Metapowers

This week I’ve been testing Genesis and there’s a broad agreement between playtest groups that the most troublesome thing in the game at the moment is if someone decides to be a god of madness. This domain grants the power “This power targets the world, for the rest of the turn any champion with a power that targets one or more champions instead targets only itself.”

Metapowers

It’s a problem because it’s a power that modifies other powers, a metapower, which have two important features:

1) Players get excited about them, they offer a lot of flexibility adding a relatively large number of things someone can do in the game for a relatively small complexity cost. Generally they’re some of the powers that get the most positive feedback.
2) They’re a massive pain in the arse to design because they impact the design of every other power.

The fact that madness exists obliges me to look at every other power and go “What does this power do under the influence of madness? Is it obvious? Is it balanced? Is it interesting?” which is a lot of work for one domain.

It goes beyond individual cards too and into combinations of cards. For instance if there’s nothing in play that can remove a madness wielding champion without directly targeting it then everyone will target themselves constantly all game. This leads to degenerate games where the madness domain might as well read “Stop playing now, the game is won by whoever has the most targetting powers that give bonuses and the fewest that give penalties.”

Metapower Combos

Astute readers may have noticed the construction of the madness power is something that’s necessitated by the existence of powers like it. Having some of the odder powers read “This power targets the world, this rule applies for a turn” means that metapowers that mess with things that target champions exclude them – meaning you don’t get combos of metapowers on metapowers.

Consider a situation like this:

Power1 targets everyone and makes them target themselves.
Power2 targets each players highest level character and makes them target everyone on their own side.
Power3 targets everyone and cancels their powers, making them have no effect.

What the hell happens? Does power 3 make everything have no effect so the other two don’t matter? Or does power 1 mean that power 3 is only making itself have no effect (which means it doesn’t which means it does)? Or does power 2 mean power 1 only applies to its controllers stuff? If that’s true does that mean it then targets only itself so it retroactively doesn’t apply to the rest of its controllers stuff?

You can do metapowers that affect each other, but you either need a rigid framework that makes the ways they influence each other relatively uninteresting or to manage them carefully which creates exponentially more problems the more of them you have.

Implementing Metapowers

Despite the caveats they are neat and offer advantages. Lets agree that we’re going to do them and get into how to implement them.

The main thing to shoot for is consistency of language. This is generally desirable anyway since it makes games easier to learn and rulebooks read more smoothly. For this sort of thing it really matters though. Consider the original wording for the power a player gained if they elected to play as a god of vengeance:

“When this power is in play and a champion dies then the champion with a power that killed them also dies.”

What happens if that power is madness’d? The wording makes it unclear. Consider some alternative wordings:

“This power targets the world. For the rest of this turn if a champion dies the champion with the power that killed them also dies.”
or
“This power targets all champions. If a target dies, the champion with the power that killed it also dies.”
or
“This power targets any champion that’s power has killed at least one other champion. The target dies.”

Standardising powers to always start “This power targets X” obliges the power to be worded in such a way that it’s clear. You can see what madness would do for either of these wordings. It opens the way for any number of metapowers of the form “modify target” (So long as there’s some system for how they interact with each other to avert paradoxes)

Astute readers, who get time in the spotlight for the second time this post, will have spotted the problem with all of the suggested vengeance wordings above. Namely that the champion of vengeance always kills itself – since if (say) Water kills Fire then Vengeance kills Water. In that case Vengeance has killed Water so Vengeance kills Vengeance. It needs an exception for itself, but I left that out of the example to keep us on topic 😉

Aside from standardising power wording to make sure that metapowers work consistently there are two other approaches to consider:

The first is to look at every 2 card combination of powers and do a mental “Is this okay? Is it clear what these do together? Does that combination break the game in some critical way?” check.

The second and most important is to do lots of playtesting. You will miss things or a thing will seem clear to you while being obtuse to your players. Always do everything you can that isn’t playtesting before squandering tester time on a thing you could’ve fixed yourself – but never skip playtesting. It’ll catch problems you wouldn’t have dreamed of.

What are We to Do About Madness?

I’ve said what I wanted to about game design in general, but it feels like a tease to discuss a topic on a game I’m working on without describing the resolution.

In reality there isn’t a resolution yet because I’ve written some new versions of the affected cards for the next playtest and that playtest will undoubtedly change things again.

The change I’m looking at is “This power targets each players champion(s) with the lowest level. If they have abilities that target champions they will target only themselves instead of their usual targets. If a champion with this power targets itself its ability is unaffected.”

The reasons for this are:
1) There are some standard forms for the game in there. Opening with explicit target information is standard. “Champion(s) with the lowest/highest level” is standard (and applies a general game rule of “In a tie the thing happens to everyone whose tied”)
2) It moves away from the “targets the world” construction which while hardened against some interactions also makes things less interesting. I’ll revert to targets the world if testing shows this generating more problems.
3) Modifying it only to hit low level champions deals with a lot of the complex interactions. You can’t have degenerate games as easily because someone can drop a high level champion and then a low level champion that targets and kills the madness champion. The most broken combos were madness + domains with high level champions balanced by giving opponents bonuses in some circumstances – these are harder to pull off if the madness card can’t target those high level champions. Low level champions also tend to have more interesting and powerful abilities so hitting everyone’s lowest level champion is likely to preserve the meddling troublemaking options that made people like the madness domain in the first place.

