Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Infamous: a new game design

After a fairly long hiatus from this design blog, I'm happy to announce that I've signed a contract with Eagle Gryphon Games (EGG) to publish my second board game design.  As such, I'm going to start posting on here more regularly, to talk through some of the design choices and roadblocks I encounter through this next year's development process.  But let's start this off right!  Let me give you a quick summary.

Infamous (working title) is a strategy board game for 2-5 players that plays in around 2 hours.  It's a medium-light design - perhaps a "4" on a 1-10 scale - and while it sports some sleek, Eurogame mechanics, I'd say it falls firmly and confidently within the Ameritrash family.

In Infamous, you take on the role of a comic-book supervillain.  You goals are to build a secret base, recruit henchmen, and then use those henchmen to complete nefarious contracts around the world. Successfully doing so will earn you money and infamy points.  The player with the most infamy at the end of three turns wins the game.

Current prototype
There are four phases in each turn.

Base Building Phase

Prototype only (art stolen from internet)
The base building phase is primarily composed of a draft.  Each player is dealt 4 Secret Base Room cards.  They secretly decide to either build or sell one card.  The players reveal their decisions simultaneously, pass their remaining cards clockwise, and repeat two more times.  Thus, it is possible to add 3 new rooms to your base during each Base Building Phase.  These rooms are important for two reasons.  First, each room gives you "attraction points" for various types of henchmen.  For example, if you build a Money Laundering Facility, you will immediately earn 6 Criminal attraction points.  Criminals will now want to come live in your base!  You can also build rooms to attract Beasts, Scientists, and Mystics.  The second reason why rooms are important is that many of them have special powers that can be activated during the Contract Phase.  These powers might spell the difference between a successful mission and a failed one.

Henchmen Phase

Sample Henchmen card (prototype)
During the Henchmen Phase, each player will (hopefully) recruit henchmen to their side, depending upon how attractive their base is. Beasts, Criminals, Scientists, and Mystics will be drawn to the player who scores highest in attraction for that henchmen type. There are some additional subtleties to this, but the feel of it is that the Henchmen Phase flows directly out of the Base Building Phase and just takes a couple minutes to resolve. You'll immediately get feedback on whether your base is successfully competing with everyone else's for the henchmen's attention. The more henchmen you recruit, the better. Having a diverse crew will give you a lot more flexibility during the Contract Phase.

Contract Phase

This is the meat of the game. There's a big map of the world in front of you. Six (or seven, depending on player count) continent locations, each with a different Contract card. These contracts represent missions to which you can assign your henchmen. During this phase, players will take turns choosing contracts, forming teams of henchmen, and then rolling dice to see whether they succeed or fail. If you succeed, you'll earn cash and infamy. If you fail, your henchmen might get injured or captured. Then again, sometimes your henchmen will fail but end up receiving a cool, new Superpower (e.g., caught in a radioactive explosion)! In future entries, I'll spell out more of the rules for the Contract Phase. There's some fun strategy on display here, in addition to fistfuls of custom dice.

World Map board (prototype)

Sample Contract card (prototype)
Clean-Up Phase

It's not very exciting, but it's necessary.  You've got to pay your henchmen (including your Lackey), refresh any of them that are exhausted, and re-seed the world map with contracts.  Quick and easy. After three turns, the game ends!

The Story So Far

I've been working on Infamous for the past 6 months or so.  I would say it was around early December (2015) when I hit on a set of ideas that would eventually evolve into this game. My initial point of inspiration was actually from the mechanics end of things. For a while now, I've been pondering how I could adapt the "attract a hero" mechanic featured in the small card game, Boss Monster, into a bigger game. And make it a bit more interesting, to be honest, by having the people attracted be positive (members of your team, not enemies) and persistent. In some weird unconscious back-alley, this idea got mashed with the 2004 PC game, Evil Genius. I've always liked "dungeon"-building sims (Dungeon Keeper, etc.), and once I hit upon the idea of using room cards to attract different types of henchmen, the rest of the game started to fall into place. The hardest part was the Contract Phase - but I'll save that story for another post.

I got a solid ruleset and prototype in place around March or so. Initial playtesting was extremely positive. Kept working on it and polishing the proto until I felt it was ready to show to a couple publishers. I wanted it to be ready before Origins, since I thought that would be my best opportunity to pitch it to a number of different companies. But I first sent an email to Eagle (who published my last design, Clockwork Wars), and they asked me to send a copy of the prototype to the Gathering of Friends. They checked it out there, loved it right away, and offered me a contract. I happily accepted, and we'll be starting development within the next couple months. I expect a long road ahead, but after having gone through years and years of waiting and development work for Clockwork Wars, I have a much better understanding of the process this time around. I'm looking forward to the work and have really high hopes for this game.

