Tuesday, January 9, 2018

2-player Infamous? Enter the D.O.P.E. squad!

Infamous has several interlocking mechanics, but perhaps the most central is the opening draft for Secret Base Room cards.  At the start of each round, players draft up to 3 new rooms to build into their base.  These rooms are central to your strategy.  Each one will provide a certain number of "attraction points" for different henchmen types (Beasts, Criminals, Scientists, and Mystics), and many rooms also possess unique activated abilities.

Drafting is a great mechanic for so many reasons.  I love how it speeds up play through simultaneous activity.  Every player is reviewing and choosing at the same time - not sitting around and watching someone else deliberate.  I also love how the cards you're choosing from are in your hand, and thus, easily readable.  Games which force players to choose from a communal line-up of cards lead to frustrating usability issues; for example, players not being able to read small card text from across the table.  Finally, drafting is a form of light player interaction.  The decisions you make influence the ones subsequent players can make.

However,  early on in playtesting, it became clear that drafting for room cards - and the subsequent attraction of henchmen to your base - didn't quite work with 2 players.  There wasn't enough interaction during the draft itself, and there was too little competition for the available henchmen.  Players could easily accrue a large retinue of henchmen each round and fulfill a bevy of contracts without feeling substantial pressure.

As such, I started to develop a dummy player (or automata) for 2-player games who could spice things up a bit.  Rather than make the dummy another, potentially faceless, supervillain, I thought it might be interesting to thematically dress up the dummy as a squad of superheroes.  These heroes interfere with the players by stealing away (arresting) henchmen during the Henchmen Phase, and patrolling the world during the Contract Phase.  

Perhaps most importantly, the automata rules were simple to instantiate and involved only a single deck of Hero cards.  As such, 2-player Infamous is:  1) only slightly different from the regular 3-5 player game, and 2) thematically fun - as you find yourself getting easily annoyed by the D.O.P.E. squad.

This post also gives me the chance to show off another piece of Rob's fantastic artwork, and also the superlative graphic design work by Kody Chamberlain.  This one piece of art (for the heroes) took some time, as I wanted to work through a set of specific characters with Rob:  one "defender" for each continent.  We wanted the cultural ties to be somewhat obvious without being offensive.  Personally, my favorite is Baby Penguin - defender of Antarctica!

While the D.O.P.E. squad is limited to the role of automata in Infamous for now, I have big plans for a future expansion which makes their presence much more... intrusive.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Infamous: the artist & cover illustration

The past two months have witnessed a furious pace of development on Infamous.  My publisher, Eagle-Gryphon Games (EGG), is ready to start revealing some of the artwork that's been created for the project, and so I figured I would make that the theme of this post.

I'm thrilled to announce that our artist for the entire project has been Rob Guillory, the Eisner-award wining comic book artist, primarily known for his work on Chew. I was introduced to Rob's art many years ago, when one of my research students was reading an issue of Chew in the lab.  This particular student and I shared a passion for comics and were often exchanging recommendations for series and graphic novels we thought the other might appreciate.  Chew sounded totally crazy and looked amazing.  Rob's art is unique - comedic and dark, detailed yet often absurdist.  Here's an example of what I mean:

Chew cover
In late July of this year, I started working with Charlie Bink who was assigned to be lead developer and art director on Infamous. Let me say right off that bat that Charlie has been amazing to work with. A true professional and always on top of his game. Charlie asked me for a list of potential artists that I could see doing the 100+ potential illustrations for Infamous. At this point, our goal was to hire one artist to do it all - but realistically, we didn't actually think that would be possible with the time schedule we had in mind (January/February KS launch).

I gave Charlie my dream-list. At the very top was Rob Guillory. For some reason, I just thought his style and humor would be a perfect match for Infamous. I wanted the art to clearly reflect the comic book vibe of the game, the dark (semi-mature) humor, the bizarre cast of characters. As luck would have it, when Charlie contacted Rob, he had the time and interest in the project. He agreed it sounded like a great match for his talent. Needless to say, I was flabbergasted.

