Excalibur's Zone Gaming

Games are what I love, games are what I do. But family comes first.

Category: Game Design

Die Civilization Design Diary for December 31, 2014

What to report on Die Civilization…Well, there were more playtests and to tell you the truth, some of the changes I made that sounded right in my head were confusing to players at the playtest. There were issues with understanding how things worked (I’d used ranges for purchases rather than straight results…which was a suggestion by one of the testers!) when you rolled a die, what could it be used for? What could be done with it? And so on.

These questions and the fact that suggested changes are making the game more confusing and less fun have me rethinking what I’m doing and forcing me to ask more questions. Let’s stick with the basics:

  • What mechanics do I want?
    • Push your luck?
    • Worker placement?
  • How do I handle Wonder building?
  • How does the game end?
  • What is the trigger for game end?
  • What amount of time is reasonable for a game like this?

The original version of the game had 10 special dice with different arrangements of colors on each face. Each die represented a different tech level and you rolled more dice as you went up in level. The colors granted you a matching cube and you could spend the cubes for effects. The game was tedious and took quite a while to play. Not to mention you were buying cubes to get more cubes and points. Not a super fun game at all. The dice rolling was the fun part.

Since then, I’ve been playing a lot of dice games when I can get them in. Dungeon Roll, Roll Through the Ages, Marvel Dice Masters, Quarriors!, Catan Dice, Zombie Dice, Farkle, Alien Frontiers, Kingsburg and others. Each game helped me to look at Die Civilization in a different light.

Currently, when you want to buy a tech, you have to purchase a die from the tech, roll it, and then hope to get a die face that you need (2-5 on the face, different based on number of same-color squares). Then you spend 8 × Tech Level (TL) in production points to purchase the tech once you occupy all the research squares on the technology. Whenever you roll a die, you get one reroll. It has to be taken immediately after the first roll (you can’t perform any other action that round) so you have to choose what you want to do. But I’ve found that this current method is limiting.

Dice Masters was the key to unlocking the current version of Die Civ but while playing Dice Masters recently I had another idea that shook the foundations of what I was trying to accomplish with Die Civ. What if you simply select a die from a tech and roll it instead of having to buy it first? So if you’re trying for that tech that has a gray die on it, you simply take a gray die and roll it with everything else. Then, instead of trying to match die faces directly, you instead look at a difficulty number and try to beat it with your roll? One of the dice has to be the research color you’re aiming for, but you could use any other dice to boost the value!

Now we’re getting somewhere. This allows the player to do what they want with the dice, they can roll more per turn, and feel like they’re accomplishing something! In addition to the purchase of a research square, effects would also be powered by combinations of particular dice. For example: If you have a gray die and a yellow die (plus any other dice) and you beat a target number you could buy a defense for your civilization. If you roll doubles, you can roll them again, so long as one of the dice matches the colors on the tech you’re attempting to purchase!

Purchasing a tech becomes easier. How? You get to roll your dice to beat the overall tech score after you’ve researched all the squares on the tech. What would be the purchase cost? That’s something I have to figure out. But using exploding doubles may make it easier for players to acquire. And you will still be able to stockpile production points, dice, and failures in order to help you purchase your techs.

Another thing I’ve figured out is the tech tree. Why not treat it like a tech tree? Shuffle cards from each tech level and lay them down on the table in a grid. Each tech points up, down, or straight ahead (to the next tech level in all cases). The player may choose to follow a path to the next tech level. They can go straight down the tree to the end for a deep, narrow tree. Or they can research more than one level one techs to create a broad, shallow tree.

This gives us an end game condition as well: When a player owns 5 techs, they trigger the end game condition. Everyone will get an additional turn after this trigger (finish out the turn, then one final turn) and the game ends. VPs will be the deciding factor with Wonders acting as tie breakers.

How do we handle VPs? Well, in the same way we did before, for now: 2 × TL for the first person and (2 × TL) – 1 for everyone else. The trick is that you have to follow a tech tree path and can’t just jump to the next TL.

