpicking. Oh, you took that from me last turn? Well, I’ll take this from you now. You can just see the JOY wash over their face.

In The Speicherstadt, one of my favorite games, you can just hear the smirk forming as someone places a worker down on a card you REALLY want to buy. Same with Spyrium. Or Modern Art in the open bid, or Rex/Dune on the bidding phase. I have a friend who ALWAYS bids something up just hoping we’ll eat the cost, which has led to some hilarious meta-play between us.

Fill your game with ways to let your players passively jab at their opponents. People want to compete and they want to best one another. They just don’t want to be mean, often. Fill your rules with all the ripostes of an aristocratic British social soiree and you’ll be in business.

Thoughts? Where am I off? Where am I close to the mark? What are some of your favorite examples of the Dopamine drip in games?

A Smidge of Orb

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Post by: Grant Rodiek

The majority of my development brain is focused on Hocus Poker right now. The revision is testing very strongly and we (me and Josh) think we’ll be able to bring a very pretty version to Board Game Geek Con in November. I spent the past week or so revising the graphics files for Sol Rising and it’s being printed now by Print Play Games. I hope to have a really nice version to show to potential publishers at BGG as well. Other than 2 scenarios, I consider that game largely pitch ready.

That leaves me some free time to work on the next game, which I’ve been doing for some time. My process for a while now has revolved around a long period of contemplation and thought, followed by early rules and design documentation, then prototyping. It’s slow, but it tends to lead to higher quality output sooner.

I want to talk about my new game at a high level. Few details, as those can be distracting. I’ve spent a month or two thinking about its mechanics and the overall experience. I’m deep into the rules and I’ve begun designing content for a first prototype. I’d like to think I’ll have a lightly tested version for BGG Con.

For now, I’m calling it Orb. Purely a placeholder name. Try to figure out what Orb stands for before the end of the post. Your prize is, of course, nothing.

I’ve noted before that my new games are often driven by things I’ve learned, things I’m sick of, and things I’m excited about from my immediate predecessor. After York, I wanted to make a game thematic game that involved dice and scenarios. In this case, moving on from Sol Rising, I’m still interested in science fiction, but I want to leave the confines of a starship and get back to the dirt. I’ve never made a game focused on infantry, so that’s appealing. I want to avoid scenario design and, though I’m not removing dice, I want to bring in richer card play that was absent from Sol.

I knew I wanted to focus on a smaller, more tactical experience. Sol Rising is about fleet command and York is about running a war at the operational level. I wanted to focus on the exploits of a small number of soldiers.

My starting point: Science fiction. Infantry. Tactics.

I started to think about the things in this sector that really excite me and the fictional inspiration was just overwhelming. I LOVE the ODSTs (Orbital Drop Shock Troopers) from the Halo universe (picture at the top). They are the best humanity has to offer, up to the Spartans, that is.

They launch from these small pod capsules and explode onto the ground, directly into the thick of battle. It looks awesome and I plan to have a drop pod mechanic in the game.

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ODST Drop Pod View

There are also the Jump Troops of Charlie Company from one of my favorite cartoons, Exo Squad. These guys would also get into confined pods strapped to exo-suits (like the one Matt Damon wore in Elysium) and would drop into hostile zones on asteriods.

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Jump-troop

I love drop ships. Futuristic versions of the Chinook or Black Hawk, heavily laden with elite troopers, exiting the belly of a carrier or troop transport in orbit. You see cool ones in Aliens, Halo, Starship Troopers, and other great fiction.

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Sci Fi. Infantry. Tactics. Drop ships. 

I’m also deeply enamored of Special Forces, both in our current time and in the science fiction I read. There’s something very exciting about highly trained, highly disciplined soldiers who execute their jobs against great odds successfully. I realized this also gave me a great opportunity for a deeply asymmetrical game. A few elite soldiers, no wait, drop troopers, who would need to complete a difficult task against a larger, but less elite force.

Drop Troopers versus Regulars. Assault versus defense. Roles. Already in the design I’m accomplishing this with new tuning variables on how combat is resolved, actions unique to different parties (in general, the drop troopers tend to be more flexible), and objective differences. There’s also a heavy stealth angle for the drop troopers. They need to setup their assault, be patient, then hit with a massive hammer. Once the space poo hits the fan, they need to get out and get home.

This won’t just be two factions, but two different ways to play. This will be an asymmetrical game.

Sci Fi. Infantry. Tactics. Drop ships. Asymmetrical.

War games naturally lend themselves to scenarios. However, after 15 (and counting) Sol Rising scenarios, I’m tired of creating this content. It’s exhausting and requires a unique skill set and energy. Therefore, the need occurred to me to create a dynamic scenario system. By this, I mean I design the framework and content by which the scenarios are created when you play as a part of the experience.

Keep in mind, I will be testing a single framework and content set for the foreseeable future, much like I did with Sol Rising, to verify all of the other mechanics. But, phase 2 will dive more deeply into dynamic scenarios. My current high level thinking is that players will grab cards from a small set for things like terrain (planet type), position (forward operating base, random patrol, heavy base), objectives (rescue hostage, destroy artillery), and any variations (weather, rules of engagement restrictions).

The map and resources available to players will be derived from this setup.

Sci Fi. Infantry. Tactics. Drop ships. Asymmetrical. Dynamic scenarios. 

