Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Balancing The Game To Encourage Genre Appropriate Actions

One of my primary goals when designing game mechanics is to make the game encourage actions which are genre-appropriate, fun, or fit well with the theme of the game. Encouragement can mean different things, but it most often means making that action one of the best possible actions from the competitive point of view (winning the game or defeating the adventure).

Let's create an example of what I'm trying to prevent. Imagine you have a fencer in a swashbuckling adventure game. The character concept, and the genre, imply that he should frequently use his weapon to disarm his opponents, rather than simply stabbing them.

In most traditional roleplaying games, the disarm maneuver involves the attacker making some sort of (often fairly difficult) roll to successfully force the defender to drop his weapon. So the game has fulfilled the mechanical requirement of permitting the character to disarm the foe.

The problem is that the disarmed opponent can then spend his action to pick the weapon back up. So all the fencer has done is spend an entire action to force the opponent to spend an action. And that is if he succeeds in the disarm; otherwise, he has spent an action for no effect. So overall, disarm costs an action for the attacker in order to cost the defender less than an action. Not very useful.

Now, one might point out that there are situations where this disarm maneuver is indeed useful. In particular, if there are two PC's fighting one opponent, one PC can disarm the opponent, and the other can pick up the weapon, leaving the defender unarmed and helpless. Or if you are fighting near a cliff or in a bog, you may be able to disarm an opponent and have the weapon be lost for good. Also, you can use disarm just to waste time, in case the situation doesn't require you to win, or if you are one-on-one with a more powerful opponent and want to delay matters until your allies arrive.

Unfortunately, none of this really helps the situation at hand, which is capturing the spirit of a swashbuckler movie where the fencer frequently disarms opponents in situations where none of these are true. Indeed, the fencer is often outnumbered and pressed for time, yet still disarms the opponents. But when playing a game with standard disarm rules, one would very quickly realize that this is totally ineffective and basically a waste of time, and the player would want to start stabbing opponents to win the battle.

One response to this would be to say that the swashbuckler has a psychological limitation that makes him enjoy disarming opponents even though it isn't really effective, just because he enjoys doing so. This limitation could give him the points to be such a good fencer that he can get away with some nonsense and still win the fights. But I don't really feel like this is true to the source material or the character. If this were true, you'd expect the other characters in the movie to say, "Wow, that guy's a good fencer. Too bad he's a grandstanding moron!" But they don't do so, and the movie doesn't convey that impression. Indeed, the character concept for the swashbuckler may well be that of a reluctant hero forced to fight for an important cause, not a that of an egotist enraptured with his own fencing skill. Also, if the psychological limitation theory were true, you'd expect the swashbuckler to drop the disarming when he has to save the life of his true love, but that doesn't really seem to happen in the source material.

A slightly different response would be to say that because disarming is appropriate to the source material, it is the player's responsibility to throw in some disarm attempts as "good roleplaying". The idea of expecting players to help make the game fun is a good one. I don't generally play roleplaying games in a highly competitive style, and in the roleplaying games I play in, it is understood that the players don't just go all-out to optimize every game mechanic to win the game, but try to do fun things and advance the story, or at least make the battles entertaining. There is no way to balance everything perfectly or guarantee that the most entertaining move is the most effective. You expect the players to mix things up and put some variety in the game even if a careful analysis may reveal that a more boring strategy is somewhat more effective. But I generally think this sort of thing works best when the game balance between the different actions being considered is pretty close. A lot of the time, you may suspect a certain action isn't optimal, but there are pros and cons both ways, so it isn't really clear. So you really feel free to do whatever you think is cool.

For instance, in Torg you had the ability to take "approved actions" each round, like taunting or tricking the opponent, instead of just attacking them. Success would give you a minor advantage over the foe and an extra card. We loved approved actions, they were cool, and we did them over and over. We always strongly suspected that just attacking the foe would be more effective; ending the battle early is generally a good thing. But the benefit of cards was hard to quantify; they could set you up for a big attack later on, and could potentially be saved for use later in the adventure. And approved action were fun, and Torg characters were so full of possibilities (hero points) that you weren't that scared of combat anyway. So it all seemed to work OK. Actually, though, I should admit that in this case I did make some rules changes to make the approved actions a bit better and encourage them more.

