I’m presently working on a game in which players control runners who are navigating a maze with the assistance of various teleportation devices. Each player has a hand of devices and uses 1-3 each move to help their runner get to where they want to be. I’d like the teleporters to all feel different to use and the ideal move not to be obvious so there are some meaningful choices in what’s used when and what’s held back. I figured it might be interesting to use todays post to brainstorm ideas and talk about their pros and cons.

The Lovely No Limits Teleporter
Effect: Place yourself on any space within N spaces of your current location.
Pros: Simple. Useful.
Cons: Simply better than almost anything else. Would need a small N to balance with other cards.

The Leeroy Jenkins
Effect: Move forwards N spaces ignoring all intervening stuff.
Pros: Simple.
Cons: Very similar to normal movement. Board design or other player obstructions need to be significant to justify its inclusion.

Cardinal Teleportio
Effect: Move in a particular compass direction N spaces ignoring all intervening stuff.
Pros: Simple.
Cons: Could be completely useless to someone moving towards an objective in a different direction. Potential to be a “lucky” or “unlucky” draw irrespective of players skill at setting up opportunities.

Place Thief
Effect: Choose another runner within N steps, swap position.
Pros: Could have take that style effects.
Cons: Could have take that style effects.

Murphy’s Teleporter
Effect: Your opponent chooses a space you go there.
Pros: Puts an interesting choice for one player in another players turn, potential for dramatic desperation moves.
Cons: Would need some significant other advantage for anyone to ever be willing to play it.

Effect: Choose another runner who is N spaces away. Place yourself on any space within N spaces of them.
Pros: Potential to act as a catch up option, potential for teamwork in setting up several runners to use each others positions.
Cons: Might be too many turns on which a useful anchor doesn’t exist and its just a dead card. Board size and population density strongly impact usefulness.

The Escher Step
Effect: Choose another space with N spaces that is the same as your current space in all respects but location (If you are in a 1 wide corridor next to an exist, it must be a 1 wide corridor next to an exit)
Pros: Leads to interesting possibilities with a high N.
Cons: Awkward to codify in rules, possible analysis paralysis.

These also work in most combinations. For instance you could have Murphy’s Slingshot which anchors to a player of your choice but your opponent chooses in which direction it fires you.

What will work in practice will depend a lot on the interaction between the teleport steps and the base moves – but having a small list to populate a simple prototype allows for some basic testing and refinement (and all game design is testing).

Even the obviously bad ideas belong in this sort of early test. Murphy’s isn’t going to make it through in its unmodified format – but throwing in the card to see what the implications are when it’s played give an indication of the best thing to combine it with or what sort of magnitude of payoff it requires to justify its inclusion.

Early testing is as much about finding exactly why and how things don’t work as finding what does work. The lessons taken from the more obvious missteps can prevent more subtle ones from creeping in later in the process.

Hope you’re all having fun, I’m off to test a bad game.

Consequences of Precise Probabilities


I’ve been playing the digital adaptation of the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game lately. Besides the bugs (and dear me there are a lot) it’s a pretty faithful recreation of the physical game – yet I’m finding one aspect of it is making me play very differently: Every time you do something to modify a die roll the game shows you the probability of the roll succeeding and permits you to undo that modification.

Probabilities in Rise of the Runelords

Many of the bonuses in the game are represented by extra dice. At any given point you usually have access to a whole load of these bonuses, but use of them has a very noticeable opportunity cost leading to you seeking to use as few as possible. On a typical turn you might hit into a situation like this:

You’re righting something that needs a total of 22 to beat.
You subtract one from each die rolled.

You can punch at D6 or attack with a sword at D6+D8 or cast a spell at D10+D6+D6+2
You have four blessings which will give you a D6 if you’re attacking physically or a D10 if it’s a spell.
One of those blessings gives two dice instead of one if it’s used for a D6.
You could discard the sword, losing the ability to use it again and get an extra D6
Your mate you shuffle part of his hand into the deck to provide an extra D4+2
You have an item you can discard for a bonus D4 but that applies to all fights this round (Which is at its best if you save your blessings since each blessing could also be used to flip another card and maybe get into another fight if it’s not used here)
One of the other players has a spell that gives +3 to strength rolls so works with the sword but not if you’ve cast a spell.

Computing the probability of success using each combination of bonuses would be a massive headache. Heck even the base combinations would take some doing. But the game does it instantly and displays the number for you.

How does it change the game?

The obvious first degree effects are that it means I make optimal decisions. If I can get a bonus one of two ways and the cost to both is the same then I’ll always pick the bonus that’s best in the situation. That’s not such a big deal, I’d probably have done it anyway most of the time.

The major impact it’s had has been in how I’ve learned the game over repeat plays.

In tabletop I doubt I’d notice the difference between a 91% and 97% chance of success. It’d always be at the point of “I’ve got a big pile of dice and the average expected result is at least twice what I need to roll – it’s gonna be fine.” Yet providing the probabilities makes me sensitive to it. It’s a game that can be won or lost on a single roll – tripling the chance of failure for that roll (from 3% to 9%) is actually a really important difference in those critical situations.

