Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The "Hobby" in Hobby Games

For a long time, I thought that the term “hobby game market” referred to the group of people who like to play original games with complex strategies.  Because you could not find these types of games at Toys R Us or Walmart, I assumed that the term came from the places where you could buy them before the internet.  In America, there is a retail history of ‘hobby shops’ that sell games, toys, models and a variety of other products for hobbyists.  

This is almost certainly the etymology of the term.  But, it strikes me as equally appropriate that the term refers to the level of professional development of the game’s creators.  “Hobby” might as well refer to the way that most of the designers in the industry need to treat their passion given the level of income that it generates.  Except for a few top end designers who have been able to ride the rising tide of strategy gaming around the globe, no game designer in the “hobby game market” can call it a livelihood.  Hence, by definition, it is a ‘hobby’.  A labor of love with a net negative income profile.

Why is this?

From a business standpoint, it is only the publishers in the hobby game market who can make a livelihood out of it.  They take a majority of the risk by financing projects, but the majority of publishers are only taking a risk on the best of the best designs that they see and they mitigate this risk by publishing dozens of games a year and expansions to popular game franchises.  

Almost every publisher in the industry will tell you how they are flooded by game designs once it becomes known by hobbyists that they are accepting outside submissions and subsequently most established companies don’t.  Even the ones who do almost always filter the process by accepting new designs from only the top notch designers that they personally know.  But, despite this filter, there are still many designs to choose from for each ‘slot’ they have to fill.  

So, the process of business development for a publisher turns into an act akin to curation of a library for the best books to put on display.  Publishers think about their email lists, their product lines and their distribution channels when evaluating a new design as much the intrinsic gameplay.  Thankfully, there are enough publishers in the field that awesome designs almost always find outlets.

It is a good thing for designers and game players that there are publishers willing to take a risk on a new game.  Otherwise, we’d end up with only the 5th anniversary edition of the digital port of the 3rd printing of Settlers of Catan and the art of game design would be replaced by the art of product design.

However, as the head of a design studio, where the design itself must justify the cost of running an organization, I can say that there is little reason to ever design an original game for the “hobby game market”.  

Even though forums like Kickstarter now allow everyone with an idea the opportunity to publish a game themselves, the degree of sophistication and complexity expected of an “Euro game” or writing and production for an ‘American game’ in this market requires a tremendous amount of development time.  Meanwhile, the potential revenue in this market for even a successful product with a high price tag is only a tiny fraction of what design studios in other markets can make.

Design for the “hobby game market” suffers simultaneously from the twin threats of large development cost (in time) and small market size. This ‘high risk, low return’ is exactly the opposite of the definition of an ‘opportunity’ in business investing and consequently the market mechanics of the tabletop game industry will continue to make it almost exclusively a ‘hobby’ for those who design for it.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Difference in Emergence

What is the difference between a non-party character and a party character?  It is one of our design prerogatives in Goblins: Alternate Realities to make these categories interchangeable.  You play with the main characters because they are more versatile than the non-main characters.  

A. They have more versions of themselves and hence a greater variety of special powers that they can be played to create.  
B. They (if you can only play with one copy of each unique card) provide you with character stability insofar as you are more likely to draw them than non main characters.
C. They are more well rounded than non-main characters.
D. They have a better opportunity to win duels than non-main characters (with multiple copies).
E. They may become more powerful through the use of loot that is tagged to a class structure which only the main characters have.

Is this enough to overcome the restrictions imposed by multiple copies?  Would it be better to have a deck full of non-main characters?  

For one, it means that you never replace cards you’ve already played so every card in your deck is in play.  
For two, it means that you don’t run the risk of having one of your characters killed and losing your ability to use them.  
Both seem to be very compelling reasons to never create a party... and seemingly dominant provided that there aren’t additional properties on the main characters which make them worth playing.  

