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)

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Post-KS: the work continues

I'm not quite ready to write a complete "postmortem" on the Clockwork Wars KS campaign, so don't expect that here.  It was a thrilling, anxiety-provoking, and perplexing experience that I have yet to fully wrap my head around.  Given that it was my first campaign as well means that I don't have a clear understanding of what was "normal" or "odd".  I will say that watching the initial pledge total roll up like it did in the first 24 hours was an amazing feeling.  We weren't able to keep all our initial backers, but we kept a fair number of them.

There hasn't been much time for a celebratory break - a lot of art and component work still needs to be done, and I'm setting a hard deadline for myself (and all the artists) for November 1st.  If we can get all our files to our Eagle contact in China by then, we have an excellent chance of meeting our shipping deadline, or even getting the game out a little early.  

The artwork is coming steadily.  Some artists can finish a piece in 3-4 days - most take a lot longer. But with 9 artists working simultaneously, our pace is solid.

We've also pretty much finalized the look of our first player token and score tokens.  The first player token is going to be wood, shaped like a gear, around 4 cm diameter.  I think it will look great and have some nice heft to it.  The score tokens, as we revealed during the campaign, are also going to be wooden, matched to the player colors of course, and shaped like miniature steampunk airships.  I've been working with one of our artists, Alejandro Lee, who did the magnificent "Dirigible" artwork for us.  



I asked him to draw us some simple schematics for a score token, based off of this beautiful and unique airship.  Here's what we came up with, after a couple iterations:



These aren't the exact player colors we're going to use, but close.  They'll likely be ~20 mm long.  I think they look very cool, and not like your everyday blimp.  These are war machines - troop transports - not the Hindenburg.  

Finally, we've also been brainstorming how we can re-design our Discovery Cards to really show off and maximize the fantastic artwork .  I think our new design will be an improvement over what we revealed in the campaign.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Developing Art for Clockwork Wars

Among the seemingly endless list of things of do for Clockwork Wars lies one particularly enjoyable task:  working with a large group of very talented artists, as they complete the remaining illustrations for the game.  From my first conversations with the folks at Eagle Games, we knew that CW was going to need a large number of unique art pieces to enhance its flavor and theme.  Each Discovery and Espionage card called out for a different scene.  Given that there are 60 different cards just in the base game, art was always going to be a major issue in our development - and by issue, I mean time, money, and quality.  It takes time to find appropriate artists, and for them to complete the commissions.  Every piece costs money, and you don't want to take advantage of these extraordinarily talented freelancers.  And you can't sacrifice quality for time or cost, or it will adversely affect how people perceive your game.  The importance of artwork (and using it to draw in your potential audience) is especially clear when considering the role that KS campaigns play in modern board game development and publication.

I'm currently working with 8-10 different artists, located around the world.  Each one is going to end up doing between 5-10 pieces for the game.  The advantage of this diversity in artists is two-fold.  First, it rapidly speeds up development time.  Every artist is working on a piece concurrently, and there's a solid possibility we'll average 4-6 finished pieces per week for the next couple months because of that.  Second, working with different artists brings different visions and styles to a game.  I've always loved Magic the Gathering.  But if I was going to be honest, I'd say that at least 50% of my love for that game has to do with the artwork.  From the time when I first started collecting in the early '90's, I loved the imagery - and the different styles that various artists brought.  Personally, I always loved the immediately-recognizable style of both Rebecca Guay and Chippy:




Now, there are disadvantages of working with multiple artists too.  First, the logistics are more challenging, since you're in communication with many different people, all working on different projects at different stages.  I'm a very organized person, fortunately, so logistics don't bother me.  Second, the diversity in artistic approaches can be a detriment to stylistic consistency within a game.  Not all our Rhinochs are going to look the same.  Some of our artists have a more "photo-realistic" style, while others are a bit more impressionistic.  Take, for example, this image of a steampunk Gargoyle, drawn by Shane Braithewaite:



Compare to this illustration of the University, by Marco Morte:



And this image of the Harvester, by Ben Jackson:


These artists have such different visions and styles, and I absolutely love all three of them.  To me, the variety in art in a clear boon to Clockwork Wars.

The process of working with these folks is just flat out fun.  The first step is to generate some ideas for what a particular card's "scene" might be.  I really have to immerse myself in the world of Clockwork Wars to do that, and exercise my imagination.  For example, here's a description I recently sent to one of our artists:
Card name:  Sabotage
Theme:  Espionage
There's a large water mill or dam in the image.  Some Troglodyte spies/saboteurs are planting explosives that will blow up the mill/dam.  OR the dam is already exploding, and the Trog spies are observing from a distance.  I imagine a somewhat distant point of view for this image, so the Trogs don't need to shown in clear detail.

I'm trying to provide enough guidance and inspiration without over-detailing and impinging upon their creative process.  The fact is, I've been surprised and delighted by nearly every single piece our artists have come up with.  Their visions are much more imaginative and interesting than anything I could possibly generate.  This is why I'm a scientist and not an artist.  The artist will then get back to me with some initial sketches, which we'll chat about and possibly revise/dump before they proceed into coloring and detail-work.  

