November 26, 2011

The Dustbowl Fracas

It's my goal to find a publisher for Farmageddon. The path towards this goal includes a lot of rejection, though oftentimes that's paired with feedback. Some I take, some I ignore. Most of the feedback I ignore is that which pushes Farmageddon outside of the realm of a casual game and towards something more hardcore. It's not that Farmageddon can't be that, it's just it wasn't designed to do that, plus I feel that direction requires more than a tweak, but an overhaul.

Well, I spent yesterday doing one such overhaul. I spent an hour scribbling notes on my notebook at a coffee shop, then several hours at home drafting the rules and refining the content.

I'm not abandoning Farmageddon, because I think over time it's evolved into a solid casual card game. I believe in my derpy corn. But, there's room for a second entry into the Farmageddon family. I've been working on the game for a year now and that familiarity allowed me to create something new really quickly. That new thing is Dustbowl Fracas.

Before I go into the explanation of the new game, here are the rules for Farmageddon. Here are the rules for Dustbowl Fracas. If you're familiar with the original Farmageddon I think the new game will be both more familiar and more interesting. They are cousins.

Dustbowl Fracas is a deckbuilding game for 2 to 4 players. It includes some of the content and core elements of Farmageddon, but tweaks almost everything in order to serve its new purpose.

Each player will take the same four steps on their turn. Let's discuss these steps.

Everything else will be framed by this, so it only makes sense to discuss this first.

  1. Action (Optional): Players may play one red Action Card. You'll note that by default, players may only play one Action Card instead of two in Farmageddon.
  2. Farm (Required): Players may Plant, Fertilize, and Harvest Crops. Note that I changed Compost to Fertilize for agricultural accuracy.
  3. Purchase (Optional): Players may Purchase or Score.
  4. Discard and Draw. Like Eminent Domain, players may choose which cards to discard, if any. They then draw back to a hand of five cards.

I think this is pretty straightforward. It adds a little rigidity that Farmageddon lacked, which I think is ultimately better for this type of game.

There are three types of cards: Crop, Action (previously Farmer Cards), and Farm Building. Let's go through each card type.

The four Crops from the original Farmageddon are back, though now each one of them brings with it a special property to liven up the game and modify your choices. For example, Sassy Wheat can be harvested on the same turn it's planted, though if harvested in this way the money earned can only be used to buy new cards, not Score (more on this later). Grumpy Melon can be planted on top of some Crop cards, which destroys those cards. To balance this out, Grumpy Melon now costs more to Harvest.

Some of the Action Cards from Farmageddon  have returned, like Bumper Crop and Farm Futures. However, almost all of them have been modified to work with the new game. Some of my old favorites, like Foreclosure, have been removed to keep the game focused and clean. I couldn't quite figure out how to get Foreclosure into the new game without being insanely overpowered, so for now it's shelved. I've also added a few new cards, like Irrigation and Shared Harvest. Note that all of the card content is explained in the rules linked above.

The Farm Building cards are something I've wanted to add to Farmageddon for a while. They are permanent structures that augment the rules. For example, Farm Co-op allows you to play an additional Action Card and Rented Land, which was previously an Action Card, now gives you a permanent, private Planting Field to use. One thing I really like about both Ascension and Eminent Domain is that they add permanent cards like Constructs and Planets that last between turns.

Dustbowl Fracas has similarities to other deckbuilding games regarding how cards are arranged for purchase. Let's go through that. 

The four Crop Card types are arranged in four individual decks, as are the four Farm Building cards. The Action Cards are different. Taking a note from both Ascension and Alien Frontiers, the top three Action cards will be drawn from the deck and will be available for purchase. As these cards are purchased, a new one is drawn. I love how this adds variety to both Ascension and Alien Frontiers. Players must modify their strategy based on what's available NOW.

Here's a quick diagram that should give you a feel for what the board looks like when setup initially:

The four green cards are the Crop cards. The yellow cards adjacent to them are the Farm Building cards. The grey rectangle with 3 red cards below them is the Action deck and cards. The four brown cards are the default Planting Fields (if you're familiar with Farmageddon, you'll notice I added 1 Planting Field). Finally, the blue card with the arrow is Crop Rotation, which I'll explain now.

In Farmageddon and Dustbowl Fracas, players must plant Crops and wait until they make it around the table before they can be harvested. In Farmageddon, Crop Rotation is a very popular Action Card that reverses the order of play. It didn't seem right to have it be a card available for purchase in Dustbowl Fracas. However, I thought it would be interesting as a permanent board element. On turns when you have additional money to spend but don't want to buy another card, or you want to mess with an opponent, players can spend money to reverse the order of play. The card is then flipped to indicate which way play is going. 

Will this work? Will it be fun? I'm not sure, but it's an element I really enjoy from Farmageddon and it seems like it could be an interesting and subtle card to use in Dustbowl Fracas.

How do I buy cards? And how do I score points? Let's go over that.

In Farmageddon, when you harvest a Crop, you place them in your Harvest Pile. When the game ends (crop deck is empty), the player with the most valuable Harvest Pile wins. In Dustbowl Fracas, you now have two choices with a Crop when it is Harvested: Purchase or Score.

Every Crop has a value, for example, the most valuable is Wary Squash at $15. When I harvest a Wary Squash, I can purchase up to $15 worth of available Crop, Farm Building, and Action Cards. Or, I can use Crop Rotation to change the order of play.

I can also Score the Wary Squash in this example for $15 (or 15 points). However, if I score the Squash, it's placed in a Harvest Pile and removed from play/my deck. I can't use it anymore.

Players can only make a Purchase OR Score on their turn. They cannot do both.

Why should you care about this when you can already play Dominion, Eminent Domain, and Ascension (the three deckbuilders I own, play, and am familiar with). Let's go over that!

For one, Dustbowl Fracas takes a lot of the balanced take-that gameplay found in Farmageddon. So many deckbuilding games are "multiplayer solitaire," the "go in that corner and build your engine and let's compare" type experience.

Dustbowl Fracas lets you disrupt your opponents with Action Cards and Crops, fight over shared Planting Fields (which are limited), and even includes some cooperative farming elements where the two of you go in on something together. It also includes the more subtler interaction of other deckbuilders where, by taking something, you prevent your opponent from having it.

Fans of Farmageddon will find a more grown up game, where instead of choosing how to best use the cards you draw, you choose which cards AND how to use them. I think that's the best part of a deckbuilding game and I am fully trying to embrace it here. Do you focus on crops early? Which ones? Is there an Action card that you think is killer? Will the Farm Building give you that long-term edge to justify its cost?

I'm still a huge fan of the theme. There's something rich about farming and it's not really a saturated theme. I think farming is accepted by a wide range of people and works for younger children (though I'm not sure this game's mechanics will). Plus, there are already people doing sci-fi and fantasy and zombies so incredibly well -- I don't need to join the party.

What's next for the Fracas? I'm glad you (didn't) asked!

I have enough copies of Farmageddon lying around that I can quickly build a rough and dirty prototype. I need to do initial price tuning for all the cards. I plan to playtest the game this week to see if the idea is worthwhile or just a really bad "port" of a much simpler card game. My friends and I have played a LOT of Ascension, Dominion: Intrigue, and Eminent Domain, so I think we have a good grasp on what makes a good deckbuilder. That doesn't mean I know how to design one, but I can at least identify a stinker rather quickly.

I'm excited about this test. I've spent a year working on Farmageddon. I know the game so well and I'd like to think I can apply this familiarity to something special. Or, did I spend a day on the worst idea ever? There's only one way to find out!

Your thoughts are appreciated, as always.


Chris K. said...

I'm in for a penny on this one. If you can successfully weave Farmageddon's sensibilities into an interactive deckbuilder, you'll have a solid basis for a hit. Looking forward to seeing more design notes as you playtest.

Phil Kilcrease said...

Dustbowl Fracas looks interesting. The 'weeding out' mechanic of scoring sounds great; deck streamlining needs to be in more DBGs. Mark me down for 'Keep me posted'. : ]

How many action card types are there? And how many other buildings and crops do you have in your notes?

And, now that I've finally read the rules for Farmageddon, I needs to play it.


Grant said...

Hi Phil --

In Dustbowl Fracas there are currently 11 types of Action cards. I think I have a lot of solid cards for Scoring/Purchasing combos. However, I think there is a deficiency in both offensive and defensive cards. To truly make this work as a dbg, I think I need to up the strategy and give players some combos for this. I'll be pondering these through playtesting.

There are 4 Crop types, identical to Farmageddon. Each one requires different amounts of fertilizer, pays out more, and has a unique ability.

There are 4 Building Types.

Van Ryder Games said...

I worry a little bit about the outcome of the game (mostly in a 4 player game) being potentially decided by "crop rotations by default" In other words, if players have nothing left to spend on so they just switch the direction. Being on the wrong end of these can lead to a player having a number of turns less than his opponents.

it should be noted reversing play is pointless in a two player game. Organized Chaos actually has a Reverse Card, but I added another concurrent ability to give it at least a little value in a 2-player (and up) game. Basically, you reverse play AND may not be the target of any cards until your next turn. This can be strategic and powerful in some situations. Have you thought about sort of an added effect to rotation?

Grant said...

AJ: I appreciate your input and agree with a lot of what you wrote. I knew Crop Rotation couldn't be extricated verbatim from the original, but it has always been a powerful and highly entertaining card for my players so I wanted to see what I could do.

Currently it is too cheap to manipulate - a purely price tweak could fix it. Maybe it needs more. I need to test it to figure out how to fix it, but I don't see it as sacred and I'll throw it away if need be.

For two player, crop rotation skips the other player's turn, which isn't useless. But, I am not bringing that feature over from Farmageddon. This may be a 3+ player only feature. That alone may kill it.