Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Clockwork Wars Design Diary #2: Espionage

[Diary #1: Overview can be found here]

In this diary entry, I’d like to share with you some of the details of the Espionage system that’s been designed into Clockwork Wars.  Thematically, I wanted espionage to be a part of the narrative experience. Clockwork Wars is very much a game about racing towards amazing new technological discoveries that can change the course of civilization – as such, one might expect  there to be spies lurking in the shadows, positioning for advantage in this war of ideas. However, like most of the systems in Clockwork Wars, Espionage has been stripped to (hopefully!) elegant simplicity.  I’ve tried to model Espionage in three ways.

First, at the beginning of every turn, there’s a Spymaster Phase.  During this phase, each player chooses an action from six possible options.  These options represent your Spymaster’s activity for that turn.  The actions are:
  • Conscription:  Immediately add 1 Worker to your Recruitment Pool.
  • R & D:  Draw 2 Espionage cards from the Espionage deck, keep 1 and place the other on the bottom of the deck.
  • Gambit:  You may immediately move any two of your units on the map to different territories that you control.
  • Counter-Intel:  You gain 1 IP in any research discipline.  You may also force all/any other players to lose 1 IP in any research discipline.
  • Technophilia:  You may go first in each stage of the Research Phase. In addition, gain 1 VP.
  • Tactical Ops:  During the Battle stage, if you are involved in a battle that is a tie, you receive a +1 bonus in Army Strength so that you win the battle.
Once an action has been taken, subsequent players cannot take it.  As such, this mechanic is reminiscent of worker placement.  There’s strategy in the Spymaster Phase, and some subtlety.  If you’re planning an aggressive turn, you might do well to take Tactical Ops.  If you’re racing for a particular Discovery and worried about another player nabbing it, you might take Counter-Intel or even Technophilia.  The Spymaster Phase plays quickly and transitions immediately into the Recruitment Phase.

A second manifestation of Espionage in Clockwork Wars is Court Intrigue.  Prior to each game, a single court tile is placed to the side of the map.  This court represents the palace of a minor lord in the realm – a family whose influence and power might be useful in your effort to win the war.  On any turn, during your Deployment Phase, you can place any number of your Workers on this court tile.  These Workers become Spies once they are placed on the tile.  Other players might also place Spies on the court, but battles never result from this competition.  Instead, during each Scoring Phase (which occurs on Turns 2, 4, and 7), the player who has the most Spies in the court receives an award.  The award depends upon the specific court in play and the specific turn.  For example, the Lovelace court is probably the most powerful in the game.  Whichever player controls the Lovelace court at the end of Turn 2 receives 3 free IP that can be distributed in any of their 3 research disciplines (sorcery, science, or religion).  At the end of Turn 4, the controlling player may claim any available Discovery at no cost - this even includes Late Age Discoveries!  And control of the Lovelace court grants a whopping 5 VP at the end of Turn 7 (a significant bonus, when typical end-game scores are around 30).  Players can choose to ignore courts entirely in a game of Clockwork Wars – but then again, if all the other players are ignoring the court, it’s to your great benefit to send a couple spies over there.

Sample Espionage card (prototype).
The third and most important way in which Espionage is modeled in Clockwork Wars is through Espionage cards.  There is a small deck of Espionage cards, and at the beginning of the game, each player receives one.  During the Spymaster Phase, a player can take the R&D action to draw an additional Espionage card into their hand.  These Espionage cards provide unique benefits for players and can be played at unexpected times to catch your opponents off-guard.  For example, the Ambush card is played during the Reinforcement stage and grants one of your armies a +3 bonus to Army Strength.  Propaganda is another Espionage card that’s played at the end of the Combat Phase and gives you +2 VP for every battle you won this turn.  We have over 20 different Espionage cards currently designed, and each one provides a unique twist to the game.  Personally, I think proper use of Espionage cards is absolutely critical to winning a game of Clockwork Wars.  They’re a lot of fun to use, and can rapidly turn a game around for a player who’s finding herself behind on VP in the mid-game.

I hope you enjoyed this (relatively) brief summary of the Espionage system in Clockwork Wars.  These mechanisms were designed to provide players with additional strategic and tactical options, and also add a layer of surprise and intrigue to the deterministic combat.  Next time, the heroic Generals!