Rob's done every single piece of art for the game, which has included:

  • 1 Box Cover (see below)
  • 5 Supervillains
  • 36 Henchmen
  • 5 Lackeys
  • 8 Mercencaries
  • 10 Powers
  • 75 Secret Base Rooms (!)
  • and 1 Hero Squad
Infamous front box cover illustration

What a great piece! The cover features one of our five Supervillains, Dr. Hominoid, surrounded by shadowy henchmen within the central control room of his secret base. A holographic globe floats between his hands. In the various computer monitors around the room, we're actually previewing some of the additional art within the game. I love the image and really think it expresses what Infamous is all about:  taking pleasure in being bad.

I can't wait to reveal more of Rob's fantastic work over the coming weeks and months. I'll be doing some here, some on BGG - and EGG will showing off pieces on Twitter and other social media sites.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Contracts at their Core

Another long hiatus from the blog! The past year has been a relatively slow one for game design and development. Infamous has sat in EGG's development queue for a while, but everything is picking up very quickly right now. As such, I though it might be a good time to start posting design entries again.

It's always easiest for me to talk about what worries me. So let's start there. I think Infamous has some really fantastic design elements - in particular, how the base building directly feeds into henchman recruitment. It's thematic, intuitive, and strategic. Putting together a team of henchman and sending them out on a contract half-way around the world is evocative and initially, pretty tense. But I am concerned with the "simplicity" of contract resolution, and I am concerned that contracts are currently too easy to successfully complete.

Contract Resolution

Let's take this contract as an example: Take Revenge Upon Your Nemesis.  This is a "Hard" difficulty contract, which requires a team size of 2 henchmen. You'll need to roll 5 successes to succeed. If your henchmen possess Brawn as a trait, you'll be more likely to succeed.

So there's some strategy is enhancing your odds here. And you quite possibly will have some juicy choices when determining the composition of your team. For example, one of your team members could be: 1)  a Scientist with 5 Intelligence - but no Brawn, 2) a Beast with 3 Brawn, 3) your Lackey, who has 1 Brawn but also lets you re-roll all your dice once. Who will you choose?

BUT - and here's where my anxiety lies - when everything is said and done, you're simply going to gather up some custom dice - roll them - and count up your successes. If you get at least 5, you'll walk away with 8 Infamy, 5 Money, and an Injury. If you fail, you'll get 1 Infamy, 3 Money, and an Injury. The question is whether, fundamentally, this contract resolution process is psychologically satisfying for the player. 

Greater games than mine have been based on repeated "skill checks." Arkham Horror/Eldritch Horror come to mind immediately, but the list goes on and on. Shoot, we might-as-well put D&D on that list. My concern isn't necessarily the role that luck is playing here - although that's part of it - but rather if rolling dice will feel enough like sending your team on a dangerous mission. It's an issue of abstraction.

For example, I imagine a (different) game in which you take your team, plop them onto a separate board that represents the specific location they're infiltrating, and you now take tactical control of a squad of villains. Movement, weapons, line-of-sight, rolling dice to hack electronic locks, stun guns, skill checks of different varieties, you name it. That's going to feel like going on a mission - but in Infamous, that would 1) turn the game into a tactical minis game, which is definitely not what I want it to be, and 2) make the game last 10x as long. One advantage of abstracting down the team's efforts to a single dice-roll is that it makes the game move quickly and smoothly - especially since the other players are waiting to take their turn, while you resolve your contract.

But sometimes players buy games with expectations. They read about building a team of henchmen and sending them out on contracts, and they imagine something much more than what I'm building here. They really want a different type of game (I'd recommend they play Freedom Force).

Contract Difficulty

I'm not going to change the fundamental nature of contract resolution in Infamous, but I can see myself constantly tweaking difficulty. Right now, I think things are too easy. In my last solo (4-supervillain) runthrough, I probably achieved success on 90% of my contracts. That's too high. If players consistently succeed, the tension of the dice-rolls later in the game will dissolve. But maybe I'm achieving a high success rate because I'm good at the game and know how/when to press my luck. After all, if you play Infamous well, you know how to 1) recruit the right henchmen for the job, 2) build the right rooms to support your team, and 3) spend your resources (time, money, henchmen) wisely to achieve maximum value each round. 

