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.

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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.

November Prototype

At the beginning of November, we were ready to print another prototype. The rules and most of the cards had been rewritten. Things were coming together nicely and I was anxious to test out the changes. Cindy had also put some work into the card layouts, which made the game much more pleasant to look at and the rules easier to grasp.

I went through the extra effort to sleeve all the cards this time. Its pretty easy to just take a sleeved card and put a paper insert in front of it, but it makes a big difference when you actually play the game.

Prototype Nov 2012

Prototype Nov 2012

The cards are sturdier, easier to handle, and it makes the prototype feel more real. I’m a big believer in using higher quality materials to do your work. I think it gives what you’re doing a sense of higher importance. It helps keep me motivated and it reminds me that I really am a game designer.

We got a lot of great critiques out of our playtests, despite my poor performance at eliciting feedback. It can be really tough not to get defensive, but it is absolutely essential to focus on asking questions and listening if you hope to get any useful information out of your playtests. Never waste time justifying a design decision, even if you feel the feedback you are being given is wrong. If you go down that road, you run the risk of making your playtesters feel that their feedback is not welcome. Your game will suffer for it. This is a skill I am intent on getting better at.

The game obviously had its problems, but I think the core of the game worked well. It had strategic and puzzley aspects that were really satisfying. If we want these elements to shine, we need to cut away or rework the parts that are holding the game back.

The game being puzzley has its upsides and downsides. The main downside is known as “analysis paralysis”. This is where the player has so many options that they become overwhelmed. While it can be fun for the player to figure out what the best move is, its not terribly exciting for the other players to sit and watch them do this. There are a few ways to deal with this. One is to give players something to do when its not their turn, so the waiting is not so bad. You can add some form of trading or defensive actions, so that players remain engaged while they wait for their turn to come around. You can also make player’s turns shorter by splitting up the phases of a turn or having some phases be shared amongst all players.

What we ended up doing, was reduce the amount of new information a player had to process when it became their turn. Players now draw their cards at the end of their turn, rather than at the beginning. This way, the players can figure out their possible moves during the other player’s turns. So far this has been helpful, but I think there is even more we can do to speed up the game.

One thing I had begun to worry about was that players would settle into a strategy that worked for them and never deviate. This would grow stale very quickly, because the player would no longer be challenged by unanticipated scenarios. The plan to solve this is to add randomness to the starting setup. This way players would have to readjust their strategy for each new game. We added several new Shrines and Followers to the game. Now, when the game is set up, a subset of the Followers and Shrines are randomly selected to play with for that game. We think this will give the game longevity and creates an opportunity for future expansions.

The number one problem we had was wording. The player’s expectations about what a card did, was not always lining up with my intentions. Sometimes this was because of a situation arising that I had not planned for, but most often the culprit was ambiguous wording. The most frustrating was the inconsistent use of the word “discard” to refer to cards being removed from your hand and/or from play. This prompted yet another rewrite of all the cards to use a keyword system. I tried to identify most of the unique mechanics and give them a name. For example, “discard” now only refers to removing cards from your hand. “Destroy” is now used when you are removing an opponent’s card from play. And “sacrifice” is for when you are removing your own card from play. We are still tweaking the wording and trying to bring the keywords more in line with the theme. Overall, I think it’s helping.

The last thing I want to talk about from these tests is a problem I’m referring to as the King-Maker Problem. However, I believe our journey toward addressing that issue merits its own post. So you can look forward to that in the next few days.

Jesus Joins Us at the Round Table

On September 26th 2012, Jesus joined Cindy and I for his first game of Cult Leader. We had brought him in on the project a while ago and it was good that we did. The ideas that he brought to the table that day were the inspiration for many significant improvements.

Prototype

Prototype

Unfortunately, we don’t have any pictures from that day. I still have the old prototype though, so I laid them out and snapped some pics. This version of the game had Influence cards, which act as currency and also give you special actions that you can pay for. It had Event cards, which change play for the round that they are flipped. The Shrines and Followers were always available to be purchased with Influence. Filling up a Shrine with Followers would grant special bonuses. And finally God cards, which were dealt out to players at the start of the game and granted unique benefits. Also, note the paper cutter that I purchased online immediately after I cut out 300 cards for our next prototype.

Influence Cards

Influence Cards

This was the first prototype we made where the cards you drew were also the currency you used to purchase things. The currency in our game is called Influence, and you can gain Influence in a variety of ways. Influence cards also give the player access to special actions that they can execute by playing the card and spending any required Influence. In earlier versions, the player was granted a certain amount of money to use during their turn and they had to mentally keep track of it. And in versions before that, we were keeping track of money with tokens.

