Quicksilver: Racing and Map Design

Paul Imboden and I have followed each on Twitter for some time. He’s a designer, I’m a designer, you know how it goes. Recently, he and his partner launched Quicksilver on Kickstarter. I was intrigued and asked them to write a guest column for a few reasons. One, there aren’t that many racing games. Secondly, map design is ridiculously difficult and I wanted some of their insights into the process. Finally, their game looks neat and I thought it’d make for an interesting read!

Guest Column by: Paul Imboden

When we started working on Quicksilver, we knew the initial map had to be perfect. In order to do this, we had to nail down the mechanics for how the ships moved.  That was the first challenge.  There’s a myriad of racing games out there and most of them focus on relatively predictable vehicle performance: cars, motor boats, jet fighters, and so forth.  Zeppelins, especially if they would be the types of dirigibles suited for racing, would bring on challenges that cars would not.  They operate in an (almost) frictionless environment, they’re not well-suited for fast directional changes, they must fight momentum, and they are at the added mercy of the wind.  For a mechanic to capture the feel, it needed to be semi-chaotic, but not so chaotic as to make players feel powerless.

The first run-through played like an Excel spreadsheet! It was the opposite of fun, as the mechanics allowed players to carefully choose the exact movement patterns and velocity.  There was never a moment of risk and risk is what a racing game requires. We began to experiment with re-weighted die probability to see how it would affect movement. We found a sweet spot with a 1-2-2-3-3-4 die, which normalized movement while allowing for the occasional lucky spike. Editor’s Note: For clarity, they use a custom six-sided die with the pips modified to the numbers above.

We capped movement minimums on a triangulating scale so players who chose maximum velocity would not be cursed with horrible dice rolls. The airship’s maximum velocity should always move faster than a lucky roll at its lowest speed.  We tied movement bonuses to armor, then ditched the mechanic when it proved too cumbersome, as players would often forgot to apply the adjustments.  Finally, we gave the player just a touch of personal control over the dice, allowing them to use their cards to influence their total movement. However, to do so they had to sacrifice the card’s effects. The better the effect, the more points it granted for movement.

It was important to nail down the movement mechanic first because without it, we could only guess as to how a track would work.  The open air racing track operates as a regatta that requires planning as to where and when to stop one’s movement. This became the primary reason we went against a completely modular track.  There are ways to create a completely modular system that gives players the ability to setup their racetrack with Duel-of-Ages-style interlocking cardboard hexes that connect at six different sides.

However, the sheer math for testing those 36 combinations on TWO hexes made the early playtesting impossible.  If you add FOUR hexes together, the testing matrix increases exponentially. We anticipated a 2′ x 3′ map. The approximate dimension for our current map would require no less than TEN hexes.  We’d be playtesting these configurations for YEARS!

Therefore, we chose a static map with pre-defined checkpoint locations that players could swap and flip.  We used the playtest movement data to determine the rough placement of the major obstacles: mountains and clouds.  Mountains needed to not only look natural, but serve as blockades to the checkpoints.  There needed to be ways to cross the skies, but thoroughfares should be difficult to line up and harder to maintain.  Clouds filled in the gaps for movement delays to continue the natural leader slowdown in a similar but different way than the checkpoint turns.  We created opportunities for players to take chances on the board, such as the one-hexagon-wide canyon in the top center of the map where players can hope to shoot the moon.  Playtests confirmed some mountain segments needed pruning here, extending there.  Clouds filled the gaps where runaway leaders tended to prevail, and the players’ airships acted as additional bottlenecks.

The 48 different combinations of checkpoints and directions proved to be more than sufficient for flexibility in terms of both challenge and length of play (simpler courses are faster, naturally).  A few playtesters complained about the lack of customization — they REALLY wanted that fully modular board.  Their complaints hit their greatest pitch at the same time we realized a deal-breaking issue with two particular cards: smoke screens and flying mines, both designed to be dropped from behind a ship as it races off to the next checkpoint.  These cards became fun-killers for two reasons: They were only a benefit when you were leading and they made a runaway leader runaway even faster.  It was the elephant in the room that no one saw and no one mentioned until it became too obvious to ignore.

Man, did we not want to kill our babies.  But we needed to.  We absolutely needed to for the sake of the game. So. Mines and extra clouds. Gone.

Within 5 minutes of removing these features from the game, we brainstormed on how we could bring them back, and it all came back to a central narrative that was beginning to emerge: Give control to the players and let them make the hard choices.  Let those choices be the source of that good game tension.  Players could burn cards to aid with movement, but they’d be denying themselves greater power.  Players could take a turn slow hoping to roll high, or take a turn fast hoping to roll low.  And now, players could set the map with as many perils as they wish — but now, being in the lead wouldn’t matter.  Customize the track with a minefield here or there.  Add more clouds for extra chokepoints.  You were all in this together.  Everyone would be affected.

Editor’s Note: The player mat above is from an early prototype.

We gave our first playtest group complete freedom. When the first minefield token dropped right in front of the starting line we knew we needed to rein in that freedom. Players need to be able to make it out of the blocks and through the checkpoints. Playtests determined that a distance of at least four spaces from the start-finish line and three spaces from any checkpoint provided just enough opportunity for interference. Any closer and safety depended too much on luck.  Not surprisingly, the canyon became a prime location for a turret.  Minefields popped up like mushrooms on the straightaways, which prompted players to ask if minefield explosions set off chain reactions.  (Our answer: No, once is enough.)  Cloud patterns expanded, prompting players to ask if clouds nested inside of clouds halved movement a second time.  (Our answer: No.  Once is enough.  You people are MEAN.)  Those two challenges led us to put a limit on these player-placed obstacles and after various tests we settled on one per block.

The feedback from this dynamic reaffirmed our suspicions: Players loved that control and they blamed themselves for their own cursed nature rather than the dice or the elements.  Once we set limits on the distance from critical game elements, there was nowhere on the course where another obstacle (or combination of obstacles) broke gameplay.  It could certainly make the game take longer if people wanted to avoid that final minefield placed between the final checkpoint and the finish line, but that would be an active choice made by a willing player.

Feeling like you’re piloting an airship.  Freedom to create the race you’d like.  Sandboxed control over a static board.  Hard choices.  We did what we set out to do in Quicksilver and we’re proud of the two years of development (and generous playtest audiences) that created it.

We’re currently working hard on another static map, this time with less open space and more “mountains” (actually, skyscrapers serving the same purpose as a mountain for an urban regatta).  We’re enjoying the tests and we think players will like the contrasting feel of this course.  They’ll still be able to customize the track and it should have the same effect on gameplay; the protective mechanics prove universal.  If we reach $40k on our Kickstarter campaign, this second map will become part of the base game.  Thanks for reading.  Risk more of yourself.

If you’re interested in Quicksilver, take a look at the KS campaign here. 

Assault on Khyber Station

I was delighted when Jay Treat emailed me with a new guest column. If you recall, he wrote an excellent and thorough post on rule writing. One of the purposes of Hyperbole Games is to let good designers showcase good designs. This post does that, exposes some of Jay’s process, and caps off with some great feedback for every designer. 

Guest Column by: Jay Treat

I’ve been telling people about Assault on Khyber Station for a while, but I have yet to go into much detail about the game. Of the dozens of games I’ve designed over the years, most fall squarely between unpublishable and trash (even if each had some worthy idea buried beneath the garbage somewhere), which is why I’m so enthusiastic about this one. I’d like to share my baby with you today and discuss one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make as a game designer. It’s the decision that made Assault possible.

Welcome to space. Population 4 and dropping…

Assault is a cooperative game in which players are trying to escape a crumbling space station as it’s overrun by voracious aliens. The board is different every game and is generated by 25 tiles whose placement and orientation determine what paths and rooms are accessible. The setup is entirely random! The space station starts in bad shape as it was just been blasted apart by an attacking alien warship.

It’s up to the players, each with a unique and vital ability, to work together to navigate the wreck, prioritize repairs, avoid deadly aliens,  and find the escape teleporter (which has been misplaced). The four roles in the base game are:

  • The Mechanic: He can rotate a tile each turn
  • The Engineer: He can swap adjacent tiles
  • The Marine: He can fight the otherwise-ubiquitously-deadly aliens
  • The Smuggler:  Her space suit allows her to wander outside the safe corridors of the station to investigate otherwise inaccessible tool chests.

The team needs to access as many of these tool chests as possible to determine the location of the escape teleporter. Reshaping the board is critical to that goal. The ravenous aliens flooding your extrastellar home aren’t the only thing making life difficult. Khyber Station has suffered critical damage and is actively falling apart. Every turn, a new system failure is revealed, throwing wrenches in the best of plans. As frustrating as these system failures are, you’ll miss them when they’re gone, because when the deck runs out, all life support fails and everyone left on board is killed instantly. In a four player game, you only use 7 of the game’s ~60 possible system failure cards.

What makes it special?

Part of the inspiration for the different roles in Assault is the party game Cranium. In the same way that the different Cranium categories play to different players’ strengths, Assault intentionally includes roles with abilities that will appeal to different types of players. The Mechanic and Engineer are for the spatial thinkers, the puzzle players, and the generally clever. The Marine is for the action gamer and hack-and-slash combat enthusiast. The Smuggler is for the finesse player, the end-zone touch-down guy, and the rogue with her own agenda.

Even though each player interacts with the game in a very different way, every player can and usually must interact with the other players. Sometimes the Engineer needs the Marine to clear out an alien-infested corridor so she can swap tiles on the other side. A tool chest in the corner of the map is accessible by the Smuggler, but only if the Mechanic rotates it first. The Engineer and the Mechanic commonly need to work in tandem to form bigger rooms everyone can access. There are more points of interaction than I can list, and that unique interdependence really sells this “Team of Misfits” experience.