Those are the top items, but there are a few more things I’m working on. I recognize that asymmetrical games have a high degree of a learning curve and one way in which I’d live to curb that is by making the game VERY card driven. I’m planning on a tight, small set of core rules, with few exceptions, and putting almost all of the content onto the cards. Yes, this will make the cards more complex, but I’d rather the rules be IN their hands instead of in their head.

One example relates to the various roles of the special forces units. You don’t need to remember what a sniper can do versus and explosives expert. You’ll have a card to do so. Similarly, if the scenario generator tells you to place a machine gun nest, you don’t need to know what that entails. You just add the cards it tells you and they’ll contain the rules.

That’s all for now. I’ll potentially talk about more specifics as I vet them and feel comfortable doing so. For now, I wanted to talk about the theme, experience, and high level goals in the hopes that some of you are interested. Enjoy your day!

Apples and Oranges: Joyous Asymmetry

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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.

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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.

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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

Poker-Tips

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

Josh and Grant Discuss 3.0

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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.

Raising My Bar

weight_bar_rubber_fixed_barbells

Post by: Grant Rodiek

This is a long, very personal, and in parts, difficult post that’s taken me a few days to write and edit. Bear with me!

I noted the other morning on Twitter that one of the more difficult skills I’ve learned as a designer is when to recognize good isn’t good enough. Throughout your design career, you have to recognize when something isn’t working. That’s one of the first lessons. But, knowing when a good thing isn’t a great thing? And it SHOULD be? That’s a bit more difficult and it requires a large scraping of honesty and inward reflection.

Honestly, it doesn’t take much experience to recognize something broken, and if you’re like 99% of us, that’s the majority of every game’s life span. We joke at work (making games) that games suck until they don’t. I stand by this wholeheartedly. When your game is broken, it’s obvious because the tuning is ridiculous, or mechanics just don’t make sense, or people aren’t having fun. This is a skill to develop, of course, but really it requires paying attention.

But, recognizing that good isn’t good enough? That takes a different skill set. That takes a level of honesty, an understanding of your market, both in terms of competition and consumer, and in terms of your own personal goals.

This will be an honest and personal post about my design and entrepreneurial ambitions. I realize these posts are useless if they are solely about me and cannot be applied generally, so I’ll do my best to write it in a way that it’s meaningful for others.

Let’s get to answering that question. How do you know when good is good enough?

One element that has really driven this change in my perspective is working with publishing partners on my games. Publishers have great stakes in your product once they have signed it. They need to publish 2500-5000 (or more) copies, which requires significant capital investment. For that, they need to spend thousands of dollars on art and graphic design. Above all, they need to earn a profit and make enough to fund additional copies or other projects. It needs to sell and it needs to represent their brand favorably. Your publisher not only has a desire for your game to be great, but a fundamental need.

In a few cases I’ve had publishers say “this, this, and this are nice. We need to throw the rest of this away and make it way better.” The good news is, they were right! The important part was that they recognized what worked and what was special. They saw the foundation and knew where to start building. The wheels start spinning and I begin to ask myself if I can begin to apply these critiques myself.

Really, I think knowing when something is good enough is about recognizing missed opportunities. If those opportunities exist, and they haven’t been explored, you may not know it’s good enough. If you find yourself thinking about them, then there may be something lacking in your core experience.

I find this happens not when my game is busted or falling apart, but when it reaches long periods of stability. You need to fundamentally understand your game, both over the span of its life, but in its current iteration. If you’re changing your game every test, this is difficult to observe. It isn’t that you notice imbalance, or even dominant strategies (which you shouldn’t have), but your mind starts wandering. This is difficult to nail down, but walk with me. In a way, it’s a static romantic relationship. You aren’t fighting. You like each other. But, where’s the spark?

To look at some of my personal examples, York had a good card mechanic, solid pacing, a nice action system, a good point structure for 4 players, a nice battle system, and good tactics content. It also had a neat idea involving a fort structure. But, it lacked breadth, theme, variance (for replays), and enough strategic depth. These were missed opportunities that needed to be explored. Its individual elements were almost a bit too trimmed and smoothed. It wasn’t the most elegant game — that’s not what I’m saying. But every part was meticulously tested and refined and before too long, I had this little, lock-step Prussian experience. It needed some spark to it.

Sol Rising (then Blockade) had a solid movement and combined arms mechanic, did neat things combining several ships as a single control group (i.e. squadron), and used a fun circular board. But, it entirely lacked scenarios and breadth, the dice needed to be simplified, it lacked opportunities for player customization, and made expansions difficult due to its costly components. Without changing it to its card based format, it would never have a chance at being a great game.

Here are some quick signs you may have missed opportunities in your design:

  1. You find yourself constantly designing expansions or variants. You’re restless.
  2. You find that you don’t have GOOD answers to questions posed by testers. You’re uncertain.
  3. You find that you have too many darlings you’re willing to kill. You’re reckless. Every design needs a thing or two that’s worth fighting for. You need an Alamo.
  4. You find yourself holding frequent what-if thought experiments. You’re introspective.

The soul of a designer when a game is pitched, self-published, or on a shelf, should be at peace. Rejection should come from customers who don’t enjoy this type of game, or publishers for whom the game isn’t the right fit. But, you should not be restless, uncertain, reckless, or overly introspective.

AND NOW, a detour to provide more context for this post. I’m going to talk about my goals as an entrepreneur and publisher.

While steadily testing Hocus Poker the last few months, I also finally took the plunge to form my LLC. The purpose of the LLC is to self-publish smaller card games as a means for me to learn and grow as an entrepreneur. I won’t divert all of my designs to this, merely smaller ones that fit my brand and can be produced without using my home as collateral.