I hope you enjoyed this brief look into the art design process for Clockwork Wars.  Everything has been a learning experience for me, but that's honestly been one of the best aspects of all this.  Gaining some insight into an industry that I've always been curious about.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Developing a 2 vs. 2 Variant

Even though we're in the mid-campaign lull for Clockwork Wars, I've been putting in hours of work every night on further development of the game.  I've got plans to video-record a complete 3-player game within the next week, but scheduling folks at my age (meaning, people with babies and toddlers) is always tricky.  We've also been running some polls on the KS page for one of the territory icons:  the icon that will represent both Manufactories and Science Influence in the game.  That's been a fun process, involving backers in some key design decisions.

Smokestack vs. Flask
I've been brainstorming a number of ideas for the two Kickstarter exclusive territories that would become available if we hit 70K.  I've generated ideas for Volcanoes, Prison Camps, Power Plants, Jungle, Academies, Desert, and even Dungeons.  Some ideas have been better than others!  But I've honed the list down to a solid four, each with unique rules that will throw a twist into any session.  Pretty soon, I'm going to poll the KS backers to see which two they'd like to see actually developed.

Finally, I've been working on a 2 vs. 2 team variant for Clockwork Wars.  This came about from a suggestion from several backers.  During initial development of CW, I never even considered the idea - even though "informal" alliances are very possible and even quite common, depending on the play-style of the group.  But developing formal rules for what I'm calling the Alliances variant has been a pleasurable (if slightly daunting) challenge.  In the Alliances variant, each alliance will consist of 2 players who sum their VP total at the end of the game to determine the winner.  That much was easy to come up with.  But I had to comb through the rules, and each specific phase of the turn, to see what rules needed to be tweaked to accommodate and facilitate team play.

For example, I had to decide early on whether I was going to allow allies to have units in the same territory.  I went with "yes," mostly for thematic reasons.  But this brought up questions about control.  If both allies had 2 Soldiers in a Village, for example, which player would gain the recruitment advantage?  Both?  Just one?  I decided that control of a territory could never be shared.  The ally with the greatest Army Strength in a territory would be in control and gain the benefits of ownership (worker recruitment, IPs, VPs, etc.).  But what if the allies had an equal Army Strength, as in the above example?  This forced the creation of a new game concept:  the commander.  During each turn, one player in each alliance serves as the commander.  That player is the one who comes earlier in turn order.  The commander controls a territory where there is a tie in Army Strength between allies.

Another issue I wrestled with had to do with the hidden deployment system and "table talk".  It's very important to me that the uncertainty and tension of the Deployment Phase be maintained, even in a team game.  As such, it didn't make sense to allow allies to share complete knowledge of their deployment orders.  This also didn't sit right with me from a "realism" or simulation perspective.  Especially in a time and place of limited technology, allied generals would not have perfect knowledge of each other's troop movements.  So, allies cannot openly discuss their deployment plans and must make their decisions in secret, as per the normal rules.

However, the commander of each team can make a call-to-arms request of her ally.  To do so, you simply write down the ID tag of the territory you want your ally to deploy units to, and pass that (secret) information to them during the Deployment Phase.  All you can specify is the location - not the number of units you are requesting, nor how many you plan to commit.  This allows for some coordination of offensive thrusts or defensive actions, but it's imperfect and should lend itself to some fun and surprising moments.  The ally is also not bound to fulfill the call-to-arms, if he does not wish to.

These are some of the major issues that have come up so far, but like I said, it's been a joy - as game design always is.  I plan to release a version (work in progress!) of the complete Alliance variant rules sometime next week.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Balance and Symmetry

I've been thinking a lot about game balance lately.  And here are my sacrilegious thoughts.  I don't think balance is necessarily the paramount objective towards which we should always strive.  Imbalance creates more interesting strategic and narrative possibilities. Balance in asymmetrical systems is impossible.

For example, I'm hoping that the 5 races in Clockwork Wars are "balanced."  The only difference between the races is their unique unit, which possesses a special ability.  The Troglodyte unique unit, the Engineer, gives you a +1 bonus to IP generation on any territory it's stationed on.  The Rhinoch unique unit, the Crasher, automatically kills 3 enemy soldiers during the reinforcement stage in combat.  These are very different abilities.  But are they balanced?  I understand the basic issue:  players want the special abilities to be relatively equal in power, such that no race possesses a significant advantage in the quest for victory.  And balance is primarily assessed through repeated play-testing and collection of empirical data.  But, I'd argue, in the board game world, such balancing is very difficult because it's nearly impossible to have a high enough "n" (in the statistical sense) to make meaningful conclusions.  The developers of Starcraft II or League of Legends can rely on millions of data points (win/loss stats) to determine whether Banshees are properly balanced or Jax is overpowered. They also have the advantage of being able to tweak balance easily post-release, whereas in the table top world, that's more difficult and perceived more negatively.

