Cram @ Gen Con: Takeaways Between One Year

 

Hi!

Phil, Cindy, and I are still here, I promise you. We’ve been working on the game as best we can. What really helped us came from Phil’s two trips to the table-top gaming con Mecca known as Gen Con. And they have been very important trips to the game’s development.

Truth Bombs at Gen Con 2015

When Phil took the game to Gen Con 2015, it was very different.  The 2015 version of the game had Influence cards, which players could use to draw cards, gain points, etc.  At that point, Phil considered the game completed. There was some complexity to it, but it had solid mechanics that let you do interesting things once you figured it out.

He presented the game to some designers at the Game Crafter Community Game Night (they’re the ones that print our game). It was there where fellow designer Andrew Voigt – designer of Perspective – delivered the strongest criticism about the game it had ever received.

“If I went over to a friends house and they asked me to play this game, and after we were done they asked “do you want to play again?”, I would say “no thank you”.

Phil said it hit him so hard that he still remembers it.

 Andrew explained it further.There was too much decision space in the game. All the choices and different directions that find the best way to win were mentally draining. The game was overloaded with effects, most of it coming from the Influence cards.

 Scrapping, Stripping, and Simplifying

After the criticism, the options were to either accept the game as is or do some major fixing. That very night at the hotel Phil started working (with Emma‘s help) on making the game a simpler one. The focus was finding what were the key interactions of the game – and cutting out the ones that weren’t.

After feedback with the different Gen Con crowd, this was how the game changed:

  • We cut Influence and Cultures as cards from the game.We are now using the word “Influence” to mean victory point. Cultures are now just a flavorful aesthetic for your cult.
  • Shrines are now part of a player’s starting setup and are the focal points for interactions.
  • Followers are now the main currency of the game. You work to attract and use them to “power” your actions.
  • Relics are the only way you can score points now, so you need to interact with them to win.  They are now center stage in terms of the game theme as well.

The game now now has a much more simple core gameplay loop Now that the heart of the game centers on three types of cards instead of five, it’s more accessible.

What Happened One Year Later?

This year at Gen Con 2016 Phil had playtests with this leaner version of our game, and the reports are that it went well. Two of the groups managed to get through two full games. One three-player group got it done under 30 minutes, which is awesome.
There was still room for improvement, of course. Here’s a few of the major points of feedback that Phil collected:
  • There is some confusion and/or loopholes on some of the cards. They aren’t major but they need to be fixed for clarity and to plug any exploits.
  • We’ve still had issues with a tiebreaker option. Phil asked the groups that played for good ideas on a tiebreaker, and he thinks he has figured it out.
  • One game had a problem where a player was essentially eliminated from play because they did not attract enough followers. This might turn off new players, so Phil has a potential fix for that as well.
  • Everyone loves the art and the flavor.
  • The game description was appealing and drew people to come play it.

The most important aspect of this feedback is that it’s coming from regular players. The help of other designers has been essential to getting the game this far. However, game designers are always looking to give you feedback and they aren’t always interested in the kind of game you’re making. This event was nice because the people who played chose to play it. In the end, you can’t beat the satisfaction of watching people enjoy your game and have fun.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.