However, when one action is just flat out way inferior to another, even in cases where it ought to be useful, that is just going way beyond the scope of what should be expected from the players. In the case of the disarm example, using disarm in most situations isn't an interesting choice with pros and cons; it is just a way to make your character less effective. The more you use it, the less effective you are. It is basically as if the GM is saying, "I'd like you to vary your actions to make the combat more interesting. Whenever you do so, I will punish you by making you less effective. The more interesting you are, the more I will punish you." It is perverse and unfortunate, and even though players can and often do make games more entertaining this way, it would be much better if the rules were changed so that they were not made ineffective by doing so.

On a related note, the players can bypass various forms of rules abuse by following conventions. For instance, in Champions, when an enemy strongman jumped up to you and started trying to smash your face in, it was most effective within the rules to ignore that person and attack a weaker enemy. Nothing in the rules required you to pay any attention to enemies attacking you; even if you were virtually surrounded on all sides with angry swordsmen, you were free to run off to a different part of the battlefield as if they were all paralyzed and attack the vulnerable boss behind them. Since this was totally inappropriate to the genre (and reality too), we made a convention that you were expected to defend yourself when attacked and had to do something if you wanted to fight your way past the attacker. This was a good convention; conventions can be useful to fix bad rules or substitute for rules that don't exist. But it is even better to fix or create the rule, rather than having a convention. Then you know exactly when the rule applies and what the penalty is for breaking it. In any case, the idea of making a convention doesn't work well for disarm example because it isn't clear how you would apply the convention. Saying that you had to disarm every other attack would just be way too unnatural.

Another way to deal with the issue here is for the GM to compensate by rewarding genre-appropriate maneuvers. I highly approve of having the GM reward genre-appropriate maneuvers with cool custom bonuses. But this is best for things done infrequently. If the genre rarely involved disarming opponents, and you suddenly had a good reason to do so as a surprise maneuver to liven things up, it would be very appropriate for the GM to make up some sort of bonus on the spot. But if you disarm constantly as part of the genre, custom bonuses aren't very practical. If you give the same bonus every time, you've created a rule, and the rule might as well be written down. If not, you start to play a game where the GM is just making up the rules arbitrarily. You can do this, of course - you can roleplay without any rules at all if you want to. But the assumption here is that we are playing a game with rules, and the premise behind playing a game with rules is that, most of the time, it is better to have a rule than rely on pure GM arbitrariness.

So for all of these reasons, I would want to devise an improvement to the disarm rule. One could argue against this by pointing out that boosting the disarm power as written shouldn't be done because it would be too strong and would break the game in the situations where disarm is already a useful ability. This is true, but simply means that attempting to fix the problem requires rethinking the rule rather than simply boosting it. Part of the skill in modifying game rules is making sure that you don't create more problems than you fix. Just because my game analysis indicates that a game has some sort of problem or imperfection doesn't mean I will make a rule to fix it. I only make a rules change if I think the new rule will be better overall than the previous rule.

The truth is that every game is going to have problems simply because of the choices made in meeting various conflicting design goals. And sometimes those elements that make the game fun also seem to have disadvantages too. For instance, one of my favorite board games is History of the World. But it has the disadvantage that more than 6 hours to play. It can be hard to get people to play for this reason. But the length of the game is related to the fact that it plays out the "History of the World", and that is part of what I like about it. I haven't really thought of any clever way to speed up with game without detracting from the epic quality I like about it. So I haven't tried to make a rule to speed up the game, I just consider the length part of the pros and cons of a game I really like overall. I feel that putting in a simple-minded rule to speed up the game - like playing for only 3 turns - would make the game worse rather than better.

