March 11, 2012

Expanding the Farm: Learning about Expansion Design

The Kickstarter campaign to raise money to manufacture Farmageddon went insanely well. It went so well, in fact, that our backers began clamoring for a fantastic stretch goal. our solution was a full expansion to the game. By full expansion I don't mean the 2-3 promo cards that folks might throw into a game, but something that significantly adds to the game.

I found, and still find, this prospect a bit terrifying. I'm worried it's a tinge cart before the horse and I'd vastly prefer to design without the pressure of over 1200 excited people. But, this is a good problem to have.

Expansion design is quite different from creating a new game. You have an existing structure you must work within or expand very carefully. You need to take what was balanced, add a few layers, then polish it again. But, unlike a digital game, you cannot just patch or overwrite the base experience. Oh boy.

The purpose of this post is to share some general lessons I've found as well as discuss some aspects of the expansion, which is currently titled Livestocked and Loaded. 

March 9, 2012

In All Fairness: Treating Designers Correctly

I'm a new designer. I have a single published title that isn't even manufactured yet and a pile of prototypes that weren't worth finishing. And there are so many others just like me. We have a few good ideas, a game worth looking at, and no record to point to.

Similarly, especially in this new environment of Kickstarter, The Game Crafter, and the Internet, there are new publishers. Publishers who have only one (or no) titles available for purchase. Titles that were designed and published by the same person (and so we're clear, there's nothing wrong with that). There are many of them and new ones cropping up every day.

For those of us designers who seek the traditional path of publication (i.e. we design, YOU publish), this presents new opportunities and challenges. For one, there are more people who might publish my game. More avenues. But, just like there are dozens of designers who are unworthy of your time because they are too green or too immature, I'm going to argue that same problem exists with publishers.

I submitted Farmageddon to many publishers before I found a great fit with 5th Street Games. Many of my experiences with publishers were greatly unfavorable, not just in rejection, which is expected and a part of the process, but in how they conducted business. I will not name names, but I'd like to call out a few things I think are fair to ask of publishers when dealing with designers.

Why is this valuable? I think the best publishers attract the best talent. If you are a good publisher to treats designers fairly, you'll attract Donald X, Stefan Feld, Knizia, and more. If  you develop a reputation for being a jerk, and believe me, you will, none of these people will work with you. Take a look at the digital space. Not long ago, Activision royally screwed over Infinity Ward. Guess what? Activision's not having a lot of fun signing new developers right now. Who would work with them?

THIS IS NOT THE END OF THE CONVERSATION. Merely the beginning. Designers: what have I missed? Publishers: what have I missed? Post your comments below. If you know me, send me an email or ping me on Twitter. I'll post an opposing view gladly.

As a publisher, you need to play a submission multiple times before offering feedback.
Publishers who play a game a single time and offer feedback are careless and lazy. A good board game has a mechanic that changes based on the cards dealt, or the players involved, or different strategies employed. By playing the game a single time, you are going to miss a key aspect of a game.

For example, Farmageddon is a game where a player's choices are determined by drawing cards. I took great pains, especially as I gathered feedback, to ensure a player wouldn't have a terrible experience in the majority of cases due to cards drawn. I say the majority because one can never fully control probability. And yet, it was always incredibly apparent when a publisher had only played once because they would give feedback that someone who played even twice wouldn't have given.

Play the game. Learn the rules. Learn the flow. See the variety.

The counter, of course, is that some games aren't worth a second play. This judgement will vary greatly from publisher to publisher. After all, preference is and should be a part of what makes us interesting creatures. If the game is sloppy, or broken, then sure, put it aside after a single play. But if the game mostly works and you just don't get it yet, or something seemed awry, play it a second time. You may find clarification. Furthermore, you'll have more to discuss with the designer when you send him or her feedback.

As a publisher, you owe it to the designer to maintain a reasonable level of correspondence.
This is a tricky one. The immediate response is "I got busy" or "unexpected things popped up." Life is tricky and we all get that. And if we don't, we're jerks.

But here's the thing. As a publisher, you're running a business. Designers are business partners. I've heard many of the new small, indie publishers thump their chests and boldly proclaim that they will be better than the Z-Mans and Rio Grandes because they'll be responsive. And yet months can go by without a single thought or reply to an email.

Writing a single email isn't that hard. Sometimes you're too busy to write the full email, or make the decision, but you can absolutely write an email that says "Hey, we're swamped. Sorry this is taking so long, but we'll need a few more days. Stay tuned." That's not too hard to do and if it is, you greatly need to re-examine your justification for calling yourself a publisher.

