Saturday, May 5, 2018

Red 5

For several years I've been working on Downhill Racer, a game about the Olympic downhill.  It's a dice game whose central skill  is risk management.  You want to increase your speed to boost your score, but speed puts you at more risk of crashing.   The downhill course is represented by a series of cards, and each card shows you a "skier's eye view" perspective of the part of the course you're currently on, and you must make a single decision on each card.  This captures the feel of the downhill and I think it's very successful.

I had always thought of this as a solo game, but at the suggestion of John Velonis we tried a 2p variant years ago, and it has tested so well that I now think of it as the primary way of playing the game.  It's fun to try to stay upright as you race down the course, but even more fun when the other player is a little ahead of you and you're being pulled to speed up even if it's risky to do so.

But this had me wondering whether this same framework -- a two-player game, first person perspective, quick simple decisions -- could work in any other setting as well, and my first thought was the death star trench run scene.

Like the downhill game, each card will show a first person perspective of a section of the trench, with some gun turrets.  (Additional neat thing, visually, the cards are arranged in a pile, so the back-printing of the next card will show what's coming further down the trench, viewed from further away, then when you flip it you see it up close).

Unlike the downhill game, this one is asymmetric.  One player is the rebels (i.e. Luke) and the other is the imperial defenses and Vader.

In the downhill game, there are three skills, each card tests one of them, and you roll dice to see how many 'hits' you get of that card's skill.  In this game I think it will be more that you roll dice and pick the skill you want to use for that card.  For the rebels, I think it will be "fire", "shields", and "maneuver".  The idea is that if you can take out all the gun turrets on the present card, you can speed up, and speed makes you harder to hit as well as necessary for the final shot (it's a kinetic weapon or something like that).  But if you can't take out the turrets, maybe instead you direct energy to your shields, or you maneuver.

Why would you need to do that?  Because the Vader player also has three things he can do, fire the gun turrets, maneuver his tie fighter, or shoot.  Vader has a little card that shows his "targeting computer", and for him, maneuvering lets him move a marker closer to the center, and the closer it is the fewer successes he needs to hit you when he fires.  Thus, by you maneuvering, it moves that marker away from center and/or perhaps there's also a left-right thing that you can dance around to also make yourself harder to hit.  But when he has a clean shot and hits it, you lose one of your three X-wings.

Overall then it's something of a cat-and-mouse game.  My sense is that the climax should of course be the exhaust port, and obviously you should have to roll "fire" results to hit that.  Maybe as you get closer and closer the odds of hitting it go up, but the longer you wait the more you're risking getting blown up before you have a chance to fire.

Of course there are three things that the game wouldn't feel complete without, and I don't yet know how to include them:  R2, Han, and Obi-Wan/The Force.  My only idea here is that you have a special die that has an R2 face, a Millennium Falcon face, and one or two "The Force" faces.  Maybe you're limited when you can roll it or how many times, but if you do, R2 lets you regain a shield, Han takes out a Tie Fighter, and the Force gives you +1 to your shot at the exhaust port.

Lots to think about here and the key will be balancing it in such a way that, generally speaking, you're down to your last x-wing and Vader is close to targeting you and about to pull the trigger when you fire off your proton torpedoes.  But there's a lot to put in place before getting to the balancing!

Friday, March 9, 2018

The Hunt for ... something other than the Hunt for the Ring

Many years ago I had an idea for a chase-the-fugitive game in the spirit of Scotland Yard or Fury of Dracula, about the pursuit of the Frodo by the Nazgul.  But there was a twist:  this would be a three player game, with the third player taking the role of Gollum.  Gollum knows where the ring is at all times, but the Nazgul know where Gollum is at all times, so he has to carefully dance between leading the Nazgul right to it and staying so far away that Frodo is able to easily avoid him.


More recently I had the thought that you could implement this with a new kind of physical component:  a circular board with three screens, emanating from the center of the board to the edge, at 120 degree angles to one another.  So, each pair of screens gives a view of a section that is 1/3 of the total "pie".  But these 'pie slices' you can see are all redundant.  However, you only place your pieces on the slice that you view.  We're all moving on our own pie slice, and we don't know where the other people are.  Except that, at certain times, or perhaps in perpetuity, the board rotates by 60 degrees, such that each player has information about one other player's position.  So in the LotR, Gollum sees himself and Frodo, Frodo sees himself and the Nazgul, the Nazgul see themselves and Gollum.


