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Subject: Designer Diary - Dealing with the Down-and-Out rss

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Cole Wehrle
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Most of my designs start with the victory conditions. Pax Pamir began with me thinking as best as I could about what it takes to make a state in central Asia at that time. With Infamous Traffic, I knew I wanted the chaotic respectability auction of the London season to fuel the profiteering in China. John Company took that tension and ramped up the stakes in order to power the game’s negotiations. Victory conditions are important for me. They are one way a game expresses its argument and its shape clearly. Though virtually every other element of a design is subject to change during development, victory conditions have a way of staying constant. In some ways the whole process of design can be summarized as trying to fully explain the conditions for victory.

Today, I want to talk about Root’s victory condition because it is something of an exception in my experience as a designer. The core of Root’s victory condition can be traced back to my first game, Pax Pamir. Pamir is also game about state-building. Like the other Pax Games, Pamir features a multi-level victory condition. Though this condition didn’t give me much trouble during testing, it proved to a huge barrier during the game’s public release. Basically, the condition was just complicated enough that players wouldn’t care to think about it until one of the four scoring cards appeared in the game. At that point the game’s flow would totally shut down and players would very carefully consider their moves. Porfiriana and Renaissance are similar in this respect, but Pamir upped the ante.

In most games victory is a matter of comparing one currency. Whoever has the most of that currency wins. So, the endgames usually involve some kind of “cashing out.” In Pax Porfiriana and Renaissance, you often need to pay attention to two currencies. There are four different types of currencies and only one of them will count for Victory depending on the game’s current “Regime” (this is kind of like the political climate in the game’s setting). So, you essentially have two things to worry about: an amount of power and whether you had the correct kind of power. Pamir’s victory condition added a third level to this formula. In Pamir there was a separation between players and empires. Empires were the things that ended the game if they had the enough of the right kind of power (like Porfiriana). But, players would only win if they had enough influence in the empire that won the game. This created some lovely emergent partnerships and some really devious possibilities strategy, but it also created a very cumbersome end-game.

Many players resorted to making their own victory point tracks for different games in the Pax series to make the game state a little more transparent.


I hadn’t noticed problem with the endgame because, after a few plays, players get used to it, and I was blessed with a very hardy bunch of playtesters. Still, learning to read the game state and keep the victory condition mind took a lot of practice, so much so that it turned off a lot of players who otherwise would have enjoyed the game. That’s a shame because it was a fixable design problem that I believe I pretty well solved with the expansion.

The expansion, Khyber Knives, got around this problem by introducing victory points in a tricky way that preserved a lot of the game’s sharp edges. I replaced the game’s abrupt ends with something more like a traditional scoring card—only I simplified the condition to break up the different levels of scoring into different elements of the game. Critically, only certain players would score when these cards would show up so it encourages players to keep their eye on the ball. But, because the cards were not necessarily game-ending players could approach the end game in a way that was more granular.

Given Root’s weight and audience, I knew early on that I would be using a simple victory point track. I also knew that for those reasons that the scores would be stable and not be just a status marker (like GMT’s COIN Games). There’s nothing wrong with dynamic victory point tracks that need adjusted as gains are made and lost, but they were too fiddly for a game of this complexity and length.

I decided to tie the score to the game’s end game. The first person to 40 points would win the game. How did I decide this number? I didn’t. Patrick gave it to me. Or, to be totally honest, he said “30” and we started there, and, at some point, the game was running too short so we increased it by 10 points. Sometimes decisions in game design are less-than-dramatic.

Anyway, tying 40 points to the game’s end condition meant that the point generating engines players built would be the clocks of the game. This concept took me an embarrassingly long time to get a handle on. Most of my other games use a turn limit or a deck size to determine the length of play. The game clock is an easy thing to think about. This was not the case here. In Root the players have a huge amount of power over the length of the game and that power proved to be a difficult thing to manage.