Needless to say, I really love this game. It is so fun, and surprising, and constantly throws small but interesting decisions at you. The narrative you and your opponents create will set you laughing. The tone is playful, but the gameplay is consistently tense and engaging. In very broad terms, imagine a mash-up between:  Boss Monster, Among the Stars, & Eldritch Horror. It's a very different design from Clockwork Wars, but I think that's a good thing! I think it will appeal to many types of gamers, especially those who like (slightly heavier) beer & pretzels-type experiences, an emphasis on theme and narrative, and the conceit of playing a villain.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Origins Game Fair, 2015: Part 2

This is part 2 of my Origins 2015 retrospective. You can read part 1 here. This part will summarize my experiences demoing Clockwork Wars for Eagle-Gryphon at the con.

I demoed Clockwork Wars 2-6 times per day from Wednesday through Sunday, for a total of around 16 complete games. We had two demo copies available and (barely) enough space to have two 4-player games running concurrently. I tried to vary the maps and Discovery cards throughout the con - partially for playtesting, partially just to keep myself entertained.

The general pattern was like this: some people had previously signed up to play CW, and some people dropped by with generic tokens to see if there were any spots available. I think we were able to accommodate most people who wanted to play. I had players choose their race, and then started in on 1) general intro to the game (genre, weight, playtime, theme), 2) how to win, and 3) specific rules. In total, this probably took around 20 minutes (30 if people asked lots of questions). Rick had encouraged me to get my training spiel to 10 minutes or less, but I just don't think that's possible. Demo sessions were scheduled to last 2 hours and most people were able to finish their games in that time period (so, 20 min of rules, 100 min of play).

My approach to teaching was to orient them to their player aid (which turned out absolutely fantastic, design-wise), and then use that to march them through a single turn. What aspects of the game seemed to trip people up? First, understanding that you don't really move your troops around in CW. Once you deploy units to a territory, they usually stay there. Second, how combat is resolved. Specifically, reinforcement orders, battle resolution, and turn order. Understanding this system usually required experiencing a few battles in-game.

One nice thing about teaching games at cons is that pretty much everyone you run into has played a lot of board games, so they're 1) prepared to sit patiently and learn rules, and 2) capable of grokking systems quickly because of their prior gaming experience. I was often stunned at how quickly certain players figured out the game and started playing strategically. This wasn't everyone: most people played sub-optimally and were simply exploring the game systems without worrying to much about winning. But I remember a few people who honed in on certain strategies, formulated plans, and carried them out successfully. That was gratifying to see.

One individual, in particular, who I remember from one of my earliest sessions figured out the power of Espionage very quickly. He pursued a heavy court-espionage strategy, supported by conservative (but efficient) map expansion. This allowed him to stay under his opponents' radar for a large majority of the game, and he walked away with a solid win. Impressive. That group of four, by the way, was a wonderful group of people. They were super-friendly and asked me lots of questions about the design and development process during the game. They also really enjoyed the game and brought back several of their friends throughout the con to try out Clockwork Wars. It was nice for me to have such a positive demo experience like that early on.

What did I learn about balance, rules, and potential future errata? Well, I continue to be confident that nothing is broken in Clockwork Wars. There are no infinite loops, and I doubt there are any super-dominant strategies. However, given all the unique cards and effects in the game, it's not surprising that a few tricky cases come up periodically.

For example, a couple people asked whether the Operative could use her assassinate ability against a enemy soldier that was paired with an Engineer (the answer is no, the soldier needs to be alone). Also, after the Operative assassinates during her reinforcement stage, it often surprised people that if the targeted opponent came later in turn order, he could reinforce that battle to take out the Operative. Fortunately, this is a confusion that came up during playtesting and so the rulebook does explicitly cover this scenario.

The Spymaster action, Counter-Intel, is the one rule that is not well-explained in the manual. As I mentioned in a previous post, this is 100% my fault and I wish I could change the wording now to prevent the inevitable confusions that will arise.

With regards to the races, the easiest race to play does appear to be the Mongrels. Their Unique Unit, the Hunter, is powerful and relatively easy to understand. The Troglodytes are also easy to grasp, and people intuitively understand the idea of a combat-weak, research-focused unit. It was interesting to see how people dealt with the Purebreeds' Operative. Some people refused to deploy her at all, fearing her loss early in the game. Some, realizing she would be safe in the Court, simply deployed her there and never moved her. Very few used her like I do: aggressively, periodically placing her into perilous situations.