I’ve no idea if it’ll work, but we’ll see after the next playtest.

Incidentally I’m recruiting more testers for this game soon. I worry that my existing testers are too familiar with the game which distorts feedback. If you’re already on the 3DTotal mailing list you’ll get a message about it in a week or two. If you’d be interested in PnPing a version or trying it as a Tabletop Simulator mod drop me a comment or email to [email protected]

Mathematically Equivalent Rules

Why Change A Rule?

Genesis is at a point that it plays great with people who know how to play it and people have started actively requesting it at games nights (Always a good sign that a prototype is approaching being ready for publishing!) However I’m finding a noticeable proportion of new players are having a hard time with the game in places and sometimes it’s a downright unenjoyable experience.

Why Not Change A Rule?

The game is working great. People are really enjoying it and it’s working smoothly and well. The balance is approaching where I want it. Games have emotional high points that I’m pleased to deliver. Feedback is generally good.

How Do We Change Something without Changing It?

We use a mathematically equivalent rule!

Let me give an example:

For most abilities timing doesn’t matter, they can go off more or less simultaneously. However for a few the order makes a difference so these each have a speed from 1-10. You resolve all speed 10 abilities, then speed 9, then speed 8 and so on.

A sticking point for the game was that some players would read the rules, but then treat speed 1 as the fastest and speed 10 as the slowest. When quizzed on how this happens a reason emerges: Players intuited that speed 1 goes 1st and 2 goes 2nd and so on.

So the mathematically equivalent rule in this situation is to simply multiply all speeds by 10. Now cards are speed 10, 20, 30 etc. The problem just disappears, while there’s a reason to intuit 1 is faster than 10, there’s no equivalent to believe 10 might be faster than 100.

Critically this doesn’t change how the game is resolved at all – the same abilities go in the same order under both sets of rules. There is no situation in which using one rule rather than the other changes the outcome (in terms of game state) – but using one rule rather than another changes the outcome (in terms of ability to grasp the rules first time) so it’s clearly a better choice.

I’m pretty sure I’m not the first designer to go through this specific process. In fact as a teenage player some years ago I always thought it was a bit silly that Robo Rally used speeds that were multiples of a hundred. It seemed pointless to busy up the cards with extra digits that were always predictably meaningless. But seeing the difference in how players react: Now I get it.

I wonder just how often designers worry at some problem, hit upon a solution and then realise they’ve seen that solution before but didn’t recognise it as a solution because the problem doesn’t exist in that game?

Another Problem

Presently Genesis abilities often choose targets based on their power and can sometimes modify their power. For instance an ability might be something like “All champions with a power of 5 or less gain +3 power”

Abilities always target based on a cards natural power – under no circumstances will they select a target based on its total modified value. So in the above example if a power 6 card was reduced to 5 by some other ability, it wouldn’t get a +3. The +3 is only for champions with 5 or less printed on the card.

This seemed like a fairly solid rule to me, certainly compared to previous iterations where some things cared about unmodified values and others cared about final values. “Always unmodified” didn’t strike me as difficult.

I dramatically underestimated how complex that’d be for players with different backgrounds. There are a lot of different ways in which people think and some portion of players just can’t grasp “always unmodified” as a rule.

But if we flip it over to abilities like “All champions with a level of 5 or less gain +3 in combat” it becomes easy. It’s exactly the same rule, but moving away from “modified power” and “unmodified power” to two values called different things makes it much easier to intuit.

Alright, but how do we apply this to design in general?

The commonality between situations helped by this sort of intervention is that they have the following traits:

1) The rule works really well for people who understand it.
2) A portion of players play the rule incorrectly.
3) These incorrect plays are due to intuiting a competing rule and the incorrect intuition is known.

From there the rule can be modified to remove the intuited rule as a valid interpretation without changing the thing that’s making it work well for a lot of players.

In the first example the intuition was “1 means 1st” so the modification is to get rid of 1.

In the second example the intuition was “If this alters power I can use it to get the right power to use this other thing that cares about power” so the modification is to stop using the word power to refer to what are essentially two different things.

Sometimes it’s better to embrace the intuition wholesale and actually change the rule to match whatever people intuit that it is. It was an option to change powers to say 1st, 2nd etc. if all powers were in play every turn I’d probably have done that – but in this case avoided it because the notion that 2nd goes 1st (because 1st isn’t in play) might prove equally unintuitive with players trying to execute one of the unmarked powers before it.

So if you’re working on a game, have a quick scan of your playtester feedback and see if you’ve got situations like that. It’s easy to dismiss “We got this rule wrong but then read it again and then it played fine” as something that worked itself out, but it’s perfectly possible to use it to improve the odds that more people will get it right first time.

After all, some players won’t give your game more than one chance 😉