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Friday, November 19, 2010

partnerships: bring out the board!

The card game idea discussed in my previous post was neither my original intention nor my original idea when I began thinking about partnerships in board games. I wanted to move away from card games, but the hidden information mechanic that is inherent in them made it easier to think in that space.

There is something different about a board game that separates one from card games. Perhaps they can have richer themes. Perhaps relaxed limitations on components can create for a deeper strategy space. Perhaps there is something more enjoyable about manipulating the wooden/plastic components. Whatever it is, I think it would be hard to deny that it is certainly a different experience.

Regardless, I wanted to introduce the partnership play as something that affects what is occurring on a shared board. Each player would hold some cards that would be combined with other players' cards to trigger some event or modify the board in some way. Immediately I began to picture a game where each player is acting as a deity controlling the environment in which one or several civilizations are forming.

The board is a discrete map (square or hex grid) that is seeded with tiles or markers that indicate whether the land is barren, fertile, or flooded. The civilization is represented by meeples that can occupy these spaces. Periodically (after a turn or a round of turns), the civilization can grow, shrink and/or relocate depending on their occupied and adjacent terrain. Before that happens, the players change the terrain by casting spells.

The players cast spells by completing a set of three colors that define the spell. The first player plays a card with the name of the spell he wishes to cast. This card is also one of the three colors in the spell. The next player must play another color in the spell, and the third player (the first player's partner) must complete the spell. Once completed, the spell affects a given area of the board -- perhaps each player has an avatar which he can move to indicate what area the spell will affect. After the board has been modified, the fourth player begins the next spell.

That's how I imagine the "happy path" play of the game. Where the game would get more interesting is if the players had ways to counter-spell, or boost spells. Rules would also have to be defined how to handle a player's inability to contribute to a spell. There are also thematic issues as to why one deity would contribute to another deity's spell assuming that it would be detrimental to him. Other open questions include whether it is one civilization of which all deities are vying for control, or whether there are separate civilizations that each deity is attempting to make the dominant civilization; and also the ever-troubling question of what an end-game condition would look like.

I hadn't consider this until I read Lewis Pulsipher's post on god games, but there is likely a bit of an influence from Molyneux's Populous in my idea. It's probably been more than a decade since I've played that game on my SNES (for hours straight!), but I'm sure the experience has affected my design subconscious.

I'm not sure whether I like the idea enough to put the effort in place to try to solve some of the unanswered questions. My best bet would be to mock up a prototype, and give it a try with the understanding that it wouldn't be a good game. At least then I might be able to recognize the parts worth keeping and narrow down what needs to be improved upon. If only I knew which of my design ideas were worth my limited "hobby time".

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

partnerships: next thought

Quite a while back, I started the thought process for a design for a partnership game that wasn't another trick-taking card game. It seems that this model of partnerships games is ingrained in my head, which made it difficult to "empty my cup" when trying to think of a new way to approach a partnership game. With that, I still felt that two components are important:

  • hidden information

  • communication through game play

Several ideas have (false) started, but there were two in particular that I need to record for my own reference. I started this thought process nearly a year ago, but one of Seth Jaffee's recent blog posts reminded me that I hadn't actually recorded any of these thoughts yet.

One of my ideas was a primarily a card game. The cards serve two purposes. First, each represents a certain resource, such as stone, wood, etc, with each card carrying a different quantity of that resource. Second, they depict some sort of building or improvement that you can bring into play -- I'll just refer to them as buildings for now. Each building requires a certain number of resources of one or more types to be built. The resources are separated by type into several decks, perhaps with there being multiple decks of each resource, with higher level decks providing higher value cards that have a prerequisite that must be met before a player can draw from it.

Each player starts with a small hand of one or two resource types. The first player (holding a start-player token) leads with a building that they wish to build. Each other player, in order, must contribute to constructing the building if they are able by playing a card that is represents one of the resources still needed to complete that building. If they are unable to play such a resource, they may play another resource to contribute to an incomplete building. If the building is completed after all players have played, the lead player places that building with his active buildings. Otherwise, the build remains inactive until it is completed in a future round. Following that trick, the player to the left of the start player leads, and so on. After each player has a chance to lead, the hands are replenished using the active buildings to determine which resource decks you can draw from, and how many cards you can draw. Then play continues with the start-player token being passed to the left, and the new start player leading a new trick.

Additionally, there would be one large end-game building (such as a castle) that players would contribute to building along the way. Whenever a player overpays with a resource, or is unable to contribute to any other building in play, the player helps build this end-game building instead. These contributions would have to be carefully tracked. This building would be represented with a game board with empty spaces representing the resources needed to complete it, and each player would be given tokens to mark the space(s) when they contribute a particular resource. The game would end when the end-game building is completed, and scores would be a combination of points rewarded for individual buildings completed as well as contributions to the end-game building.