But if I did think of a way to make the game just as fun but twice as fast, I wouldn't hestitate to try it out. Just because a rule is hard to improve upon doesn't mean you shouldn't try. Sometimes I try a lot of experiments, and a lot of those experiments fail. Sometimes I try experimental rules that I know won't work perfectly, just to get information. But in the end, the goal is to craft a new rule that is better overall than the previous rule.

By the way, I've never really come up with what I would call a perfect solution to the disarming problem, only various ideas. One example of an idea would be to use the 4th edition D&D power design philosophy and have disarming be a special attack that causes damage, with the special effect that the damage is totally abstract and the attack looks totally non-violent. Attacks which fail to kill have the bonus effect of temporarily disarming the enemy; attacks which kill the enemy either look like kills on-screen, or the enemy looks like he is still conscious but is counted as "defeated" and no longer has any game effect on the battle.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Planet Busters - New Rules 2.0

Since I didn't have any real problems with the modest rules changes in version 1.0, I felt that my conservative changes were successful and I wanted to go farther and make more improvements, particularly to the balance of individual pieces.

With my 1.0 rules, I had essentially specified that 96 game pieces would be used to play the game. But there are 118 game pieces in the box. I realized that I might as well specify which 96 tiles were used rather than picking them randomly. This meant removing 20% of the units. Since most units are present in quantities where 20% is either 0 or 1, this gives me the opportunity to fine tune some adjustments by picking which pieces to leave out and which to leave in.

I removed a carrier and a tug, as 3 seemed like an awful lot and these units are hard to balance. I removed one deathon so that it would be unique - the ultimate warship - while leaving the other 6 capital ships (Baycruz and Dranaught). I removed a whirler, a salvage vessel, and a screen satellite because these seem somewhat extreme, one of each should be enough. In the fuel vessel category, I removed the tanker but kept the armed merchantmen and the fuel satellite; this makes the immobile fuel satellite more unique. I kept all of the satellites so that there would be as many things for tugs to pull as possible, and I kept the mines too because it seemed useful to have more defense in the game. I kept all of the sailing ships mainly because the numbers worked out that way, and they are handy.

Deciding which special events to leave out was tricky. Peace Treaty was obvious. Revolt was the other obvious one; the piece isn't very interactive or interesting, you just suddenly steal a planet. I was tempted to leave out both, but chose not to. So the other piece I left out was meteor swarm, mainly because I had to choose something to keep the balance of categories even and I liked the other events more.

That leaves the planets. I need to get rid of 2 to maintain the balance. But I like the symmetry of having the traditional 9 planets of the solar system. So I decided to leave out the colonies. The colony combat rules were awkward and didn't seem to add much to the game.

The remaining changes were to adjust individual pieces.

The carrier seemed like a devastating unit, too powerful in playtesting. I would rather have this be more of a support unit and give more glory to the Deathon and the Dranaughts. I considered a number of changes to the rather extreme way the drone rules work, such as reducing the effectiveness of screening. But ultimately I went with the simple rule of reducing the number of drones. I allowed for the possibility of zero drones, so that there is at least some mathematical chance that the screening ability won't work.

To make the game move faster, I like to play that the defender's ships are arranged randomly. The only factor discouraging this is that you know that the scout is likely not to pick an edge unit, so this affects your choice of unit arrangement. So I removed the restriction about scouting the edge, allowing wraparound. This also makes the very wimpy scout units a little bit better.
Since the Deathon is so mighty, I considered having it cost you an extra piece to draw it. But this would make you extra bummed when it was sabotaged or mutinied. Instead, I slightly weakened the unit by making it cost two fuel. I like that this emphasizes the impressiveness of the ship. It's big!

Finally, the tug and the satellites are still too wimpy. It is pretty pathetic that the satellites not only can't move, they don't fight well either. But I didn't want to change the numbers on the tiles. So I decided to have satellites not cost any fuel to defend you. This fits the idea that they are dependable defensive units, always there to protect you. And it makes the compare in an interesting way to the sailing ships; an armored satellite can't move, but it doesn't have the "fire last" penalty.