The other factor playing a role here is the Supervillain strength/weakness. I've built in a specific strength and weakness for each Supervillain. For example, Dr. Hominoid gets to draw 2 Scheme cards instead of just 1 when he visits the Underground. These Scheme cards basically let you mess with other players more.

You can play Infamous where 1) everyone is playing vanilla supervillains and you ignore their strengths/weaknesses, 2) everyone is using their supervillain strengths (easier game), 3) everyone is using their weakneeses (hard more), or 4) everyone is using both. You can even mix and match, allowing you to handicap some players.

The vast majority of playtesting has been with people using strengths but not weaknesses. As such, my statistics are primarily based on easy mode. So perhaps a 90% success rate isn't surprising, or bad. But this is something I need to think about and play around with a lot more.

At a more fundamental, philosophy-of-fun level, I wonder if there's an optimal success rate that appeals to people. Games where you fail over half of your skill checks, I think, are considered tough. I'm thinking 66% success is possibly the right target. Just gut instinct. If you go on 5-6 contracts per game and fail 2 of them on average, that feels about right. And that's assuming "average" play - not blind idiocy (which should lead to a nearly 0% success rate), or high-level play (which should increase your rate substantially).

Lots to think about.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Infamous: a new game design

After a fairly long hiatus from this design blog, I'm happy to announce that I've signed a contract with Eagle Gryphon Games (EGG) to publish my second board game design.  As such, I'm going to start posting on here more regularly, to talk through some of the design choices and roadblocks I encounter through this next year's development process.  But let's start this off right!  Let me give you a quick summary.

Infamous (working title) is a strategy board game for 2-5 players that plays in around 2 hours.  It's a medium-light design - perhaps a "4" on a 1-10 scale - and while it sports some sleek, Eurogame mechanics, I'd say it falls firmly and confidently within the Ameritrash family.

In Infamous, you take on the role of a comic-book supervillain.  You goals are to build a secret base, recruit henchmen, and then use those henchmen to complete nefarious contracts around the world. Successfully doing so will earn you money and infamy points.  The player with the most infamy at the end of three turns wins the game.

Current prototype
There are four phases in each turn.

Base Building Phase

Prototype only (art stolen from internet)
The base building phase is primarily composed of a draft.  Each player is dealt 4 Secret Base Room cards.  They secretly decide to either build or sell one card.  The players reveal their decisions simultaneously, pass their remaining cards clockwise, and repeat two more times.  Thus, it is possible to add 3 new rooms to your base during each Base Building Phase.  These rooms are important for two reasons.  First, each room gives you "attraction points" for various types of henchmen.  For example, if you build a Money Laundering Facility, you will immediately earn 6 Criminal attraction points.  Criminals will now want to come live in your base!  You can also build rooms to attract Beasts, Scientists, and Mystics.  The second reason why rooms are important is that many of them have special powers that can be activated during the Contract Phase.  These powers might spell the difference between a successful mission and a failed one.

Henchmen Phase

Sample Henchmen card (prototype)
During the Henchmen Phase, each player will (hopefully) recruit henchmen to their side, depending upon how attractive their base is. Beasts, Criminals, Scientists, and Mystics will be drawn to the player who scores highest in attraction for that henchmen type. There are some additional subtleties to this, but the feel of it is that the Henchmen Phase flows directly out of the Base Building Phase and just takes a couple minutes to resolve. You'll immediately get feedback on whether your base is successfully competing with everyone else's for the henchmen's attention. The more henchmen you recruit, the better. Having a diverse crew will give you a lot more flexibility during the Contract Phase.

Contract Phase

This is the meat of the game. There's a big map of the world in front of you. Six (or seven, depending on player count) continent locations, each with a different Contract card. These contracts represent missions to which you can assign your henchmen. During this phase, players will take turns choosing contracts, forming teams of henchmen, and then rolling dice to see whether they succeed or fail. If you succeed, you'll earn cash and infamy. If you fail, your henchmen might get injured or captured. Then again, sometimes your henchmen will fail but end up receiving a cool, new Superpower (e.g., caught in a radioactive explosion)! In future entries, I'll spell out more of the rules for the Contract Phase. There's some fun strategy on display here, in addition to fistfuls of custom dice.

