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We’re constantly building new things so there’s a lot on. If you’re looking for recent news, game design articles and stuff like that, just scroll down. There are hundreds of posts on the subject! At the bottom right you can see some categories if you’re interested in particular ideas or projects.

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An Unfair Game

Today we’re going to turn an assumption about what makes a good design on its head and see what shakes out. The assumption is this: An asymmetric game should be balanced such that players of equal skill have a reasonable chance to win no matter which side (or position or whatever) they start with.

Players Have Unequal Skill

This seems obvious, but it’s worth saying out loud, since it’s the reason to do the thing. In most games if one player is better they will tend to win. Sometimes this is desirable, especially in something like a competition scenario, but I’m not sure it’s always desirable.

If a parent plays with their kid should they always beat them, or else decide not to and lose by deliberate poor play?

Should the outcome of a game between an experienced player and someone they’re introducing to games for the first time be a foregone conclusion?

If people like playing together socially but are at different levels of skill is the best possible design one where one constantly beats the other?

I don’t think the answer to any of these questions is “yes”. I feel that in a lot of situations players are best served by a design if they have an exciting close game that comes down to the wire and whichever one of them most surpasses their personal best comes out on top.

I think there’s a place for an unfair game, in which positions are intentionally unbalanced. With the goal of creating a tense close game between players of different levels of experience.

What Features Does It Need?

The gameplay on the “hard” side needs to have a high skill ceiling. In principle the game is allowing one player to make up for a gulf in raw power through good play, so there needs to be a lot of delineation in how well it can be played. There’s no sense playing snakes and ladders with one player starting 10 spaces ahead, the lack of options in the game gives the player who’s behind no means to catch up.

The gameplay on the “easy” side needs to have accessible play, FOO strategies and at least a moderate skill ceiling. Let’s break those down one by one:

Accessible play is necessary because the side is intended as a means to introduce new players to games, so it shouldn’t assume too much prior experience of familiarity with different mechanics. You’d want it to be as playable as any gateway game.

FOO strategies are a part of accessible play and it’d be helpful for developing the game. Some relatively obvious strong plays offer a new player somewhere to get started and provide a baseline for what the game might expect a player in that position to do.

However it’s important that there be better approaches available. If one side is more powerful but its gameplay is just “Flip a card, do what the card says” then you’ve essentially relegated one player to running part of a solo game for the experienced player. There needs to be the genuine opportunities for subtle and clever plays from both sides for everyone to be truely involved in the game.

Themes

In discussing mechanical issues it’s easy to nudge theme over to one side and forget about it, but the funny thing is that there are loads of games that use themes more suited to this sort of situation than the games they’re actually in.

I think it’s to do with the nature of stories that people like:

A plucky group of heroes entering a dungeon filled with monsters and traps.

A single ninja infiltrating a castle packed with guards.

A small rebel group taking on the might of an Empire!

We like underdog stories. So why not make a game in which the underdogs really are underdogs? Making major mechanical decisions just to deliver on a theme can often generate a fairly flawed game, but if we’re looking at an unbalanced game anyway why not really nail a theme that’s been attempted a bunch of times but never in any fidelity?

Pulling it Together

I’ve started trying a few prototypes for this sort of game this week. My first attempt was one called HappyLand in which a director of an amusement park was trying to get his guests to have enough fun while his guests were desperately trying to leave and get on with their lives.

The visitors started with a deck allowing some short moves and obtained resources to add cards to their deck by moving through certain spaces, permitting them to work up to longer moves or to overcome obstacles that blocked movement such as walls and mascots.

The director draw two cards and played one each turn. This let her move visitors or mascots around or set them objectives (Like “ride the waterslide”) such that failing to do so added 0-value (“smile”) cards to their deck.

The visitors won by escaping the park, the director won by emptying the smile pile.

Having worked on it for a week and taking the time to write a short article about it today I’m not sure that HappyLand is the game I’m looking for, so I’m likely to dissect it for parts. Some thoughts on this prototype:

Deckbuilding is a strong mechanic for the “underdog” side. It requires a degree of planning ahead and creates a lot of tension between “needed now” and “needed ever”. It’s also somewhat subject to disruption and can help create the skill ceiling for the other side, especially if they’re adding cards do the deck that are anything other than unalloyed evil.

I’m not sure HappyLand was the right theme, but something that’s at least child friendly seems important, given age is going to be one of the main reasons for disparity of experience. It’s important the game not come across as “for kids” though, that’s going to be a fine line to walk.

The many against one aspect needs some consideration. The one vs one situation is easy enough and many vs many is going to be much harder to work with – but which way around should it be? Is a hypothetical group more likely to be a bunch of experienced players and one new player or the other way around? Is it better for several players to gang up on the strongest player or the weakest player to be thrown into a position of power over everyone else? Those seem appealing in different ways.

There’s still plenty to do with this, but it’s an idea I’d like to explore some more.

 

Social Deduction for Introverts

Introduction

I introduced One Night Ultimate Vampire to a new group this week and we got talking about it after the fact. Some folks liked it, others didn’t, there’s one criticism I wanted to highlight and talk about:

“in large numbers the shy folks really have to fight to be heard”

I thought this was really interesting because it describes something that I think applies to the genre rather than the game.

The Problem

A social deduction game has two elements – broadly “social” and “deduction”

You have to work things out. Partly from hard facts and partly from softer information about what people say and do.

