Thursday, October 29, 2009

Game Impressions: Planet Busters

This is a tile game from Tom Wham, whose games from Dragon Magazine I have fond memories of. This game less of his characteristic humor and whimsy than some of his others, but it is still cute.

The basic idea is a spaceship combat game where you collect forces to attack those of the other players, trying to steal or destroy their planets; at the end of the game ownership of planets determines the winner. There are lots of types of spaceship forces you can draw, and the combat system seems fun. I generally enjoyed the madcap chaos of the big pitched battles you can get at the start of the game.

When I tried a 2-player game, however, I found that the overall flow of the game didn't work so well. Basically, you draw new tiles (essentially cards) into your hand every turn, you can play as many as you want, and you have a hand limit, but no limit to the number of units played. One oddity is that only units can be attacked, and you start with no units, so the initial draws and plays seem very random and very critical, in a way I didn't find pleasing. Once both sides have units, they can send in starship attacks to savage each other. The trouble is that since combat is pretty bloody, it seems likely that after a few heated battles, one side will be victorious and destroy all enemy forces. That seemed to happen in all of my games. At this point, the winning side can continue to build up ships, but any ships the losing side puts down will be outnumbered and crushed. So the losing side has to wait until the perfect hand can be put down all at once to have a fighting chance, while the winning side builds up more and more ships and planets until it has an overwhelming advantage. But the winning side can't do anything to make the game end sooner. In my tests game the real fighting lasted about 5 turns, but the game lasts more than 30 turns. You could try to fix this by cutting the game short when a winner becomes obvious.

Another very odd feature is that the victory condition is based on the number of planets you have, but planets are drawn randomly and are very rare. Plus, you can draw "planet busters" to try to destroy planets, and their chance of success doesn't depend on the size of the enemy's forces. But you get a game benefit from playing planets. This creates all sorts of strange effects. If you get lucky and draw multiple planets, you can end up with a very strong edge. If nobody draws planets, there can be nothing to fight over. If one side is totally winning but has few planets, it could lose them all to planet busters, then both sides could try to horde planets in their hand so they can't be destroyed. So potentially, a side which has decisively lost the space battle and plays nothing for 25 turns could just try to get lucky and be the one to draw the end of game tile, then play all the planets in their hand and win the game.

A game with three or more players would probably work quite differently. But it seems likely to follow one of the usual 3-player game mechanics. Perhaps two stronger players conspire to crush the weaker player then battle between each other. Perhaps a balance of power is created, where nobody is ever allowed to get ahead, and everyone just tries to save up for a power play that will give them a sneaky win before anyone else can stop them. Perhaps everyone is too afraid to attack at all, as a battle of attrition between 2 players gives the third player an advantage. I don't really like any of these dynamics of unregulated multi-player wargames.

I've been trying to think of an analogy to the flow of this game. Basically, it is as if you were playing a WWII wargame, but instead of using the carefully designed orders of battle and starting positions, you just scooped up a big handful of counters, sprinkled them over the map, and started playing. The individual tactical battles may end up pretty interesting, but the sense I get from a lot of modern games, of a well-crafted overall play experience, is missing.

I have to say, though, that I find the spaceship combat simple, colorful, and fun. I feel like I do with a lot of old games, that I want to make some adjustments to the game so I can enjoy the good parts.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Game Impression: Drakon

At first, before I looking carefully at this tile game, I thought it was a game of random dungeon exploration. Actually, though, it is more of a strategic tile placement game.

Each turn, you either place a tile, or you move. You can't normally move backwards, so often you or someone else will have to place a tile in order for movement to be possible. Each tile can contain traps, special actions to take, or treasures. You win the game when you gain 5 gold pieces.

Consider a 2-player game. Both players start together. Whenever you extend the dungeon from your current location, the other player has the option to move first. But if one player moves, the other can follow. The two players could do this until they reach a portion of the dungeon which has no exit tiles placed yet. At this point the person in the lead loses the initiative, as he has to place tiles rather than move. So the person who moved first really hasn't gained anything over his rival. These rules mean that, from a theoretical standpoint, there is no benefit to moving until enough tiles have been placed to give you a winning path, so that by moving first, you can either pick up the 5 gold one turn before the other player can if he follows you, or you can "shake" the other player by being the first to take a special action from one of the rooms. But if you put down the tile that creates a winning path, the other player can take the path first. This symmetry is broken by the fact that you have hidden tiles in your hand, and some of those tiles could break up the path the other player takes. So you want to trick the other player into starting on what looks like a winning path, then play your own path which disrupts it or is better. Or you want to trick him into not realizing that you just played the winning path – although this is still a pretty good chance he can do something to mess you up. Anyway, until the players actually split up, the complexity of deciding which play is actually the best one is just way too much for me. Some people might like this sort of deep thinking, but for me, it just hurts my head.

I tried playing with the rule that the players couldn't follow each other, and the game was much more to my liking. Basically, you end up trying to create a profitable path in your part of the dungeon, while messing up the other player's path in his part of the dungeon. The fact that you have to place your tile on one turn, and move into it on the next turn, creates a funny slow pace that is different from what would I expect from an exploration game. But it works OK, and I like building up the dungeon and wandering around. And it doesn't take too long to build up enough money for someone to win the game. I wouldn't mind playing this variant of the game some more, though I'm not sure I'd go out of my way to do so.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Game Impressions: Rabbit Hunt

Me and my wife tried out this game – my wife loves bunnies, so the theme was cool. The game has a surface mechanic that was reasonably fun, moving your farmer around to look for bunnies and finding various good and bad tiles. But the core mechanic is a memory game. Basically, each player places tiles at a certain rate, and must choose when to play his 3 scoring tiles. Each player also turns over tiles at a certain rate, and scores by turning over one of the other player’s scoring tiles. Occasionally, you learn how many scoring tiles the other player has left. So the object is to remember which tiles you put down (since it is useless to turn them over), and remember or guess which of the tiles the other person put down are scoring tiles. I don’t like memory games, nor does my wife. And with the tiles of both players being interspersed with each other, this is a pretty hard memory game. Unless one player has his hand revealed at the wrong times, in which case it is obvious where the scoring tile must be. There is also something of an outguess mechanic involved with trying to put tiles in places where you think the other person won’t choose to turn them over. I don’t like outguess mechanics either. I just didn’t care for this game. Perhaps if you like the memory mechanic, you might like it.

The idea with a "game impression" is to be a micro-review, what I think of it and would tell someone after playing it once or twice (which, for a game I don't actually like, is as many times as I will ever play it). I avoided reading any other review before writing this, so as not to influence my judgment.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Disadvantages, Part IV: How the types of disadvantages work with the disadvantage system goals

In my last article, I classified disadvantages into 4 types, and previously to that, a described 2 goals of disadvantage systems. Now I will discuss how each type of disadvantage fits into each goal.

If you are thinking of the goal of your disadvantage system as encouraging characters to take interesting disadvantages, you want to give points for disadvantages which make the characters and the story more interesting. In that case, all 4 types of disadvantages are pretty valuable and important, and should be encouraged. Restricted choice is perhaps the most interesting to encourage, as it makes you describe the psychology, motivations, and beliefs of your character. This can both come through in your roleplaying, and provide hooks for the GM to make customized adventures. Story disadvantages can be even stronger in terms of really providing clear hooks for the GM to make stories – putting a rival or a loved one in a scene can be a convenient way to add some emotional connection. On the flip side, they may have little effect if the GM doesn’t want to customize an adventure – they tend to require work from the GM. Situational vulnerabilities are similar to story disadvantages, though it is often rather harder to use them in a fashion that is fun for the player. Negative abilities are good to encourage, and along with situational vulnerabilities they are the least likely sort of disadvantage to be taken in a game with no disadvantage system (roleplayers are more likely to given themselves interesting psychology and back story than to arbitrarily penalize their own characters). But in some sense, they are less important to encourage than other types of disadvantages. Characters are likely to have clear strengths and weaknesses even in a system with no disadvantages at all; for instance, a fighter may have the “weakness” of being incompetent in ranged combat, simply because he didn’t put any points into it. Thus, even with no disadvantage system, the GM can create situations that play on character weaknesses. So encouraging negative abilities isn’t really a qualitative difference over having no disadvantage system at all, it just provides more and stronger weaknesses to differentiate the characters. But really, all types of disadvantage are pretty close in terms of the goal of encouraging interesting disadvantages.

When it comes to the goal of compensation, however, we have a different story. If you are trying to give characters extra points as compensation for the problems the disadvantages provide to the characters, then the disadvantages had better be truly disadvantageous.

Negative abilities are the perfect disadvantages to offer compensation for. Your character is less powerful, and you get back points corresponding to how much less powerful your character is. If the disadvantage is small, you earn a few points; if the disadvantage is large, you get back lots of points. Of course, there are many tricky practical issues around how to correctly price disadvantages and how to reduce the risk of abusive minimaxing, but I’m not getting into that here. In terms of high-level theory, compensating characters for negative abilities is quite straightforward.

Giving characters substantial numbers of points as compensation for a story disadvantage, on the other hand, is fraught with problems. A story disadvantage adds features to the character’s adventures that cause him problems. But the point of adventures is already to be difficult and cause the adventurers problems. Story disadvantages work very well as a way of helping the GM find challenges to put into the adventure, but not so well if you try to make sure they are a large penalty to the character.

