Adam Atomic's blog
Another Day, Another Card Game Prototype: Mustache Tycoon
Whilst Skyping with Mr. Hedborg on I think Tuesday, we jokingly happened upon a card game idea which would revolve around growing progressively more powerful and more specialized mustaches. Naturally, I wrote up a ruleset and made a prototype deck as quick as I could, and I’m actually kind of excited about it now. The game, called Mustache Tycoon for now, features 12 different mustaches, including the Hipster, the Handlebar, the Pancho Villa, and the Fu Manchu. It’s silly, but I think there’s a decent system beneath it too, which is always nice. I wanted to share one specific thing I did that I’m happy with in the design, and also one general lesson that I hope to apply to future designs.
Obviously, beyond their inherent ability to render you a more productive and/or more attractive human being, maybe the most important part of a mustache is the fact that you have to grow it. You can’t just suddenly HAVE a mustache (usually). It’s a premeditated act; proof of its own existence and the wearer’s patience and dedication. I wanted to make sure this made it into the game somehow, so I ended up dividing mustaches into three separate tiers. The Level 1 Mustaches include the Hipster, the Pencil, the Toothbrush, and the Two Piece. Level 2 Mustaches include the Imperial, the Hungarian, the Natural, and the Chevron (think Magnum PI). Finally, at Level 3 we have advanced mustaches like the Walrus, the Fu Manchu, the Pancho Villa, and the Handlebar.
In Mustache Tycoon, you have to plan your moves ahead of time, similar to maybe Bang! or Castle Panic, and there are limits to how quickly you can transition between mustaches. Any lateral or upward movement (e.g. Level 1 to Level 2, or Level 3 to a different Level 3) takes a full turn. You have to lay down the mustache you’re planning to grow, and you can’t reveal it until next turn. Players cannot grow a Level 3 mustache from a Level 1 mustache, but must first grow an intermediate Level 2 mustache. Finally, players can shave for free, and drop from a Level 3 mustache to a Level 2 mustache in order to take advantage of specific strengths and opportunities.
I’m really excited to test this out, as I think it adds a nice strategic element that is very much in keeping with the fiction or scenario of mustache growing.
The more general lesson that I took away from this prototype is a really big deal for me. While I “designed” board games when I was much younger, most of my adult (as it were) life has been spent designing video games, where you can kind of do anything. Variables can be stored as massive floating point numbers, plugged into very complex algorithms in order to yield exactly the desired balance and behavior. Obviously, if you’re designing a board game, working with numbers like 489.35 and 10,928 kind of sucks. Generally, board games and card games tend to only work with single digit values, and frequently only use values of 5 or less. Games that have double digit values frequently only tally those values at the end of the game, or use beads or other counters to visually represent the quantity.
However, something I “discovered” on accident in this prototype has me very excited. As a designer, I’ve definitely been struggling with only using values between 1 and 5. The reason this is tricky is the gap between 1 and 2 is much greater than the gap between 4 and 5, relatively speaking. For example, a card with a power of 2 is TWICE as powerful as a card with a power of 1. This has been a pretty big stumbling block for me in a lot of my prototypes and thought experiments. What I realized while working on Mustache Tycoon the last couple of days, is that as a systems designer, I actually have access to a range of -5 to 5, not just 1 to 5! This is probably really trivial/obvious to a lot of you, but it’s completely changed the way I approach non-electronic game system design, and I’m very excited about it.
That’s about it! No cool pictures yet or anything - looking forward to giving this design a playtest and seeing what happens!
PS - I definitely have not given up on Islands, but I’m struggling with some fundamental design issues that are taking a while to work out. I’m reading a lot of adventure stories (fiction and otherwise), and hopefully some of the stuff I learned on this proto can be applied to that one too. Definitely not a dead idea, just taking a break until I can figure out how to get over the fundamental flaws!
How Do You Decide What Parts of a Design to Change DURING Design?
I’m working on a big project that I will announce more about soon I hope, but there is a topic related to the project that I haven’t really found much research material for. One of the topics for the project has to do with the design question of “how much is enough?” As in, when have you hit the right balance of complexity in a design? For board gamers out there, the simplified version of Matt Leahcock’s Pandemic, his other game Forbidden Island, definitely loses something in the more binary and streamlined changes to the game systems. That’s an interesting design question that we are already exploring.
However, there may be a big parallel theme or topic to this discussion that has to do with the actual design process and it’s a topic that I have a really hard time even thinking clearly about so far. I’m just not using the right words or something. But the gist is this: when I start designing something, you can imagine my design as a kind of network of nodes. I imagine it to be a kind of spiderweb made out of yarn. I can tug on this node over here, and it will pull on all the other nodes, and change the shape of the whole web. As the design progresses, I anchor, or pin down, specific nodes that I have decided are in just the right place. That way, that part of the web stays fixed while I manipulate the other portions.
What I’m interested in exploring in this topic is: are there methodologies or guidelines from other fields that would inform this process in the field of game design (not just video game design either)? For example, on the first topic, “how much is enough?” it’s easy to find ideas about managing noise and complexity in audio design, visual design and systems design.
My question is where would YOU look for guidance on this process of deciding what parts of your design you WON’T change, versus what parts of your design are fluid?
(I am also very open to the idea that this is simply a poor metaphor or even a bad process, but it’s been on my mind a lot lately and I’d like to know what you think!)
Making a Card Game, Part 6: Playtest #3
The honorable Kain Shin organized a lunch playtest with some game programmers from around town for today, and the results were fantastic. I wanted to share them here, as usual, and talk about where the game is at. If you’ve been following the project but want a refresh on where things are at, this playtest used the “v2” rules playset, which were created after playtest #2. The big difference between v1 and v2 was replacing auctions with a buy/sell system, having players start with cards in their hand, and having coin islands grant 3 coins instead of 1. Here is a transcription of my raw notes from the playtest:
- Starting with cards “for sale” gives the first player an advantage
- Skull Rock is crazy powerful (see auction notes below)
- After just a few rounds there are a LOT of coins in play
- While other players seemed to have goals after just a few draws, I did not
- Players were still very very hesitant to sell anything, even though there was plenty of money
- Cards that modulated or actuated Auction behaviors (like Skull Rock) basically break the buy/sell system
- Scores were very spread out this time, the winner had 20 while the loser (me) had just 8. Largest previous spread was 4 points.
- There was almost $40 sitting on the table at the end of the game.
- Only 2 treasures were discovered.
- Players felt treasure maps were too luck-driven initially
- One player thought that the landmarks that actuated your card type COUNT actuated the card type FAME value - interesting idea!
- One player suggested renting landmarks - trade a coin to get that ability for a turn
- Still a general desire for treasure maps to be public in some way, and more competitive, but no concrete ideas yet
- Card sales tend to be just the garbage cards you don’t want, so of course no one else wants those cards!
- Might be too many cards in hand?
- What if cards that are “for sale” count toward fame if they’re not purchased?
- What if Black Market pays less than the stated price?
So, 3 sets of rules in, and people STILL aren’t selling their cards!! And there was a LOT of money on the table. There were coins everywhere. One player had to start a second stack because the first stack was getting unstable at such great heights. I am forced to conclude that my previous conclusion, that card sales would occur if there was enough money in the ecosystem, was simply wrong. So, what other factors might be involved? For the first time, it occurred to me to actually count the number of cards. There are 40 artifacts and specimens total, although only 36 or so actually enter play. Even without the hand-expanding landmarks, 20 of these cards will be up in player’s hands. Five of them are treasure maps, and probably on the table. Landmarks put 5 more cards into player’s hands. The end result is that there are only about 6 cards out of the 36 Artifact and Specimen cards that can’t simply be stored in players hands, or played out on the table… and at least two of those have discard abilities.
So maybe no one is selling cards, because there is no need to sell cards at all. The players can fit all the cards in their hands, with just a few spares across the course of the entire game. The goal of having card-selling and card-buying, mechanically speaking, is to get cards to move around the table in a way that is separated from the chance/luck-driven system of drawing the cards in the first place. Until that part of the game is “online” so to speak, I’m pretty hesitant to make any major changes to other parts of the game, because theoretically this should have a big impact on players’ ability to engage with the game strategically.
Conclusion for next rule set: the current hand limit of 5 cards is too high. 4 cards is likely, 3 is possible.
The other solution is just to put in even more Artifacts and Specimens, but I’m hesitant to just throw more cards at the problem. Taking things away seems like a better first try. The other major, obvious thing that has to change is there are some cards in the game still that were designed for and refer explicitly to the Auction system and the Black Market, neither of which are really a part of the game anymore. Their abilities, applied to the new “for sale” system, are waaay unbalanced and not terribly fun.
Conclusion for next rule set: redesign Auction-related cards to instead actuate the buying and selling system.
Since flooding the economy with money didn’t solve the card-hoarding problem, I think I can probably scale back the amount of money that’s currently in the system. Coin islands worked better with 3 coins, but it injected an insane amount of money into the system. I’m not sure if Coin islands should be worth less, or if there should just be fewer of them in the deck, or if they should be removed and another system for putting money into the economy should replace it.
Vague goal: reduce the amount of money in the economy.
Starting with cards for sale is just a mistake I think. I’m sure I had a reason for that, but I don’t know what it is now! Also, starting with cards in your hand caused some confusion with card properties like “on discovery, draw an extra whatever”. Probably those abilities should just work, and players get those extra cards off the bat, but it felt weird.
Conclusion: start with cards in hand, not on table for sale.
There’s a problem hanging over the “for sale” system, which may just go away when player’s hands are smaller, but the main incentive to sell a card is because it is worthless to you. Chances are, this makes it worthless to other players as well. So even if you did decide to sell a card because there wasn’t room for it in your hand, you’re only gonna sell the crappiest cards you have, and who’s going to buy a crappy card? Poker skirts this issue by having card values just be a tie-breaker in a set-matching system that is otherwise divorced from the visible value. That is, even 2s are worth a LOT if you have 4 of them… the elegance of this is inspiring and frustrating.
My idea for actuating the worth of individual cards was to encourage players to focus on and compete within given professions, but that kind of winner-takes-all approach has problems too, so cards were given fame points in order to level the playing field. However, Profession Bonuses are currently worth the same or less than decent single Artifact or Specimen cards. Anyways, losing my train of thought here, but what players are doing is hanging onto a famous artifact even if they’re going for Naturalist, because it’s well worth the risk, and Naturalist is the best of the bonuses.
To complicate things, one suggestion to encourage more card selling is to allow those cards to count toward your bonus at the end of the game if they’re still on the table. And on top of that, some landmarks let you store more cards in your hand. So if the profession points are weighted too strong, then essentially whoever can store the most cards wins. That feels like a degenerate strategy and something I want to avoid. Hooray for tightly coupled systems, am I right??
A lot of board game designs have pretty strict rules about the way you treat “victory points.” That is, things that figure out who wins. In Islands, victory points are fame. In many (most?) board games, there is no way to directly acquire victory points. There are always intermediate resources. Islands has a very different and muddy system, which is cool in some ways, but I am suspicious that having fame points on each card is, no matter what I do to hand size or how I balance the numbers, going to lead to “this number is higher so I’m keeping this card.” The behavior I want to encourage is “I have this specific goal in mind, so even though this is a ‘good’ card, it doesn’t suit my purposes this time.”
Vague goal: improve the scoring system, improve player agency, continue avoiding degenerate strategies.
My gut feeling is I have to back up from the design by about 10 feet, and figure out the one big change that will improve this whole general area of concern. I think it is too early to be doing incremental tweaks, and this reeks of Fundamental Flaw at the moment. I think fame points probably need to come off the cards, and set-matching, treasure maps and the profession system are probably all intertwined in some meaningful way. That’s what it feels like anyways!
I Just Found Out About Artdink So Now You Will Too
In publicly musing about the use of photography in games, and about Afrika in particular, various clever people who are way more knowledgable and better connected than I could hope to be pointed out that many of the games that I was so impressed by were made by the same company - a Japanese studio I never heard of called Artdink.
The thread of exploration went something like this: I mentioned that I was enjoying Afrika, and someone recommended Endless Ocean for Wii, another ambient/photography/open-world game, made by a different developer (Arika, not Artdink). In researching Endless Ocean, I found out they’d made two similar games previously for the PS2, both of which were apparently inspired by an old Artdink game called Aquanaut’s Holiday for the PS1! That pretty much opened the Artdink pandora’s box. Wikipedia sums them up pretty well I think:
Despite critical acclaim, none of these titles have achieved mainstream success due to their unconventional nature.