Having worked things out you need to persuade people of some truth (either the actual truth or some alternative you’ve made up based on what you’ve figured out).

If the conversation is dominated by a few voices then the quieter people don’t get to play the second half of the game. Which is obviously a bad thing.

But the incentive structure for the game is that dominating the conversation is a good thing. People will try to build several narratives and the successful player will be the one who can make their narrative the strongest (if they’ve got their deductions right).

So the challenge for the designer is structuring the game in a way that rewards players for making more space for other players to speak up. Even if they wouldn’t usually, perhaps especially if they didn’t usually.

Not a Solution: Play with nicer people who make sure everyone gets a go

I bring this up briefly because someone always suggests it for problems like these πŸ˜‰

This is a solution for *players* but it’s not a solution for *designers*. You can’t print on the side of the box “Only play this if you’re nice” and expect that to work.

A player should seek a group that they enjoy.

Where it doesn’t compromise other design goals, a designer should aim to make their game enjoyable by many types of different group.

Existing Solutions: Information Dispersal

The #1 way these sorts of games handle this issue is to make sure that all of the players have different useful bits of information. The theory being that if everyone knows something critical to their teams success then everyone will have something to say in the discussion and it will be in their teams interests to make sure it’s heard. Since the average player is on the biggest team the average player should have the support of most of the table.

It’s a neat theory, but there are a few ways it can fall down.

The first is if someone’s information isn’t useful to any other person. If all you have is “I am not a baddie” that’s not worth much. You can figure things based on that, but when you say it to the table it’s meaningless because everyone claims to be not a baddie.

The second is if the group prioritises the social over the deduction. Players new to the genre very often see leading the discussion and influencing who dies as the winning strategy. Information dispersal can only work if two conditions are met:

1. The players need the information to correctly know what they need to do to win
2. The players recognise that they need that information.

In new groups there can be a tendency to try to control the conversation without finding much out, which makes the conversation controller look powerful. If they lose anyway it can be easy for a player to attribute that to “bad luck” rather than “poor deduction” and not realise that giving players with extra hidden info more of a voice would’ve lead to a win and it was the conversation control that cost them the game.

The third is where info comes out relatively trivially and discussion on how to interpret it dominates the game. If you have 20 seconds of “Everyone says their thing” and then half an hour of arguing about it – the half hour argument is most of the game. The 20 seconds of being involved hasn’t really solved the problem, because the player still sat out of a lot of the game.

Existing Solutions: Regulated Speech

Some games will make explicit rulings about when and how a player is able to speak. In the online mafia game Town of Salem if there are enough votes to hang someone everyone else’s chat is literally disabled for 20 seconds and only that person gets to speak. Then everyone makes a final yes/no vote on whether to kill them.

Giving a player a moment to speak mandated by the rules ensures that they get to make a point at the most critical juncture means a person can get a word in edgeways at the most critical juncture.

Existing Solutions: Power at a Point

In Mafia de Cuba one player is the godfather. They will ultimately decide the outcome of the game, there’s no vote, just their word for who they think is a thief.

This has an interesting effect on group dynamics, in that one person is imbued with power in a way that distorts the conversation and that person is also the person with the most to gain from getting all of the information. If the godfather says “I want to hear from Eric now” then Eric is going to get to speak. Whether he wants to or not πŸ˜‰

Other games harness this to a lesser extent, giving a player the right to choose what thing is being voted on or some special power they can use during or just after the discussion – but the purpose is the same: Get someone to chair the meeting.

Existing Solutions: Parallel Discussions

Two Rooms and a Boom takes a different approach. If a big discussion with a bajillion players is going to lead to some folks not getting to sidle into the game. So what if it was broken down into a whole bunch of smaller discussions? What if there was an active advantage to having quiet 1:1 discussions that other players didn’t notice or hear?

The answer is that play becomes very different, but everyone will be getting to do something most of the time. It’s not a perfect solution in that you can still wind up with sidelined players in 2RaaB due to its other mechanics, but it does very neatly deal with this particular issue.

Potential Solutions

Because “Information dispersal” is baked in, I’m not sure how many designers have been actively considering this as an issue rather than it being a thing that gets worked out naturally by tinkering with rules in playtesting.

Heck I’ve published a social deduction game and never really consciously thought about it!

So perhaps there are untapped solutions that haven’t yet been tried. The main one that occurs to me at the moment is likely due to ongoing discussion about asymmetric resources. What would a social deduction game look like if the capacity to talk was a limited resource?

Could you have a game in which people said things like “Rose just spoke for the third time which means she can’t be a villager, I am which means this is the last thing I’m going to be able to say.” I think there’s some unexplored potential there.

I’m sure there are other solutions out there waiting to be discovered. I look forward to playing them πŸ˜€

History of Games

There’s a project that may or may not happen, that I can’t talk about in detail at the moment, that has an odd requirement: We need to take the development of board games and split it into four “ages” each of which contains games that modern gamers would recognise and at least have some inkling of the rules of. Let’s give it a go!

The Oldest Game

For a long time I had it in my head that the oldest game is Go. Board game geek lists it as being invented in -2200, Wikipedia says the earliest written record of it is -400, I’m not sure what the definitively pinned down date is, but that game is old!

It’s not the oldest though, at some point in the past I was misinformed and never challenged my assumptions. I’m confidently informed that Senet is older and we’ve found some wicked neat sets in old tombs. That game is looking at -3500.