Hocus Poker is meant to be the first game to be released in 2015. I previously used phrases like “I’m doing this [business] just for fun” and “I just need to break even,” but I’ve stricken those from my vocabulary. Those can’t be my goals or operating motives, because I’ll then act according to them. When the goal becomes self-sufficiency driven by profits, it really ups the stakes. My goal had to change to success by the standard definition, not a lame one. There’s no room for cowards.

Some of the things I’m expecting of my LLC and its titles include:

  • I need to sell 2500 copies in 2 years. That’s over 100 copies per month.
  • I need to get the games into distribution. Without the FLGS, I’m sunk.
  • I need to attend minor, cost-effective cons initially to build an audience from face to face interaction. This means hustle and logistics.
  • I need to pay off the cost of doing business in CA every year. This isn’t cheap. I now know why people form in Delaware.
  • I need to make games with potential to be picked up by foreign partners.
  • I need to make games with expansion possibilities. I intend to support successful titles both to support fans, but also drive revenue.
  • I need to release 1 game per year. Assuming the occasional one is successful, there need to be enough products in the pipe to keep the lights on.

Not all of these have equal weight. By that, I mean these are all part of a multi-year plan and some are more important than others.

I recently heard a Ludology episode in which North Star Games owner Dominic Crapuchettes was interviewed. Something he said really struck me for its boldness and clarity of vision. Dominic noted that they designed Evolution such that it could win the Spiel des Jahres. As Tiger Woods was groomed for golf, Evolution was groomed for the Spiel des Jahres.

Think about that! He publicly stated, with utter confidence, “we seek to win the Spiel des Jahres with our strategy games.”

Obviously, that isn’t my goal. Goals are useful if they are achievable and jokes if otherwise. I probably already have people snickering with some of the notes above. But, I need to target goals within reach that are similarly ambitious. I need to find my relative Spiel des Jahres.

Let’s swing this back around to product development. I’ve returned to my previous hyper price-conscious state. I’ve always been obsessed with price and am convinced it’s a massive component to Farmageddon’s success. Therefore, a $20 MSRP for Hocus Poker won’t cut it. It needs to be $15, tops. Why? It’s an easier purchase for people on the fence, which is pretty much everyone as I’m an unknown entity. It’s also a great value for the game we’re delivering, which is fundamental to drive word of mouth.

Amusingly enough, the COO of Steve Jackson Games also thinks this is a good idea, so maybe I’m onto something! Stop and read his post here. It’s really excellent, not just for publishers, but designers seeking to be published.

If I’m examining Good Enough through the lens of price, I can easily see missed opportunities for Hocus. As we noted in a previous post, we’re essentially paying for 108 cards, but are only using 80 currently. We’re also using punch board components, which make the game a bit more fiddly (components always do!), more costly, less portable (ex: it is more difficult to play at a picnic table in the park), and I would argue that they don’t add enough fun to justify their existence. Plus, if I’m being honest, they’re going to increase the cost to the consumer in two ways: more expensive box and more expensive components, not to mention initial setup costs in molds for the tokens!

That, then, is another way by which to judge Good Enough. Does the cost, product-wise or cost-wise, of a feature or component, justify its existence with positive, fun driving benefits? After some thoughts, I can say with some certainty that the tokens in Hocus Poker do not.

Cost is a big factor and something I’m painfully aware of even as a designer (i.e. when I’m not wearing my publisher pantalones). In addition to the cost per unit, I have to consider the cost per run. The investment in making the game exist at all.

I was always struck by Jamey Stegmaier putting a guarantee on his games. You can return them within the first month, full refund, no questions asked. Am I willing to put a guarantee on the game? I should be. And, whether I use crowdfunding or not, would I be willing to put the full value behind the game to publish it myself? Again, I should be.

A few more notches on the bar, it seems.

The Roles

An insight I’ve gained working in a highly structured, professional game development environment is that different management groups have different priorities and responsibilities. I’m going to toss out an observation that I think is apt in regards to the board game space. The designer’s primary responsibility is the game and the vision. The publisher’s primary responsibility is to the customer. Now, this doesn’t mean the designer doesn’t care about the customer. Nor does it mean the publisher doesn’t care about the game. But, they each have their role and highest priority.

In applied language, this mean’s the designer’s role is to make the game great and find a home for it. The publisher’s role is to find great games and in some ways, act as the gate keeper and make the game successful in the market. This isn’t good enough, we pass. This is going to be good enough, but it needs more work.

If you’re self-publishing, as I’m seeking to do with some of my titles, like Hocus Poker, I suddenly have to fill both roles. I must do so viciously and with clarity. With Sol Rising, I get to wait for my publisher to say “it’s good, let’s ship it.” With Hocus, I have to carry that entire burden myself. Do you see the difference?

I have to bounce between devout belief and idealism in my design, then flip entirely to the side of stern, nigh-villainous publisher. It reminds me of the standard parenting tip that you can’t be both a parent and best friend and also shines light on why so many publishers don’t double as designers. Sure, they design stuff occasionally, but many people who are serious in the hobby focus on one or the other.

Great. Now I need to have long, detailed conversations with myself about my strengths and failings.

Peer Pressure

As a final parting note, good enough is defined by one’s peers. Nobody joins the NBA and says they aspire to be that second string dude who never gets to breakaway his breakaway pants. Note: That’s a John Mulaney joke I’m stealing. No, you point out the biggest, baddest dude (or dudette) and set that as your goal.

