Thursday, December 20, 2007

Romantic Bits

I was looking at a board game book on Amazon, and noticed this cover of a related item. I'm a big fan of bits/pieces/tokens/components in a game - I liked the little gems in Niagara so much that I bought 7 bags of them in various colors for use in prototypes. I just wanna touch em.

For some reason, the little dice with an Anchor on it, in the top right of this picture, really appeals to me. I want to roll a dice and hope for an anchor.

It's strange. Suppose there's a game where you can take a number of actions, as determined by a dice roll, and one of these actions is to move your ship. I'm not that excited about a game where a standard dice is used, and a 6 corresponds to ship movement. But when I need to roll an anchor to move the ship, now I'm stoked.

This is tough to get past when I'm prototyping. You don't have time to do every little thing right in an exploratory prototype, and you certainly don't have the ability to get custom pawns/dice/etc made. So you make do. But sometimes when a game is missing some spark, I have to wonder if the spare physical composition is to blame. I feel like a Niagara prototype, without the canoes, waterfall effect and gems, would belie the appeal that the finished game ended up having.

I even let this problem impede me in the monster city game, where I wanted to use the Memoir 44 dice (depicting tanks, infantry, grenades, etc) so badly that I let it dictate some probabilities I might not have gone with otherwise. The effect wasn't all that profound, but I found myself drawn by the components in a strangely seductive way.

I suppose the answer is to learn to see past the components during a prototype, but that's tough. At very least I need to separate my emotional dissatisfaction with the feel of a game from whether or not its actually working. If its "working" in some sense, I might need to gussy it up a bit and see how it feels then. The more I think about it, I know of plenty of games that would have seemed pretty lame before a proper componenting out.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

More Monster City

This game continues to plague me. There are just a very large number of ways you can take the game, so many ways to do the monster actions, so many ways to do city actions, so many city layouts, so many extra twists, all exploding combinatorially. This is the nature of game design, but its especially tricky this time.

I've tried to focus on my actual goals, to back out of assumptions about how things should be done. What I've come up with is:
1) City units should be able to hinder the monster, getting in his way.
2) The city players should not be able to damage the monster. This emerged over time, that it just felt wrong for the city to slowly damage and kill the monser. The city is in a desperate fight to avoid getting obliterated, but they are not an actual threat to the monster's supremacy.
3) The way the city player wins is to survive until a point where they get an ultimate weapon done, which is the one way they can kill the monster and win.
4) The way the monster player wins is to do a boatload of damage to the city, and return to the sea before the ultimate weapon destroys him.

So, the monster is trying to screw stuff up as fast as possible, and the city player is trying to keep the monster from screwing too much stuff up until they can get the weapon online, and either kill the monster with it, or use the threat of it to drive the monster back to the sea.

So how do the city units do anything useful? Well, for one, they can contain the monster, who can't use his big long-distance moves if there are units in the way. So we get a bit of fox-and-geese, where the city units try to slow the monster down and cut off his options. Second, and this is a fairly recent idea that I'm not completely cemented on: the units have an attack range, and they don't do damage or anything, but the monster can't attack a building while he's in the attack range of a unit.

So this leads to an interesting interaction. A city player piles up a bunch of units near the monster. The monster might try to kill all those units, and then will be able to wreck the nearby buildings, but this might take a while, especially if the city player keeps bringing in reinforcements. So the monster is liable to just head off to some other part of the city, where the resistance is less stiff, and wreck that freely. But the city player can use units to try to slow the monster's avenues of movement, to keep it in the areas where the city is well defended. But if the monster breaks free, its going to rip stuff up for a while, until the city player can stop it.

If this happens, does the city player desperately send in a single unit to buy himself some time while the monster kills it and goes back to wrecking? Does he send in a big force, which the monster might just avoid? Does he start cordoning off the main routes out of that area, and then send in a big force, to reestablish control? Or some combination of these effects? I think the strategic depth has a lot of potential.