It’s probably not the oldest game was, because we found these beauties. Those are from 1500 years before our oldest copy of Senet so, the oldest game was, uh…whatever that is. Maybe. Or they really are some sort of counting stone and not a game at all. Or “ritual purposes” πŸ˜‰

Chess and Cards

When Western non gamers talk about old games they’re usually thinking about chess and a variety of games played with a 54 card deck. Chess is 1450, thousands of years after the really old games and cards got started around 850 but they didn’t mutate into what we’d recognise as a pack of playing cards until they came to Europe and went through various mutations over the 14th to 19th centuries.

Classic Board Games

I tried asking a few people a generation older than me what they thought classic modern board games were – as in stuff that wasn’t ancient and part of anything they’d think of as “history” – but that has been around forever. The answers I got were Monopoly, Snakes and Ladders and Risk. Huh, there’s no BGG article for Snakes and Ladders, a few specific variations are mentioned, but the main one is missing. Does that seem like a weird gap to anyone else?

In any event as I’m sure most of your know S&L technically fits in with the ancient games, being derived from an Indian game that’s at least a thousand years older than chess. But they’re probably thinking of the Milton Bradley thing that got ported over in 1943 – which would fit with the dates of the other two (1933 and 1959 respectively). Basically they’re naming things that were already in the house when they were kids.

Games that were already in the house when I was a kid

I remember growing up with the 80s bookcase games. Technically I they might have entered the house after me (I was born 1984) but they predated my ability to form memories which amounted to the same thing. Also the sort of boxes that people manufactured back then were weak – after a couple of years of regular play they looked like some artefact from the before times and my parents liked games.

So mentally, on some level, old games to me means gems like Titan and atrocities against gaming like Outdoor Survival. Some of these games would be recognised by folks who didn’t grow up with them on account of Fantasy Flight deciding to publish a bunch of old games in shiny new formats.

Modern Games

Getting into things that people would talk about as actually modern games I can observe the development of that over my lifetime. Catan rocking up in the mid 90s and people wondering if maybe it wouldn’t be terrible forever if Euros had some randomness, or Ameritrash games had some theme. Dominion swaggering up in 2008 saying “Maybe we haven’t found *all* of the genres yet followed shortly by everyone losing their shit and making a million clone babies. Pandemic jump onto the stage around the same time and raising “Cooperative games are a thing” to volume that eclipsed some muffled cries of “But we’ve had those for years”. Followed by Risk Legacy announcing “I’m too much game to only appear in a potted history of game development the one time!”

Alongside all of this Kickstarter waggled its eyebrows suggestively and whispered “What if you could support games you wanted, even if they were too niche for a publisher to pick up? What if you got to talk with the designer before it was printed and could make sure it’d grow in the way you wanted? What if you got more components per pound because the distributor doesn’t get a cut? All of this could be yours!” and people saying “Yaaaay” but suddenly sometimes money disappears with no game showing up and also minis everywhere whether you like them or not. So some of the people were sad and swore never to do it again. But enough people loved the promise of a million minis and kept Cool Mini or Not printing as much money as they wanted.

Parallel Developments

As all of this happened alongside board gaming, war gaming and roleplaying were also growing up. Wargames asking questions like “What if we had models instead of counters?” and then “This is a lot of painting, can we use fewer models?” While roleplaying asked questions like “What if as well as killing everything we did some role playing?” and then “Do we need to kill anything at all?” (With a side order of “Yes you have to kill everything and also what if there were a million supplements to help you do more of that”)

The project I’m looking at doesn’t need to deal with either of those things in detail, but it might be worth leaning out of the window on the drive past and grabbing an idea or two from each.

Putting it All Together

History is messy and things overlap. It’s also really big, I’ve barely scratched the surface here, you could fill tomes and tomes with a full history of board games developing over the years. Though I’d like to see a board games history presented in the manner of this history of the world.

What I need is four distinct “ages” of board games that are nice and neat and that each one contains at least a few games that’d be iconic and recognised by the average gamer who doesn’t care at all deeply about the history of things.

What I’m considering at the moment is this:

Ancient Games
This covers almost all of human history, right up to -5000 to 1900. I’m aware this is misuse of the term “ancient”. While historically there are thousands of years between things like Chess and Go I think that a lot of players mentally dump them into the same category. Despite its absurdly broad time catchment I suspect this grouping will feel natural to most gamers.

Classic Games
This covers 1900-1945, pulling in the classic Milton Bradley stuff like Monpoly and (modern) Snakes and Ladders. Things that people will perceive as “too recent to be history” but also “too dated for most people to remember them being invented”. There’s a possibility of doing something a bit messy here and treating the dates like guidelines and assigning games based on the sort of school of design it feels like they’re from – by date Risk doesn’t belong in this category but people may feel it fits here more naturally.

The Divide
The Ameritrash / Eurogame thing feels less clear cut these days than it used to, but having an explicit age in which we’ve got those streams of development happening in parallel seems like an important note not to miss. Also while it’s not really how game development is today (partially thanks to the internet) the consequences of it are still echoing. So having an age that goes 1945-1995 to capture how that is before global communications really get going seems like a neat thing to do.

Modern Games
And finally 1995-present covers everything in boxes that still look nicer after a decade than the bookcase games did after a year (Though I suppose I should acknowledge that as a child I looked after games less well). This age has a dual problem of being too narrow (in that it covers the smallest number of years) and too broad (in that it covers the largest number of games people will recognise if I name them). I suppose its inevitable that whichever age that includes “present” will wind up that way.