As far as I can tell, everything they’ve made is completely amazing, even (or perhaps especially) this:
But in particular Aquanaut’s Holiday, Tail of the Sun, and Afrika seem to stand out as superbly interesting game designs. Carnage Heart is a well-regarded programming meta-game that still blows my mind, and the A-TRAIN cover art alone I find so inspirational. My overwhelming feeling is that Artdink’s games were 10-20 years ahead of their time. For maybe the first time in history there is a substantial mature, patient audience of open-minded video game enthusiasts who I think badly want to get their hands on the kinds of games that Artdink apparently likes (liked?) to make.
Clearly I am not the only one who thinks this, according to the $200 going price of the Hong Kong version of the PS3 update of Aquanaut’s Holiday, which happened to include an optional, poorly translated English subtitle track. For those of you who are outside the cult video game collecting market, this threshold is kind of a big deal, especially for such a recent game. Normally these prices are reserved for action games with limited english releases on doomed platforms from famous developers (see Guardian Heroes, Radiant Silvergun). This is the game I am talking about:
No guns, no explosions, no points, no score, no levels, no bosses. $200!! Anyways, chances are that all this is actually old news and that you too are an Artdink fan and are also disappointed by the lack of availability. But if you aren’t, I hope you will be now.
Then Brandon Boyer (whose encyclopedic knowledge of games and their creators never ceases to amaze me and who is responsible for me now having most of this information) unearthed this in the course of our tweeting:
Apparently the visionary from Artdink is now at Grasshopper Manufacture, and is creating, among other things, that piece of software, which claims to take annoying sounds from your environment and slowly turn them into pleasing, relaxing noises. This does not surprise me in the slightest. It is downloading right now but I’m pretty sure that even if it doesn’t completely work, it will be super interesting. And it probably completely works!
And finally (maybe), Brandon also uncovered this lecture about the original Aquanaut’s Holiday by the series’ creator:
Which appears to have a reasonably sized, subtitled download, which I am about to check out RIGHT now. The link is a little hard to find, but it’s down there (look for the words iPhone, mp4 and the not 2GB download that is also not a PDF).
The world is amazing and full of amazing people.
UPDATE: I read this over a couple times and I don’t think I’m being hyperbolic enough about how amazing Artdink is. Imagine if someone made Flower, only it was even more about inherent rewards and even less about arcade game systems. Then imagine they did it ten years ago on a PS1. Then, imagine that no one ever heard of it. Then imagine they did that again, and again, and again. And then, as far as I can tell, kind of stopped doing it because, basically nobody cared except them. I think that’s what Artdink did. Afrika and Aquanaut’s Holiday were both released almost 3 years ago. Even more amazing is they weren’t just making making brilliant open-ended atmospheric exploration games, they were also making games where you program robots to kill and/or have bulldozer fights. BE AMAZED YOU GUYS. Artdink.
Some Games You Should Probably Be Pretty Excited About
So I’m guessing that the part of your brain dedicated to games is going to be basking in a warm hot tub full of Valve champagne for the next few days, and that’s totally cool. Or maybe you’re still getting romanced by Capy’s Clash of Heroes HD. I can totally understand this, and I hope the obsession continues! However, what happens later this year? Or next? Here are some games that I am way too excited about and why:
Skullgirls: When SFIV launched on home consoles a few years ago, I finally got into fighting games good and proper, mostly at the encouragement of Ben Ruiz, and I’m so glad I did. While modern fighting games have serious accessibility problems, the game systems on the other side of the hump are fantastic and inspiring and intimidating and very, very interesting. Skullgirls is a fighting game (XBLA/PSN later this year) in the traditional Capcom fighting game style (joystick, 3 punches, 3 kicks), but without one-button specials, in direct contrast to Capcom’s recent attempts to make accessible mashers (TvC, MvC3). However, there are few if any motions more complicated than a “hadoken”, and they’re making some awfully clever design decisions that have the potential to be big game-changers at both low-level and high-level play. Oh and it’s also gorgeously hand-drawn and hand-animated without the use of Flash or other automated systems. This is hands-down my most anticipated game.
