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Archive for Ben Neumann
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It's hard to tell sometimes whether a change made to design is big or small. Is the core system still intact even as seemingly big changes are made to the overarching rules.
As an example, I'm dealing with the idea of skill recovery nowadays. Originally, players recovered all of their skills for use at the end of every round. So then I decided to dispense with rounds. When are skills recovered?
One solution is to have periodic triggers to recover skills. Another is to allow skill recovery as an alternate actions. There are plenty of methods. But the big question remains, are any of these "big" changes? Do they create a completely different game.
Arguably, if you maintain the main method of game play, in this case the bidding/use of skills to gain end-game win conditions, the game remains the same. Changing the components that surround this method of play doesn't necessarily impact what the game means.
In essence, I think the question can be addressed by looking at sequel/revisited games. For instance, Risk vs. Risk 2210 or Munchkin vs. Munchkin Quest. These games take the essence of the original game, and even plenty of the mechanics, and revisit the rules that surround it.
So, are the changes big? I know I've heard one particular response from people who have played both iterations of those game pairs: "Eh, it's pretty much the same game." The argument could be made then, that you can change a LOT of rules to a game and still have the same thing.
I refuse to be afraid of making big changes, but I also don't want to destroy the integrity of good things that have been made. It's interesting skating the line between those two objectives. Hopefully I'm better at metaphorical skating than the real thing.
The last week or so has been part of my graphic design education. I'm not a graphic artist, and the results often prove that. But! I am getting better, and I think the intense immersion in the world of graphics has forced me to sink or swim.
Regarding programs, I'm using Inkscape. It's free. And legal. I think the combination is alluring; I think that it's important to support the open source projects, and Inkscape has a huge following. And it's one of the few vector-based art tools to compete with Adobe Illustrator.
The problem, unfortunately, is that all of the big printing companies basically treat .ai (Adobe files) as the industry standard. This sucks, mostly because AI costs beaucoup bucks. Additionally, I'm a bit disappointed that a proprietary model is so important to the industry. If history has shown us anything, it's the dangers of letting one company control the means for other companies. The most obvious other company to drive industry standards is Microsoft, with .doc and .xls files being so prevalent in much of the business world.
In conclusion, I support everyone working in .svg. It's the open source file type for vector graphics, so it should be the standard. The internet has taught us that open source and free flow of information are both important to progress. Down with Adobe! Viva la revolution!
Sun Apr 22, 2012 11:22 pm
If you say any one word enough times, it starts to sound ridiculous. I think the same thing exists with writer's block; too long spent thinking about the same thing eventually leads to thinking of nonsense.
I think there's an interesting balance between procrastination and planning. If you've given yourself one week to accomplish something, and do indeed finish that goal, but only just as the deadline is reached...is there a problem?
Procrastinators, and I'm one, love to say they think and act best when under the pressure of a deadline. Give us three months, and we'll do nothing in the first 80 days. It's pretty bad sometimes, especially when the objective can't actually be done in 10 days. Like I said, there's a balance.
Length of a Journey
I gave myself a deadline for looking for images this week. I'm trying to find five backgrounds that are free to use, with limited attribution required. I found thousands of such images, but sifting through the good, the bad, and the useful takes a lot of time. And I've actually been doing it. I didn't procrastinate.
And you know what? Now I have designer's block. All of this planning and organization must be unhealthy for my system. I'm going into some sort of organizational shock. The current issue is the balance between rewards during the game versus rewards at game end (scoring vs. end game scoring). To top it off, I'm also looking at beginning game scoring, the type where each player secretly knows what one source of end game scoring will be (see Troyes, for a recent and popular example).
Obviously too many scoring opportunities makes each opportunity less significant. Where is the line drawn...and when does a game become too simple in the other direction?
I had originally intended to talk about the value of randomness in games, but I instead ended up musing about information. A die roll is merely information to which no player has access. What is more important is how much information players know about when they make their game choices.
Chess (I love linking that) is a game of perfect information. In other words, barring what choices your opponent makes, you know everything. In contrast, Werewolf (and its sometimes more commonly known brother, Mafia) is a game with very incomplete information with arguably more choices than Chess provides.
Both games are amazing fun for their respective fans. But some people hatehatehate one of these games (for reference, see my previously stated opinions about Talisman). I can completely sympathize with either party. The dry, seemingly pointless fight over the checkered battlefield, every game the same, every turn the same dwindling options. Or the over-energetic, extrovert-friendly guesswork and finger-pointing of gradually diminishing odds, pitting the loudest against their unwilling and exasperated pawns.
But they do have their fans. Which game has the right formula? One could argue that this is a lesson in moderation. Too much information diminishes replayability and alienates casual gamers. Too little information may indicate a disregard for strategy and alienates serious gamers. My ego is in favor of serious gamers, my pocketbook is in favor of casual gamers.
I think a combination of intuition and memory help bridge this gap. Serious gamers appreciate the value of remembering how much money an opponent has or which cards he may have selected several turns ago. Meanwhile, casual gamers appreciate intuiting what the balance of power is based on actions or who has overplayed their hand. One of the most central games on this spectrum is probably Poker, which has of recent become increasingly popular. Maybe its rise is something to inspire.
For Journey's End, I definitely have drifted left and right of the center. I drifted towards perfect information when I reduced the randomization of treasure, but then I took a turn towards the imperfect when I hid the skills a player had available.
What is the right balance? Or is there one? Are you guaranteed to alienate half of the people? Can I make all of the people happy some of the time...or should I make some of the people happy all of the time?
The entire point of my skill system with Journey's End is to effectively use each card for two different purposes.
...to Pay the Bills
The skills actually came first. I more or less have guessed at the number of skills types needing to be five. I knew that I wanted cards to be used to represent a player's (or character's) skill set. Why are they an adventurer and what can they do to help this hypothetical adventuring party?
I didn't want these skills to solely exist as currencies. They are, but I wanted players to want to collect specific skills depending on what was needed for the current situation. A player should stockpile Strength in order to do burly activities. A player should grab up Wit to be devious. But at the same time, no one skill is allowed to be strictly more powerful. Situationally, yes, but holistically, no.
Games aren't cheap, and cards certainly aren't at the bottom of the cost list. I knew that I wanted to add an expansive element to the game by making sure that both sides of each card had importance in a game of Journey's End.
But I also knew that it was a bad idea to make both sides important simultaneously. In the game adaptation of Piers Anthony's books, Xanth, there was one particularly large design flaw. Cards were printed with text that was important in two directions. And not sometimes important; each card could be used for one of two actions, but you had to flip the card over in your hand to read the other text. It was painfully easy to get lost in this mishmash of organization, or mishorganization (new word, I want royalties).
In essence, I knew that once a card became a skill, it would never be flipped over. Once a skill, always a skill, and the text on the other side of the card did not matter.
Quality over Quantity?
I'm currently wrestling with a design decision. It's unlikely that I'll be able to afford the time or money required for the artwork players would expect from cards. Yes, I know that plenty of card games have nearly no artwork, but I feel like it adds a decent amount of legitimacy that I would prefer to have.
Am I wasting design space? Is leaving space for artwork foolish, when I could maximize it with interesting design and play choices? Yes, I know that text all across the card would be bad, and it's not my plan.
Right now, the players receive rewards in the form of treasure. If a player successfully completes a quest, she/he/it receives a treasure. Originally, it was a random treasure from a pile. More recently, it's a choice of treasure from one of five skill-specific piles.
As soon as the treasures became skill specific (at least, for the duration of one game), I toyed with the idea of including treasure cards within the skill decks. Essentially, as treasures are revealed, they would become available as prizes for the adventurers.
Both systems require the game to have 139 cards, as the design stands: 100 skill cards (20 cards for each of five skills), 30 treasure cards, 6 character cards, and 3 special cards. There's still room in the templates for five more cards (144 cards total), four of which would likely be turn reminder cards for the players.
130 of those cards have a decent portion of the card retail space taken with a stand-in picture, ostensibly where an artist would add their artwork, assuming I could pay for art. I fully expect to get art for the six characters and the special cards. Those are important factors. And my graphic designer has delivered excellent images for the backs of these cards.
