Sunday, November 29, 2009

New Rule for Street Illegal

This week, time for some game design. I'm going to try to create a new rule for Street Illegal.

As you can see from my game impressions, my only complaint is that there is no penalty for travelling extremely slowly when in last place, whereas cars in the other positions actually have to keep their speed up to avoid being passed - in other words, they actually have to race. So I wanted to make a rule to discourage slow speeds in last place, so that everyone wants to race. Since the game basically works pretty well as is, I'd like to be conservative and give my new rule a fairly subtle effect.

The initial thought is to penalize players who are travelling slowly in last place. There are really only three things you can "lose" during the game - position, chips, and hand size. Losing hand size is rather drastic, and you can't go farther back than last place. So penalizing with chips seems logical. This leads to rule idea:

Rule v1: If you end the round in last place, you lose a chip if you have any.

Note: When the rule says "lose a chip if you have any", this is a potential red flag - can a player unfairly avoid the rule simply by arranging to not have any chips? In the present case, this isn't an issue. The behavior we are trying to discourage is driving slowly at the back to build up chips. There is no need to penalize players who have no chips, as they clearly aren't performing the behavior we want to discourage.

The idea with Rule v1 is to make players want to compete hard to stay out of last place, because last place is bad. The negative is that the rule is too broad. It penalizes players who are racing as fiercely as possible, but are unsuccessful. Basically, it kicks the player who is down, something I usually try to avoid. So:

Rule v2: If you are in last place, you must pay at least one chip during the round, either to exceed the speed limit or to pass the car ahead of you.

This is much better. It doesn't really penalize you much at all if you are really trying to race, but if you aren't racing at all, it is practically the same as losing a chip straight out.

Now, what is the game rationale for not travelling really slowly when in last place? The obvious is that you would be left behind. But an idea I had that is more consistent with a penalty in chips, rather than position, is that the police are chasing you on your illegal street race, and if you drive too slowly you have to spend a chip trying to outmaneuver the cops. This leads me to another idea:

Rule: If you are in last place, you must pay a chip if you travel less than the speed limit.

Hmm, this is missing something - what if there is no speed limit?

Rule v3: If you are in last place, you must pay a chip if you travel less than 90 mph.

This was my first solution, but I think the following may be more elegant:

Rule v4: If you are in last place, you must pay a chip if you travel less than the speed limit (100 mph if no limit).

This is the same as Rule v2, but if you can exactly match the speed limit, you don't have to pay. I think I like that it is slightly more subtle, and it means that you can still try to save up chips, but you need driving skill to do so - to drive at exactly the speed limit, rather than just driving really slowly. And setting the minimum speed based on the speed limit matches the fact that when you aren't in last place, you need to driver faster on roads with higher speed limits to avoid being passed.

I will try Rule v4.

New Rules:

Police: After performing your drive action, if you are in last place and you are travelling less than the speed limit (less than 100 mph if no speed limit), you are harassed by the police and you lose one chip. If you don't have any chips, you don't lose anything.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Game Impressions: Age of Mythology

I've never played the computer game this is based on, the this game seems to capture some of the idea of the real-time strategy game. You start off with very little, try to build up your production base, create combat units, and go fight the other players. The box is absolutely crammed with plastic miniatures that don't really add much to the play of the game. But they are fun to look at.

I quite enjoyed the production and building aspect of the game. You have three actions every turn. Each action requires a card, and you draw 4 or more cards, splitting between face up cards and more powerful random cards. It is fun picking your actions and deciding whether to gamble on random actions that might be more powerful or might not be useful. The three actions you get is adequate but never enough, just about the balance you want in this sort of game. You can use actions to explore for land to give you better production, or to produce, purchase things, attack, or exchange resources. Each actions seems interesting in its own way. In fact, if you aren't feeling very violent, it is tempting to skip combat entirely and just have fun building up.