How are you going to be responsive to manufactures and distributors? What about customer complaints? If you want to make this your day job, how are you going to simultaneously launch several products with several designers, artists, and graphic designers?

Don't put us in the void and ignore us. We need you, but you also need us. It's about being reasonable and showing respect to others.

As a publisher, if you request a prototype from a designer, you owe it to them to play it in a reasonable time frame.
If a designer submits a game to you unsolicited, then you don't need to rush to play it. Get to it when your priorities allow and only if you accept submissions (of course). But, if you approach a designer and say "We are interested in your product. We would like you to send us a prototype." things immediately change.

I spent a lot of money sending prototypes to publishers who approached me with an interest in Farmageddon only to see my game sit idly for months. If you approach a designer and tell them you're interested, their game needs to become a priority.

If that's not possible, then you need to be up front about the conditions. Be clear on the rough timeline. Go over the process. Your time is valuable, but guess what? So is mine. And so is my money.

This also ties in greatly to the point just above regarding reasonable correspondence.

As a publisher, you need to be willing to hold a discussion about the feedback.
Design is a series of compromises and conversations. The publisher may ask for modifications to streamline the game, adjust it for a different audience or theme, or reduce components to mitigate costs. All of this is awesome and most often leads to a better game.

But, it needs to be a conversation. It is infuriating when the feedback conversation is one-sided. If a publisher expresses concerns, it is my responsibility to address them or add clarification if I desire to be published by the publisher. But, the publisher needs to listen in turn and not approach it as "my way or the highway." This is doubly infuriating when it's clear the publisher has only played the game once.

Here's an example. One publisher was convinced Farmageddon was inherently unbalanced and flawed by the first player's actions. I took this feedback into account and addressed it in several ways. After the second prototype, the publisher came back again with this feedback. I wrote 3 pages of analysis explaining why I believed the problem was addressed. Keep in mind I wasn't standing up shouting and saying "no no no!" I approached it as a point of discussion and tried to provide evidence to back up my point. Evidence backed by a great deal of playtesting. The publisher responded almost immediately with "Well, thanks. Maybe next time."

Both sides need to engage in reasonable discourse. If you're working with a child of a designer who cannot take feedback, then cut them off. But if the designer embraces the feedback and tries to initiate a conversation, then hold the conversation. You may find a better game emerges that neither of you could envision alone.

As a publisher, you owe it to a designer to give them a "No" when you've made a decision.
This is yet another byproduct of the reasonable correspondence note, but I think it deserves its own mention.

If you decide you don't want to publish the game or don't feel your feedback is being addressed, awesome. Take a minute and send the designer the official rejection. Your email can be as simple as the following:

Dear (designer name),

We appreciate your submission and unfortunately do not feel it's a good fit for (publisher name)  at this time. Thank you and best of luck.

(publisher representative)

You can use that template. On the house.

BONUS ROUND: If you want to guide novice designers to help them become good designers and therefore potential business partners, give them feedback. This is why we didn't publish your game: Points 1, 2, 3, and 4. Here are some suggestions on how to do this in the future.

I see this as a conversation. Designers and publishers should join. Have a good weekend!

February 29, 2012

Fifth Test for Abby

Testing Poor Abby has presented me with many lessons. Some I've learned, forgotten, and now must relearn, others I'm learning for the first time.

Make sure features present a clear value to the player
I keep trying to add another layer to the game for the sake of gameplay depth and differentiation. These layers keep failing. Last night's test revealed that the Jury Tampering ability was neat on the surface but was entirely irrelevant. Neither one of us used a single ability once for a few reasons.
  • The benefit for using the ability was always too subtle. It's key to make a feature's value to the player overt and mostly clear.
  • Using the abilities was too complex. There were 5 icons and they were easily forgotten. I can only imagine how difficult it is to learn a game like Race for the Galaxy which has far more icons.
  • The abilities didn't work within the flow of the game. I basically designed a benefit for permanent area control when control of a juror is often temporary or tenuous at best.
Card games need useful card
Another lesson, which I knew, but is always coming back to me, is that it's important in a card game to make every card valuable most of the time. Over its life cycle I cut and tweaked many cards from Farmageddon because their use was too limited or required too many pieces to come together. Last night playing Poor Abby, there were several cases where neither of us a.) wanted the cards present or b.) knew the value of the cards present. (Fun Fact: I designed the game and this was still a problem!)