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Clockwork Wars Designer Diary #1: Overview

I’d like to use this entry to introduce you to my current board game design, Clockwork Wars.  The design and production of this game is being supported by Eagle games, and we’ll be launching a Kickstarter campaign for it later this year (hopefully! such things can be hard to predict, and we won’t launch until we’re ready).  Unfortunately, I can't show off some of the excellent graphic design and art-work that will be featured in the game quite yet - but stay tuned.

Clockwork Wars is a medium-weight wargame for 2-4 players set in a fantasy-steampunk world.  In Clockwork Wars, you take command of one of five races of creatures: the calculating Purebreeds (humans), the industrious Troglodytes (ape-men), the mighty Rhinochs (rhino-men), the proud Mongrels (dog-men), or the marvelous Inventions (sentient machines).  Each race possesses a powerful “unique unit” that reflects their racial personality and strategic slant.  For example, the Troglodytes’ unique unit is the Engineer, which allows for faster research, whereas the Rhinoch’s unique unit is the Crasher, a powerful siege engine.

Before you start a game of Clockwork Wars, you build a map using hexagonal tiles that feature nine different types of terrain:  capitals, villages, citadels, towers, manufactories, shrines, lakes, forests, and barrens.  Each terrain type has a specific function and controlling certain territories is fundamental to winning the game.  Depending upon the number of players in the game, you’ll use anywhere from 25 to 40 tiles.  While we provide some sample maps in our instruction booklet, I hope that players quickly move onto designing their own unique maps – or even randomly generating them (for which we provide some simple guidelines).  As such, every game of Clockwork Wars will be different, forcing players to adapt to the strategic possibilities their surroundings offer.

Clockwork Wars uses a Victory Point (VP) system.  The game lasts for seven turns and there are scoring phases on turns 2, 4, and 7.  The player with the most VPs at the end of the game wins.  Players primarily collect VPs from controlling resource territories:  lakes and forests.  However, there are other ways of earning VPs, especially through research.

The research system in Clockwork Wars was a blast to design, and it’s the aspect I’m most proud of.  It’s important to me as a designer that theme and mechanics are coherently meshed in my games, and the place where this principle shines through most effectively in Clockwork Wars is the research system.  The 7 turns of the game are divided into 3 ages:  the Early Age (turns 1-2), the Middle Age (turns 3-4), and the Late Age (turns 5-7).  These ages are meant to reflect long periods of time – several centuries for each age - time for new and significant inventions to have a large impact on society and especially the ongoing war.  Within each Age, there will be three different Discoveries available for players to research.  These Discoveries fall into one of three different research domains:  sorcery, science, and religion.  This is a world where science, sorcery, and fundamentalist religious doctrine exist side-by-side and are often at conflict with one another.  Thematically, I was heavily influenced by dark, modern steampunk settings, like China Mieville's world of Bas-Lag and even the classic computer RPG, Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura.  

Sorcery discoveries are typically the most expensive and powerful in the game. They often let you do direct damage to your opponents, killing their soldiers at no risk to your own.  For example, Ritual of Blood allows you to kill enemy soldiers anywhere on the map.  If you like to play aggressive, Sorcery is for you.  Science discoveries will often increase your recruitment, enhance the strength of your armies, or provide you with additional means of generating VPs (like the Analytic Engine).  If you like flexibility and intimidating research engines, Science is for you.  Religion discoveries are the most affordable.  Many are defensive in nature or allow you to take further advantage of villages, cities, forts, and shrines.  For example, the Late Age religion Discovery Infallibility makes it so that your opponents can no longer attack your villages and cites.  If you want to field a larger army on the field (because you don't have to invest workers in research as much), along with strong defensive capabilities, Religion is for you. There will be over 40 different Discoveries in the box, but you'll only use 9 (randomly chosen) in each game.  This is another means of ensuring infinite replayability.

To research Discoveries, you need to earn Influence Points (IPs) in those three respective domains.  Sorcery IPs are earned by controlling towers, Science IPs are earned by controlling factories, and Religion IPs are earned by controlling shrines.  As soon as you have enough IPs in the appropriate domain to buy a Discovery, you can do so.  But there’s often a race between players for these powerful Discoveries.  All the Discoveries in the game have been designed to be potential “game-changers” – especially the Middle and Late Age Discoveries.  The player who researches most efficiently and effectively is often the player who wins the game - typically this means dipping into all three research domains, since nothing's forcing you to choose only one path.  The most effective civilization is the one that utilizes the strengths of many paradigms.

