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Subject: Designer Diary - Woodland Runners rss

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Cole Wehrle
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Here on BGG and on Twitter, I’ve described this game somewhat casually by using GMT’s excellent COIN series. This is less a mechanical reference point than a thematic aspiration. I love the way those games force players into uncomfortable partnerships. They are at their best when players have to work together with their foes to accomplish a common goal. I also admire the operational asymmetry of the state in comparison to the insurgent factions. Though there are many points of difference, the core difference is elegantly captured in concealed vs. active dichotomy of the insurgents vs. the “always on” state of the government’s troops.

For those who haven’t played COIN, a quick bit of summary is in order. In those games, insurgent fighters are hidden and, as long as they move in small numbers, they stay hidden. These fighters can’t be targeted by the overwhelming force of the state until they are flushed out with sweeps or until they attack first. So much of the tension of the game can be found in that fundamental difference.

When I started designing the Alliance, I began with that system. I had assumed it would be the only mechanism that I would borrow. If I had planned on using more, I’d have probably pitched this game to Volko Ruhnke and his pals at GMT. So, originally, unlike the other factions, the Woodland Alliance’s warriors had two states: hidden and revealed. Hidden units couldn’t be attacked. Moreover, if there was at least one hidden unit, any Alliance buildings were also considered hidden, just like bases in COIN games.

This system stayed in the design for a long time. It caused all kinds of problems. The core problem was that, for all of its thematic associations, the game doesn’t really play anything like COIN games. For one, Root is a lot less chaotic, and handles movement very differently. This core stability means that the “hidden system” was nothing more than a massive boon for the Woodland Alliance. In practice they would just mass up a big set of units and wait till the right moment to strike. And, because the action economy was so tight, the state couldn’t really do anything about it unless it wanted to throw the game to stop them. It was a little silly.

Despite the fact that my adoption of this system was creating massive problems, I never bothered to interrogate it or consider that it might be out-of-place in the game. If any new designers are reading this, there’s an important lesson here. Avoid holding anything sacred in a design. I’ve learned that lesson many times over, but I’m still amazed at how often my mind will stick to a certain idea as if it were dogma.

Even as I began to recognize that this system was the wrong fit for Root, I didn’t want to ditch it because so much of the flavor of a COIN-like game is built into that simple rule. If I took it away from the Alliance, what would be left? This question turned out to be an important one that needed answering. So, I decided to ignore combat and instead think about rebuilding the Alliance from scratch.

To do this I first thought about one of the central problems of revolutions: coalition building. Okay, this is a bit of a fib. Really any political unit struggles with this. In fact, it might be called the central problem of politics itself. What group(s) are going to put you in power? Can they keep you there?

For this reason, I wanted the Alliance, like the Eyrie, to have some kind of internal strife. But, as with the Eyrie/Marquise, I didn’t want to just copy the turmoil mechanism. For the Eyrie, turmoil represented dysfunction at the top. For the Alliance, I wanted to represent dysfunction at the bottom. Grassroots moments have a problem of localization and it seemed to be a good problem to build a faction around.

With this in mind, I settled on the idea of having three different action boxes. Instead of having a single pool of actions, the Alliance’s actions were all coded to one of the native populations of the woods. Over the course of the game, they would get a trickle of actions into each box. Then, depending on the status of the outrage track, they may get additional actions that were “wild.” These could be spent by any box. These actions would be called “supporters” (and are tracked by using warriors from the supply).

Critically, a fox supporter is only useful to do things in fox clearings. They can be used to train new fox warriors or construct hideouts. Most importantly, fox supporters can be spent by fox hideouts to complete conspiracies. Every card—well, all but four but I’ll get to that in a later post—has a conspiracy at the bottom. As I wrote about in my post on card anatomy, these conspiracies one the Alliance’s primary way of scoring points. They also allow their warriors to mobilize and move from clearing to clearing.



The inspiration for this particular mechanic was Netrunner. In early drafts of the game, players would put their supporters on facedown cards. Once they built up enough supporters, they could be revealed to trigger certain effects. Some of them were even nasty traps! Okay, so I was a little shameless in my willingness to use my favorite elements of Netrunner, but I loved how the conspiracies introduced hidden information and bluffing into the system. This was an element of COIN games I always felt a little lacking. I wanted Root to really capture the degree to which insurgent factions relied on surprise.