The tile system is simple, but it provides a lot of interesting gameplay and was the original impetus for Assault. It is the only significant mechanic of the game I ripped apart to fuel Assault’s genesis (more on that soon). The light corridors are always accessible (if you line them up correctly), but the grey areas (with the grated floors) are off limits until you arrange a group of tiles such that they’re entirely closed on all sides, forming a room (at which point an air-lock will get you in). I’ve been playing with game-worthy maze concepts like this for a long time and I’m excited to finally present one that’s both intuitive and interesting.

In order to find the escape teleporter that makes victory possible, players must open tool chests. There’s one tool chest on every tile, but they’re all arranged such that you cannot reach them from the corridors without first completing the room that contains them. When you open a tool chest, the player obtains a random tool that might give her the edge she needs later in the game. But, more importantly, a deduction card is also drawn that lets you mark off some of the tool chests, which reduces the possible locations you have to check for the teleporter. When you’ve opened or marked every tool chest but one, you’ve found the escape teleporter!

Despite being themed as deduction, this is really induction and it was inspired by the very good island game, Tobago. This solution is critical to keeping every game challenging because you can never randomly stumble upon the goal on the first or second turn.

What came before?

I created Assault on Khyber Station as an entirely new attempt to use the core mechanic and principle of an earlier design that I’d scrapped. Delve was a fantasy-themed dungeon crawler in which players moved through corridors of the dungeon and revealed and placed new tiles as they went. When you placed a tile that finally enclosed a room, you also found the door to it and placed it so that you could enter and find the treasure within.

Like any good co-op dungeon crawler, each player had a different character: Elf, Dwarf, Wizard, and Warrior. I wasn’t trying to blow anyone’s mind here. The game used four different colors of dice and each character specialized in one. It also used a neat hit location / gear mechanic that was fun and relatively innovative. Unfortunately, the game was very long and careful scrutiny showed that the handfuls of dice you rolled and their different effects, while fun, weren’t really worth the mental effort they required. While there were some interesting new mechanics, the game played at a high level like most any other dungeon crawler. I made the difficult decision to stop working on it.

From the Ashes

Not all was lost, because apart from the length, most players enjoyed most of the playtests. I set out to find the core elements that were fun and interesting to create a new game. As is too often the case with games new designers make, the dungeon crawler wasn’t one game so much as an epic amalgamation of several. I’m certain I’ll explore a game featuring lots of dice with different effects again, and a game based off the hit location / gear body chart, but those mechanics weren’t as inspiring as the tiles or the idea of a cooperative game with specialized characters.

Without the dice to differentiate the heroes, how could I make each feel unique? The warrior should be better at fighting, the wizard capable of weird stuff, the elf should be mobile somehow, and the dwarf should be better at opening treasure. Or something. Truth be told, this happened more than a year ago and I’m reconstructing the transition from memory. The haze of time has obscured the order of events, but I know I also wanted to re-theme the game to something less ubiquitous than the universal go-to that is Fantasy. I considered several options, but when I considered Fantasy’s closest cousin, Science Fiction, I think that’s when it occurred to me the board could start with all the tiles already placed and instead of needing to find the doors to rooms, it would be up the players (starting with the wizard) to manipulate the tiles and complete rooms.

Because I wanted to make this cooperative puzzle-esque game with as little mechanical overhead as possible (excess mechanisms being Delve’s primary cause of death), I eliminated damage and hit tracking for the simplest combat system possible: Aliens kill players, with the lone exception that Marines kill Aliens. Take that, math! It also became immediately apparent that players would need to both move and rotate tiles. Relocating tiles without limit was clearly absurd, so swapping adjacent tiles was born. With the Mechanic and Engineer in place, I still needed a mobile Elf, sneaky Rogue or trap-breaking Dwarf. What fun is a game set in space if everyone stays inside the whole time? Adding a spacesuit was perfect for the theme and enabled this fourth character, which actually plays a very important role in the game.

A New Hope

The game in its new form came together quickly. There were important changes after the first few tests, of course, but it showed promise immediately and wrapped interesting gameplay with compelling teamwork and a solid theme. The standard barrage of playtesting suggested numerous tweaks and helped us explore and reject some alternatives. Throughout, it was important to me that the game be hard enough that victory is never certain and that players remain legitimately challenged throughout. I figured out the minimum number of turns a given playgroup needed to beat the game just over half the time and made that the target.

Not all of the alternatives we tested were duds, and several of them led to real ideas that were either integrated into the base game or set aside for some sort of expansion or advanced mode. I’ve been conflicted with how to present these. Does it make more sense to try to sell them as an official expansion or should they be included in the original box? If so, should they be presented as standard parts of the game, or roped off with a sign: “Don’t open until you’re bored with the main game?”

There are four new roles that will appeal to more types of players and offer substantially different game experiences (the Crafter, the Builder, the Security Chief and the Warp Technician), but the addition I most want to talk about is motivations.

Group Solitaire vs the Traitor

One of the most common problems with cooperative games is the group solitaire problem in which one player tells the others what to do so much that he might as well be playing solitaire. A game with no private information between players is particularly prone to this defect and Assault is no exception. I recommend never playing with people like that as a general rule, but games that are only fun if played in the spirit of the game (story-telling games spring to mind), while far from worthless, are certainly less than ideal. Gamers gonna game, and your game can’t break when they do.

I needed to add private information. Cooperative games like Pandemic and The Hobbit depend on each player having a card of hands only they can see to combat the solitaire problem, but necessarily lax communication rules undermine that solution. For me, the better answer was clearly to have some kind of a traitor like Shadows over Camelot. Trouble is, Assault is difficult enough when all the players are working together: there’s no way the good guys could succeed with a player actively sabotaging them, at least not without re-engineering the game from the ground up. This wasn’t an option as I wanted this addition to be entirely optional.

Fortunately, the wording of the actual win condition in the core game inspired a reasonable solution. Every player wins if any player escapes (because that person warns Earth and prevents the aliens from conquering the planet and enslaving or eating your family). What if every player didn’t have a family? What if there was a loner who could only win if he personally escaped? The Loner isn’t so evil that he wouldn’t warn Earth, meaning the parents still win if only the loner escapes. What if there was a hero who insisted on getting two or more other players out first? Because it’s vital that the teamwork core to the game experience never be compromised, there are no motivations that win by preventing other players from escaping. The closest is the Opportunist who, like the Loner, needs to escape to win, but unlike the Loner won’t warn Earth and so his escape doesn’t cause anyone else to win by itself.

It’s still possible for everyone to win, of course, if more than one players escapes in time, but you can no longer assume that any one player is trustworthy enough to assure your victory. Because the motivations are private, you need a little something to help you figure out what motivations other players might have (or else it’s just a crap shoot). Therefore, different roles have different maximum movement rates. Normally, everyone can move up to five spaces each turn, but some motivations allow you to move up to six or limit you to four. Carefully watching how your teammates move each turn can exonerate or cast suspicion on them to help you decide who to trust in those final hair-biting turns.

The Future and Beyyyond

The game’s in good shape*. Publishably good shape, if my years of trying and failing to design a publishable game have taught me anything. I had great success showcasing it at an UnpubMini not too long ago and it pitched well enough to at least be considered by Asmodee and AEG (and ultimately rejected for who-knows-what-reason, hopefully business needs). I’m excited to Kickstart a game, but I wouldn’t Kickstart Assault on Khyber Station as my first project because it involves tiles and miniatures — two things my lack of manufacturing experience could botch pretty badly. Ideally, I’d Kickstart a card game (working on that) and then leverage that success to find an established publisher for Assault.

I’ll be at GenCon this year and will try to talk to more publishers then, but I know from last year how hard it is to get an ear. Most publishers have enough on their plates that they’re just not interested in talking to new designers. Blah blah catch-22, you know the drill.

*I do still think about the game. Until a project is locked in by a deadline of some sort, it’s impossible for an invested creator not to keep tweaking and wondering. The biggest question that remains in my head is if there’s any way to streamline the game even further. The core of the game works without tools and that’s probably reason enough to eject them (or save them for the expansion), but they’re so much fun and it’s amazing when they give a player a clever play to turn around a seemingly hopeless game at the last moment. Ah, the questions designers must ask themselves!

Game Design, Pruning, and Reconstruction

The design tool I want you to walk away with today is an understanding of when you would be better served by destroying one of your creations than continuing to tweak it in its current form. This is a hard question and I can’t give you a single hard-and-fast rule that will answer it for you. Even worse, the information you need to make that decision is worthy of an article all to itself. Until then, I’ll tell you what I can.

What is the core of your game? You need a theme, a mechanic, and a play experience. If you answer that question with more than one answer for these three aspects, you’re almost certainly cramming too much in and should consider jettisoning extraneous parts or breaking the game up into two or more simpler games. For example, “Assault on Khyber Station is a SciFi tile game with interdependent team play.” Simple enough and it says everything I really need to about the game. My answer for Delve is something more like, “it’s a Fantasy tile-laying dungeon-crawler with loot that affects clever dice-based combat and team play.” Even massaging it down, it’s still fairly unwieldy.

I played a sim-city-esque board game recently with a very neat zoning/building/value mechanic and a fun and interactive political simulation where players bid for actions. The two were tied together in a couple ways, but both felt like the heart of their own game and the combination just made a complex whole with less focus and longer games. Not a lot of players are going to love that, but making two separate games would preserve both ideas and generate two games instead of one, each with a stronger identity and tighter gameplay.

So you’ve figured out your game has too much going on. How do you decide whether to trim the fat, split your baby into two, or trash the entire thing? If you’re just trimming, how do you decide what to keep and what to toss? This is where understanding your game’s identity becomes crucial. The marketplace has no room for aimless hybrids. Your quiz/flicking game might be unique, but if those elements aren’t married together so intimately that divorcing them would ruin the whole thing, your innovation is a liability, not a feature.