World Map board (prototype)

Sample Contract card (prototype)
Clean-Up Phase

It's not very exciting, but it's necessary.  You've got to pay your henchmen (including your Lackey), refresh any of them that are exhausted, and re-seed the world map with contracts.  Quick and easy. After three turns, the game ends!

The Story So Far

I've been working on Infamous for the past 6 months or so.  I would say it was around early December (2015) when I hit on a set of ideas that would eventually evolve into this game. My initial point of inspiration was actually from the mechanics end of things. For a while now, I've been pondering how I could adapt the "attract a hero" mechanic featured in the small card game, Boss Monster, into a bigger game. And make it a bit more interesting, to be honest, by having the people attracted be positive (members of your team, not enemies) and persistent. In some weird unconscious back-alley, this idea got mashed with the 2004 PC game, Evil Genius. I've always liked "dungeon"-building sims (Dungeon Keeper, etc.), and once I hit upon the idea of using room cards to attract different types of henchmen, the rest of the game started to fall into place. The hardest part was the Contract Phase - but I'll save that story for another post.

I got a solid ruleset and prototype in place around March or so. Initial playtesting was extremely positive. Kept working on it and polishing the proto until I felt it was ready to show to a couple publishers. I wanted it to be ready before Origins, since I thought that would be my best opportunity to pitch it to a number of different companies. But I first sent an email to Eagle (who published my last design, Clockwork Wars), and they asked me to send a copy of the prototype to the Gathering of Friends. They checked it out there, loved it right away, and offered me a contract. I happily accepted, and we'll be starting development within the next couple months. I expect a long road ahead, but after having gone through years and years of waiting and development work for Clockwork Wars, I have a much better understanding of the process this time around. I'm looking forward to the work and have really high hopes for this game.

Needless to say, I really love this game. It is so fun, and surprising, and constantly throws small but interesting decisions at you. The narrative you and your opponents create will set you laughing. The tone is playful, but the gameplay is consistently tense and engaging. In very broad terms, imagine a mash-up between:  Boss Monster, Among the Stars, & Eldritch Horror. It's a very different design from Clockwork Wars, but I think that's a good thing! I think it will appeal to many types of gamers, especially those who like (slightly heavier) beer & pretzels-type experiences, an emphasis on theme and narrative, and the conceit of playing a villain.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Origins Game Fair, 2015: Part 2

This is part 2 of my Origins 2015 retrospective. You can read part 1 here. This part will summarize my experiences demoing Clockwork Wars for Eagle-Gryphon at the con.

I demoed Clockwork Wars 2-6 times per day from Wednesday through Sunday, for a total of around 16 complete games. We had two demo copies available and (barely) enough space to have two 4-player games running concurrently. I tried to vary the maps and Discovery cards throughout the con - partially for playtesting, partially just to keep myself entertained.

The general pattern was like this: some people had previously signed up to play CW, and some people dropped by with generic tokens to see if there were any spots available. I think we were able to accommodate most people who wanted to play. I had players choose their race, and then started in on 1) general intro to the game (genre, weight, playtime, theme), 2) how to win, and 3) specific rules. In total, this probably took around 20 minutes (30 if people asked lots of questions). Rick had encouraged me to get my training spiel to 10 minutes or less, but I just don't think that's possible. Demo sessions were scheduled to last 2 hours and most people were able to finish their games in that time period (so, 20 min of rules, 100 min of play).

My approach to teaching was to orient them to their player aid (which turned out absolutely fantastic, design-wise), and then use that to march them through a single turn. What aspects of the game seemed to trip people up? First, understanding that you don't really move your troops around in CW. Once you deploy units to a territory, they usually stay there. Second, how combat is resolved. Specifically, reinforcement orders, battle resolution, and turn order. Understanding this system usually required experiencing a few battles in-game.