I believe that this game would work just as well without partnerships as it would with, which is good because one of the hard problems of partnership games is figuring out a way to make it work for any number of players other than 4 (or 6, I suppose). I'm not sure that it would meet the goal of forcing players to communicate through game play. It certain could create some tense moments if you are holding on to a particular building with the hopes of getting it in play, and then your partner plays a building requiring the resource type that is on your building card, and it's the only one you have! It is possible that certain plays could telegraph particular intentions, but without further thought, I'm not sure how to design that into the game.

Since this post is getting a bit long, I'll save the other idea for another post. I think I like the above idea better anyway, but I should make the time to post about the other idea just for the record.

Friday, October 22, 2010

cards as a design decision

The deluge of card games being released (I think primarily on the coattails of the success of Dominion), as well as the consideration of using cards in Franchise, sparked some thinking as to when it makes sense to use cards in a board game.

Even with pure card games, one could argue that tiles could just as easily serve that purpose. For example, Rummikub could just as easily have been a pure card game. I'm assuming that the production costs for tiles is higher than cards. In addition, the use of tiles necessitates that each player have a rack, which additionally increases production costs.

So why use tiles when the game would have been equally functional and cheaper with cards? The size of a standard card would have made holding 14+ cards quite unwieldy. Additionally, melding dozens and dozens of cards would take up quite a bit of tablespace (even though this could be mitigated through card design that allows for overlapping cards). In the end, tiles make sense from an interface design perspective.

Clearly, many cards games are just that because cards provide several interface advantages. Quite a bit of information can be displayed on a single card. The ability to hold cards in one hand allows for the information on the cards to be viewed quickly by the player holding the cards, while also keeping them hidden from his opponents. A stack of cards is easily randomized through various shuffling methods. A draw deck is an easy way to organize a pool of card from which a player can quick gain additional cards.

Sometimes the consideration goes beyond cost or interface design. In Ra, players draw tiles from a bag to place on a track to bid on. When you win the tiles, they remain face-up in front of you. Not only would cards work fine for this scenario, but I would argue that they would actually speed up game play. Instead of a bag of tiles, you have a face-down draw deck. The auction board might need to be a little bigger, but it could certainly be re-designed to accommodate cards over tiles. Perhaps this alone made it an interface desicion to use tiles over cards, but part of me believes that there was some aesthetic reason as well. There is a certain amount of tactile pleasure that people get from playing board games, and tiles certainly have a more substantial feel to them than cards.

As a final thought, I want to compare the use of resources cards in The Settlers of Catan to the resource components in Homesteaders. In both cases, resources gained remain hidden. Settlers uses cards to keep your resources hidden, while Homesteaders utilizes tokens that you place behind a screen. The biggest difference between the two is that in Settlers, there is no real advantage in knowing how few resources a player holds. However, knowing that another player is broke in Homesteaders can significantly change your approach to an auction. It should be noted that in Homesteaders you generally hold on to significantly more tokens (including resources, silver, trade chits, and victory chits), which also makes cards less viable from an interface perspective.

In the end, it appears that the decision to use cards is primarily an interface decision. However, it's important to consider how other components can be used as an alternative (or vice versa) when designing a game. Asking yourself, "What if these were/weren't cards?" may open alternate uses or streamlined gameplay that you may not have previously considered.

Friday, September 24, 2010

adding situational value

As I thought about the value of the draftees in Franchise (which is what I am calling my "fantasy sports game" for now), I realized that their values were fairly cut-and-dry. While the offense and defense ratings provide a need for both attributes, it's pretty clear that a draftee with a rating of 6 in either category is always going to be a better choice than a 3/3 draftee.

The stat adjustment cards and the mandatory loss of a stamina token at the end of each season were created to make the value of a draftee more dynamic. However, this doesn't affect the first draft, and the value of the draftee is still basically the same for all players.

In order to make the first draft more interesting, the draftees will be displayed in 3 rows, with the number of draftees in each row being one more than the number of players. In the first row, the draftees have 3 stamina tokens; in the second, 2; in the third, 3. This would only apply to the first draft, and would create the same dynamic that you would get in subsequent drafts. For the subsequent drafts, the new draftees would start with 3 stamina tokens.

To create situational value, the draftees would have another attribute -- a classification of sorts. If two draftees on a single team had the same classification, they would each receive some sort of stat bonus. I haven't quite decided what the classification or bonus should be. For classification, I was thinking of something along the lines of nationality, play-style, or some generic "chemistry" value. One idea for bonuses would be that if the defender and midfielder shared the same classification, they would increase their defense attribute by one; if the forward and midfielder share the same classification, they would increase their offense attribute by one. A more simple version would be to increase the consistency attribute of any player that shared a classification with another player on their team, even increasing it by the number of players that it is share with (i.e., as many as +2).

