Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Administrative Stuff: A Podcast featuring me...

I made a podcast, it's about games, and stuff.  Download it here

It's still untitled at this point, and since it's the first one, there's definitely a lot of uneven spots.  Please send in comments and suggestions, and we'll see what we can do next time.

Administrative Stuff: Backlogged Post? To post or not to post?

Quick question: I've got quite a few drafts that were never completed (Quick impressions of games from last year, of games that I've completed already). Is there any interest in me actually posting any of them?

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Analog Games: Rapid Prototyping at BoardGameJam (The PostMortem)

Personally, there's quiet a few interesting post mortem notes that I think is worthwhile to share:

The Good:

  • Splitting off to work on an isolated idea - As selfish as it sounds, boardgame mechanics are so closely tied together and condense that having too many cooks in the kitchen can spoil the broth. Somewhere in the middle of the development process, it seems to me that having a more singular voice in the direction seemed to work well.
  • Having a group of people to quickly bounce ideas off of - In contrast to the point above, it was just as important to be able to bounce ideas quickly off someone at any given point: The fuel mechanic and the grid size were definitely solutions I would not have landed on in the first try.
  • Test, test, test... - I was budgeting the entire Sunday for testing, and while that fell a bit short, I was still able to get more than two rounds of testing in, which help kick out some of the more obvious problems in the first go.

The Bad:

  • Time crunch - Not knowing the exact amount of time I had to work on the game was a major downside.  On both days, instead of the planned closing time, the buildings would close before hand, and making my initial planned schedule "pretty off".
  • Not fluent in boardgame design language - While I've played my share of boardgames now, it really still feels like I'm barely scraping the surface of what's out there.  It's that much harder to explore a certain playstyle or genre if I've only seen the best two games that represents the genre.

The Ugly:

  • Euro-style games are hard in a jam - These games are hard to demo, hard to play within a 15 minute session, and even harder to make/balance in a matter of two days.  I'm not saying I'm going to stay away from this style of game next time, but yeah.  It's hard.

So yeah, that's a wrap for boardgames for now.  Maybe I'll be back next year with a more polished game.  Thanks to Michael, Doug, Duy, Jason and Jon for that weekend of panic-y fun. For more info, check out

Friday, March 15, 2013

Analog Games: Rapid Prototyping at BoardGameJam (Part 2)

(This is a continuation of the last post about rapid prototyping a board game at Boardgame Jam last week, you can find that post here)

At the start of day two, I had pre-defined a few more additional stats and base game structure: Each player will start the first round with one food truck in hand (the first four food trucks are equal), in order to prevent initial game starvation for players who didn't bid.

The first playtest

After constructing all the parts needed (food and people tokens) it was off to the races.  We quickly discovered the first stumble block merely by just explaining the basic rules:

  • When moving, you must choose a position of a street, but then the cost of relocating on the same street is unfairly high
  • Since moves cost 1AP, what happens if you move to a street that is filled with cars?  Is that 2AP? Do you execute both AP immediately?
  • Can you bid for more than one food truck within a round?

These weren't exactly showstopper problems, so I gave a quick bandaid fix (yes but no fix, ignore the case for now, yes) and reconsider it for the next playtest.  But within two full rounds, we had to stop the game because of numerous issues that had popped up:

  • Limiting only two food trucks to be bidded up on turned to be a very limited tool.  The initial intent of this limit was to drive up scarcity for trucks and cause players to compete in bidding.  However, it ended up being a high stakes scenario that quickly spirals out of control (as noted later)
  • Allow a player to buy up both trucks available within a round, when combined with the limitation of only two trucks, served to widen the rich/poor gap in the game. Since the number of trucks represents the number of actions, the more trucks a player has, the more actions they can make at a given turn.
  • Since movement and serving food both cost 1AP, it was strategically beneficial to idle certain trucks who are controlling a sparsely populated area.  This resulted in the richer players (once with more AP) to spend movement tokens, whereas others were left waiting, further widening the gap
  • The Dice Roll mechanic used to spawn customer location (2 sets of D4 rolls, and computing which coordinate needed the spawning) slowed the game down dramatically during each round.  The setup was fairly slow (and would only get worst as more people are spawned on later rounds)

Back to the drawing board...

With the first playtest completed, it's time to address the problems with different solutions:
  • Spawning customer was needlessly complicated by dice roll/coordinate matching.  One quick solution that was suggested was to replace it with a small deck of 16 cards, shuffled every round. This gave the intended randomness, but without the long wait and needless calculations.
  • Increase the limit of food trucks in bidding phase to four, and restrict only one bid per turn.  I had shied away from these two rules on bidding because they seemed to be aping the template set by PowerGrid (you'll see this becoming a recurring theme), but it was pretty evident that they were in place as a way to "rubber band" progression.
  • Create "fuel token" resource - Just like food tokens, a consumable resource that players must buy and have in inventory before using.  This would then be used to layer on top of the action phase, but instead of 1 AP dictating 1 unit of movement, fuel determines how far a player can go within 1AP.   Movement, therefor is now a function of money and action (in contrast to just action before).  This new feature also fixes the problem with area control in the first revision (moving from one position to another on the same street remained unchanged)
The second playtest

With these rules in place, I had around half an hour to run through a second set (it was a tight schedule).      Once again, we stopped within two rounds, with the following observations:
  • Using a card deck to generate the spawning position was a drastic improvement in speeding up setup time.
  • Fuel token solved overlapping issue, but the cost associated was high enough that it prevented people from moving
  • Having more trucks available definitely let more people buy trucks, but...

