Monday, 29 August 2011

On Focus

On the 3rd of August I started this blog to talk about the development of Giant Stone Head – with the immediate aim of working around the problems that last play test had thrown up. Now it's the 29th of August I still don't have a new version to test.

I have made a decision as to what I want to try – but I've not managed to get the focus together to create another test version. Since it's a lot of work and involves remaking all of the cards and I've no idea if it will work.

This is especially the case when the book I linked to last time Tabletop Analog Game Design  in the first article “the three player problem" it seems to sum up my problem totally. To quote....

How is turtling avoided? The clearest method is with a zero-sum game, such as Diplomacy. You can only gain units by taking supply centers from another player: the general definition would be, a player can only gain something that another player loses.

Most games are not zero-sum. However, if a player stands to gain more by attacking than by turtling, the turtle tends to fall behind. This requires that there be a positive rather than negative economy, that is, that a player can acquire additional force/capability over time through the game economy.
It is very common for beginning designers of multi-sided conflict games to allow, even encourage, turtling, because there is not a positive economy.

And I don't think my solution really resolves the problem that I've got a negative economy in the combat and economic system. Hell it's almost a feature as I want the island to get worse and worse as the game goes on. So I have to either ditch my original solution and do an even larger rewrite or make it knowing it might just be plain useless.

So lets go back to the words of somebody who gets stuff done – in the words of Dr Geof “Get on with it!” So lets get on with it......  It's not focus it's just faffing.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Oh - booky thing

I should introduce you to Play this thing which well it's mainly about computer games does talk about board games and RPG's on a Tuesday.  It's a genuinely interesting site looking at indie and art games - with people who think about such things sufficiently that I feel like I'm not even trying.  Of particular interest it's provided a link to a e book called tabletop analog game design - which can be obtained free.  I've not had a chance to read it yet - but the first chapter is from the designer of Britannia about creating board games that work for 3 people.  It's well written, interesting, and basically outlines the problems I'm having with GSH as a classic mistake rookie game designers make.

If you have any interest in board game design - this certainly seems to be worth looking at.

This weekend I was away larping - Odyssey a larp set in the Mythical ancient world as Persia,Greek, Egypt, Persia and Carthage battle for dominion over the world through large scale Arena Battles.  Have a photo  of Rome fighting Carthage (who in an interesting design decision turn out to be every inch of the vile baby sacrificing monsters that historical Rome accused them of being).

To my mind the game design of Odyssey shows the difference between realism and correct feeling in game design.  Odyssey is a role based game - if your a priest you get to go to the gods - if you a war leader you make decisions and fight in the arena - if your a warrior you fight in the arena and go on quests.  And those things are fixed.  Which is massively unrealistic - why can't a war leader step through that gate and go on a quest? But it produces the correct feelings in the players - the war leader sitting at home waiting to hear what his men on there desperate mission have done - the mystery around priests: What does happen in the realm of the gods?  Where as something vastly more realistic can often utterly fail to provide that feeling - look at some of the 1970's style board games -I'm thinking of the realistic flight games for example.

Of course there are other times when theme and feeling fail to connect  - look at Ra - a game of bidding where an Egyptian theme has just been drooped into it.

Which leads us to one of my favorite ever two player games - Battle Lines - the theme is the wars between Alexander and Darius.  Cor - look at that - weaving together the elements of the post that's almost proper writing there.  Although the theme is very clearly dropped onto it - because it was original a german game called  Schotten Totten which appears to be themed around a Scotish Brawl.  No seriously - check out that box art!

But despite this lack of theme - and the fact that all I'm doing is drawing a card and a playing a card - it feels very much like I'm a general - staring at a range of options and trying to work out which one will screw up my plans the least......  I've got my plans for the battles - which flags I'm after and which flags I'm going to give away - and the winner is almost certainly the player who manage to mess up there plans the least....

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

More Interesting Links

The first link is an incredibly detailed write up by a hobbiest board game designer on the lengths he went to to publish his game Viktory II from early ideas, through play testing, and into production.

