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Saturday, December 7, 2013

Running the Net for Fun and Profit

Now, I'm not going to claim that Android: Netrunner is the best tabletop game ever made.  (It might be.)  I'm not even going to explain why I think you, dear reader, should play it.  (You should.)  I just wanted to express my thoughts on the game, and what I think it does and does not do successfully.

But first, some background information.

What is Android: Netrunner?

Android: Netrunner is a Living Card Game from Fantasy Flight Games.  Like FFG's other Living Card Games, A:N has a core set of cards that new players can purchase to dive into the game, as well as regularly-released packs of new cards that can be added to a player's cardboard arsenal.  (Side note: "cardboard arsenal" is my new favorite phrase.)  These data packs are non-randomized.  If you buy the "Second Thoughts" data pack, you will get exactly the same cards as everyone else who bought that data pack.

This means there are no rare cards to chase, no money sink as you hit the secondary market for that killer $50 card.  If there's a card you want, you just buy the data pack that has it.  This leads to a much more wallet-friendly expandable card game than, say, Yu-Gi-Oh! or Magic: The Gathering.  Is it still a money sink?  Sure.  You'll probably spend $200+ to get all the available cards.  A:N is not designed to be a casual game, although you can just buy the core set for $25 and have a perfectly enjoyable game.  It's a hobby game, designed to keep your interest after dozens, hundreds, even thousands of plays.

The game is based on Richard Garfield's original Netrunner card game.  Doctor Garfield is the genius behind Magic: The Gathering and the collectible card game genre in general.  After creating M:TG, Richard sat down and made another card game that became a cult hit.  Drawing on the evolving cyberpunk genre, he created an asymmetric two-player game, wherein one player takes the role of the Corp, fighting to advance its agendas while keeping hackers out of its servers, while the other player was the Runner, a digital cowboy looking to expose the Corp's plans.  The Corp would lay traps and build defenses to dissuade the Runner from attacking, while the Runner would assemble a rig to slip past the defenses and steal agenda cards.

Netrunner imploded quickly, however, as so many other CCGs at the time.  While the gameplay was solid, many people felt that the cards were imbalanced towards particular playstyles that were non-interactive.  Players would sit back and assemble combinations of cards that would win the game outright.

Fantasy Flight Games has now resurrected the game, placing it in their Android universe.  While they kept the major mechanics and dynamics of the game, they've added in extra layers of theme.  Instead of just Runner and Corp, there are three Runner factions (Shapers, Criminals, and Anarchs) and four Corp factions (Haas-Bioroid, Weyland Industries, Jinteki, and NBN), each with its own flavor, strengths, weaknesses, and ideologies.  They've also tweaked many things to maintain a balanced and dynamic game.  No more sitting back and assembling the perfect set of cards--if you're not actively trying to disrupt your opponent's plans, then you're almost certain to lose.

How does one play?

I won't go into major detail about the game's mechanics.  FFG has created an exceptionally good tutorial video that you may watch at your leisure.  A quick rundown of the basics, though, may be useful:

--Each player selects an Identity card associated with a particular faction, and builds a deck for that ID.  Cards from other factions may be used, but each ID has a limited amount of Influence (usually 15) it can use on out-of-faction cards.  Once that limit is reached, it's in-faction or neutral cards, only.  Each ID also lists a minimum deck size (usually 45).  Players can build larger decks, of course.  There is a maximum of 3 copies of any one card.  Additionally, the Corp player must include a minimum amount of agenda points.  Agenda points are found on agenda cards, most of which are worth 1, 2, or 3 points.  The first player to 7 points wins.

--The Corp player goes first and has 3 actions or "clicks" to use each turn.  The Corp starts with 5 credits.  Clicks can be used to install cards, gain 1 credit, draw 1 card, play an Operation (a single-use card that leaves play after resolving), or advancing a card.  Advancing a card costs 1 credit and allows the Corp to place an advancement counter on that card.  Agenda cards have an advancement cost and cannot be scored until they have been advanced enough times.  Some defense cards (called ICE) and ambush cards (fake agendas that hurt the Runner) can also be advanced.

A game from the Corp's perspective.  Note all the face-down cards, including two cards with advancement counters on them.  What could they be?

Nearly all of the Corp's cards are played face-down, so the Runner does not know what they are until he or she accesses them.  The Corp can even discard cards into his or her discard pile face-down.  The Corp must draw a card at the beginning of each turn, and if he or she ever runs out of cards, he or she loses.

--The Runner goes second and has 4 actions or "clicks" to use each turn.  The Runner also starts with 5 credits.  Clicks can be used to install cards, gain 1 credit, draw 1 card, play an Event (a single-use card that leaves play after resolving), or make a run.  When the Runner makes a run, he or she chooses a "server" to attack.  He or she can run on the Corp's hand (HQ), deck (R&D), discard pile (Archives), or on any remote servers into which the Corp has installed cards.

When the Runner successfully attacks HQ, he or she randomly looks at 1 card.  When the Runner successfully attacks R&D, he or she looks at the top card of the deck.  When the Runner successfully attacks Archives or a remote server, he or she looks at all cards in that server.  If the Runner looks at an agenda card, he or she automatically steals it and gets that much closer to victory.

The Runner does not get to draw a card at the beginning of each turn.  If the Runner is ever required to discard a card from hand and cannot, he or she loses.

So what's the big deal?

There are several things that I really enjoy about Android: Netrunner.

1) Asymmetric Gameplay

The Corp and the Runner play extremely differently.  They don't even get to use any of the same cards!

Corp, being the good guys, get the blue card back.  The evil Runners, always trying to hack into places they don't belong and steal stuff that isn't theirs, get the red card back.

The Corp tries to build up defenses in front of his or her servers, laying down ICE cards that injure the Runner or stop them from running.  The Corp is trying to tax the Runner and make it too expensive to get in.  He or she must also bluff about what cards are where.  "Is that an agenda I just put into this remote server, or is it a trap?  Can you afford to get past my ICE to find out?"  Because all of the Corp's cards are played face-down, he or she can keep the Runner guessing.  It's all about draining the Runner's resources in order to open windows of opportunity for advancing and scoring agendas.

The Runner tries to attack the Corp and steal agendas.  His or her goal is to force the Corp to spread its defenses thin, or to keep the Corp too poor to defend itself and advance agendas.  He or she is always looking for weak points, and searching for information about what cards are where.  "Oh, I saw a piece of ICE when I ran R&D last turn, and now you've installed a face-down piece of ICE.  I'll bet it's the one I saw last turn, and I have just the card for it."  "Ah, you spent a turn gathering credits.  You must be gearing up to score an agenda.  I'd better run your HQ and try to grab it out of your hand before you can score it."

The asymmetry of the game is a barrier for new players, because they essentially have to learn two different games.  But in terms of replayability?  Come on, you're basically buying two different games!  And they're both enjoyable!

2) Game Balance

Despite the differences between the two sides, the game is quite well balanced.