A tug pulling a satellite is still not equal to two units, so it needs more help. First, I removed the penalty of getting your satellite captured when used on the offense; that just added insult to injury. But how else to make the combo more effective? I remembered that the scout ability is a nifty offense-only power, and it seemed logical that satellites would have good sensors, so I gave that power to the combo.

Rewritten rules:

These rules are for the 2-player game.

To create a standard 96-tile deck, remove the following pieces from the 118 tiles that come with the game:

1 carrier
1 conicle
1 deathon
1 tanker
1 salvage vessel
1 screen satellite
2 scout
1 tug
1 whirler
2 zerstor

2 colonies
1 planet buster (3)
4 fuel (2x6, 2x7)
1 meteor swarm
1 peace treaty
1 revolt

Setup: Each player receives a starting hand of 8 tiles. Put 20 tiles in the personal stack of each player. Put 40 tiles into a common stack.

Drawing: Each player must draw tiles from their personal stack until it is depleted, at which point the player draws tiles from the common stack. If the common stack is depleted, no more tiles may be drawn.

Victory Conditions: If at the beginning of a player's turn, that player has no tiles in play ("melded") and no tiles in his personal stack, that player loses the game. Otherwise, the game ends at the end of the turn when the common stack is depleted, and the player with the most points worth of planets wins the game.

Fuel: When a point of fuel is spent to allow a ship to fire weapons, that fuel allows it to perform any number of special functions for the remainder of the turn. You do not need to pay separately to activate special powers or attack a planet.

Planets: When you play a planet, draw one tile immediately.

Carrier: The number of drones created is 1d10/2, rounded down, with no minimum number.

Deathon: Counts as two ships for all fuel costs.

Satellites: Satellites do not require fuel to fire weapons.

Scouts: The revealing effect of a scout wraps around - if a scout engages the leftmost enemy unit, it reveals the rightmost enemy unit (as well as the unit it engaged and the unit to the right of that unit).

Tugs: If a tug is pulling a satellite on the attack, the value of the tug is added to the value of the satellite to determine the total combat value, without dividing by two. If combo is damaged, the satellite is automatically destroyed and the tug is safe. A tug pulling a satellite has the same detection powers as a scout.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

New Rules Design for Planet Busters

Following my previous analysis, I wanted to make some rules adjustments to this game. My interest is in making improvements for the two player game. I get the feeling the game was really designed more with 4 players in mind, so this may entail some changes for that very reason.

As you can see in my analysis, the biggest issue I had was with the fact that one player would eventually crush the other one far before the game would end. I could have tried some sort of fancy rebalancing to ensure that one player can't easily crush the other until much later in the game. But instead, I decided to go for a simpler approach of ending the game sooner. I could just shorten the game, but since this is a wargame, I decided to really go with the idea of a battle to the death. I will simply formalize the concept of one player attaining a dominant position, so that the game ends at that point instead of going on indefinitely.

How to make the game mechanics decide that one player has a dominant position? This generally seems to involve one player running out of forces in play, so I will make that the criterion. The only problem with this is that in the early fighting, sometimes one side will temporarily have nothing on the board, but can still make a comeback if the right forces are drawn quickly. To allow for this, I will give each side a grace period - the game cannot end until a certain number of turns have passed. Keeping track of turns tends to be error prone in a game like this, so I will use a common game mechanism of setting aside a certain number of tiles for each player during the setup, and once these tiles are used up, the second phase of the game has started and you need to keep forces in play or lose the game.

What if the game really does go the distance? The original rules use the peace treaty tile to end the game after going through all the tiles about 1.5 times. This means that 2-player games will last twice as long as 4-player games. So I decided to shorten the 2-player game by ending it before going through all the tiles. This means the peace treaty tile isn't really necessary to end the game. However, the other effect of the peace treaty tile is that the players never know exactly when the game is going to end, so they can't to tricky things like playing a ton of planets or making an all-out attack just before the end of the game. By in my 2-player rules, this isn't much of an issue. In a zero sum game the players make all-out attacks half the time anyway, end of game or not. And hoarding planets in your hand isn't nearly so much of a temptation when it can get you knocked out of the game. So I'll just skip the peace treaty entirely.