But we still haven’t addressed how players gain control of territories.  Each turn of Clockwork Wars is divided into five rapid phases:  the Spymaster Phase (which I’ll discuss in a future entry), the Recruitment Phase, the Deployment Phase, the Combat Phase, and the Research Phase.  Additionally, as I mentioned earlier, turns 2, 4, and 7 also have a Scoring Phase that follows the Research Phase.  Generally speaking, we've found that individual turns last between 5 and 10 minutes.

During the Recruitment Phase, players simultaneously collect (recruit) Workers.  Simply having a capital, which can never be captured, allows you to recruit 4 Workers.  For every village you control, you recruit an additional 1 Worker, and for every city you control, you recruit an additional 2 Workers.  The Recruitment Phase is very fast – players usually need just a few seconds.  Once all players have recruited their Workers, the turn progresses to the Deployment Phase.

During the Deployment Phase, players secretly decide where they want to place Workers on the map.  Each player writes down their deployment orders on a specially designed pad for this purpose.  Once all players have made their decisions, they simultaneously reveal and resolve their deployment orders, moving Workers to territories on the map.  There are a few simple rules which dictate which territories you can deploy to – generally speaking, you can deploy to territories that you currently control or which are adjacent to ones you control.  Once Workers have been deployed to the map, they are called Soldiers.  If more than one player deploys Soldiers to the same territory, a battle will occur in the subsequent Combat Phase.

The Deployment Phase is really the meat of the game.  This is where all your planning, strategizing, and guesswork come into play.  Which territories do you want to control?  Factories, so that you can gather more Science IPs?  Citadels, so that you have greater maneuverability during the Combat Phase?  Forests and lakes, so that you can score VPs?  And, perhaps more importantly, where do you think your opponents will be deploying their Soldiers?  I’ve always loved games that feature secret and simultaneous combat deployment – it always feels more tense, exciting and realistic to me.  Plus, there’s the advantage of no down-time, a problem endemic to most Dudes-on-a-Map games.  I suspect most gamers have had that frustrating experience of waiting and waiting until their turn comes around again when they are actually allowed to have fun.  It was a fundamental design principle of Clockwork Wars to avoid this flaw.

During the Combat Phase, players resolve battles.  The rules of battle resolution are uncluttered and deterministic.  Players simply compare Army Strengths.  Army Strength is primarily determined by the number of Soldiers you have on the territory.  The player with the highest Army Strength wins – but has to lose Soldiers equal to the next highest player’s Army Strength.  So, if Olivia, Spencer, and Ryan each have 3, 1, and 4 Soldiers, respectively, in a battle, Ryan would win and 1 of his Soldiers would survive.  All other Soldiers are killed.  While battle resolution is fundamentally simple, there are several additional factors that might influence the outcome.  Numerous Discoveries can increase the effectiveness of your Soldiers.  For example, Power Armor (a Middle Age science discovery) gives you a +1 bonus to Army Strength in all battles.  I mentioned the unique units earlier – and some of these unique units are more powerful than the average Soldier.  In addition, players can “reinforce” a battle by moving Soldiers from an adjacent citadel that they control.  This is one of the few ways in Clockwork Wars that Soldiers can move – typically, once a Soldier has been deployed to the map, it stays on that territory until killed.  Finally, you can play a one-time-use Espionage card, which could let you set an ambush or force your opponents to desert the field of battle before it even begins.

As a game of Clockwork Wars progresses, players will quickly take control of particular sections of the map, focusing their strategy.  One player whose capital is near a couple towers might capture them quickly so as to start generating Sorcery IPs immediately.  Such a research advantage can be immensely useful in the late-game.  Another player might concentrate on conquering villages and developing them into cities (which is as simple as having 3 or more Soldiers on a village tile).  This will provide greater worker recruitment in subsequent turns, which can be parlayed into a larger army and dominance of the entire map.  The maps in Clockwork Wars are tight – battles will begin to happen on Turn 1 or 2 and won’t let up until the end of the game.  It’s like a knife-fight in a phone booth – there just isn’t a lot of room to expand without conflict and very limited and enormously valuable resources in nearly every direction.  If you’ve played the excellent Nexus Ops with 4 players, you’ll have a sense of how Clockwork Wars feels.