My adult life has been spent in PC games, so I look to Valve and Blizzard as standard setters. Firaxis too. You know, the guys who made Half Life 2, Portal, World of Warcraft, and X-Com.

In board games, I look to those who fill my shelf with great games. Gamewright, Academy, Plaid Hat, Portal, and GMT. They set the bar in my eyes, which may be the most ridiculous  thing I’ve stated yet. Selling 2500 copies pales in comparison, right?

It’s a long term haul, but it’s worth it. Look at how Blizzard could sell 10 million copies of a ham sandwich to their legion of fans. Look at how Plaid Hat redefines what one should expect to sell in pre-orders. Look at how Imperial Settlers sits comfortably on top of the Hotness the last few days, even with the Kennerspiel announcement (I realize this isn’t scientific AT ALL). In this excellent story about how Sid Sackson developed Acquire, I took note of how the author devoted a paragraph to praise Hans im Glück for their push to develop greatness. An excerpt:

“There are a number of exceptions, however – and none greater than the German publisher Hans im Glück.  They _actively_ rework designs; more than any other publisher I’m familiar with they are willing to completely rework a game in order to get more out of the central design that was submitted.”

That’s the reputation I seek, potentially foolishly. I seek it with the knowledge it may be 10 years and a half dozen games out. I also realize my little LLC might not survive that long.

Concluding Thoughts

I’ve gone over quite a few of the tools I use to gauge whether something is good enough. These included:

  • Among other things, if my mind is restless with the design, it might not be good enough.
  • Does the price per copy provide enough fun for my customers?
  • Is the game good enough to sell through in a marketplace full of excellent games?
  • Can I proudly put the game next to those of my favorites on my shelf?
  • Would I give it a guarantee?
  • Would I self-finance it?
  • Can I sign off on it both as a designer AND a publisher?

Is this good enough may then be a very easy question to answer with so many tools and data points. The hard part might not be answering it, but instead recognizing the answer and using it to inform your next steps.

Thoughts?

Table Top for Four, Please

Sol

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Sol Rising is about to enter the development phase with my publisher, Victory Point Games. They had a few existing obligations, such as their recently concluded Kickstarter for I Say, Holmes, and other games already in development. But, I’m happy to wait and I am SO thrilled to have the additional help and professional eyes on the project.

One of the first elements we’ve begun discussing are the components. Where to use tokens versus cards? How to maximize the efficiency of our token sheets and allow for enough space on the board. One thing we’ve discussed to reduce crowding is to make environmental effects like asteroids flat card stock pieces and Units thicker punch board that goes on top of it. Basically, make these flat pieces extensions of the board. This gives us the visual effect without requiring a massive board filled with bulky pieces.

The other cool development is the challenge from the publisher to create a proper 3-4 player mode. This has come to light in a few ways, some simpler than others.

  • We have proper rules and components to support space brawls (i.e. free to play mode) for 3-4 players in either team or free for all modes.
  • We have added a variant to 11 of the 12 campaign missions to allow for team play. Have an extra friend over and want to still play Mission 7? Okay! Add a few destroyers, modify this one rule, and go!
  • We’re trying to design a mini-campaign (3-6 missions) designed from the start for up to 4 players.

Now, all, some, or none of this might make it into the final version of the game. I want to be clear that in development, things can change. The good news is, this is a priority for VPG and me and we’re taking it very seriously.

So, what does it mean to craft a campaign that works with 4 players instead of 2? My immediate thought was to simply add more units. Just make every fight bigger. But, that seemed really boring. Players already have big fights in the 2 player campaign. The last 3 Missions are already large fleet battles that don’t need modifications to support 4 players. Teams just divide up ownership, like they would in a big game of X-Wing, and go at it.

We return to the question. How do we make a campaign that is unique and interesting for 4 players? The answer was staring at me from the 2 player campaign. One of my goals for the campaign was to make it highly replayable and make every scenario unique for both players. In most missions, opposing players have divergent objectives. One might want to capture something, whereas the other is simultaneously trying to escort ships to safety. One is on a mission of destruction, whereas the other is trying to bide their time for reinforcements. Each player had a unique perspective and outlook on the mission.

Therefore, the task was simple, at least in thought: give each player in the mission, all 4, a unique perspective. Give every player something special. The hope, then, is that each player has a lot of replayability. “Ooo! I really want to be in command of the landing force next time.” Or, “Playing as the station commander looked interesting.”

There’s a rabbit hole of complexity I can chase, but I think if I frame it from the outset, give myself a box with limits, it’ll lead to faster development and stronger, simpler choices.

Neptune

Fictionally, this will be a separate story that takes place after the events of the campaign in the Jovian belts. At the end of that campaign, the Martian squadron in Neptune departs to reinforce the Jovian fleet, which has left Neptune exposed. Not so much to Terran forces, but to the pirate fleets that raid planets in the outer rim. Unlike Mars and Terra, Neptune doesn’t have an official navy per se, but a police force. I’m introduce Fleet Marshal Georgia Ark, who has been tasked to use her limited resources to track down the pirates and put a stop to them. In the absence of Martian fire power, and with the knowledge that they won’t return soon, the pirates have grown more aggressive, violent, and greedy.