It might require a limit to the number of character cards that can be played to a location... if it turns out that you can only have five characters at your location at a time, then there would be a built in incentive to use characters which can gain benefits from the loot that you have.  In this case, it magnifies your abilities to be able to add 3 more cards to the equation.  You also wouldn’t be able to simply play more characters to overcome obstacles.  If other players put characters in your way, then they would pose a significant threat to your progress that cannot simply be overcome by playing more characters yourself.      

That seems to be a necessary rule to make the system function well... and perhaps something that can be dictated by the quest card.  If the quest card indicates how many characters you can have in your play space, then each quest is additionally customized to its party and the limit is adjustable on the card level.  

What complicates the game is when parties which are built to revolve around one or two particular characters are paired with quests for parties that are designed to have more.  If Kore is a one man fighting machine, what happens when he is paired with Big Ears (a fellow paladin) or Forgath (a fellow dwarf).  Presumably, all the loot that applies to him applies to them as well and the deck would get the benefit of having more than one main character.  Let alone the fact that you might be able to crowd his decks with other non-main characters as filler.  It seems like it would result in some very odd events when a one-man character is allowed to interact with quests with more than one character limit.  If one version is balanced, it is likely that the other isn’t.

But, that kind of defers the question to one of quest-character compatibility.  Is Kore’s quests really well suited to him and he very ill-suited to other quests?  If he is a combat machine, then it is possible that he is less useful in quests which require more diversified skill sets.  So, having him in those decks would end up working somewhat cross purposes to the goal of the deck.  Especially if it turns out that the synergy between Goblins with each other and their loot is sufficient to outweigh the inclusion of Kore.  If Kore is strong provided that he has all his items, then you would effectively be limiting the potential of everyone else by properly supporting him.  And, if those other items are necessary to complete the challenges associated with other quests, then he would seem to be a less useful character despite the fact that he is stronger.

He might instead end up being used by all the players as their ‘enforcers’... sort of like a freelance fighter pursuing other parties.  That might not be that bad of an emergent property considering the way that he appears in the game.  But, of course, it seems like a lot of care would need to be used in order for this property to emerge.

It seems like there may need to be some reinstitution of racial/class compatibility.  Kore is not an obstacle to just anyone, but to particular races.  Or, perhaps instead of a limit to the number of party members there are restrictions regarding what kind of characters can be played?  In that situation, it becomes possible to limit Kore’s abilities to be used for certain quests outright since he just doesn’t fit into the permissible races and/or classes.  This fiat rule would allow us to control the design a little more directly.  Rather than play out all possible metagames, this would pre-emptively limit certain possibilities that are broken.

It is hard to say what is broken and what is not though.  At this point, what are the storyline constraints that we have when the creator is fine with any possible set of alternate realities and monsters being used as characters and items being used by anyone else?  It seems difficult to design a game that provides a fun/balanced experience as a boxed set and would allow such radical, anti-themetic, customization.  So, where are the limits on customization or what is the coherent thematic thread?

I feel like people who play this game want an experience that is thematic.  That being able to play an existing party in an interesting way supersedes the pleasure of making any party at all.  So our design goal is to maximize the customizability within the limits of coherent party play.  Or, perhaps I shouldn’t worry about this element at all and allow it to take shape?  That it doesn’t matter if there is no balance between Kore and other characters because it is not my job to make one.  That is a strong point and at the same time a fundamental weirdness if because of the balance of the boxed play, it becomes optimal to play with the same very strange collection of characters.

Star Wars CCG had to confront this problem with their expansions and the metagame.  But they had a cost system built into their CCG which obviated the problems we have here.  If it is the case that playing Kore is no different than playing any other card, then there is no longer an established guideline for game balance.  We are set adrift into a realm of emergent limitations which turn the design into a player and just turn the player off.

It seems for this reason that the game will only exist in a balanced state by our deck construction.  Everything else will not work.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Seeing Stacket Through the Eyes of a Child

Up until now, I have been wary of designing games for children. I have to say, I still am. But, while playing Stacket with some of the kids at OrcCon this past Sunday, I realized a few key insights about why children like what they like.

