Archive for January, 2015

Decision Space Analysis

Thursday, January 22nd, 2015

The phrase “present interesting and meaningful decisions” has become such a mantra in designer speak that I almost get a little annoyed when I hear myself tossing it around or run across it while reading about other designers. In sports you have a worn out phrase “Deliberate practice and meaningful games.”  I’m always trying to be wary of groupthink.  I have run across it so often in the course of my life that I’m always on the look out for it.  The herd can find water together as well as walk off a cliff together.  In the case of “interesting decisions” or “deliberate practice” I think the group has found a solid nugget of wisdom.  The debates on the meaning of “meaningful” (or that other bogeyman called “balance”) sometimes make me wonder about the cliff.

Back on track though. When I studied electrical engineering back in the early 80’s one of my light bulb moments was learning about the Laplace transform. You get a whole new picture of a signal by doing a Laplace transform and going from the time domain to the frequency domain. This idea that you could do a mathematical transformation on something and see hidden data and meaning was astounding to me at the time. I’ve tried to apply the concept wherever I can. So with a game design I like to transform it into the decision domain or space and see what it looks like.  I don’t use integral calculus of course but I try to draw out a map of all the decisions in the game and how they interact.  Often it starts out like a simple flow chart or even just a list.  But if you get creative you can work the elements around visually to help figure out how the decisions interconnect.  This can also help you figure out whether decisions are interesting or meaningful.

Key Decisions for my board game

Play positive Guild Card to Mission that I want to win OR play negative Guild Card to Mission that I want to deny opponent

Decide Strategy for round based on my resources/Influence Points (IP) versus opponents’ resources/IP

Decide on use of Interrupt Text on any Guild Cards I have versus other useful text on cards i.e Guild Cards have split text options

Choose 2 of 8 options for my turn during round of turns (8 rounds total for 2 or 4 player game)

If need to rebuild resource base then decide on

1) visit  guild healer

2) take guild stipend

3) buy item card

4) buy spell card

5) charge a spell card

6) take secret objective cards

7) play guild card for “Guild Event”

8.  Attempt Mission Contract card to earn Influence Points then decide which mission

Decide on use of Guild cards, Item cards, Skill cards, Spell cards and Fate Tokens to accomplish challenges on sequential stages of mission challenge track

Decide which of the three face up challenge cards to attempt for each stage of the mission contract card.

Decide on how many wounds you can afford to take while attempting mission contract card challenges.

Decide on how far to push luck in mission/Abort Mission. i.e. multiple reward levels

Opponents’ Turn Decisions

Decide on use of Guild Cards with Interrupt Actions

Post Turn Decisions/Influence Bidding Phase

Based on gold stockpile (mostly from stipend and mission rewards) decide on bidding strategy for number of influence card auctions and opponents wealth/need for IP

Bid on Influence Cards based on need of IP, mission type matches to accomplished mission contracts and opponents’ positions

A Man’s Got To Know His Limitations

Monday, January 12th, 2015

I borrowed that from Dirty Harry.  But it’s a good piece of advice when approaching the design of a board game.  It might be better to rephrase it as a designer should know his medium’s limitations.  This is especially true when you are moving from computer game design to board game design.  Now, I’m not saying that board games are inferior or that computer games don’t have their own inherent limitations.  But before I started designing my debut game, I tried to first go over some pitfalls that I might encounter switching gears. Now I have actually putzed around with board game design for a long time but never with the intent to have it result in an actual playable board game.  Believe me when I say that I have notebooks full of unpublished proto-types.

So here are three big things that I thought I needed to consider.

1) Computers are great at house keeping, book keeping and data management.  Board games not so much.  As much as I loved setting up Avalon Hill’s Rise and Decline of the Third Reich when I was a teenager, I don’t think I ever actually finished a game.  There was that time when I spent a week planning my move through the Low Countries and the die rolls went to hell and I threw the board game up.  I should actually apologize to my younger brother for that.  But beyond that, the counters, tables, brp management etc. where a huge issue in finishing turns.  For a teenage kid there were a lot of moving parts and I remember reading the rules over and over until the paper pages were disintegrating.

There are probably much better examples, but in my mind RaDotTR was a game that had a lot of book keeping.  I remember an old SPI game called War of the Ring that we set up when I was 10 years old during the course of an entire night until 3 am and then we fell asleep before we could play. The game seemed overwhelming.  My point is that computers can facilitate playing huge hex and counters games to an amazing degree.  Automating things like supply, difficult rules, large numbers of playing pieces etc. I can say that I have actually finished Gary Grigsby’s Second Front/War in the East games several times, to the point where I had vacation homes in the Urals.