Having the Influence cards be the currency and a way to give additional options to the player does a few things for us. It allows us to stay true to our design goal of using only cards. The player can easily keep track of how much they have to spend. It also introduces some interesting decision making, since the act of buying something requires the player to discards some of their options.

After this playtest, we ended up splitting the Influence cards into Ideas and Relics. Ideas would perform the same function of providing one-time actions to the player. The new Relic cards would be played the same way, but would persist. This split came from a change in our theme.

Before Jesus entered the picture, the setting of the game was to be on another planet where strange and varied religions were only just starting to form. Jesus had the idea to set the story in a post-apocalyptic Earth, far into the future. And the thing that sold me on this setting was his idea for Relics. The people of this distant future are far more technologically primitive and have little knowledge of what came before. However, they find these strange Relics and take them as sacred artifacts and ritualistic devices. Bringing these into the game gave the player some more interesting choices and gave us a great way to inject a lot of flavor into the game.

Shrines and Followers

Shrines and Followers

The basic mechanics for Followers and Shrines has remained largely the same in the past few versions. Both can be purchased from a common area by spending Influence. Shrines provide you with benefits and/or Power (victory points) once the Shrine meets or exceeds a specified attendance. Followers must become a member of a Shrine when purchased. Followers can also become Missionaries by removing them from the Shrine. If you do so, you gain a benefit unique to that Follower type. After this playtest, we added a few more Follower types and tweaked the benefits of all the Shrines and Followers.

God Cards

God Cards

The idea behind God cards was to give each player a unique benefit, so that they would try to modify their play to take advantage of this benefit. But since this game was supposed to eschew supernatural elements, the Gods were to be imaginary avatars of the religions. We were having a really hard time getting this point across in an elegant manner and ultimately decided to get rid of the God cards. However, we liked the gameplay elements they provided and replaced them with the new Culture cards. This gives the player an interesting window into the game world, while still providing the same mechanical elements.

Since this prototype, we have made huge strides with our story and have been working to bring our mechanics in line with the theme. One of the key challenges of game design is getting the story, mechanics, and aesthetics all to line up and support one another. When you get it right it makes for a much more immersive and enjoyable experience. The theme and mechanics of our game are now doing much better at reinforcing each other, but I think we can do even better. How well the theme and mechanics are fitting together will continue to be one of the main questions I try to answer when playtesting.

The Game

So what are we making? Well, its a card game about rising to power. And you do this by founding a cult, gaining influence, and attracting followers. I confess we haven’t settled on a name yet. We have ideas floating around, but for the time being, let’s give it the code name “Cult Leader”. I had been toying with the idea of calling it “The Good News”, but aside from it being unwieldy it has another major flaw.

It’s too focused on religious cults. While our game does lean toward cults of a religious nature. I don’t really think a deity is required. There are plenty interesting ideas for cults to form around, such as UFOs, cryptozoology, Nostradamus, ancient cultures, and conspiracy theories. Cults are really just like any other tribe. There are leaders, followers, and a shared idea. The only thing that separates a cult from a tribe is reality.

The tendency of people to come together and become champions of a belief is something I find fascinating. Now there are many versions of this that are completely benign and even helpful. However, our game focuses on the more harmful variety.

In the game you take on the role of a sinister cult leader. Your main goal is to have the most Power when the game ends. Spending Influence allows you to acquire Shrines and Relics, attract Followers, and execute Ideas. Doing so will give you Power, abilities, Influence, and other benefits. Your opponents will be doing the same and you can spend your Influence on actions that weaken their cult.

So that’s the basic idea of what we’re building. I’ll be digging into the various mechanics in more detail in posts to come. For now, I’d like to talk about two of our design considerations.

First and foremost, we wanted this game to be firmly based in reality. This one has been tough. It is far easier to dream up card ideas than it is to come up with a realistic justification for them. It is important to us that we adhere to this rule, because we want our game to be about a realistic phenomenon. It wont due for us to lazily insert supernatural powers. If we did, our theme would suffer.

Second, we wanted to make this a pure card game. There are a lot of benefits to doing this. It makes the game more portable. The time it takes to set up the game is reduced. It gives us more publishing options. And most importantly, it makes the game cheaper to produce. If we keep the price low the purchase becomes less risky for the consumer, which make them more likely to pick it up.

We want you to play our game. I think we have something interesting and fun, and it keeps getting better.