Consequences of Precise Probabilities

Pathfinder

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.

Tone

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 😉

 

Dollar Auction

Dollar Auctions

A dollar auction is a thought experiment in economics in which someone auctions a dollar under the following terms: You can bid any amount you want, you can win a dollar for a cent, but if you make the second highest bid you still pay up.

Implications

Using the economic “perfectly rational” actors things get quite pricey.

Initially it makes sense to bid $0.01 to win $1
When someone else bids $0.02 it’s still a good proposition to bid $0.03 to win $1
This continues until someone bids $1. At this point the other bidder is looking at bidding $1.01 for $1. That’s a clear loss. But it is only a loss of $0.01, compared to a loss of $0.99 for stopping now. So a higher bid is still rational.
This continues until…actually it just continues. There’s no until. The dollar will sell for infinity dollars.

In economics this is a criticism of a particular means of conceptualising “perfectly rational” actors and the suggestion that the idea is flawed or at least needs some refinement. But we’re not economists.

Auctions in Games

Board games have been using auctions for a while. They’re a really neat mechanic since they sidestep a lot of balancing issues.

If something is auctioned the players are setting the price. You don’t need to say “Card A costs 4 and card B costs 5” and risk having valued those cards incorrectly. You just auction them off and the players will set the values. This is particularly powerful because it is sensative to the meta-context of the game – some things can be impossible to set costs for becuase their value changes dramatically depending on what else is in play, the state of the game and (sometimes) the sort of people playing.

There are two popular models for auctions in games:

Traditional auctions, in which players take it in turns to bid higher and higher until everyone but one player has backed down. They pay and get the thing, while everyone else takes their money back. Like you’d do in Monopoly or Power Grid. (I probably don’t need examples to illustrate this point but something tickled me about being able to use those two together)

Blind auctions, in which players simultaneously choose how much they’re going to bid and reveal all at once. All of the bids are lost, but only the highest bidder gets the thing. Or in some cases players are bidding for something akin to turn order and everyone is placed relative to their bid.

I can’t think of an example of a game that uses a dollar auction model in which the second place (or more) players lose their bids.

Could it work in a game?

Almost certainly someone has made it work and I’ve simply not played the game or games where it does, but let’s speculate anyway 😉

The good news is that it creates a complex situation in which there’s not an obvious dominant strategy. If all players but one refuse to take part in this sort of auction the player who does is at a significant advantage. If everyone but one takes part the one who stays out has a definite advantage. Optimal play with this sort of auction will be based on meta-knowledge of what the other players are likely to do. It’s also somewhat fertile ground for table talk and informal agreements beyond the structure of the game. Some players hate that, but a game that sets an expectation that it is to be played that way can attract players who don’t.

The bad news is mostly loaded into the difficulties of making it fun to lose these sorts of auction. Inherently the player who comes second will lose resources, potentially a lot of resources, and have nothing to show for it. It’s important this not remove them from being in a position to make meaningful decisions in the game. There’s also the danger of a run away winner where someone says “I have the most shinies, I am going to outbid anyone who tries to get this thing, so if you bid you will lose money for nothing, therefore you will not bid and I will get it for one shiny. With everything costing me one shiny it is easy for me to have the most shinies forever.” In theory a strategy like that could be broken where other players cooperate to break their strangehold on the “most shinies” position, but such cooperation is difficult where’s an intrinsic motivation to be the contributing member who contributes the least.

What would the working game look like?

I think there’d be two main ways to mitigate the problems auctions like this could cause:

The first would be to make a game in which the thing players are bidding with refreshes frequently. If you had 10 coins a turn to bid and couldn’t carry them over from turn to turn then nobody could maintain a “most shinies” position and someone who lost everything to get nothing is back in the action fairly quickly.

The second would be to make a game in which the social dynamics took centre stage and other game mechanics were supporting the making and breaking of alliances in a way that mean someone who bid second and lost *was* getting something meaningful. They were knocking down the money available to the winner which is somehow good for their alliance and good for them.

Is it a good idea?

Maybe! I don’t know. The point of the blog is to discuss design ideas, see what it inspires and get used to thinking of mechanics in different ways. In that it’s been an interesting topic to divert onto for a few minutes 🙂

Space Food Truck

Recently I’ve come across a computer game that I wanted to talk about, becuase it’s basically a deckbuilding board game with sprinkles and has some interesting ideas. It’s called Space Food Truck.

The Game

The gameplay will be very familiar to anyone who’s ever played a deckbuilder:

The game is cooperative and each turn starts with a random event (usually but not always bad, escalating in severity as the game goes on). Once that’s done you play all of the cards in your hand. These let you do things related to your job, which in aggregate will let you fly your truck around, pick up ingredients, cook them and deliver them to the target planets winning the game. Then you discard all of the cards you have left over and buy one or more cards to add to your discard pile. Finally you draw a new hand, shuffling your discard pile if your deck has expired.

So far, so standard. So why bring it up?