One nice thing about teaching games at cons is that pretty much everyone you run into has played a lot of board games, so they're 1) prepared to sit patiently and learn rules, and 2) capable of grokking systems quickly because of their prior gaming experience. I was often stunned at how quickly certain players figured out the game and started playing strategically. This wasn't everyone: most people played sub-optimally and were simply exploring the game systems without worrying to much about winning. But I remember a few people who honed in on certain strategies, formulated plans, and carried them out successfully. That was gratifying to see.

One individual, in particular, who I remember from one of my earliest sessions figured out the power of Espionage very quickly. He pursued a heavy court-espionage strategy, supported by conservative (but efficient) map expansion. This allowed him to stay under his opponents' radar for a large majority of the game, and he walked away with a solid win. Impressive. That group of four, by the way, was a wonderful group of people. They were super-friendly and asked me lots of questions about the design and development process during the game. They also really enjoyed the game and brought back several of their friends throughout the con to try out Clockwork Wars. It was nice for me to have such a positive demo experience like that early on.

What did I learn about balance, rules, and potential future errata? Well, I continue to be confident that nothing is broken in Clockwork Wars. There are no infinite loops, and I doubt there are any super-dominant strategies. However, given all the unique cards and effects in the game, it's not surprising that a few tricky cases come up periodically.

For example, a couple people asked whether the Operative could use her assassinate ability against a enemy soldier that was paired with an Engineer (the answer is no, the soldier needs to be alone). Also, after the Operative assassinates during her reinforcement stage, it often surprised people that if the targeted opponent came later in turn order, he could reinforce that battle to take out the Operative. Fortunately, this is a confusion that came up during playtesting and so the rulebook does explicitly cover this scenario.

The Spymaster action, Counter-Intel, is the one rule that is not well-explained in the manual. As I mentioned in a previous post, this is 100% my fault and I wish I could change the wording now to prevent the inevitable confusions that will arise.

With regards to the races, the easiest race to play does appear to be the Mongrels. Their Unique Unit, the Hunter, is powerful and relatively easy to understand. The Troglodytes are also easy to grasp, and people intuitively understand the idea of a combat-weak, research-focused unit. It was interesting to see how people dealt with the Purebreeds' Operative. Some people refused to deploy her at all, fearing her loss early in the game. Some, realizing she would be safe in the Court, simply deployed her there and never moved her. Very few used her like I do: aggressively, periodically placing her into perilous situations.

The Rhinochs, somewhat surprisingly, were the race that people most struggled to understand. The idea that the Crashers can only be deployed into enemy-controlled territory was often missed or misunderstood. If I wasn't paying attention, I'd often see a Crasher simply sitting on the map, defending someone's city (which is not possible - the Crasher acts as a kamikaze unit). I don't think the Rhinochs are underpowered, but after this Origins experience, I suspect that people will find it hardest to understand how best to use these units - and at what point in the game.

I am relieved to say that my previous worry that Espionage cards may be overpowered does not seem to be true. Indeed, players consistently were thrilled with the potent impact of these cards. A single card can significantly alter a turn, but just one card won't win you the game. I saw Poisoned Waters and Insurrection used to great effect. Treason might be under-powered compared to the rest of the deck, but I need to wait and see what player feedback is.

In terms of the Generals, people were drawn towards the Steamtank. The idea of a mobile uber-unit was appealing. The Steamtank is difficult to use effectively, but a couple people figured out that using Gambit can get it to your front lines quickly, and that's a necessity if you've waited until the middle or late-game to research it.  The least used General, I think, was the Guardian - which is perhaps not surprising, since he's defensive and not particularly sexy.

Many, many discoveries were used, and from my perspective, nothing seemed under or over-powered (except possibly Infallibility, a late age Religion discovery). I saw one player use Alchemy and Martyrdom to crank out VP's and win the game. I saw Cataclysm researched, placed on the map, and then used by different players as ownership switched hands over several turns. Generally speaking, people didn't save IP well (to purchase discoveries as soon as they became available), since they were often tempted by what they could afford at the moment. If there's one Discovery that dominated a game, it was probably Colossus. This card lets you destroy Early Age discoveries in play for their points, and the player who researched it got 11 VP's from this effect.