In addition, I like the thematic feel better than some other versions I've come up with. The monster shouldn't actively seek out tanks, he should just wail on the ones in his face and then go back to beating up the city. And the city player shouldn't be able to control the monster, but can still limit its options, make stands, block certain streets. They will never be in control, but they just might buy themselves enough time...

Some questions remain as far as making this work:
1) How can I balance the monster and unit mobility so that these sort of questions are interesting?
2) How can I keep things unpredictable within the game? I don't want it to be complete information, where the monster can say "well, if I go here, there is no way he can stop me". I feel like in a game like this, it could get frustrating, and I'm not interested in crafting a perfectly balanced, open information, asymetrical, thematically sound game, its plenty challanging as it is. It'd be nice if he could instead make a reasonable guess about how likely the city player was to be able to stop him, based on some secret or unpredictable element, and had to weigh that. Think Memoir '44, but with more reasonable mission balance.
3) Can I keep the tension high throughout the game, or will one side clearly be doomed 2 turns in. This relates to the win condition, how many points does the monster need to win? Does he know, hits it, and escapes? Or should it be a press your luck affair, where he wants as many as he can get without dying. Could it be secret somehow?
4) I want to encourage the monster to get to the heart of the city, and the city player to want to stop that. But I also want it to be a bad idea for the city player to just hole up downtown, letting the monster bulldoze the shoreline. Its a tricky business, and might involve the scoring system somehow.
5) How do I give the game some pop? I still need that OMG turn, that memorable sequence that turns the game around.

Lots of open questions, but I think I'm on an interesting track. I have a new city design that I think will be more compelling, and a card-based approach to actions that just might work. I think this is maybe where the pop will come in, through narrowly applicable but powerful cards that can have a splashy effect if used just right.

In any case, I need to mock it up and playtest it again; there's too much theory swirling that needs to be confirmed or refuted.
Also, I went back and added lables to all the old posts. Might be useful?
Note to myself: I should do a post on "pop" and how it relates to "the bomb" from that Games Journal article. It's been coming up a lot.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Flexibility in Representations / Racetrack Design

I've been sketching lots of maps for the Pirate Co-op game, just trying to get a feel for the design space. But it occured to me it would be really nice to have a way to be really flexible about this, to have a physical map that could be readily rearranged during playtesting.

Heroscape tiles might be nice if we ended up with a hex-based game (this is still not certain, believe it or not!). But just starting with a map with a blank grid, and then placing island / trade route / dangerous seas tiles on it could work too. Its strange, I assumed we would have a printed map, but there's really no reason that must be the case, especially not during playtesting.


The concept of a flexible, intermediate representation of design ideas is something that I've been thinking about a lot. When you're designing, its often a matter of finding a medium that reflects the properties you're looking for and then:
1) creating a representation of your ideas in that medium
2) evaluating that representation to see if it has the qualities you're looking for
3) adjusting or creating a representation based on what you saw

Ideally, you end up in Schon's of Reflection in Action, where this all happens as a unified, creative thought process, where you're evaluating as you create.

So, you want a representation that is easy to create, but that tells you what you need to know. These are the two steps I've always focused on when thinking about this stuff, ignoring that third step of adjusting course. Maybe that's because most of the books I've seen on this subject focus on sketching, where you usually make sketch after sketch, rather than trying to adjust a previous drawing.

But what about a representation that lends itself to changing its configuration? That is, rather than sketching map after map, should I be creating a physical set of objects that can be nudged around as I see fit?


So I was already thinking about this a bit, but what prompted me to post was seeing this show about a guy who designs racetracks. They had this footage of his studio, and I immediately started to wonder, what sort of representations would you use for this? As he pointed out, you need to consider making the course challenging to drive, interesting to watch, you need to work with the topography of the land. They showed these drawings of course layouts, but I didn't see how you could get to those just by drawing squiggle after squiggle and saying 'that looks like a good one!'