Of course, a new Hunt for the Ring game just came out so my take on this idea will never go anywhere.  But could the idea be used in some other way?  I don't know but maybe it's worth thinking about.  Divorced from the original restriction of the LotR theme,  I like the idea of a divided circular board that can be rotated by 60 degrees in either direction, so you can get information about what either of your opponents are up to.  Call it the "lazy susan" mechanic. 


The thing is, a cat and mouse game has two participants, so the third participant has to have a well defined role that makes thematic sense, and by which that player can win outright; he/she doesn't simply choose to take the side of one or the other.  This would also seem to preclude a three-sided game.  For example, maybe it's a heist or caper game, and we're the crew, but we don't trust each other so we can 'use the building's security camera' (rotate the lazy susan) to see what the others are really up to.  This is an ok idea perhaps, but there's nothing intrinsically three-player about it.  But maybe that's ok.


A totally weird idea that just popped into my head was Hamlet, with the three players being Hamlet, Claudius, and King Hamlet's Ghost.  This isn't a perfect three-sided game because Hamlet and the ghost are nominally on the same side, but perhaps victory conditions could be defined that let them technically function independently. 


Another different idea could be that the three pie slice sections aren't redundant, but in fact the board is all one big board and we're only seeing (and acting in) parts of it at any one time.  In such a case part of the game would be controlling the 'rotation speed' of the lazy susan; you'd be trying to keep the other players from being able to interfere too much with the things that you set up in that other part of the board there.  The biggest problem with a game like that, I think, is probably memory.


Yet another weird idea, in this case a deduction game.  Say we spilt the board into quarters or fifths, however many suspects there are.  Each pie slice is a redundant map of the manor, and you use each slice to track the actions of ONE suspect.  There are a set of discs, in each character's color, that represent the whereabouts in the mansion of each character at a given hour of the night.  Additionally there are cards that correspond to rooms and times.  We are detectives who perform interviews (get cards) which authorize us to learn the whereabouts of the interviewee by placing a token on the map in that person's slice of the board.  You can rotate the board to get information about different people's whereabouts as well as to interview suspects and be authorized to place additional tokens.  Obviously as more and more tokens are placed the picture becomes more and more complete. Taken comprehensively you are trying to piece together the crime.  Who was in the room, alone, with the victim, when?  And who else did that person talk to, and might those people have been accomplices?  And whom can you place in the room that originally, or subsequently, contained the murder weapon?  It's not certain that this idea strictly requires the lazy susan but maybe it provides a useful framework to think about a mystery from the standpoint of reconstructing it from the testimony of the suspects.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Collusion turns 10



I don't exactly finish designs very quickly.  In particular, I have three games that I've actively worked on for more than ten years.  One is Sands of Time (2003-2015), a second is Lost Adventures (2005-present).  The third is Collusion, which this year at some point will become 10 years old.


This one has a silly origin story.  alea spiele's games all have a "complexity rating" from 1-10.  Puerto Rico is a 7, Princes of Florence a 6; I wondered, what would a 10 look like?  Obviously there are plenty of complex games that would rate a "10" on Alea's scale, but to design a game that could be a 10 and also conform to the other criteria that make an Alea game (i.e. componentry that could fit into one of their boxes, etc), seemed to be an interesting challenge.




My early iterations at this project were rather unfocused, but the design over the last few years clarified a bit into a game of flexible power.  You have a set of power discs and you can deploy these to give you permanent upgrades toward certain actions, or can hold them back to retain flexibility.  Some of your discs are deployed to a rondel, and each season you either take an action, using the power from the current season on the rondel, or pass and move this season's discs to the top of the next season's stack, giving you more power later in the year.  But actions can close out so you don't want to wait too long on the things you most want to do.  Why do you need power?  Because the actions have a varying cost and so having enough power to execute them is important.  But, you can form marriage alliances and call on your allies to provide you with power boosts in exchange for loaning them some of your discs.