I started by making a spreadsheet and working out the ideal (or close to ideal) development arc for each of the three core factions. How many turns did it take to get to 40 points? Once I had that number for each faction I was able to make balance adjustments to get them all at the same pace. That pace is about 30 actions (~7 turns). But, when you toss all of the factions in a game together, the numbers were all out of whack because each factions power curve is so different. The Alliance’s score grows slowly then explosively. If they can be hurt at precisely the right turn they can easily lose a ton of progress. In contrast, the Eyre’s score is the steady beating of the game’s clock. Even if they are battered they can creep across the finish line unless the Marquise can win sooner.

While the game was perfectly playable and interesting at this point, I wasn’t happy. Though it often produced close finishes, there was a tension missing in the end game. At the start of the game all of the players are even and if they all have the same card draws and the same amounts of aggression with one-another then it will be anyone’s game. But that never happens. In practice, the variance in card draws and the degree to which one or two players might beat up on a third player meant that usually at least one player was out-of-contention, and it would be very possible that two players were out-of-contention.

Being down and out is a very frustrating thing for a player, but, as a designer, I love playing around with that frustration. My go-to game for thinking through these problems is Martin Wallace’s underappreciated game Liberté (2001). Liberte is a political game about the French Revolution. It plays 3-6 players but usually only 2 players will be close to winning on VPs. Wallace got around this swinginess by introducing two alternative victory conditions whereby players in weak positions can sabotage the game.

As best as I can tell, this kind of condition isn’t Wallace’s innovation. You see them in card games all of the time. For more about them, check out this entry on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mis%C3%A8re

Root isn’t half as swingy as Liberte, but its highly interactive nature does mean that players will get forced out. To put them back in the action for the game’s final act, I created a system of Special Victory conditions. These would be shuffled into the deck, and, like other cards, they could be spend for their suit. However, when discarded, they didn’t go back into the discard pile. Instead they sat at the end of the board and could be “bought” by other players by discarding a card matching the suit.



When a player played one of these cards as a special victory condition, they removed their scoring cube from the game. Now, they only win if they can achieve the alternate victory condition listed on the card. And just like that, those players beat up in the first act could exact their vengeance in act three. But, it’s not exactly a catch up mechanism. Executing any of these cards requires a lot of planning and a sharp pivot away from normal play. They are desperate measures for desperate players.

Whew, that was a long one. Okay, next time I’ll be talking about the development process, when I knew that Root was ready to pitch to Patrick and how all of us at Leder Games knew it was ready to put on Kickstarter.
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David Kline
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Am I the only one more excited for Cole's designer diaries than updates to the actual campaign?
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Kristopher Snyder
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spaff_ wrote:
Am I the only one more excited for Cole's designer diaries than updates to the actual campaign?


Nope.
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Daniel Rodriguez
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spaff_ wrote:
Am I the only one more excited for Cole's designer diaries than updates to the actual campaign?


not at all
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Yaron Davidson
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Thank you for this series of designer diaries, they're very interesting and appreciated!

Cole Wehrle wrote:
I hadn’t noticed problem with the endgame because, after a few plays, players get used to it, and I was blessed with a very hardy bunch of playtesters.

This reads as probably a good selection of playtesters for that type of game and the audience it will attract, but also as a lack of rounds of blind playtesting.
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Ingólfur Valsson
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I've asked this elsewhere without answer, has there been any concrete info about how cards move into a players hand?

There is a bag icon and a coin icon I've assumed mean hand size limit and how many you draw respectively.

If so, when do you draw your cards, or are they only possible to get with manufacturing buildings or something like that?
 
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Grayson
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KronikAlkoholik wrote:
If so, when do you draw your cards, or are they only possible to get with manufacturing buildings or something like that?


you currently draw near the end of the Cat's turn (and then the Cat's hand limit is enforced at the end of their turn). The other way is through Incite the Mob which will cause someone to draw cards. There may be one or two other ways in the deck, but they are minor.