  • ...since the food truck deck was totally random, it was still boiling down to who's got more money: the person in the lead can expand the fastest and use their biggest truck to grow their resources faster
  • the turn order made it too powerful for the leader in a given round: they get first rights to bid, placement, and movement.  
  • Linearly scaling the amount of actions per truck still means that the more trucks you have, the more powerful you become
  • The cost of the food truck purchases and how many people it served were irrelevant: how much each truck paid out heavily influenced each players' purchasing power.
  • Since everyone could have had different action counts, it was hard to keep track

Unfortunately, that was all the time we really had, so that was the end of development.

Lessons learned

I think it was interesting that I was able to distill the main problem down to just rubber banding within two playtests.  I knew from the beginning that the numbers were going to be problematic to balance (and at the current state, none of the cost were actually balanced and some were using my first draft of data).  One regret I had was dialling too many knobs between individual rounds: by changing 3 or more variables, it's hard to tell which was the one that really made the most impact.

One nagging concern I had during the entire development process was thinking of ways to distance myself from mechanics found in PowerGrid (and defaulting to their way of approaching how to balance a game).  It's really interesting to have tried out different ways, and seeing why it doesn't work, and why PowerGrid chose it's numbers and methods to balance the game out.  Right now, I have a list of other things that I would like to try next, and since I'm no longer working under a 48 hour deadline, I'll probably take them slowly:

  • Play around with reversing turn order
  • Some sort of ranking system (and not use the simple "everyone get's a turn")
  • a pseudo-sorted system of trucks
  • Multiple food types with differnet cost
  • Max limit on carrying food/fuel on each truck
  • Implementing action tokens to denote turns
  • Get away from linearly scaling action points per truck
  • etc...

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Analog Games: Rapid Prototyping at BoardGameJam (Part 1)

Last week me and a group of friends attended the 3rd annual BoardGame Jam here in Toronto.  I was interested in doing this 48hr jam because it could have been a good way to learn the process of developing an idea.  I've been working on a boardgame idea for a while now, but have been bogged down by all sorts of random delays, content production, and general "learning curve".  With that in mind, the key goals were:
  1. Make a game from scratch (or as close to scratch as possible) from start to finish (as in ready for playable)
  2. Try out a new idea/mechanic that I haven't written a doc about before (or thought about extensively)
  3. Go through at least one loop of play testing, seeing the feedback process, and iterate on it.

Picking the theme/mechanic:

So part of the entire pre-planning process was me talking to the group and thinking about what we want to do for the jam.  More specifically, I had been thinking about how would one actually come up with an idea.  Personally, I am really a mechanics kind of designer, and instinctively I was thinking about what kind of mechanics I wanted to work on.  

For a while, I had been saying I wanted work on something that uses worker/placement rulesets, but I had really struggled with coming up with a compelling theme/idea to use it.  I think partially, I attribute this to the lack of exposure to the genre outside of the few games I've played.  (And more importantly, thematically, most of them dealt with resources and farming).

So, a few of them ended up suggesting the idea of... "Pimps and Hos".  Yeah.  I'll leave it at that... 

...but, mechanically, it was sound.  A quick re-themeing, and a Food Truck game was born:

The theme/mechanic is quite simple: You run a fleet of food trucks, you serve customers on city blocks, you compete for profit.  That's practically the elevator pitch...

...only problem is that it's not actually a worker/placement game at all!  It's an area control game, with other undetermined game mechanics for other components.

There's a valuable lesson here for me: unlike video games, approaching mechanics -> theme doesn't exactly work; you do want to approach from a theme angle and see where the mechanics organically takes you.

Begin Construction:

I was pretty interested in doing an area control game, as the recent play throughs of both Zombicide and RoboRally had me thinking about the mechanics and concepts with re-configurable maps, so designing a food truck game with this mechanic was a natural fit.

I had decided early on that this would have been multi-configerable tile based experience, but defining how many tiles makes up a map, how the roads would be configured was a much harder challenge.  A few things to keep in mind:
  • Tiles needs to connect "most" of the time (repeatable)
  • Has varied patterns
  • Has patterns to allow "rule based" content generation
The last point is pretty awkwardly written, but in plain english: I need a setup that allows me to "make a map playable" with clean rules that govern "the generation of content and conflict".  In map based game, you see Zombicide's definition of zombie spawn zones and movement heuristic.  Intuitively, I went with a 2x2 road configuration grid per tile, which gave me 4 "corners" (you could use a d8 to determine randomness), and a 4x4 tile size to make the entire map.  4x4 map was quickly scaled down to 3x3, then to 2x2 just because it was a)way too big, and b)too much stuff for me to make.  Road shapes were randomly designed on paper, as was the tile configeration.