The Rhinochs, somewhat surprisingly, were the race that people most struggled to understand. The idea that the Crashers can only be deployed into enemy-controlled territory was often missed or misunderstood. If I wasn't paying attention, I'd often see a Crasher simply sitting on the map, defending someone's city (which is not possible - the Crasher acts as a kamikaze unit). I don't think the Rhinochs are underpowered, but after this Origins experience, I suspect that people will find it hardest to understand how best to use these units - and at what point in the game.

I am relieved to say that my previous worry that Espionage cards may be overpowered does not seem to be true. Indeed, players consistently were thrilled with the potent impact of these cards. A single card can significantly alter a turn, but just one card won't win you the game. I saw Poisoned Waters and Insurrection used to great effect. Treason might be under-powered compared to the rest of the deck, but I need to wait and see what player feedback is.

In terms of the Generals, people were drawn towards the Steamtank. The idea of a mobile uber-unit was appealing. The Steamtank is difficult to use effectively, but a couple people figured out that using Gambit can get it to your front lines quickly, and that's a necessity if you've waited until the middle or late-game to research it.  The least used General, I think, was the Guardian - which is perhaps not surprising, since he's defensive and not particularly sexy.

Many, many discoveries were used, and from my perspective, nothing seemed under or over-powered (except possibly Infallibility, a late age Religion discovery). I saw one player use Alchemy and Martyrdom to crank out VP's and win the game. I saw Cataclysm researched, placed on the map, and then used by different players as ownership switched hands over several turns. Generally speaking, people didn't save IP well (to purchase discoveries as soon as they became available), since they were often tempted by what they could afford at the moment. If there's one Discovery that dominated a game, it was probably Colossus. This card lets you destroy Early Age discoveries in play for their points, and the player who researched it got 11 VP's from this effect.

Component wise, I have no complaints. The tiles turned out great, and no one had issues reading the ID tags. The cards are beautiful and textured, and the player aids fantastic. The wooden pieces sit on the map well, but the battlefield is nicely spiced up by the presence of some plastic minis (UU's and Generals). Certainly, if I was buying this game, I'd make sure to spend a little more on getting the plastic UU's - they are so much cooler than the wooden pieces we included by default. The plastic insert that Rick designed is awesome. It is designed to hold all basegame and expansion components securely in one box. This is not an insert that people will be tossing.

Overall, I really thought this was an enormously successful convention for me and Clockwork Wars. The vast majority of the groups that I taught the game to thoroughly enjoyed it, and several went on to pre-order the game after their experience. The game plays well, it plays fast, and it challenges and delights. I'm certainly very proud of how it all came together. Now, I just have to wait a couple more weeks before KS copies ship and the game starts popping up in stores.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Origins Game Fair, 2015: Part 1

Last week I attended the Origins Game Fair in Columbus, OH, from Wednesday to Sunday. It was my first game convention experience, made all the more special because I spent the majority of my time in the Eagle-Gryphon demo booth teaching people how to play Clockwork Wars. It was fantastic, exhausting, and periodically overwhelming. In two posts, I'll record my thoughts on the experience. This first one will focus on everything NOT related to Clockwork Wars. My second one will predominantly discuss my experience demo-ing CW and new insights about balance and play.

First off, my hotel choice was a good one. My brother and I booked a room at the Renaissance Downtown. It was around a 15 minute walk to the convention center in a nice neighborhood. The room was great: spacious, clean, and relatively cheap. I'd certainly stay there again.

As for meals, I didn't treat myself particularly well the first couple days. After fairly light breakfasts, I ended up either skipping lunch or eating crappy convention food. By the third day, I figured out my schedule a bit better and reserved time to get out of the convention center and eat in North Market. In case you were wondering, it's every bit as good as everyone says it is. And it's only a 5 minute walk away.

I met a lot of really excellent people. This was my first time meeting all the Eagle-Gryphon folks face-to-face - people I've been collaborating with for (literally) years over email. I can't speak highly enough about Rick and Joanne Soued, who run Eagle-Gryphon. They are generous, kind, intelligent, interesting people. Rick is a huge reason why Clockwork Wars turned out as nice as it did. I also finally met Alex, his son, who was my primary developer on CW for nearly 2 years. He was warm and welcoming. It was also a pleasure to meet Rick Schrand, VP of sales and marketing at Eagle. He was affable, extroverted and witty.