Some of the mechanics in your game are going to be cleverer than others, some more fun, and some more thematic. Those qualities can guide your decision, but ultimately you have to choose what will be best for this game and that depends on the nature of the game. If you’re making a war game, preserve tactical choice over simplicity; if you’re making a party game, prioritize the wildest moments over team play; if you’re making a real-time game, clarity trumps replayability. For Delve, the tiles trumped the dice and teamwork trumped monsters/treasure/etc, leaving Assault focused on things that make it fun and unique, rather than burdened with the trappings of the original genre.

I can’t find a better abstract explanation or concrete example, so I’ll try one last method: Analogy. You know when you’re building a Magic deck around a card that you’d really like to play with? If you don’t, go play now. Magic is required reading for game designers. You find the cards that best support your pet card, shuffle them up, and start tweaking the deck as you learn how it plays. And maybe half the time as you replace card after card to hone your deck into a lean beast of wizardly destruction, you realize that you need to cut your pet card. The very impetus for the deck no longer does enough to warrant its own inclusion. It hurts to pull it out, but the end result is a better deck that would never have found through another path.

How many of History’s greatest success stories end with the hero finding something far greater than what they’d set out for? Columbus, Pasteur, Gygax; All these and countless more have achieved beyond their wildest dreams by accepting that it is the journey, not the destination. Don’t miss your success just because it wasn’t what you were trying for.

Blood from the Turnip

Post by: Grant Rodiek

One of the best environments for great creative output is one of strict limitations. One of my favorite aspects of Twitter is the fact that I’m only allowed 140 characters with which to present a meaningful thought. Others quickly resort to bastardized ‘net English, but I relish the challenge of culling back the unnecessary characters until I fit within the unwavering limit.

My friends and co-workers in the digital game design realm often ask about the differences between print and digital. How does video game design differ from board game design?

My first response is always “forced simplicity.” By this, I mean that in a board game you cannot hide anything “under the hood.” For example, in  even the most basic first-person shooter the enemies run an AI routine that makes them appear convincing and conniving, or at the very least, fun to explode. In a board game, however, everything is defined by clear, hopefully simple and repetitive rules. The information needs to be visible on the board or on a tiny card.

I think this is a beautiful distinction and it’s one that draws me to print games. One of the first mistakes of the new designer is to over-complicate something. Lately, it seems that the digital realm is trying to over-complicate everything, which is probably why the mobile game market is growing so rapidly!

Simplify is often the rallying cry of many designers. It’s a drum I love to beat, but it’s also one that you see Reiner Knizia bring up often. Some are quick to dismiss this thought because they prefer games with significantly more heft. This is a mistake, especially for designers.

I believe that two descriptors for outstanding games are simple and deep. No, simple and deep are not polar opposites. A game that embraces these descriptors is The Princes of Florence. The worst place to be, in my opinion, is shallow and complex. A game that embraces these descriptors is Fortune and Glory.

Here, I made a handy chart for you!

I’m going to elaborate on these statements now. Princes of Florence is a game that combines several very simple, elegant mechanics. It is absurdly deep!

  • Players bid over features to add to their tableau. Each player can only win a single item and can only bid the money they have.
  • Players place items within the confinements of a very simple rule set on their tableau.
  • Players take two Actions, chosen from a small subset of actions. Some of these actions are unavailable because the player doesn’t have the means by which to do them.

Euro designers like Kramer and Feld are masters of simplicity. They find the easiest, simplest ways to do something interesting. They then combine these refined elements into a broader cohesive experience. The depth comes through in how you use your limited choices, scarce resources, and maximize your options versus those of your opponents.

Even Trajan, which is a beast of a game, is fundamentally simple. The mancala bowls, worker placement, hand management, and other mechanics are all incredibly simple and elegant. The game is just incredibly broad and therefore becomes a brain burner very quickly.

Fortune and Glory, on the other hand, is an incredibly complex game. The game features several decks, which means you’re constantly referencing the rules to find which deck you draw for each situation. Different situations require different dice rolls and different outcomes for those dice rolls. Feedback isn’t immediate. Instead, you must draw a card on the subsequent round to find how you must resolve your failure. The game features co-op and competitive rules and a slew of one-offs. As a result, you have a game that isn’t remotely intuitive and is very complex.

But, this complexity doesn’t lead to meaningful decisions or depth. Instead, the game presents the player with some of the most convoluted, purely random dice rolling possible.  I would argue that the game, which seems to be more focused on theme than mechanics, would better serve its customers by simplifying its mechanics and getting to the fun more quickly!

For the sake of brevity I’m focusing on these two extremes. Yes, it’s okay to allow complex mechanics into your design. Star Trek: Fleet Captains is a game full of one-off mechanics, like transporting an away team to an enemy ship, Tribbles, and system events. However, the game manages to be fun, provide interesting choices, and be true to the Star Trek IP. My own game, Farmageddon, has a relatively simple core mechanic, but has 12 Action cards. This definitely adds a bit of complexity to an otherwise very simple game.

This may seem like an overly preachy post focused on semantics. But, the call for simplicity is so very key for making better games, reaching new players, and becoming more than a niche hobby. Your focus as a designer should be to craft a FUN, thought-provoking, and thematic experience (or some subset of those 3). Your focus should be on the end experience and the best way to do that is to refine the cogs such that players spend their time loving your game, not consulting the rules.

A good mental exercise is designing a dice only game. Dice. Only. How much depth can you bring about in a game that does not feature a board, or meeples, or cards? I’ve been pursuing this exercise myself and hope to share my dice game idea in the near future!

Squeeze blood from the turnip! Maximize your creations with as little as possible.

Field Marshals Checkup #3

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I really love working on Field Marshals. I spent so much time on Frontier Scoundrels, Poor Abby Farnsworth, and other failed designs, so finally landing on something worthwhile is good for the creative soul. I imagine it’s somewhat akin to the satisfaction Wellington felt after the battle of Waterloo? That may be a tinge hyperbolic…

Nevertheless, it’s fun to watch players thinking about their turns and trying to make the most out of their options. It’s fun to watch them pull out powerful tactics only to see their opponent counter them. It’s neat that it’s becoming a game.

To cut to the chase, here are the new rules for Field Marshals. Below, I’m going to discuss the changes I’ve made as a result of testing, followed by a quick examination of some of the map development I’ve done. Note: Map development is REALLY DIFFICULT.

Testing Changes

In the latest test of Field Marshals, I tested a few key things:

  • Revised Tactics, especially new options for the defender in a battle. Previously the battles favored the aggressor entirely, which just isn’t accurate for the time period OR fun.
  • New conscript mechanic, which determined a player’s turn order and maximum Units.

Defensive Tactics

The revised tactics were definitely a step in the right direction. However, the value proposition for defenders just wasn’t there. Essentially, a defender would need to spend 3 cards (out of a hand of 5) for a marginally useful ability. By spending those 3 cards as a defender, he wouldn’t get to use them on his turn, meaning his round was relatively horked. Furthermore, the Ambush mechanic, which wasn’t a Tactic, was poorly integrated. It created clunkiness and confusion.

Now, all defensive tactics are activated with one card. For all 3 Tactics, playing the card is a definite trade off, but it won’t ruin the defensive player’s entire round AND it gives them a chance to turn the tide of the battle. I believe it’s the right direction. Ambush is now a tactic, which means it’s fully integrated into the system and it’s consistent across all defensive tactics.

Conscript Mechanic (Part 1)

The conscript mechanic was also a step in the right direction. Non-random turn order is better, having to decide how to build your Unit pool is good, and in general, the design needed a little breadth to deepen the strategy. However, the mechanic as implemented added a great deal of components and the dynamic turn order was too static for my tastes.

Before I explain my changes for the conscript mechanic, it makes sense for me to discuss the updates to the map first. They are very closely tied together.

The Map

In addition to the two features discussed above, some of the map’s current problems really became apparent. Fundamentally, too many map elements encouraged players to separate and spread out instead of fighting over scarce resources. For example, players start from the center and move to the outskirts to accomplish goals. There are too many coal territories, which means they don’t need to be fought over.

As a result, I’ve shifted a few things. The changes weren’t difficult to make, but I think they’ll have a huge impact on the quality of the game.

  • There are no longer Secret Orders that direct players to conquer Seaports. I don’t want players rushing to the edge. Seaports are now just a tool to use, a means to an end.
  • I’ve condensed the map slightly so that there are fewer overall territories.
  • There are now 3 coal territories instead of 4.
  • Coal territories are located in the center of the board. Player Headquarters are located on the outskirts.

Here is the map I just tested:

Here is the update:

Conscript Mechanic (Part 2)

Instead of adding conscript tokens to normal territories on the board for players to obtain, conscripts will now simply be tied to controlling territory. The previous mechanic had a few problems:

  • It added 12 new tokens and cluttered the board.
  • It encouraged players to sprint around the map to collect tokens. It rewarded mobility, not holding territory (which is fictionally strange and bad for the game).
  • It encouraged players to separate instead of competing for scarce resources.

The new mechanic allows players to increase their maximum Unit pool merely by controlling territory. However, there’s a twist. For each territory connected to his Headquarters a player controls, he can increase his max Unit pool by a set amount. Note that each individual territory doesn’t need to be connected, it’s that the set of connected, contiguous territories must ultimately be connected to the Headquarters.

In addition to adding Units, connected territories are worth more points at the end of the game than disconnected stragglers. And, if you notice the map above, there isn’t enough space for everyone to have all of the territories to hit the max pool easily. Plus, there are coal territories to conquer, fortresses to build…

Other Changes

  • Players will now earn points for Battle Trophies
  • Players will now earn points for controlling an opponent’s HQ
  • I’ve made slight tweaks to the card distribution in the decks.
  • I’ve modified the cards required to activate Tactics as well as some of the numbers on the tactics (See snapshot of the player reference board below to see what I’m talking about).
  • Assorted reference board improvements.

GenCon is quickly approaching, which means I need to polish off these changes and order some prototypes. I also hope to have some blind testing feedback before I pitch, which is also pressing. Deadlines lead to good decision making! We’ll see how it rounds out.

As always, questions, comments, and feedback are appreciated.