Purchasing the combat units is neat. Each player is a different culture and has unique combat units with unique costs and abilities. Some of the units are clearly better than other units of the same cost, but this is not a problem for two reasons. First, each unit requires a different mix of the 4 resource types, so you generally just try to buy what you can afford with what you have. Second, the units have a rock-paper-scissors circular superiority, where each unit is super-good against one or more other unit types. Normally this isn't my favorite game mechanic, but here it works well.

You can send your units to attack other players. What I really like is the idea of limited warfare. Only a portion of each player's forces are involved in a battle, and either side can easily retreat. The attacker can obtain a certain fixed benefit if he wins. So there are definite reasons to attack instead of sitting back, and you can lose a fight without losing the game. So in a three-player game, if everyone is out for himself, you can end up with end up with lots of battles but no one getting knocked out.

On the down side, I'm not sure the game balance goes far enough in this direction. It really helps for the players to want a three-way battle. Otherwise, you could easily end up with players either refusing to fight or teaming up to demolish a player they don't like.

A negative factor is the length of this game. This is a really, really long game, hard to finish in a single play session. Combat takes forever, as you match up the monsters in your army one by one and roll out who wins each fight. Normally, I am not bothered by lengthy combat systems, and I think rolling lots of dice is fun. But this game still gives me pause. You just roll, and roll, and roll. My hand got fatigued from all that rolling; I can't remember that happening to me in any other game. Maybe it was because the dice are so big. Also, before each matchup, each side secretly picks a unit to fight. If you carefully calculate what you think is the best unit to use before each and every matchup, I found the combat quite tedious. I greatly preferred just choosing a unit at random.

There seems to have been a game balance mistake with one type of monster ability. Some Norse units have the "berserk" power, which gives them the option to roll two more combat dice at the cost of losing all ties. This is generally treated as if it were a useful power. But mathematically, losing all ties is approximately equivalent to losing 3 combat dice, so going berserk is normally quite bad. The power is slightly useful if you are badly outmatched, but in general it is a trap for the unwary, and I don't think that was the intent. Conversely, the medusa's ability to win all ties makes it an extraordinary good unit, far better than any unit of its cost in the game.

My least favorite part of the game was the victory conditions. Many modern games try to stand out with unusual methods for determining victory. But this one I just found to be downright unpleasant. Each turn, each player puts a victory point on one of 4 victory conditions. For three of the conditions, the victory points are given out all-or-nothing to the winner of that condition at the end of the game. Near the start of the game, you have to decide what condition to make more valuable, without having any idea who will ultimately win that condition. I don't like making choices like this, which are simultaneously pointless (since you have nothing to base them on) and vital (since they determine the winner). At the end of the game, the mechanic ultimately means that unless one player scores a dominant victory (in which case this mechanic is a moot point), the winner is determined by a sort of vote, by where the players put the victory points. So if two players are vying for one victory condition, they can shut out the third player, unless they tie with each other, in which case the third player wins. I find the whole mechanic weird and don't see how anything fun can come out of it. I'd much rather have a conventional linear scoring system.

In general, I liked a lot of this game. As an inveterate game rule designer and tinkerer, I felt it was a good fixer-upper. I just need to make a new way to determine victory and a few other minor changes. The only problem is that it is so long, it will be hard to get anyone to play it with me.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Game Impressions of Geek Wars, Bankruptcy, Top Secret Spies

More impressions from playtesting a bunch of borrowed games to see which ones I would like.

Geek Wars is a CCG-style game; while not sold in the collectible format, it does have rules for deck construction. It is a variant of MTG, you put down your "troops" and then fight it out until one player is out of "bucks" (life). The gaming geek theme of the cards is somewhat amusing.

The combat system allows the troops to attack each other directly. Unlike MTG, when a troop dies, you lose life. If the other player has no troops left, you can attack him directly, which is a much more efficient means of taking his life down. I thought this variant of the MTG combat mechanics was interesting. Also interesting was that you don't have any resource other than cards and life. More powerful troops cost only a card to put into play, but if a powerful troop dies, you lose more life than if a weak troop dies.