In a spirit of full disclosure I actually brought a game of this based solely on this write up.  It got played once and if I'm honest I was not that impressed.  He did achieve a lot of his design goals however and it's a much better game then Risk.

Years back some of the first game design I did was based around trying to work out "my perfect MMORPG" - obviously never went anywhere but it was an interesting thing to do.  However I did a lot of reading around the subject and came across a really interesting blog about MMORPG design and it's still worth a read as his posts are an interesting and detailed view into computer game design.  One post in particular - balancing for awesome. A piece of solid advice about how seeking balance - perfect balance - can really damage the fun in your game.  And your much better producing balance by making things big but different - in board game terms I think Glory to Rome has this in spade.  Every time you look at a card you think - how broken is this? - but when everything is broken nothing is.

If I'm honest with myself GSH is not balanced for awesome - I'm actually just trying to balance it - perhaps a mistake but one I'm comfortable with.  After all - producing balance in some sort of ymmetrical game design is much easier then in anything asymmetrical.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Review of Seven Wonders

Last night was magic nerd club and I played two games of 7 wonders and one game of Ra.  So I thought I'd talk about those games – and see what good design there is in them – and what I like.

I own 7 wonders, and when I first played it I was super impressed by it, but since then I've found myself falling in and out of love with it and I'm not quite sure why.

Quick sum of the game mechanics – you get a hand of cards, you play one, you pass the hand round – repeat 6 times –that’s' the end of an era.  3 era's and games over.  Last night saw 4 people play a game in 30 minutes – although they were cracking along – and scoring took a while.

A lot of cards require money or access to resources to play - either your own resources or you can buy access to next doors resources at a cost – or if a building 'leads on' from another one you can build it without costs (so an altar leads to a temple and a temple leads to Pantheon). 

Cards either give you resources, or money (often based on the cards you have in play), or produce military strength – which gets you VP's by beating up your neighbours, or provide VP's either a flat amount or by collecting sets of science cards, or some bonus based around.  You can also dump cards – either to get a small amount of money or to build a stage of your wonder (if you can meet the requirements).  Everybody's wonder is different – and provides a set of unique bonus – for example the Pyramids just offer vp's while the hanging gardens of Babylon offer bonus science.

What's good about seven wonders?  Well firstly the whole passing cards around is interesting – what do you pass around? What do you need out of this hand?  And it can be heartbreaking when you see three or four good ones in a single hand.  And when there's a bad hand with nothing you want – a different choice "what can I bury?"

Then there's the neighbours thing – your game shrinks in many ways to the person to the left and right.  What's likely to come your way – what must never be passed on.  Which feeds into the next thing – speed and scalability.

Card – play – resolve – pass on – all simultaneously that's how the game plays.  The game rockets along with very little down time and the game does not seem to take much longer with three or with seven players…..

It's also pretty simple – which is no mean feat for a game with seven resources – and yet deep enough – your grand strategy can really make a difference and playing to the strengths of your wonder matters.  You also need to track the people around you – what are they up to – so it's not isolated "I play my solo game – you play yours"?

So what's the downsides?  Well in large games you only ever seen a hand of cards once – and that takes a lot of the strategy out of it.  Equally well the games makes your game shrink to your neighbours – you really need to keep a wider eye then that – at least if your pursuing science and military.  It can be oddly frustrating – as sometimes – the choices of your neighbours just stop you doing anything at all.

And while – how well you pursue your grand strategy determines who wins- sometimes it feels like your don't have a lot of choice about that.  Bad cards are bad cards – and your neighbours choices can utterly make or break your game.

Scoring can be a bit tedious and long winded – but that's the price you pay for not having had to sort that out at all during the game.

Overall - highly recommended game – good design with unique elements - well balanced, well play tested, and with a good element of fun.  Not a family game I think – although it sits roughly on the boundary of what I consider family suitable play.