Just because it should work doesn't mean it will

So here's where we hit the wrong turn.  We want actions to require power, and moreover to have a varying cost?  Let's then say that the power is indexed to the strength or quality of the thing you're trying to act on.  For example, you want to expand a barony?  The power needed is the size of that barony.  You want to add a faction tile to the board?  The power needed is the presence of that faction on the board already.  You want to add an estate?  The power needed is your presence on the board.  In some ways this isn't as bad as it sounds, but with 9 different factions, you need to track your intrinsic power in each faction AND the power needed for the target of each faction.  I came up with a few schemes to make this easier this via clever board layout but crucially, it never made the leap for some players from "I am thinking about what I can do" to "I am thinking about what I want to do". 


As a last attempt, I tried to rip out the target-based cost for the actions and just had a single cost for each faction that scales the more it's used.  Still nope.  The problem, it turned out, was 50% due to the cost thing, but also 50% due to the confusion of keeping track of your power in each faction.  It just didn't work.


Moreover, the game didn't have much collusion in it, truth to tell.  So, back to the drawing board.  But the upshot from the last failed go-around was that I had ordered little "aspirin pill" pieces in five colors for tracking your power in each faction, and so, can we use them for something else?


My latest idea is to streamline the actions and (for now) give each the same power cost.  That cost is high enough that you won't usually have that much power, so other players have to contribute 'influence' to support your chosen actions, and that's what the pills are now used for.  You have a limited supply per year.  Thus, you want to select actions that support your secret goals, but that are congruent with the interests of the other players, so they will invest support in your actions.  So there's "cut-throat cooperation".


Collusion




A few words about collusion are in order.  Each player has secret goal cards; maybe one says "Barony X is the biggest barony", another says "The Builders control 2 cities".  Additionally there's scoring for control of the baronies, based on the size of those baronies.  So your first instinct in playing a game like this is to try to find a way to achieve synergy between all of the goals you were dealt, and with grabbing the best baronies.  But in this game, the intent is actually that you will try to seek synergy with the goals of other players.  This comes through even more now that you need the players to directly invest in your actions to pull them off.  So if I have a "Barony X" goal, and I want to expand that barony, I can probably do that more easily if someone else is the baron and thus it's in their interest to help me.  This isn't technically the dictionary definition of collusion, but the idea is to find ways to create mutual interests of this sort, and I think there are a few layers on which you can do it.  I think the fact that scoring occurs only at the end also promotes this.


Actions in a sensible framework

I just bought alea's "In the Year of the Dragon" and realized that in many cases, what makes an alea game an alea game is a simple and unified action selection framework.  Their games (generally) don't have turns with a lot of phases or menus of turn actions that are wildly divergent in their effects.  This clarified for me the direction that the action system needs to go:  each 'season', one of the five 'baronies' is active, and each player is going to propose one action.  Each action will take place in one of the barony's territories, which means by implication that every action has to specifically perform an operation that can be associated with a territory or the stuff that's in a territory.  So some of the possible actions needed to be thrown out, because they don't fit this framework.




I think that the game that results is self-contained, although whether it's good is still TBD based on playtesting. 




Rules document here:  https://docs.google.com/document/d/1NU6VRy81rBpUar71Vp8R8c0ctO8kY6oh1ZtA2NR8yx4/edit?usp=sharing

Dungeon Temp Agency

This week we had a playtest of Dino Resort that went pretty well.  The main action in the game -- proposing cards that you think the active player will like -- works well in the sense that you're torn between offering them something good, which will also pay you well, and offering something poor, which won't help them but also they probably won't pick it.  The economy is a bit too tight -- players could benefit from more money to spend and an easier time acquiring cards to have more options to propose.  It might also not hurt to have a bit more diversity in what the cards do -- maybe some offer income, others offer simple bonuses or discounts or something like that.  Still it's off to a good start.


This week I revisited an idea I had recently that frankly I'm surprised no one else has already come up with.     Players represent employment agencies trying to find workers gainful employment, but these workers aren't looking for office jobs:  rather, they're adventurers looking for interesting quests to join.

I think there would be a deck of cards representing the different adventurers, which you draw and which you then have to assign to different quests; I suppose there are several quests available at any time.  Other players will be proposing cards to those same spots.  There needs to be some simple way of evaluating whose proposed card(s) is/are the 'best'.  When the adventure is full the quest begins, dice are rolled and we see whether the quest succeeded or not.  If it did, you get a share of the loot, if it failed...something bad happens.