For example, the Corp must pay to install and "rez" (turn face-up) defensive ICE cards, but must only pay those costs once.  The Runner must install ice breakers that neutralize the bad effects of ICE, but must pay to break each piece of ICE he or she encounters every time he or she makes a run.  So the Corp might rez a piece of ICE for 4 credits, while the Runner can pass through that piece of ICE for only 2 credits.  However, if the Runner must get through that ICE two, three, five, ten times?  Those costs add up.

On the other hand, the Corp must pay money and spend clicks (actions) to advance agendas.  The Runner immediately steals any agenda cards he or she accesses for free.  Most agendas require 3 or more advancements before they can be scored, and the Corp only has 3 clicks to spend per turn.  Since agendas must be installed in remote servers before they can be advanced, that means that nearly every agenda must sit in a remote server, potentially vulnerable, before the Corp can advance and score it.  This gives the Runner a chance to break in and steal it, or perform an action that will drain the Corp of the credits necessary to advance the agenda.

This leads to a dynamic back-and-forth battle.  The Runner makes runs to try to steal agendas and force the Corp to install and rez ICE, draining the Corp of the clicks and credits necessary to score agendas and win.  The Corp sets up defenses that drain the Runner economically.  Even if the Runner can get in once, can he or she get in a second time?  And was the first run worth the money?  It's an economic duel, a game of deception and cost-mitigation.

3) Expandable Card Game

I.  LOVE.  Building decks.  It's my favorite thing about Magic: The Gathering; I just loved assembling a deck, trying to balance early game essentials with late game goodies.  That's why I loved M:tG's draft format so much--every time I played, I would get to build a new deck from scratch!  (Of course, that's also why I stopped playing Magic.  Drafting gets expensive pretty quickly, purchasing brand new cards every time you play.)

Android: Netrunner allows me to scratch that deck-building itch.  I can sit down, boot up the cardgamedb.com deckbuilder, and decide, "Do I want to build a Corp or a Runner deck right now?  And on what should it focus?"  I can throw in everything but the kitchen sink and gradually cut and sculpt until I have a tight deck with the proper amount of out-of-faction Influence, or I can carefully construct a base of key cards and build it up with support cards until I have something fun and functional.

4) Every Card In the Deck Is Useful

A lot of card games borrow the idea from Magic of having resource cards of some kind that generate money/mana/power/whatever that allow you to use your other, more interesting cards.  This means that you have to shuffle a good amount of boring cards into your deck and hope to draw them at a steady rate in order to play your best spells/creatures/structures/whatever.  Now, there are good reasons for doing this.  There's usually a limit to the number of resource cards you can place each turn, so the game slowly ramps up, allowing players with weaker starting hands to have a fighting chance against players that start out with their best, most-powerful-yet-uber-expensive cards in hand.

In Magic (and many other games), you also need to match the type of resource you're using with the type of card you're playing.  Blue cards need blue resources, silver cards require silver resources, etc.  This is a way to force players into specialization.  If you pack too many different types of cards and resources into your deck, you risk drawing mismatched cards and being unable to play.

Hi!  I essentially do nothing, but you need at least 20 of me in your 60 card deck.  Aren't I pretty, though?

In Android: Netrunner, this is not the case.  Each card requires two resources: clicks (actions) and credits (money).  Each player only has a limited number of clicks per turn, but he or she can use those clicks to generate more credits, thus ensuring that he or she can always play the cards he or she wants--it's just a matter of time, of acquiring the necessary credits.  Thus, the game ramps up more naturally.  The Corp always goes first and tries to set up preliminary defenses while acquiring more money, while the Runner tries to force the Corp to spend money rezzing ICE while acquiring more money, while the Corp tries to drain the Runner's money by making them run through ICE, while the Runner attacks on multiple fronts and forces the Corp to spread ICE thinly....  It's a wonderful back-and-forth contest, and it doesn't require either play to put boring cards in their decks.

A:N doesn't use its resource system to encourage deck specialization, either.  Instead, it has an Influence system.  Each card costs a particular amount of Influence if used outside its own designated faction.  Weaker or more specialized cards may cost less Influence, while stronger or more versatile cards eat up more Influence.  Players must carefully choose how to spend their Influence as they build their decks, but once they start playing, it doesn't matter if they draw in-faction or out-of-faction cards--they just need to worry about their money situation.

5) Multiple Routes to Victory

Why so serious?

Sure, most decks focus on getting to 7 points and winning.  But that's not the only way to win!  The Corp can flatline the Runner by dealing damage to him or her.  Whenever the Runner takes damage, he or she must discard a card from his or her hand.  If he or she must discard a card and cannot, he or she loses.  Thus, the Corp can load up on damage-deal cards and try to strike when the Runner is low on cards for the win.

As for the Runner, he or she wins if the Corp cannot draw a card at the beginning of his or her turn.  There are not (currently) very many cards that allow the Runner to mill cards from the Corp's deck into his or her discard pile, but they do exist, and let me tell you, it's a very fun (if very risky) strategy.  Plus, if the Runner can just prolong the game enough, the Corp will naturally draw out.  Remember, the Runner doesn't have to draw cards every turn, and the Corp does.  If the Corp doesn't act, or if the Runner disrupts the Corp's actions enough, eventually the Corp will just run out of cards.

6)  The Community is Awesome

I'm sure this is the case with just about any hobby game, but I love the A:N online community.  Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people are working together to promote the game and discuss strategies and tips.  There are dozens of Excel spreadsheets available online that break down the best ICE or ice breakers and their overall efficiency.  There are more than half a dozen podcasts about the game and its tournament scene.  There are people who spend unfathomable amounts of time analyzing, discussing, writing about, and playing this game.

Are you really going to say no to that face?
The game earns that devotion.  It's very, very good, and I love being a part of the community around it.

Again, I'm not trying to convert you to the game.  I just wanted to explain why it has occupied much of my time and mental energy over the last 8 months or so.


Friday, October 25, 2013

Game Concept: Dream Hunter

The world has changed since the Awakening.  

Each night, billions of people take specially-designed sedatives to put themselves to sleep.  They can rest peacefully, knowing that they are safe.  But there are some who, either by choice or by circumstance, do not take any sedatives.  Such people become Conduits--channels through which nightmarish creatures can leak through from the dream world into our own.

Having accidentally orphaned yourself during the Awakening, you have vowed to capture or destroy all the dream creatures that slip through.

The world has changed since the Awakening.  It has given you a purpose.

Dream Hunter is a solitaire game of investigation and battle as you hunt down the creatures released from others' dreams.  Follow the clues, then capture or destroy the dream before it turns the world into a nightmare.