You cannot gang up on offense or defense, and you cannot attack the other player if he as any surviving troops. This means that one powerful troop is superior to any number of weaker troops. Theoretically this could be made interesting, but in practice I found it frustrating that weak troops don't seem to have any purpose other than buying time.

This is also a game balance issue, in that while powerful troops cost your more life than weak troops if they die, the difference is small and by no means sufficient to make up for the vast superiority of strong troops. In general, it was difficult to see any real balance between the various cards, many are awesomely good or terribly bad.

The basic flow of this game was sufficiently amusing that, if I had some extra time, I'd be tempted to fiddle around with it some more and analyze what is going on. But I'm borrowing it, and I'm not really inspired to buy a copy.

Bankruptcy is a classic card game (in the style of a traditional card game like Gin, except for the exotic cards). The objective is to be the first to empty your hand. You can get rid of your own cards, or give yourself or the other person cards. You may need to give yourself cards in order to have the right cards to keep playing effectively. And there are a few special cards in the mix. When I first read the rules, I was excited, because the game seems very playable. By playable, I mean that it is easy to just sit down and play a few games in a relaxed style, without being daunted by a major investment in time or having to comprehend lots of vital but obscure tactical complexities. You just draw your cards, look at your hand, see a few options, and play one.

Actually playtesting the game, it certainly seems very playable, but not very exciting. Without knowing what was in everyone else's hands, it seemed very difficult to know what to do to interfere with other people – and even if you do interfere, unless you have a rare special card, all you can do is randomly give them extra cards which they may or may not want. And when you are concentrating on looking at how to improve your own hand, there didn't seem to be many exciting options, just a mechanical process of trying to get that hand whittled down. Perhaps, if you mastered the game, you could become fascinated with the knowledge gained by watching everyone's card plays. But I don't plan to play this game enough times to find out.

Top Secret Spies is a board game where any player can move any piece, but the owners of those pieces are secret. Spies is an abstract game (it has nothing to do with espionage) which features an unusual scoring system which I find hard to describe in one sentence. Basically, it seems difficult to put yourself in a good scoring position, without making yourself vulnerable to other players taking better advantage or moving you out of position. No doubt this was a design goal, and it seems to work well, at least to an inexperienced player's eye.

The game rules heavily emphasize the secrecy idea, where you disguise which piece you control and try to figure out which piece other players control. This is certainly a classic and popular game mechanic. Personally, though, I never liked games of this style, where the way to hide the identity of your pieces is to make moves that benefit the other players, and everyone tries to record which pieces were helped by other player's moves. So I wouldn't really ask to play this game. But if someone else wanted to play, it might be entertaining moving pieces around the board and watching the wacky scoring system.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Game Impressions: Street Illegal, Employee of the Month, Shipwrecked, Romance of Three Kingdoms

Street Illegal is a card game of illegal street racing. I really like this game. You lay out a random course with cards, and there is a system where you use your cards to control your speed while trying to gain chips that let you go faster than the maximum safe speed or help you to pass other competitors. The actual racing is not done in terms of absolute physical position, but rather in terms of ordinal position – what order everyone is at one time. Even though the game is somewhat abstract compared to a board game like Formula De, with a little imagination I feel like I am really racing at high speed along the course, and I like the way the cards work. It handles any number of players from 1 to 7 easily, since you always have 7 cars but there are rules for faceless characters to drive the cars not controlled by players. In fact, I think I prefer fewer players in the game because I have so much fun trying to pass the "Old Pros". I've only really noticed one problem with the game. You can build up unlimited chips, but driving fast and trying to improve your position against other cars tends to cost a lot of chips. But since position is ordinal, you can't get any farther back than last place, which is where the players start. So one strategy is to drive the first half of the race at extremely slow speeds and save up your chips. While this strategy is far from a sure win, it does seem rather too tempting for something so boring. I'm thinking of possible rules variants to put a damper on this.

Employee of the Month is one of those totally abstract games whose theme is printed on the cards but has nothing to do with the play of the game. It is a bidding game where you bid on good cards by deciding what bad cards you will be willing to take with them, then at the end, you calculate who has the highest and lowest totals in various categories, to determine a victor. I set up the game to begin a solo playtest, and discovered I couldn't motivate myself to actually play a game. Each round, each player has to determine their correct play. In a regular card game, this depends on the cards you hold and the state of the game. But at the start of this game, everyone is pretty much in the same position, bidding on the same cards with pretty much the same value to everyone. There doesn't seem to be much to do except "solve the game" and figure out the correct bidding strategy. By the end of the game, this would be totally different as you compare your mathematical totals to other players to determine bidding. But in general, the game just seemed too unbearably abstract and mathematical for my taste. I'd rather write a computer program to play for me.

Shipwreckeded is a card-based bidding game. The key mechanic of interest boil downs to an outguess game (like rock-paper-scissors) – you make secret bids, and the best bid for you to make depends on what bids you think other people will make. The mechanics and design appear to be reasonably interesting. But I don't enjoy outguess games, so I skipped playing and moved on to the next game in my stack of games I borrowed.

(You might think it isn't too useful giving my impressions of a game I never played, but I figure I might as well share the information I have. Maybe if you are a big fan of outguess games, you'll want to give it a look).

Romance of Three Kingdoms is a CCG-style card game where players send warriors into battle to conquer land. You can see from comments in the rules that this is clearly intended to be a Diplomacy-type game, where the card play is just a backdrop to the real game of negotiation between the players. The game mechanics are OK, but the balance is odd. You start with no lands, but controlling any land at all makes you far more powerful. So the two-player game doesn't seem to work, as whoever wins the initial battles and holds a piece of land soon snowballs to victory. The balance needs to come from the diplomacy. Since I don't enjoy diplomacy games, I didn't pursue the game any further.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Game Impressions of Flagship: Coyote Stands

This game is one of those non-collectible CCG's, I'm not sure what the right term is. It comes with decks for a couple of empires, all ready for you to have a space battle between different space empires.

This game cleverly tries to avoid some of the pitfalls of CCG's like Magic: The Gathering (my favorite CCG). In particular, the extreme randomness that can cause many games to be lopsided one way or the other. Here, instead of drawing forces randomly, you purchase your starting spaceships, and the cards merely improve the capabilities of those spaceships. You can't be "mana-hosed" because you get a fixed number of command points per turn, and even without improvement it is enough to buy any one card. Also, you can discard and redraw every card you don't use every turn, so you go through a lot of cards and are never stuck with anything you don't want. This is a much more controlled, balanced game than MTG (even assuming you play MTG, as I do, with decks that are equally good against each other on average). And the actual game balance of the individual cards seems to be much better than I'm used to; it looks like I'd have to play it more to figure out whether anything is off with the balance. In terms of technique with the individual game mechanics, this is my kind of game.

My only real issue is not with any specifics, but with the overall fun factor of the game. To me, the fun part of MTG is in drawing a random selection of forces and abilities, and having to make the best battle strategy you can from what you draw. The game wouldn't be that interesting if you pre-selected the cards, as the actual game mechanics are fairly primitive. With Flagship, that core randomness is greatly minimized. It seems like the cards just add spice and extra variability to the space combat game between your preselected ships. The problem is that the basic space combat game is completely uninteresting without the cards, so the cards have a very difficult task trying to make up for that. It feels like it would be cool if more were going on in the base game, maybe the ships were maneuvering around on a map and shooting each other with dice rolls, and the cards were adding on top of that. As it is, I feel a little bit like I am playing not so much a game, as a nicely designed simulation of a game, a way to determine who would win in a battle between the Standing Nations and the Kirkin Swarm. Sort of like when I used to take a bunch of RPG characters and have them roll attacks against each other without using the map, to see who would win. Only here, the randomness of what you draw each turn from the deck is used as a substitute for the randomness of dice rolls.