One of the key conflicts I was hoping to create in the game was the idea of competing food trucks within the same street/corner.  Multiple players would compete for the same space, so it becomes a competition to see who was there first/faster/better.  The difficulty would have been to define where/how people were spawned, and what how adjacency works as far as "serving people food".

Using the 2x2 road configuration, the food trucks would be positioned on the roads.  Each road would always be connected to an "intersection" where people would be spawned.  Food trucks must be adjacent to the street corner where they served food.  Therefore, people can be generated by a series of d8 rolls that determines which intersection to be spawned at.

Designing individual steps:

Sadly, this is where a time crunch really hurts the "design" process, as I started grabbing quick standby mechanics and ideas from games I'm familiar with, and most notably, Power Grid.  I pretty much lifted the key mechanics, but attempted a different approach on the numbers and ordering.  Trucks were first bought with a bidding process, each truck would have a cost value (which is a strength index value), a "serves" value, and a "revenue" value.  A food resource must be purchased (a constant cost) in order to sell food to people.  Ranking is dropped in favour of a turn order token, and turns are assigned in a clockwise ordering.  Action Points are used in the initiative phase to allow each players various actions in their own turn order, and the turn order within the initiative phase switches between in order and reverse order (a-la Catan rules) to balance out turn advantage.

By adopting a turn counter to limit the game to 12 rounds, I also ended up adopting a chart that dictates how many people are spawned per round, and on how many corners they spawned out of.  This "random additional spawning" is on top of the normal spawning of 1 person per street corner.

In Part 2, I'll go through in detail how the game plays at first iteration (as I'm sure this all doesn't make much sense), and the process of playtest/tweaking... Below is the scratch notes I had at the end of first day (not sure if it's of any interest)

Scratch Design Doc (Day 1):

Food Truck Game

4 players
Random Generated Map Tiles
2x2 grid
each grid has 4 corners
30 food truck cards - shuffle at start

Total of 12 "rounds"
Win condition: at the end of 12th round, most money wins. If tie, most food trucks wins. If tie, food trucks that can serve the most people wins. If tie, all winners.

map features:
trucks must be on streets
people are spawned in corners
each street segment holds 4 trucks
trucks can serve the intersection they are adjacent to (maximum 8 cars faces any intersection)

Init first loop-
Everyone starts with $40
Every Street Corner will have 1 person
Players deploy Trucks in reverse turn order (Turn order determined by last person to recently eat out of a food truck) Give first player Turn Token
game goes as normal game loop

Spawn customers
all street corner corner will generate 1 customer by default, additional done by rolling D8, which determines the tile (row,column), then rolling D8 again to determine street corner on tile (row,column)  Reference the spawn number to add people to that location

spawn more sets based on chart below, place additional people:

Turn 1 2 3 4 5 6
Spawn Type 1,1,1,1 1,1,1,2 1,1,2,2 1,1,2,3 1,2,3,4 2,3,3,4

Turn 7 8 9 10 11 12
Spawn Type 1,2,3,4,

Spawn # 1 2 3 4 5 6
# of People 2 4 6 8 10 12

Bid on Trucks
- Two trucks are revealed. Players can bid in turn order. Bid on value of card displayed. Highest bidder wins.
- Cards are not replaced, so only two trucks are ever available in any turn.
- Players can pass on turn
- if all cards are gone, bidding ends
- if a card remains once all players have passed/cards are placed in discard pile

Buy Food:
Food has a flat cost of $2 per unit. You can store as many as you want. There is no limit on resource board. Each truck will generate one food for free

Initiative turn:
Each player has 2 +(# of food trucks) action points, they can (all cost 1AP):
- Deploy trucks
- Move trucks
- Serve customers in that corner
Players execute this in turn order, then in reverse turn order... until everyone is out of action points. (IE: 1,2,3,4,4,3,2,1,1,2...etc)

(IE: Peter has 4 food trucks, so he has 6 action points to spend)

- Deploy - If you have bought a truck in this turn (or haven't deployed one), you can deploy it on any street.
- Move Trucks - You can move a truck to an adjacent street (as denoted by roads). Each movement cost 1AP
- Serve customers - Point to the food truck you are serving food out of, exchange food token, remove the appropriate amount of people in that corner, and receive payment as indicated on food truck income value.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Administrative Stuff: Analog Games - A Game Designer Look at Boardgames

In the last two years or so, I've begun playing quite a lot of boardgames with a few different groups.  Naturally, this also created a lot of interest in how boardgames are designed, what mechanics are, etc.  I've started working on a few ideas (and all of them taking far too long to make).  However, since I'm really just making these games for fun, I might as well share my work ideas and thought process through anything I'm working on right now.  You can find these articles under the label: Analog Games.