The Return of the Invaded

Just a quick post this time to celebrate the return of Invaded to the playtesting cycle after spending pretty much the whole of this year working on other projects.  This is not a good thing for me as, of the projects I have on the go, Invaded is probably the most advanced and the closest to being publishable. I mean, the prototype is currently version 16.

Anyway, I was expecting to not have a chance to playtest this week, but I received an email from a friend, saying that he and his wife had a change of plans, and asking if I wanted to do a playtesting session.  When testers are a very limited resource, having people actually volunteering to help is a gift horse whose mouth should not be looked into.  So they came along with another friend, and I was able to watch a 3-player game of Invaded, managing to keep out of the way most of the time other than to act as an interactive rulebook and to give a reminder or two here and there.

Three players have been invaded. Halfway through round two, and red is about to feel the pain.

I don't often sit out of playtests, sometimes as I want to increase the numbers in the game, and sometimes because I find it useful to play and get a feel for the game as it develops.  With a game in a relatively late state of development, though, it becomes increasingly useful to be able to just observe, and to be free to make notes without interrupting the flow of play.

I do miss playing though. Despite playing 20-odd times myself, I do still like the game, which has to be a good sign.

The output from the playtest was good: I have some data about scores, choices made at various times, and turning points in the game, which should all help me find the imbalances and wonky parts. Aside from a few clarifications to some rules, I don't think I need to change anything of substance before next play. And I definitely need to get in a load more tests...


Some Games I Wish I'd Invented

When I play some cool game, I often end up thinking, "I wish I had invented that," but with some games that thought runs way deeper, and a game exudes some sort of perfection, where the designer has absolutely nailed something and I end up dreaming of being a good enough designer to come up with something as wonderful.

I've been thinking about the games that have this effect on me, so here is a list of a few of the games that I wish I had invented, or even was capable of inventing. Maybe one day I'll get there...

No Thanks!

Image credit: mikehulsebus @ boardgamegeek
So this one is the big one for me. It's a game that consists of 33 cards with numbers on and a stack of counters, and that's it. Each turn you have one decision to make: do I take the card from the middle of the table, or do I put one of my limited supply of counters on it? Collect the lowest total score and you win. The genius here is the simplicity of that decision, while it still carries so much weight, the fact that runs of numbers only score the value of the lowest card in the run, and that nine of the cards are removed for each game, giving just the right amount of uncertainty for a satisfying game. Why nine cards? I can only imaging vast amounts of playtesting resulting in the perfect number. When I teach the game to people, there is invariably a general, "OK, is that it?" when I explain, and then a few turns in an unmistakable expression on their faces as the emergent subtleties start to dawn on them.

I have, on more than one occasion, said that if I had a time machine, I would use it to go back in time and "invent" No Thanks! before Thorsten Gimmler does. I am totally serious about this, it is my ultimate aim in life. Failing that, I want to make sure that as many people as possible buy the game, in the hope that Thorsten can afford to buy a yacht with the royalties.


Image credit: aldoojeda @ boardgamegeek
You place a tile, you move your "dragon" along the line on the tile, you try not to get forced off the edge of the board.  I can teach this game to pretty much anyone in seconds, thanks to its rules being pretty much intuitive from the components, and it always results in laughter and a great time had by all. There is player elimination in this game, which is usually a bad thing in modern game design, but games usually last only about ten minutes and my experience is that defeated players generally want to come back and get their revenge.  With two or three players, Tsuro is a mellow, relaxing game, but with the maximum eight players, there is chaos and carnage from the start.

The real genius of this game is that most people pretty much intuitively know how to play as soon as they are shown the components, and while it won't satisfy someone wanting a deep strategic challenge, it is a box full of beautifully presented fun.


Image credit: kalchio @ boardgamegeek
Quite a lot deeper than the previous games, Coloretto is about collecting sets of colours.  When it is your turn, you either take a row of cards from the middle of the table and end your involvement in that round (there'll be another in a minute, until the deck runs out...) or you draw a card from the deck and add it to one of the rows.  It's a really simple concept, but I think it has two little bits of genius: the way you draw and fill the rows of cards and have to do so in a way that, ideally, isn't too advantageous to the other players, and the fact that at the end of the game, three of your sets count in your favour, while any others count against you.  The implications of the simple rules are beautiful, and make this a really challenging game, despite its basic appearance.

Coloretto has spawned other, bigger, games with the same basic mechanisms, like the very enjoyable Zooloretto, but for my money, this little card game beats almost everything else for me and is another perfect game that I wish I could have thought of.

Deep Sea Adventure

Image credit: Skombie @ boardgamegeek
At first glance, this is a great big nope. You roll dice, move your diver, then decide if you want to pick up a piece of treasure or not. What is there to like in a roll-and-move game like this? Well, quite a lot, as it turns out.  The genius of turning the roll-and-move diving game into a tense, press-your-luck game by having a shared air supply which is depleted more quickly as players pick up more treasure makes this into a really compelling game. And that there is a once-and-done decision to turn back just makes the whole thing sweeter.  You get to take part in three dives, and only make a few meaningful decisions during each, but the sweet pain of having to live with your bravado or cowardice makes Deep Sea Adventure so much more than the sum of its parts.  This is a game where a lot of the enjoyment comes from egging your opponents on to take greater risks, from the schadenfreude you feel when they fail, and from the buzz you get that one time you manage to get back to the submarine, heavily laden with treasure.

I totally wish I had thought of this one. Who would have thought it could work so well?

Flamme Rouge

Image credit: aldoojeda @ boardgamegeek
Racing games are an old staple of boardgaming, but they are not something that usually gets a lot of attention among "hobby" gamers, but cycling race game Flamme Rouge quickly captured my heart. At a basic level it is straightforward: you have two cyclists in your team, and for each of them you draw a hand of cards with movement values on them and select one to use; selected cards are gone forever, and the rest will be recycled in a future round.  The genius here, though, is in two simple rules that somehow manage to represent and distill the essence of competitive cycle racing. First, after all bikes have moved, a group of cyclists that is exactly one space behind the group ahead gets a free move to catch up (slipstreaming).  Secondly, any rider at the front of a group adds a low value card to their deck (exhaustion), meaning that later on they will have options reduced and may have to ride slower at some time in the future in order to recover. There are some neat rules about hills too, but these two are enough to leave me in awe. Capturing the theme so neatly in just a couple of easily understood rules is something I can currently only aspire to.

Final Thoughts

I find that, while I wish I could design an intricate and complex ludological artifact like Anachrony or Terra Mystica, or some smooth and satisfying middleweight Euro like Concordia or Calimala, I find that the games I am most in awe of are those small, lightweight games that just do one or two things but do them so well that I can't imagine a better way to do it. I am so often amazed by the creativity and resourcefulness of other game designers that I wonder if I will ever be able to create something that can come close to matching them, but right now I can't stop making my own games, so I just have to hope that one day I will be worthy enough to join these greats.


A Change of Plans: Wind, Snow, and Drafts

This weekend I had planned to take a trip to London for a Playtest UK meetup, as is my wont, but our more-wintery-than-usual winter came back and did its thing, so I decided that it would be more sensible to stay at home for the day than risk the roads. So that was a general scuppering that I would have been happier with, but I did get the opportunity to spend a chunk of the afternoon discussing various projects (via a Google hangout) with a friend had also been planning to go playtesting and had opted to stay warm and safe for the day.

Anyway, this friend and I had previously discussed the possibility of designing games based on multiple types of drafting mechanics.  Drafting is basically where players select resources from a shared pool, and this can take many forms like the system we used to have at primary school for picking teams where each team captain took it in turn to choose one player from those so far unselected (I was invariably in the last few chosen), or a "pick and pass" system where players simultaneously choose a card from a selection they hold, and then pass the rest to the next player. There are many other mechanisms that could be broadly described as drafting.
As I keep telling people: stop thinking about making a game, and just make a damn prototype,
even if it is not a complete one. Sometimes I do take my own advice!