The Context
On Saturday, we ran a formal event of Stacket where we showed people how to play Stacket according to the normal rules. In that 'event', we got a range of players from all ages and an equal number of men and women to sit down and play. Even though we had a contest in mind, really, once it got started, people who were walking by wanted in. So, we expanded from one to three tables.

On Sunday, we didn't have anything formally planned through the con so we had to setup our stuff in a less visible location. We didn't have a flag or signage either. So, I decided that I was just going to start stacking the blocks as high as I could. Partly because I wanted to test out the difficulty of getting a tall structure and partly to create a spectacle.

Fortunately, creating a tall stack of blocks seemed to be just enough to attract the attention of one of the girls nearby and she came rushing over asking if she could play.

The Observation
When the girl came over, Graydon started explaining the rules of the game to her. She followed his instructions and they started playing the official 'game'. All the while, I continue to try to stack stuff up. At a certain point, my structure collapsed and a bunch of pieces flew over the place.

When seeing this, the girl lost interest in the official version of the game and moved over towards me to see if she could do what I was doing instead. We gave her another set and she then promptly started building a tall tower next to mine.

After a few trials at the tallest stack, I decided to actually just mimic her plays. When she placed a certain block, I placed the same block. And voila, I figure out the rules for multi-set Stacket just then. Since each set is identical, the players can take turns choosing the piece that everyone will play, but each player can place his piece as he wants. At first, I was just letting her choose without her knowing. But, then I realized that I could make a 'game' out of it by telling her to choose and then letting me choose.

This new version of Stacket was brilliant fun. And, it has the ability to scale to any number of players, as I found out when a third kid started to play and we all took turns choosing a piece. Now, kids like to be able to place their pieces wherever they want, but for me, the challenge was to follow the rules of 'previous touching' just so that I could give myself a handicap.

But, as it turns out, the imitative need of children is so great that they ended up placing pieces on their structures very similar to mine. When they saw that I was creating a precarious structure, they too would create one. Rather than simply do a safe play, they wanted to show me that they could do something just as difficult. And, so, despite my handicap, I still managed to win.

Of course, the term 'win' is unusual in this case. Stacket was no longer a game as much as an exercise for creativity, imitation and control. There weren't any real rules to our game except that we traded turns choosing and the laws of nature. Gravity and the desire to imitate were the only real rules along with the reciprocity that we all teach our kids from a very young age to abide by.

In the end, Stacket was no longer a game with rules, but an activity bounded by what was physically possible and socially acceptable.

The Lessons
Kids like to have control over the creation of own things.
Kids play games that have rules based upon the law of nature/gravity.
Kids like to mirror what other people are doing.
Kids want to find composite shapes in the arrangement of smaller shapes.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Changing Media

Translating a tabletop miniatures roleplaying game into a card game ultimate creates a number of interesting design issues. How do you capture narrative structure in a random shuffle of cards? How do you transform physical proximity into an abstract sense of adjacency? What do you do with movement in the original system? How do the adversaries strike back?

Card games ultimately come down to questions of combinations and timing. Cards in hand can be effortlessly recombined but the availability of any given combination is always uncertain. The difference between the skill of one player and the skill of another comes down to the synergies they can find between cards in play and their capacity to manage cards to wait to exploit opportunities with the best cards.

To do anything well with a card game means figuring out how to translate elements of the original design into those dynamics. It isn’t really about representative fidelity, as if cards could suddenly be turned into miniature mechanics. It is about finding a suitable mechanic to capture the fundamental experience of the original design in a dynamic that rests upon combinations and good timing.

Modeling D&D is an interesting dilemma. Roleplaying games like D&D give each individual character a specific set of actions which are always available. It is the anti-thesis of a card game. The challenge rests upon how to combine those actions with allies simultaneously within a constrained space. Distance, not time, serves the role of limiting what you can do and when you can do it. A party in 4ed is always trying to figure out the exact combination of effects which work the best in each individual’s spatial relation to the others.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Gladiators Reversals

The normal progression of the game escalates the strength of the combats. In order to play a card, the card must be equal to or higher than the current strength. The incentive they have to play low cards arise from the fact that a victory is only valuable if there is glory attached to it, and the very highest cards don’t have any glory. By starting off high, your opponent can plead for mercy without penalty and you have wasted a high card in your hand. This form of ascension will mitigate a lot of the luck in the game by making card play much more strategic. Especially if high value cards are limited in number.