In terms of other designers, I didn't get to meet and chat with as many as I had hoped. At an Eagle-Gryphon dinner, I met TC Petty III, designer of the VivaJava games and, more recently, Xenon Profiteer. It was interesting asking him about his goal of becoming a full-time game designer and his long-term strategy. I also met Matt Riddle, designer of Fleet, Eggs & Empires, and most recently, Floating Market. I played a copy of Floating Market in the Eagle demo booth and had a lot of fun. It's a clever, unique design, and I walked away respecting Matt as a designer even more than I had previously. But I wish I had had a chance to sit down and play games with some designers, and have leisurely chats about the design process, the industry, etc.

I spent a large amount of time working alongside a group of fantastic volunteers - the Eagle "wingmen" - who teach and demo games throughout the con. Every single one was welcoming and competent. It was a great team. Our demo area generally cranked: our most popular games were probably Age of Discovery, Francis Drake, Baseball Highlights: 2045, and Clockwork Wars. The production values of everything Eagle makes are truly astounding.

Finally, I was (embarrassingly) thrilled to meet several prominent personalities in the board gaming world. I briefly met Tom Vasel, as a prelude to a 10 min preview they did of Clockwork Wars. The interview itself was a bit stressful but I hope that once it's posted, it gets more people to check out the game. I got a chance to meet and briefly talk with Rodney Smith of Watch It Played fame. To my delight, he's interested in doing an instructional video for Clockwork Wars. It may or may not pan out, but my fingers are crossed. Finally, I met Marco Arnaudo, one of my favorite reviewers, and passed along a copy of CW for him to play and review. He has since posted a very positive review of the game, which is immensely gratifying.

I didn't expect to work and demo as much as I did. My plan going in was to demo Clockwork Wars for 1-2 "shifts" per day (each shift was around 3 hours), and then spend the rest of my time walking around with my brother trying out games. However, it became clear to me pretty quickly that no one else in the demo booth was really qualified to teach my game. I taught it to a couple other wingmen right away, and even got to play a few turns with them, but no one had read the rulebook beforehand, and it's a pretty dense game to pick up after a single partial play. I also realized (and Rick reiterated this) that people were going to have a much more fun, positive experience learning the game from me than anyone else. They would learn all the rules correctly, have the right person around to answer questions that came up, and get the "pleasure" of rubbing elbows with the designer. I also discovered that it was a huge rush to watch people play and enjoy the game. Why would I deny myself of that opportunity?

So I ended up spending the majority of each day (from around 9am to 10pm) in the Eagle demo booth, prepping and demo-ing Clockwork Wars. I'll talk more about that in my next entry. But I wasn't there the whole time - every day I took some time to walk around the convention center with my brother, checking out booths and games when I got a chance. Here are some of the experiences I recall:

I've been curious about the Conflict of Heroes system for a while now, and I thought my brother would be interested as well (since he's an old-school grognard). We wandered over to Academy Games and the gentleman there was kind enough to give the two of us a quick rules explanation and even let us play through a few turns of a single scenario. My honest opinion is that it's perhaps too "old school" for me. It feels like you're playing a streamlined ASL - but not a modern design. I-go, you-go, hex-based, lots of modifiers, range checking, dice-rolling, etc. Not my bag. But I will say that seeing both Fief and Freedom: the Underground Railroad up close was impressive. Academy publish such unique and beautiful games.

Inspired by its hugely successful Kickstarter, I signed up for a demo session of Posthuman. Our "instructor" was late, but once he showed up he gave us a very enthusiastic introduction to the game. A group of 5 of us played this post-apocalyptic, adventure-style game with prototype components. I wrote up my thoughts on BGG here. In short, I wasn't impressed. The downtime was horrendous, and it felt very odd to be exploring a world without a common map (everyone constructs their own). This one really made me wonder, for the 100th time, about Kickstarter and why certain games take off and others don't. Posthuman has an interesting (if slightly overplayed) theme, one cool mechanic (the idea of scars leading to mutation), and a very deep role-playing element, much like Arkham/Eldritch Horror. But otherwise, I don't precisely understand what drew people to the design.

On a more positive note, my brother and I got to try out the DC deck-building game: Forever Evil. Although this system gets some flak for being quite simple, my brother and I are big fans. I *like* that it's simple and somewhat mindless - and I love the presentation. Forever Evil impressed me. They've added some wrinkles to the design that make it slightly more complex and tie in with the "playing a villain" theme. Plus, taking down the Flash with Bane is incredibly satisfying. My brother bought a copy immediately after we played.

There was a huge demo of Flick 'em Up, an Old West themed dexterity game. After 5 minutes of rules explanation, I got to play with 3 other bystanders and we immediately started laughing. This one is a lot of fun, and I love how casual it is. The only impediment I see here is having a big enough table! Also, constantly looking for bullets that fly off the edge. I don't know if I'll buy it, but I'm tempted - it would be the first dexterity game in my collection.