Testing Well

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I believe testing is the most important aspect of game design. Perhaps it’s because I lack the brilliance of Feld or Don X., so I require testing to improve my ideas. Ah, if only I were brilliant. Nonetheless, I fundamentally believe that an idea is just that until it’s proven with actual players.

Many people don’t test enough. In my past, I haven’t tested enough. However, testing is one of the few things within our control throughout this process.

We cannot control the opinions and tastes of our players. We cannot dictate the whims of consumers and the environment in which people play our game. But, through testing we can ensure we have perfect rules, streamlined mechanics, and focused games for our players. Here are some of the things I’ve learned through testing. Note that some comments pertain to iteration, but I often link testing and iteration as one.

Know your game and your goals for it. Do not implement a tester’s feedback because they gave it. I don’t know the exact quote, but Matt Leacock said that many games meander for years because they lack focus. Don’t meander!  Implement and adhere to suggestions because they are right for your game.

Every tester has a different favorite mechanic (“I love drafting. Have you thought of that!”), favorite way of doing things, or something they hate in games (“Ugh, luck? I hate luck.”). Keep this in mind. If you chase after every tester’s favorite thing, your game will become a hodge podge of mismatched mechanics. Use their input to make your vision better and more fun.

Here’s a favorite tactic of mine: When a tester says “I didn’t like this mechanic,” instead of telling them they are wrong, I explain to them why it exists. My exact phrasing is often “Here’s the reason I did that. Perhaps you can help me improve it?”

For example, in a recent test of Field Marshals I was told the math for calculating the results of a battle was clunky (truth). They suggested something that was indeed simpler, but it did away with the attrition model (based on the Franco-Prussian War, among others) I sought to recreate. I explained my goals and through this we arrived at an implementation that was far simpler and met my goals for the feature.

If you’re curious, here are my guiding goals for Field Marshals:

  • Create a highly accessible war game ( i.e not much more difficult than Memoir ’44)
  • Plays in an hour or less
  • Plays with 2 or more players (many war games are just 2 players)
  • Use a card driven mechanic (instead of dice)
  • Leverage the tactics and weaponry of the 19th century

Know the difference between a goal of yours and a bad feature. This comment is meant to balance the previous one. If you let yourself, you can counter every tester suggestion with “that conflicts with my vision.” Don’t sell yourself on the superiority of your own ideas. Listen to your testers, ask questions to understand their perspective and comments, and evaluate it as openly and reasonably as possible. Use the data, don’t thrash against it.

Do not insult your testers or let them feel insulted. Nobody wants to test for a jerk. Don’t get angry when you receive harsh feedback. Instead, push yourself to make the game much better. People will only tell you they love they game if they fear you won’t accept their criticism. Make sure they feel comfortable and appreciated for telling you what you really need to hear. Trust me, you need to hear it. As a side note, I feel incredibly blessed to be surrounded by an awesome group of testers. I’ve been a professional game developer for 7 years, so I have a fantastic group of about 10 people who are incredibly enthusiastic about games, are well-versed in design, and aren’t afraid to be honest with me. 

Enter your tests with a purpose. Try not to change everything before a new test. Obviously, game design isn’t science, but the closer we can move towards a “control” environment with a few variables, the better our data will be. If you change everything, it’ll be really difficult to know what worked, what didn’t, and more importantly, why for either.

If possible, have a tester read your rules, then explain them to the group. This more closely emulates the real world playing of your game. Most people learn to play a game after one person reads the rules. Unfortunately, you don’t ship with each copy of your game that’s sold. If you cannot find a tester to read the rules beforehand, try to explain the game in the same order of your rules. This will help you get a feel for how to better organize the rules. Plus, when people ask questions like “How do I use that thing you just mentioned,” you’ll get the tip to bring that information forward in the rules.

Test with a wide variety of people, including people you think will love your game, hate your game, and somewhere in between. One of the most interesting tests I’ve held for Field Marshals so far was with two incredibly competitive gamers. That’s not the type of gamer I am, nor is it really my focus when developing games. But, observing how they viewed the game and broke down every element to maximize their chances for victory was fascinating. Had I only tested with casual, lightweight gamers (like me), I would have missed out on this perspectives.

If someone asks a question, take a note of it. Questions and confusion are a great indication that a feature was poorly explained or may need to be streamlined. Before I put Poor Abby on hold, I conducted a test with my new shiny prototype. The tester asked questions on the Argument cards for a solid 5 minutes. He just did not get them! My takeaway wasn’t that he was dense. Instead, I realized that if this veteran, hardcore board gamer couldn’t grasp the mechanic, perhaps it was due for a complete reconsideration.

It’s not you, it’s me.

Take notes on what features/mechanics/player actions are used and which ones are ignored. If a feature is ignored by the majority of your testers, it is either too clunky or doesn’t clearly provide enough value. I’ve found that 9 times out of 10, testers will take a less ideal move using a mechanic that’s more clear. If it’s confusing, they’ll just ignore it. Regarding the value comment, Sid Meier often notes that when balancing a game, either double the value, or cut it in half. If nobody is using a feature or action, you may need to double its value. This tip has been ridiculously useful in refining the cards in Poor Abby and picking which Tactics to list for Field Marshals.

Review your notes with the testers at the end of a test. I always like to quickly read over all the things I observed and changes I intend to make. This serves a few purposes. One, it demonstrates to them that you intend to make changes based on their feedback and didn’t just waste their time. It also gives them a second chance to ponder and think about things you may have been discussing the entire time. You shouldn’t end a test without discussing the mechanics, the flow of the game, and everyone’s opinion. This is a good way to start that conversation.

Blind Test. In case you aren’t familiar with the term, a blind test is when you send your game to someone who isn’t familiar with the game, has to read the rules to learn to play on their own, and ideally, doesn’t even know you. A blind test is as close to a live fire exercise.  I found blind testing on Farmageddon to not only be invaluable for improving my rules, but often, when you have a stranger play your game, they’ll be frank with you. I typically found my blind testers by checking to see who was interested in Farmageddon. People would mark the game as “Want to Play” or “Want in Trade” on BGG. I would send them a message and if they were interested, a copy of the game.

Be willing to kill your favorite features. When you enter a test, do so with the resolution that nothing is sacred. Wait, that’s wrong. What’s sacred is that your game should be fun and that nothing should hinder that. I had this nifty random turn order mechanic for Field Marshals that I kept trying to tweak, streamline, and improve. Unfortunately, after a dozen or so tests it was clear that, while the rest of the game was really improving, the turn order mechanic wasn’t the sharpest tack. I finally threw it away and re-examined how to determine player turn order. Guess what? The new mechanic actually adds depth and strategy to the game. Shocking!

Test Hunches. You want to be careful about fiddling just to fiddle. The majority of the time, you want to make changes based on problems you witness in tests. You want to fix issues, not create new ones. However. While you’re testing, if you have a hunch or think something might improve the game, try it. For example, I was curious whether changing a player’s limit of “play 4 cards per turn” to “play 3 cards” would improve the game. In reality, it made the game significantly worse. Now I know! I also better understand why it made sense to not just revert to 4 cards, but modify a few things and make it 5 cards (with other changes). My bad idea led to the right idea.

What have I missed? Care to add anything?

Your Worst Design

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I intended to write a more substantial and useful post about play testing and iteration, but I’ve been so busy doing just that with Field Marshals that I haven’t had time. Perhaps for Friday?

Instead, I thought it’d be fun to share one of my worst design ideas. Hopefully, others join in and we can all have a good laugh, followed by a private, deeply shaming cry.

What is the worst game you’ve ever designed? What is your worst idea? Here’s mine.

For some bizarre reason, I decided to build a prototype based on driving home during rush hour. Right there, I should have said “wait, this is a terrible idea.” Who wants to play a game about commuting? Nobody, that’s who.

The goal of the game was to accomplish errands given to you and get home first. The game featured traffic, bad weather, wrecks, and other things to get in your way and hinder you. The primary mechanic, which is something I’d like to explore again at some point, was that people would pre-plan their turns, somewhat like Robo Rally. The idea was that you would need to anticipate the moves of your opponents, who may block you, either deliberately or accidentally.

In reality, everything was dictated by the player who pulled in front first. I was behind a friend who tends to be an incredibly cautious person. The result, was that for 3 rounds I didn’t move AT ALL. Meanwhile, my third friend was zipping around the board completing all of his errands. After the third round of zero movement I stood up, threw my cards down, and shouted “MOVE YOUR CAR!”

Everyone grew quiet.

My friend then broke out laughing. After a minute, he calmly stated “I think your game is too accurate. It perfectly brings out all of the joy of driving in traffic.”

I immediately threw the prototype in the trash and went elsewhere with my thoughts.

What’s your worst design?

Field Marshals Checkup #2

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I decided a short time ago to focus my development efforts entirely on Field Marshals in order to make it as excellent as possible. The end goal, at least for now, is to make it pitch ready for the GenCon board game convention, at which time I intend to show it to some hopefully interested publishers.

The game continues to make progress, but this past Sunday (6/3/2012) the game was really put through the grinder. I tested it in a 4 player setup with 2 veteran print and digital designers, both of whom are incredibly competitive and obsessed with winning (i.e. not how I play games). I also tested it with my friend Cole Medieros (designer of GUBS) who is also a fantastic designer, but way more laid back. This concoction of design experience and personality really helped me see some of the flaws in the tested version of Field Marshals.

Here are the problems I felt I needed to solve:

  • Despite having 3 Action choices (March, Attack, Diplomacy), and varied turn order, players almost always chose the same action in the same scenario. Basically, I built up two cumbersome mechanics (Action Choice + Variable Turn Order) that led to a very static player result.
  • A few supplemental features (Coal, Fortresses, Orders, Seaports) had grown out of a legitimate need, but been integrated poorly. As a result, tiny rules were being missed and the pacing suffered.
  • The component set grew a bit out of proportion with my intent. Keeping costs in mind is important for designers.
  • The cards, despite being everyone’s favorite part of the game (and the game’s innovation) weren’t as strong or widely used as I liked.
  • Players too quickly reached their Unit cap of 10 on the board. At that point, the game lost some of its excitement as a choice was effectively removed.