Ra - will just have to wait till another day.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

It's turtles all the way down?

So if the problem is turtling and general inaction being an effective strategy – what needs to happen to solve that?

Part of the problem is the high cost of attacking under combat by elimination as attacking gives you no advantage and you both lose men at an equal rate - another part of the problem is that resource model does not penalise having a small area (this is deliberate and something I think I mainly want to avoid the game having either death or victory spiraling) – another part of the problem is that what wins you the game is owning a stationary and passive status symbol (for all that it's thematically appropriate).

So with the route cause outlined lets look at some of the possible styles of solutions – there not specific suggestions but rather “do something along these lines”.

One solution to this would be to provide a player with 'defensive resources' and 'offensive' resources – and if you sit inactive you simply lose the 'offensive resources'. Or thematically for another game – castles and men – where only castles can control areas while men pull down castles.

You could also reduce the costs to the attacker by rewarding attacking either in terms of 'useful resources' for example men or victory points– this is the route I've tried already with “epic poem cards” and the ability to knock over somebody's stone head and gain VP's from it. But you could go further and say the attacker always gets an extra man post any combat or the person who kills the most people every turn gets a VP for example.

You could make the game penalise lack of resources or hexes – at the moment food increase the number of men you have – it's only ever upwards. But you could make it so a player requires a resource simply to keep his current men on the board - food to feed the troops so to speak. So a player with a large stack of men has to spread out rather then hiding in a single hex with a couple of stone heads churning out VP's.

Another way would be to change the activity's that generate VP's – so either have Giant Stone Heads not generate VP's during some turns and on those turns get points for kicking them over, or increase the points for building a stone head and stop them being generators – so once built there's no point sitting on them.

Now a lot of these seem to me to loop back round to the same ideas just from different motivations – for example some of the ways to change the activity's that generates VP's seems to be similar to rewarding attacking more.

So which to use? I'm not sure I had an answer when I sat down to write this post but setting it out has at least convinced me off what to try first. The deciding factor was trying to work out which seemed thematically correct – but I'll save that for another day.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Why Stormy Port Games

The aim of this morning was to try and make the blog look pretty - and by sticking this massive wine glass on the I'm not sure I actually achieved that (and if your going 'what wine glass?' I've obviously changed my mind.)  Worse still I've offended the natural order of things by having the content on the right hand side to avoid having the text over the wine glass which was both horrible and hard to read.  I'm very tempted to go back to a much plainer and easier approach - who knows.

But this seems a reasonable excuse to explain why I've chosen the slightly off name - Stormy Port Games - and hence why a giant wine glass seems even a semi reasonable picture for a blog about game design.  I should say that it's not named after giant stone head - simply because well that's my current project - I accept it might never actually get published.  So this is more about the overall prospect.  I suspect to anybody who knows me it's a very obvious name but lets at least pretend that this blog will one day be read by people who don't know me....

Its comes down to two facts and one personal circumstances....

 - The first fact is that I really like Port.  I mean really like it - you know how when people are not sure what to get somebody for christmass they get vouchers - well I get bottles of Port....  Not supper expensive port if I 'm honest - mainly cheap tawny's these days.
- The second fact is that I like world play - and the verbal twisting of expectations.

And the the personal circumstances - I first started thinking about the idea of game publishing when I was under threat of redundancy and wandering what I could do with my time - so that's what was in my head when I was thinking about games.

With those three bits of information - I rather hope it's obvious and should become more so when Dr Geof does a logo.  And yes I'm well aware getting a logo before having a game is rather horse-car.

Friday, 5 August 2011

The Elephant in the Room.

The last play test has thrown up a serious issue with Giant Stone Head – and it's one I think I've been ignoring.  Simply put – going on the defensive and not getting into fights is the best way of winning – and in a game where the key interaction with the game and between players is fighting that make doing nothing the dominant strategy - which is sucky game play.  Good game play – I think - will revolve around having to balance attacking and defending. 