I’m not sure that I’m completely satisfied with this way of looking at things, but as a guideline to do a first draft of something it’ll do. Like most of the things I do as a game designer having a starting point is the most important thing because the main process of the work is endless testing and improvement πŸ˜‰

Resource Asymmetry

Introduction

Lately I’ve been playing a computer game called Tales of Maj’Eyal. I wanted to talk a little bit about how resource management in that game works and what lessons we can take away for board games. Let’s dive in.

Description of Resources in ToME

Characters in ToME all have some sort of resource that they use in order to activate their abilities. The resources vary considerably but they’re all used in the same way, you click on an ability and it uses the appropriate amount of resource. Let’s look at a few:

Stamina. Click the ability, stamina is reduced by the cost, if you don’t have enough then you can’t use the ability. It comes back over time.

Mana. Click the ability, mana is reduced by the cost, if you don’t have enough then you can’t use the ability. Depending on who you are it might not come back naturally and you need to use another ability to restore it.

Souls. Click the ability, souls are reduced by the cost, if you don’t have enough then you can’t use the ability. Comes back each time you kill someone while close enough to hoover up their soul.

Equilibrium. Click the ability, equilibrium is increased by the cost. Then there’s a %chance roll to see if the ability happens or if you’ve wasted your turn – the higher your equilibrium the higher the chance of a missed turn. It falls over time.

Paradox. Click the ability, paradox is increased by the cost. Then there’s a %chance roll to see if you get a paradox backlash instead of your ability – the higher your paradox the higher the chance of a backlash and the more extreme the backlash. Your current paradox level also acts as a multiplier for the power of your spells, so high paradox makes you more powerful. It returns to a level of your choice over time.

Insanity. Click the ability, insanity is reduced by the cost, if you don’t have enough then you can’t use the ability. The higher it is the greater the random number added or subtracted from everything you do. It falls over time and can only be restored in combat by using abilities that generate it on hitting enemies.

There are a bunch more: Hate, Vim, Positive Energy, Negative Energy and Psi – but you get the idea.

Why do we care?

The consequence of this variety of resources is that similar abilities can feel very different because of the resources they use. You can have two abilities that fundamentally do the same thing – say shoot a beam damaging everything along the beam – but the resource it uses depends on how you apply it.

If it uses mana then it makes sense to use it early and often, but you want to keep a plan in mind to escape combat and recover if you run short. If it relies on insanity then your opening gambit needs to include some insanity gain to make it useful, so you’re trying to find a way to combo with another ability that both generates insanity and pulls opponents into a line to get the most out of the follow up. If it’s using paradox then you can use it an awful lot, but there’s an associated risk – do you start at a high pardox so your opening salvo hits hard or a low one so you get more shots before you risk exploding yourself?

The fact that the ability/resource combination is meaningful allows a game to have a lot of skills. In the same amount of time you could design ten abilities, you could design five abilities and five resources – generating a total of twenty five possible abilities. Not all of those would be any good, some would surely be eliminated through playtesting, but it’s a way to put a lot of variety into a game without having a huge amount of rules to learn.

Asymmetric Resources in Board Games

There are plenty of games that’ll let you arrive at the same outcome through different

expenditures

. Race for the Galaxy has cards that’ll allow you to play a some planets by discarding cards or by having enough military. Descent will let you move a space using a point of movement or a point of fatigue. You can hold a territory in Game of Thrones using a unit or using a power token.

Doing the same thing using different resources that function in different ways is a great source of meaningful decisions – but in these games it’s not the core of the game, it’s a neat extra thing.

There are also games that let you simultaneously manage several resources in order to buy things using their combination. Something like Splendor offering the player several types of gem to make their purchases. But in these games the resources all behave in fundamentally the same way.

I can’t think of an example of a tabletop game that’s really embraced the possibilities of concurrent asymmetric resources either as a way to create distinctions between players or to produce meaningful decisions in how players progress – but I’d be really interested to see one attempted. If I don’t find one perhaps I’ll give it a whirl some day.

How about you, have you heard of one? Is there a game I should try to see how this works in practice?

Third Order Balancing in Genesis

Today’s topic is third order balancing, but I’m going to talk about it in the context of a game I’m working on called Genesis. Partly because that makes it easier to understand and partly because writing about the subject might help me find new solutions for that game. Let’s get started!

Genesis is a game in which the players take the role of gods struggling over the world. Each player selects three domains to decide what sort of god they are – these are things that could finish the phrase “God of…” like war, death, love etc.

Each domain grants the player a champion, each one of which has three cards, giving everyone a hand of nine to begin the game. On their turn each player simultaneously chooses and plays a card. If they play a card for a champion they’ve already got in play the old one is discarded, otherwise it’s added to their existing champions. All champions (including ones still present from previous turns) use their special ability. Finally the champion with the highest power is added to a winners pile.

Whoever has the most champions in the winners pile after someone runs out of cards (Usually nine turns) wins the game.

So far, so good – so what’s the balancing problem?

Well obviously it’s desirable to make sure that the domains have a roughly equal chance to win. If one offers champions that are simply better than the others then you may as well pack away the game after domains are chosen and announce the player with that domain the winner.

So the first order balancing problem is “How do I make sure each domain has roughly equal power?”