What did I buy at the convention? Not much, but that's my style. I'm pretty reserved when it comes to game purchases. I bought Rhino Hero for my daughter and VivaJava: the Coffee Game: the Dice Game for myself. I'm excited to try the latter out with my game group, as several of us are coffee snobs, and I think this looks like a great dice-game. On that note, the Dice Hate Me booth was super-busy, and I think they sold out of VivaJava as well as Brew Crafters, another design that intrigues me.

SO, not as much game-playing as I expected! But part of that was becoming familiar with the system. If I go back again (which I'd love to), I suspect I'll be much more efficient about my gaming. Generally speaking, while there were some odd organizational elements to Origins, I found it to be a very pleasant convention. It seemed busy but not too busy. You could get demos relatively easily, but it helped to know the schedule and where to go. Unfortunately, it was often confusing trying to figure out where specifically a game was being demoed. This is a con that would greatly benefit from an App to help search and create an itinerary. I don't understand why every convention doesn't do this.

Next entry: my experience demo-ing Clockwork Wars.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Tyrant: Exploring a New Design

For the past several months, I've been working on a new board game design that I'm calling Tyrant. I've moved from initial concept to slow evolution of rules and systems to initial prototype. After playing the prototype solo, I'm frustrated and mentally tired so I think it's a good time for me to step back from the design and start writing about it. This will likely be the first in a series of design entries that will hopefully help me break through to the next stage with this game.

Tyrant in a nutshell:  2-4 player game, with asymmetrical sides.  One player plays the "Tyrant" who runs a city with an oppressive regime. The other players are "Rebels" who have risen up in revolution against the regime and are attempting to overthrow the Tyrant, while also vying for power with each other. It's a moderate complexity strategy game - on par with Clockwork Wars, I think - that will take around 2 hours for 4 players.

Tyrant plays out on a circular city map, with the Tyrant's tower located in the center. There are 3 districts that surround the tower, and within each district are ~18 neighborhoods. The neighborhoods come in 4 flavors: residential, merchant, industrial, and civic. I figure I'll use a color-coding scheme down-the-line to make this clear.

The goal for the Tyrant is to survive 3 days. If the tower hasn't been toppled through assault by the end of the 3rd day, the Tyrant wins. There's an alternate win condition for the Tyrant that I'll discuss some other time. The Rebels have to assault the tower and knock it open within 3 days - and if this occurs, the Rebel with the greatest number of Prestige points wins the game. 

The theme of the game is very much a city in the midst of a revolution. There are roving gangs on the map (controlled by the Rebel players), police (controlled by the Tyrant), mercenary units (controlled by the Tyrant), riots, and neighborhoods on fire. The Tyrant has some black magic up her sleeve as well, and can periodically place terrible curses and hexes upon the rebel factions. In terms of setting and place, I'm undecided. I'm imagining a dark fantasy world somewhat like the one featured in The Black Company by Glen Cook. If you've read those novels, you'll have a sense of where I'm coming from - and why I think of the Tyrant as a "her." But I'm not committed to anything specific and am trying to keep the setting flexible, while focusing on the mechanics.

Tyrant is going to be a very different type of war game but there are some features that might remind people of other games. I've taken some inspiration from the classic Avalon Hill game, Titan, in how stacks grow and split. There are no "armies" on the map, but rather "gangs." I'm hoping to use stacks of poker chips to represent the gangs. As they recruit more members, they grow in size. There's a maximum gang size (7, currently), after which the gang needs to split into 2 stacks of chips. I think this mechanic gives the gangs a sense of growing organically across the course of the game, periodically splitting and recombining.

I've developed a relatively coherent set of rules - enough to play the game - but it doesn't run well right now. Here's a list of items I really need to focus on:

  1. The resolution mechanic. Gangs have 3 basic actions: inciting (to recruit more members), looting, and attacking. How is success determined? I started with a simple dice-rolling system, but I'm not happy with it. Considering moving to a card-based system with *slight* deck-building aspects (but don't worry).
  2. Progression and tension. Right now I don't think there's enough of a sense of progression on the part of the Rebels to make the middle and late game feel different from the early game. 
  3. Narrative. This game needs a strong narrative backbone - it can't be too abstract. As such, I think I'm going to use cards quite a bit to describe specific revolutionaries, specific neighborhoods, specific mercenaries, random events, etc. This is necessarily going to introduce more randomness into the game, but enhance replayability and narrative. I think that's the direction this game is taking me, and I'm fine with that.
  4. Player interaction. There's a lot of interaction between each individual Rebel and the Tyrant, but not enough between the Rebel factions. I'm still trying to figure out how much I should incentivize (or not) rebels attacking each other.
In subsequent entries, I'll try to tackle specific design issues that I'm struggling with and use this blog as a springboard for ideas.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Last minute anxieties