I spent several days thinking about these problems and the specific feedback. After a few days of drawing maps, researching the Peninsular War, and brainstorming during long meetings at work, I arrived at a philosophical solution that guided all of my efforts.

The cards and tactics are the best part of Field Marshals. They are elegant, interesting, and unique. The cards must be the focus.

Using this as my guideline, I began converting these supplemental features into Tactics and components of each player’s deck. For example, the Diplomacy turn action was a bit too powerful. I neutered it, but then it lost its potency and value. My solution, was to convert it into a Tactic. I added the Diplomat card and a few very powerful Diplomacy actions. Instead of an action that is always available, it is contingent upon having a set of cards. Therefore, it’s okay to make it more powerful. This also makes it more fun!

Similarly, building a Fortress is now a Tactic that’s based upon the Fortress card. This should make them less obvious and more of a choice.

All told, the set of 6 card types expanded to 8, with the player deck growing from 25 to 30 cards.

  • Infantry
  • Cavalry
  • Artillery
  • Imperial Guard (wild card)
  • General
  • Fog of War
  • Diplomat
  • Fortress

To make the additional cards more interesting, I expanded the number of Tactics from 5 to 8. I made it so that a few tactics could use any card for the third card in the set. This prevents cards like the Diplomat, Fortress, and Fog of War from being dead weight.  I also now allow players to play all 5 cards if they want to more quickly cycle through their decks.

Another twist is that the Imperial Guard can be used as any card to activate a Tactic. Really want a Fortress? Use the Imperial Guard, but now he cannot be used to fill the role of the Diplomat. Oh, the choices!

Previously, the Imperial Guard could only duplicate another card that was played. This made him fiddly and far less useful. Now, players have several ways by which to unlock and utilize the powerful tactics. Here is the current set of Tactics and combinations from the player reference board.

While we’re on the topic of Tactics, I streamlined many of them in very subtle ways. This is something I spent months doing with Farmageddon and it’s some of the most important work I did.  I wanted to remove fiddly rules (i.e. Encirclement couldn’t be used against Units in a Fortress) and make them as interesting as possible. Also, to help mitigate the impact of random turn order, I provided players with more defensive options. This makes combat a little more dynamic, but it’s still a strategic game.

To further focus the game towards the cards and streamline the experience, I’ve greatly modified how players select Actions and determine turn order. Previously, each player drew one numbered token out of a bag of 20. The lowest number would go first. My hope was that the uncertainty would make for a fun moment. “Ah, I’m at 12. I’m probably going in the middle.” In reality, it was just an uneasy choice and players had little control. Plus, you’d often have a situation of the player drawing a 15, assuming he was going third or fourth, then going 1st because the other three players drew worse tokens. This wasn’t fun, it just lead to frustration.

I’ve now reduced the 20 tokens to just 4 tokens numbered 1-4. You know when you’re going to take your turn. However, turn order is revealed 1 by 1, so the player who goes first doesn’t know the order of the next 3 players. Another upside of this is that I eliminated 16 tokens and a bag from my component list!

In addition to the simplification of the turn orders, players no longer choose one of 3 actions (March, Attack, Diplomacy) to use on their turn. At its best, this system made for a mildly interesting choice. At its worst, all players always knew what to do OR they picked one and ended up getting screwed by the random turn order.

Previously, the active player on his turn could:

  • Do his chosen action (March or Attack or Diplomacy)
  • Reinforce
  • Build a Fortress
  • Tactics
Now, the active player on his turn can:
  • March twice OR March and Attack
  • Reinforce
  • Play Tactics
The old March and Attack choices are now just always available and simplified. The diplomacy and Fortress options are now integrated into the cards/Tactics mechanic. It makes for a far cleaner, more streamlined experience.

Quick notes on other Changes

  • Total Unit pool is increased from 10 to 12
  • Previously, players could use the same card to both Reinforce AND use as a Tactic. Now, it’s Reinforce OR Tactic. Remember, 5 cards now per turn!
  • Coal is removed from the board as a separate token. Now, controlling a Coal territory is worth more at the end of the game.
  • Players receive just one Secret Order (out of a possible 6 total). Secret Orders no longer have tiers. Secret Orders are all worth 5 Points if completed.
  • Victory Points are awarded by controlling territory and having the largest army.
  • The Map has been revised to make each headquarter position more equal and drive more conflict.
  • Seaports have been tweaked slightly to pose a less obvious and more interesting choice.
  • The game ends after 8 rounds. This is more or less the same, but now it’s clear and distinct, as opposed to “once someone runs out of cards.” A good lesson: If your game has a fuzzy aspect that can be made crisp, always choose crisp.

I’m really pleased with the evolution of the design. Obviously, only testing will verify how good the iteration actually was, but I’m confident I’m on the right path. As always, you can visit the Field Marshals game page for links to the Rules, Card Distribution, Reference Boards, and Map layouts.

My plans, if you’re curious, are to prove this revised version through local testing, then send out one or two blind copies. Then, GenCon. Thoughts, questions, and comments are always appreciated.

An Interview About Forsooth!

Sam Liberty is one of my favorite people on Twitter. He’s hilarious, but also a very thoughtful, accomplished designer. I’ve been bugging him to write for Hyperbole Games for months, but he’s too busy doing TED Talks, getting games published, and in general trying to convince me to make Field Marshals about combative pastries (he’s serious). Well, I took this battle to him and his designer partner, Kevin Spak.

I didn’t know much about their upcoming pen and paper roleplaying game Forsooth!, but I assumed (rightly) it was worth discussing. I also assumed their design process would make for a compelling read. How awesome is it that I’m 2 for 2?

At Sam and Kevin’s site you’ll find designer diaries, print and play versions of their games, and more.

Note: HG and Italics mean Hyperbole Games. SFG means Spoiled Flush Games (Sam and Kevin).

HG: Thanks for agreeing to this interrogation! Can you tell me a little bit about yourselves and Spoiled Flush Games?

SFG: Our pleasure! We’ve been working together since college, where we met and developed a few card and board games. We had the bright idea to design 52 card and dice games using just a deck of cards and a set of hobby dice (plus other sundires a normal person might have lying around), and publish them together as a book. We actually never published it, but now we look at it as sort of a well of ideas that we can draw from for full-scale games. A lot of mechanics that emerged from the process have found their way into our designs, most notably the combat system for our deck-building game, Gladiators (Rio Grande, 2013). That’s where our name and logo comes from, too. We’re fond of playing cards, to put it mildly.

We’ve got another game, Cosmic Pizza, coming out from Cambridge Games Factory soon.

HG: So you’re saying you made 52 games? Not a number of games that use 52 cards? That’s quite impressive. Is there any way for people to read some of these?

SFG: That’s right — we designed 52 games, many of which use 52 cards. We’ve been publishing some favorites on our website’s free games blog, and have seven of them online as of today. In addition to the rules, we also post design diaries for each one.

HG: Gladiators is a collaboration between the two of you, then?

SFG: Basically, every game we’ve designed since we met has been a collaboration between the two of us. At this point, neither of us would even think about designing a game without taking it to the other at a very early stage. Our process is extremely collaborative, which we think is part of the secret to our success, such as it is.

HG: I agree that such a strong collaboration can only be a part of the “plus” column. The reason I brought you here (“here” being cyberspace) is to discuss your upcoming pen and paper RPG, Forsooth. Can you tell us about the game?

SFG: We designed this game for Game Chef 2011, and are honored to have won the competition. The theme that year was Shakespeare, so we designed the best Shakespeare game we could. It doesn’t use a GM and requires no advanced preparations. In our experience it takes 3-4 hours to play, but there’s a Cliff Notes version included that plays in just around 90 minutes. The game seats 3-6.

As for setting, it can be anywhere the players like, as long as that place looks and feels like Elizabethan England. Shakespeare famously played fast and loose with setting, and so do we. The spotlight is really on characters.

Each player creates their own cast, controlling multiple characters, that can enter and exit scenes at any time, as long as no player controls more than one onstage character at a time. These characters have motivations (what they’re trying to achieve) and oaths (a behavior they’ve sworn to uphold) which give them some direction, plus a nature that lets everyone know what type that character is. Natures are paired descriptors that you choose from a list, like “Sophisticated Fool,” “Melancholy Rake,” or “Scheming Brute,” for example.

It’s amazing the power that players have in Forsooth! to really affect the fiction. Because it’s all improvised, nobody knows where the play will go, or what will happen in a given scene. The best moments are often when a character does something really unexpected or outlandish — and because it’s written in the rules that whatever a player says goes, everyone else just needs to roll with the punches. Characters also have another powerful set of tools to get what they want: soliloquies and asides, which let you actually change your fate or over-write previously introduced information.

So, yes, the characters have stuff they want to achieve, but it’s not really a good idea to get too hung up on that part of it. The object of the game is actually to win applause from your opponents, which you do by performing well, i.e. entertaining them through your roleplaying. Each game will have two winners, one that broke his oath (forsworn) and one who kept to it (true) with the most applause, so it might be dramatically appropriate or strategically smart to break your oath, too.

HG: Can you give us some examples of some of the good settings?

SFG: At the start of the game, you’ll choose themes and a setting. We found in testing players wanted something a little more specific than “Wherever!” so we introduced what we call “setting descriptions.” These are simple descriptions of the setting that take the form of “A ______ near a _______ in _______.” For example, “A castle near the shore in Denmark.” Players agree on these before character generation, so you can appropriately name your characters. We have lists of choices (though you don’t need to use them), and give the option of rolling the setting at random.

HG: How are Oaths chosen or assigned to players?

