October 1, 2011

Fixing the Trainwreck

Game design is a treacherous path of bad ideas, good ideas paired with bad ideas, and too many good ideas that form into a multi-headed bad idea that just won't go away. Games are one train wreck after another that just keep dog-piling into their predecessor, and just when you feel your playtesters are going to stab you for putting them on yet another no-fun high speed death trap of metaphorical proportions, someone has fun.

That is a magical moment, but for me and Frontier Scoundrels, we just encountered a massive fuel tank laden locomotive colliding with an 18 wheeler crap fest. We are so not there.

The original version of Frontier Scoundrels included a few mechanics I really liked:
  • Each turn there's a new Expedition Leader who gives Commands to the other players. Commands are cards that give these players abilities to help or hinder the Expedition Leader.
  • Dice rolling mechanic to solve Hardships along the way. The Expedition Leader and those given orders earn points if they win the Hardship. 
The original version was too light though and had no strategy to it. It was all tactics and there weren't enough interesting and long-term choices. 

The version of Frontier Scoundrels I tested yesterday included Hardships, the Expedition Leader, and Commands, but also a somewhat complex tile-laying mechanic to create the map, different properties for different tile types moving on the map, Native American War Parties that chase you, and Event cards players could use to mess with things.

Good Stuff
The players liked a few things:
  • The Expedition Leader concept was well received.
  • The Command cards were well received. This paired with the Expedition Leader was fairly unique and a fun choice.
  • People like the concept of exploration, just not at all, at all, how it was executed in the test build.
  • People like Lewis and Clark as a back drop.
  • People like rolling dice. To me this is one of those things that's just fun, so if I can find a way to make the choices surrounding the dice more interesting, then the sheer tactile joy of rolling dice, not to mention the fun balanced randomness can bring, will be solid editions.
  • I tried to make cards that have multiple uses, and people picked up on that slightly. One player used a card to bet against himself, so weather he won or lose, he'd earn some points. This is something several of the cards do in Farmageddon and I think it's one of that games stronger elements.
Interestingly enough, the ideas I've had the longest for this game, the ones that came to me almost immediately while brainstorming, are the strongest concepts. If I could only figure out a way to make them shine!

Bad Stuff
There were some overall terrible things happening. The order of play for the new rules is too confusing. In fact, until the fourth player took their turn, nobody realized  that you could earn points from traveling. This was one of the main things I added to the second version, so that was disheartening. Confusion was rampant and I should have known better. My original version had super clean turn order -- shame on me for modifying it to something that wasn't.

I had too many balances to stop the player, but not enough interesting ways for them to succeed. Mountains, Hardships, and the chasing War Parties were all put in to slow down an Expedition Leader and keep them from running away with a crazy score. Well, there were so many mountains, so many War Parties, and so many Hardships that the expedition barely traveled at all. The War Parties were so bad I just removed them from the game mid-test. 

The card balance wasn't working, which is a problem any time you have a drawing mechanic. People just might not get the cards no matter how well you balance them. One player never had a land card, despite them comprising the overwhelming majority of the deck. That player was bored stupid. 

Another problem is that sometimes not every player received a command, which meant they didn't help out in the Hardships. One player got left out twice, so he was far behind the rest of us. I hate games that let a player get way behind through no fault of their own so quickly. I also hate it when a player gets left-out. It's something I strive to avoid and didn't try hard enough.

Honestly, the majority of my problems were due to inelegant design, too much a focus on balance and not interesting choices, and too much crap thrown into the pot. 

Fix Stuff
Now, let's talk about the changes I'm going to make.

Reduce the dice of all players from 4 to 2 (or maybe 3). This will cut down on cost of goods and make each player more unique with their dice. With 4, people are too flexible. Dice will still be d4, d6, and d8. 

The game will still be 3-5 players. It will be playable in an hour or less.