To me the toughest thing about this design is that it's probably supposed to be a bit of a send-up, but I'm not nearly well enough acquainted with or affectionate toward D&D to be able to pull this off very well.  So the game might end up being functional but not very funny.  On the other hand, Munchkin already exists so there's no need for a game that's just a box full of jokes.

I guess the idea should be that each quest should be represented with a card and should say something about the skills that it requires and the difficulty it will take to pass it.  So you want to propose cards to complement the skills that are already represented by the cards in the party.  But where do those cards come from?  Instead maybe everyone is putting forward one member of each party and so you're deciding which quests to really invest in and which ones you think are likely to tank. Maybe there are, say, 6 quests open at any time, and a quest runs when it gets 5 members, and then a new quest is put in its place.  So each turn would consist of placing a card from your hand onto one of the quests.  (Maybe there's also a way that 'NPCs' are added via a random die roll).  This would mean that the rewards for the quest are divided asymmetrically based on the number of cards each player invested, and perhaps on the quality of those cards as well.

Of course it's a dungeon game so you have to roll dice to see whether a quest succeeded or failed.  Maybe it's as simple as there are a few types of icons, and each icon on a character card means a die that character gets to roll of that type against the dungeon/foe.  But some skills aren't useful against certain foes.  Roll the dice and compare against the required level for that skill, and then if it succeeds pay out rewards, but perhaps the dungeon also can deal out damage or something.

Obviously like all of these ideas this needs more thought but I think there's a simple and perhaps slightly silly game in here somewhere.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

In the Fairy Forest

At an intermediate stage of Sands of Time, the game was a study in dichotomies -- each action could be directed inward or outward, you could acquire peasants or warriors, you could pursue crops or gold, etc.  Most of these choices weren't true dichotomies, and in the end the design moved on, but I have nevertheless thought it would be interesting to design a game where every decision is truly binary.  How would this work?  Maybe something simple like action cards that say "Do X or do Y", you draw a card and do what it says each turn.  I'm not sure how fun a game like that would be, though, but it would certainly be easy to play.  Actually, it could probably even fit into the recent fad of games without rulebooks, or at least with very few rules.  In fact you could probably see a simple little area majority game that worked in this way.  (And yes, it does occur to me that a game about giving other players ultimatums is itself a game about binary choices -- there is and always has been crosstalk between my designs to be sure.)


Anyway, that's not the game that this post is about.  I've not really made a gateway game, but there are lots of gateway games out there; is it possible to do something different?  To start we'd first have to ask what elements are common to gateway games, and the big 3 point to some commonalities -- trading (Settlers), tile placement (Carc), drafting (Ticket to Ride).  There are plenty of other games that use each of these, so perhaps a new game would have to be built around something different; what could that be?


My idea was for something that I might call "flow control".  Picture the Wheel of Fortune game, "Plinko", where the player drops a disc, it bounces around, and ends up in a box at the bottom.  What if you controlled the path it took to bounce so as to control where it ends up? 


So in that sense, maybe we are fairies in the haunted forest, and unwitting travelers are going to enter the forest.  The path through the forest contains many forks, and at each fork one of us is going to steer a traveler down one path or the other.  Maybe that happens as an intentional action, or maybe it's that we place 'toll-gates' that can variously open or close off the different paths.  I suppose that at the opposite edge of the board there are cities or castles or something that we're trying to steer people to, and maybe we get a reward depending on how many people arrive at each castle.


On further thought, I thought that perhaps these represent different kingdoms, they want something from the fairy forest but are too scared to enter it themselves, but we are too little to carry anything, so we have to convince the travelers to do it for us.  This led to an idea that each traveler is represented by a stack of a couple of gold coins, representing their purse.  During the game, we'll place tiles which can convert those coins into other colors of discs (so that we can keep it together as a stack), representing the 'magic goods' from the forest that the kingdoms desire.  And then the reward upon reaching a kingdom is dependent on the number of goods carried by that person, of the type that that kingdom says it wants.


What I'm really aiming for here is an uber-simple turn mechanic, something like "place a building tile, then move a traveler two spaces".  This leads to questions that mostly revolve around what the players own -- do they 'own' individual travelers, or houses, or certain paths?  I think the answers are "no", "no", and "maybe", which would mean that the game isn't so much about building the best routes, but rather about capitalizing on good routes by loading them up with 'toll collectors'.  So when you move a traveler, you can follow a path that loads that traveler up with goods but it will mean that the players squatting on that route will make points from it.