Likely card-based, with a small to medium-sized board.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Game Concept: The Fall

This has been a frustratingly busy semester for me.  I'm taking several intensive courses that require a great deal of reading and thoughtful discussion of the texts.  My wife's writing/editing job ebbs and flows throughout the year and is currently at an ebb, so I've had to put in more hours at my work to make up the difference.  Plus, my wife is taking an insane number of advanced Greek and Latin classes, which keep her busy busy busy, leaving me to shoulder much of the daily house chores--dishes, cooking, laundry, trash, etc.  I don't mind in the slightest, but all this means that I rarely have a confluence of both time and the energy for creative projects.

The TESS rules and module are unlikely to be ready before the 2013 Solitaire PnP Design Contest deadline.  I'm okay with that.  It's a big game that will need a lot of testing to make sure that the core mechanics work, and then even more testing to find a good balance.  If it needs time to percolate, all the better for the game.

This has given me a lot of time to ponder about other concepts I have been keeping in my back pocket.  One of them is The Fall.  This began as a concept for a video game JRPG several years ago--the main character goes on a quest, and collects new friends and allies and new equipment and abilities along the way.  I recently sketched out some ideas in my head that MIGHT allow this game to see daylight as a tabletop game.


The main character is climbing across a huge chasm when his line snaps and he plummets deep into the earth.  Instead of splattering onto rock or nosediving into lava, however, he slips through a magic mortal that transports him into a giant underground world.  He gets entangled in the political intrigue of two warring nations when it is discovered that he is entirely immune to all forms of magic.  To get back home, he must join with one of these enchanted nations, lead a team into enemy territory, and gather the components needed for the queen to build him a machine to take him to the surface.


--A climbing and spelunking enthusiast from our modern world who, for whatever reason, is completely immune to magic.

--An enchantress/queen struggling to protect her nation from invasion.

--A cunning sorceress/queen with a thirst for destruction.

--A young girl with an incredible talent for sorcery.

--A warrior/scholar devoted to protecting the young girl.

--An exiled skreeling (sort of a goblin-like creature) looking for new friends and a new home.

--A mechanical man with a burning desire to be useful.

--An armored cave bear on a quest to avenge her slain cubs.


This is where much of my thoughts have been these last few days.  I recall playing Final Fantasy X years ago and admiring a great many things about the game's design.  One neat thing that the game did was give each hero a unique special move with a powerful effect, with each move requiring the player to perform a different mini-game.  With one character, you had to rotate the thumbstick as many times as possible within a short time limit.  With another, you had to pause a slider within a small area as it moved back and forth.  With yet another, you had to play a game of slots and try to get three of a kind for maximum effect.

This got me to thinking--what if each character in The Fall had a unique battle mechanic?  Once the player has a full party, he or she can select the three characters (or the three mini-games) he or she enjoys the most and bring them into the combat situations.  One character might use a Yahtzee-style dice mechanic.  One might require the player to flip a coin a number of times.  One may use the strike/maneuver poker card mechanic from my own Wings of Lightning.  Still another may use a dexterity mechanic; designer Jessey Wright would like that.  The idea would be to use components that a typical gamer can be expected to have around the house to create quick yet interesting mini-challenges for each character's combat abilities.

To simulate the idea of random encounters, I would provide the player with a map showing the number of spaces between the different key locations.  Each time the player moves the party to a new space, he or she must roll on a chart to see if he or she has an encounter, and if so, with what.

The heroes and all enemies they face would be given various stats, include Speed ratings.  The player would activate each combatant's abilities in order from highest Speed to lowest.  Particularly fast characters may get two or even three Speeds, indicating that they are able to attack multiple times in a round.  For example, a character may have a rating of 8 and 3.  This means that the character would attack before anyone else with a Speed rating lower than 8, and then again after everyone with a Speed rating higher than 3.

Enemies could be programmed with different behaviors to provide the player with interesting tactical choices.  Some of them might target the character with the lowest health.  Others would attack the character that most recently performed an attack.  Still others would be have a list of the characters and would attack starting from the top of the list, according to which characters were in combat.  And others would randomize their attacks with only a small amount of predictability.  This would keep the player on his or her toes and provide him or her with interesting decisions about when to attack, when to heal, when to defend, et cetera.

I have no idea when I'll be able to work on this game, but I wanted to get my thoughts on paper.  I have to graduate eventually, and when I do, you can bet that I'll be putting my unchained brain power into all sorts of creative endeavors like this!

Sunday, August 25, 2013

TESS: In Enemy Territory

I've begun working on the first TESS story module, tentatively titled "In Enemy Territory."  I thought I'd share my process for creating these type of branching-path gamebooks.  It's probably not the most efficient way to do it, but it's worked for me on multiple projects.

I work with two different documents--usually a Microsoft Word and a Microsoft Office document, although Google Docs works fine if I want to be able to work from any computer.

I use a spreadsheet to track each section in the gamebook.

The first column just has each section in order.  In some of my (as-yet unreleased) projects, I may break the story into different chapters, each with multiple numbered sections, such as Chapter 3.1, 3.2, 3.3, et cetera.  In "In Enemy Territory," I think I'll just use numbered sections without chapters--probably between 100 and 150 sections.

Whenever I write and finish a section, I'll highlight it in green.  Then I mark in column two which section or section the player can go to from there.  For example, section 1 leads to sections 4, 5, or 8.

If a section has a branch that leads to it and has not yet been written, I highlight it in yellow.  You can see that section 2 leads to section 6, 11, and 15, none of which have been written yet.

The third column tracks which section or sections lead to a particular branch.  Section 1 is the only way to get to section 5, for example.  This helps me if I ever need to backtrack--I can quickly follow the trail backwards, all the way to the beginning of the game if necessary.

You can see the first little bit of the story here.  Bear in mind that this is an early draft.  I have not, for example, figured out exactly how I want to present the encounters.  Still, it might be interesting to see the process.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Privyet, Russia!

I just discovered that this blog gets a lot of views from Russia.  So, shout out to all my Russian readers!  Я уверен, что вы все очень крутиe людей!

I lived in Russia for a couple years, so please don't hesitate to post any questions or comments по-русский.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Brainstorming, Continued: The First TESS Story

The basic mechanics of the game are starting to come together in my head.  We're rapidly approaching the point where I need to start putting together a prototype.  To do that, I need to put together a story for the player to play through.

I'd like the first TESS (The Expandable Solitaire System) story to put the player through a series of challenges that require different foci.  I don't want everything to be combat-based, so that a combat-heavy deck can just waltz through it.  That means there should be some hacking, some social encounters, perhaps some environmental challenges.

I'd also love to be able to incorporate three act structure into the narrative.  This is a finely tuned narrative skeleton.  When applied correctly, it gives the audience a compelling narrative with a satisfactory climax and denouement.  The structure was used, completely on accident, to great success for several decades before film critics and theorists were finally able to nail down what the good films were doing that worked so well.

