Saturday, September 9, 2017

Contracts at their Core

Another long hiatus from the blog! The past year has been a relatively slow one for game design and development. Infamous has sat in EGG's development queue for a while, but everything is picking up very quickly right now. As such, I though it might be a good time to start posting design entries again.

I think Infamous has some really fantastic design elements - in particular, how the base building directly feeds into henchman recruitment. It's thematic, intuitive, and strategic. Putting together a team of henchman and sending them out on a contract half-way around the world is evocative and satisfying.  I also really like how straightforward and tense contract resolution is - although it's possible some players won't like the centrality of dice-rolling within the design.

Contract Resolution

Let's take this contract as an example: Take Revenge Upon Your Nemesis.  This is a "Hard" difficulty contract, which requires a team size of 2 henchmen. You'll need to roll 5 successes to succeed. If your henchmen possess Brawn as a trait, you'll be more likely to succeed (that's what the flexing muscle icon means).  That's because each of your henchmen contributes a certain number of custom dice, based on what traits they possess.  A henchmen with 3 Brawn will contribute 3 Brawn dice.  A henchmen with 4 Stealth will contribute 4 Stealth dice, and so on.  The dice types differ in some ways; for example, Magic dice provide more extreme outcomes (spectacular power!  spectacular failure!), while Stealth dice are relatively consistent.

Furthermore, if you're rolling Brawn dice and the Brawn symbol comes up (1/6 chance), that will be worth 2 successes on a contract like the one shown. In contrast, Stealth, Intellect, and Magic icons will be worthless for this particular contract.

So there's some strategy is enhancing your odds here. And this leads to juicy choices when determining the composition of your team. For example, one of your team members could be: 1)  a Scientist with 5 Intellect - but no Brawn, 2) a Beast with 3 Brawn, 3) your Lackey, who has 1 Brawn but also lets you re-roll all your dice once. Who will you choose?

Then, gather up all your dice, roll 'em, and count your successes.  Wait!  Did you activate your Ectoplasmic Nexus with your Supervillain back at base?  If so, you can add another die of any type to your roll (add a Brawn die!).  Wait!  Did you bring your Lackey?  You get a free re-roll.  Wait!  Do you have a Scheme card in your back pocket (not literally) that gives you another re-roll?  There are so many ways to mitigate luck in this game, which I think is always important in dice-driven systems.

Greater games than mine have been based on repeated "skill checks." Arkham Horror/Eldritch Horror come to mind immediately, but the list goes on and on. Shoot, we might-as-well put D&D on that list. My concern isn't necessarily the role that luck is playing here - although that's part of it - but rather if rolling dice will feel enough like sending your team on a dangerous mission. It's an issue of abstraction.

For example, I imagine a (different) game in which you take your team, plop them onto a separate board that represents the specific location they're infiltrating, and you now take tactical control of a squad of villains. Movement, weapons, line-of-sight, rolling dice to hack electronic locks, stun guns, skill checks of different varieties, you name it. That's going to feel like going on a mission - but in Infamous, that would 1) turn the game into a tactical minis game, which is definitely not what I want it to be, and 2) make the game last 10x as long. One advantage of abstracting down the team's efforts to a dice-roll is that it makes the game move quickly and smoothly - especially since the other players are waiting while you resolve your contract.

Contract Difficulty

Right now, I think contracts are a bit too easy and I've got some additional tweaking to do. In my last solo (4-supervillain) runthrough, I probably achieved success on 90% of my contracts. That's too high. If players consistently succeed, the tension of the dice-rolls later in the game will dissolve. But maybe I'm achieving a high success rate because I'm good at the game and know how/when to press my luck. After all, if you play Infamous well, you know how to 1) recruit the right henchmen for the job, 2) build the right rooms to support your team, and 3) spend your resources (time, money, henchmen) wisely to achieve maximum value each round. 

The other factor playing a role here is the Supervillain strength/weakness. I've built in a specific strength and weakness for each Supervillain. For example, Dr. Hominoid gets to draw 2 Scheme cards instead of just 1 when he visits the Underground. These Scheme cards basically let you mess with other players more.

You can play Infamous where 1) everyone is playing vanilla supervillains and you ignore their strengths/weaknesses, 2) everyone is using their supervillain strengths (easier game), 3) everyone is using their weakneeses (hard more), or 4) everyone is using both. You can even mix and match, allowing you to handicap some players.

The vast majority of playtesting has been with people using strengths but not weaknesses. As such, my statistics are primarily based on easy mode. So perhaps a 90% success rate isn't surprising, or bad. But this is something I need to think about and play around with a lot more.

At a more fundamental, philosophy-of-fun level, I wonder if there's an optimal success rate that appeals to people. Games where you fail over half of your skill checks, I think, are considered tough and possibly frustrating. I'm thinking 66% success is possibly the right target. Just gut instinct. If you go on 5-6 contracts per game and fail 2 of them on average, that feels about right. And that's assuming "average" play - not blind idiocy (which should lead to a nearly 0% success rate), or high-level play (which should increase your rate substantially).

Lots to think about.

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