Clockwork Wars is currently printing in a factory in China and everything is 100% on schedule.  I should be thrilled, but I'm anxious (of course).  I'm concerned about how the game will be received. I've lined up 6 well-known reviewers who should be releasing reviews right around the time the game hits shelves, and I'm convinced they're all going to pan it.  Since this blog serves both as a design-brainstorming space as well as an emotional release, I figured I would openly discuss what I'm most concerned about and maybe that will help me process it - and make me a better designer.

First, I'm concerned about the rulebook.  There's just no way to make a perfect rulebook, I'm convinced. Everybody reads rulebooks differently, and what seems like a perfectly sound organizational structure to one person, seems obtuse and counter-intuitive to another.  In addition, over the past couple months (since sending the printer the final files), I've identified a few areas in the rulebook where I could have clarified things.  For example, the Spymaster action Counter-Intel allows a player to gain 1 Influence Point in whatever discipline they want.  In addition, they can force all other players at the table to lose 1 IP in any discipline.  This is what the rules say.  But I should have clarified that the targeted discipline can be different for each player.  And what happens if that player doesn't have any IP in that discipline?  In retrospect, Counter-Intel should read...
Gain 1 IP in any research discipline.  In addition, you may force any (and all) of your opponents to lose 1 IP in that same discipline (if they have any IP available).
Even that's not perfect, but it's a simpler rule and better than what's in the rulebook right now.  Uggg.

Second, I'm concerned about the Espionage cards.  During development, one issue that came up was that players felt the Espionage system wasn't particularly exciting and they didn't see the point in investing Spies to the Court.  A common request was that Espionage cards should have more impact on the game.  I was initially wary of this suggestion, since my intention was to make an Espionage card worth just a bit more than a single Worker.  So, for instance, you could pay 1 Spy to gain +2 to Army Strength.  But I was convinced by my developer to buff the Espionage cards, and after a major round of revisions, the cards became worth significantly more than a single Worker.  Ambush gave you a +3 bonus in combat.  Propaganda gave you +2 VPs per won battle instead of just 1.  Etc.

Another card that received a significant buff during development.

The result of this round of changes was very positive, I think. Players are much more excited by Espionage cards and can't wait to use them. The Spymaster action R&D is a sought-after action. You can even win a game through careful and deliberate use of Espionage cards, which is now a legitimate alternative strategy (to extensive board control). However, my current concern is that players will view Espionage cards as too powerful - perhaps over-shadowing astute deployment and research decisions.

Generally speaking, I'd prefer that players view Espionage cards as over-powered vs. under-powered. Under, and they'll be ignored.  Over, and players will be forced to develop strategies to deal with them. And good play in Clockwork Wars still trumps all.  In my last game (played just last week, 4 players, with me as Trogs), I won the game without using a single Espionage card.  So there's that.

Perfect balance is a unicorn that you'll never capture. Both are also make-believe. But that doesn't stop me from worrying.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

My top 5 PC games of the year

Top X lists are fun and useful, if only because that force you to reflect a bit on why something connected with you in a meaningful way.  I play a fair amount of computer games, as my wife would attest, and I dabble in most genres.  I don't buy everything shiny that comes out, and I often play games that are 1-2 years old after they've languished in my Steam library gathering mold.  So this list doesn't only include games from 2015 - it's just the top 5 digital games I enjoyed the most this year. Rather than waxing poetic about the loveliness of each, I'll try to hone in on one specific design feature that impressed me about said game.  That way I won't feel too guilty about including this post on my design blog.

5.  Wasteland 2

I actually talked about the new Wasteland in my last blog entry from a couple months ago.  I probably ended up putting in around 20-25 hours in, not quite getting out of Arizona but certainly exploring most of the game's mechanics.  What impressed me design-wise?  Honestly, not too much. This was an old-school RPG through-and-through, with a creaky interface, poor inventory management, and an (over)abundance of skills.  BUT I thought the designers did a nice job balancing the amount of reading vs. action you engaged in.  RPG worlds are often built on dialogue and text, but if you overwhelm your player with too much of this, they can quickly lose interest and start ignoring all the lovely books and conversations your design team spent hundreds of hours writing into the game.  Wastelands 2 gives you enough dialogue and text to feel like you're engaging and exploring this novel post-apocalyptic world, before you move on to your next (stressful) combat encounter.