The Expedition Leader will have 4 Command cards. Instead of it being a small deck, it will be the same four cards every time. The Expedition Leader will give Command cards to every player except 1 (In a 5 player game, 3 commands are given out. In a 4 player game, 2 commands are given out. Etc.). The left-out player will get a special card that grants them abilities. In a sense, you will have 2 competing factions each turn:

(Expedition Leader + Player 1/2/3) vs. Player 4

Players 1/2/3 will compete with one another for bonus points. Player 4 wants all of them to lose. And sometimes, Players 1/2/3 may want the Expedition Leader to lose to keep from getting ahead.  This setup will solve two problems: Now everyone gets to play, and the concept of begrudging cooperation, upon which this game was designed, is even strong. 

I have ideas for the Command cards, but I'm not 100% certain on what the Opposition player will be able to do. Perhaps he can place temporary war parties? Perhaps he can change the map? He will succeed when the rest fail, so he'll have to make cool choices to best maximize his chances.

Winning a Hardship will no longer grant the Expedition Leader a permanent benefit (and before it was a permanent punishment). The game won't be long enough to make this that useful. Furthermore, it adds one more thing to track and it's unnecessary.

I'm toying with the notion of players being able to take their points for succeeding, or drawing a card. The player who earns the Bonus could earn some points and draw a card.

Each Expedition Leader's turn will contain a few Hardships. How this works is unknown, but it'll be a combination of the Expedition Leader working with the players given Commands. However, the dice each player has will have a limited use of once per turn. The Expedition Leader will need to decide which dice to use when and how far to push. This adds a little more tactical richness to the dice rolling. It adds a little bit of push your luck (whereas before you always just kept rolling because it was just win or lose with no reason to stop). Limited use dice is used well in a lot of games, so I feel it's a solid addition.

The Expedition Leader will also need to roll dice. One of my biggest complaints throughout the game is that the dice weren't properly integrated into more components. The Expedition Leader will roll dice to move the expedition, again, with limited use. However, his dice can ALSO be used to modify the rolls of the commanded explorers during hardships. For example, if the Expedition Leader rolls a d8 for a 4, that divided by 2 is 2. So, 2 would be added to the dice rolled for the Hardship.

Don't worry -- to balance out some of these new choices, I'm greatly simplifying other ones. Few numbers and things to track. This should result in better choices.

Map and exploration will still exist, but I'm not sure how yet. One of my original game ideas was to have a phase in the beginning where everyone sets up the map before playing. But, making that many long-term choices isn't really meaningful. Plus, telling players to setup a map on their first game is a bit overwhelming. People who ignore their players' first experience are setting themselves up for failure! 

The map idea I tested yesterday involved a combo of players placing cards, then the Expedition Leader moving. That lead to a jarring play experience that wasn't smooth or elegant. What I'm currently thinking is that the Opposition player will have X Land cards and he will place a number of them less than the total. But, with that solution I worry the game will take forever. Too many opportunities for players to get caught up on choices.

1.) Expedition Leader gives out new Commands (decision paralysis opportunity!)
2.) Opposition player plays Land cards (decision paralysis opportunity!)
3.) Expedition moves and Expedition Leader and Players 1/2/3 play Hardship cards to fight (yep)

I'll need to think on this as I believe this is the hardest change to design. How do I add a core element that provides the experience of exploration, gives the opposition player interesting choices to make to hinder the expedition, and the expedition leader interesting choices to make to succeed? Oh, and be accessible and quick.

What will this be?
For the overwhelming majority of you who are probably quite lost on what the game was and what it will be, here's a quick summary to hopefully put all of this into perspective. The next iteration of Frontier Scoundrels aims to be...
  • 3-5 player game that plays in an hour or less and is based on Lewis and Clark
  • Each turn a new player is the Expedition Leader. The Expedition Leader gives Commands to the other players to best maximize his chances of success...but these Commands let those players hinder him as well.
  • One player will be left out of the Commands. This player will oppose and obstruct the Expedition. 
  • Dice will be used to determine the expedition's success against diplomatic and hostile hardships. The Expedition Leader will use dice to explore the map OR to bolster the forces under his command. 
  • Dice will be limited and failure can lead to punishments, so there will be a little push your luck.
  • Players will have a hand of cards to use to modify the outcome of the dice or mess with other players.

No comments: