August 14, 2011

Let's go Exploring: My new game at a high level

This is a long post about my new board game's mechanics. I may sell the rights to this post to Lifetime for a made for TV movie.

I've been finished with Farmageddon for a while now. I'm basically just doing my best to market the game and get it into the hands of bloggers and enthusiasts. There are two game design competitions approaching, one of which is hosted by The Game Crafter, but I've been too excited about my new non-competition game to really give these contest designs their due diligence.

My non-competition game is based on the Adventures of Lewis and Clark, two explorers sent by Thomas Jefferson to explore the western frontier, assert sovereignty over the native Americans, find vital scientific discoveries and trade routes, and generally accomplish much. I love history, so it's a natural fit for my personal interests.

I also think the setting is perfect for game mechanics:

  • As an expedition you must cooperate
  • There are many great antagonists, like grizzly bears, horrid weather, hostile natives
  • There are many potential supporting characters, like friendly natives and other explorers
  • It's a great time period, so you can always twist history to serve your needs
My goals for the project, which are philosophically important to me for most of my games, are:
  • Accessible mechanics: Non-gamers, families, 10 year olds, and hard core gamers can learn and enjoy the game.
  • Quick Play: The game needs to be under 60 minutes to setup and play the game. 
  • Humorous: If there is a way to add humor, it's key. It doesn't always have to be the art or  flavor text, like with Farmageddon. If you have a mechanic that gets people shouting, laughing, and excited, that's crucial!
My final desire was to make a more strategic game. Farmageddon is light strategy mixed with a heap of chance and table politics. I think this is fun, as do many people, but the game is inherently limited. I want this new game to be the type of game for which people may gather, not necessarily the game they play in between the big strategy games. That being said, this isn't Settlers of Catan. I am trying for more the Heroscape or Forbidden Island level of strategy.

I'm tentatively calling my new game Corps of Discovery, which is the organization President Jefferson created and appointed Captain Meriwether Lewis to head. I think the name is fun and true to events, but I worry it lacks punch. Do people hear that and think "I would like to know more?" 

I'm going to go over a few mechanics below:
  • How Expedition Leaders order other explorers around (Strategic choice)
  • How you resolve Hardships with dice (Tactical choice + variance)
  • Frontier Scoundrel cards (Strategic choice + wrench)
  • Orders from Jefferson (Long-term Strategic Choice)
The game features a concept I'm calling "begrudging cooperation." There are 12 turns in the game. Each turn, a new player is the Expedition Leader (it cycles around to all players). The Expedition Leader will face a Hardship that must be resolved, and to do so he or she must order their fellow explorers to assist. Resolving a Hardship means points for the Expedition Leader, but also those who assist. 

The Expedition Leader can also order someone to scout ahead and learn about future hardships as well as leave someone behind to resolve a hardship that was failed. All of these choices have implications on future turns. For example, if I as the Expedition Leader order player B to Scout to learn the next Hardship, I can't use them to resolve the Hardship during my turn. If I find that the next Hardship requires a certain skill-set that player C has, I may intentionally lose the hardship so that I can leave player C behind and therefore deny Player D, who is the next Expedition Leader, from using the player.

I realize this sounds nuts, but there are only a few players and only a few choices to make each turn. Plus, the choices must be made strictly in order, so you just go down the list and decide. Strategy with accessibility.

One thing I'll be keeping an eye on are new ways for the Expedition Leader to order other explorers around, but also ways for the Explorers to push back. 

Another element I'm excited about is how you actually resolve the Hardships. I read a review on Alien Frontiers that mentioned how it used dice, but did so in a non-frustrating, strategic fashion. I don't know how Alien Frontiers' dice mechanic actually works, but this pushed me to think of ways to do things with dice. I believe I've designed two interesting mechanics, one for each type of Hardship. I hope the mechanics lead to some light tactical choices with some variability. I know that dice can sometimes lead to intense frustration (see: Risk), but I believe I can make this fun. Plus, I believe that there is something inherently entertaining and tactile about rolling dice, which is precisely the type of thing upon which a good board game capitalizes. 

Meriwether Lewis
I love cards in games, especially cards that cause a little mayhem at the game table. This is why Farmageddon had Farmer cards. Vanguard: Rome has Command cards. Incursion has Battle Cards. This is a tricky mechanic  however, because if the cards are too powerful, they cheapen strategic choices. If you hand them out like candy, the game is about the cards. Corps of Discovery features cards called Frontier Scoundrel cards. I'm doing three things that I think will make them a great feature that livens up the game:
  1. Each player gets a set number (currently 5) at the beginning of the game. That's it. You  have your cards and you must choose when and how to use them. 
  2. You can only play one card per turn. There are 12 turns in the game, so you have to time it right. It limits how much havoc you can wreak in a single turn. At the same time, this ensures every player can participate in every turn of the game. This is really key to keeping players engaged and excited.
  3. The power of the cards are limited. Make them too subtle and they don't have a purpose, but make them world-ending demons and people get frustrated. Right now I'm trying to design each card to be a 5 to 7 on a scale of 10 in power/effectiveness. People will like using them, but they alone won't win the game.
One alternate idea I had for this was to give each player the same 5 cards. My knee jerk reaction to that idea was that it was too boring and consistent. If everyone has the same 5 cards, I'd worry that the cards would be played the same every in every game in the same spot. I'm hoping variety mixes things up in a good way.