Currently, it's "draw equal to 1 + number of coin icons you have, with a handsize enforcement of bag icon number"
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Cole Wehrle
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143245 wrote:
KronikAlkoholik wrote:
If so, when do you draw your cards, or are they only possible to get with manufacturing buildings or something like that?


you currently draw near the end of the Cat's turn (and then the Cat's hand limit is enforced at the end of their turn). The other way is through Incite the Mob which will cause someone to draw cards. There may be one or two other ways in the deck, but they are minor.

Currently, it's "draw equal to 1 + number of coin icons you have, with a handsize enforcement of bag icon number"


Grayson has it right, though we've simplified the icongraphy so that it takes the basic card income into account.
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Cole Wehrle
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yarondav wrote:
This reads as probably a good selection of playtesters for that type of game and the audience it will attract, but also as a lack of rounds of blind playtesting.


Yup, that's it exactly. What matters is that the game is well tooled for its audience. Phil's audience has a very high tolerance for obtuse design, so I'm able to put my energies elsewhere. For a game like Root, I spend a lot of my design energies on accessibility.
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Andrés Santiago Pérez-Bergquist
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Liberté is always my go-to example of short-circuit victory conditions that retain engagement by players who are losing the main points race.

spaff_ wrote:
Am I the only one more excited for Cole's designer diaries than updates to the actual campaign?


Yes, please link them from the campaign as updates to get people excited and get more pledges. I think the fairly relaxed pace of updates isn’t driving as many pledges as it could.
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Patrick Leder
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Santiago wrote:
Liberté is always my go-to example of short-circuit victory conditions that retain engagement by players who are losing the main points race.

spaff_ wrote:
Am I the only one more excited for Cole's designer diaries than updates to the actual campaign?


Yes, please link them from the campaign as updates to get people excited and get more pledges. I think the fairly relaxed pace of updates isn’t driving as many pledges as it could.


That is in our marketing plan we have so far had enough things to talk about.
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adam wilson

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Cole Wehrle wrote:
When a player played one of these cards as a special victory condition, they removed their scoring cube from the game. Now, they only win if they can achieve the alternate victory condition listed on the card. And just like that, those players beat up in the first act could exact their vengeance in act three. But, it’s not exactly a catch up mechanism. Executing any of these cards requires a lot of planning and a sharp pivot away from normal play. They are desperate measures for desperate players.


I get the alternate goal scoring part but how does this benefit a player that has been "beat up". Won't the player in the lead hate draft the card or have more resources that can counter the alternate goal?
 
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Tucker Taylor
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adam wilson wrote:
Cole Wehrle wrote:
When a player played one of these cards as a special victory condition, they removed their scoring cube from the game. Now, they only win if they can achieve the alternate victory condition listed on the card. And just like that, those players beat up in the first act could exact their vengeance in act three. But, it’s not exactly a catch up mechanism. Executing any of these cards requires a lot of planning and a sharp pivot away from normal play. They are desperate measures for desperate players.

I get the alternate goal scoring part but how does this benefit a player that has been "beat up". Won't the player in the lead hate draft the card or have more resources that can counter the alternate goal?

Hate-drafting seems counterproductive. You're not just denying it to someone else; you're actively declaring for it yourself.
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Geoff Speare
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To hate draft you'd have to keep it in your hand and not spend it; given the small hand sizes that seems like a significant consideration.
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galfridus wrote:
To hate draft you'd have to keep it in your hand and not spend it; given the small hand sizes that seems like a significant consideration.


And from there it can still even be stolen by a shifty Vagabond!
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Cole Wehrle
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galfridus wrote:
To hate draft you'd have to keep it in your hand and not spend it; given the small hand sizes that seems like a significant consideration.


Hate drafting comes with a very, very high cost for this very reason. It is possible in some limited cases, but the costs are usually far too high.
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Chris Smith

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Every detail I learn makes me more excited about this design. Great writeup, Cole!
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Kektek wrote:
Every detail I learn makes me more excited about this design. Great writeup, Cole!