HAE_6

Within this fiction, I see some opportunities:

  • The pirates should behave differently.What this means right now, I don’t know. But, thinking in the spirit of organizations not strictly hierarchical, I see pirates as being more independent, more nimble. I see them having less firepower, but also more tricks. Component wise, my challenge is to do this without adding new cards. I can probably add some cards to help clarify rules, but I’ll need to re-use existing ships.
  • The police should behave differently than the fleet. They won’t have the same resources as the military. They won’t have as much firepower. I want to make Fleet Marshal Ark a crafty character. She knows she has her hands tied. She knows her task is difficult. Thinking like an FBI agent on a stakeout, what can she do to bring down the pirates?
  • Every player should have one Objective. This will be geared towards the Units assigned to them. The Objectives of players on the same team might not always complement each other. This means teams will need to decide where to focus. Or, perhaps really crafty (and lucky) teams can pull off both.
  • If the campaign is shorter, I can experiment with more pronounced persistent effects. It was important in the longer, 12 mission campaign to not completely hose one-side after a single misstep. If the campaign is 12 sessions, and half of them are a foregone conclusion, that’s not fun. But if there are only 3-6?
  • Continuing that previous bullet, I can try to really work within a few settings. Perhaps Neptune orbit, a nearby asteroid, and one of Neptune’s moons. If I know these are my 3 stages, there could also be a very limited choice structure. Perhaps the cops can say “we’re deploying these guys to investigate a lead on the moon.” Again, with greater constraints in the setting, I have more flexibility.

Pirate_flag_ship_bridge

The initial process here will be lengthy. It will take time to get the first one right, then the second one as I incorporate new persistent elements and mechanics. But, I imagine like with the first campaign, once I pin down the formula and the system, it’s just a matter of work. Write it, script it, test it.

What about this setting excites you? What would you like to see? Your ability to evolve Sol Rising is quite high at this point! We’d love to know what you think.

As you were, Fleet Marshal.

Cucumber Pun Pack

Cucumber on White

Post by: Grant Rodiek

My desk, at work, is in the middle of a way over-crowded collection of producers, designers, a QA tester, and some engineers. At first we scoffed at how cozy it was, but now many of us have grown quite fond of the close quarters. We’ve developed this barracks mentality where the humor is constant and makes working fun. We jokingly refer to this little area as the “Prod Hole” (Prod as in Producer).

I don’t know how it came about, but a producer mentioned Farmageddon and I was telling him about the new FrankenCrops. Now, the topic of puns is like candy to weird people and another co-worker tossed out “Cucumbear.” Like, a cucumber that’s also a bear. This cracked me up and I suggested we make a Cucumber Pun Pack for Farmageddon.

It actually isn’t a bad idea.

We immediately started listing the good ones. We took it with us to a meeting and even our VP started chiming in. Then I tossed it on Twitter and my friends there started chiming in. I thought I’d share some of my favorites. It’s funny how many of us arrived at the same conclusion independently. Great minds think alike? Or perhaps idiots all think the same stupid joke is funny?

  • Cucumbear – Rawr!
  • Cucumbare – Imagine a naked, shamed Cucumber.
  • Cucumbarista – Get caffeinated!
  • Cucumberto – The Cucumber from south of the border?
  • Cucumberry  - Refreshing.
  • Cucumbarry Manilow
  • Cucumbarry White – Ladies….
  • Cucumbarry Bonds – With small berries.
  • Queuecumber – This one kills me. From Couple vs Cardboard.
  • Cucumbrrr – The Arctic Cucumber. From Danny Devine.
  • Cucumbawhumba – He gets knocked down, but he gets up again. From Danny Devine.
  • MooCumber – Why by the cow when the milk is pickled? From Mark Wallace.
  • Cucumberbund – For those fancy evenings. From Mark Wallace.
  • Cucumpatriots – Witty!
  • Cucumpair – Why settle for just one?
  • Cucumpear – Fruit puns.
  • Cucumburr – Like, a burr under your saddle. From Couple vs Cardboard.
  • Cucumbro – Totally.
  • Cucumburt Reynolds – MY FAVORITE.
  • Cucumbrella – Ella, eh, eh, eh, under my cucumbrella, ella, ella…
  • Cucumbersome – Why bother?
  • Cucumburrito – Actually, not a bad idea.
  • Cucumbird – Caw!
  • Cucumburger – Also not a bad idea.
  • Cucumbeware – Danger.
  • Coupcumber – SUPER clever. From Adam Buckingham.
  • Cucumburglar – He’ll steal your flavor! From TC Petty III.
  • Cucumbert and Cucumbernie – This is just genius. From AJ Porfirio.

Note: If I didn’t credit you, it’s because we already came up with it here, or I forgot.

Thanks for participating. It was fun and honestly, I’d love to make this expansion.

Diagramming for Clarity

diagram1

Post by: Grant Rodiek

A fundamental problem with every board game is that a game designer doesn’t ship with every copy of the game to teach it to customers. This is a difficult problem to solve before the advent of cloning or teaching droids.

If you’ve read my blog, you know that I believe very strongly that accessibility, or the lack thereof, is a key component to the growth or stagnation of our hobby. Therefore, today we’re going to talk about diagrams and how this very crucial element should be used to improve even the simplest game.

Every player learns to play your game differently. Some people like to read, some love to watch videos, others insist on being taught, and finally, some may simply be visual learners. Most likely, most people are a little bit of everything. Every designer has the budget and time to write clean rules — it just takes practice. Furthermore, every designer has the skills to create even the most rudimentary diagrams to illustrate even the simplest point.

Remember, a picture is worth 1000 words. And a picture paired with 1000 words is a far superior rules document. My goal for this post is to give you a variety of examples and cases from my own games and others to demonstrate how to use diagrams to improve your rules.

