With Hands Wide Open

Earlier in the life of Scrapture, back when it was known as Cultus, players had a hand of cards that were hidden from their opponents. Games I had played and liked did things that way, so I ended up doing it too. What I liked about hands in other games (such as Magic) is that you always had to be thinking about what your opponent had. And similarly, you could hide important information from your opponent or trick them into thinking you had something you didn’t. They also make the game less mechanical and more strategic. After all, if you know everything your opponent has at all times, you should be able to play perfectly.

When I decided to try to simplify the game, one of the main components on the chopping block was Influence cards. Influence cards were what player’s hands were comprised of, and while I liked them, they were the easiest thing to cut. They felt supplementary, but in terms of mechanics and theme. With Influence out of the way, my initial instinct was to put Follower cards in their place. Players had to have a hand of cards, after all. Or did they?

I asked myself the question. What did the game gain by having a hidden hand? What would happen if hands were open information? In designing Scrapture, one of the biggest challenges has been getting players to interact and care about each other’s board, without resorting to “take-that” style mechanics. When hands were hidden, players tended to ignore each other and build their solitaire engine. If I added attack cards so that players could stop each other, that always felt bad for both the attacker and the victim.

When I tested open hands, just the opposite happened. The attack cards were still there, but people didn’t feel bad. They could see everything on the board, which allowed them to play around attacks. Players even felt good about successfully thwarting an attack. And the best part? Players were looking across the board to see what their opponents were doing and adjusting their strategy accordingly! I can’t tell you how good that made me feel after struggling to do just that for so long.

The lesson learned here is to challenge the core assumptions about what your game is. Look for those “what if” questions. Think about what each of your mechanics is bringing to the game and how they influence the behavior of your players.

Mechanics Update!

It’s been quite a while since I’ve done one of these. The game has gone through some dramatic changes over the past few months. I took a look through some of the past posts to get a sense of where the game was when last we spoke. I was amused to find how many of the innovations we’ve had over the course of development have also been discarded for something better. We’ve really come a long way with this game and we have learned a lot. So let’s talk a bit about what we have learned this time around.

Back around October of last year the game was feeling bloated and overly complex. We fell into this trap of adding a new mechanic every time we discovered a new problem. Games would drag on and turns were way too long. Playtesters would often give the suggestion of limiting the number of things that could be done during a turn. I had overlooked this feedback for a long time, since it would be a major change and I had no idea how to implement it without breaking the game. I eventually became so dissatisfied with where the game was at that I took the game back to a more early stage prototype using index cards. From there it was easier to try out some of these suggestions and build the game back up. We boiled the game down to the core fun mechanics and took the knife to anything superfluous. Let’s talk about what’s changed.

One of the main goals was to speed up turns so that all players would remain engaged throughout the game. The plan was to do this through some sort of limit on actions per turn. However, I didn’t want to simply dole out action points. I wanted this limitation to feel more natural and be part of the mechanics of the game. Our solution was to simplify the relative value of Influence cards, so that the number of cards in your hand represented the number of actions you could take. All actions now cost 1 Influence to perform. Alternatively, you can discard an Influence card to perform the action written on the card. During your turn, actions you take will sometimes reward you with Influence that can be spent next turn, up to a maximum of 5. This creates a soft limit of 5 actions per turn, but is based on what the player does during the game. I find this system much more natural and easier to explain.

Another goal was to make the game simpler to explain. I wanted to reduce the amount of effort a player would have to take in order for the rules to click with them. With that goal in mind, we removed the capacity mechanic from Shrines. Instead of requiring a certain number of Followers before the Shrine would activate, Shrine effects are now triggered based on player actions. For instance, a Shrine may now do something when a Follower enters it or provide some passive benefit to the player as long as there are 2 Followers in it. Doing it this way allows the card to completely explain how it functions and reduces the reliance on the rulebook to explain how cards interact with each other. It has the added benefit of simplifying the visual design of the card, while allowing more interesting mechanics.

We had another win for simplicity by eliminating the concept of Missionaries. Followers had this dual state system where they started as Followers and became Missionaries. As Missionaries, they remained as part of your tableau and provided you benefits. We liked the idea thematically, but we always found it challenging to get people to understand how the mechanic worked. Now Followers are simply able to be sent on a mission. Doing so costs 1 Influence and requires you to discard the Follower. The Follower card describes the benefit you receive when you send them on a mission.

Something I think our game has been historically bad at has been respecting the amount of space the game requires to play and how complex it is to set up. A more complicated initial setup often means an equally complicated storage system, both of which just create barriers. How much more likely is it that someone will play your game if it only takes 1 minute to set up and play? With this question in mind we merged all the core cards into 2 decks – one deck for Influence, and one for Followers, Relics, and Shrines. This greatly simplified the play space and setup. There are some downsides to doing this, such as making draws less predictable. We combated this by adding some cards that enabled players to manage the card pool and find the cards they needed. Ultimately though, our thinking came down to the type of game we are trying to make. Are we OK with the game being less about predictability and fairness for the sake of simplicity? I think a lot of the mistakes we have made over the course of development have been a result of too great a focus on fairness and not enough focus on fun. The recent changes have been a big course correction in that regard.

So where does that leave us? The game rules are quicker to explain. It’s easier to setup and takes less time to play. There are less components and there have been lots of quality of life improvements for the player across the board. Those all feel like huge wins to me. Also, have you seen the art lately? It looks amazing!

eternal_flame

Boston FIG!

We’ve been quiet here for a while, but at last we have some exciting news to share. We’ve been selected to show off our game at the Boston FIG Tabletop Games Showcase!

boston_fig_logo

This will be our first public showing of the game and we’re really looking forward to seeing what people have to say. This could be a big opportunity for us to gain some exposure and get people interested in what we’re doing. It also means we have a lot of work to do!

Right now, our main focus is getting a few copies of our game professionally printed on real card stock. This is something we’ve wanted to do for a while and this event is the perfect excuse to finally make it happen. Once that’s ready, we’ll be shifting our focus to putting together some promotion materials and sprucing up our social media.

The Boston FIG curators also sent us back some amazing feedback, and I thank them for their thorough and thoughtful comments. Blind playtests are very scary, but I’m happy to say that the feedback was largely positive. There were also some valid criticisms leveled and I’m going to be racking my brain trying to come up some solutions to these pain points that don’t involve increasing the complexity of the game. I think we have something clever and unique and we’re all going to be working hard to make it the best it can be.

I hope you can come out to Boston on September 14th to see us (it’s free!). And if you can’t, wish us luck!

Streamlining

It’s been a while since we’ve updated you on our progress, but we’ve been working hard. Most of the mechanics work has been focused on streamlining the game and making it more accessible to new players. I wanted to give you all an update on the things we’ve been doing to that effect.

We used to have a concept called “Storage”, which determined how many Relic cards you could have in play. Players started with a default storage of 1 and could get more by playing or buying certain cards. Storage was a value that would frequently change, which made it tough for players to keep track of and make sure they had enough storage for all their Relics. We wanted to get rid of this confusing concept while retaining the limiting factor on the Relics. Our current solution is to say that each Shrine can hold 1 Relic. This is a more natural progression and is very easy to visualize. It has the added bonus of increasing the value of Shrines and makes more sense thematically.

Previously, the mechanics wording on Influence cards were very flavorful. I was using a lot of keywords like “Discredit” and “Sacrifice”. To justify using these words, the rules had a glossary that players could use to look up their meanings. With the help of our playtesters, I came to realize how silly this was. By using direct and unambiguous language we make the game easier to learn and teach. Now instead of telling a player to “Sacrifice a Follower”, I tell them to “Remove a Follower you control from play”. It’s not very flowery and it’s much wordier, but a player can pick up this card and know what it does without having to cross reference the rules. We can just let the flavor text handle all the thematics.

