November 19, 2011

My Own Worst Fan: A Critical look at Frontier Scoundrels

Frontier Scoundrels has been in development since July and I think I've hit another key milestone, though it's not necessarily a good one. I've held a few complete start-to-finish playtests of the game, and while I think the game is finally mechanically sound, it's too complicated, ill-focused, and lacks the fun element it needs to have. I'm not sure I can fix the game in its current state.

The past 5 months haven't been wasted though; I know a great deal more about what works and what doesn't. More importantly, I know which of my core mechanics need to change, though that means I need to discard some of my original design focuses.

This will be a long post, so here's a quick table of contents to show you what to expect. Another thing to note is that I aim for this post to be useful as a design exercise for folks and it hopefully won't require prior knowledge of Frontier Scoundrels.

Table of Contents
  • The Current Frontier Scoundrels: Summary of the game flow with a link to the complete rules
  • Why It's Broken: A breakdown of what's wrong with the current game
  • Mulligan: Details on where I'm taking the game next, including a mind-map.
  • Thinking Time: Questions for which I need to find answers

The Current Frontier Scoundrels
If you want to know everything, you can read the rules for the current version of Frontier Scoundrels here. There are some issues, but I'm not going to spend time fixing the rules.

The goals of Frontier Scoundrels are as follows:
  • Create a game with something I call begrudging cooperation. Force players to work together in a an ultimately competitive environment.
  • Use a dice mechanic. Long before I played Alien Frontiers or knew how it played at all, I heard that the game did really cool stuff with dice. I literally decided to use dice because of this. Since then I've played Alien Frontiers, Elder Sign, and even Stone Age. It's been interesting to see where we came up with similar ideas, but ultimately, they came first, are super popular, and I need to be different.
  • Make a game based around Lewis and Clark's expedition across the frontier. I love history and I love the variety of hardships they faced, including terrain, weather, friendly and hostile native Americans, plus the fictional entities I've concocted
The game is designed for 3-5 players and is meant to be played at approximately 60 minutes, though getting that down to under and hour would be ideal.

Here is a typical turn for Frontier Scoundrels. A 5-player game would have anywhere from 5-10 turns.
  1. A player is designated the Expedition Leader. This happens automatically in clockwise order. 
  2. The Expedition Leader designates 3 players to be Explorers (i.e. allies). The remaining player is designated the War Party (i.e. foe).
  3. The Explorers each draw 3 Land cards. In clockwise order from the Expedition Leader, they each play 1 Land card. These take effect in order from first to last. 
    • Land cards typically provide an advantage to the playing Explorer, something bad for the Expedition Leader, or a way for the War Party and Explorer to benefit.
    • Remaining Land cards are discarded.
  4. The War Party player draws 4 Hardship cards. 1 Hardship card is played face-down on each Land. Hardships are broken into 3 types: Hostile, Diplomatic, and Blizzards. The first two variants do a slight variation on a simple dice mechanic. Blizzards act as Wildcards which are determined by the War Party.
    • Remaining Hardship is discarded.
  5. The first Hardship is revealed. The Explorer who played the Land must roll up to 3 dice (their choice) to help resolve the Hardship. Additional Explorers may roll up to 1 each. 
    • The Expedition Leader earns 2 points if resolved and doesn't roll dice. 
    • The Explorer who played the Land earns 1 point if resolved. 
    • The Explorer who earns a bonus (from the best roll) gets a choice of 2 points or a dice related reward (i.e. Add 1 die from the central pile).
    • War Party player earns points if the Hardship is failed.
    • Involved players may play Action cards to modify dice rolls to help or hinder the dice rollers.
    • Expedition Leader has two dice they can assign to Explorers. These not only help the Explorers succeed (which benefits Expedition Leader), but the Expedition Leader can subtly steer who wins the Bonus. 
    • War Party may use dice to Augment the Hardship and make it more difficult.
  6. If the Hardship is successfully resolved, the Expedition Leader may attempt the next one (up to 3 total). If it's failed, the War Party player earns points and the turn ends.
There are lots of details, but that's the gist. Again, the complete rules are linked at the top of this section. They include all Action and Land card content as well. 

Why It's Broken
Frontier Scoundrels suffers from a few problems. Some of them are so obvious that I'm really disappointed I've missed them thus far.
  • More conflict setup than conflict resolution
  • Too complicated
  • Not enough depth and choice
  • Too many player experiences
The focus of the game is entirely off; players spend the majority of each turn creating the Hardship, not exploring or resolving it. You don't watch a zombie movie where the protagonists spend the first hour deciding which shotgun to use. If the premise is being an explorer on this epic expedition, I need to let you live that fantasy. 