But this system too ran into problems. If the hidden/revealed combat units produced balance problems, the hidden conspiracy system had ergonomical problems. For the Alliance player, it was a pain to manage what was essentially a hand on the table. And it was easy to forget which conspiracy was assigned to which hideout. (How the classic game Titan gets around this issue is a subject for another post.) Moreover, if the Alliance player had a little trouble in tracking these conspiracies, it was totally outside of the ability of any other players to track them as well. The result was that the Alliance player felt like he was in his own little world.

Eventually, after a lot of thought and iteration, I abandoned this system in favor of a unified hand. Instead of the supporters being associated with a particular conspiracy, allowed them to be pooled in the action boxes. Then the Alliance player could, during their turn, pay the cost of a conspiracy and play it in one of their slots. At the start of their turn, any cards they had played would be returned to their hand. So, as they opened more slots by building new hideouts, their hand also increased in size.

This also allowed other players to see what the Alliance was up to. If they completed a particularly juicy conspiracy, it would sit there, right below their faction board until they got their next turn. If, say, something terrible were to remove that hideout, the conspiracy would be discarded before it had a chance to return to their hand. Scary stuff.

Nailing down this system allowed me to take a look back at combat. The trouble was that the Alliance, with their limited ability to mobilize, was exceptionally vulnerable. So, to protect them I gave them a special power: Hidden. If defending with one warrior in this clearing, ignore the first hit when defending. Because of the way combat works, this was an incredibly powerful shield to protect a weak Alliance.

Alright, that’s it for now. Next time, I’ll say a few things about the Vagabond, my love for Magic Realm, and why I’m delighted that we made it to our 100,000 stretch goal.
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Daniel Fish
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I adore the careful crafting of both the aesthetic, simple-yet-complex asymmetry, and the immersive narrative feel of this game. Hope the exquisitely curated gameplay balance produces a fun, challenging and replayable experience.

Phenomenal work!
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Lazy Mountain

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I really appreciate you writing and sharing these!
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Josh
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Cole, you should bundle these into a PDF and include it with KS pledges
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Peter Hayward
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Please tell me that's a Hamilton reference
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Cole Wehrle
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PeterCHayward wrote:
Please tell me that's a Hamilton reference


Wouldn't be the first time I snuck one or two in...
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Steven Becker
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All those Diaries are a grat read... I don't get anything (lost in translation) to be honest, but still!

Thrilled to test out the TTS mod when it shows up hopefully not too far in the future!
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Geoff Speare
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tee hee, that tickles!!!
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What's the point of the Keep Secrets action? Is the card still considered in your hand to be played as a conspiracy later? (To a different hideout I assume, since the Conspiracy action specifies an empty slot.)
 
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umbral Aeronaut
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Pretty sure that face-down "Secrets" cards are meant to return to your hand at the start of the Alliance turn just like face-up Conspiracies do (I presume that they also discard if that Hideout is destroyed by another faction: it possibly should specify more clearly in the rules that both Secrets and Conspiracies act the same in this way). I've interpreted that it's basically a dynamic hand-size increase for the Woodland player (scaling with their ability to place and preserve Hideouts on the map) which is still active even when they don't have the ability/desire to play the maximum Conspiracies available to them on a turn.

EDIT: Just wanted to add that the Woodland Alliance faction mechanics were absolutely fascinating to read about and I'm very impressed with the unique puzzle they are faced with.
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Cole Wehrle
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umbralAeronaut wrote:
I've interpreted that it's basically a dynamic hand-size increase for the Woodland player (scaling with their ability to place and preserve Hideouts on the map) which is still active even when they don't have the ability/desire to play the maximum Conspiracies available to them on a turn.


Bingo. That's it.

Sidenote: a lot of the wording on these prototype boards is being cleaned up now. So, apologies for that.
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Ingólfur Valsson
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What is under the stronghold markers? I'm assuming a bonus of some sort, perhaps a hand size increase.

While on the subject, this is one thing I haven't fully grasped looking at the diaries and rulebook, hand size and card drawing. I've made some assumptions but I have no idea if they are correct.

The bag with the number on it represents hand size limit.
The coins are how many cards are drawn ( but when? ).

So the alliance seem to have to rely on conspiracies to get cards in their hands. At least they have a slow start right.
 
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