Component wise, I have no complaints. The tiles turned out great, and no one had issues reading the ID tags. The cards are beautiful and textured, and the player aids fantastic. The wooden pieces sit on the map well, but the battlefield is nicely spiced up by the presence of some plastic minis (UU's and Generals). Certainly, if I was buying this game, I'd make sure to spend a little more on getting the plastic UU's - they are so much cooler than the wooden pieces we included by default. The plastic insert that Rick designed is awesome. It is designed to hold all basegame and expansion components securely in one box. This is not an insert that people will be tossing.

Overall, I really thought this was an enormously successful convention for me and Clockwork Wars. The vast majority of the groups that I taught the game to thoroughly enjoyed it, and several went on to pre-order the game after their experience. The game plays well, it plays fast, and it challenges and delights. I'm certainly very proud of how it all came together. Now, I just have to wait a couple more weeks before KS copies ship and the game starts popping up in stores.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Origins Game Fair, 2015: Part 1

Last week I attended the Origins Game Fair in Columbus, OH, from Wednesday to Sunday. It was my first game convention experience, made all the more special because I spent the majority of my time in the Eagle-Gryphon demo booth teaching people how to play Clockwork Wars. It was fantastic, exhausting, and periodically overwhelming. In two posts, I'll record my thoughts on the experience. This first one will focus on everything NOT related to Clockwork Wars. My second one will predominantly discuss my experience demo-ing CW and new insights about balance and play.

First off, my hotel choice was a good one. My brother and I booked a room at the Renaissance Downtown. It was around a 15 minute walk to the convention center in a nice neighborhood. The room was great: spacious, clean, and relatively cheap. I'd certainly stay there again.

As for meals, I didn't treat myself particularly well the first couple days. After fairly light breakfasts, I ended up either skipping lunch or eating crappy convention food. By the third day, I figured out my schedule a bit better and reserved time to get out of the convention center and eat in North Market. In case you were wondering, it's every bit as good as everyone says it is. And it's only a 5 minute walk away.

I met a lot of really excellent people. This was my first time meeting all the Eagle-Gryphon folks face-to-face - people I've been collaborating with for (literally) years over email. I can't speak highly enough about Rick and Joanne Soued, who run Eagle-Gryphon. They are generous, kind, intelligent, interesting people. Rick is a huge reason why Clockwork Wars turned out as nice as it did. I also finally met Alex, his son, who was my primary developer on CW for nearly 2 years. He was warm and welcoming. It was also a pleasure to meet Rick Schrand, VP of sales and marketing at Eagle. He was affable, extroverted and witty.

In terms of other designers, I didn't get to meet and chat with as many as I had hoped. At an Eagle-Gryphon dinner, I met TC Petty III, designer of the VivaJava games and, more recently, Xenon Profiteer. It was interesting asking him about his goal of becoming a full-time game designer and his long-term strategy. I also met Matt Riddle, designer of Fleet, Eggs & Empires, and most recently, Floating Market. I played a copy of Floating Market in the Eagle demo booth and had a lot of fun. It's a clever, unique design, and I walked away respecting Matt as a designer even more than I had previously. But I wish I had had a chance to sit down and play games with some designers, and have leisurely chats about the design process, the industry, etc.

I spent a large amount of time working alongside a group of fantastic volunteers - the Eagle "wingmen" - who teach and demo games throughout the con. Every single one was welcoming and competent. It was a great team. Our demo area generally cranked: our most popular games were probably Age of Discovery, Francis Drake, Baseball Highlights: 2045, and Clockwork Wars. The production values of everything Eagle makes are truly astounding.

Finally, I was (embarrassingly) thrilled to meet several prominent personalities in the board gaming world. I briefly met Tom Vasel, as a prelude to a 10 min preview they did of Clockwork Wars. The interview itself was a bit stressful but I hope that once it's posted, it gets more people to check out the game. I got a chance to meet and briefly talk with Rodney Smith of Watch It Played fame. To my delight, he's interested in doing an instructional video for Clockwork Wars. It may or may not pan out, but my fingers are crossed. Finally, I met Marco Arnaudo, one of my favorite reviewers, and passed along a copy of CW for him to play and review. He has since posted a very positive review of the game, which is immensely gratifying.