There are some fairly obvious answers here. Making sure that all champions in a domain have the same total power and then adjusting it up or down a smidge based on how useful their abilities are seems like the answer. The abilities follow a standard form of having two icons, one for who is targeted and one for what happens to them. A handful of standard abilities like “target all enemies” and “discard from play” occur across all domains, but each domain also has a unique icon that only appears to cards from that domain. That’s what makes being a “God of disaster” feel like being a “God of *disaster*” rather than “The god wot gets a 3 5 and 8 rather than a 1 6 and 9”.

Special abilities make things tricky because the context of the game then starts to matter. For instance the champion of beasts has a power 4 monster card that grants itself the pack leader icon which gives +1 power for each monster in play. So what power should I consider that card? Played in isolation its a 4 – but in theory there might be four players with three monsters out each so he could be a 16. I could work out the average number of beasts in play if everyone’s playing randomly – but people won’t play randomly.

You might anticipate that the player choosing the beast domain will choose two other domains that have a lot of monsters in so that they can power up thier own ability. Their opponent might decide to be a god of water. This gives them access to the powerful flood card and its “Destroy all monsters in play” ability.

So is the champion of beasts any good? Are they a decent 7 because their owner will synergise with three monsters, or are they weak because they signal a creature type giving the opponent information to exploit?

The second order balancing problem is “How do I make sure each domain has roughly equal power, accounting for the fact that players will choose other cards knowing it’s in play?”

But wait, it gets worse! Suppose I have chosen to be the god of beasts and my opponent has decided to counter by being a god of water. I still want to play monsters to get my bonus, but have to account for the possibility that my opponent will play “kill all monsters”. Can I do anything about that?

You bet I can! I could decide to be a god of weather and have beasts with the “Unaffected by abilities that cause instant kills” or I could be a god if disaster and have “Destroy and protect effects are reversed, all destroy powers protect and all protect powers destroy”. My opponent has similar options, they could see that I’ve planned for their plan, but they can plan for my plan that I’ve planned for thier plan! Perhaps they’ll take “God of fear” with its “Target does not get to use its ability” powers.

Which gives us a tough time of balancing – because in order to determine how powerful we think the beasts domain is we’re now taking into account the existence of the fear domain. But, when it’s time to edit the fear domain, we need to take into account the existence of the beasts domain.

Which gives us the third order problem that languidly brings us to the point of this post: “How do I make sure each domain has roughly equal power, accounting for the fact that players will choose other cards knowing its in play and then choose cards knowing *those* cards are in play?”

“Not easily”

Now the ultimate answer is, of course, the same as it always is: Lots of playtesting!

No matter what tricks we try to pull there’s no substitute for watching the game played lots of times and seeing which domains tend to win and lose and making changes based on that.

But with the interconnectedness of all cards being what it is, there’s a huge advantage to starting playtesting from a position that’s closer to our goal state than one at random. So let’s consider what we can do.

The obvious first step is to aim for the champions of each domain to have the same total power – since printed power ranges 1-9 then an average of 5 might seem appropriate. However we intend to reduce power totals later in line with how good the cards abilities are, so actually starting at an average of 6 or 7 seems like a smarter idea.

The next step is harder, which is to determine the average value of abilities and adjust the power of cards downwards accordingly. Here the goal is to make a determination of how much an ability is worth and remove the appropriate amount of power form some card in its domain.

Now a player can enhance an ability by playing cards it synergises with and their opponent can do the opposite. The active player has an advantage here since they know when they’re going to play the second half of the combo, but their opponent might get their timing wrong. However the active player might not want to pair it with the best possible option to make it harder for their opponent to predict and counter. Here I make the following assumption “The value of an ability is worth approximately what it’ll be worth when combo’d with the second best option in a situation that’s halfway between a random situation and the optimal position to play that ability in.” and go forward on that basis.

The third step is the hardest, how best to account for possible counterplay? Here I forget about balancing individual abilities and try to address the problem through a design philosophy. The philosophy is simply this: “Any tactic that is anticipated and properly countered will be utterly crushed.”

The core of the game is selecting champions and using them at the right moment to maximise their effectiveness. Perfect timing should be rewarded and implementing this philosophy means every ability has the same value at the third order: It’s always 0 because your opponent has always won. This simplifies the calculation substantially.

This calls for the game to contain cards which are very strong given the right predictions. “Kill all X” are highly effective, so long as every card has a class and every class has at least one kill all associated. Also cards of a form “Make a prediction about the card your opponent has chosen but not yet revealed, if you’re right then kill it.” Then things that counter or reverse particular abilities like “Your opponents card targets itself rather than its intended target” or “Kill powers now protect and protect powers now kill”.

This is a process I’ve now been through with this game over nine times.

Each time I rewrite a great many cards trying to obtain a new balance that makes me happy – one that makes the domains equally likely to win, but also preserves their uniquess and makes the game more about skill than luck. A player needs enough information to make a prediction or the game falls apart – a perfect information zero randomness game can be a game of chance if players don’t make meaningful decisions after all.

The iterations of playtesting are having an impact on how easily I can value abilities. At first “This is worth a +1 that is worth a +2” was pretty much guesswork – but as time goes on I’m more likely to change an ability in a way that is right first time. Or to anticipate how making a change in one place means that something that’s worked just fine for the last three iterations now also needs to change, without needing to see an unenjoyable game to see it happen.

So the advice I wanted to offer was this:

1.It’s good to have some sort of abstract (I hesitate to say necessarily mathematical) model to get your early game as close to a goal as possible before testing.
2. Don’t abandon the model when you start testing. Instead refine it and keep using it, it’ll make each iteration more productive.
3. You can nuke the third order balancing problem by making a certain order of prediction powerful against everything (Though this is only a start).