Furthermore, balance is overrated.  I've mentioned before how I much I love Space Hulk, Claustrophobia, and Memoir '44.  All three of these games, I would argue, feature scenarios that are heavily imbalanced.  If you win as the humans in Claustrophobia, you've got something to be proud of!  I also love how both Space Hulk and Claustrophobia feature highly asymmetrical sides.  The difference in play mechanics between the Genestealers and Space Marines makes balance somewhat irrelevant - but not, I would argue, to the detriment of fun.

Claustrophobia:  demonic advantage

Another area where balance is of central concern in Clockwork Wars is map layout.  Prior to each game, players generate a unique map using anywhere between 20-40 hexagonal tiles (or more, if they want!) that come in 11 different varieties.  So, a 3-player map might feature:  3 Capitals, 5 Villages, 4 Citadels, 5 Shrines, 4 Manufactories, 3 Towers, 4 Forests, 3 Lakes, 2 Barrens, and 1 Nexus.  If the players want to, they can set up these tiles in whatever configuration they wish - perhaps ensuring that each Capital is relatively close to at least one Village, one Tower, one Manufactory, etc.  For the purposes of balance.  But you know what?  My favorite maps in Clockwork Wars tend to be those that are 90% random, 10% balanced.  In other words, I like to come up with a general layout or pattern first and then just randomly choose the tiles to fill it out.  This way, you might end up with 3 Forests in a cluster (interesting!) or the Mongrel capital adjacent to 2 Towers (sorcerous dogs!) or, heaven forbid, the Rhinoch capital surrounded by worthless Barrens.  Let me play the Rhinochs, then, and spit in the face of balance!  I'll always choose the underdog, for thence comes the greater glory.

Asymmetrical maps are more interesting because they allow for better narratives to unfold.  Was the terrain of Gettysburg symmetrical?  Or the forest of Ardennes?  You take what is given to you, turn it to your advantage, and worry not for unfairness in the world.

click to enlarge
Now, I understand that not everyone's going to agree with me on this one.  Don't worry!  I've designed some (nearly) symmetrical maps for Clockwork Wars that are well-balanced and properly fascinating to play.  For example, the Lake of Fire map shown to the right is a well-balanced map for 2 players.  However, if you look closely, you'll see I didn't make it perfectly symmetrical.  It just wouldn't be right if it was.

This map is fun because the Lake in the center of the map is worth 4 VPs instead of the normal 3 for Lakes, and that extra VP tends to draw players' attention (perhaps more than it's actually worth!).  I imagine that it's got a huge oil reserve underneath, and that the oil on the surface periodically sets afire.  I like maps with slight rules tweaks like this, and I hope that players of Clockwork Wars delight in creating unique maps and scenarios with the many tools we're going to give them.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Kickstarter Success!

I finally have a moment to breathe, about 3 days into our campaign.  I'm shocked and thrilled to say that we were able to meet our $25,000 goal within 12 hours, and our current pledge total is teetering just beneath $50,000.  I was telling Aili, my wife, the night before we started about those amazing KS campaigns where people press the button, fret, go to sleep, and then wake up to find that they've already met their target.  But I never imagined I'd be fortunate enough to be in that camp.

How did it happen?  Well, it's far too early to make any firm conclusions, and I'm not an expert in KS advertising and mechanics - but I have some ideas.  Obviously, having Eagle Games in my corner with their broad advertising outreach and stellar reputation (especially when it comes to strategy games and KS campaigns) helped enormously.  That's #1.  The professional artwork and videography we had done, I'm sure, also did wonders for us.  It's basically a necessity.  A large percentage of our supporters, it appears, wandered over to our KS page from the "Popular" projects area.  People clearly like to browse KS projects and are willing to check out what's currently trending well and looks interesting and shiny.  But how did we get on the Popular page?

First, I think our Eagle Games strategy bundle early-bird special was extremely attractive - and those 25 pledges got gobbled up very fast.  That's nearly $7000 right there.  Second, our international outreach and ability to have EU friendly shipping, especially to France and Germany, have brought in a LOT of international backers.  The design of the game, as I had hoped, also seems to cross boundaries and appeal to Americans and non-Americans alike (to be honest, I'm not even sure I believe in the Ameritrash vs. Eurogame distinction anymore, insofar as they suggest geographic differences in what appeals to gamers).  Clockwork Wars has theme, beautiful art, and lovely components.  But it's a hard-core strategy game at heart, with rules of steel and play that rewards intelligence and wit.  

What next?  Well, obviously I hope we can keep the momentum up and achieve as many stretch goals as possible.  I'm especially passionate about our $60,000 goal - where we would get to include plastic miniatures of all the unique units in the game.  This would greatly increase the value of everyone's game and play experience, and I desperately hope we get there.  If you're reading this and have backed the project, spread the word!  60K is where we want to go!

This has been an immensely gratifying and humbling experience.  I'm a pessimist at heart, so to see so many people legitimately interested in the design and asking great questions and showing enthusiasm for the campaign is mind-blowing.  The internet is an amazing place, and periodically, magical things happen here.

In celebration, here's a close-up of possibly my favorite piece of art in the game:  the Colossus.  What a great piece and what a great time to be into board games!