I didn't expect to work and demo as much as I did. My plan going in was to demo Clockwork Wars for 1-2 "shifts" per day (each shift was around 3 hours), and then spend the rest of my time walking around with my brother trying out games. However, it became clear to me pretty quickly that no one else in the demo booth was really qualified to teach my game. I taught it to a couple other wingmen right away, and even got to play a few turns with them, but no one had read the rulebook beforehand, and it's a pretty dense game to pick up after a single partial play. I also realized (and Rick reiterated this) that people were going to have a much more fun, positive experience learning the game from me than anyone else. They would learn all the rules correctly, have the right person around to answer questions that came up, and get the "pleasure" of rubbing elbows with the designer. I also discovered that it was a huge rush to watch people play and enjoy the game. Why would I deny myself of that opportunity?

So I ended up spending the majority of each day (from around 9am to 10pm) in the Eagle demo booth, prepping and demo-ing Clockwork Wars. I'll talk more about that in my next entry. But I wasn't there the whole time - every day I took some time to walk around the convention center with my brother, checking out booths and games when I got a chance. Here are some of the experiences I recall:

I've been curious about the Conflict of Heroes system for a while now, and I thought my brother would be interested as well (since he's an old-school grognard). We wandered over to Academy Games and the gentleman there was kind enough to give the two of us a quick rules explanation and even let us play through a few turns of a single scenario. My honest opinion is that it's perhaps too "old school" for me. It feels like you're playing a streamlined ASL - but not a modern design. I-go, you-go, hex-based, lots of modifiers, range checking, dice-rolling, etc. Not my bag. But I will say that seeing both Fief and Freedom: the Underground Railroad up close was impressive. Academy publish such unique and beautiful games.

Inspired by its hugely successful Kickstarter, I signed up for a demo session of Posthuman. Our "instructor" was late, but once he showed up he gave us a very enthusiastic introduction to the game. A group of 5 of us played this post-apocalyptic, adventure-style game with prototype components. I wrote up my thoughts on BGG here. In short, I wasn't impressed. The downtime was horrendous, and it felt very odd to be exploring a world without a common map (everyone constructs their own). This one really made me wonder, for the 100th time, about Kickstarter and why certain games take off and others don't. Posthuman has an interesting (if slightly overplayed) theme, one cool mechanic (the idea of scars leading to mutation), and a very deep role-playing element, much like Arkham/Eldritch Horror. But otherwise, I don't precisely understand what drew people to the design.

On a more positive note, my brother and I got to try out the DC deck-building game: Forever Evil. Although this system gets some flak for being quite simple, my brother and I are big fans. I *like* that it's simple and somewhat mindless - and I love the presentation. Forever Evil impressed me. They've added some wrinkles to the design that make it slightly more complex and tie in with the "playing a villain" theme. Plus, taking down the Flash with Bane is incredibly satisfying. My brother bought a copy immediately after we played.

There was a huge demo of Flick 'em Up, an Old West themed dexterity game. After 5 minutes of rules explanation, I got to play with 3 other bystanders and we immediately started laughing. This one is a lot of fun, and I love how casual it is. The only impediment I see here is having a big enough table! Also, constantly looking for bullets that fly off the edge. I don't know if I'll buy it, but I'm tempted - it would be the first dexterity game in my collection.

What did I buy at the convention? Not much, but that's my style. I'm pretty reserved when it comes to game purchases. I bought Rhino Hero for my daughter and VivaJava: the Coffee Game: the Dice Game for myself. I'm excited to try the latter out with my game group, as several of us are coffee snobs, and I think this looks like a great dice-game. On that note, the Dice Hate Me booth was super-busy, and I think they sold out of VivaJava as well as Brew Crafters, another design that intrigues me.