Now that the big issue is out of the way, it is time to try some small improvements. In particular, making the tiles more game balanced. Now, in a game where you draw tiles totally at random, balancing the tiles isn't truly necessary for the game play; you can just accept that some draws are good and some are bad, you still have to fight with what you are dealt. But my preference is always for game balance unless there is a specific reason to do otherwise. In Planet Busters, I have no intention to create total balance between the tiles - a Dranaught is just better than a Baycruz. But when an overpowering unit can be toned down to have weaknesses as well as strengths, or when a pathetic unit could be improved to be more fun to draw and interesting to use, that is the sort of change I'd be looking for.

Planets seem awfully good. You get a fuel source, plus two extra tiles, for the price of one tile. The disadvantage of a planet under the normal rules is that it is a tempting target for attack, especially in a multi-player game. I think the bonus tiles are to encourage you to play it rather than leave it in your hand. But with my rules, and a two player game, I don't think this is so necessary. The game usually ends due to a military defeat, and a planet will help prevent that defeat. So I will reduce the planet bonus to one extra tile.

Colonies are even more extreme. In a game where tiles are really your only resource, having 50% more resources in just incredible. I couldn't think of a really elegant way to draw a fraction of a tile per turn, so I decided to make colonies have the same strategic benefit as planets, extra fuel. Planets don't give all that much fuel to begin with, so I figured it wouldn't hurt to give a little more. Running out of fuel isn't much fun anyways.

Tugs are just awful, by far the most worthless unit. They are useless by themselves, they are only effective as part of a combo. So they had better be pretty darn good when part of a combo; if you are lucky enough to get a tug and a satellite, you would think the combo would be better than your average 2 tiles. This is completely not the case. First of all, the satellites themselves are pretty pathetic; not only can't they attack by themselves, they also are weak units even on the defense. All that the tug does is give you the honor of pulling these weak units on the attack. Not only is the tug/satellite combo not as good as even a single average unit, it has the extra disadvantage that the enemy might capture the satellite. So I definitely wanted to make the combo more effective. My first idea was to simply add the tug strength to the satellite strength without halving.

Streamlining the fuel rules was something I did just to simplify the game. The main effect of requiring separate fuel to attack the planets is to make it harder to attack planets. With military victory so common, attacking planets doesn't seem nearly so valuable, so why make it hard. It just means that an attacker with little fuel will have a harder time finishing off a beaten opponent. I'm not sure if this is good or bad, but I feel like removing the extra step of fueling attacks on planets and seeing how it goes.

Here are the new rules:

These rules are for the 2-player game.

Setup: Each player receives a starting hand of 8 tiles. Put 20 tiles in the personal stack of each player. Put 40 tiles into a common stack. Don't use the Peace Treaty tile.

Drawing: Each player must draw tiles from their personal stack until it is depleted, at which point the player draws tiles from the common stack. If the common stack is depleted, no more tiles may be drawn.

Victory Conditions: If at the beginning of a player's turn, that player has no tiles in play and no tiles in his personal stack, that player loses the game. Otherwise, the game ends at the end of the turn when the common stack is depleted, and the player with the most points worth of planets wins the game.

Fuel: When a point of fuel is spent to allow a ship to fire weapons, that fuel allows it to perform any number of special functions for the remainder of the turn. You do not need to pay separately to activate special powers or attack a planet.

Planets: When you play a planet, draw one tile immediately.

Colonies: For noncombat purposes, colonies are treated as planets for all purposes; they provide free fuel and victory points rather than extra cards.

Tug: When a tug is used to tow a satellite, the value of the tug is added to the value of the satellite to determine the total combat value, without dividing by two.