If players don't control individual travelers, then there's an element of 'I don't want to be the one to put this piece in position from someone else to move it into a good kingdom and score the points for it'.   To be sure, if the game forces you to advance a traveler or two, then eventually every piece will have to find a home, but the game will mostly be about not being the one to set up the other player for the big score.  So maybe you should be able to gain ownership of each traveler -- you place a pawn on the stack of discs or something like that.  Actually this could be nice, if you are still allowed to move any traveler -- you could essentially guide another player's traveler down a path that bleeds that traveler of his excess wealth.


Clearly this is a very, very rough idea that barely even counts as a game at this point.  But it's posted here in the spirit of completeness and in the hope that thinking about it a bit may shake some ideas loose.


(A more cynical take on the theme would be that the 'kingdoms' that we're leading the travelers to are really the villains of fairy tales, but that's pretty grim and not particularly family-friendly!)

Ooh-de-lally

I mentioned in a previous post a design concept that unwittingly ended up being a combo of two of my favorite games from my own childhood.  The idea in this post appears to be an unwittingly nostalgic amalgamation from my daughters' childhood.


As kids, my daughters loved Disney's Robin Hood.  Loved it.  Watched it all the time, had dress-up outfits that my wife made, had the bean bag toys of the main characters, played Robin Hood in the yard daily (with me always cast as the petulant Prince John, complete with Peter Ustinov-inspired vocal affectation).  It was a great time in our family's life.


Separately, one of the first games my oldest daughter picked up was Mr. Jack, and we played it many times over the years.  It never quite caught on with my younger daughter but that's ok.  But we had fun playing, and my daughter even made me an expansion set of characters as a birthday gift one year, and they worked pretty well.  This design isn't really a conscious attempt to combine these nostalgic reflections into a game, but it may be influenced by it. 


I had a chance several years ago to playtest a Robin Hood game in which the players were the villains in the story, trying to shake Nottingham down for profit while avoiding the pesky Robin Hood.  I didn't like the game very much, and a key reason was, I think, because my views of Robin Hood were so heavily shaped by the Disney movie and the Dukes of Hazzard.  The villains are bumbling nincompoops and this didn't come through in the game at all.  It was entirely too serious.  I churned the gears in my mind for many years trying to come up with a way to capture this dynamic correctly but mostly left it alone.


Over the last few months, I've thought about the idea a bit more, but the latest thought is of a two-player game, fairly minimalist in its presentation, that captures some of the things about the movie that make it fun:  Robin Hood himself is a slippery, well, fox, so attempts by the Prince to brute-force him often fail.  Robin often shows up in disguise, so you never really know where he is.  Robin is beloved by the populace, and stories that lionize him and belittle Prince John are important, almost more important than the actions he's actually responsible for.  The Prince is always scheming, always trying to concoct the killer plan to ensnare Robin, but he is usually able to spring the trap.  The Prince is obsessed with gold, and taxes the people mercilessly, but Robin, through theft and cunning, supports the people and gives them hope until King Richard's return.


You can see a lot of the same ingredients in here as the ones that animate Mr. Jack, as well as one of my other favorite 2p games, LotR: The Confrontation.  That one is basically "Stratego with cards", but the card play adds a layer to the positional play and fog-of-war of the hidden movement. 


My first idea, then, is that each player has a deck of (say) 9 cards, and 9 pieces (characters) that move around the board.  For the Robin Hood deck, each card has an icon matching one of the moving pieces, and Robin Hood selects one of these and keeps it separate -- this is his disguise.  There are a few implications of this.  First, every time Robin plays a card, he's giving Prince John some info about his true identity.  Second, Robin is also depriving himself of the power of the card he's keeping out.


I think each card has a special action that it initiates, but also has 1-3 icons for resolving a battle.  The different locations on the board will each have an icon showing what type of battle is fought there if pieces from opposite sides should meet, and then you count up the icons of that type from (a) the pieces themselves, and (b) one card played by each player.  Icons are precious so it will probably be that cards with more icons also have better powers.