Mix and Match, not Mishmash
So my thoughts are revolving around a way to turn these cards into something more valuable. If half of the card isn't being used, how could I use it?
Perhaps treasures are the solution. You see, most treasure cards are fairly simple, and even the very complex ones aren't (complex). What if 1/3 of a card's retail space was devoted to a single treasure card? At this point, I could offer 130 different types of treasure cards. And treasure cards could turn toward the flavor of their skills. What would a Lore-ful historian do with a bejeweled blade anyway? Would a Charm-ing scoundrel ever value that Forgotten Manuscript?
Maybe treasures aren't the right route, but I'm certainly pondering them this evening. I may even try an alpha test with them.
Even if the text is separated in a meaningful way, through layout and graphic design tricks, is all of this too much for a card face? I think of how the design space may have been overladen in a few recent games, including Glory to Rome. And also the relative success of text-liberated games like Fluxx or Munchkin.
What should I do...?
I'm interested in how life's coincidences can be tied together thematically. This past weekend, the connection was movement. Due to an unfortunate series of events, I have left the house I was renting and have gone on to greener pastures. This is mostly good news, so I can handle it. But there is bad news.
Every round, cards in Journey's End were being moved about. I have now become sensitive to this effect: the movement of cards around the table, the repositioning of a card line or a bank of cards or any other card tableau.
What makes moving cards so frustrating? Partly, it's because picking up cards off a table is not always a straightforward process; specifically, we don't all have the nails or tweezers to pick up the card. I think the bigger reason, however, might be a little more OCD than that. Cards slip, and the repositioning of cards involves not only movement to a new location, but also the orientation of the cards.
Okay, to be fair, some of this isn't OCD, but how many times have we shifted a card that was askew? A big portion of the desire to have tidy rows is the ease of reading the cards. We also don't like having one card overlapping another. And then, when someone picks up and replaces a card on the table, it invariably musses the order.
Now for a Journey
Journey's End has a slowly rotating road of locations which the players visit. But because of this, every round cards were removed from the road, the road was shifted, and cards were subsequently added. This was just too much.
On to the changes! In order to accommodate the theme of a shifting road, I wanted to reserve the space that the card occupied. Imagine, as an example, three slots. One card is added to each slot. When the card is removed, the slot remains, and a new card could be added to that slot in the future. But, if a card needs to be added to a slot that is already occupied, what should happen?
At this point, cards are now stacked on top of their predecessors. Thus, if a card is subsequently removed, the older card is revealed and used. I think this system allows for the rotating cast of locations that I want, but culls a large portion of the movement pains. Granted, cards are still suffering from positional OCD, but this will hopefully be a lot less than having to move every card on the road every round.
Does anyone have a game that required too much movement and "upkeep" of cards and pieces every round? Was there an easy fix?
We know what it means: take a card from your hand and place it in the pile marked for discards. It sounds perfect for what is happening. How did it come to exist in game terminology? Etymologists indicate that's where the word was created, for the popular card games in France. A word that someone created for playing a game has become such a prominent fixture in vocabulary, applicative towards any form of removal, even to the point of eventually becoming a noun.
Games have power over language, but the French started with two pieces of words that they were familiar with when coining the term "decard." They frankensteined two concepts together...
That said, intuition plays heavily into word choice. Picking two words that make sense to one person, for instance the golfing term "tee" and "man" to describe the person setting up the tee, will not necessarily result in a useful new word...manatee?
Hide and Seek
All reverence for puns aside, there are three particular verbs I'm using in Journey's End to describe the actions players may take. The first is "gain," which has skyrocketed to use since the introduction of Dominion. In that game, "gain" means to take a card from supply and add it to your discards. I have used the term in the same manner, allowing players to gain skills and other types of cards.
To explain the other two words, I must first emphasize how the "hand" for Journey's End works. Originally I had players splaying their skills and other gained cards in front of them for all players to see. I felt that information like how skilled an adventurer was should be open, both thematically and strategically. Skills then used were tucked under the character card to show that they had been expended for the round.