SO, not as much game-playing as I expected! But part of that was becoming familiar with the system. If I go back again (which I'd love to), I suspect I'll be much more efficient about my gaming. Generally speaking, while there were some odd organizational elements to Origins, I found it to be a very pleasant convention. It seemed busy but not too busy. You could get demos relatively easily, but it helped to know the schedule and where to go. Unfortunately, it was often confusing trying to figure out where specifically a game was being demoed. This is a con that would greatly benefit from an App to help search and create an itinerary. I don't understand why every convention doesn't do this.

Next entry: my experience demo-ing Clockwork Wars.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Tyrant: Exploring a New Design

For the past several months, I've been working on a new board game design that I'm calling Tyrant. I've moved from initial concept to slow evolution of rules and systems to initial prototype. After playing the prototype solo, I'm frustrated and mentally tired so I think it's a good time for me to step back from the design and start writing about it. This will likely be the first in a series of design entries that will hopefully help me break through to the next stage with this game.

Tyrant in a nutshell:  2-4 player game, with asymmetrical sides.  One player plays the "Tyrant" who runs a city with an oppressive regime. The other players are "Rebels" who have risen up in revolution against the regime and are attempting to overthrow the Tyrant, while also vying for power with each other. It's a moderate complexity strategy game - on par with Clockwork Wars, I think - that will take around 2 hours for 4 players.

Tyrant plays out on a circular city map, with the Tyrant's tower located in the center. There are 3 districts that surround the tower, and within each district are ~18 neighborhoods. The neighborhoods come in 4 flavors: residential, merchant, industrial, and civic. I figure I'll use a color-coding scheme down-the-line to make this clear.

The goal for the Tyrant is to survive 3 days. If the tower hasn't been toppled through assault by the end of the 3rd day, the Tyrant wins. There's an alternate win condition for the Tyrant that I'll discuss some other time. The Rebels have to assault the tower and knock it open within 3 days - and if this occurs, the Rebel with the greatest number of Prestige points wins the game. 

The theme of the game is very much a city in the midst of a revolution. There are roving gangs on the map (controlled by the Rebel players), police (controlled by the Tyrant), mercenary units (controlled by the Tyrant), riots, and neighborhoods on fire. The Tyrant has some black magic up her sleeve as well, and can periodically place terrible curses and hexes upon the rebel factions. In terms of setting and place, I'm undecided. I'm imagining a dark fantasy world somewhat like the one featured in The Black Company by Glen Cook. If you've read those novels, you'll have a sense of where I'm coming from - and why I think of the Tyrant as a "her." But I'm not committed to anything specific and am trying to keep the setting flexible, while focusing on the mechanics.

Tyrant is going to be a very different type of war game but there are some features that might remind people of other games. I've taken some inspiration from the classic Avalon Hill game, Titan, in how stacks grow and split. There are no "armies" on the map, but rather "gangs." I'm hoping to use stacks of poker chips to represent the gangs. As they recruit more members, they grow in size. There's a maximum gang size (7, currently), after which the gang needs to split into 2 stacks of chips. I think this mechanic gives the gangs a sense of growing organically across the course of the game, periodically splitting and recombining.

I've developed a relatively coherent set of rules - enough to play the game - but it doesn't run well right now. Here's a list of items I really need to focus on:

  1. The resolution mechanic. Gangs have 3 basic actions: inciting (to recruit more members), looting, and attacking. How is success determined? I started with a simple dice-rolling system, but I'm not happy with it. Considering moving to a card-based system with *slight* deck-building aspects (but don't worry).
  2. Progression and tension. Right now I don't think there's enough of a sense of progression on the part of the Rebels to make the middle and late game feel different from the early game. 
  3. Narrative. This game needs a strong narrative backbone - it can't be too abstract. As such, I think I'm going to use cards quite a bit to describe specific revolutionaries, specific neighborhoods, specific mercenaries, random events, etc. This is necessarily going to introduce more randomness into the game, but enhance replayability and narrative. I think that's the direction this game is taking me, and I'm fine with that.
  4. Player interaction. There's a lot of interaction between each individual Rebel and the Tyrant, but not enough between the Rebel factions. I'm still trying to figure out how much I should incentivize (or not) rebels attacking each other.
In subsequent entries, I'll try to tackle specific design issues that I'm struggling with and use this blog as a springboard for ideas.