There are a number of additional rules and mechanics I haven’t discussed, including Espionage, Attrition, and the great Generals, but I’ll save those for future entries.  Hopefully, what I’ve written here gives you a broad overview of how a game of Clockwork Wars plays.  It’s quick, it’s tense, it’s strategic, and most importantly, it’s fun.  Well, at least I think so! 

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Simultaneous action selection

I love wargames, but am often disappointed by them.  Does that make sense?

I love the "feel" of being a combat commander: a general overlooking a detailed battlefield map, weighing risky decisions that could spell victory or defeat.  And yet, most wargames - both board and digital - don't appeal to me.  They might be too complex and fiddly, catering more to the hard-core grognard who's seeking simulation over accessibility.  They might be too fast for my tastes (e.g., most RTS games) or too  ponderous (most games by Paradox).  Pacing is critical, as I've mentioned in a previous post.  I want the satisfaction of having many tactical and strategic options available to me, but I also want the time to properly weigh and use those options.  Generally speaking, I do much prefer the slow pace of turn-based strategy games on my computer when I'm looking for a wargame fix - but the time commitment usually required is a turn-off.  Even Civilization - one of my favorite game series - asks too much of me nowadays.  

Perhaps it's not surprising then, that my favorite boardgames all happen to be relatively quick-playing, tactical combat games:  Space Hulk, Claustrophobia, and Star Wars: X-Wing all jump to mind.  

Star Wars: X-Wing, move example

The Star Wars: X-Wing miniatures game, in particular, utilizes a game mechanic which I absolutely adore:  simultaneous action selection.  Games which feature this mechanic allow all the players to make their strategic/tactical decisions at the same time.  Players keep these decisions hidden until everyone's done and ready to reveal - at which point they are resolved simultaneously.

Fantasy Flight's Star Wars game cleverly makes use of movement dials tied to specific ships.  Let's say you are flying a squadron of 5 TIE fighters led by Darth Vader in an Advanced TIE.  You'll "dial in" your movement decision for each of your ships, while your opponent is doing the same for her 3 X-Wings.  The dials are kept face down until you're both ready to reveal and resolve.  This can lead to some absolutely fascinating, cinematic moments steeped in tactical awesomeness - like moving TIE's purposely into your opponent's most likely path, forcing collisions and putting them at a severe disadvantage once the shots start flying.  Or pulling off an unexpected "koiogran" turn with Wedge and blasting away a tailing TIE who thought they had you in their sights.

Simultaneous action selection is a great mechanic for several reasons:
  1. It speeds up play and reduces downtime. Your prototypical "Dudes on a Map" wargame, like Risk or Conquest of Nerath, has players alternate troop deployment and attack decisions ("I-go/You-go").  If the game lets you move around a lot of your pieces,which is usually the case, then a lot of the game is spent watching your opponents think and do fun stuff, like roll dice, crush your battalions, and mock your ineptitude.  Not my idea of a great time.
  2. It increases tension.  You're not sure what your opponents' are going to do, or where their troops might end up, and you just have to make educated guesses.
  3. It rewards mind-reading.  Not in the psychic sense, but in the cognitive sense.  You need to be able to read your opponents, see what they desire most, and generate plans based upon those predictions. Furthermore, you need to be able to bluff, fake, and lay false trails, so that your opponents can't easily determine your strategy.  I find these kind of mind-games, that occur behind the game proper, to be immensely satisfying. 
  4. It's more realistic. No war in human history has even been fought where one nation moved all its troops and attacked while the others just stood by and waited until their turn.  Simultaneous (and often hidden) troop deployment models warfare to a closer degree and therefore makes a game feel more authentic.
  5. It facilitates story-telling.  This last point requires some explanation, I think.  Each turn in a wargame that features simultaneous action selection plays out like a narrative.  The generals have made their moves, and now it's time to sit back and see what pans out - for better or worse.  
Have you played the excellent Frozen Synapse?  It's worth a look if you like games that feature tense tactical combat.  At the beginning of each round, players assign actions to their units in secret.  Move here, hide behind this wall, and then fire through that window with your shotgun.  Pause for 3 seconds, then sprint across the hallway and chuck a grenade.  Etc.  Once both players have made their decisions, you press "play" and watch the action unfold, like a scene in a John Woo movie.  Sometimes, you make all the right calls - you blow up the right wall, your sniper finds the perfect spot, you "know" exactly where your opponent's units are going to be. Sometimes (more often than not), it's a total fiasco and bloody mess.