Journey: What can I say, really? The folks behind maybe the most important game of the last 5 years are at it again, creating something covered in Chahi and Ueda’s fingerprints, and exploring new forms of multiplayer. Like the next few games I’m going to mention, I have basically self-embargoed myself from reading anything about it until I can sit down and play the whole, finished thing.
The Last Guardian: Disappointingly chauvinistic Japanese attitudes aside, the new game from the creators of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus is probably going to be a really, really big deal. The teaser trailer that came out a year or so ago had me almost choked up. From anybody else I wouldn’t have gotten that excited, but this team has a way of following through on impossible promises.
inFamous 2: inFamous is the only AAA game I’ve actually finished in years. I am not sure how many years; a lot of them. I wasn’t so obsessed that I did a full replay as Evil or anything, but boy was that a satisfying game. The controls are a careful and intuitive evolution over their work on Sly, and Empire City is one of if not the very best virtual locales I’ve ever seen. Sucker Punch are an amazing team with an amazing track record, and I can’t wait to play this.
Otherwise my list is pretty much the usual suspects these days: Spelunky, FEZ (disclaimer: I am working on it), LA Noire, Desktop Dungeons, Bastion, Skulls of the Shogun, Spy Party, Torchlight 2, The Witness, and whatever it is that Capy are cooking up in their wintery Toronto HQ. The thing that is interesting (but not surprising) about this list is how heavily weighted it is toward downloadable games, and how few sequels are on it. At GDC each year, they give out a prize to the “best downloadable game” - how long will that category last I wonder?
The Discovered Manuscript: This Thing Old Adventure Stories Do
DISCLAIMER: You may not believe everything you read here, and I cannot blame you. I was coerced by certain unnamed influential relatives to publish this, in the hopes that it will grant some reprieve for the original author. However, I hope that you find it as interesting as I did…
I’ve been reading a lot of old adventure stories lately. I got into this through pretty circuitous means; at one point a couple years ago I foolishly declared “haven’t there been any books with Indiana Jones-style adventures?” in a chat room. I was promptly informed that Indiana Jones is, of course, based on old adventure and pulp stories from the turn of the century. This led me on a kind of indulgent pulp lit marathon, through Doc Savage, Buck Rogers, and Fu Manchu, until I found Zane Grey, who wrote some really fantastic Westerns, and the inimitable Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan, whose adventures had a passion and grasp of history that Doc and Buck were lacking.
I was (and still am, to some degree) a dinosaur nut when I was growing up, which led me to Xenozoic Tales by Mark Schultz, a phenomenal black and white pulp comic. Reading about Mark Schultz and Robert E. Howard I kept seeing Edgar Rice Burroughs mentioned over and over, so I stored the name away for later, because I was ready to move on from pulp, and get into classic adventure. I dug into Sherlock Holmes, and Dumas’ classics The Count of Monte Cristo, and Richard Pevear’s exceptional new translation of The Three Musketeers.
This was 2-3 years ago now, and when I got my iPad last year, and found out that iBooks could snag Gutenberg Project titles very quickly and easily, I finally cracked open the Edgar Rice Burroughs treasure trove, and began pursuing a kind of specific sort of adventure tale, which I’ve been calling THE NAUTICAL ADVENTURE. This generally encompasses exploration stories, ghost ships, pirates; pretty much everything written before air travel was commonplace, actually. Globetrotting adventures that take place before WWI are kind of nautical adventures by default. So far my favorite is Captain Blood, by Rafael Sabatini. He’s come by far the closest to replicating that intoxicating mix of history and swashbuckling that Dumas mastered a century or more before.
Parallel to this, thanks to Robert E. Howard and Mike Mignola I got into H. P. Lovecraft and William Hope Hodgson, and through my Dad I got back into Jules Verne and Edgar Allen Poe. It’s been a sparse but awesome few years of reading, and I’ve loved every bit of it. But I want to point out something I’ve noticed across many of these books that I absolutely love, and now miss dearly. It’s something that books can do very well, and it’s a kind of gimmick and conceit but such a marvelous one that it deserves to have its own name. I call it (and probably I am not the first to notice this and it has already been named but oh well) The Discovered Manuscript.