SFG: Players pen oaths for each of their characters. In my mind, this is the most  challenging part of character generation, so we include a long section on what makes a good oath. They describe an action that the character has sworn to always take, or never take. One of my characters in our last playtest had sworn to “Never perform surgery while drunk.”

HG: Hilarious! Is there a limit to the number of characters? What’s the typical number for players?

SFG: It varies depending on whether you’re using the Cliff Notes or standard rules. In the standard game, you will have two characters in your cast in most cases. A three-player game uses a three-character cast (nine characters for the table). If you’re using Cliff Notes, it’s usually one less. If you’re using Cycles rules (campaign play), you can eventually earn extra characters, and in that sense, there’s no strict limit on your cast size. This is a good reward for expert players who can handle larger  casts.

HG: Have you seen issues where players withhold applause/points because they want to deny others the win? I can imagine some players are perhaps too competitive and hurt the experience?

SFG: Short answer: no. We haven’t seen this behavior in playtesting. However, the rules do discourage this in a couple ways. First, applause totals are technically secret. You don’t really know how much each character has at any given point. Second, you’re required to give out a certain number of applause chips by the end of the game, or all your characters get -1 for each chip you failed to get rid of.

HG: What are some of your favorite pen and paper RPGs? How did they influence Forsooth?

SFG: We’re both D&D players from way back (who isn’t?) but Forsooth! bares absolutely no resemblance to it, or most of its kin. It’s got a real indie vibe to it, no dice rolling, extremely improvisation and character driven, etc. We were heavily influenced by The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen, by James Wallis. Like Munchausen, Forsooth! has a winner, and that winner is chosen by the table by giving out chips. We love the storytelling of Munchausen, but wanted a more interactive game. Munchausen is all about one player telling a boastful story (as is fitting), whereas Forsooth! is all about improvising a play together as a group.

Another strong influence is Luke Crane’s Mouse Gaurd. Veteran Mouseguard players might notice echoes of beliefs, goals, and instincts when they’re writing motivations and oaths for their Forsooth! characters. Like in MG, what characters believe and want are central, more than numerical scores (we only use one number in the whole game!). Also like in MG, you’re using these aspects to tell the rest of the table what you’re interested in, inviting them to throw a wrench into your motivation or tempt you to break your oath.

HG: I own Fiasco from Bully Pulpit and, though I haven’t played it yet, I’m fairly familiar. Both of your games seem to have a highly improvised, over the top feel to them. Is this a fair comparison?

SFG: We’re in the same boat as you. We own it, haven’t played it, but really want to. The only reason we haven’t is we’ve been playtesting Forsooth! at every opportunity. I was blown away when I read Fiasco, and do feel the games appeal to a similar audience. We have rules to encourage interconnected casts between players, for instance, and encourage bold, exciting action. They compare very favorably to each other.

HG: How long has Forsooth been in development?

SFG: We started work on it as soon as the Game Chef 2011 theme was announced, so roughly a year.

HG: How does development on an RPG differ from a board game, if at all?

SFG: They’re strikingly similar. We have ideas, we talk about them, we implement the best ones, then watch them explode in testing. Actually, Forsooth! came together really quickly and well, simply because it’s so rules-light. We did make many changes from the original version, though. The game remained generally the same, even if almost every specific thing about it changed, from what a soliloquy and aside actually do, to the number of characters you control, to what triggers the end of the game.

It’s a lot harder to playtest an RPG, however. Finding willing guinea pigs is more difficult. Anyone who agrees to do it needs to hack out a huge block of time to give you a meaningful test. Getting multiple play-throughs in one sitting is almost impossible. It’s a lot harder to objectively judge the results and pick out what exactly is causing a problem, because the players personalities obscure that so much. Yet, playtests are every bit as important as with a board game.

HG: What are some features or aspects that you removed from the game? Why?

SFG: We removed some artifacts born from the restrictions of the Game Chef competition. For instance, we were required to include “exile” as a design theme, so we said “your highest fate character is your Exile, and the game ends when all Exiles are married or dead.” The plot of the game always involved a band of exiles living together in a castle. It was a little MTV’s Real World. Now, we just say your highest fate character is your “protagonist,” but we kept the married or dead thing, which always went over well with everyone.

At one point, we had a list of events that had to take place during scenes to help give players direction, but it proved an unnecessary restriction and source of stress, so we axed that.

The Game Chef version was really short, by necessity, so we’ve added a lot more than we’ve taken away.

HG: Other than finding testers, what has been the hardest aspect of development for you?

SFG: The hardest part has probably been figuring out the actual cause of problems. In a board game, you can see that a strategy is too dominant or a card is too unbalanced. Even in a traditional RPG like D&D it’s apparent when a character option or monster is too strong. In Forsooth! we had to say “OK, the players are having difficulty wrapping their minds around the setting. Why? How can we fix that?” or “OK, players are forgetting characters and constantly referring to the sheets, how can we ease this?”

HG: Do you have any advice for someone who may want to create their own RPG?

SFG: Figure out what your game does differently than other games, what it does better than other games, and focus on that relentlessly. Design philosophy has changed drastically since D&D and GURPS were your only choices, and today, I feel there’s more room for RPGs that explore one thing, or a few things, very deeply, rather than games that are a Swiss Army knife that tries to do everything, simulate everything perfectly. All the games mentioned in this interview (Mouse GuardFiascoBaron Munchausen, and Forsooth!) have that in common, and all are successful for that reason.

HG: What are some of your favorite moments or stories that have emerged during testing?

SFG: So many. Most of them are really funny. Even when you improvise a tragedy, it turns out hilarious, 99% of the time. In the very first playtest we had, our friend Adam Stone played a princess with a tendency to enter scenes and wistfully foreshadow her own death. In a cliff notes playthough, Denise Granniss used her line of narration to introduce a Barbary Pirate raid. Another time, Kevin had is Foolish Thinker break his oath to “Do nothing he could not justify through reason,” by falling in love. The game by its nature ends up littered with hapless fools, insufferable mopers and outlandish villains who we love to see befuddled and foiled.

Occasionally, though, the action does stray into dark territory and some really startling, gut-wrenching moments occur. In my last game, one of Sam’s characters suffered a complete breakdown and smothered an infant alone onstage. One scene later, when another character asked where the baby was and she replied, ‘I’ll go get her,” you could feel the tension around the table, especially when she returned holding the dead baby — which all the other characters thought was alive. The shocking reveal brought down the house.

HG: When and where will Forsooth be available? At what price?

SFG: The game will be available in PDF and soft cover from Amazon.com beginning June 22nd, and we’ll be placing it in more stores (online and off) as we go along. It’ll retail for $14 (soft cover) and $10 (PDF). We’re also planning on producing an e-reader version.

HG: Tell me about your Game Chef experience. Has winning opened any doors for you? Did you compete in the 2012 competition? Any advice for potential participants?

SFG: I don’t know if winning has opened up doors for us, but it’s always useful to be able to say you won something. “We designed a game,” is nice, but “We designed a game; it won a competition,” is nicer. We skipped the 2012 contest for a couple reasons. First, we were hard at work on this RPG. Second, we consider it a little uncouth to enter a contest you already won once.

Creating a game out of nothing in just a week is a tough order, but if you love game design and playing RPGs, how could you pass it up? We had a ton of fun designing and playing Forsooth!. Building a full, satisfying game in limited time and limited space is an interesting challenge in and of itself. The perfectionist in you will want to create a game with fun, innovative mechanics and character generation rules, a lush, fleshed-out setting, layers of descriptive flavor text, and painstakingly spelled out examples. This is almost impossible. The key is making a plan of attack, figuring out what you can skip and what the players will fill in on their own. For Forsooth!, that meant including almost nothing about the setting of the game and trusting the players to figure out how to make the game work without too much hand-holding. This allowed us to devote our space to a complete and playable game system with enough extras to round off the sharp edges. Other games that impressed us had amazing settings, but left the finer parts of the rules to to chance. Figure out what your game is really about and focus on that.

HG: Is there anything you’d like to add?

SFG: Well, if any interested parties are in the Boston area, they should come to Jiffycon Boston on June 16th, where they can meet and play Forsooth! with us.

We’d also like to use this space just to say thanks to everyone who helped make Forsooth! a reality:Game Chef’ers, play testers, Terry LaCasse (Founder and Director of CNY Shakespeare) who graciously contributed a foreword, Janine Liberty (Sam’s wife) who copy edited the manuscript, and Kevin’s girlfriend Melissa Newman-Evans who did an amazing job designing the cover and laying out all the text. That’s about all!

HG: Thanks guys, awesome interview!

An Interview with Pixel Tagmire

I’m a fan of Jason Tagmire. If you recall, he and his wife wrote one of Hyperbole’s first guest columns about cooperatively developing his game, Sandwich City. Jason’s latest game, Pixel Lincoln, recently launched on Kickstarter.

I was interested in discussing Pixel Lincoln with Jason, primarily because I’ve been trying (unsuccessfully) to design a good deckbuilding game for months now. I wanted to know how Jason approached it so that it could possibly help me (and others).

Note: HG and Italics means Hyperbole Games. JT means Jason Tagmire.

HG: Can you tell us about Pixel Lincoln?

JT: The game is 2-4 players. I intend to create rules for a 1 player version, because it seems very natural, but I just haven’t been able to dedicate any time to that aspect of the design as of yet. Game sessions are about 30-45 minutes each and game length scales fairly evenly from 2 to 4 players. I’m somewhat stumped on the genre because it’s very similar to an adventure video game.

In the game, [each player] plays as Pixel Lincoln traveling through time and space chasing after John Wilkes Booth, who has stolen Lincoln’s (unknowingly) magical top hat. You will acquire items and defeat enemies to build your deck. Once the levels are all beaten, or all of the bosses are destroyed, players will tally up their points and compare high scores. Just like video games, high score always wins.

The game is loaded with retro gaming nostalgia. There are power ups, cheat codes, boss battles, side-scrolling levels, level checkpoints, secret items, NPCs, and much more.