Frozen Synapse 

That's what I mean by story-telling, and it's really directly related to pace.  I like games that give you a chance to sit back, watch your decisions influence the world, and imagine a narrative.  The well-respected Combat Mission game series uses this mechanism to great narrative effect, and I suspect there are many other examples more knowledgeable wargamers could cite.

My current boardgame under development, Clockwork Wars, prominently features both hidden troop deployment and simultaneous action selection.  I wanted to design a wargame that had the strategic depth and thematic flavor of a big "Dudes on a Map" game, but played in a quarter of the time.  I also wanted to play a game where good strategy involves figuring out what your opponents' goals are - and then determining how best to disrupt them.  If you like games like Star Wars X-Wing and Frozen Synapse, where much of your turn is spent planning based on what you think your opponents will do, then I suspect you'll love Clockwork Wars.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Leaning on what's logical

In this post, I’d like to riff off an idea that emerged in my last one:  designing games that mesh theme with mechanics in such a way that the game becomes more accessible to the players.  I used Fresco as my example, since I think it’s a moderate weight Eurogame that is easy to learn because the mechanics “make sense” in the context of the world it inhabits.  In other words, some of the more intricate rules are logical, which in turn makes them easier to remember and integrate.
Last night, my wife and I had another couple over for a lovely evening of scotch, conversation, apple pie, and boardgames.  The kind of event I wish we had more time for but which is regrettably quite rare.  As for game choice, I didn’t want something too meaty or mathematical – just fun and vicious, with some light social elements.  I’ve been looking forward to getting Survive: Escape from Atlantis and The Downfall of Pompeii to the table, so we went with a “survival” theme for the evening.  I've decided I love games that let you really screw with your opponents, and encourage pleading, cajoling, and outright threats.  That's good times.

Our experiences with these two games last night bring to light the importance of making rules “logical,” within the context of the game’s theme.  Let’s start with Survive.  In Survive, you’re trying to save as many of your people from a sinking island as possible before the volcano erupts.  You can try to swim to safety, but it’s a lengthy and dangerous process.  Instead, it’s more efficient to load up on boats – but you might need to share space with another player or two.  This in turn makes you a target for the “creatures” of the game:  sea serpents, whales, and sharks.  Your opponents can move these creatures onto the tile your ship inhabits, potentially sinking the ship and gobbling up your poor little meeples.  Needless to say, Survive is a blast to play, as long as people get into the spirit of the game and don’t take getting attacked too seriously. 

Survive (picture from

One great example of how Survive successfully meshes theme with mechanics is its rules for sea creatures.  Sea serpents can only move one space at a time, but they destroy and kill anything they land on (boats and people).  Sharks can move two spaces, eat swimmers, but can’t do anything to boats.  Whales can move three spaces, don’t affect swimmers, but can capsize boats, dumping all the people into the water.  I only had to explain this once to everyone around the table and that was it (it doesn’t hurt that a nice visual summary of these rules is printed on the game board itself!).  The rules are silly (in the sense of being based upon a fantastical setting) but perfectly logical.  Sharks can’t tip over boats but can eat swimmers.  That’s easy to remember!  And that’s part of what makes Survive accessible to new players, such that they can start having fun and strategizing sooner, rather than struggling over half-remembered rules and exceptions. 

In contrast, I’d argue that Downfall of Pompeii, while equally light and unburdened by complex rules, is not as intuitive to learn – and therefore not as satisfying on a design level.  Downfall of Pompeii is a game of two acts.  In Act I, the players populate the city’s buildings with their game pieces.  In Act II, the volcano erupts, lava flows down the streets, and the players compete to get as many of their pieces out of the city before time runs out.  Thematically, it sounds great.  In fact, there’s even a three-dimensional volcano on the board where you dump the citizens who have been overcome by the lava.  

Downfall of Pompeii:  now out-of-print, I believe.

However, some of its rules regarding piece placement in Act I and movement in Act II are unintuitive and frustrating, especially for non-gamers.  Here’s a quote from the rulebook regarding the movement of your pieces once the lava is flowing:

“On his turn, a player has two moves, with which he can move two different of his game pieces. He may move a game piece forward by as many city squares as the total number of game pieces (his own and/or other players’) on the square on which he begins his move. Note: In those buildings which stretch across two city squares, game pieces now count as being in two separate squares…
Usually, a player must move two different game pieces on his turn. Exception: If a game piece is alone on a city square at the beginning of the player’s first move, that player may move the same piece again with his second move.”