In Champions, one method of using story disadvantages is to create the story first, then add the story disadvantages – the character’s enemy just shows up as an extra menace to cause trouble. But this is an example of what I would call “disadvantages which penalize the GM”. Part of the GM’s job is to make a good adventure, which is basically an act of creative writing. Trying to shoehorn a bunch of extraneous elements into an adventure is hard work for the GM, and is likely to reduce the quality of the adventure. The more natural and desirable approach for story disadvantages is to periodically make adventures that are designed to feature them, or to otherwise work them nicely into the plot. This matches the way such story elements would be used in the source material.

When you do this, it becomes very hard to say how much of a penalty the story disadvantages are, because there is no source of comparison – you can’t really say how difficult the adventure would have been if the storyline had been different. This is true in the source material as well. In a comic book, for instance, a Superman story which includes Lois Lane getting in trouble isn’t necessary more difficult overall than a storyline which doesn’t. If is just a characteristic type of Superman story showcasing a special problem which Superman often has to deal with.

Now, in principle, it would be mathematically possible to construct adventures in such a way as to make sure that story disadvantages appear with a predictable frequency and adventures which include them are appreciably more difficult. This is tricky to do correctly. Consider, for instance, a Champions character who is hunted by a team of supervillains. You can’t just add the enemies on top of an existing encounter – that way make it way too hard, totally unwinnable. The most likely thing to do is to add the enemies as a separate encounter. But this just isn’t worth the same kind of compensation as a negative ability, which actually makes your character less powerful. From the player’s point of view, you can only fit so many encounters into a play session, and one encounter is just being replaced with a different one. Champions characters don’t normally suffer any lasting effects from fights, so it doesn’t really hurt the character in later fights. The main penalty is the chance the players may lose the fight, and that this would have negative repercussions within the story.

Since story disadvantages usually don’t come up too frequently, the GM would really have to stick it to the characters to make them worth a substantial amount of compensation. There are certainly a number of ways the GM can do this. But I don’t think it is the right approach. I think the game works best when story disadvantages mostly just make the story more interesting, and you acknowledge that they aren’t really worth many points from a compensation point of view.

The same is true of situational disadvantages. Consider the case of Superman and kryptonite. You could just randomly add kryptonite at random spots in your adventure, on top of threats that are already balanced for the characters. Whenever it showed up, Superman would be rendered helpless and the villains would win a devastating victory. This might be fair if the vulnerability to kryptonite is worth a good number of points. Mathematically, if that were true, Superman should find non-kryptonite encounters slightly easier and krytonite encounters vastly more difficult, in order to balance out the points. But it doesn’t seem like that much fun. A more comic-book approach is to use kryptonite as a way to challenge Superman in situations that wouldn’t normally be a challenge – for instance, to allow him to be captured by villains who lack the earth-shattering might necessary to defeat him in open combat. And conversely, you don’t normally want to make all of Superman’s other fights easier just because they don’t have kryptonite. This points to the vulnerability being used primarily to enhance storytelling rather than as something that is really equivalent to a negative ability.

Restricted choice disadvantages don’t necessarily have this aspect of wanting the adventure to be designed around them. It is common enough to just go on a prepackaged adventure and find that your desire to do everything by the book is getting in your way. However, characters can make both good and bad choices during an adventure whether they have formal disadvantages or not, so the effect of the disadvantage is somewhat muted. Also, the kind of extreme psychological limitations that cause you to make very bad choices can often be very annoying for the GM and the other players. Restricted choice disadvantages that have strong effects on the style in which you complete the adventure, without preventing you from properly playing the adventure, are usually most interesting. But such disadvantages really aren’t worth as much compensation as a negative ability.

So my conclusion is that all types of disadvantages are worthy of encouragement, but negative abilities are generally worth more in terms of compensation than the other disadvantages. I might describe negative abilities as “hard” disadvantages and the others as “soft” disadvantages. This leads me to describe a problem stemming from this.

In designing a game with a disadvantage system that wants to encourage characters to have disadvantages, it is typical to make all 4 types of disadvantages worth comparable numbers of points, and try to force everyone to take a substantial number of such disadvantages. In the natural play of the game, though, negative abilities are more of a penalty than other disadvantages, and players tend to lean towards soft disadvantages in taking the required disadvantages. When the game master or game designer notices that this is happening, the tendency is to want to “crack down” on the soft disadvantages by trying extra hard to penalize characters who take them, in an attempt to make them worth their points. In my view, this is counter-productive, as for the reasons I’ve listed above, it makes adventures harder to write, more awkwardly constructed, and generally less fun, and restricts character design to a subset of particularly deranged and troubled characters. I think that a better solution would acknowledge that the purpose of soft disadvantages is to make characters more interesting, and that it just isn’t natural to expect that even several of them will reduce a very powerful character to be no better than a very weak character without disadvantages.