Jefferson has a task for you.
The final game element I want to discuss is one that I may be most excited about (aside from the dice mechanic), but also most concerned. I have a concept called Orders from Jefferson. At the beginning of the game, each player receives one Order that they keep secret. This card has some form of long-term goal that, if accomplished, rewards the player with a lot of points. I created this mechanic because I wanted to have an item that each game pushes the player to think and play differently than their previous game. It's been hard coming up with good content for this, so we'll so how it evolves over the coming months.

I've been brainstorming and working on the mechanics for a month or so now. Every morning at the park I'm jotting notes on my iPhone. One idea I loved, but ultimately scrapped was having different terrain types (mountains/rivers/forests/plains) with different impacts. I also really liked the idea of making the board a dynamic, card-based creation. Every turn a player could play a new card, which would essentially be the expedition "exploring" that new space. I also thought it'd be cool to let players "redraw the map" (cartography!) and swap cards around. I still like the idea of those mechanics, so I may find a way to still use them in this game or another. 

Thoughts? Ideas? Thanks for reading. Here's a picture of my dog as a reward.


Daniel said...

*sigh* Should have had hexes.

Grant said...

@Daniel As much as I love hexes, the site where I publish my game doesn't currently have them. Also, I'm using just cards for the "board" to reduce the cost of the components.

But man, I want some hexes.

drktron said...

I really like this game concept (especially the bear attacks). Ill be following its progress closely. For the five cards what if you gave them a second function as aspects of your objective (or primary, secondary, etc.). So using them helps you out in the short term but their overuse hurts you longterm. Just a thought :)

-Bob said...

There's certainly a lot of ways a game like this could go, so I'll just throw out what comes to mind.

I imagine that all the players set out on the same expedition, but secretly each wants to claim the glory of the discovery for himself. Each "month" your main caravan of boats moves up the river one space and when it makes it to the pacific the game is over.

During each month, players can move out from the river and do actions which gain them reputation/credit/glory towards claiming victory. Discover river fork, plant flags ontop of mountains, find food, negotiate with tribes, etc. But by the end of each month your character needs to be back to the boat (aka you can only move/do so many actions per turn).

Some of the actions require more than one person to encourage cooperation and teaming up and each participant will be rewarded accordingly. Some actions require that the main caravan double back, others move it along faster. Some actions prevent the completion of others (fight indians means you can't trade with them later).

What you can do is partially determined by the action cards you have in your hand, and partly by your choice (each stop should have enough actions that there's never an obvious choice).


Grant said...

@drktron You mean somewhat like Fatigue in Pond Farr? That's an interesting thought...

Actually, I can maybe tie that into my Orders from Jefferson potentially?

Grant said...

@Bob I really like that and it's something I have on my mind already (though not quite the same way you're thinking). I want to broaden the powers of the Expedition Leader, so perhaps as you move forward, there are alternate paths you can take with potential upsides and downsides.

I think I want to start simpler with the prototype to make sure things like the dice rolling and what not work, but I would love to add something like that to enrich the overall meta game.

Actually...this just gave me an idea...

Matt Worden said...

I know that I briefly mentioned that I didn't like the name "Corps of Discovery" the other day at TGC chat ... but I think I know why it doesn't work for me: even though I'm saying "Corps", my brain is associating "Core", which makes me think of more of a abstracted, meta-game about discovering things ... and this game is much more specific around a historic act of exploration and discovery involving a specific place/time/people.

So, instead I think a title that invokes the setting more clearly (not sure how many people would hear "Corps of Discovery" and think Lewis & Clark).

A few examples:
- Exploring the West
- Westward Discovery
- From Here to the Pacific
- William & Merriweather
- Natives and Dysentery and Bears, oh my!
- Up the Missouri

Anyway ... there ya have my thoughts on the title. The items you talk about putting into the game sound really cool -- so, worth it to dwell on the name a bit. ;-)


Grant said...

@Matt Yes I saw that comment and I agree with you. I have started calling it Frontier Scoundrels. I think it is fun and also takes advantage of something in the game.

I like the dysentery idea, though...

Matt Worden said...

Yes: "Frontier Scoundrels" sounds very good. I'll put my title soapbox away now and pay more attention to the things going on in the game.

I suppose "Up the Missouri" wouldn't work because it would lead to players shouting "Yeah?! Well, up *your* Missouri!!" ... and we wouldn't want that, now would we. ;-)


Grant said...

Stop everything! My game is now "Up Your Missouri"