It’s harder to pin down how these things are altering the emotional experience of the game. I’m making better moves, but am I enjoying the game more or less for that? The reaction to a roll seems different – on the one hand I get “Well I decided to stick at 95% and not throw another card in, 1 in 20 chances happen all the time” where I’d have got “That roll is so absurdly below average, I hate you dice.” but on the other hand failing a >99% roll is a worse kick in the teeth than it’d have been if you weren’t aware of just how good the odds were.

There’s also a conflating factor in the game being single player. “Shall I throw in my other characters extra card to squeak an extra 2% chance to win out of this roll” is a fundamentally different question to “Shall I ask Jane to give up her extra go so I can have a 2% extra chance to succeed?”

Overall I think being aware of the exact probabilities sharpens the game. Dice are fickle, but over time, over many rolls, fair. It makes me more aware of smaller changes which in turn means I think about choices that I might otherwise have discarded out of hand. Ultimately it frees me from arithmetic to enjoy what the designers intended the game to be.

What’s the take away for designers?

Games can be more or less explicit about the probabilities of success involved in doing things. A magic computer box that does the numbers is not a necessity: Settlers of Catan dots its pieces to show dice probabilities. It would not be possible to do something for more complex mechanics like the examples shown here – but the mechanics themselves can be streamlined.

It’s also not an all or nothing approach. For instance Race for the Galaxy includes a card that allows you to guess the cost of the top card of the deck and draw it if you were correct. That card contains a little table showing how many of each cost of card are included in the deck. This doesn’t mean you can calculate the probability (I mean you could if you wanted to sit and count the number of cards of each cost currently in play and that you’ve personally discarded) but it makes it less obscure – you have a better idea of what it might be than if you didn’t have the contextual information.

Most games are likely to benefit from giving the players more information and more powerful tools to make decision – if the rest of the game supports that. There are some games that being able to work out the odds of each move *is* the gameplay and these calculations are intentionally on the cusp of human ability – but for more games working out the best move is the gameplay and understanding the odds of various outcomes is a tool in reaching the more interesting factors that define the best move in that particular game.


One Trillion Dollars

I’m presently working on a game in which a team of players take the role of evil masterminds trying to get one trillion dollars out of the UN. Each turn they get cards and can either play half of them or threaten to play all of them and offer not to for some fixed amount of money. Their goal is to get enough money doing this. The UN player can catch and arrest them all, but the cards they play make this harder, so they need to strike a balance between giving up too much money and losing and letting too many cards be played and be unable to win (Which as the evil players can get money in some other ways will also result in a loss).

Tone of Threats

The initial threats deck I’ve made by marking cities on a world map in a “This city is in a convenient place for my map” kind of a way and then picking something a mastermind might do to each city to threaten it.

This has lead to threats which have a tone all over the place. Kidnapping the queen of England is maybe a bit silly, but something someone could plausibly do that would definitely cause an uproar. Awakening the Egyptian mummies would definitely cause problems in Cairo but is clearly stepping into fantasy. You could definitely do something to Taipei and Beijing by annexing Taiwan but… actually that whole situation is pretty real and real people’s lives are going to be quite affected by how it plays out.

Just going through cities and writing the first thing that popped into my head has lead this version to be all over the place. This is a problem.

Who cares about tone?

I was going to start this off printing a user review of Escape the Nightmare but the user has deleted it :O

It boiled down to “I really like this game mechanically but can’t play it with my preferred groups because the tone of the art means it can’t be played in those circles.”

Which is a fair cop. I *did* make a light party game which had art including dismemberment and disfigurement. I probably shouldn’t have done, it made a great game less accessible to some audiences and less enjoyable to others.

How do you get tone right?

I don’t know. I really don’t. “Inconsistent tone” is an accusation that could be reasonably levelled at all of the games I’ve made.

I’m hoping that being more conscious of it is a good starting point. Previously I’ve tried to generate as many good ideas as possible that fit the theme – which has lead to a lot of good ideas. I’ve then winnowed them away through playtesting, removing things which don’t pull their weight gameplay wise – which is also very important.

Designers talk a lot of about theme vs mechanics and the compromises made in order to carry both. I think that it might be wise for me to look at this set of cards in terms of theme-tone-mechanics and start removing cards from the set that significantly fail in any one of the three areas.

I think it’ll be hard to say goodbye to something that fits the theme and presents great gameplay because of tone inconsistencies – but it should lead to a stronger game. I’m a very mechanics oriented player so I’m constantly fighting the desire to go “Screw everything else” but for most players enjoyment is a combination of factors. There will be opportunities to make relatively small sacrifices in other areas for relatively large gains here, so I just need to be alert for them.

What do you think?

This post has been less useful to designers reading it than others because rather than it being “Here’s a thing I’ve figured out, let me share” it’s “Here’s something I’m figuring out and where I’m going with it at the moment.” So some of the readers almost certainly have a better idea about it than I do – more than usual I’d encourage folks to comment and for readers to read the comments. I know I will be 😉