The first act of the story introduces the main characters and the world they inhabit.  It also sets up the status quo.  Now, the status quo may be lousy, such as in Star Wars--everybody is under the thumb of the Empire.  Then there is an inciting incident, an event that compels the hero (or heroes) to action.  Often, the hero has no idea that this action will change the course of his or her life.  In Star Wars, Luke just goes off into the desert to find his uncle's rogue droid.  Act one ends with a major plot point that propels the story into a new direction--Luke agrees to go with Ben Kenobi, Neo takes the red pill, the Avengers assemble to help Nick Fury, Dorothy sets off to see the Wizard, etc.

In the second act--which takes up the bulk of the story--there is a great deal of action as the story accelerates.  The hero learns new skills and gains new allies.  However, things keep getting worse and worse for the hero.  At the midpoint, it seems that all hope is lost!  The heroes are about to be smashed by a garbage compactor; the team has been scattered and/or killed; there's a traitor in the midst; things just could not get any worse!  Then things begin to turn around.  The heroes reunite.  The major plot point from the first act is (usually) resolved--the princess is rescued, Loki's plan is discovered, Neo accepts his role in the Matrix and rescues Morpheus, and so forth.  But a new plot point comes along that propels into the final climactic act--the Death Star is about to wipe out the Rebellion, Loki opens the portal, Neo decides to fight Agent Smith, Dorothy must confront the Wicked Witch.

The third and final act includes the final battle, where the hero must use the skills he or she has learned and rely on the new friends he or she has gained in order to triumph.  Han saves Luke's bacon, then Luke uses the Force to blow up the Death Star.  Neo becomes faster and stronger than an Agent.  The Avengers work together to blow up the Chitauri forces and shut the portal.  Dorothy is rescued by her friends and melts the witch.

So how can we incorporate these lessons into our TESS narrative?  First, let's ask some questions about the characters and setting.

Who is the hero?  Well, for the first TESS story, it should be the player.  (There's room to play here, of course.  It is entirely possible for the player to play Han to the story's Luke, but let's not meddle with the formula until after we've perfected the formula.)  The player can be a robot, a cyborg, a human, or an uplift.  That does make things a little difficult; each Persona has different goals, perspectives, and desires.

What does the main character want?  Let's borrow from Serenity for a moment and say, "Freedom."  No matter what Persona the player is using, the character's goal is to be free.  He or she has a starship and a steady enough income to keep it running.  He or she may have a dark past that is constantly trying to catch up with him or her--we'll see how things develop.

What problem does the main character have?  Now we get to the inciting incident.  Uh oh, there's a problem with the ship!  Better land and get your ship repaired.  But this is our inciting incident, after all; it can't be as easy as, "Okay, your ship will be fixed in an hour.  That will be $100."  So there's a problem with acquiring it.  Maybe the city has recently been attacked?  The port was raided, and the mechanic cannot repair your ship right away.  But perhaps if you acquired the part you need?  He tells you of the enemy's base, and says that if you bring back the part you need and some spare parts for him, he'll repair your ship free of charge.

You agree.  That's the first plot point.

Time to sneak into an enemy base.

There will be some opportunities, at this point, to overcome some combat, hacking, and environmental challenges.  The base is surrounded by an electric fence and you need to get passed it.  You encounter some guards and need to take them down.  The door is locked and you need to bypass it.  The storage location for spare ship parts is hidden and you need to hack a computer terminal to find out where they are.  Et cetera.

Now, we need a good midpoint.  A classic one would be to have the hero captured.  You're stripped of your equipment and thrown into a cell until the interrogator can arrive.  You mount a daring escape, retrieve your equipment, steal the parts, and return to the port for your ship repairs.  However, as the mechanic is working on your ship, your conscience nags at you.  The things that were happening at the enemy base were despicable, inhuman.  Can you really just leave these people to their fate?

Of course you can't!  You decide to help out.  That's the second plot point that drives us into the third act.  You gear up and head out to bring down the enemies, using your knowledge of the layout of their base to pick them apart.  Eventually, you reach Weak Point X and use it to wipe out the enemy base, but not before a final climactic battle with the Big Bad Guy and the Evil Mastermind.

Now, obviously, there are some important points to flesh out.  Who are the enemies?  What are they trying to accomplish?  What does the hero see that spurns him or her to action?  But this is a nice, simple plot outline that I can work with.  It allows for several different types of encounters--Social, Combat, Hacking, and Environmental.  It has a beginning, middle, and end, with a nice character arc thrown in for good measure.  I can flesh out the details as I write the story, but this is a solid guide for what, in general, needs to happen.

Thanks for reading!  I'm always up for a good discussion about films and the three-act structure, so feel free to post questions or comments.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Brainstorming, Continued: Multiple Axes of Decision

The brainstorming phase of game creation is an exciting time.  You get to throw dozens, perhaps hundreds of ideas against the wall and see which ones stick.  (The cleanup afterwards isn't fun, but that's why they invented industrial-strength vacuums.)

A loose design goal I had for this game was to make it playable with just the rulebook, a story book, and the cards.  The main reason for this goal was to cut down on the barrier between player and game.  With print-and-play games, any addition of components just makes it that much harder for players to jump in and try the game.  "Sorry, not only do you need to print and cut 200 cards, but you have to acquire 30 Eurocubes in assorted colors, and at least 10 dice of two different colors."  That's a hassle.  It's daunting to a lot of would-be PnPers.  So I try to lower the barrier to entry to my PnP games as much as possible.

But, for the good of the game, I going to add at least one new dimension.  Resources.

In previous brainstorming sessions, it was determined that the player would have a hand of cards, a deck of cards, and a discard pile as resources from which they could attempt to overcome various challenges.  The problem with this is that it's binary.  You either have the card(s) that you need or you do not.  That's not an interesting game.  ESPECIALLY when I'd like to give the player the chance to dig for the card(s) he or she needs.

What would make the game more interesting was to force the player to balance short- and long-term benefits.  Sure, you can defeat that squad of mercenaries now, but will that leave you helpless in the robot boss fight later?  Can you absorb the damage from the turret in order to save up for the final hacking challenge?  This tension creates much more interesting game decisions.  So how do I add this tension to the game?

The answer is to give the cards a cost in Resources.  Yes, you can fire that Grenade Launcher now, but will that leave you enough cash to use your weapons later in the game?  Sure, you can trade some intell to get a tool you need, but then what will you use to break into the data fortress?  Those are the kinds of decisions I want the players to be making!

Currently, I think the game only needs two types of Resources:  Cash and Data.  Using physical Items will typically have a cost in Cash, while performing certain actions such as hacking or convincing might require Data.  Some cards might require both, and the occasional card may cost neither.  The important thing is that the player will now have multiple axes of decision.  It will not just be a case of having the right cards, but using those cards effectively to maintain a pool of Resources.

The downside to this is that the player will need a way to track his or her Resources, whether it be pen and paper, a smart phone app, an Excel sheet, poker chips, or whatever they have on hand.  It increases the game's footprint (more space require on the table in order to play) and ratchets up the barrier to entry, if only slightly.  Still, I think this will be an important step in making the kind of dynamic and interesting solitaire game system that this needs to be.

