Shrine Mechanics Video

I did a quick video to show you how one of our core mechanics works. It’s not super high quality and I totally mispronounced “Iconography”, but you get the idea.

I plan to do more of these short mechanics outlines, and eventually a full how to play video. Hopefully I’ll have some better equipment to work with for that. Leave a comment if you have any questions. And if you have some feedback regarding the mechanics or the video, I’d love to hear it.

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Gaining Credibility

I’ve been taking the game to a few game designer playtesting meetups. It’s been like walking into a hidden world full of creative and passionate people. Setting our game in front of people who have actually published games is honestly fairly intimidating. There was no need for that though. Everyone I’ve meet has been welcoming, helpful, and honest with their feedback.

I’ve got loads of notes and its going to be quite a challenge to figure out how to solve the problems the playtesters have raised. I’m not going to get into every point in this post, but I did want to talk about a recent addition that came about as a result of some of this feedback. I made a small mention of it in our last post, but now I’m going to tell you how we incorporated the change.

In the game, players draw their hand at the end of their turn. We did this because we felt that it gave players time to formulate a strategy for their next turn, thus speeding up the game. A consequence of this was that discarding was very frustrating, with the worst case being that you could lose all your cards an have nothing to do during your next turn.

We decided to essentially eliminating discard and replacing it with the “discredit” mechanic. Basically players would have a new value to maintain called Credibility, which could be anywhere from 0 to 5. Each Credibility you had at the end of the game would increase your Power (victory points) by 1. Effects could lower or raise a players Credibility and players could also raise their Credibility during their turn by paying Influence. We created new cards that would punish players for having a low Credibility, which would encourage players to spend Influence to keep it up.

The end result is a delayed discard mechanic. You can lower a players Credibility, which they will need to raise later by spending Influence (discarding cards). The main difference is that the player gets to decide when to lose the cards.

I’ve tested the game a few times now with this new mechanics, and so far so good. It seems to handle the problem it was meant to solve and the players seem to actually enjoy it. I also think that its a huge thematic improvement. It’s doing things for us that we had been trying to capture from the start.

Now that’s all well and good, but there’s one more thing we needed to deal with in order to meet our design goals. We had to figure out a way to keep track of Credibility without introducing any outside tokens or trackers. To do this we took a note from the game Bang! and put a value tracker on the backs of Culture cards. Below is a crude representation to give you an idea of what I mean.

Back of Culture

Back of Culture

A player can use their actual Culture card and place if partially covering the back of an unused Culture card. By sliding their Culture card up and down, they can indicate what their current Credibility is. We also put the starting Storage and Renown at the top, so that players won’t have to worry about remembering that.

I’m really happy with how this change is working out so far. I’m looking forward to bringing a better game to the next playtesting meetup.

Playtest Meetup

Born from a desire to get some more playtesters for the game and to network with other game designers, I started a Meetup group: http://www.meetup.com/NYC-Tabletop-Game-Designers/. The idea is that designers can bring their prototypes, help test other people’s games, and get theirs tested as well. And even if you aren’t working on anything currently, you can still go to meet other designers and maybe get inspired.

Prototypes

Prototypes

We had our first session on Tuesday (2/19/13). There were 4 prototypes to test, including our own, in various states of polish. The 2 games that I played were really fun and I’m looking forward to playing the other. The people that came were great, too. There was a lot of great feedback and ideas flying around.

Jesus running our game.

Jesus running our game.

Jesus ran our game and said that it was well received. The players seemed engaged and caught on quickly. They also gave us some really great feedback.

We’ve always struggled to keep the game going at a good pace and keeping turn length down. There have been some mechanics changes to help with that, such as having players draw their cards at the end of their turn. Our playtesters suggested that we could use the card aesthetics to help speed up the player’s analysis of the cards. As a result of that feedback, we are going to try putting icons on the Influence cards to indicate what “category” the card is in. Example categories could be attack, defense, or economy. This will help players quickly understand the purpose of a card and if they want to use it during their next turn.

The playtesters also suggested that the discard mechanic was counterproductive to keeping turns quick. Players may have spent time figuring out how their turn was going to go, but when they are forced to discard they will likely need to re-plan. On top of being frustrating, this ends up slowing down the game. We could also get into the even worse situation, were as a result of having to discard, a player has no options during their turn. Our playtesters suggested a possible solution to help deal with this problem. Instead of having a player discard a card, they receive a mark. This mark indicates that they will draw less cards at the end of their next turn, rather than discard immediately. The benefit here is that the victim is not forced to re-plan. The mark also sets expectations. Rather than planning a huge turn only to have it shut down before they could do anything, the player has fair warning about how their next turn is going to go.

Overall I thought the meetup was very valuable and fun. I’m really grateful for the amazing feedback we received. I’m definitely looking forward to the next one.

Picking on the Leader

I’ve still been struggling a lot with the player politics in our game. I feel that I’m able to articulate the problem a lot better then I was a month ago, so I thought I’d share some of my musings.

The main culprit is called targeted interaction. This is when a player can select who they want to interact with, either positively or negatively. In games like ours, where its very easy to tell who’s winning, players will often choose to gang up on the leader when they have the opportunity.

The obvious drawback to this is that players are punished for taking the lead, which can make experienced players hang back to avoid getting picked on. This is generally not a strategy we want to encourage.

Games like this can also tend to be a roller-coaster, where being in the lead at one point of the game means nothing. Players take the lead and are picked on in turn and only the end of the game matters. Ideally, we would want the actions the players make to be meaningful throughout the game.

There are some pros to this type of gameplay that I would be hesitant to do away with. Firstly, targeted interaction is thematic for our game. It wouldn’t feel right if you couldn’t directly attack someone.

Picking on the leader also acts as a catch up feature. Without some way to stop the leader from accelerating to victory, the losing players will feel as though they have no chance. And if the game is a long ways from being over, then being forced to play out a game you have no chance in can be very frustrating. Picking on the leader helps keep the game closer and more exciting.

Considering all this, I believe that the best course of action would be to try to blunt the impact of picking on the leader while still keeping the thematic feel and catch up features. I’ve decided to try adding defensive cards to that effect.

If we had high cost defensive cards, wealthy players could use them to help cement their lead. Having this option would make players less wary about taking an early lead. The leader would still get picked on, but the impact would be reduced making the game less swingy.

The bonus to this is that these defensive abilities act as a catch-up feature, since only the leaders really need to spend money on it. Since losing players are freed from this burden, they can put their resources toward catching up.

Adding these defensive options will hopefully help a player convert an early lead into a victory, while making the game much closer for the other players. I’m not positive that this course of action will have the right impact, but I’m looking forward to finding out.

2012 Media Dump

I have been making learning a priority these past few years. And lately I’ve been focusing my efforts on design and business. This project has been great for that and I’m really happy with how I’m growing. I’ve also been rounding out my education by listening to podcasts and reading. I thought I’d talk about a few podcasts and books in case anyone was interested in checking them out.

Podcasts

The Dice Tower – This podcast is about board and card games and industry news. It’s great for learning about new games to try, cool new mechanics, and what the industry is like.

Gamers With Jobs – This one is more about video games, but they talk about the occasional board game. This one is great just to hear people talk about what they liked about a game and what turned them off.

Seth Godin’s Startup School – Seth teaches you how to start projects and bring them to completion. If nothing else, it is extremely motivating.

Books

Tribes by Seth Godin – While we’re talking about Seth Godin I should mention Tribes. A short and sweet book about how to get people interested in what you’re doing.

Getting to Yes by Fisher, Ury, and Patton – This book is primarily about principled negotiation, but I’m finding it useful for communication in general.

Rapid Development by Steve McConnell – I’m a software engineer by trade and this book is tailored to software development, but it has taught me about how to lead and how to run a project better.

The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler – This book teaches you about the structure of a story. I think knowing how to create a good story has a lot of applications, including game design.

The Art of Game Design by Jesse Schell – This is the number one book I would recommend to an aspiring game designer. The book is divided up into lenses that you use to inspect various parts of your game. I still occasionally break out their nifty app that serves as a quick reference for all the lenses in the book.

Prophecy Fulfilled

We said farewell to Cindy and Will a few days ago. That’s the bad news. The good news is that we were able to get in 2 solid 4-player games before their departure.

Cutting out the prototype

Cutting out the prototype

I had printed out a version of the prototype with the Prophecy changes shortly before Xmas. I tried it out over the holiday and quickly discovered that the Prophecies were coming up too frequently and the reward for playing them was too great. At the time, a player was given 2 Power (2 points toward their final score) and 1 Renown (draw an additional Influence card at the end of their turn) for playing a Prophecy. With the reward being so good, it became the focal of the game, which was not the intent.

So before our farewell playtests, I made some quick changes to reduce the number of Prophecies in the Influence deck and changed the reward for playing a Prophecy to just 1 Renown. I decided to keep the Renown, because I wanted to encourage players to play Prophecies early in the game. I feel that if I had chosen to keep the Power instead, then the player would probably chose not to play them and thus drag out the game. Power has no benefit until the end of the game, so playing a card that only rewards Power merely slows down a player’s early game.

The game in full swing

The game in full swing

During the playtests, I was really starting to feel things click. I dare say that I was even having fun. That’s a refreshing feeling after having spent so much time analyzing and tweaking. The Prophecy cards were definitely an improvement over the rounds based system that we had before. This was also the first time that we tried randomizing which Shrines and Followers would be available for purchase. This went as well as we could have hoped. The first and second games that we played were very different in terms of the strategies we were using. Everyone seemed to enjoy discovering what they could do with these new options and combinations. The randomizer is definitely going to pay off in terms of replay value.

I’d say the biggest challenge we are facing now is creating a satisfying ramp up. During the games, it was taking too long to get the engine moving. The first few turns felt really slow, because you couldn’t really buy much yet. And just when your strategy was just starting to kick in, the game would end.

Fixing this is going to come down to tweaking what the game is charging to complete an action. I plan to start with a dramatic reduction of costs across the board, which will likely swing the game to the other extreme. After I get a glimpse of what the game feels like with a speedy ramp up, I can start doing more careful nudging of individual cards.

It’s going to take some time, but we’ll eventually get the game to follow a satisfying progression.

The Kingmaker Problem

A kingmaker scenario is a situation in a game in which a player, having lost the potential to win for themselves, is able to decide which of the other players will win. This is undesirable, although almost unavoidable in competitive games involving more than 2 players or teams.

When this scenario arises it lessens the enjoyment of all players, with the possible exception of the kingmaker. The winner, chosen by the kingmaker, doesn’t get as much satisfaction for their victory. The losers may feel as though their performance was not accurately reflected in the outcome of the game.

I was concerned that this problem might be showing up in our game. So when the next playtest came around, I was watching for it.

Co-designers Cindy and Jesus

Co-designers Cindy and Jesus

On December 1st, after a fun filled day at the Museum of Natural History, we found a table at a nearby restaurant for some dinner and a game of Cult Leader. I was extremely pleased that we managed to play the game at our tiny table amidst our plates of food and drinks. I’d say we’re in great shape with our portability design goal. However, it became apparent to all of us that we had a problem akin to the kingmaker scenario. And more importantly, we knew why.

At that point in time, our game was played for a predetermined number of rounds. At the beginning of each round an Event card would be drawn. When there were no Events left, the game would be over.

The player who went last every round generally had a tactical advantage, especially at the end of the game. And since the game had a predetermined end, players could tell whether or not they could win. When a player knows they have no chance to win, they will be more likely to play the kingmaker.

Our first idea for fixing this problem was to modify the turn order every round based on the players current score. The player with the highest power would go first and the player with the lowest power would go last. This meant that the player who was doing the worst would gain a minor tactical advantage, which we felt would balance it out.

However, this would create a lot of overhead at the end of each round. Players would need to calculate their score every round and keep track of changing turn orders. This solution also didn’t really address the kingmaker problem, since the end of the game was still predetermined. It might even have made it worse, since player scores would become more apparent.

Our next set of ideas was to put the power of ending the game into the player’s hands. If the players didn’t know exactly when the game would end they may feel that they still have a chance to claim the victory, thus making it less likely that one of them will turn kingmaker. This also eliminates the last player advantage problem, since a player basically chooses to end the game when they feel they are in the lead. They still get an advantage, but it’s by their design rather than mere happenstance.

We experimented with a few different versions of this, but for now we’ve implemented it using a new card type called Prophecy. I think we’re going to have a lot of fun on the flavor for these. Our plan is to use extremely vague, Nostradamus style prophecies that could mean absolutely anything. They will poke fun at how prophecies will always come true given time and a flexible perception.

Overall, the changes to make this work were pretty minor. We eliminated the concept of rounds, but kept the Event deck largely unchanged. Events are now triggered when a player plays a Prophecy card. The Event triggers as normal, effecting all players equally. After that, the player who played the Prophecy card claims the Event and puts it into play under their control. Events increase the number of cards a player draws at the end of their turn by 1. We are still tweaking the reward for Events, but I feel this makes them appealing while not being to powerful.

The game will now end when the Event deck runs out or if 3 of the Follower and/or Shrine piles run out. The secondary condition gives players another way to end the game and will help prevent games from dragging on.

We will still be making minor tweaks to the cost, reward, and frequency of Prophecy cards, but I feel good about them. It has a strong and fun theme component and it does a lot to help mitigate the kingmaker problem.