After a load of chat about this type of mechanism, we each had an idea for a game that could exploit the multiple draft concept. If either of these games comes to anything in the future, I think we can be clear that they were "mechanic first" designs, in case anyone asks.

My idea was based on the not-massively-exciting concept of settling and developing an area of land, building production facilities and exploiting them for profit.  Each round would consist some event or action that would allow for a different variant of drafting to resolve. In other words, each round there is something to distribute between the players, and that distribution is done in assorted ways.

I made a load of notes about this after our original discussion (and we kept the discussion going online for a little while) but I moved on to other things before I actually built a prototype.

Our discussions again this weekend did a good job of reminding me of this project and set me off again. A short while with some index cards, Sharpies, and assorted components from stock, and I had the beginnings of a prototype. It's not yet enough to play, but once I start handling physical components, new questions and answers start presenting themselves, and I start needing to make decisions which will inform how the game will develop.  Like, for instance, how do I handle resources? There are many ways to do this, but I have decided to use a short track on individual player boards to mark the quantities of each commodity held by each player rather than, for example, having tokens to represent quantities.

I don't quite have enough made to allow me to play a full round of the game, but I know what I need to do next, so once I've finished blogging about it, I'll get back to construction for a couple of evenings, and solo test parts as I am able.

Kinda related, Toucan Play That Game recently shared a good video of a panel at the recent Airecon on how to teach games to people. Paul Grogan (of Gaming Rules!) talked about the method the CGE team use for demonstrating their games at conventions by explaining just enough to get going and revealing the rest of the rules as it makes sense during play. This may be terrible if you want to construct and execute a winning strategy on your first play, but it can be a great way to learn the game.  Similarly, last year, a friend and I played our way through the card game, Fast Forward: Fortress, which doesn't has a rulebook but instead gradually reveals the rules as you work your way through the deck over the course of a dozen plays. This works well and we really enjoyed playing that. 

The reason I bring that up is that my drafting game now looks like it will involve a series of rounds, during which, players each choose one of a selection of available event cards.  These events then trigger the main actions of the game, so one gives everyone an opportunity to build production locations, another allows locations to produce goods, and another allows everyone to sell to the market.  Because of this, it looks like the game will be playable by simply explaining each of the events revealed in each round as they come up, and learning the game could be an organic experience where play can start almost immediately after sitting down for the first time.  I rather like that and hope I can pull it off.


Trying to Find a Balance

Over the last few years of learning to design games, I've picked up all sorts of tricks and techniques, but possibly the most interesting things I have learnt have been about my own processes and how I design games, as well as how those processes have changed over the years.

Many years ago, back in the 80's and 90's when I occasionally dabbled a little in tabletop game design, the games I came up with worked OK but were invariably duller than ditch water.  I never really got very far with any of those designs.

More recently, as I have been making a more concerted effort to develop my game design skills, I have come to realise that one of the reasons I had previously failed was that I obsessed too much about balance, and almost certainly misunderstood what balance is about in the context of tabletop games.  I probably still don't really have a complete handle on it, but I think I'm moving in the right direction.

My current feelings on the matter are that balance does not mean making everything in a game equally powerful, but rather to mean that there are no strategies and no individual components or elements that as good as guarantee victory.  And similarly, there should be no component in the game (I'm talking cards, units, etc) that is never any use in a winning strategy.
I have some confidence that these two cards are reasonably well balanced.

So to make things a little more concrete, in the example of Scurvy Crew, it is totally fine for some crew cards to be more powerful than others, but there should not be any combination of crew that you could acquire without other players being able to stop you, that would make your ship into an unstoppable, loot gathering juggernaut.  Similarly, every crew card in the deck should be of enough utility that experienced players would at least sometimes choose to recruit them.

Incidentally, in this case, having crew with special abilities and skill icons, as they do, is a decent way to help this: if an ability proves to be too powerful, I can reduce its effectiveness, or decrease the icons provided by the card; conversely, a card with a weaker ability could have an extra icon added.

