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)

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.