We laid out all 60 cards and went through each of them.

What we discovered during the examination was that:
  • I had many sets of virtually identical cards. They either did the same thing (verbatim text) or essentially did the same thing.
  • Some of the mostly identical cards were clearly weaker than their nearly identical counterpart. Who would ever choose that one? And was the weaker aspect interesting? Often times, no.
  • Many of the cards didn't work with the flow of the game. It was fairly obvious when took a step back right after playing the game. And what I failed to see, my friend made painfully obvious with his comments. 
In a deckbuilder, someone is permanently (usually) adding a card to their deck. If it's going to ultimately make a deck less efficient (more cards reduce efficiency), the card needs to present a clear and useful value to the player and his strategy.

Imagine that?

Cumbersome Card Design
Another key concept is to be sure to not create cards that force the player to remember something throughout his turn.Here is a good and a bad example.

Bad: Play this card. If this condition is met during the turn, you can do this thing.

This is bad because the player actually doesn't do anything when the card is played. He must play the card, then track whether he does the thing or not. You never want the player to forget to take the action they've earned. Don't set them up to fail with cumbersome things.

Better: If this condition is met when this card is played, do this thing.

Now, the player knows to set up the condition before playing the card. 

In some cases it's relatively easy to reword the card or massage the design a bit to make it work nicely with the flow of the game. Other times, you must cut the card and move on.

Scoring versus deckbuilding? 
One other thing I noticed while playing last night is that there was an awkward choice between building your deck or scoring points. It wasn't a good choice or an interesting choice, but an awkward one. Currently, scoring and obtaining cards are built into a similar mechanic. This is largely good because the game is streamlined. But, it means players are often trying to score with a bad deck because they don't want to choose deckbuilding over a scoring opportunity. I have some ideas on how to resolve this.

Some Good News!
Fighting over jurors was fun. Removing prices streamlines the game and creates an interesting dynamic element. Increasing the basic value of Influence you must obtain makes it more valuable and makes the game more exciting as the Influence amounts escalate. Some of the cards did work and some interesting combos were pulled off. The game is getting easier to explain and makes more sense. Removing the dice seems to have been a good move.

Changes for Poor Abby
  • Remove Jury Tampering feature. Cut. Dead. Gone. Done
  • Streamline player turns from four steps to three:
    • Score
    • Play Cards
    • Discard and Draw
  • Deck has been refined down to about 40 cards. This doesn't seem like many, but this is a 2 player game and I can always add new ones. I feel the current 40 cards all add value.
  • Remove Argument cards from starting deck. They are now something you must acquire.
    • When do you want to acquire them?
    • Which ones do you wish to acquire?
  • Introduce the concept of game Rounds/Phases. There will be two. This is to address the buy versus score problem. This also returns to one of the earlier ideas I had for the game, but now with the current game's structure and format. 
    • The initial phase is about acquiring cards, i.e. thematically "building your case." This will focus on witnesses and gaining cards.
    • The second and final phase will be about delivering your arguments, scoring, and using the strategy you built in the first phase. Instead of witnesses, it'll focus on Jurors. 
    • Both phases will use similar game flows.
    • During the first phase, the Witness side of a card will be revealed. In the second phase, the cards will be flipped over to reveal the Juror side. 
  • I need to design something to make Jurors and Witnesses interesting and valuable. I strongly feel the game needs another layer. I just don't know what or how to do it. 
    • I think it needs to be something so simple it can be conveyed with an icon. Forcing players to read text on cards they want for their deck AND Jurors is too much. If players know the value of the object at a glance, that's good.
    • I think there need to be at most 2-3 Icons with abilities. There are only so many variables people are comfortable processing. I'm not building a 7 hour epic here. Also, keep in mind tht there are 5 Jurors out. 
  • I need to think about ways to improve the game's layout on the table.
    • One idea is to give the player a card to play to denote control over a juror. This eliminates the need to move cards around. I can just play a card with my color or symbol to denote "boom, I control this juror."
I need to think and design a bit before I'm ready to write and post new rules. If you have questions or thoughts on the test and changes please post them on Comments. Thanks!

February 25, 2012

A Big Shift for Abby

As I noted earlier this week, I've been trying some different and strange stuff with Poor Abby Farnsworth to make the game more fun, more streamlined, and more unique.