The winner of Monday's play test was almost totally passive – pretty much sat out the entire game- did not attack anybody – and scored a run away victory almost lapping me and told me he loved the game…. 

He confessed to being a 'turtle' by inclination and there were a couple of things that helped him.  He managed to stop his chief rival attacking him twice at key times through us of the "Invite Neighbours cards" (force peace between you and somebody else).  He seemed to have lots of resources despite having no space – despite the game actively penalising you in terms of resources for generating victory points – so part of me wonders if a mistake was being made.

The specific don't really matter – what matters is that at the end of the game talking to one of the other players – who's played the game about 3 times – was that it had thrown up a problem.  Really it's just forced me to confront a problem that I've been denial about – the elephant in the room so to speak.

It's not something I've totally ignored – I've had feedback from players that they did not see the reason to attack – and in response to that added epic poem cards – extra men or VP's for attacking.  None of it however is really enough.   

The core trouble is that the game is designed to stop a player becoming dominate and taking over everything – or at least to make it very unlikely to happen.  As a player expands they get more and more resources.  In a lot of games this can often result in a positive feedback loop – the act of winning makes you win more – and more and more.  Here resources simply don't scale that way – the more useful stuff you've already got this turn the more resources the next useful stuff costs.  I want to say pyramid numbers but I'm not sure that's a real term but you get the idea.  The intention is to make it very hard for one player to drive many players out of the game – because even if one players has more resources then all there opponents – they don't end up with that much more useful stuff.

But there's a flip side to this – if a player turtles there reduction in overall effective power is much less then you might otherwise expect.  Combined with the combat system being pretty vicious – the attacker and defender lose the same number of men – the person who avoids combat can gain a significant numerical advantage.

I'll talk about the possible solutions rattling around in my head another time – this already seems long enough – but if there's one lesson to take it away from this it's that you need players to play against your intentions and expectations to see how the game works.  Whereas I think my players have played the game as I intended it to be played.  I really should thank Monday's nights player – so thank you – you git.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Bringing you up to speed

It's a little odd – despite the fact that I'm not sure anybody is reading this – and if anybody is reading this then there almost certainly my friends – it still feels strange to post up publically about stuff I'm working on.

I've got a great big bunch of rough concepts, neat titles and half formed mechanics but there almost just jottings.  Heck one of them is literally just a title – I know nothing more then that about it but it's a really good title that evokes a certain style of play….

Two projects have got further then that.

The first is my response to an awful game –Innsmouth Escape-  the one that made me actually go "I could do better!" which in no way deserves it's score of 5.8 on board game geek and one day I'll write something outlying exactly why I loath that game so much.

My response is called 'Kill Him You Fools!' – and post some disappointing play testing I benched it as I was not happy with the way it was working and could not see a way of solving the problems.  Yes I'm well aware of the irony of saying 'I could do better' and then failing but I shall return….  Oh yes I shall.

The current project is called Giant Stone Head – and it's very loosely based around Easter Island and the Moai.  Very very loosely based around them.

It's got rather an odd start in life – as I dreamt I was playing a game called Giant Stone Head and really enjoying it – romping around the islands building and kicking over giant stone heads – territory swapping back and forth via really simple combat– and it was such a clear dream that when I woke up I wrote down the rules and made a play test version filling in blanks as I went.

In my first play test that I discovered that my subconscious sucks at game design because it was overly fiddly and had elements that simply did not work.  I don't think we even got to the end of the first game we called it to a halt as it was clearly not working.  Which brought home one of the lessons from the game design course – play the game solo before inflicting it on your fiends.  Just a couple of rounds – pick up pieces – collect resources – move things - see if it all works in anyway or if there are obvious problems.

That weekend I bashed ideas around with Mr and Mrs P - who I was visiting – and the trimming started.  Out went whole chunks of ideas – separate islands, canoes, the "king pieces" and the number of different resources got badly slashed.  We went from version 0.1 to version 0.4 in that weekend. 