So there are a few confusing things here (and these aren’t even all the rules governing the movement of pieces).  First, players typically will be moving two pieces – unless you’re not.  I hate “exceptions” in rulebooks – nothing’s more frustrating when you’re explaining rules to novice gamers than having to go through a rule, and immediately follow it up with “except when…” statements.  People’s eyes just glaze over, and they’ve already forgotten the original rule as well as the exception.  So, in Pompeii, you usually will be moving two different pieces – and once you move a piece, you can’t move it again on that same turn.  However, you can decide to move a single piece twice – but only if it starts the turn in a space all by itself.  There’s nothing intuitive, logical, or thematic about those rules.  It’s just a game design mechanic existing in the ether.  Why not have the rule simply be:  you can make two moves each turn.  End of story.  That might be with two different pieces, or the same piece two times.  Did play-testing reveal that being able to move the same piece two times was "over-powered" unless it started in a square by itself?  I doubt it.  Pompeii is too light and random of a game for such a rule to matter.  

And there’s another confusing rule in there:  the number of spaces your piece can move is determined by the total number of pieces on its original square.  So, if it started on a space with 3 other pieces, it could move a total of 4 spaces this turn. Why?  What’s the theme underlying that mechanic?  You panic more and run faster when you're in a crowd? There isn’t any logic to it, and as such, I find it harder to teach and less interesting to play.  

Throughout our game of Pompeii last night, a couple of our players continued to struggle with these rules on piece movement and it significantly interfered with the entertainment value of the game.  It also made it impossible for those players to really grasp the strategy of the game, since they couldn’t get a logical hold on the base mechanics.  Now, I know a lot of gamers are going to scoff at that and argue that rules can’t always be over-simplified to the point of being obvious.  If you play enough games, you grok rules like those found in Pompeii and can roll with it.  But my point is that meshing theme with mechanics always makes for a better game design – one quicker to grasp and play with, for novices and experts alike.  I’d argue it’s especially important in so-called “gateway” games, but it’s never something you should avoid entirely – which is perhaps why neither thematically vacuous Euros nor abstracts have ever appealed to me.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Accessibility in boardgames

A central issue in game design is accessibility.  Meaning, how easy is it for someone new to the game to “grok” it and begin extracting fun from it.  I’m going to focus my thoughts on boardgames, since this is a big issue for me.  Here’s the problem (and I know this is common):  I’m the person in my social circle who buys and collects boardgames.  It’s my hobby – it’s something I’m passionate about.  I love the social aspects of table top games, I love the physical presence of cardboard components, and I love learning the intricacies of a strong design.  However, most of the people I play with are not regular gamers, although they are often interested in trying a game every now and then.  So when those situations occur, I have to think very carefully about what game to pull off the bookshelf.

People often call these “gateway” games.  Games that are attractive, accessible, and, often, not too cognitively taxing.  I’ll use Ticket to Ride as the prototypical example, in part because I have used it successfully to introduce new people to the hobby.  Ticket to Ride (all of its many manifestations) features a lovely map upon which players place tiny train pieces, as they attempt to form routes from city to city.  There’s a visceral pleasure in manipulating the train pieces, there’s joy in imagining the traveling you’re representing as you play the game, and there’s just enough strategy and competition to make things interesting.  At least for a few games.  Personally, I’m fairly tired of Ticket to Ride – not because I think it’s a poor design at all, but because I don’t think it hits that sweet spot of combining accessibility with strategic depth.
In Ticket to Ride, you basically take one action per turn.  That’s absolutely lovely if you’re looking for a game that you can teach in 10 minutes and that even young children can play competitively.  However, the design space of the game is limiting when it comes to strategic options and choice.  And here’s the important bit – I think even “novice” gamers often detect this and walk away dissatisfied. 

Ticket to Ride Europe:  pretty but shallow

People sit down to boardgames for many different reasons.  Sometimes, it really is just to socialize – and if that’s the case, I suggest you pull out some paper and play Eat Poop You Cat (or Telestrations, if you must).  Or for something a little more polished and hip, Dixit.  But a lot of the time, people play boardgames to exercise their minds.   Certainly, that’s my primary motivator.  Sure, I love boardgames that tell a good story (Castle Ravenloft) or let you be a hero (Talisman, Relic).  But I especially love games that let me feel smart. And that’s my biggest issue with most “accessible” games.  In the interest of keeping rules simple, elegant, and quick-to-learn, they sacrifice cognitive challenge.