Another thought I toyed with in a different game and may want to employ here is an idea of asymmetric currencies.  Something like "Gold" and "Support".  Robin would use gold to pay for his actions and would win by acquiring support, whereas John uses support for his actions and wins by acquiring gold (he doesn't care if the people love him or hate him, he just wants his gold).


I think there also could be some element whereby the different Team John characters could have each have a weakness, which somehow the Robin cards are able to exploit.


Overall I think it's a minimalist game and the key is to come up with a simple framework for the action to take place such that it can be played very quickly.


As I'm writing this, it occurs to me that an entirely different take on the game could be to still have it be a 2p game, but one of the players is Prince John and one is the Sherriff.  They're on the same side but it's a competitive game, and the game would have to erect barriers to their ease of coordination with respect to their efforts to stop Robin Hood.  Something like Prince John controls the strategic layer of the fight against Robin and the plundering of Nottingham, and the Sherriff controls the tactical layer, but these aren't always well coordinated so they won't always, or often, be effective.  Hmm, that needs more thought.  It sounds harder to design, but it might certainly offer something different.

Ars Poetica

This one is cheating a bit as I've already worked on this one a bit including several playtests, but in the spirit of sparking creative productivity I'll say a few words about it here.


P.D. Magnus is a good friend of mine, and I'm a huge fan of his creation, The Decktet.  The Decktet is a game system, so P.D. and many others have designed games for it.  It's a deck with a novel mathematical structure, whereby each card has two suits instead of one, so the games you can create for it are also rather novel.  But the cards also have really neat, quirky and evocative illustrations, and I've never seen a game utilize these as part of the gameplay.  Thus I conceived a word game, in which you lay out a set of cards and must compose a line of poetry using those illustrations.  The rule is that each card must provide exactly one word for the poem.  The game gives you freebies -- pronouns, articles, prepositions, etc. but the main words come from the illustrations and your imagination.  There are similarities with Dixit, but Dixit is an association/mind-reading game of the Apples to Apples variety.  This game is a language game; it's about getting words and putting them together in semantically meaningful combinations, but since it's poetry there's plenty of scope for creativity.


I struggled with a scoring system, but happily P.D. tested the game and came up with a system that works very well.  In a 4p game, each player composes three lines, using 6 cards each.  Thus there are four total sets of 6 cards.  Everyone is given 4 cubes and must distribute them to the other players, however they wish, for "best overall poem".  Then each player receives 2 cubes and must distribute them to the other players for 'best line', for the 6 cards that the player did not himself use.  Finally, each player gets 6 cubes and distributes them for 'best word' for each card in that line.


So this encourages you to write a poem that makes sense overall (not at all easy), but also to try to come up with clever and creative uses of the illustrations.  An illustration that includes a sword can be used woodenly as "sword", but thinking more creatively can lead you to "sharp" or "pierce" or even "divide" or "draw".  It's up to your creativity and the needs of your poem.


The Decktet version of the game is currently entitled "Unlock Yourself", in honor of the best line of poetry we've heard the game produce so far:  "Gentlemen stab through clutter -- unlock yourself!"


But I think the game could be played with non-Decktet illustrations as well; for example you could probably play with Dixit cards.  To explore this I'm hoping to also add in something that's not easy to include in the Decktet:  additional 'goals' for the players, in the form of poetic devices.  I think there would be 6-10 cards, and you reveal one or two each game, and it awards points for each use of that device.  Things like rhyme, alliteration, repetition, onomatopoeia, etc.  Not sure if this is a variant or a core ruleset, but I think this would be the main difference between "Unlock Yourself" and the more pretentiously-entitled "Ars Poetica".  I think these can live as separate games and that the latter could be a standalone game with its own illustrations, if a publisher wanted to do that.  I do think the scoring system is probably a little involved for a family game, but it really is essential for getting all aspects of the composition process to shine through so I don't think it can easily be simplified.


I guess this shares with Ultimatum my interest lately in trying to come up with elements that haven't been used in games previously.  There are word-assembly games but I've not seen a game in which you have to assemble words into a composition like this, and I like the way this shows through in the poems that players compose.  It's not just about their creativity, but also about their approach to language and how they think about language.  It's very different from strategy games but players have responded well to it so far so I hope that the broader gaming world might as well.