This game isn’t perfect yet and my approach isn’t perfect either, but that’s where I’m at today. I’ll let you know if it’s any different tomorrow.

(Also no pictures this week because the server won’t let me upload them. How do folks feel about that? Are the pictures adding much and nicely breaking up the text or did they just get in the way?)

Designing for Art Requirements

Hiring an illustrator for your games cards can be expensive. I’ve had quotes anywhere between Β£10 per card and Β£300 per card. The complexity of the art style you’re looking for, the experience and reputation of the artist and a host of other factors play into this figure. Given that a card game could easily have 54 cards requiring an image each that could be the difference between Β£540 and Β£16,200 over the course of a game. It’s a big decision.

I’d like to talk about what a designer can do to make this part of the publication process easier, but first I’ll offer an example from some of my past games to illustrate how hard this can be:

Escape the Nightmare raised less than Β£10,000. If we’d hired a top rate artist then the art costs alone would’ve been greater than the project raised. The art really needed to be on a budget for the project to be successful. Scandinavia and the World raised over Β£61,000 – we could’ve spent a significant amount on art and still had the project work out overall.

The trouble is this: For each game we had to determine who the artist was (and therefore our art spend per card) before the game was launched. A good project means showing a good game, which means showing some final art. Knowing what to spend on art is dependant upon knowing how well the game does because the cost is divided between all games rather than on a “per game” basis like manufacturing is. So you need to know how well the game will do before launch to make an optimum art decision.

Now in both of these examples we dodged the question on the publisher side. With Escape the Nightmare we used art from artists who’d usually charge closer to the top end of the scale, but we’d already paid for the commissions for another project and (with their permission) didn’t need to use it again. With Scandinavia and the World we were partnered with a webcomic who got a share of the profits but provided all of the art. That’s not always possible though, it hasn’t been for more than half of our previous projects and probably won’t be for our next one – so lets talk about what a designer can do.

Knowing that we weren’t paying a cost per card on EtN and SatW my design brief was “Use as much art as you want” and the design of those games reflects it.

The situation for other games is different. The artist has to be chosen before how well the project is done is known, but the designer has control of the other side of the equation: How many pieces of art does this game need?

There are two philosophies that can work here: “Minimise art” and “Flexible art”

The first is simply to design the game in a way that requires the fewest possible pieces of art. If a game can say “Well there are five types of card and the piece of art on a card will depend on its type” then you can spend almost whatever you want on the art per card without meaningfully impacting the overall budget. This is often the simplest solution, but can make it harder for the game to deliver its theme and is something worth trying at a prototype stage (rather than prototyping with art everywhere knowing damn well it won’t be there in the final thing) to see how testers find it.

The second and more complicated approach is to try to make the amount of art in a game flexible, so that the decision about the amount to spend on art can be made after the amount available in the art budget is known.

This is trickier from a design perspective, but the goal is to have cards that could have individual images or that could all have the same image. For example a game might have cards for “Fire bolt” “Fireball” and “Inferno” that could share an image or could have different images. If the project goes well then they get one image shared between all of the cards. If it goes exceptionally well then the extra budget can be used illustrating them individually.

I think this is fairly common, most likely as a result of designers coming up with games they’ll pitch to several publishers who have different approaches to art. I don’t want to name a game here because while I’d mean it as “Here’s something sensibly designed to make sure gamers get the most out of their work” some idiot will take it as “I accuse this designer of being cheap” – but I’m sure you can generate lots of examples from your own games collection. Off the top of my head I can think of a dozen examples of game where cards with titles that imply they could be drawn individually, but that share art in a way that works and feels consistent with the theme.

The opportunity for designers to modify games to suit art doesn’t end at theming cards to permit art duplication if necessary. It’s good for design to magnify every aspect of a game wherever possible.

For instance with the Genesis project 3DTotal is very keen on bringing in a very high quality artist. That means spending a lot of money on art and a design that does the best to really show off and integrate that art is going to be important. There are a few games out there now using tarot sized cards rather than the traditional 63x88mm cards. That’s all well and good – but a game has to be designed for that from the ground up!

The physicality of a card changes how they are used. A game with physically larger cards needs to minimise activities like shuffling that are harder with more cumbersome cards. It’s also important to consider the amount of space a game needs on the table to make it playable in the environments you’d like to see it played. On the other hand it also presents opportunities – you can make more assumptions about what a player can see on their opponents cards from across the table for instance.

The point that I’m driving at with this post is that there are a lot of things that can be thought of as “The publishers problem” that are made easier or harder by the choices a designer makes in building their game. In a good game the design of the game itself and its physical nature and presentation are intertwined. It’s worth being conscious of the pressures facing your publisher and of their strengths and limitations so that you can make the most out of working with them.

Small Boxes and Efficient Components

Last night I was introduced to a series of games by Oink Games. I didn’t get on with all of them, but came away with the impression that for each of them there would be someone who did. One of the things that really stood out for me was the physical efficiency of these games. Take a look at one:

That might seem like quite a lot of counters to pile into a box atop that hand of cards – but that’s only because most of the cards aren’t pictured. The game has a 45 card deck, it’s just not pictured in the photo. The thing is practically a TARDIS.