Not all “accessible” games do this, however!  And those games are among my absolute favorites.  I’ll just give one example here:  Fresco.  Ha!  You probably thought I was going to say Settlers of Catan!  Well, that’s for another entry, I suppose.  No, Fresco.  Fresco is a “eurogame” in which you play a master painter working to restore a fresco in a Renaissance church.  Each turn you take several actions in an attempt to most efficiently paint sections of the fresco and thus score points.  You need to buy paint from the market, mix paints into different colors, and ensure that your apprentices are happy.  There’s a fair amount to think about and good decisions pay off. 

Fresco (thanks to ckirkman on BGG for this image)

The reason why I think Fresco works as an accessible, gateway game even though it carries a heavier weight is that the theme is well-integrated with the mechanics.  Buying and mixing paints makes sense thematically.  Yes, those are “just” actions on the board that your workers take but they make intuitive sense, and I've found that new players "grok" Fresco after a single turn.  Including beginning to see the basics of good strategy!  And that's important - players need to feel that hook of "Ah!  This decision I'm making is meaningful" quickly when playing a new game.  Fresco is also very good at giving you immediate feedback on whether you've made some poor choices; sometimes players send too many (or too few) apprentices to the market, for example.  And by the end of the turn, you've seen the consequences - which means that you can improve your play on the next.

Too many euros utilize mechanics that are just too far dissociated from the theme to make sense to non-gamers.  As an example, consider the feeding mechanics in Agricola.  I’ll quote from the rulebook here:
“At the end of this phase, each player must feed his or her family by paying 2 Food per Family member. Offspring that were born during the current round (“Newborn offspring”, typically from a Family growth action) only consume 1 Food for this round, but will require 2 Food in future Harvests. Each unprocessed Grain or Vegetable may be converted to 1 Food at any time. Fireplaces and Cooking Hearths, as well as other specific Occupations and Improvements, allow players to convert Vegetables at any time, at a better exchange rate. Improvements with the ___ symbol can be used to convert animals to Food at any time. Improvements with the ___ symbol can be used to Bake bread, but only when the player takes a Bake bread action during a round. Unprocessed animals have no Food value.”

Uggg.  Try explaining all that to novices.  Sure, some of it is thematic and intuitive (you can’t just eat an unprocessed cow), but there are so many exceptions and minor rules in there, it’s a bear for people to remember.  Which is one reason why no one would call Agricola accessible.

How does this inform my own game design?  Well, I should first say that I don’t want my games to be niche products – for example, I don’t want to design hyper-complex wargames that appeal to only a small subgroup of hardcore gamers.  I want my games to be accessible insofar as everything makes sense – the mechanics fit within the theme, so that new players can approach the game with pre-existing notions (based upon their understanding of the theme) that are useful.  For example, I’m designing a post-apocalyptic Road Warrior-esque card game.  One way that players can lose the game is if they are “decked” (their draw pile runs out).  I call this running out of gas.  And there are a number of card effects that cause you to lose gas (discard cards). 

Meshing theme with mechanics well means that you don’t need to sacrifice strategic depth or cognitive challenge.  Instructions can even expand beyond 10 pages (!), as long as the rules are logical, there aren’t a million exceptions, and the basic gameplay (what the player does on each turn) is straightforward.  If you give people an accessible game that also makes them feel brilliant when they’ve won, you’ve created something quite special – and something more likely to bring them back to the table in the future.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Dawn of War II Retribution - Pacing in Real-Time Games

I just finished a second campaign of Dawn of War II: Retribution, playing as the Tyranids.  Never mind that Retribution came out in 2011, and don’t worry that I’ve never played a single online match (well, unless you count the entertaining but forgettable Last Stand mode).  Dawn of War II has become my go-to blow stuff up and relax game.  You need something like that on your hard drive.  The single player campaign is designed to make you feel like you’re playing with miniature agents of destruction in a bounded playground of pandemonium.