I'm now up to version 1.1 the trimming of ideas stopped at about version 0.7 from memory.  Some of these versions even get played more then once – and it's been waved around a good chunk of my gaming friends , a games club and a convention (although I've it's never been played without me there but that's kind of normal at this stage in the development cycle).

I've trimmed the game down to now down to three resources – food, huts, and pigs* – from a starting 9 (from memmory) and the basic feel is still about right.  Quick and nasty combat – able to go from controlling the island to stuck in a corner to back again very quickly.  A split so that doing well and getting Victory Points are not the same – with some feedback mechanisms that mean winning the game is a drag on doing well thus making you more vulnerable to being kicked.  Heck I was even pleased with the way the underlying theme of the game – which is not really about Easter Island if I'm honest – seemed to be reflected in the way the game actually played.

Although every once in a while I find somebody thinking really hard about there move and I have to convince myself that's not a sign I failed in creating something quick but a sign it's deep enough to be worth thinking about.  

I've had some good feedback – some of it very positive and a lot helpful - and I'd come to the conclusion that it was ticking along nicely and I'd reached a stage where I was tweaking the user experience, looking at the cost and utility of different cards. 

All of which was blow out of the water on the last play test I had – which I'll cover another day.

*Just to give you an idea of how inaccurate this game is to the real Easter Island – there are no pigs on Easter Island.  Really important on other Polynesians island yes – Easter Island no.  But I like the card 'Big Pig Feast' to much to let the facts get in the way.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Some handy links

I've done some reading about game design and game publishing – and I thought I'd share a couple of the more interesting link before working my way up towards actual content.

A couple of years ago a man called Ian Schreiber ran a course talking about game design – it was mainly computer game focused – but since he encouraged paper prototyping the majority of the lesson were really useful.  It ran for twenty sessions – was hard work with two sessions a week – but I found it really useful.  If nothing else it really taught me the lesson that Dr Geof has been trying to teach by example for ages – Just Get On With It.

The pages are still up there – so you can work your way through them at game design concepts..

A year later he did another course – focusing on game balance.  This I found less useful because it seemed much more about computer games – and because the maths in at least one of the posts scared me.  I want to come back to it and go back over it again because I don't think I gave it the time it deserved.  It can be found over here at game balance concepts.

I've also found an interesting blog by the man behind the now defunct Riever games.  There's a lot of posts there about his problems getting his board game company working – before it ultimately folds.  Generally I think it's worth reading for anybody interested in this but there were two posts I felt especially interesting on the subject on money and publishing.

This post talks a lot about the cost of publishing – and specifically the difference between hobby publishing and business publishing or going between 50 to 100 copies to the thousands of copies.  He also provides actual rough numbers backed by experience on how much publishing costs - which is pretty much solid gold information as far as I'm concerned.  Large scale in this post and small scale in this post.

He also does a very interesting – looking back – what I did wrong post and that's really helpful.  Over here.

You might think it odd to take the financial advice from a man who failed –but to me it's better to learn from him and it's does seems sensible, reasonable and the frankly the best information I've found.

Off the mark

Basically this is intended to be a blog about my attempts to design, publish and sell board games simply because I've played enough games that I think are terrible and made me go "I could do better!" - well can I?  Can I really?

I suspect I'll do a series of posts over time covering stuff that's already happened, talk about some interesting links and resources I've found, explain where the slightly odd name comes from, wave art at you as I convince Dr Geof to draw me things in return for my efforts as his comic selling minion at events up and down the country, review board games I've played while I try and take design lessons from them (and nick stuff I like), before finally getting onto where I am with the game I'm working on.

Which feels a little odd because I've had a friends locked live journal where I've been doing all of that for years.  But when one of the Coventry Gamers left and asked me if I had somewhere he could keep up with progress on the game I realised I needed somewhere more public to write about things - because if my plan is ever to publish and get people to buy it - I'll need to do this sooner or later.  So it might as well be sooner.

So Christophe - this ones for you.......