This is interesting as a publisher and a designer. Lets talk publisher first. Generally I’ve launched games on Kickstarter, but have tried to get a few of them into distribution to some extent. One of the strange things about distribution in the UK is that big boxes sell games. There are people who very vocally hate opening a game to find the box is mostly insert and the game could’ve been fit into a box a fraction of the size, but they don’t reflect what the average gamer actually does when they walk into a game shop. Publishers, distributors and stores know it to the point that it’s part of the conversation. I’ve been flat out told “This is a great game, but it needs a bigger box to sell itself.” I’d always conceptualised this as one of the differences between Kickstarter games and traditional games – in the former creators ask themselves “How tightly can I pack this in? The smallest box is the easiest to ship box” and in the latter “How big can I make this before someone complains? Its essentially an advert and it needs to grab someone’s attention next to all of the other adverts.”

I’m told it’s characteristic of the Japanese market that “compact” is always a selling point and products developed their first are typically as small as they can be while remaining functional. I’ve never made a formal study of it or spoken to Japanese distributors so I’m not sure to what extent that it’s true – but whether related to a specific market or not there’s definitely a sense that this line of games has been built to be as physically compact as possible.

I think this sort of compactness is generally desirable. It’s less wasteful and it makes it easier to carry a game in a pocket rather than a bag. It is the sort of thing that’s good for everyone but disappears in a “tragedy of the commons” kind of a way once the market gets involved. I’d love to see some mechanism that made it easier for more publishers to go down this route successfully.

As a designer this sort of compactness is interesting because it requires the designer to get as much as possible out of their components. Despite this the components of these games never feel busy. Take In a Grove here, which is about identifying a murderer, as an example:

The round counters indicate how many guesses you have remaining before an incorrect. They also indicate if you’ve previously guessed correctly or incorrectly. They also indicate if you’ve ever been successfully bluffed by someone who’s (probably) deliberately made an incorrect guess in the hopes you’d copy them and lose. You can tell how well you’re doing by counting how many counters you have. They are coloured circles with two states.

The people counters indicate who the murderer is. They also are the suspects for who the murderer might be. They’re also your private information about the murderer from which other players must try to derive your secret information. They also indicate whether the highest or lowest scoring character will be the murderer this round. One will also be the victim. They are a silhouette with a single number on.

This sort of design is testament to how much a designer can get out of a simple component, by making use of every attribute. A component can have almost no information on it, but can convey a wealth of different states by where it is on the table, its orientation, whether its face up or face down, whether counters are placed next to it, who’s looked at it.

This sort of game is a challenge and while the nature of the game I’m currently working on will not be to meet it, that doesn’t mean I can’t learn something from the design to take with me.

I’m once again working on Genesis, a game in which players are gods and pick three concepts to be the world they want to build. The theme initially carries well, players like being able to pronounce they are the god of Destruction, Chaos and Death or Drink, Fate and Love – but a theme can only carry a game so far, the gameplay needs to be solid too.

The game certainly has its fans, there are players who keep trying to get me to come up with new editions and push the game further, who can’t get enough plays. However it has a relatively huge attrition rate in the first game. People love it when they’ve played 3 or 4 times, but most people don’t enjoy the first game and a fair portion of them will walk away and never look back. That’s a huge problem since it is true of literally every game that more people play a first game than a second game. Essentially it’s unapproachable.

The main cause for this is that to some extent it’s a bluffing and prediction game, you simultaneously pick heroes and reveal them together. You want your hero to win so want to pick someone who’s a match for what you think your opponent is going to play.

If every card has dozens of icons and a custom special ability that’s got its own timing rules and is different to every other card that offers fantastic play and counterplay opportunities. It also makes the information density such that most new players are essentially playing the first few games almost entirely at random until they’ve had the opportunity to learn the deck.

The challenge is to streamline the components and rules to the point that a new player has some idea what a card does and how it’ll interact with things an opponent might play (and to have some grasp of what an opponent might play). However it is to do this without losing what makes the game special: That a god of a particular aspect will uniquely be able to access some asymmetrical power that others players can’t.

I’m on the way there, the core of the solution seems to be “Here are some standard icons which mean stuff. They do what you might expect. This guy makes people with bitey faces take -3. Highest number wins.” Then each type of god gets an extra icon that does something different, you tell everyone else what your three special icons are at the start of the game. Now cards more cleanly communicate what they do and players aren’t waiting until a card is played to find out what their opponents special trick is and can reasonably attempt to predict and counteract it.

I question whether I could go further. Characters have an icon and a number. Do we really *need* both? Or could abilities target based on the number? Or could the winner be determined by icon in a rock-paper-scissors way without the number?

Perhaps not. There’ll be a level of complexity that’s necessary for the different types of god to feel meaningful as what they are – love must feel like love, chaos must feel like chaos. On the other hand, perhaps it is possible. Maybe just one of those things can carry the weight of the rest of the game. I will probably end up reverting my changes but making the best games means exploring every avenue. I enjoyed last nights small box efficient games so I feel inspired to try.

Orbit

I ain’tn’t dead!

I’ve been missing for months because my spine exploded and left me unable to walk or do very much of anything. It’s not the first time it’s happened, it probably won’t be the last. I’m bored of it. You’re bored of it. Let’s get on with talking about games!

After a long absence I’d like to come back with something positive for someone else, so since I was at the UK Games Expo (Running roleplaying games for children – who are vicious!) and spent a fair bit of time at the Playtest UK Stand I thought I’d take some time to analyse the game design decisions in what I thought was the best prototype I played all weekend (including my own!).