This led to overanalysis, slowing gameplay, but also eventually felt less intuitive. When glancing at a person, can one honestly just know how skilled they are? You might have seen them accomplish a particularly Witty or Charming feat, but you might not know to what extent their Charm can climb. In the end, I switched the hand and discards.
The hand now encompasses a pile of cards, a player's private information, under the character card. The relative size of the stack of cards is viewable by all, but it may not be counted. Then, when a player needs to use skills, he "shows" them by placing the required cards in front of him (if I want gender neutrality, I should use "him or her," but what's wrong with "it?". Tada, you can now see the player gradually "show" how skilled he is as the round progresses and additional skills are shown. As a bonus, it adds more depth to player choices.
The obvious inverse for "show" then would be "hide." Moving a card from being shown back under the character card is "hiding" the card. This is of course the word I'm least comfortable employing, of "gain," "show," and "hide." Why? It's not an uncommon word in gaming; plenty of games use screens to hide resources, players often hide hands of cards or information.
Why don't I like the word "hide?" Seriously, can anyone weigh in on this?
I want to emphasize that there is definitely some form of emotional/physiological response in me when I see someone has commented on something I have written. Is it related to vanity? Possibly, but I like to delude myself into believing it's because I thrive on discourse. I think my inclination towards playing devil's advocate in contentious situations stems from the same joy.
So, because the first comment requested an exploration of the bidding mechanic in Journey's End, here it is.
*cry* I Still Hate Talisman
I don't want to harp on my distaste for the game; it's enough to remind anyone reading that Journey's End started with the Candy Land of Fantasy (Talisman). What I do want to explain is that I needed to come up with a player interaction that could be grafted onto the skill-based system that Talisman provided me.
I knew I wanted players to have five different skills, but I didn't know what they could do with them. Because of the prevalence of deck-builders recently, I thought of Eminent Domain. My opinion of the game notwithstanding, it does have an interesting action system, akin to job selection. What if the skills players collected could be used to accomplish something related to that skill? With more Strength, a player could hit things better; with more Fortune, a player might get better card selection.
But I'd seen that. We all have...over and over again. That's not to say what I ended with isn't stolen, at least in heart...
At the time of this game's design, I had not played Modern Art. Frankly, I can't recall how I knew of it, other than by association with its consummate designer. I have since played it, mostly out of an interest to improve my own design, but also to make sure I wasn't stepping on its toes.
Modern Art concentrates on players maneuvering with bids in an art auction theme. Specifically, it has four different "types" of bids: a normal "auction," a once around bid, a secret bid, and a fixed price. There's also the "double" auction, which is just a means of having two pieces auctioned simultaneously.
The specifics weren't interesting to me, but the overall idea was fascinating. It's not often that a game has multiple types of auctions/bids. What made sense to me for Journey's End was that players with different types of "skills" could have varying degrees of competence with different kinds of bids.
That Old Biddy
My original bids were similar to the ones in Modern Art. There was a multiple times around bid, a once around bid, a secret bid, a fixed cost bid, and (due to the nature of the game) a fixed cost bid that everyone could win. All of these bids began on Quests, the winner of which would win a treasure. A player would have to decide on which Quests they wanted to use their skills and plan accordingly.
In this manner, the five skills are a type of currency. But at that moment in design history, all skills were created equal. In order to make the skills have different "weights," I specified one or two skills that were favored in each quest. If you used those skills to bid on the quest, they were worth more value. For instance, in a quest named The Mad Banshee, Charm and Strength would be of little use, but Lore and Wit might be essential. To create this imbalance, but not exclude players who specialize in Charm, I decided that favored skills would be worth "two" points in a bid while other skills would only be worth "one."
This worked perfectly for some time, and I still think it's a great system of balancing the value of equal currencies.
Bidding in the New Era
Here are the current types of bids, as pasted from my working rule book. The "quester" is the player who receives the treasure as a reward. All bids are paid, even if the player is not the quester. Players may pass at any time, but may not bid zero. Also relevant is that the "first player" is dictated by the Princess noble card, which is purchased at the beginning of every round. Two quests favor the first player, and one the last.