This classification makes individual draftees more attractive to players that already have a draftee with that classification on their team. This situational value is key to making the auctioning more interesting, so that players have to be more careful about bidding an opponent up.

Friday, September 17, 2010

draft, play, repeat!

I had the idea about creating a "fantasy sports" board or card game for some time now. A recent Tao of Gaming post regarding the upcoming Blood Bowl card game brought it back to my mind again. I looked at my initial notes, and only made some small adjustments, so I might start prototyping the game -- the first time I'd ever consider doing this with any idea I've had.

The inspiration comes primarily from my own feeling that the best part about fantasy baseball is preparing for and participating in the draft at the beginning of the season. After the draft, it feels like there's a lot of motion to see what final result is, even though the majority of the season is determined by the result of the draft. An article by Ron Shandler (which may or may not be available any longer) showed the results of a survey amongst fantasy experts. The results mirror my sentiment: the draft contributes the most to success; next in line is luck.

I have less experience with fantasy football, but it seems to me that the situation is similar: a small percentage of time (the draft) is spent on something that has a large impact on the results. The rest of the time is spent on activities that have little impact on the results, or merely on waiting to see the results.

The goal of the design is to create a game that would involve spending less time on determining the results of the season, which would allow multiple rounds of drafting. Here are the key principles:

  • The draftees (I use this term to separate the in-game player from the player playing the game) have some sort of quantitative value or values (e.g., skill attributes) that force the player to determine an relative value for that draftee

  • Preferably, it would be an auction draft, allowing the players to assign a value to a draftee

  • The results of the draft impact the result of the season, but don't dictate the results of the season. There should be some luck involved, but players should be able to play the percentages.

  • The season needs to be resolved quickly.

  • The value of a draftee should change over the course of the game, forcing players to re-evaluate the value of the draftee versus newly available draftees.

I came up with a system that I'm fairly happy with, with a bit of a soccer flavor to it. The draftees have three attributes: offense, defense, and consistency. A team consists of three players: one defender (defense only), one forward (offense only), and one midfielder (situationally offense or defense). Each action is carried out by rolling some dice; the number of dice depends on the draftee's consistency attribute plus the number of active stamina tokens the player has remaining. The highest roll determines the result of the action, but the offense/defense attribute determines the draftee's maximum roll value (rolls higher than this are rerolled). The various actions are performed, eventually goals are scored, and the game ends after about a dozen actions by each player. Finally, there's a simple system for adjusting the attributes of the draftees, changing their attractiveness for the next draft.

It works, but only playtesting will reveal if it's fun. Here are my primary questions:

  • Is good drafting required to win?

  • Is the luck manageable?

  • Can the games be played quickly enough?

  • How many seasons can be played in 30/60/90/120 minutes?

  • Are 3 draftees enough for a satisfying draft?

  • Are both the draft and playing the game fun?

I wish that the particular sport doesn't matter, but I believe that it would be important to be able to simulate, even if at an extremely abstract level, a real sport. Unfortunately, the most popular fantasy sports, baseball and football, require drafting players with extremely specific roles. This would require a large pool of players to draft from. With soccer, you can fudge it a bit, as I did above, and probably something similar could be done with basketball. Choosing the theme is important for two different reasons: it affects how the game is played, and it affects the attractiveness (i.e., marketability) of the game. Hopefully refining the core mechanics will allow them to be applied to a high-level simulation of almost any team sport.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

eminent domain

I've been playing a prototype of Eminent Domain. Seth Jaffee provided the files needed to print it out, and I've been playing 2- and 3-player games over lunch. It took about a half dozen plays to get all of the rules right, but we even enjoyed the game when we were playing it wrong.

Briefly, it's an engine-building game that utilizes role selection and deck construction. In fact, the role selection is the method for adding cards to your deck, which forces you to weigh the desire to use the benefits of a particular role with the consequence of adding that role card to your deck. There are three ways to score points (planets, technologies, and trading), and so far it has proven viable to pursue any combination of these three. That's the short of it; I'll let the BGG entry and Seth's blog add details.

Our last two 3-player games proved to be extremely close. Starting with a fertile planet, I pursued a harvest/trade strategy, trying to take advantage of reasearch, survey and colonize when possible. My opponents dabbled enough in harvest/trade to take some advantage of my calls, while also using warfare, colonize, and survey to play some high-point planets. The VP token pool exhausted to end the game, and the final scores tallied 21(1)-21(0)-20 (I was the 20). The winner had successfully been collecting armies with a "Take 2 armies" technology action, and then utilized a single warfare card to occassionally attack planets. Otherwise, he primarily relied on colonize to settle planets, while also gaining moderate VP tokens. A single leftover army won the game for him.