Thinking about this has brought be to a realisation about how my game design process has developed. Where once I worried about balance from the very start, I now leave such matters until very late on, when most of the game is settled into what I think is close to a final form.  This seems to work well for me, as it allows me to concentrate on getting the flow and the experience of the game where I want it, and it also means that I don't waste too much effort on balancing elements of the game that might change dramatically, or even disappear from the game.  See, it all comes down to constructive laziness.

I only recently started working on the balance of Invaded, after it had been in development for more than a year, and the main focus of my balancing efforts, the strategy cards, didn't even exist for a lot of that time, though they are partly based on the objective cards that I had in some early iterations.  Stressing about balance much earlier would have led to wasted effort.  And, going back to my earlier point, as I balance these strategy cards, the aim is not to make them all equally useful, but rather to make all of them compelling in some situation, even if that situation only comes up in the occasional game.  Some will get chosen most of the time, while I hope the others attract "remember that time when..." stories for those moments when they were perfect.

This delayed balancing approach does have its down sides though, primarily for me when dealing with playtesters.  When testing a game, players give their feedback based on how they perceive the game and how things go for them, so it is not unreasonable that they focus on issues that they see as being wrong with the game, and that is quite often when they see that a particular strategy or decision is stronger or weaker than they expected it to be.  One data point does not necessarily mean that there is a problem, but it can muddy the waters when, for instance, I am wanting to see how the game flows and if there are any parts of the game that cause cognitive hiccups for the players.

This sort of issue is actually more about how I handle the testers than about them, and while I have been working on games for a few years now, I still consider myself relatively inexperienced, particularly at running playtests with a wide variety of players.  As such, I am trying to learn the best ways to brief testers on what to expect from the session, and how to read their reactions and respond to them.  I feel that it is fine to tell the testers that, in this particular test, I am not looking to concentrate on balance, but when they come up with these points, it is best to just write the concern down and move on if possible. After all, knowing about the perceived imbalance may help later, and it may be easy to fix for the next prototype iteration.

Oh, and this whole "balance later" thing is, as with so many things, more of a guideline than an actual rule. Sometimes it's worth tweaking and balancing along the way, if only to remove a distraction. But remember: a little imbalance makes a game far more interesting.

Credit where credit's due: I've been thinking about this subject for a while, but it came to the front thanks to an as-always interesting post on Bastiaan Reinink's Make Them Play blog.


Scurvy Treasures

The game of the moment is definitely Scurvy Crew, and I have managed to get another playtest group assembled to test the changes I have made over the last couple of weeks. The main changes involve the way treasure is handled, with custom treasure cards, plus a treasure bonus for the player who sinks each merchant ship in addition to the "area control" rewards.

Towards the end of the game, with treasure and tea nearly run out.

So, some of the take-aways from this play included:

  • The game took 70 minutes to play, with several pauses where I needed to clarify some rules. Without those pauses and bits of confusion, the game would have been within an hour, and almost certainly a load quicker with more experienced players. This I take as a win.
  • BUT those pauses for clarification are a huge problem. Part of the problem is that the terminology I have on the cards is woolly and inconsistent, so fixing that should reduce confusion significantly. I will also have to think long and hard (and observe more) to see what complexity in the game is unnecessary and should be cut or simplified. There is bound to be something.
  • The bonus treasure for actually sinking a merchant was an incentive for people to jump in and actually finish them off, but when the final scores were reckoned, it turned out that these bonuses didn't effect anything and were in practice disproportionately small. Shouldn't be hard to fix that.
  • The set collection aspect of treasure collecting didn't really pan out as hoped: there was a feeling that you were getting random rewards and then you ended up with some sort of a score that you had little control over. 
  • Balance is terrible.  I know this, and am slowly chipping away at it, but my style of play is to not worry too much about balance until late in the development process. The players were aware of this, but it can be hard for them to not worry about it. Maybe I should rethink my process a bit here.
  • There was general agreement that there should be parrots, monkeys and rum. :/

I ended up with plenty more notes than this, so I have a lot to be working with. Big thanks to the Some-Mondays group for some great feedback.  My next opportunity to playtest is likely to be next week, so I'd better get to it...