The game is too complicated and it lacks depth. That's pretty much the worst place to be if you ask me. My rules are currently huge at 13 pages. Granted, that explains a lot of content and provides tons of examples which hopefully reduce or eliminate player confusion, but still, that's about 5 pages more than I want to read as a player, so why would I inflict that on my players? 

Furthermore, the game isn't even that deep! The dice roll mechanic isn't much more interesting than Risk's and the choices players make playing the Land and Hardship cards aren't that great. Put simply, the game is over-designed and it isn't fun enough. Nobody wants to pay $20 for a bag of skittles.

My current cards have too much text. I honestly think many of these cards can be represented with iconography, but I don't know if I can make it as clean as Alien Frontiers, Pandemic, or Elder Sign. Well, that's the competition, so I need to. 

To supplement that last problem, there are too many cards that modify other cards. When you combine the amount of information players need to process, it leads players to a point where they think "gah!" and just throw a card from their hand. 

Another issue is that my game has the same problem I find with Madden on game consoles. In Madden, players must learn slightly or completely different control schemes when they are controlling the quarter back, selecting plays, playing the running back, kicking, playing a linebacker, etc. It's absurdly overwhelming. I have a similar problem in Frontier Scoundrels; players must learn to play cards as Explorers, a War Party, or the Expedition Leader. 

Finally, there's no meta-choice in how to win. Every player does the same thing every turn. It's like a corridor shooter on a game console, but here you don't even get the joy of shotgunning an alien on your conveyor belt experience.

I spent approximately 6 hours last Saturday working on a new, re-envisioned Frontier Scoundrels. I'm not completely blind and I knew the current Frontier Scoundrels needed more than a tuning fix. 

I focused my ideas into a mind-map of sorts, which I created using Google Drawings. You can see my brainstorm here. Note that this is a brainstorm and that it has evolved in the week since I created it, partially from me thinking about it, but also as a direct result of Thursday's playtest. In fact, it's evolved to this napkin drawing.

The new direction is inspired by storytelling, particularly Dixit and a hint of Dungeons and Dragons. I'm a little fascinated at the notion of bringing more story into a game without making it a story game. This is something Daniel Solis does. I must admit I don't like story enough to make it a primary component of a game, but I think a dash of it helps. 

I've recently played a few Euros and I really like the broad range of strategies players may employ towards victory. They are also very elegantly designed, though they tend to take too long to play. 

Here's my current thoughts for the game. I'll begin drafting the rules as soon as I hit publish on this post.
  • 2-5 players
  • 30-45 minute play time
  • There are 4 Storytelling decks, each with 10 cards. Where, Who, How, and Hardship. These cards will be drawn and played -- no complex player driven process.
    • The four cards combined form a scenario that must be resolved by the players. They tell the story and create the gameplay. 
    • The hope is that these 40 cards can be properly mix and matched to create a highly-replayable experience.
    • Each card has a challenge or opportunities for player input, as well as varied rewards and outputs.
    • Some cards will require players to work cooperatively
    • Players will be able to assign dice to hinder others
  • Each player is given an explorer card with a unique ability. I am doing this to give each player a way to be different and develop a strategy against others.
  • Players will have three resources to obtain and manage: Dice, Points, and Action tokens
    • Points needed to win
    • Dice rolled and assigned to the 4 Storytelling cards to complete tasks. 
    • Action tokens spent in conjunction with dice to complete tasks, but also to "break" the game and do things like re-roll dice, hinder opponents, and more. 
  • Players will roll their dice, then go around in order assigning one die. Repeat until all die are played or players are finished.
  • One player is, or can be, the Expedition Leader
Thinking Time
I desperately need to avoid being just a competitive Elder Sign. I need to NOT recycle Alien Frontiers dice mechanics. How do I stand out?

I need to figure out which player abilities will be interesting, broadly applied, and balanced. Or, reasonably and equally imbalanced?

How do I create a deep experience that can be communicated with icons and simple symbols? How do I add enough variety with the storytelling cards to make the game highly replayable?

How do I incorporate the Expedition Leader? I don't think it can exist like it does in its current state. But, I think the game needs a global modifier that tweaks everything. I thought Notre Dame did a good job of this with the 3 cards drawn each turn. Not sure what they are called...the ones that dictate the strength of the plague. The roles you may hire. Elder Sign does this each round of the clock with the "hey, this thing happens at Midnight" card. Again...the name escapes me. Could the Expedition Leader be this external modifier? Something players buy to take hold of, or earn?

It's time to write the rules. This will allow me to get far enough into the flow to know what type of content is required. I can then design some of the content, a vertical slice, so that I can then complete the rules.

Game design is hard. I'm envious of those who are better at it than I am! I appreciate any comments or thoughts you may have.

Did you actually make it to the end? Wow. I'm shocked. Here's your reward.

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