The focus is on squad-level tactics.  You’re typically controlling 15 or fewer units that travel together, and I much prefer that scale compared to RTS’s that require you to maneuver dozens of units on numerous fronts. There’s a greater sense of personal attachment to individual heroes, and more importantly, the pace is slower.  This allows you to design simple attack plans and actually execute them effectively.  At its best, Dawn of War II feels like controlled chaos.  You’re giving orders to individual units, to better position them or activate their special abilities, and you’re watching the enemy units closely to see what kind of attacks they’re using and how you should best counter them.  If you, as a game designer, want players to use all the tools at their disposal, please give them the time to think, plan and decide!  A menagerie of tactical options is worthless if the game is moving so quickly that you can’t respond intelligently.

My Tyranid menace

Late in my Tyranid campaign, I found myself using the following load-out:  Hive Lord equipped with venom cannon, Zoanthrope, Tyrant Guard, and two squads of Genestealers (fully upgraded).  I’d typically send in my Hive Lord and Tyrant Guard to new terrain first, since they’re armored and regenerate health well.  The Zoanthrope would set up from a distance and start shelling the area with artillery.  Once I got a feel for the best approach, and softened up enemy ranged units with a couple Bio-Plasma bombs, I’d send in the Genestealers for clean-up.  I loved how the design of the Tyranids supported thematic play.  Meaning, when I played the Tyranids, I felt like an unstoppable horde.  I didn’t pay attention to cover much at all (actually, I usually used my Hive Lord and Tyrant Guard to knock down cover and bust through walls as often as I could, making a direct path to enemy units), and I didn’t rely on ranged attacks.  It was more an in-your-face, swarm approach.

This was very different than how I played through my first campaign as the Chaos Marines.  That was a more prototypical DOWII experience – slow and cautious approaches, using cover effectively, laying down suppressive fire before pushing heroes and infantry into the field, etc.  It required a more patient and methodical style of play, and one that was quite gratifying (especially since I finished that campaign on Hard difficulty).   The fact that the Chaos Marine and Tyranid campaigns felt and played so differently, even though the maps and scenarios were identical, speaks to the exquisite unit and race design in Retribution.  You can give a player the same battlefield conditions and the same goals, but the process will feel agreeably different if you allow choice and diversity in army composition and combat "style."

My Hive Lord

Retribution also features a robust leveling and equipment system that lets you design your Hero to support your play style and overall strategy.  I beefed my Hive Lord up with biomorphs that enhanced regeneration, armor, and reinforcement for all nearby Tyranids.  This allowed me to just throw my Genestealers in the fray without too much worry.  From a design standpoint, I appreciated the ability to take a breather in between campaign missions at the strategic map.  Again, pace.  Play around with my Hive Lord, futz with my squads, and consider my options.  Since missions typically took 15-20 minutes to complete (on Medium difficulty), Retribution is a game you can dip into for a quick play and then quit if you need to get back to work, kids, life-responsibilities.  As I get older, I’ve come to appreciate game design that allows for this kind of quick-play experience more and more.  Which is probably one of the many reasons why iOS games are doing so well – at their best, they can offer compelling play experiences in short bursts of time.  Dawn of War II: Retribution certainly succeeds by this criterion.

First Principles

I'm starting a new blog - something a bit more focused that my previous attempts, but still nothing too serious.  As I get deeper into game design as a "semi-professional" hobby, I'd like to maintain a space where I can think out-loud about games I'm playing, various game design concepts, gameplay mechanics - basically brainstorm - as well as feature some of the boardgame and cardgame designs I'm currently working on.

Here are some principles for the blog (always good to have principles!):

  • A focus on design, mechanics, and play.  I don't want to write reviews or session reports.  Which isn't to say I won't be sharing my opinions on various games that I'm playing (either on my PC, iPad, or tabletop).  But I mostly want to focus discussions on what makes a good game work.
  • I don't promise regular content.  I'm not writing this for a huge potential audience or to get hits.  I'm writing this for myself and also for those individuals who might be interested in hearing about some of the ideas and iterations, processes and procedures that lie behind my own game designs.
  • Play broadly, think broadly.  I love games and have ever since my Mama taught me how to play Spill & Spell and Boggle.  Even though I'm a boardgame designer, great ideas can come from any genre of gaming (or entertainment, for that matter).  So, for example, I'll be talking about computer games a fair bit here, even though I have no aspirations to design in that market.
  • Write well and show pretty pictures.

Hope you visit periodically and enjoy the read.