It goes something like this. Let’s say you are Edgar Rice Burroughs, or any of these adventure authors who were often making a living by publishing your novel chapter by chapter as a serial adventure in a monthly or weekly publication (Dumas did this, Howard did this, Doyle too). You have a fantastic story all imagined; an unassuming but awfully manly gentlemen, bored with his modern life, has an unbelievable adventure dumped in his lap. Beautiful maidens, horrible villains and excellent oceanic adventures are on their way, no question. The first thing you say to the reader is NOT “Hero Guy woke up and was bored with his modern life.”
The first thing you do is smash the fourth wall, and introduce yourself NOT as the writer of this fantastical tale, but essentially as a humble archaeologist, or maybe journalist. You apologize ahead of time for the silly and outrageous tale you are about to relate. It can’t be possibly be true, it’s just too ridiculous. And yet, you tell the reader, some aspects of it, maybe the straightforward, appealing nature of the narrator, or even certain historical facts, ring oddly true in spite of the improbable series of events. You were in a pub, you see, when a weathered gentlemen entered and left this diary behind on a bench. Or you were walking the beach when you discovered a sealed jar washed ashore, with a strange manuscript inside…
This is an old tradition I think. While Dumas’ tales are rarely if ever framed this way, they are so laden with historical facts and events that they might as well be. Bram Stoker’s Dracula is told through recovered letters; Sherlock Holmes’ adventures are related to us solely through the diligence of his Doyle-esque counterpart Watson (a bored armed forces veteran and medical doctor with a knack for writing). Howard’s Conan tales are sometimes framed, sometimes not, but never in the way I am talking about here. However, Howard said in many letters that he felt as if he was simply writing down stories that the old king was telling him over a massive mug of something strong. Hodgson’s the House on the Borderlands is framed by fishermen discovering a journal in the ruins of a house. Burroughs’ Land That Time Forgot begins with a thermos washed ashore in Greenland.
However, the most recent example I’ve discovered is my absolute favorite. My Dad had stumbled on a lesser known novel by Jules Verne, called An Antarctic Mystery (or The Sphinx of the Ice Fields, in French). About 50 pages in, it becomes clear that the plot of the story revolves around one of the main characters discovering that one of these framings is in fact true. The framed story in this case is Edgar Allen Poe’s only novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym.
I have just started on The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, but it has a CLASSIC adventure framing. The desperate recording and sharing of strange events, the warnings, all of it is in there, it’s wonderful. It’s a fantastic tale so far as well, nautical adventure with a touch of horror and excellent prose. It has a reputation for being a bit racist, and getting extremely weird in the second half, but that wouldn’t differ greatly from Hodgson’s or Lovecraft’s work, so I feel prepared for that. Critics have claimed that “it may be the most elusive piece of American literature ever written,” or something to that effect. Definitely looking forward to getting to that part!
ANYWAYS: An Antarctic Mystery, as far as I can tell, is based on the idea that The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym is, in fact, completely true, and these later adventurers are going to follow up on his report. I am certain that I am failing to communicate how completely awesome this is, that Jules Verne is in some meta, wonderful way based an entire novel on the premise that the framing of yet another foundational adventure novel is in fact not a framing but a true thing. And he spends SIXTY PAGES setting this up.
I absolutely love it. I am not sure why it was so ubiquitous back then, or why it is so rare today. To me it is different from the Mercury Theatre presentation of War of the Worlds, or the cinéma-vérité/found-footage of something like Cloverfield. It feels more theatrical, more like Rod Serling introducing The Twilight Zone. There’s a kind of showmanship to it; like the goal is the development of anticipation rather than the shock of reality, or a brief meditation, or an invitation to deliberately suspend your disbelief.
When Verne tells you that The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym is real, I have a really hard time quantifying where that claim exists on the spectrum of truth and fiction. The Narrative itself is fiction, framed by Poe as fact. The framing itself is fiction. Verne’s story, also fiction, then reasserts the truth of Poe’s fictional framing in order to… what? I don’t even know. Austin Kleon said recently that all artists are fans, and all art is fan art. An Antarctic Mystery is, I think, Edgar Allen Poe fan fiction, written by someone who is now recognized as one of the founders of modern science fiction (however, since he is a founder of modern science fiction, An Antarctic Mystery is a “response to”, not “fan fiction of”, Poe’s sole novel).