I am also considering a third layer, in addition to cards and Resources:  Actions.  During an encounter, the player would be able to perform X number of Actions, and then the encounter would "act."  This may mean doing something detrimental to the player, such as forcing him or her to discard cards or lose Resources, or it could just advance some sort of timer--a countdown to something really bad happening.  This has the added benefit of balancing out the ability to discard a card and draw a card.  If the player can only take, say, three actions before the encounter acts, it's potentially a lot more costly to need five actions just to find the cards necessary to guarantee success.  More importantly, this would give encounters a more dynamic feel, with a "back-and-forth" dynamic happening between the player and the game's AI.   

This would mean that encounters would be more difficult to create and balance.  That's more work on the part of the designer, and I'm not certain yet if the game needs this sort of dynamic.  But it does make for more interesting outcomes to the encounters beyond simply pass/fail.  And it would give the player another axis of decision, and another knob for the designer to tweak while trying to balance the game and increase the tension and fun.  I'll keep it on the back burner for now, but I like the idea.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Brainstorming, Continued: Building a Skeleton

With this contest, I'd really like to show my design methods as much as possible.  Not only do I think that it might--MIGHT, mind you--be interesting and instructive to others, but it will be a good resource for myself.  I can analyze what I do and why I do it, which will hopefully lead to improvements in my own methodology.

As demonstrated in the previous post, my preferred method is to brainstorm a variety of ideas, then use deductive logic to eliminate the weaker ideas.  We now have a very basic shape or outline of the game.  It's time now to build a skeleton.  We'll put some meat on the bones later, but for now we just want a good sturdy structure on which to build.

The game requires the construction of three major components: the rules, the stories, and the customizable decks.  The game cannot function without all three components, so we must always keep these three aspects in mind as we put our skeleton together.

Before the player begins a game, he or she must construct a deck.  (I'm assuming they have gone through the process of building or purchasing the components and are familiar with the rules.)  Of what does deckbuilding consist?

Well, first they must select a Persona.  I find the idea of four separate and distinct Personas to be very balanced and pleasing.  This means that there should be at least four different thematic strategies for approaching the game.  Let's explore those briefly.

  • Human - Humans are (relatively) physically weak, with shaky limbs and poor eyesight.  This means that they struggle in combat unless they have the correct tools for the job.  However, they are very good at ACQUIRING the correct tools for the job.  Human cards should focus on digging through the deck, manipulating cards in hand, sifting through the discard pile, and maybe even pulling cards back from exile.  Humans are innovators, using creativity and planning to overcome the obstacles they encounter.  They are also very adept at social challenges, particularly since they almost always deal with fellow humans, or with creatures that have human-like emotions and motivations.
  • Robot - Robots are quick, calculating, and equipped with many different tools to get them through their tasks.  They particularly excel at hacking and electronic warfare.  They are also very good with guns, favoring long-range attacks over melee combat (where their fragile joints are a liability).  They suffer socially, however, being handicapped by their historical status as slaves and servants, by their difficulty in understanding human emotions and motivations, and by their general appearance and demeanor.  Robot cards should focus on different tools and settings to uplink with or disassemble anything that gives them trouble.
  • Cyborg - Cyborgs are tough, powerful, with vast stores of knowledge they can access.  They are often equipped for hacking, but it is more dangerous for them then for robots--electronic countermeasures can sometimes fry a cyborg's brain.  Their enhanced speed and strength make them excellent at hand-to-hand combat.  They can struggle socially in some circles--not all sentient beings approve of man/machine hybrids.  Cyborg cards should focus on brute strength, bashing straight through trouble with little regard to consequences; also cards that can mitigate potential consequences, to represent the cyborg's toughness.
  • Uplift - Uplifts are intelligent, yet retain their animal senses and instincts.  It would be thematically useful to decide on a particular species for this Persona, such as dogs, cats, chimps, or pigs, but I don't want to commit to anything just yet.  Uplifts are smaller than humans (or robots or cyborgs), making it easier for them to utilize the environment to their advantage.  Uplift cards should focus on stealth play--hiding in small spaces, avoiding detection, using maintenance tunnels and air ducts to reach objectives, etc.  Uplifts struggle with hacking, as the interfaces are always designed for human use.  They can struggle in combat against prepared opponents, but stealthy attacks often allow them to subdue threats without a fight.
That seems good.  Four different strategies--deck manipulation, finesse, brute force, and stealth.  Hopefully they will combine well to create a wide variety of deck types.

Now, once the decks are crafted and the game has begun, most of the decision-making will take place during encounters.  So we really need to get those RIGHT.  What do encounters look like?  What sort of information is presented to the player?  What tools will they have at their disposal to overcome the encounters?  

The current plan is to have semi-linear stories that introduce random encounters.  Let's brainstorm some RE ideas to make sure that we can include encounters that play to each Persona's strengths and weaknesses.

  • Locked Door
  • Machine Gun Turret
  • Malfunctioning Bridge Extension
  • Robot Sentry
  • Sniper on the Ridge
  • Guard Post
  • Angry Mob
  • Crafty Salesman
  • Indifferent Pilot
  • Bounty Hunters
  • Data Storage Unit
Well, the good news is, I can come up with plenty of ideas for problems that the player must overcome.  The BETTER news is that the problems tend to break down into one or more categories:

  • Combat - The player must fight someone or something.  They may not need to kill or destroy their opponent, however; sometimes they can merely subdue it.  Since I'm very much a life-affirming person, I like the idea of providing cards that accommodate a no-kill strategy.  Stun guns and tranq darts all the way!
  • Hacking - Sometimes the player must interact with computer terminals.  Maybe they have to hack some bots, turrets, or security cameras.  Maybe they have to dig up some information from a data storage unit.  Maybe they have to scramble the coordinates before some missiles are launched.  There are a lot of interesting ways this could be incorporated into the story.
  • Social - Occasionally the player will have to deal with people, not all of whom will want to deal with them.  Maybe they need a component or weapon that they can only get from a black market dealer.  Maybe they need to calm an angry mob before someone gets hurt.  Maybe they must bribe a pilot to take them somewhere discretely.  Whatever it is, some Personas will have an easier time than others.
  • Environmental - The door is locked!  The bulkhead is leaking!  The bridge won't extend!  The forest is freaking ON FIRE!  There are a lot of ways to force the player to overcome obstacles presented by the environment, some of which will require some fast-thinking, some of which will require brute force.  
It's looking more and more like some of the encounters within the stories will or should be pre-scripted.  They will be the same every time.  I'm okay with that.  It's a good way to provide narrative structure.  There can still, of course, be plenty of random encounters, as well.

It's interesting that there are four Personas, and four encounter categories.  This makes me wonder if perhaps the different Personas are adept at different categories.  Let's see if we can rank each Persona and how good it is at dealing with the different types of encounters.