One thing we are consistently working towards is reducing the amount of information we bombard the player with. We moved in the right direction with the Tribute changes, but we are now taking it a step further. Now whenever you draw a card, including at the end of your turn, you draw it face down. Face down cards can be spent, just like cards in your hand. At the end of your turn you can put these face down cards into your hand, up to a maximum of 6 cards in hand. This means that a player will only have to read, understand, and plan based on a maximum of 6 cards at a time. Since the players can still spend these face down cards, it doesn’t impact our existing economy. This also creates some consistency in how players draw cards, instead of having them sometimes draw face down and sometimes draw to their hand.

Lastly is a change that I will be trying out at our next playtest, so it may not stick. When we first introduced the idea of Prophecies I was very pleased with them. However, I’ve become less taken with them as time has gone on. The purpose of Prophecies was to make the game end dynamically so that players wouldn’t get an advantage based on turn order. While they perform this function well, Prophecies add quite a few rules to the game. I’ve also seen an unpleasant phenomenon where a player will need to completely calculate the current score of each player before they can feel confident playing the Prophecy that will end the game. In light of these issues I plan to do away with Prophecies and instead have Event cards trigger when a purchase pile is emptied or the Influence deck runs out and is reshuffled.

Combined, these modifications significantly reduce the length of my rules explanation. And while I’m not sure we will end up using all of these changes, I think we’re heading in the right direction. I’m looking forward to further playtests.

Online Playtesting

We have been especially productive these past few weeks and have been getting a lot of playtests in. I’m really happy with how the game has been playing. It feels like we’ve reached an important development milestone. Most of the feedback from our recent playtests has been about individual card balance and improving the way our cards communicate information. It’s a pleasant change and I’m excited about shifting my focus to address these challenges.

The main reason we’ve been able to get in so many playtests lately is that we figured out an effective way to play the game online. Having in person meetups has been great, but I had been searching for an easy way to play with remote friends and teammates. I learned about a really cool tool called Roll20 that was often used to play pen and paper role-playing games online. However, it is flexible enough to allow the creation of all kinds of games, including ours.

roll20_prototype

The above picture is a zoomed out subsection of a game the team played over the weekend. It took quite a bit of effort to put the prototype together, but it actually took less time than printing out a physical copy of the game. Roll20 isn’t perfect and often requires a bit of fiddling, but the ability to play with people on the opposite coast is well worth the effort. I definitely see myself using this tool as a supplement to physical playtests for the duration of this project and for future projects.

This Is Just A Tribute

At a recent playtesting meetup, I was able to sit out and observe people play our game. I highly recommend that designers do this, because it allows you to really pay attention to people’s body language during the experience. It was plainly obvious that players were becoming bored waiting for their turn to come around. And as the designer, that’s really hard to watch.

So, despite our efforts to speed the game up, we still had a serious problem with turn length. Thankfully the playtesters and fellow designers that go to the meetup gave great feedback. Based on their advice we’ve made a change that has had an extremely positive impact on the game.

The core of the problem was the introduction of new information during a player’s turn, primarily in the form of drawing cards. Every time a player drew a new card, they had to read the card and re-optimize their strategy for the turn. This could slow down the game to a crawl. And since they could use the cards to continue a combo, it compounded the problem.

One thing we could do is simply take away card draw, except for at the end of your turn. Since the cards are also your currency, I felt this change would make the game too watered down and boring. Another option would be to take away card draw, but to allow the players to gain temporary currency during their turn that they could use to pay costs. However, we didn’t want to add any additional materials for players to track that with.

With those things in mind, we came up with the new Tribute mechanic. Now whenever a player would have drawn a card during their turn, they instead collect a Tribute. They do this by drawing an Influence card and keeping it face down in front of them. Players can use Tribute to cover any costs during their turn. If they have any Tribute left over at the end of their turn, they draw it into their hand.

This solution retains all the fun combo mechanics, eliminates the introduction of new information during a player’s turn, and doesn’t introduce any new materials or cards. So far, the playtests I’ve done with this new mechanic (including one online using Roll20) have gone extremely well. The turns were going much faster and the players, including myself, were having much more fun.