4.  Titanfall

Almost every year, I dip into a multiplayer FPS to see what the kids are up to.  Last year it was Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (solid), and this year it was Titanfall.  I played this around 30 hours and that was enough to develop some skill, explore all the maps, and level up to 50.  Probably the most obvious design aspect of Titanfall to laud is its accessibility - but the difficulty of this achievement should not be under-appreciated.  Multiplayer FPS's are notoriously cruel to novices and can be brutally demoralizing.  By giving everyone access to the Titans, however, you guarantee that every player is going to feel deadly and powerful at least once a game.  Furthermore, the parkour-like movement was smooth and effortless, again allowing novices to feel like experts after relatively small time commitments.  For these reasons, I'm sure more "hard-core" FPS players scoffed at Titanfall, but as a casual consumer I appreciated the approach.  

3.  Endless Legend

This was my favorite strategy game of the year.  I've logged nearly 80 hours, which isn't even close to what I've put into any Civ title, but that shouldn't subtract from its accolades.  It's an excellent fantasy 4X - derivative in many ways, but innovative too.  Possibly my favorite design feature was the idea of one city per region.  This limited city building (and thus economic expansion) significantly, placing greater emphasis on a more efficient core of cities.  It also helps the AI, who tends to get lost in any game where infinite city-sprawl is a possibility.  I also really enjoyed the addition of a specific "quest-line" for each race in the game; a quest-line that also served as a unique victory condition. This design feature showed that it is possible to add significant flavor and narrative to 4X games beyond the player-built narrative that emerges from their own choices.  A lovely, engaging game.

2.  Bioshock Infinite (including Burial at Sea 1 and 2)

I was a little late to the party on this one, but to my credit, I did play all the DLC (including an unhealthy amount of Clash in the Clouds).  Burial at Sea episode 2 was possibly the tightest, most emotional narrative experience I've ever had in a PC game.  But let's ignore the story of Bioshock Infinite for a moment and just consider game-design.  What's impressive?  World-building, certainly.  But perhaps most notably, Infinite gives you a soul to inhabit.  I became Booker when playing the game - and, in a wonderful turn of events, I became Elizabeth in Burial at Sea, Episode 2. How did Levine et al accomplish this?  I'm not entirely sure.  It has something to do with making them honest, flawed characters with complex histories.  How often does that happen in a FPS?

1.  Diablo 3 (including Reaper of Souls)

Yes, sadly perhaps, my most played game of the year.  I won't even tell you how many hours.  Diablo 3 is great entertainment when you have a 4 year old who constantly calls your attention away; you can dip in for 15-30 minutes and then walk away until tomorrow.  The folks at Blizzard are masters of game design.  Now, I'm going to cheat here and talk about a design feature that is not unique to Diablo 3 - it's something that several action RPG's make use of - but it's still interesting to dissect.  The interaction between skills and loot.  ARPG's have to make you want to 1) level up, to open up more skills, and 2) explore and kill, to garner more loot.  But how these two features interact can spell success or doom for a game or franchise.  In Diablo 3, you're never actually swinging that giant 2-handed axe you just found to cause damage.  Rather, you're using a skill (called, Slash, for example) that hits X number of enemies within Y range for Z damage. That damage is based upon 1) the intrinsic power level of the skill (it is a low-cost skill that you use over and over again, or is it something big and powerful with a long cool-down), 2) the damage your weapon deals, and 3) the various attribute bonuses your other skills and loot confer.  So you still want to unlock more skills, since they'll give you different tactical options to play with - but the more powerful your weapon is, the more damage you'll deal when activating any particular skill.  It's somewhat complex -- perhaps too complex to instantly grok.  But, certainly, when you try out a new legendary and suddenly monsters start dropping after 2-3 hits vs. the 10+ they were taking before, you understand that something important and awesome has happened.  

There's more to Diablo 3 that's great (and none of them include the word, "story"), but ultimately I appreciate it's basic veneer of simplicity that belies the complexity beneath.  This is something that no boardgame could do well.  Indeed, I don't fully understand why so many people are obsessed about designing (and playing, for that matter!) tactical dungeon-crawls with tons of dice, cards (equipment), and minis. All the stat modifiers!  Uggg.  That is what computers are for.  We should design boardgames wherein the players will experience something that can't be better experienced digitally - we should take advantage of our medium.

Regardless, that's my list and I'm sticking with it.  Happy 2015, everyone!