One Quick Note: Do not bother with diagrams until your rules are relatively stable. You’ll kick yourself if you have to constantly re-make the diagram to match your shifting rules. Wait until you’re at a point of relative stability, or a big moment (Con, pitch) to do it.

If you want to see my words in action, check out the Hocus Poker rules. They now contain diagrams for many aspects of the rules.

What should diagrams teach? Diagrams should teach anything that can be misconstrued with written communication. A board game rule booklet is a construction manual, a how to manual, and a trouble shooting manual all in one.

Construction Manual: For construction, let’s look to some of the best manuals in the business: Lego and Ikea. Without a single word, they teach people how to communicate elaborate, intricate things. Or, cheap plywood stools.

Therefore, a standard for game diagrams is how to setup the board and play space. Unless your game has a single deck as a component, this holds great value. Not only does it clear up any confusion surrounding the interpretation of the text, but it is your chance as the designer to show your players the ideal way to setup the game to maximize their space.

HocusDiagrams

In the diagram above, I demonstrate how to setup the Actions and Spells. I provide context and examples for how the Mana and Rune tokens will be used. I give an idea for how players should sit, and remind them subtly that hands are private (face down). Finally, I show where to setup the square. This is all fully explained in text in the rules, but providing an image with captions really drives it home.

Use diagrams to demonstrate how precisely to setup the game so that there are no questions from your players on whether they read correctly.

How To: There are some standards in games that don’t need visual backups. Shuffling, for example. Then again, Pandemic, which I consider a standard setter for accessibility, has a diagram that shows you how to hold cards in your hands (in the first edition, at least)!

Here: Just go read Pandemic’s rules.

What do I want you to take away from this? Pandemic uses a visual to help explain every single choice you can make in the game. They tell you how to move your pawns, what cards you spend to cure, how you remove cubes, how to travel. All via diagrams. I assure you that a large part of Pandemic’s main stream success is how difficult it is to screw up your play experience. People hate feeling stupid. This is one of the reasons they don’t play board games. Pandemic does everything it can to ease this.

For Hocus Poker, we created diagrams to cover a few things with which people might have confusion, each shown below: Paying to activate spells, creating a hand, and tie breakers.

Each of these is backed up with a text explanation, but each is intended to drive home things that should be relatively simple.

HocusSpellActivation

The key element we’re trying to communicate in the diagram immediately above this is that you stack your Mana and that you do so above the Spell cards. The text explains the finer points, but driving home visually what it means to “stack” is really key.

HocusReleaseDiagram

Here, we used this snapshot of a game to outline several points. One, a player’s possession and that it includes both their hand and shown cards. We also wanted to highlight that players can build hands using their possession and the Square. Thanks to a tip from a reader, we used blue and red outlines to note one example player’s hand from another. Finally, this helps reinforce that some hands are better than others.

Hocus_TieBreaker

For this last one, we’re explaining the tie breakers. You see three hands in the third image, each a pair of 2 matching cards. The first tie breaker is that 11 is better than 3. That knocks out Merlin. The second tie breaker is that the best Arcana card in ties wins. Morgan is the only one with an Arcana (the 11 of Hexis), so she wins.

One thing you hopefully noticed in both my examples and the far superior Pandemic ones is the sense of context. The diagrams are not just useful for teaching a single item, but multiple items wrapped together in context. Every diagram is an opportunity to teach a new thing and remind the player about another thing they just learned.

The Trouble Shooting Guide: We use diagrams to teach players to setup correctly. We then use diagrams to teach the basics. Diagrams should then be used to teach the difficult stuff.

One thing I like about the rules for Horus Heresy is that within their diagrams, they not only show you what you can do, but what you can’t. Check out the movement diagram on page 22.

If you’ve ever tested a game, you know that immediately after you or your rules explain what a player can do, players will ask if they can’t do something. I have mixed feelings on how to solve this. If your rules specify everything a player can’t do, the document will soon grow to 300 pages. However, diagrams are a great way to highlight the most often asked issues.

In Battle for York, players are allowed to completely abandon a region on the board. This is different than Risk. Therefore, I used a diagram to show that you could move all your units and therefore subtly teach that, yes, it’s okay to leave a territory naked.

In addition to edge cases and examples like the ones above, diagrams can be used to demonstrate written rules whose implications may not be immediately clear. For example, in Sol Rising, activated Units can Move, Attack, Change Formation, and Activate Abilities in any order. However, players who have played Memoir ’44 or Summoner Wars may think they need to move first, then attack. OR, they may think that they can attack, then move, but they need to do them entirely as a chunk. Not true!

Therefore, I used diagrams to show an activated Squadron moving one space, attacking, then moving the remaining two spaces and changing formation. This would have been a cumbersome and easily misinterpreted paragraph in the rules booklet. But, as a captioned image, it illustrates the point perfectly.

How should you create your diagrams? You have so many tools at your disposal! Google Drawing is FREE and is really fantastic for creating simple diagrams. Their tools let you create simple shapes, like cards, very quickly. And, you can import images to use as well. You can also setup your prototype and take a Photo using a smart phone.

You may laugh, but it’s possible to even doodle something on pen and paper, then scan it into your rules. You’d be shocked to find what a square with an arrow can teach your players.

What are your favorite examples of diagrams in rules? What are some tricks you’ve found useful for crafting diagrams? What did I get wrong? Share it in the comments below.