About 5 minutes later, I wasn't disappointed. They had built a topographical model of a location out of layers and layers of cardboard, and were using pins with yarn between them to lay out possible course routes. They had multiple routes in different colors, and when one guy placed this red segment, they talked about how it had this nice drop down the hill, and how the cars would really fly down it given the angle and the speed they would have. How cool is that?

The lesson I got from this was how to build prototypes so that you can readily adjust them as you're playtesting. More specifically, don't assume that the approach you're going to use in the final game is the approach you have to use for a playtest: even if you plan to use a static map in the end, tiles might do you good in the meantime. For reasons I won't get into here, I firmly believe playtesting is one of the only good ways to get feedback about a board game design, and ensuring that third "adjusting" step is as easy as possible seems like a good idea.

Is this obvious? Maybe? Its something I overlooked though, and it seems like an observation worth holding onto.

[Finally started adding labels. Will maybe go back and add them to the old ones some day.]

Friday, December 7, 2007

Friggin Marlins

Why did they have to hand-deliver two great players to the Tigers? For nothing but prospects.

I'm tempted to put quotes around "prospects", to derisively say that the Marlins're doing nothing but cutting costs so that they can put a subpar product on the field for a payroll under 10 million. But, they did this in the past and enough of those prospects payed off that they still won another championship.

Part of me says, this is bullshit, you can't sell off all your best players just to cut costs. But if you can cut costs to the organization and still contend in the long term, isn't that genius?

The dual nature of victory conditions got me thinking. Wouldn't it be a rad game where you run a sports team, trying to win a championship, while also trying to run a savvy business? Where the glory (and ticket sales) of a winning team are nice and all, but where a carefully planned "rebuilding year" can win you the game on a 20-year time scale?

The strategy of the rebuilding year, that's what really gets me. When do you enter one? When is it a bad idea? Would the Yankees (huge, huge, huge payroll, nothing to show for it lately) be losers in such a game?

I'm not going to design it, but it piqued my interest.

Edit: snipped. No need to be silly.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Co-op Pirates

Last weekend, Robin and I spent a goodly number of hours working on a cooperative pirate-themed game. I'll not get into too much detail here, but important details are:

1) The big insight was that if you want to do a pirate game right, it really should be cooperative. Everyone wants to be a pirate, but pirates aren't really in the business of directly competing with eachother. Pirate's Cove was illustrative of this, usually the last thing you want to do in that game is spending the time and resources to fight another pirate, and you spend most of the game trying to stay out of eachothers' way. Pirates are mostly in the business of preying on the weak, so why not let the game itself represent the players' targets, and let the players work together to conquer them. Robin came up with a really nice theme for the cooperation, but I'll tease it away for now.

2) There's more to pirating than pirating. We tried to make multiple strategies that a player could undertake, and make sure that each is interesting. Specifically, players can a) attack merchant ships, while avoiding navy defenders b) smuggle contraband between islands c) explore far-off islands in pursuit of epic treasure. There are skills and items that support each of these angles, and no one player can fully adopt one strategy without weakening themselves in terms of the others, so players can informally establish roles for themselves, and work together in disparate ways towards a common goal. I see it almost in terms of a WoW clan, where players have different classes, and might find an item that they can't use, but that is useful to someone else. That's good, fun camraderie.

We have pretty nice systems in place for all of those details; mostly we need to refine out how exactly the actual ship movement hangs together so that the pacing of the actual pirating-smuggling-exploring subgame occurences feels right. Then its actual card design and balance, which will just be fun.

The biggest threats right now are component overload and rules complexity, but we've been pretty mindful of both, and it certainly won't be worse than Arkham Horror, or your average Fantasy Flight big-box game on either count.


In other news, I suffered through the old ticketmaster price double-up to ensure I had my ticket to Ultimate Reality Live / Dan Deacon Set Jan 15th. Because, lets face it, Dan Deacon is the man that makes me most want to quit grad school, blow off my life, and become him somehow.