HG: One player version? How is that natural in a competitive setting? I’m very intrigued and you must elaborate.

JT: The style of video games that this emulates were for the most part, one player. You would play by yourself, or players would take turns playing one at a time. And in a lot of cases, you were simply playing to beat your previous high score. The competition was against the game, and yourself. I’d love to be able to preserve that and incorporate that into this game.

HG: Where did you get the idea for making a game about Abraham Lincoln? What drew you to him and the idea of making something fantastical with such a famous historical figure? I’ve long wanted to make a game about my hero, Theodore Roosevelt, but haven’t found the right design yet.

JT: It was 2008 and I was making one of my very first card games. One prototype had a 3×4 grid on each card and you would move a token from left to right along a series of cards. I was essentially trying to recreate a side-scrolling video game with cards. I had no characters and no story, just a really rough general idea of how it would work.

Even in early stages of development, my first ideas are always about production. I knew that I couldn’t afford to make custom tokens for this game, so I looking into buying some tokens from a parts company. At one point I read a post on Board Game Geek where the author said used pennies for his prototypes. At one cent each, they are the cheapest and most accessible prototype parts.

I was using the penny and sliding it across the grid and it hit me that I should just make Abraham Lincoln the main character and use the penny for the actual in-game token when self-publishing. And since Lincoln is so iconic, it was an easy choice. The beard, the hat, the penny, the Lincoln Memorial, log cabins… all of these are defining to most Americans.

I took the original Mario Bros sprite, changed it into Lincoln, and Pixel Lincoln was born. Even though he was pretty short and squat, and wasn’t wearing his hat he was instantly recognizable and instantly very cool.

The old card game was an homage to Mario Bros and Megaman, so I kept the standard level types in the game (underground, underwater, etc). I just needed enemies. Whenever I made them realistic, it felt out of place, so I turned to a few artist friends, gave them the template and asked them to create enemies. Within an hour I had the puking turtle, tommy gun cats, smiley slimes, tiny T-Rex, and many more. We went with it and those characters carried into to the DS game and now into the deckbuilding game.

HG:  Pixel Lincoln was a DS game, right? Why did you decide to convert the property into a print game?

JT: Pixel Lincoln was actually a card game first. Way back at the end of 2008, I created Pixel Lincoln and self-published a card game. The art was great and the concept was a lot of fun, but the game itself was more of a novelty than a game. There weren’t a lot of choices to be made, but people still loved the idea of Pixel Lincoln. A few years later, I connected with video game developers Island Officials and started development of Pixel Lincoln for Nintendo DS. I was a designer on the game and after 2.5 years of production my role was just about complete. I left the DS project and Island Officials asked if I would be interested in making an analog version of Pixel Lincoln, again. Pixel Lincoln is my baby so I jumped right on it.

HG: How long has the game been in development?

JT: I have worked on it pretty much daily since the beginning of March.

HG: Who is handling the art and graphic design for the game?

JT: One of the reasons we decided to make Pixel Lincoln: The Deckbuilding Game as my first analog project with Island Officials was because the art assets were already completed. I am using artwork directly from the game for both the cover art and card art. The cards feature the in-game sprites, but blown up 1200%. The cover art uses our concept art from artist John Fisher, who I’ve worked with previously.

I am handling the graphic design duties for this game. I made a deck of prototype cards for testing and everyone loved the mock ups. I was going for the feel of a Nintendo cartridge meets a Game Boy unit. Over the last 2 months, I feel like I’ve pushed myself as both a game designer and graphic designer to places I’ve never been able to reach before.

HG: Why did you choose to make a deckbuilding game? It’s always really fascinating for me to find out why a designer chose to frame his project a certain way.

JT: When I was chatting with Island Officials, they suggested a board game. My first thought about that was the high production cost, so I decided to go all cards. About two weeks later, I brought them some card mockups and very rough prototype and I think they were shocked that there wasn’t a board.

After I decided to go with cards only, I immediately flocked to the idea of a deckbuilding game. I loved the idea of combining some of the oldest video game concepts with some of the newest board game methods. And deck building is traditionally about gathering and collecting cards, which thematically fits very well with gathering and collecting items in older adventure video games. And finally, deckbuilding games are usually known for their customization, which is key in this game.

HG: Is each player essentially playing as Lincoln? Or is each player influencing a central character of Lincoln? What’s the players’ perspective in this?

Each player plays as Pixel Lincoln. On your turn you will play through the level defeating enemies, obtaining items, building your deck, and advancing your score. At the end of the turn, the controller passes to your opponent (not physically, but metaphorically) and they take a turn as Pixel Lincoln. Each player has a central card in front of them that says “Player 1″, “Player 2″, etc.

HG: What is the unique mechanic or setup for Pixel Lincoln? I’ve been working on a deckbuilder for months and it’s been incredibly difficult to create it such that it doesn’t feel like a “me-too” when played alongside Ascension, Dominion, A Few Acres of Snow, etc.

JT: There are a few things that set Pixel Lincoln apart from the others. I didn’t stray from the familiar concepts of draw/discard piles or anything like that, but I did play around quite a bit with the cards that are available to the player. In many deckbuilding games, you can obtain the cards that are in play. In Pixel Lincoln, you have the act of exploration. You can see what is in coming up in the level, but not too much as there are only 5 cards in each level at the start of each turn. You have the opportunity to see what is coming up in the level by playing specific cards or abilities. There are also multiple levels in each game, so you can see what cards are in an opponent’s level during their turn. This was influenced by classic 2 player games and watching an opponent explore a level that you’ve never reached.

HG: Could you explain the exploration mechanic a bit further? I’m intrigued and I’m sure I’m not the only one.

JT: The game has one level per player, and each level is its own randomized deck consisting of enemies, items, a boss, NPC’s, and checkpoints. So, in a four player game, there are four different levels.

During the game, 5 cards are drawn from each level deck and laid out from right to left. This represents everything that a player can see in front of them in the level. There may be enemies or items, and when a player defeats or purchases them, those cards are added to their discard pile. If a player decides to explore, they must discard a card from their hand and another card is drawn from the level deck and added to the table. That card is now available to defeat/purchase. If you have enough cards in your hand, you can continue to explore, etc.

Also, the levels are all accessible from the beginning, so each player will choose where they want to go. If I am the only player in Level 1, I am the only one with access to the cards that are drawn for that level. However, just like with a turn-based video game, I am still seeing what other players are doing in their levels. If I see cards that I need for my deck, I may decide to leave the current level and hop into one that my opponent is in.

Deckbuilders traditionally receive a lot of negativity for not having enough player interaction. This was big on my list from the start. I made sure that the players could affect each other. When players are in the same level, there are various things they can do to affect each other.

And theme is probably the biggest difference between Pixel Lincoln and Dominion or Ascension; Pixel Lincoln feels like you are playing a video game.

HG: Can you give some examples of the type of player interaction? This was an area I sought to improve upon as well (though I personally love Dominion). I really didn’t want to go the “Take-That” route, so I’m curious how you chose to incorporate player interaction.

JT: The interaction is both direct and indirect. When you defeat an enemy card, it goes to your discard pile. Enemies have big points and they are great for end game scoring, but they aren’t equippable like items. When they are in your hand, you can cash them in for money (to buy items) or use their abilities. The abilities on the enemies were the ones that would affect other players the most.

I added some “take-that” style cards because it fits the style and feel of Pixel Lincoln. There are enemy cards with a Cancel ability, which will cancel an opponent’s card effect. There are defense style enemies that give negative victory points and can be forced on your opponents. There are bomb style enemies that force everyone in the current level to discard cards. Time travel cards allow you to rearrange the decks, which can help you or hurt your opponent, depending on how you decide to use it.

The indirect interaction is within the levels and trying to get specific cards before your opponents do. Because all cards are not available to all players, players will see what their opponents are doing and then develop new strategies. Many cards are unique. Each enemy and item has an ability and an overall suit. These suits (stars, clocks etc) are used within the game for additional special abilities and scored at the end of the game as sets. If you talk to an NPC, they will tell you which set to collect in order to gain big points. There is a bit of a race to grab certain suited cards before your opponents do.

HG: Do you have a favorite deckbuilding game? Why?

JT: My favorite deckbuilding games have been games like Pond Farr (Salmon Run) (Noted: The Salmon Run on BGG is not the one to which he is referring) and Mecha Mayhem that I’ve played at Unpub. I’m loving what others are doing with deckbuilding, especially when it’s incorporated into a game that consists of more than just the deck of cards. Both of these games apply deckbuilding as a tool instead of making it the entire focus.

And although it’s not quite deckbuilding, Quarriors is my favorite “-building” game. The components are a big factor, but I think Quarriors has so much replayability in such a tiny package. By making 3 different cards for each character, the games are never the same. I’m also a big fan of culling down my deck and I like how Quarriors does it.

HG: I was fortunate enough to receive an early prototype copy of Salmon Run last year and I agree, it’s a really great game. I’m also very fond of Quarriors — I just love the premise, even though it is highly random. Seeing as how these are some of your favorites, did you at any point try to find a way to make Pixel Lincoln a bit grander in scope with the deckbuilding just a mechanic, not the entire game?

It’s funny that I didn’t design this in the style of my favorite games, but I tend to do that with many of my designs. I design to the game and see where it takes itself. If it starts to stray from my original intent, but the changes are for the better, then I am all for it.

The biggest reason I didn’t use deckbuilding as just part of the game was because I didn’t want to dive into other components. I was trying to hit a price point for production and couldn’t stray from the cards.

I’d love to mess around with different takes deckbuilding in future games. It’s a simple concept, with so much room for growth.

HG: What advice can you give to someone trying to design a deckbuilding game?

JT: Don’t let the haters get you down. Deckbuilding has gotten a little bit of a bad name lately. It doesn’t deserve it, because even with the common complaints, it’s still a very new style of game and it has a lot of staying power. I would suggest checking out games like Pond Farr (Salmon Run) and Mecha Mayhem to see how deckbuilding can work as a secondary aspect of the gameplay. It’s like deckbuilding without even knowing you are deckbuilding. It might even fool the haters.