That seems to work, mostly.  Some of those numbers are a little difficult to justify, though.  For example, why is the Cyborg Persona the weakest at overcoming Environmental obstacles?  Busting through locked doors or climbing up cliffs shouldn't be difficult for a cyborg.  I do think that it's appropriate for Humans to not be great at hacking--after all, the average untrained human would have a hard time interfacing with and manipulating unfamiliar computer systems.

Still, this does give us a rough guide of what we can expect.  Perhaps, for balancing purposes, the important thing should be that each Persona's total should be 10.  So the Cyborg might actually be Combat 3, Hacking 3, Social 2, Environment 2.  The Uplift might be Combat 1, Hacking 1, Social 4, Environment 4.  Et cetera.  But this does illustrate the relative strengths and weaknesses of the Personas.  That will come in handy when we start brainstorming the actual cards.

This was a very useful session!  I think the next step will be to outline a rough story, including some encounters, and then working on cards for each Persona.  Then we can stress test the system and start hammering out the rules.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Brainstorming for the 2013 Solitaire Print and Play Contest

This year's solitaire game design contest has begun, which means I have a few short weeks to prepare and submit a game.  I was originally planning on submitting Horns of Thunder, the sequel to my well-received solitaire story game Wings of Lightning.  However, I've had a lot of thoughts banging around in my head about how to integrate story and game mechanics, and wanted to put it all on paper.  This post is a massive brainstorm, and will subsequently be long and somewhat incoherent.  However, it may be useful for some people to see a designer's mind at work.  Or this will just be really boring--I've no idea.

  • I'm really intrigued by the idea of using a customizable deck of cards to work through a gamebook.  So there might be two to four pre-crafted decks for players who just want to dive in, or the player could build his or her own deck.
  • To keep the decks roughly thematically appropriate, I'd probably borrow the idea of Influence from Android: Netrunner.  The players would have a particular Identity or Persona that have a particular set of cards associated with them that they can include at no cost.  However, all cards would be marked with an Influence cost, and each Persona could only include out-of-character cards up to their Influence limit.
  • For example, the Human character could only include a limited number of cards from the Cyborg deck.  
  • One of the reasons this idea appeals to me is that I can release expansions--new stories to overcome, new Personas, new cards for the different Personas, etc., all within the same rules system.  Heck, I'd be more than willing to open the system up to all users, so that they can generate their own stories, Personas, and cards!  
  • The catch is that I have to get the system right.  Once it's released, it will be much more difficult to go back and fix any problems inherent in the rules set.
  • So let's think about the AI.  What sort of challenges will the player have to overcome, and how will the game react to the player's decisions?
  • I like to approach these sort of problems from a thematic perspective.  So I'll start with a case study.  
  • Say the player is traversing some rocky terrain and stumbles across a goblin campsite.  The goblins haven't noticed her, yet, but she's not confident that she can skirt around them.  She has to go through them.
  • What are her options?
  • She could fight them, risking her life and probably taking some wounds
  • She could frighten them, causing them to scatter.
  • She could set up a distraction, and hope they abandon the camp to investigate long enough for her to sneak past.
  • She could reveal herself and talk to them, hoping to persuade them to let her pass.
  • Could I just keyword the encounters?  So with the example above, the player must discard an appropriate number of Fight, or Frighten, or Distract, or Talk cards to progress?
  • That's stupid; that's basically just asking whether the player has the right key or not, which does not make for compelling gameplay.  I want the player to have to make difficult decisions.
  • What if the encounters didn't spell out how to overcome them?  It could be up to the player to decide how to use the cards at his or her disposal.  So a card might say, "Distract +3."  The player would use it, hoping that a distraction would work on the encounter.  He or she would then look at the current paragraph number, add three, and consult that paragraph.  So, if he or she was at Paragraph 24, he or she would proceed to Paragraph 27.  If it said "Distraction Successful," the card worked.
  • That doesn't work, either.  First of all, that would require a massive amount of work on my part just to create a small story.  I'd have to account for half a dozen or more permutations for each encounter.  That's a lot more writing for a small gain.  Plus, he player would have little to no basis for his or her decision.  What if the player decided to Frighten the goblins, but it failed?  How would the player no it was going to fail?  What hints could the system give that one option was better than another?  What sort of consequences would there be for failure?
  • No, that's way too much work for me and not enough fun decision-making for the player.  I'll have to find another solution.
  • On top of which, I'm not sure I want the story to consist of numbered sections.  Would it be possible to have a slightly more linear story, with random encounters scattered throughout?  How would that look?
  • So the player is going along, reading the story, and he or she hits a Random Encounter.  He or she then rolls on a chart based on his or her location, and perhaps some other factors adjust the die roll.  The chart then tells the player what sort of encounter he or she must face.  He or she deals with it, suffers some consequences, gains some bonuses, and proceeds with the story.  
  • That could theoretically work.  In fact, I like the idea that the story would have a general overall shape, but with little crests and valleys and twists that are with each play through.  I could even have some branching paths that would only be accessible based on particular random encounters happening at particular points in the story.  That could be fun.
  • Okay, so I've got a basic story structure.  But how do random encounters actually work?  What information is given to the player when they hit a random encounter?  And will I be able to have encounters that are not purely combat-based, so that players can work through the story in a number of different ways that don't involve the murderation of dozens of animals and sentient beings?
  • Let's say that the player rolls an encounter.  That encounter might have several different stats indicating how one MIGHT overcome it, and the player can use his or her cards to match or beat one of those stats.  
  • So the goblin encampment would have Fight 15, Frighten 20, Distract 9, and Talk 12.  The player would have to muster up enough Fight, Frighten, Distract, or Talk cards to overcome one of those options.  Otherwise, the encounter gives a certain consequence.
  • That's still a bit too much like needing the right set of keys to get through the door.  I don't like the fact that the player knows EXACTLY what he or she needs to beat the encounter.
  • Is there some way to "hide" the exact numbers that the player will need to overcome?  That way I could merely hint at what the player needs, but he or she would be uncertain about whether his or her Lighting Strike and Dual Wield Daggers (Fight 9 and Fight 6, respectively) would be enough to get through the goblins.
  • I know!  I could randomize the stats.  So instead of "Fight 15, Frighten 20," etc., the player would see "Fight 2d6 + 6, Frighten d12 + 4, Distract d6 + 1, Talk 2d6 - 2."  The player would assemble his or her response to the encounter, THEN roll to see if he or she defeats it.  That adds a nice push-your-luck element that I think could really work.
  • The best part is, sometimes the player will KNOW that the dice cannot possible roll high enough to defeat his or her response, but sometimes the player will be forced to gamble on a low number in order to conserve resources.
  • Plus, I could have the story branch out in different ways, depending on how the player overcame the random encounter.
  • Yes, I like this a lot!  It's potentially very compelling, and can reward players for progressing through the game in multiple ways.  Replayability is always good for a solitaire game, especially one with a customizable component like the player's deck.
  • Now to think about theme....
  • This system could obviously translate very well to a fantasy theme.  The player could be a mage, a soldier, a noble, or a merchant, with different strengths and weaknesses against different kinds of encounters.
  • The problem with fantasy is not only that it's been done a lot, but it's been done WELL a lot.  That's a lot of pressure to compete!
  • I'm not sure I'm interested in a modern thriller or spy story, but it could work.  Something to keep in mind.
  • Sci fi would be fun, though.  I love a good sci fi story.  And this system could let the player play in the universe in fun ways.  A human, a cyborg, an uplifted animal, and a robot would all interact with the encounters in different ways.  The robot might be prone to hacking and electronic warfare, while the cyborg uses brute strength and enhanced speed to bring down his or her enemies.  The human is relatively weak and fragile, but overcomes many different types of obstacles through creativity and ingenuity.  The uplift has certain social obstacles and advantages, as an animal living in a world designed for humans, but is a master of stealth and surprise.
  • Yes, I like this a lot!  I think I'll go with it.
  • Now, let's consider what a deck actually looks like.
  • I like the idea of smaller decks.  The players shouldn't need a 60-card monstrosity to get through a story.  Let's say a 30-card minimum deck.  Probably a maximum of 3 copies of any given card.  That makes printing easier--my card sheets are 3x3, so I can put three copies of three unique cards per sheet.
  • I also like the idea of giving the player actions to take outside of what is explicitly written on the cards.  So while the Human player might have a card that he or she can discard to draw three additional cards, or to search his or her deck for a particular card, all Personas will have the option to, say, discard a card to draw a card.
  • I don't think I want the player to have to deal with his or her own stats, not even Health or Oxygen or anything like that.  Everything he or she needs should be in the deck or in the encounter tables.  It's just simpler that way.  So what sort of punishment can the AI dish out?
  • Perhaps running out of cards in the deck means death?  No, that would reward players for playing huge, bulky, cumbersome, extremely random decks.  I think I'll allow the player to shuffle his or her discard pile into a new deck when the deck runs out.
  • Hand size, then, could be the player's Life.  Take damage, discard a card.  Run out of cards in hand, and you're dead.
  • The problem with that idea is that a player could get into a death spiral.  He or she doesn't have enough cards to overcome a particular encounter, so he or she takes damage, so he or she has fewer cards to deal with the next encounter....  So that doesn't quite work, either.
  • What about removing cards from the game permanently?  Take damage, exile the top card of your deck.  That card is gone forever; I don't care if it's a really strong card, you don't get to use it this game.  Hm... maybe.  I don't like the fact that it won't always FEEL like damage.  "Oh, I don't really care about that card, so that encounter wasn't very punishing at all."
  • Maybe a mixture of those ideas?  Some encounters force you to discard cards from your hand if you fail, which limits your options.  Some of them force you to exile cards from your deck, which CAN limit your options.  And some of them could put a cap on your hand limit, so you don't necessarily have to discard cards, but now you can only ever hold 4 cards in your hand instead of 5.  So when you draw cards, you'll occasionally be forced to discard cards.
  • I also think it's important to keep the player from just digging through the deck for the exact cards he or she needs for every encounter.  So there should be a penalty for having to shuffle your discard pile to create a new deck.  Perhaps, if you run out of cards in your deck, you shuffle your discard pile into a new deck, then exile the top two cards?  So each time you have to reshuffle, you have fewer and fewer cards left in your deck.  Yes, that should work.  It's not too punishing initially, but if the player abuses that strategy, he or she will find him or herself without many options.
  • Okay, I'm really liking this idea.  Time to go brainstorm some cards, and to sketch out an outline for the first story!