Planning the Set List

Euros

Post by: Joshua Buergel and Grant Rodiek

This is the latest post in our weekly series about developing Hocus Poker. If you want to try Hocus Poker, you can find the PNP here. Or, read the rules here.

This week, we want to discuss the sets that players can create in Hocus Poker. By sets, we mean things like a Full House or Two Pair. Just like in normal poker, your goal in every round is to build the best set. Some sets are better than others, and as we narrowed down our list of sets, we found some choices were better than others.

This is a controversial topic and everyone has immediate expectations when they sit down to play a game with Poker in the name. We wanted to take a moment to prove we aren’t nuts and that we’ve made thoughtful choices to choose the right set list.

Josh: Obviously, at the core of Hocus Poker, is, uh, poker. It’s kind of right there in the name. Or, at least, it is now. If you asked people to say what poker is about, they will probably list a few things: betting, bluffing, and the poker hands. One of the earliest things that we tinkered with was exactly which of the poker hands we were going to have in the game.

One of the first questions that Grant asked me, when I came on board originally as a tester, was if I thought that it made sense to expand the number of hands in the game. Being a fan of strange stuff happening in card games, I thought it sounded great. One of the “hands” that comes up in poker is three pairs (ex: two 6s, two 3s, two Kings), which is always good for mocking your friends who have it. That one went in early, along with five of a kind, which was reachable sometimes due to spells.

I was immediately quite curious what the actual odds were for three pairs, which I needed to know in order to slot it into the proper place in the ranking. Being that I’m a software developer, I decided to just write a simulator for the thing. I’ve done that a fair bit in the past for other games, and have always found it to be quite handy.

I could have computed the odds mathematically, of course, but the simulator is more fun to write. It ended up being a tool that we used quite a bit while working on the game. Three pairs was initially slotted below straight, but that turned out to be too low for that hand. We also added double threes (two threes of a kind) at this stage of the game.

Grant: Three Pairs, Five of a Kind, and Double Three (two sets of three of a kind) were all pretty intuitive as far as creating the hand. They also happened with some frequency and everyone always asked about them. Our players had the same gut instinct as Josh — this is already a goofy game, so why not?

This, ultimately, brings us to one of the core issues we’ve needed to deal with for every change in the game: how intuitive is this for players?

The answer was, not very.

For people who have played poker, which is a large number, we had issues when we changed the core set list. This, by the way, is:

  • Straight Flush
  • 4 of a Kind
  • Full House
  • Flush
  • Straight
  • 3 of a Kind
  • 2 Pair
  • Pair
  • High Card

Inserting a three pair in that list means we suddenly have more hands and things don’t mean the same. It’s like changing the meaning of a single word in a language and expecting people to just roll with it. We learned really quickly that we needed to be really thoughtful about how we altered these hands.

This forced us to take a step back and ask: If we’re going to change the hand list, for what reason? What justifies the change?

Josh: The tell (to use a poker term) is that even long-time poker players were constantly looking at the hand ranking list to see where the new hands fell. The upside was novelty, seeing fun stuff happen that you don’t see in poker. But the cost was significant, in terms of down time in the game as people scratched their heads and tried to figure out what they had and what they could make.

Was the novelty adding much? To my surprise, it seemed like the additional poker hands were worse for poker players and not novices. Novices were having to look everything up anyway, so another entry or two on the list wasn’t really hurting anything. But even just a few new entries on the list was almost reducing everybody back to a novice state, at least for a little while. As a consequence, due to that playability concern, we backed off of the goofy hands and went with a straight set of poker hands for a while.

However, there was another issue that was coming up for both of us: how common flush and especially full house were.

Grant: This problem became so bad at one point that if you didn’t have at least a Straight, you should fold. It just wasn’t right. It reduced our eight hand game to a three hand game.

When we started to solve this problem, the approximate setup for each round was 4 cards in the Square, which is our term for community. All players had 2 cards in hand by default. The two spells in EVERY round let you add cards to your hand OR add cards to the square. This meant players could have 8, 9, even 10 cards with which to make a hand.

We had some really crazy solutions to this, including changing the ranking of the hands (terribly non-intuitive), making it so that the same hand couldn’t win sequential rounds (band aid fix, adds new rule), or just cutting out lots of hands (non-intuitive, ruined our nice distribution of hands).

With time, the right solution was the simplest one — we decreased the number of default cards in the Square from 4 to 3. That one solution had a massive impact and largely restored the distribution in most cases, except for the Full House.

Now that we isolated the issue to the Full House specifically, we took the content route, as opposed to the system’s route, to fix it.

The fundamental issue was that Full House occurred too often for its relative strength.

Josh: If you remember, there was actually a period of time when we had 4 cards in the square and 3 in hand. Add in the extra cards from spells, and a full house was almost a minimum to compete.

Before we get to the full house problem, the next big change for hands was thinking about naming. At the time, we were looking at the possibility of pitching to publishers. We’ve mentioned that thought experiment a few times, and it was mostly good, but one of the blind alleys for us was renaming the hands. The thought behind it was that it would give a little bit more theme in the game, it would further distance our game from poker to help manage expectations, and for novice players, it wouldn’t matter too much if things were renamed. We figured that most poker players would probably just keep referring to the hands by their poker names anyway.

Here, again, our expectations weren’t really met. There were references to the hands in various places on the rules and cards, and people were having to unpack that reference each time we saw it. It was an unnecessary cognitive load on our players.