But, in order for the system to feel dynamic and exciting, there has to be a way to reverse the previous attack and reset the fight to a lower value. This reversal may also reset the glory accumulated during the attack so that players don’t end up losing the game on account of one epic chain of attacks. In order for the system to be exciting, the players need to feel vicissitude, undulation in fortune and a back and forth... but at the same time the cost of loss cannot be so high that there is no recovery.... there need to be enough of these rounds of combat to make the game interesting.

To keep the number of rounds high enough to allow player’s to come back from loss, mitigate the effects of chance and apply their superior combat tactics, the process of reversal needs to be well balanced. Too frequent, and the combat will never end and the cost of winning will be too high. So, how do you limit the capacity for reversal? Do you make it a card feature or a framework feature?

As a card feature, you could control the number of times it can be used so as to obtain the desirable frequency but it subjects the process to a great deal of chance. It seems rather arbitrary whether you have the card you need or not and it de-contextualizes the power’s capacity. If certain cards have that feature, you will hold onto them until you need them and treat them as ‘safety’ cards. From a design standpoint, it also requires that we define the relative value of a ‘safety’ card in relationship to the other cards. There is no unified balance to the system but only potentially a playtestable balance between the powers.

However, as a card feature, reversal is a fiat solution to the problem. We impose rules in the design that tell the players what is an acceptable amount of reversals and foreclose opportunities for them to exploit card synergy (and context) to gain an advantage over their opponent. It becomes less of an issue of guessing what the other player is going to play and out maneuvering him and more about managing the efficiency of your plays to optimize a fundamentally luck based system. It isn’t complexity, but stochastity.

On the other hand, as a framework feature, it opens up the possibility of endless reversals. If a card can always reverse another and be reversed by a third, then the reversal system never ends. The conditionality of reversals in the framework would have to be difficulty to obtain in the projected hand size of the combatants, otherwise, they will always have a solution to the current problem. A dynamic reversal system needs a feature that dramatically limits its use, but which nevertheless remains clear and transparent and potentially always available.

What if you could reverse a maneuver, but only if it is one lower? So, you can use any technique that is equal or higher, but you can also use a technique that is one lower as well. That way, techniques need not be numerous (easier to track) and the system can ‘reverse course’ but it would not be super easy to do so.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Legends of Laea Card Chains

Instead of allowing the players to dump the cards they wish to play all at once, the new concept creates a series of power card chains. Each player in party order has the opportunity to add to the chain by matching the challenge type or ‘transitioning’ the encounter to a different challenge. Transition points connect by attributes, requiring the attribute of the new card to match the old one. The power card chain also has an internal kicker structure that creates synergy between cards in the same chain that is uni-directional. Playing one card can setup subsequent cards to produce even better results within any given challenge.

This chain has the potential to simulate the teamwork of D&D combat well. Each players performs a power which not only effects the encounter, but also creates an environment for future powers to work even more effectively. This creates an organic encounter system that allows us to incorporate a large range of effects in 4ed, including ‘positioning’. However, there are a couple of issues that arise from the chain mechanic:

When are dice rolled? What happens if the dice roll is insufficient?
How do you deal with a player’s hand being unable to continue the chain?
What happens when someone stops the chain?
What happens when someone transitions the chain?
How do you simulate the encounter’s actions and the threat to players?

What if any time along the chain, you could choose to ‘reposition’ at the beginning of your turn? Repositioning would trigger a roll with all the effects so far accumulated along the chain and make you the player who suffers retaliation (if any). After the roll, you could decide whether to continue the chain, transition to a new challenge type (if you can) or simply abandon the encounter. This seems like it would naturally incline the players to create larger chains (more combos), but also allow them to be completely flexible about how long they are and who actually ‘fights’.