I don’t have a particular point here, I’m afraid. This is just such a cool thing. I was already enjoying its use well before I stumbled across The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym and An Antarctic Mystery, but that pushed me right over the edge. When did we stop needing to frame fantasy AS fantasy? Why did we stop? Why was it necessary in the first place? Do I only love it because of this nostalgic, theatrical quality, or is there something more to it? If stories are just really fun lies, do they have to be good lies, peppered with and pinned down at the edges by truth, in order for us to enjoy them? Or is it just a Thing Some White Dudes Did back then? Is it a revival of the Greek chorus, or a vaudeville host, or something in between?
Whatever it is, I love it, and I think about it a lot, and I’m not sleepy yet, so now hopefully you’re thinking about it too.
Making a Card Game, Part 5: Playtest #2
Just wrapped up the second playtest of Islands, with the new stronger economy, and I wanted to compose my thoughts. First, we noticed these problems:
- Not nearly enough auctions still. Despite adding THIRTY COINS to the game, and allowing single-card auctions, noone had enough money to buy anything.
- Players felt like they didn’t have enough control over their destiny still. This is expected since auctions still don’t work, and that largely comprise the strategy (as opposed to chance) component of the design.
- Players felt like the rules were too complicated still.
- The new “coin islands” (get 1 coin for exploring that island) were too worthless.
- It takes too long for the game to start up. Players start with no cards, so it takes a few trips around the table for people to figure out what their strategy is.
My natural inclination is to blame the auctions for most of these problems. I am considering some fairly major revisions for the next playtest. Since I archive each ruleset, it seems like there’s not much of a penalty to trying radical changes at this stage, since I can just go back a version if it was a horrible idea (as long as it doesn’t affect the cards too much). So here are the changes I am thinking about for the next playtest:
- Coin Islands will grant the player 3 coins instead of 1 coin.
- Auctions will be removed entirely, and replaced with a “For Sale” mechanic. That is, rather than active selling with passive buying, I’d like to try passive selling with active buying. At the end of each turn, instead of discarding, players can choose to put cards up “for sale” on the table with their landmarks. Each player on their turn can then opt to purchase any selection of cards on the table instead of exploring a new island. When it comes around to the discarding player’s turn again, if they still have the card “for sale”, they can dump the card and take the appropriate coins from the Black Market, or take it back in their hand. At the end of the game, any cards still “for sale” are thrown away, and no fame is awarded for those cards. Apologies if that makes no sense, especially considering you haven’t played the game!
- Players will be dealt a Landmark, an Artifact and a Specimen at the start of the game. The Artifact and the Specimen are “for sale”, and so can be picked up at the end of that player’s turn if they like them, or left on the table while play continues. Hopefully this will kickstart the strategizing.
- I will have to remove some of each type of Island to accomodate this strategy kickstart, probably 4 of each.
So that’s the plan - I have more testers lined up, so hopefully playtests 3 and 4 will both go down sometime in the next month, and I can see if these modifications pan out.
Making a Card Game, Part 4: Modding a Test Box
Assuming my baby boy has a good day tomorrow, tomorrow night is the next playtest for the game that is still uninspiringly called Islands. It will be offsite though, so after the latest wave of flixel updates today we ran out to World Market to see if we could find a cheap wood box that was about the right size to hold the cards and coins. After a full circuit of the store (and scooping up some Peach Gummis and lemon wafers) I found these carved tea boxes that looked like they were about the right size, and they looked cool too. So I grabbed the “Teas of India” box, with rad carved Taj Mahal emblazoned on the lid.
The only problem with the box is that it was full of little dividers (and tea, though that was an easy problem to solve). Fortunately, they were cheap and glued in, and I was able to pop them out very easily.
After fiddling with the cards and coins a bit it looked like maybe the long divider might be useful. I could chop off a bit of it, and then glue it BACK into the box, up the middle, to make a divider, with the cards on one side, and the coins on the other. So, I did that.