A good friend called me to discuss the game on Wednesday night. He played the prototype on Sunday that included my new custom dice idea and liked the game, but had some reservations. We talked for about an hour and at the end I had a few ideas that were fairly big departures from what I'd been doing currently:

  • No more dice, regular, custom, or otherwise. The dice weren't enough of a differentiating factor for the overall feel of the game and though they were working, they weren't really satisfying my core need. Removing dice also greatly reduces component costs.
  • No more score tracker. Score trackers are inherently fiddly. Now, score will be tallied with scored cards (like Farmageddon) and a few other easy elements. 
  • Jurors are the core of the experience. I added 3 more jurors for a grand total of six. But that's not all.
    • You must control a Juror to obtain Evidence cards. This creates a back and forth between players.
    • As a result, all evidence is now dynamically priced (somewhat) based on how much people want it and are willing to fight for it. If tuned and implemented properly, I think this will be a real innovation. 
    • Jurors have Jury Tampering abilities. Based on how the Juror cards are dealt each game, they can influence and modify adjacent jurors in a few ways. 
  • Court Actions were simplified. Now only the Judge and Witch have actions which are driven by Influence. 
I think this is a big step forward for the game. I plan to test it tomorrow afternoon.

Here are the rules with dice. Read these if you want a comparison.

Here are the new rules with dice removed. These are the current rules I'm testing.

As always, your thoughts are appreciated.

February 22, 2012

Quick Notes on Poor Abby

I'm really enjoying the development of Poor Abby Farnsworth. I feel that I'm coming up with far more good ideas than bad ones and my playtesters have been enthusiastic about the game. I keep finding good, solid ways to improve the game and it's overall been really enjoyable.

Things don't always go that way so I'm just really enjoying it. Frontier Scoundrels and Space Encounters were both huge struggles with no end in sight, so it's nice to see some positive rays. Dice, deckbuilding, witches...what's not to love (at some point)?

After my fourth test I think the game clearly works at a functional level. We played an entire game, the pacing was right, there were cool choices, a little strategy, it was fun. But it's not fun enough and it's not different enough. Remember that there are several outstanding games with deckbuilding: Dominion, Eminent Domain, Ascension, Quarriors, plus games like A Few Acres of Snow and the upcoming Princes of the Dragon Throne include DBG engines. Now that the structure and foundation of Poor Abby are strong, I'm going into fine tuning and skunk works mode. I'm just going to start trying crazy stuff to make the game incredibly unique and streamlined.

Here are some of the things I have or will be testing shortly:

  • Iconography and Layout. One of the problems of any deckbuilder is that a player must learn many cards on their first experience. This isn't fun and I'm trying to test and improve my layout and iconography to lessen the burden of the first play experience. I'm still using index cards and pencil scratches but even there it's possible to refine these things, which saves me time/money when I begin printing real prototypes.
  • Cutting Cards. After four plays and lots of design time I can already see the weaker cards. I removed 12 cards from the deck this morning and have about 5 or 6 more I think I can easily extricate. I don't want any fat or filler cards. I want everything to create interesting choices and if I can already see the card as boring, my players will too.
  • Custom Dice. I've been trying to lean more into the dice element of the game in good ways. I don't want the game to have some dice and also have some cards. Previously, there would be 3 Jurors in the game that, when controlled, would convey an ability. This meant you had to read more cards! Now, you trade in your regular d6 (which means you lose some flexibility) for a custom die based on the controlled Juror (which means you gain some abilities). After one test this made the game simpler and more fun!
    • I'll need to play around with this to ensure it's necessary. Custom dice are great, but they increase the cost of the game to develop.
  • Lawyer Abilities. A tester/good friend/published designer suggested I add Lawyer abilities. Basically, the prosecution player has an ability and the defense player has an ability. This will hopefully add a layer of strategy to the game, provide some asymmetrical gameplay and depth, and a little replayability. 
  • Court Events. I want to make the Witch Abby and Judge stronger characters for thematic and gameplay purposes. What if the witch lit somebody on fire in the middle of the trial? Or if the judge made some sort of sweeping declaration? I think I'm going to design some cards that emerge from the draw deck. They will create an opportunity to exploit that is available to both players. I'll have to see if I can make this work.
I'm not going to post an updated version of the rules just now (they might change in 20 minutes and I'm being a tinge lazy at this second), but I will soon. They read really cleanly and are now only 6 pages long (and that includes visual diagrams). 

I'm going to being the photoshop work for a better prototype layout this weekend. Hopefully that means in a few weeks I can send some folks early versions to test and help me improve.