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Designing Tabletop Games for Solitaire Play

I recently wrote a long post on the boardgamegeek forums that I would like to share and expound upon.  You can see the original post in context here.

Solitaire game design has unique problems that multiplayer game design does not have to deal with. The player is not competing against an intelligent and determined opponent, so you have to give the player a challenge in other ways. Looking at other solitaire games will give you an idea of how other designers have tackled this problem.

Multiplayer games have the benefit of incorporating social interaction into the game.  The human element creates uncertainty, tension, and fun.  Players can compete against each other to prove their mettle, as in Android: Netrunner or Settlers of Catan.  They can work together to overcome algorithmic obstacles, as in Pandemic or Space Alert.  Some multiplayer games are ALL ABOUT the social interaction, such as Apples to Apples or The Resistance.  Solitaire games cannot stand on this leg, so other elements must be put into place to keep the game engaging, and to allow the player to feel as if he or she is mastering the system.

Dice Dice Baby

Most solitaire games will have some sort of randomized gameplay element, whether that be dice, a shuffled deck of cards, random chit pulls, etc. This forces the player to stay on his or her toes and prepare for the worst possible outcome. It also forces the player to occasionally take risks. "If I don't roll a four or better right now, I am SCREWED." This helps add tension to what would otherwise be a solvable puzzle--and if the player wanted that, he or she could just play Sudoku.

This is one of the reasons that Zed Deck is a successful solitaire game.  In Zed Deck, the player shuffles a specialized deck of cards.  Each turn, the player draws the next card in the deck, then deals with the event on the card, usually by drawing two or more cards and referencing particular pieces of data on those cards.  Then all those cards are discarded, and the player starts the next turn.  The player only experiences perhaps a third of the available events each game, and always in a different order.  This keeps the game fresh and interesting even after dozens of plays.

Limited Resources

Another good trick is to give the player plenty of actions which he or she CAN perform, but only enough time or action points to perform SOME of them. In Space Hulk: Death Angel - The Card Game, for example, each squad can only perform a single action per turn. Sure, you may WANT to shoot and kill some filthy xenos, then shift the formation to get the best fighters in range of the worst threats, then activate the control panel for a positive effect, then add support tokens to the marine in the most danger... but that's too bad. You only get one action, so use it wisely.

Todd Sanders' games tend to do this very well, especially his Lassadar games.  Check 'em out!  They're free to print and play, and are consistently eye-pleasing and fun.

Flexible Game State

One of the keys to making the above idea work is shifting priorities. Giving the player 10 different actions that he or she can perform is all well and good, but if it is ALWAYS correct to kill zombies, that's what the player will do, and gameplay will become stale. Players will want to make the optimal move, so the optimal move cannot always be obvious, or your game will be boring.

Dan Verssen's games tend to do this well, I think. In Thunderbolt Apache Leader, for example, the player might have a juicy target to take out just over the ridge. The player then thinks, "Okay, I want to destroy that thing. Do I spend a couple of turns flying around the ridge and approaching the target from the north? Do I risk flying through the ridge at low altitude? Or do I go into high altitude and fly over the ridge, but expose myself to fire from that AAA over there?" Each of those options is better or worse depending on the game state. The player has to weigh variables such as how much fuel remains, how much damage the plane has already taken, and how much stress the pilot is already under. At different game states, the optimal approach will be different. Heck, sometimes the correct move will be to just ignore the target and move on!