Orbit: The International Space Race is a game in development by Juniper Games. You play as a national space agency interested in building rockets and flying out to our solar system to explore planets and do science.

Each turn you do one thing: Upgrading technology, accepting missions, building a rocket or launching a rocket. Then all of your existing rockets barrel haplessly through space in whichever direction you launched them. You can steer a little, but doing so uses up fuel and your ships carry very very little of it. If you plan to land on a planet and then return to Earth you have just enough fuel to change course 0 times so you’d better aim in the right direction first time.

You get points for each thing (Land on this planet, orbit that planet, etc) that you do. You also get a free upgrade if you do it first. You might have missions that give bonuses for taking particular actions or taking particular actions first.

When everyone’s had a turn the planets all orbit the sun, as planets tend to, so the relationship between your launchpad and your target is constantly changing.

So what makes this game work?

I’ve argued before that meaningful choice is critical to good game design and Orbit offers plenty of choices. Very often you can get the first one to a place by going there now – getting the free upgrade for getting there first – but you could do using less fuel if you wait for the planets to align – leaving you more fuel to orbit and then land and generally do more stuff and pick up more points when you get there.

The “What to do on your turn” also matters. The upgrade options are all meaningful – you always *want* your ships to build faster and move faster and carry more fuel and score more points – but you upgrade those things one at a time. All of these are balanced against other actions, perhaps the best course is not to upgrade at all but to build and launch as many ships as you physically can with no regard for quality.

Missions do well here too. You start with a couple of “Do X first” missions which inclines you to get going and make sure you do the thing before anyone else and pick up the bonus. However you also might want to draw more missions so that you know what you’re trying to achieve before you launch your first ship or choose your first upgrade. The extra missions you can draw can be worth more points but may be harder (possibly involving multiple planets) and come with a penalty if you fail to achieve them.

In the time I played I took very few “automatic” turns, finding something interesting to think about more often than not.

The mechanics fit together well with the theme.

As an abstract mathematical concept “Get to these places while everything is moving relative to each other all the time” has the attributes necessary to make a good game – but orbitals theme makes it feel right and natural. You never feel cheated that your objective moved further away because your objective is Jupiter and it moved round the sun in the same direction it did last turn and that’s what gas giants are supposed to do.

What could be seen as a convoluted series of mechanics in abstract terms are easy to learn. “Your piece gets free moves if its in study mode, but switching to study mode costs one of your steering opportunities per trip” sounds like a mess of exceptions. “Your ship moves with the planet if it’s in orbit, but establishing an orbit costs one fuel” is obvious. I’m not sure if the designer even bothered to mention that you moved with a planet if you’re in orbit or landed on it – or if we all just assumed the rule because it’s so intuitive that you would!

Something that might not have come across so far in my description is that the game is quick! You do one thing on your turn, it takes seconds to do. Then all of your ships fly on, predominantly in the way you already told them to. The turns just fly by.

A game like this could be in danger of creating a large downtime problem. Interactivity is limited to “being first” or “not being first” so you don’t do a lot during someone else’s turn. That would be frustrating if the turns were long, but I found they were suitably short. I also didn’t notice the first half of them because I was busy going “Okay if I build this turn I can launch next turn and Earth will be there, so if I head towards the edge of the solar system then I’ll intercept Neptunes orbit in three turns by which point Neptune will be there – so I need to be a turn slower or spend fuel to turn to face it. Spending the fuel is bad, but I’ll pass Saturns orbit in two turns and it’ll be right there so I’ll score points for a flyby if I do it this way…”

Do I have any concerns about the game? Sure! It’s in playtesting after all so there are bound to be rough spots around the edges.

The “First to X” obejctives can be a bit unsatisfying in a game with no randomness. If another player decides to go there first and is in the right place in the steating order there is literally nothing you can do to stop them getting there first. If the game needs a mechanical tune up somewhere, a stronger system for resolving what happens when several players reach the same planet on the same turn would be where I’d start.

It’s also in danger because it has low randomness and low interaction. The planets move at a fixed speed and direction, your ships fly a predictable distance, other player’s actions cannot prevent (or even inconvenience) your ship building and movement. Given that it might be that if you become experienced at the game you start planning all of your moves in the first few turns and don’t make any meaningful decisions for the rest of it.

The tools that the designers have to prevent this from happening are the “First to X” objectives and the “First to X” free upgrades. If the bonus points for the initial objectives and the amount of advantage that getting those free upgrades provides are significant enough then every game will be different. The “initial objective” randomiser pushing all players in a different direction and the “first to X” restriction then causing those initial moves to have a knock on impact on what players are willing to do for the rest of the game could drive every game to be different. An important part of the game’s success will be how well the team balances those elements.

Overall I was enjoyed the game and was delighted to play something that didn’t feel like a slight variation on something I’d played before. If you want to check it out their website is hereΒ and I’m sure they’ll be trying to get everyone’s attention sometime down the line πŸ˜‰

If you went to the UK Games Expo and tried anything good drop a comment and let me know what I should be keeping an eye on!

Special Rewards: Behind the Curtain

Since my first Kickstarter campaign I’ve almost always had a pledge level that allows backers to create a card or other game element and add it to everyone’s copy of the game. These are always marked so that purists can remove them, but I love doing it and backers seem to love it too. I’ve had some nice comments about how affordable I make it compared to other creators, so I wanted to go behind the curtain and talk about how these pledge levels happen and why they cost what they do.

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