Voila! The cards fit nicely on the left, while the coins go over on the right. I am not super confident that the divider will hold, despite the copious amounts of wood glue, so the cards and coins might be relegated to their lame ziploc baggies for a little while longer. However, as I think I commented before, I feel very limited by the amount of presentation input I have with traditional game design, and having a cool wood box with gold coins in it seems like a good step in the right direction.
Finally, with high hopes for tomorrow night’s playtest (the first with the new money-flooded economy discussed in the last post), I finally had some solid ideas about how the cards could look.
It was clear by the end of the second game (during the first playtest) that there were really three kinds of cards in the game: Islands, Artifacts/Specimens, and Landmarks/Treasure. Even through treasure maps are in the artifacts deck, they end up getting laid down on the table later, and need a lot of room to explain their costs and requirements. So their design will be kind of a hybrid of the Artifacts and the Landmarks: Landmark on the bottom, and Artifact (with Fame and Black Market Price) on top.
This new layout idea for the island cards is a pretty dramatic change, and will make them look VERY different from all the player cards. The idea is to have a kind of top-down view of an island, with a focus on a neat-looking coastline, and more room to show the discovery you’ll find on that island. It also puts the discovery icon right in the center of hte card, which I like. However, I am not exactly in a rush to print a whole new set of 100 cards yet either, the inkjet cartridges are starting to add up!
So yea, that’s where things are at with that. The plan still is to continue developing and playtesting the game over the summer, and if it starts to feel like it’s pretty solid, then a few things need to happen. Final cards need to be designed, which will be quite a project. I suspect it might come down to something like painting two cards a week or something in order to stay on some kind of schedule. Once the full set is designed, I want to do two things with it: first, create a free PDF that anyone can print-and-play, possibly with modified, easier-to-print card backs, or no card backs and a mat like in the early prototype. Second, run a kickstarter, with say a $40 buy-in or something, to do a run of 500 “deluxe” editions, with lovely cards, metal coins, and a wood box.
What do you think? Sound cool?
UPDATE: Yay, the wood glue finally (mostly) dried! For $15 and about 20 minutes of effort, this sure beats a few ziplocs:
UPDATE 2: I finally got to playtest the new set, and I wrote up the results here.
Making a Card Game, Part 3: Finishing the “Alpha” Deck
With all the design ideas in place, it was time to actually print the new deck, and fill in all the new values for fame (and fortune). My checklist looked something like this earlier:I had a few reasons for re-printing the deck in its entirety. First, it was too hard for players to tell how much fame they could gain from each specimen or artifact. Second, it was too hard to tell what each specimen or artifact was worth at auction. Third, I really wanted the cards to have colored backs. This would make it much easier to tell which deck was which, but it would also force a new, subtle element into play.
With the prototype deck, all the cards had white backs. This made the contents of player’s hands VERY mysterious indeed, as they could have a mix of artifacts and specimens, and you couldn’t tell which way they were leaning (IF they were leaning at all). One of the main things I will be testing with the alpha deck is whether being able to tell the other players’ specimen/artifact split will have a detrimental effect on gameplay.
Double-sided printing is always kind of a pain in the butt. I didn’t want to fiddle with alignment at all, so I kind of cheated, and made a generic, patterned image for each of the decks (Islands, Landmarks, Specimens, and Artifacts) that I could just blast onto the other side of the page. The first image in the gallery below shows the full page Islands deck graphic. The second image shows roughly how the cards spread out across it.
I have to say that the paper cutter I got was worth every cent of the $30. Between the new, compact template and the paper cutter, chopping the cards up was faster than the printing OR labeling processes. Now, to stroke my ego, some hasty cell phone photos of the alpha deck as it came together over the course of the afternoon. First, a comparison between the old Landmark template cards, and the new:The full set of current Landmark cards (no changes from prototype to alpha): The full set of current Specimen cards (rebalanced, and renamed from Critters): And last but not least, a poorly lit photo of the full set of current Artifact cards (including Treasure Maps, all rebalanced from the prototype): Now my to-do list for the alpha deck looks like this: Made for a long day, but I’m really happy with the setup now, and looking forward to playtesting it on some new victims soon!