However, it does make the issue of inability to play an issue. When a player accumulates too many non-connectable cards in his hand, then he may want to get rid of them and it seems rather punative to force the encounter to end and relinquish all progress because of chance. Albeit, this is the kind of chance that can be controlled, but as the players build up injuries, they will feel less and less capable and more and more frustrated.

What if when you reposition, you could either continue, transition, abandon or refocus? Refocusing allows you to dump any number of cards in your hand and draw new ones... but doesn’t end the encounter. Only ‘abandoning’ the encounter would actually end it. And, presumably this would only be done if the player has some really good cards in hand that he would like to use later, the ‘retaliation effect’ of an encounter requires it to be abandoned or there is some other mitigating reason to abandon it.

Of course, this solution is premised upon the idea that you can lose all your progress. What if you didn’t? What if there were damage tokens added to cards at the end of a chain? This seems like it would be the most flexible. Of course, it now introduces a third component type into the game and moves it farther from a card game. Is that something that the players would want? Or should damage be solved immediately. Transitioning itself seems to imply a inter-chain tracking system, so it is likely that we have already introduced a third component by having transitioning be possible unless that transition were tied into the one big roll without a reset.

As a result, we are at a juncture:

  1. cards, dice and damage tokens and transitions which ‘reset’ the chain
  2. cards & dice and transitions which do not reset the chain, leading to one definitive roll
  3. a diceless system which just accumulates card based damage until an encounter is defeated

Which direction seems the best?

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Cards without Costs

Card Properties
1. Loyalty (number)
2. Neighborhood (color)
3. Resources (icons)
4. Special Powers (text)

In this system, there is no cost to playing a card. On your turn, you may play a card regardless of what it is. So each card needs to be balanced with all the others by a metric other than cost. Loyalty is an obvious scalar. A card's loyalty roughly equivalent to its defense, the vulnerability of a card to being stolen or eliminated can scale to its other powers.

Conceptually, this works out well. Seeing how the more power someone has, the less likely they are to follow orders and more likely they are to work for the highest bidder, loyalty is inversely correlated to the independent value of a person to an organization. If you want to work with the best people, you may have trouble holding on to them.

The end result of this calculation is that unlikely other CCGs, where cost scales to power, this system scales loyalty inversely to power. This establishes a floor at 1, so the range of possible power and its relationship to loyalty needs to be established at the beginning. If loyalty cannot go below 1, then the most powerful card can be no more powerful than x-1 (where x= loyalty + power). Otherwise, it will be a clearly dominant card.

Establishing the relationship between all the properties will be tricky though. It is unlikely to be accurate a priori, but to a function of the dynamic relationship of all the cards. In order to understand how the scale works we will need to play the game out and make adjustments. Which, of course, risks formalizing the strategies that we develop in the testing. However, I think it's safe to say that as long as the margin of error surrounding the relative values of each card is less than the potential for synergistic play, strategic exploration will remain dominant over individual card possession.

Unlike other actions in the game which require you to play a card with an appropriate special power to perform them, everyone can deal drugs. What is required to deal is someone in the neighborhood and enough drugs to satisfy demand. The total supply of drugs available to your organization of each type at any time is calculated by adding up the total number of icons of that drug. If, after playing a card, you have at least one card with the appropriate neighborhood and a total drug supply equal to or greater than the value of a drug money card, you may place it into your discard pile. If you use your action to deal drugs, you may not perform a special action.

Special Actions
Most cards have a special action written on them. After you play a card (if you do not deal drugs), you may perform the special action on the card. Like dealing, special actions often require you to have one or more resources in play in order to perform them. Most special actions are scalar, which is to say, the power of that action adjusts depending upon the number of resources you have. Others are threshold, meaning that you must have a certain number to perform them.

Passive Effects
Certain cards in your operation provide passive effects to your operation while they are in play, increasing the amount of resources required to perform an action against one of your cards (defenses) or increasing certain types of resources (buffs). Passive effects have a threshold cost. As long as you have at least the number of resources in play in order to meet the threshold, the effect is active and modifies other actions.