The devil is in the details. This game uses a host of different mechanics, some of which I’m wouldn’t usually to think of as a deckbuilding mechanics, in interesting ways. There’s nothing you won’t have seen before in this game, but there are times that the mix of mechanics generates something more than the sum of it’s parts. This is a good goal for any designer, so I’d like to explore them by way of looking at how using a mechanic in a new context can generate new gameplay in the hopes of inspiring ideas for other genres.

Power

All cards have a power value. The most important cards in your deck will scale based on how much power you choose to supply them with. For example if you play a repair card you might need to discard one power for each thing you want to repair. But of course a card that’s discarded for power can’t be played.

I’ve always been a big fan of “choose cards to discard to be allowed to play other cards” as a mechanic, meaningful choices are central to good gameplay and this is the sort of mechanic that helps to develop it. It also provides extra delineation between cards, allowing the presentation of choices between buying cards worth lots of coins, cards which have good abilities or cards which provide a lot of power.

It’s not used to its fullest possible effect here though. It could have been a means to flatten out some of the luck of the draw and make player skill more central. In a lot of games a hand of all of one type of card then a hand of all of another is often less desirable than getting a good mix. If important action cards had high power values then drawing them all together would lead to thoughts like “Huh, all three repair cards, well we’re not repairing for a few turns after this while I draw through the rest of the deck – but at least this turn I can fix everything!” Instead important actions have been assigned low, or even 0 power, which means the mechanic instead exacerbates the luck of the draw.

That seems like a missed opportunity.

Roles

The variation between playable roles is quite intensive and well implemented.

The captain is the only person who can move the ship and restock the supply. If the ship doesn’t move there’ll be no new cards to buy at the end of the turn – if you don’t buy a card you get a useless leftovers card that bloats your deck to no advantage.

The scientist is the only person who can improve people’s ability to do their core job. Everyone can buy cards each turn, but these come from a common pool of generic cards. The captain can never buy an extra “Fly the ship this turn” card, which is bad news since decks will inevitably get larger as the game goes on so the main jobs get done less and less consistently. The scientist’s research power adds new core cards to everyone’s decks, letting them do their main jobs more effectively.

The chef is the only person who can cook meals, necessary to win the game. However that’s a skill that’s only needed on a few turns, so the designers needed to give him a second strength. What they’ve settled on is an exceptional ability to destroy cards in both their own and other people’s decks. Even the most expensive “destroy card” options in the generic deck are typically less good than the chef’s starting options.

The engineer is there to make sure you don’t lose. Events will damage the ship and crew, lowering its capabilities in various ways. If it’s hull gets damaged enough it explodes and everyone loses. On the other hand different sorts of damage might cause people to draw fewer cards each turn or be unable to play some actions. The engineer decides what to fix in what order.

Given that the distinction between the roles is generated by approximately 4 cards in a 10 card initial deck (plus whatever the scientist researches over the course of the game) the roles feel very different. They all involve some sort of meaningful decision – whether it’s research priorities, which deck to burn cards from or where to fly – and they all wind up feeling very different to play.

Asymmetrical roles can add a lot to a game and give it some decent replayability. I suspect some of that is wasted here as I reckon the average person playing the game is probably on single player as all four roles – but as a primer on how to make asymmetric roles interesting and distinct it’s got some good ideas.

Restock

One of the defining features of a deckbuilder is how it limits which cards a player can buy to add to their deck. Dominon established the genre by selecting a limited number at the start of the game, but allow players access to all of them every turn. Others, like Legendary, have a limited supply drawn that’s refreshed after players take cards from it.

Space Food Truck takes an interesting step in treating “available options” as a resource. If the captain is willing to play a jump card and expend fuel and avoids crossing the path of places she’s visited before then she gets to draw a random selection of cards which she may add to those that are available to buy. There are a limited number of slots for these cards and it’s up to her which ones are discarded and which ones are available for the rest of the team to buy.

Having stocking the cards that people can buy from as an explicit game event opens up more meaningful choices. The actions that will lead to the most frequent restocks and doing several restocks to get the ideal mix of choices rather than “whatever was lying around” will often conflict with other desirable outcomes like “take the most efficient route” or “move primarily through systems where we know that we want what will happen to us on that planet to happen”.

This is a mechanic I’d like to see someone do more with. The decisions in Space Food Truck are often relatively trivial “everyone getting a leftovers is sufficiently bad that the jump to a new planet is worth it regardless of other consequences” or “we have fewer new cards from this planet than we have slots so we’re taking everything” aren’t tense, exciting, decisions. I’m sure a game built around playing with the stock situation some more could do a lot with it, but this shows how the potential is there to be realised.

Conclusion

Space Food Truck is not the best game I’ve ever played (well worth the price though) but it demonstrates the power of taking mechanics into unfamiliar territory and messing with assumptions. As much as there are ideas from this particular game I’d like to see taken forward, I think more generally it’s good to bear in mind how we don’t need to always be trying to come up with something new as much as innovative mixes for ingredients we’ve already got on the shelf.

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 😉

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 😉

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 😀

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 £10 per card and £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 £540 and £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 £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 £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.