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Wasteland 2 design thoughts

I'm taking a brief psychological break from obsessing about Clockwork Wars.  To help distract myself, I've dipped full into Wasteland 2, which I Kickstarted a couple years ago and which was recently finalized and released.  I have powerful and bittersweet feelings for the original Wasteland. I played parts of it in 1988, when I was 15 years old, on my Commodore 64.  After years of Ultima, Bard's Tale, Wizardry, etc., it was a breath of fresh air.  A different kind of world, where other humans were your primary enemy, rather than dragons and trolls.

Wasteland also broke my computer.  This was the time of 5.25" floppies, and disk drives with loud mechanical parts, and my computer was towards the end of a long and storied (primarily gaming) life-cycle.  Wasteland's robots and mutated bunnies made my disc drive explode like a blood sausage, and I doubt I got to see more than 10 hours of the game.  It was a highly traumatic experience.

So it's with some excitement (and trepidation) that I've entered into the world of Wasteland 2.  But it's been very satisfying, and certainly a reminder of how "old-school" RPG's used open world + lots of text + skill checks to craft evocative narratives. 

One design aspect that interests me about RPG's is whether the game system gives you control over one player-character (PC) or a party.  The advantage of one is that you, the player, can better experience the world through the eyes of your individual PC - and therefore, you have a more personal experience with the crises and challenges that emerge.  Planescape Torment is a good old-school example of this, and all the Elder Scrolls games are excellent modern ones.  But a party system allows for greater tactical possibilities in combat, which has always been a central feature of Dungeons & Dragons and its many progenitors.  Furthermore, a party allows for multiple archetype representation:  you can have a brawler, a thief, a healer, etc., etc. and get to role-play each of them.

Wasteland and Wasteland 2 are firmly in the second category of forcing you to control a party of characters, where each should be developed in a particular specialty so that you can deal with as many different challenges as possible.  The number of character skills and attributes is, at first, overwhelming - especially if you haven't played a game like this in a while:

Animal Whispering?  Toaster Repair?  You're tempted to take them, aren't you?  As was I.  In the end, certain skills are more useful than others (Field Medic, Demolitions, Safecracking), but with 3-6 skills being developed for each of 4-7 characters, you're going to be able to play around with most of them a bit.  

One subtle decision that Wasteland 2 has made when it comes to using skills is that it forces you to select a character and their skill when you want to use it in the world.  For example, you're exploring a research facility and run across a locked safe in a side-room.  You're not an idiot, so you suspect a possible alarm or trap.  You have to select a character (left click) with a high Perception skill to inspect (right click) the safe.  That inspection reveals a trap.  Now, you need to select another character (left click) with a high Demolitions skill to disarm (right click) the trap.  Once the trap is disarmed, you need to select another character (left click) with a high Safecracking ability to open (right click) the safe.  Maybe the same PC is strong on all 3 of these skills, which makes sense thematically and reduces the "strain" of having to switch characters so much.  But maybe the skills you need to meet a particular challenge are distributed among 2-3 party members.  Lots of clicking ensues.

The designers could have made it so that, if you have your entire party selected, you can right-click to meet any challenge using the appropriate skill from the character with the highest value.  In other words, a lot of this could have been automated to reduce click-strain.  And some reviewers have been complaining about this, and for all I know, the developers are going to patch this in.  But there's another side to this.  When you select a character to test a skill, you've temporarily put yourself in their shoes.  This enhances the role-playing aspect of a game that utilizes a party system.  I think I appreciate that.  It's interesting that a character select via left-click can cause me to make a slight, but meaningful, psychological shift like that - embodiment, or something like it.

Another issue that always comes up for me when I play party-based RPG's is optimal party size - with regards to this issue of personalization and connection.  Too many characters in the party, and I start to lose interest in the entire group as a whole - because it gets harder for my cognitive architecture to perceive the individual and unique value of each character.  I suspect that optimal party-size in part depends upon some inherent aspect of human cognition and memory load, since it just gets too hard to juggle so much information from more than 7-8 characters (for example).  Another factor is probably the breadth of specialization offered by the system.  Let's say that there are 20 unique skills in a game, and that each character can become an expert in 2.  You could theoretically have a party size of 10 to accommodate the entire range of possibilities.  Interesting that you rarely see that solution vs. 4-5 characters who each can specialize in 4-5 skills.

Wasteland 2 parties can increase to 7, and personally, I think that's too much.  I max out at 5, and I kind of wish the system limited me to that.  I'm pleased with the Hobo I just recruited, but do I really need another shotgun expert?  (what a great sentence to be able to write)