Long: The first player begins the bid. Each subsequent bid must exceed the previous, or a player may pass. Once a player passes, he can not choose to return to the bid. Once all players but one have passed, that player is the quester. Players then choose which skills they wish to spend in player order.
Short: The first player begins the bid. Each subsequent bid must exceed the previous, or a player may pass. Each player will only have one opportunity to bid or pass, after which the player who bid the most is the quester. Players must choose which skills they wish to spend at the time of their bid.
Secret: Players secretly choose from their skills in hand an amount to bid and reveal their bids simultaneously. Players with optional ways to increase their bid may do so in turn order. The player who bid the most is the quester. In the case of a tie, no one is the quester.
Personal: Players secretly choose from their skills in hand an amount to bid and reveal their bids simultaneously. The first player in turn order who wishes to be the quester must add to his bid enough skills to equal or exceed the total of his opponents' bids.
Group: The first player begins the bid. Each subsequent player may also be a quester if they bid more than the last bid. Every quester will gain a Treasure. Players must choose which skills they wish to spend at the time of their bid.
A Note on the Changes
One might notice that the first three bidding types have survived until the current era of the rules. They are well-established types, and this fact does not make them outdated or obsolete, but valuable in making a game easily accessible to a new player.
The last two bids are still going through some testing, but early indicators are that the Personal bid is one of the more skill-testing bids, since it varies greatly based on the number of players. It's easy to shut people out of the bid, but at the same time...you want that treasure too! The Group bid is a modified form of the Short bid; one of those may change again before the final cut, but they do end up having different reactions due to the nature of the treasure-friendly group bid.
I'm eager to steal...I mean, gain inspiration from other bidding mechanisms. Does anyone have a bidding type they love? What do you hate about bidding in general, or with these specific types?
Every good game concept should be understood in less than a minute, right? No one wants to sit around enduring a rules explanation! Truthfully, some game concepts can't be honed down in such a succinct manner...but this one can. Here are the rules for Journey's End. In under a minute...if you read really fast.
Players represent a character who is part of an adventuring group traveling the road in search of glory and treasure, both worth valor points for an end game score. Players begin with several skills, represented by the backs of the five card decks, and will collect more along their journey. These skills can be "spent" each round at locations along the road, but will be refreshed every round.
The road consists of cards flipped face up from the skill decks, only a portion of which will be used each game. The players as a group visit each location currently visible on the road. Some locations are simple effects like Events and Places, some allow for the purchase of new skills like Vendors, and others are used to collect valor like Glory and Quests. Each round is one trip along this road culminating in the game's namesake location, Journey's End.
The most significant game mechanic is a series of five different types of bidding, primarily at Quest locations. Why do players want to win bids at Quests? For treasure! Each Quest will give one (maybe more) player a choice at Treasure cards which are worth valor for the end of the game.
The game ends when one stack of treasures or skills is emptied. Players tally their valor from Glory gained from the road and Treasures. Special treasures will give bonus valor to one or more players, dependent on skills, locations, and other factors. The adventurer with the most valor wins!
I plan on having the rules posted as a link eventually, but this is a hypothetical blurb that you might find in a publication like GAMES magazine.
Do you like playing games that take longer to explain than to play? Me neither. The nice part of many card games is that the rules unfold as new card texts become available. I welcome any comments on that statement!
Journey's End was initially inspired by Talisman, in the hopes of creating a shorter, less random experience. But after birth, infancy, and adolescence, it no longer looks like its mother. Sure, if you study the elements carefully, you will be able to conclude that there is a relation, but they have diverged wildly over time.
Here are a few of the original inspirations for game elements and how they have been translated into Journey's End.
I love my puns. But in all seriousness, why should a game last for three or more hours when the same amount of enjoyment could be packed into less than an hour? Games that last for so long purely because the mechanics have forced the issue would seriously benefit from some complexity-culling.
Part of what takes so long with Talisman is the nature of the board game. In order to compete numerically with the end-game goals, players need to land on a theoretical minimum number of spaces. You can calculate average rolls and ideal landing positions...blah, blah blah...and thus you have a game that takes three hours. If you take Chutes and Ladders and remove the top 4/5 of the board, the game would be a lot shorter.