See the Victory Point Games lineup for more inexpensive examples of this principle in action.

AI See You!

Another problem to tackle is the game's artificial intelligence. Are you going to use an algorithm to have the game mimic human behavior, so that the player feels like he or she is playing against an intelligent opponent? There are ways to do this, but it often means a lot of work for the designer, a lot of work for the player, or both.

For example, Race for the Galaxy: The Gathering Storm is an expansion to the base game that introduced a way to play the game solo. The player essentially rolls a die to see what the AI opponent does. However, the creation of this AI required thousands of computations to create a balanced and reasonably "intelligent" and difficult opponent for the player. That's a lot of work for the designer!

Other games force the player to perform a large number of tasks--drawing cards, moving tokens and cubes, rolling dice, calculating damage, et cetera--in order to perform all of the enemy AI's tasks. That's a lot of work for the player. Some gamers are willing to do this, but it is tiresome, and will dissuade a lot of potential players from really diving in to your game.

Other games don't try to emulate a player, though. In my own Enki-Des: The Soul Gates, the player has to battle six different monsters in turn. Each monster has one or more unique abilities, but each monster is also stupid. Every monster performs the exact same action each turn--attack! This makes it very easy for the player to keep track of what is happening--all he or she must do is decrease his or her Life. This SOUNDS bad, but the game still gives the player plenty of options each turn, as he or she balances short-term goals (killing the monster) with mid- and long-term goals (boosting stats, healing, preparing to fight the next monster, winning the game). Sometimes, the player will deliberately choose to take damage, because killing the monster or blocking the attack is not as important to him or her as some of the other actions he or she can take. Which ties back to the idea of shifting priorities.

Jessey Wright's  stellar print-and-play dexterity game Nimbles the Spell Thief demonstrates a great use of AI.  In the game, the player must flick Nimbles through a series of hallways and corridors in order to grab a precious Spell Tome and escape.  Nimbles must avoid being seen by or colliding with the various guards as she makes her way through.  The guards are controlled by simple rules--they move along preset pathways, and if they can "see" Nimbles (which in game terms means that you ended your turn too far outside the shadowy areas) then bad things happen.  If too many bad things happen, Nimbles is captured.  Even though the player is performing the actions of the guards, and the guards' actions are extremely limited, the player still feels as if the guards are active antagonists.

System Mastery

A key aspect to a successful solitaire game is system mastery--that is, the player's ability to improve his or her performance through practice and learning.  This encourages the player to play the game multiple times and gives the player a feeling of accomplishment.

Let's look at a bad example first.  Say there's a game called Roll High.  In Roll High, the player rolls a die.  If the player rolls a high number (4+ on a d6, for example), he or she wins.  If he or she rolls low, it's a game loss.  Not a very compelling game, is it?  No matter how many times the player plays the game, no matter how much the player studies, he or she will not be able to improve his or her performance.  (Well, aside from practicing specific dice-rolling methods that are typically considered cheating.)

One of the reasons my game Derelicts of Sin: Heresy fails as a solitaire game is that there is little reason to play more than a couple of times.  Once the player has experienced all of the different branching paths (and there are only a few of those), the gameplay is very straightforward--conserve oxygen as much as possible, and try to place the location tiles in such a way that the engine room and the bridge are close to each other.  There is no system to master, no skill at which the player can improve.

Utopia Engine, on the other hand, is a fine solitaire game.  The mechanics are interesting and unique, and it takes practice to figure out their intricacies.  The game is also difficult enough that a player may not QUITE win on his or her first few attempts, but will have gotten so CLOSE to victory that he or she is compelled to try again.  And once the player masters the system enough to win consistently, he or she can then try to improve on his or her own high score.

In Soviet Russia, Decisions Make YOU!

The most important thing to remember is that solitaire players want to make difficult choices. They are not looking for a hand-out or an easy win. They want to weigh the different options against each other and decide what is most important. It is an exercise of the mind, so be sure to give the player difficult decisions with a wide possibility of outcomes. 

DO NOT make a player's actions dependent on randomness. I know that I said that solitaire games should include randomness, but that's not what I mean. What I mean is: The player should always have a choice about how to proceed. Monopoly's dice-rolling movement mechanic is terrible, because it takes the action decision away from the player. "What do I get to do this turn? Oh, I rolled 4. That means the only thing I can do is move 4 spaces along this track." BORING. 

What you want to do is give the player things to do, but mask the precise OUTCOME of those decisions. The player can move, shoot, hide, heal, or loot, but he or she does not know IN THAT MOMENT that he or she is about to draw an Overrun card that will buff all the enemies, so he or she may not realize that moving or hiding are better options than shooting or healing. That uncertainty provides tension in the player's decision making, which makes the game interesting.

I hope this was helpful for you!  Now go forth and make awesome games.  :D

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Horns of Thunder In Progress

I've been getting some nudges from my... fans?  I'm going to go with fans--over at Board Game Geek who are eager to play the sequel to my award-winning solitaire gamebook, Wings of Lightning.

The sequel, Horns of Thunder, is in the works as a couple of weeks ago.  The rules are basically finished save for some minor editing, and I am perhaps halfway through Chapter One.  The game's outline currently puts it at 9 or 10 chapters, and should include some interesting narrative surprises for fans of the first game while remaining playable and fun for those new to the trilogy.  I'm trying to write it so that those completely unfamiliar with Skoros, Molina, and the events of Wings of Lightning will still be able to jump into the world of Myesta without feeling lost.

Progress is currently rather slow.  I'm juggling two intense college courses with 25+ hours at work every week, including trying to earn a pretty sweet promotion.  Subsequently, it has been difficult to find time for creative writing.  (You'll notice this is my first blog post in months.)

Still, the semester ends in about two weeks.  After that, I will be working full-time, but will not have to bring my work home with me.  So I should have plenty of free time to work on my creative endeavors.

With Horns of Thunder, I have added examples of the combat system and cleaned up the combat rules to make things easier for those new to the game.  It is, after all, a unique combat system, very different from those found in other gamebooks and RPGs.  Combat requires a standard deck of poker cards.  The player uses the face cards to make his or her attacks, generate combos, and slay his or her enemies.  The number cards are drawn one at a time to determine whether the surviving enemies hit the player and what abilities they activate, although the player can attempt to block attacks with maneuver cards built up during his or her turn.  Those who played Wings of Lightning will find the combat very familiar.

The narrative structure of the game is getting some pretty major tweaks.  Rather than being completely linear, each chapter will be broken into a series of Scenes and Battles.  Some Scenes (and possibly some Battles) will give the player an option of how he or she would like to proceed through the story.  As long as the player survives combat, he or she will always be able to progress to the next chapter, but certain choices will make the journey easier or more difficult.

I am quite excited for Horns of Thunder and hope fans of Wings of Lightning will enjoy it.  The current (tentative) release date is 1 July.