HG: Why do you think people have been harsh on deckbuilding? From my perspective, like every genre, some people just don’t care for it. But, the other factor is that the success of games like Dominion has been so explosive that many other publishers have jumped in with “me-too” cash grabs. Do you think it’s something other than this or what?

JT: I guess it’s more like “people are harsh on Dominion“… but deckbuilding is like the new kid on the block. With each new deckbuilding game that is announced or released, comes the wave of Dominion and Ascension comparisons. As more and more deckbuilding games come out, we’re seeing less and less of this, but it’s been hard getting past the big names in the format.

I think there is a little-bit of the “cash grab”, but I see it more as a “following grab”. Something like Battleship: The Movie: The Deckbuilding game would definitely feel like a cash grab, but the games that we’re seeing today look like they’re trying to gain a following by using a popular and familiar format.

But… I would totally play Battleship: The Movie: The Deckbuilding game.

HG: What were some of the biggest challenges you had to solve for the Pixel Lincoln design?

JT: The biggest has been direct player interaction. There is plenty of indirect interactivity, but the direct interaction took a little while to develop. Each players area is wiped clean at the end of their turn, so when it came time for a player to affect one another, there wasn’t much they could do. The inactive players only had the cards in their hand, which could easily be affected by the active player, but I wanted more than that.

From the start, enemies would be added to your deck for big points, and enemies would be used against your opponents. But the way they are used has evolved quite a bit. I considered using them for direct attacks, but it pulled away from the video game feel. Now each enemy has an ability on its card, many of which affect your opponents.

Another big challenge has been printing test copies. The game has a lot of cards and I’ve started over with the design about 3-4 times. It’s been tough to test without solid prototype cards because the game is pretty deep in its theme.

HG: What do you mean by “each player’s area is wiped clean?”

JT: By this, I mean all cards that have been played during a player’s turn are removed from play and discarded at the end of the turn. Cards in hand may carry over to the next turn, but your playing area resets each turn.

HG: What’s your favorite part about the game?

JT: The nostalgia. I’ve been trying to cram every one of my favorite old school gaming memories into this game. I made a “Pause” card recently. I’m incorporating cheat codes into it. There are hidden items, warp zones, and extra lives. It brings back good memories.

HG:  What did you use to build your prototype?

JT: I have a method that I’ve been reusing over and over. It started with a set of black card sleeves with Pokemon cards inside for support. Then I’ll slide in a piece of paper, which is usually handwritten at first and start to test out the game. As it develops, I’ll print the next version as text only and slide in the printed version. Then when it’s time to show it off and get deeper into testing. I’ll print a full color version and slip that into the sleeves. This is exactly what I did with Pixel Lincoln as well as a few older games. If you look through the sleeves you’ll find various old games and various versions of Pixel Lincoln.

HG: Where did you find your testers?

JT: I’ve been testing at local events such as Unpub Mini and the NJ/PA Board Game Alliance. At both of those events I can play with both designers and gamers, and receive very different and helpful feedback. I’ve also been testing with designer friends and various individuals at the Island Officials offices. 

HG: What are some things you tried and removed from the game? Why?

JT: I tried direct conflict by using your enemies to attack your opponents, but it evolved into having special abilities on each card, and these abilities will directly effect your opponents. I tried player vs player battle as an out of turn sequence that was triggered by an action, but it just pulled away from the main game. I also tried using fixed levels in one variation, but with fixed levels you lose the variety and replayability.

HG: What do you plan to work on next?

JT: The next few weeks are very busy for me. I’m editing the Pixel Lincoln Kickstarter video and finishing some better versions of temporary cards. I’m heading out to Origins on June 1st and I’ll be promoting Pixel Lincoln‘s Kickstarter launch and demoing another game of mine, Sandwich City. After the weekend, Pixel Lincoln launches and it’s going to be 45 tough days. During that time, I need to finish and tighten the artwork and finalize the last 5% of the design tweaks, while also promoting the game as much as possible. I’ll be at the Too Many Games convention in PA in mid-June and then at WBC and Gen Con later this summer.  By then, Pixel Lincoln will be behind us and I’ll be onto one of my pending projects, which is most likely ZombieZone, a head-to-head Zombie vs. Human battle board game, which has the feel of an abstract strategy game.

HG: I’ve had my eye on Sandwich City for quite some time. Not to derail the conversation, but what have you done with it lately? Any plans there?

JT: After The Game Crafter contest ended I started working on a 3 and 4 player version of Sandwich City. The game was originally built for 2 players due to the cost and component limitations in the contest. I tweaked it and finished up the multiplayer version and now I’m starting to show it to people. Ultimately, I’d love to see it fully produced, so I’m about to dive right into unfamiliar territory and see where it takes me.

HG: Anything else you’d like to add?

JT: Thanks for having me! Glad to be part of such a wonderful, inspiring site.

HG: The pleasure is all mine! Thanks for taking the time for this interview.

Limit ‘em Good

Post by: Grant Rodiek

A peer and I were discussing his new design recently. I noted that his game featured a large number of Actions, which led to a really interesting discussion about the number of actions available to a player, accessibility, arbitrarily limiting players, and more. The topic seemed ripe for a column.

Designers often think first about everything they want players to do in the entire game. They go big and think grandly about where the game might end. However, the breadth of choice is often overwhelming for new players, terrifying for casual gamers, and paralyzing for analysis prone competitive players.

The key, then, is to limit the choices available to players. On the surface, this may not seem palatable as it simplifies your design, makes it less compelling, or lessens the strategy. Not so! The discussion before us is not about removing choices, but to limit them, pace them out, and integrate them into the game in a way that enriches the strategy.

Take Diablo 3 for example: At the onset, each player has two actions available to them. They aren’t even chosen! However, within minutes the player receives a third action, then a second choice for their first action, then a modifier on the first choice, and so forth. The game begins with seemingly little to do, but quickly presents the player with a huge variety of choices.

Let’s move back to the print game realm. A game that broadens the experience both well and poorly is Agricola.

Initially, the game features a limited set of actions available to the player. These actions are identical in every game, which is great for returning players. At the beginning of every round, a new action becomes available. These are also the same every game, though the order in which they are revealed changes slightly. This is where Agricola succeeds masterfully.

However, Agricola suffers, in my opinion, when it gives each player 14 cards at the beginning of the game. 14 is an enormous number, especially when combined with the 6 or so actions available to players. Furthermore, there are approximately 300 cards from which these 14 cards are dealt, which means you will see a completely new variation of cards every game. While this is outstanding for deep strategy and replayability, it is very overwhelming for new players. Thankfully, Agricola includes a no cards variant.

Dominion is a game that limits, then broadens, a player’s choices very gracefully and masterfully. At the onset, you have 10 Kingdom cards, 3 Coin denominations, and 3 victory card denominations. Typically, in a player’s first few turns he is only able to purchase a small subset of the Kingdom cards, 2 of the Coin denominations, and 1 of the victory cards. To simplify their choices further, in most instances players don’t want additional Coppers or Estates.

However, as the game progresses, players have more Coins to spend, more Buys available, and more options. The game progresses from relatively straightforward to broad within just a few turns, allowing for rich choices and a highly accessible experience.

One more example. Star Trek: Fleet Captains is a fairly complex game that is arguably clunky at times. However, this broad game succeeds in my opinion because it does a good job focusing the player at all times.

The best way to earn points in the game is by completing missions. Players only have 3 missions at a time, which means it’s relatively easy to decide which action is best to complete the current missions. Furthermore, players only have a few ships and not every ship can do everything. For example, many ships are terrible at combat, cannot cloak, or are too slow to be used for exploration. In a very subtle fashion the player’s choices are limited.

Where to next?

If players ignore many of the choices you provide them, you may have too many. One of Poor Abby‘s biggest problems is that it has so many choices players often outright ignore all but the obvious ones. Another issue is that if players have every option always available to them, they may create the “optimal” strategy, or just as bad, the perception that there is an optimal strategy, which limits your game’s long term appeal.

Here are some suggestions for ways to limit the options in your game without curtailing its depth:

  • Make the options contextual. By this, I mean you can only take the action in certain circumstances. In Discworld, some actions are only available to the player who has placed a building in a district. In Alien Frontiers, the dice largely determine the actions available to you. Or, if it’s a card, specify when the action can be used.
  • Create a “cool down” on the action. For example, if the player uses the Action in Round 1, he cannot use it again until Round 3.
  • Provide the players additional actions as a form of advancement. Much like an RPG when your character levels up or the tech tree in a strategy game, give the players additional options as they progress. Ascending Empires does this incredibly well. Even better, without implementing an unnecessary rule that strictly prohibits it, they make it so it’s unlikely for a player to specialize in more than one tech branch, which limits their options.
  • Limit the number of Actions a player can take. You can limit them to one per turn (again, Ascending Empires) or one per ship (Star Trek Fleet Captains). The best part is, like a Buy in Dominion, you can introduce exceptions that modify this rule. By limiting a player’s actions, you help focus their mind on the immediate problems before them (or pose a really tricky question for the deep thinkers). You also reduce the number of combinations in a single turn. Finally, but limiting the number of actions a player can take in a turn you just reduce the number of things a player must DO each turn.
  • Make Actions cost a resource, such as fuel or gold. This is a twist on the bullet immediately preceding this one, but again, you can tune your game such that early in the game players can only take 1 or 2 actions. But, as they improve their “engine” or save the resource, the number of available choices is increased.

Ultimately, you must decide what’s best for your game. But, know that too many options will hinder the experience for all types of players. Finding ways to simplify is not just for casual players! Through cleverness and thorough design it’s possible to have a game that is accessible, deep, and requires great thought without requiring players to carry the rule book in their pocket.

What are some great examples of games that limit a player’s choices while preserving depth?