Why cards? Well, a game printed solely on cards is a lot cheaper to print for a first publication. Honestly, it's the main inspiration. But I wasn't intending to shy away completely from other component types; however, if a game could accomplish the same things with just cards, why wouldn't you?
Players enjoy card games for two primary reasons: they're cheaper and they're quicker. Sometimes we don't have two hours to play a game (or the inclination after a day of brain-burning work). But a game that takes half of an hour? Sure, it's a nice diversion.
Add to all of this an inkling of an idea dealing with double-sided cards. I knew from previous games that the two sides can't have relevance at the same time, but what a waste of space to only print useful game information on one side of a card! One of my favorite games (really, he likes that?) is Race for the Galaxy, and it uses cards in a nice marker-based system. The information printed on the back of the card is still never important though...
All of these elements conspired to force the conclusion that a game printed on cards was a great idea, and that Talisman could be squished into a gross of cards and still be fun.
Talisman has broken down its player-characters into a few base elements, namely Strength and Craft, and to some extent the recent Fate. In its typically limited-talent form, Talisman really only requires the player to specialize in collecting and improving one of those skills before racing to the end and praying for fortuitous die rolls.
But are fantasy/adventure characters really able to be boiled down to two skills? Are you either the warrior or the wizard? I say nay! Nay, good sir (or ma'am)! I toyed with multiple amounts, but finally settled on five, currently named Wit, Strength, Fortune, Charm, and Lore. Yes, there could be more than five, and yes, if Journey's End is wildly successful, I fully intend on printing expansions that add new skill types. But I don't want the game to be relying on future possibilities. Five is an excellent number as proven by many game designs.
We all love stuff. And when a game lets us get stuff, it makes us really happy. We like shiny stuff, stuff with stats, flavor stuff, stuff that you collect in sets, and all sorts of other stuff. And what's the best kind of stuff? Gold!
Thing is, Talisman lets you collect all sorts of stuff, but in the end, a lot of the stuff doesn't really matter. The only stuff that's really important is the talisman object you need to get to the end of the game. Lame!
But what if the acquisition of stuff is itself the goal? What if just getting more stuff is what makes you win? And true to theme, isn't that what people in fantasy and adventure worlds often try to accomplish, gain more stuff? Y'ar, I think you know of what I be speakin'.
Gold! Yes, we want it. I don't know why, maybe because it's so shiny. But we wants our precious and we must haves it. In that (gold) vein, I decided that the stuff was the ultimate goal. Yes, let us collect more stuff and win the game by having the most of it. It's a very tangible goal and easy to teach.
I Will Follow Him
I think one of the favorite elements of adventure games is the adventuring party itself. And Talisman embraces this concept with the idea of Followers, people who tag along with you and do your bidding, presumably.
I think that's great...but I always got really annoyed by followers, because they always seemed like the game-winning elements of Talisman. Get a good follower early, and it felt like a player was untouchable. Or maybe I just rolled poorly too often...I hatehatehatehatehate Talisman. (See the Malice-man blogpost for more on why I would bother making a game in homage to something I hate.)
But I love the idea of Followers. So rather than just Getting someone who does your bidding, how about hiring someone? Thus was inspired my idea for Nobles, who are people you hire for some effect, but that you have to hire every round of gameplay. You don't have dibs on anyone, and they're not free. I love it!
But after a while, I realized that thematically, hiring everyone in your party isn't really what adventuring is all about. Adventurers have common goals, and these Noble mercenaries really only wanted your money. But I solved it with probably the most important theme I created for the game, and what has really ultimately driven my design in its top-down approach.
The players in this game are journeying together. In Talisman, you are separate parties racing to the end to claim victory. In Journey's End, you are a group traveling together, trying to claim the most glory and treasure. You are in it together. Make no mistake, there is no cooperative element to this game. Thematically, though, you are all the adventuring party.
Death to Talisman
Ultimately, Journey's End will never be Talisman, because I don't like that game, but the theme will draw from the same inspirations that created Talisman. Adventuring is a compelling and romantic theme, and I hope that Journey's End eventually inspires others.
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