Now there is a place for mega hex and counter games in everybody’s collection but in general I think the modern designer has to limit the number of pieces in the game space.  Since the dopamine seems to be activated mostly by having players manipulate distinct cogs in meaningful ways i.e. tough choices, decisions etc., keeping the number of cogs/agents within a manageable scope is a probably a good idea. It’s also easier to manage the data for those limited agents in a board game space.  5 Dreadnought’s with individual cards tracking weapons, armor, ecm, life support and damage control is going to be a lot more manageable than 10 plus 20 battle cruisers, and 5 destroyer support squadrons.  Plus you have to consider physical space on a table.

In short, I resolved to keep the moving parts of the game limited in scope if at all possible.  I still ended up with some mission creep but in the end I was able to keep a handle on the amount of data that players needed to keep track of if they didn’t have mr. computer to do the heavy lifting.

2) Computers can present data in clever, informative or helpful ways. Even a simple thing like attaching a weapon card to a player card can benefit from a computer’s processing ability.  Poof.  The new +1 attribute for the magic sword is now displayed on top of the character’s combat attribute.  With a board game you always have to remember to add the +1. How many goblins have escaped death because a computer wasn’t around to add the +1? Or what if you have a card that says something like change a combat icon of your choice into a stealth icon.  You play the card and Poof, the computer changes the icon from a sword to a cloak and dagger.  In the board game world, you play the card, sing the imagination song from South Park and tell everybody that the icon is now a cloak and dagger icon.  Just take care not to forget that if you somehow end up back on that icon at a later point in the game.

It’s not an impossible task but the designer needs to keep these changes in game state data in mind when coming up with all the fun rule breaking cards, tokens, dice etc.

3) Computers make hidden information very easy to implement.  As an impartial judge, a computer can show some players pieces on the board and hide that information from others.  It can even present false information.  This was something I really loved working with when I designed Solium Infernum.  Stealth is so much easier to work with in a computer game.  The computer can process the visibility data and then present it to whichever players can see it.  When I worked on Armageddon Empires I had a lot of fun building the stealth systems.

Now board game designers have some tricks that can be used to hide information, show false information or permit bluffing.  But in general it’s a lot more difficult.  Playing a card face down is a start but unless every player plays a face card down into a pile (blank cards provided for passes) and the pile is shuffled, there is still vital information being conveyed about who is messing with you via the face down card.  In other words providing the anonymous screw you card takes a bit of work.

I’ve implemented some hidden information mechanics in my upcoming game.  Among other mechanics I have a bidding phase at the end of a round once every player has taken their turn for the round.  You can spend gold to buy important cards that provide both Influence Points (Victory Points) and passives on the cards that can be very beneficial. Each card has a minimum bid number that must be met.  Players bid by using a 20 sided die and holding their hand over the die.  All bids are then revealed simultaneously and the highest bidder wins with special rules for ties of course.  The number of auctions is always 1 less than the number of players. You can always see how much gold each player has in their stockpile but there are still tons of fun interactions to be had and bluffing and verbal cues and harassment can be very effective. Trying to figure out what your opponents strategy is also plays a part.  How badly would they want that card  Does it synergize with other cards they have showing? How much gold will they need on their next turn to accomplish their goals.  Wheels within wheels.

So to recap.  I’ve approached the design of this game acknowledging that moving from computer games to board games means changing my mind set a bit to avoid some of the obvious pit falls.  I hope that as you see more of the design you will agree that I’ve managed to avoid the lethal traps at least.

New Year, New Direction

Saturday, January 3rd, 2015

Happy New Year!

I’ve been selling computer games for over 7 years and it’s been a great ride.  Selling games directly from this website has been an increasingly difficult task. My programming skills are so tied to an aging and abandoned development platform that making even a niche title like my previous games is a dubious proposition at best.  So I’m leaving the digital space and moving over to the card board arena where I hope my design skills can shine.

It’s a natural transition since my games have all been very board game like.  I hope that has been part of their charm. I will naturally continue to support all my customers with tech support and downloads of lost purchases. And I will continue to sell my digital games and support them as well for as long as they keep running.  God Bless windows compatibility mode. 🙂

But my next game will be a board game and I will have come full circle.  About 10 years ago I spent large chunks of my day packing and shipping physical goods.  I hope to discover that a lot of progress has been made in the logistics of processing and shipping physical goods.  I know that my garage can’t store them.

I have a working prototype of a 2-4 player game that involves players trying to accumulate enough “influence” points to win the game.  The theme is a fantasy setting set in a fictitious city of splendor named Vance. I’ll reveal a lot more about the theme and mechanics as things progress. In general it is played in rounds with each player choosing 2 of 7 possible actions.  It involves a card and dice system, screw you cards played face down and an end of round secret bidding phase for important cards from a special deck.  The currency is gold coins as befits the fantasy setting.

I’m really proud of the design and I hope that my old customers from my computer games will give it a try when it’s available.  In a few months I should have enough materials to get an announcement out and an entry up on Board Game Geek and my Cryptic Comet website as well.

I’m also going to try and keep this blog updated with information on the design process for this game as well as an occasional general game design entry.  My new year’s resolution is to do 1 entry a week so hopefully that will work out better than my diet resolution.

Best,

Vic