In our second game, I drew a fertile world to start again, but decided fairly early to eschew the harvest/trade strategy for something different. Instead, I tried to use a combination of warfare and colonize, along with some research and survey. Unfortunately, my surveys were fairly shallow, and I was drawing fairly low-point planets. I was last, which is a nice advantage in that you can guarantee yourself a win if you know that you can end your turn with more points than everyone else. (Points are fairly easy to track; the only "hidden" points are on research cards purchased and placed in the player's deck, but these are not so many that they are hard to remember.) When it came to my turn, I recognized that I could end the game while also building a 5-point technology, and it was unlikely anyone else would be able to research for points. However, this would have tied me with the leader, who also had some armies while I had nothing to help in a tie-breaker. Instead, I extended the game another round. I believe I researched that round for 2 points, and then followed a trade or attack/colonize so that by the time it was my turn again, I was only down by one point. The leader exhausted a role card pile on his turn, which was immediately before mine. Down 29-28, I held only 3 research symbols in my hand, but I also held a tech with a "Draw 3" action. I played that tech, and drew 3 cards. Only 1 research card came up. With no other way to gain points, I was forced to end the game 1 research card short of victory. Final score was 29-28-27.

Eminent Domain is well-received with my lunch group. Although it fills a different strategy space than Race for the Galaxy, there is one major similarity that forces it to compete for playtime: we can play two games of either within 90 minutes (yeah, we take long lunches if we're playing games). The role-selection also gives a similar feel where it's important to read your opponent, and gauge the optimal play based not only on how it helps you, but also on how it helps your opponent. The deck-building mechanic in Eminent Domain adds another layer to the role-selection, which complicates that decision. However, the cards are much less complex, which makes it easier to teach and learn Eminent Domain. If I had a group that wanted to learn both, I'd probably teach Eminent Domain first.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

partnerships: race for the galaxy

When considering a game that I could modify to approach the partnership design problem, I immediately considered Race for the Galaxy (RftG). Primarily, I chose this game because I am very familiar with it as my game group plays it often. Additionally, it already meets two of the four criteria I laid out in my previous post:

  • closed information - Each player holds cards in their hands that are hidden to other players. Additionally, Action Card selection is hidden until all actions are revealed simultaneously.

  • not a trick-taking game - Unless I drastically change the rules, this is most definitely not a trick-taking game.

Obviously the first point (partnerships) is the easiest to implement. For my design process, I focused on a four-player game, with two teams of two players each.

The only point that remains is to allow the players to communicate through play. Obviously there are a lot of other logistics involving how to players can play as a team, but I felt it was more important to focus on communication and let the details grow from that.

As noted above, there are primarily two aspects of the game that are hidden: cards in hand and the action selected by each player. These are what partners may wish to communicate to each other is some form.

When you consider a trick-taking game, usually the communication is open so that all players have a general idea what is being communicated. Leaving Bridge out of the discussion (as I am not qualified to speak to it), in many trick-taking games, players will play cards that do not affect the current trick to signal something about their hand. In RftG, if you are playing something that is ineffective, you are playing inefficiently and are going to lose. Therefore, another form of communication is necessary that does not require for inefficient actions.

I believe the best way to communicate with another player in RftG (without table talk) is to pass action cards and/or hand cards.

Action cards would be the easiest, as partners could share their planned action first, and then have the option for one or both of them to switch actions before playing them. This would require some verbal communication ("I'll switch mine. You keep yours."), but it would be a simple way for two players to act as a team. However, I think the uncertainty of non-verbal communication leads to more rewarding play. There are also other balance problems that would have to be worked with (Produce-Consume strategies would be especially strong).

Hand cards provide a variety of methods of communicating. Players could exchange cards, show their partners their discards (and perhaps allow them to exchange a discard for a hand card), or players could even openly discard as a way to openly cue their partner.

Unfortunately, the ways to communicate hidden information is not the most problematic portion of creating a partnership game out of RftG. Larger issues of balance with two players working together would need to be worked out. If I were pursuing this more seriously, I would consider setting up the game like a 2-player game with 2 actions per turn, and each partner is selecting an action. A shared tableau between partners is a possibility, but only if a system can be devised to determine who gets cards from trades and consumes (perhaps the one who chooses the phase IV action?).  There are several routes that this could take, but lots of playtesting would be needed to determine if the game ultimately breaks when two players are able to share information.