Echoing these sentiments.

I do have a question however: in a previous diary we saw a (I presume older?) version of the alternate victory cards which included a separate Vagabond 'quest' as well as flavor text (big ups for flavor text btw), and also gave a new 'power' to the faction that took up the alternate victory. The Military alternate victory boosted the efforts of the taker by letting them move into forests in their effort to assault the Marquises' keep, which seemed like a really interesting new dynamic.

Are any of these elements being discarded or preserved as the game design goes forward?
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Cole Wehrle
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umbralAeronaut wrote:

Are any of these elements being discarded or preserved as the game design goes forward?


Good question. I'll probably be giving you a fuller answer tomorrow when I talk about development.

The short answer is that the Vagabond specific quests are gone right now (they won't be in the PnP), but they'll be back .
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GreenM wrote:
Santiago wrote:
Liberté is always my go-to example of short-circuit victory conditions that retain engagement by players who are losing the main points race.

spaff_ wrote:
Am I the only one more excited for Cole's designer diaries than updates to the actual campaign?


Yes, please link them from the campaign as updates to get people excited and get more pledges. I think the fairly relaxed pace of updates isn’t driving as many pledges as it could.


That is in our marketing plan we have so far had enough things to talk about.


You can, at some point, just collect them into one KS update. Name of the designer diary, short synopsis, link to BGG, repeat for each diary.
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John Rogers
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What are the 4 alt victory conditions?

I am curious as to the prospect of someone drawing one, holding it until they have secretly manipulated the board in their favor, then playing it for the win. This allows players to win in secret and the game devolves into a guessing game of who drew which alt victory card.

I like Liberte’s alt victory conditions and those of An Infamous Traffic. However, both of those are open information and trackable by all players.
 
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Cole Wehrle
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John Rogers wrote:
What are the 4 alt victory conditions?

I am curious as to the prospect of someone drawing one, holding it until they have secretly manipulated the board in their favor, then playing it for the win. This allows players to win in secret and the game devolves into a guessing game of who drew which alt victory card.

I like Liberte’s alt victory conditions and those of An Infamous Traffic. However, both of those are open information and trackable by all players.


You can't win instantly, so players will have a chance to react. It's also very, very expensive to hold onto a single card that long.

And, of course, the alternative conditions are easily telegraphed in play. If your charging for the Keep, players will know what's up.
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John Rogers wrote:
What are the 4 alt victory conditions?


Chaos Victory: During your Birdsong, you win the game immediately if all of the other players with score markers have 33 to 39 victory points.

Coalition Victory: When you play this special victory card to change your victory condition, place your score marker on the faction board of the player with the fewest victory points. If that player wins the game, you also win.

Economic Victory: During your Birdsong, you win the game immediately if you have five crafted improvements in your play area.

Military Victory: During your Birdsong, you win the game immediately if you rule the Keep of the Marquise de Cat. (Not playable by the Vagabond or Marquise.)
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Cole Wehrle wrote:
John Rogers wrote:
What are the 4 alt victory conditions?

I am curious as to the prospect of someone drawing one, holding it until they have secretly manipulated the board in their favor, then playing it for the win. This allows players to win in secret and the game devolves into a guessing game of who drew which alt victory card.

I like Liberte’s alt victory conditions and those of An Infamous Traffic. However, both of those are open information and trackable by all players.


You can't win instantly, so players will have a chance to react. It's also very, very expensive to hold onto a single card that long.

And, of course, the alternative conditions are easily telegraphed in play. If your charging for the Keep, players will know what's up.


What are the 4 cards and their victory options? Would it be easy enough to play w/o them?

BTW I think you are dead on when you talk about victory conditions largely summing up the game. I find they have considerable weight in making or breaking a design for me.

Thanks Cole!

Oh and John Company is still on my Christmas radar.
 
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Cole Wehrle
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Josh describes them above. And I wouldn't play the game without them, but there's nothing stopping you.
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