Grant: Just as a general lesson, never force people to re-learn things that are so common. This goes for a lot of things, and is a lesson for pretty much any form of design. For example, a video game developer is foolish if they mess up the super established UI framework of World of Warcraft when making an MMO. Or the FPS developer who tries to reinvent the console control scheme made standard by Halo.

In card and board games, if you have DOMINANT reference points like Dominion, Magic, and Poker, you want to tread very carefully when shifting standards that are just so well known by so many players.

Josh: It was around this time that we also started getting antsy again about the menu of hands. If we’re trying to distance ourselves from poker, the thought went, why not go all the way! Here’s where my simulator came into play again. I could pretty easily plug in a bunch of different hands and try them out. Why not? We could see where things fell in the spectrum and see what might shake out. Grant and I put on our brainstorming hats (Carmen Miranda fruit hats) and decided to see what we could cook up.

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This was also the period of time when we were flirting with five suits.

Here’s the list of hands that were tested in the simulator:

  • Rainbow (one card of each of the five suits)
  • Three pairs (again)
  • Double triple (again)
  • Two pairs, but of adjacent ranks
  • Four card straight
  • Four card flush
  • Skip straight (every other rank), in versions of odd, even, or both
  • All cards ranked below six
  • Three and four card straight flushes

Some of these were clearly terrible, but testing them in simulation was cheap, so why not? Some of them were motivated by an idea that we might be able to transition things to a game where you really only care about straights and flushes, which might be an interesting twist. Due to a bug in my code, it looked for a while like Rainbow was going to slot in at an interesting place, so we tried that one out on the table. Grant played one game with it, and it was ridiculous, which led me to looking more carefully at my code. In the end, most of that junk just wasn’t worth the cost on the brains of our players.

At this point, we basically had the poker hands, minus full house. It was just still a little bit too common, too easy to go for. I want to say that we had also dropped something on the low end.

Grant: We dropped high card as a hand because it never happened and it’s actually not that intuitive. For a while I was really on a warpath about using only intuitive hands. Many of them actually are, except for full house, which is a bit strange.

This was one of those weird phases where we were both scratching our heads and most of our ideas were just bad. For a while I think we both worried about being overly negative — I know I did. Josh would send out a new report from the simulator and even when the probabilities seemed right, some of them just didn’t make sense. Or, they were too clunky.

I especially hated the four card hands. It just felt like a lame, Diet Coke version of the real hand.

Some of the other ones, like “the summed strength of your hand can’t exceed a certain amount” were interesting and may one day become expansions or variants. But, we still had this huge gap in probability between flush and four of a kind. A few times I suggested we just cut straight flush, maybe even four of a kind. Josh, rightfully, thought this foolish.

Many of these ideas never left our emails. For a brief phase, we just tested without a Full House in the set list.

Josh: We did keep getting tester push back about the lack of Full House in the list, though. Players who knew poker wanted it back in there. And, there was a gap in the probabilities as well. The leap from flush to four of a kind was a substantial one, and it would be useful to have something to fill in the gap. Just not Full House – it had proven itself as just a little too easy to get.

We strapped back on the thinking helmets and started firing ideas. What about the four-card straight flush? Would that be confusing? Anything else come to mind? I was standing around at a party holding a beer when I started just visualizing poker hands.

I was thinking that they’re composed of three basic elements: straights, flushes, and sets of same-ranked cards. We had a hand that combined straights and flushes (the, uh, straight flush). What about combining the other ones? Combining a flush with a set doesn’t make much sense. I guess you could do something like two pairs, which are also from the same two suits. But that seemed odd. Straight and set, though, that seemed promising. That’s when I thought about a three of a kind crossed with a three card straight.

As I originally conceived it, the three of a kind needed to be the middle card of the straight, which makes your hand a cross when you lay out the cards. I plugged it into the simulation and, sure enough, it dropped right into the right spot in our probabilities. It then seemed obvious why: this was really just a Full House, but with fewer probabilities for the other two cards. When I proposed the hand, Grant suggested that we loosen it up so that any of the possible straights using the three of a kind would work, and that’s what stuck. It’s about half as common as a Full House, but still much easier to get than a four of a kind, so it slots in really nicely. I also like the way it adds just one unique hand to the list, just to give us that twist.

Grant: I love getting a crossways, so much that every time it happens I send Josh a picture. There’s something special in that it’s a hand that’s Hocus Poker’s. We’re very protective of it. We’re going to patent troll the stuffing out of it.

We did a lot of experimentation, but at the end of the day, the solutions were quite simple.

  • Four suits, not five.
  • Three cards in the square, not four.
  • Two cards in the hand.
  • Crossways instead of Full House.
  • The rest of the hands? Well, leave them as they’ve been forever. Don’t change what isn’t broken.

This exercise was a classic case of experimentation to confirm that things don’t really need to change. Sometimes you don’t need a massive change or complete overhaul. You just need a tweak. Our contributions in changing the game of poker came mostly in the form of removing player elimination, creating a market driven spell activation mechanic, and introducing spells in the first place. The sets? They worked (mostly) just fine.

If you want to try Hocus Poker, you can find the PNP here. Or, read the rules here.

Hocus Problem Solving Part 2

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

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

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

Multi-Round Decisions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spell Evolution

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

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

Summon and Cauldron were the result.

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are things that all of our quality spells share:

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

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

Some Cut Cards

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

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

Grant: (More Cut Spell Commentary)

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

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

Grant: (More Cut Spell Commentary)

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

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

Grant: (More Cut Spell Commentary)

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

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

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

Starter Spells

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dominant Hands

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parting Notes

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

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

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

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