Also, about dice: Each tech that you own will grant you an additional die. The die is of a type that matches a research on a tech plus any other dice based on Wonder completion or special powers from techs. So the player has some extra choice and gains extra dice as they complete techs rather than magically when they go up in tech level.

Dice powers will either change or go away with the new system, or perhaps Wonders will dictate dice powers. This is still up in the air. For now, however, dice will have their own powers based on what face is showing (usually a 6).

But with the new system, what happens to the white production dice and the pink worker dice? Well, here’s the trick with that. White dice will represent general goods or “colorless” points. Everyone will always be able to roll one of these. They will probably become a limiter in some fashion, perhaps the number of dice you can use toward a purchase of something that requires production points. Pink dice will still limit the number of actions you can take per turn (that aren’t production warehousing, die stockpiling, or failure stockpiling). But the pink die’s current power will probably change to something more meaningful with the new system.

A lot more change is in store! Seldom does a game start and finish looking and acting identical. I think I’ll see more change as the development of this game continues. And ideas are always popping into my head or being suggested by others all the time. We’ll see what the new changes bring and hopefully we’ll see this thing finished sometime during the new year!

Die Civilization Design Diary Entry for December 15, 2014

Today, we played a 3-player game with my friends A and C. Some of the rules changed in order to reduce the amount of time it takes to play the game.

In this test, technologies had different target numbers for each icon present. If there were multiple icons of the same type, they each had a different number. This was to simulate “bumbling onto a research milestone”. The numbers ranged from 2-5 on the die with 1 a failure and 6 a die ability.

Overall, it didn’t feel any different from requiring a 6 for success. I felt that it was artificial and didn’t really speed things up. If anything, it made it more confusing.

We used the new Wonder rules again, where the number of the wonder dictated who went first and how ties were broken. Also, everyone got a free die of a particular type to start.

The more I’ve been playtesting, the more I see that the game is missing the elements that I want for it. I want more press-your-luck. I want dice to mean something. I want technologies to provide you with something extra.

To that end, I think the rules are going to go through a major overhaul in how the dice and techs are used. Techs still need to provide something meaningful and they also need to be easier to acquire. Taking 5-6 turns to get a tech is too long. I want it to take 2-3 max.

Also, I want things to happen when you build Wonders. But I don’t want it to take longer to play the game in order to do it. So I think I’m going to build tech acquisition into Wonder building.

So, to tackle the techs, I think I’m going to take C’s advice and provide a range rather than a discrete number for successful research. In other words, instead of a 2, 3, or 4 (one number for each of 3 research icons of the same type) you’ll be able to research one with a successful roll of 2-4 for any of them. I want a 1 to remain a failure and a 6 to activate abilities.

Additionally, being stuck with 2 dice only until a new tech level is reached sort of sucks. I think what’ll happen is that you’ll be able to roll more dice for each technology you have in addition to being able to roll more Production dice for the tech levels. So if you have a tech that required Trade to acquire, you will have the ability to roll a trade die in addition to your Production and Manpower dice. Your Wonder may give you the ability to roll an additional die as well. I’m going to give the player the option of rolling the die associated with the Wonder, an extra Production die, or an extra Manpower die.

Stockpiling dice for additional rolling, production point storage, failures accumulation, and defenses will remain the same for now.

The dice abilities will remain as they are for now as well since those seem to fit. Though Trade and Enlightenment (wip name) might change with the way I want things to work.

The other bit is to set up the push-your-luck component of the game. Currently every time you roll a die for the first time, you get a free reroll. I think this works fine. Perhaps tech powers could use combinations of dice (straights, doubles, triples, full house, etc.) to do something or activate tech powers, similar to Alien Frontiers. A player’s cube could go on the power to indicate that it’s been used and it is removed at the start of his next turn…that’s a possibility.

Lastly, I think the amount of player interaction needs to be increased. Rolling more dice may also help with this, especially since everyone wants to do what they can with the dice they have.

Time to hit the design and work on the updated pre-alpha rules again! I think I’ll have something more concrete to work with next time around!

Die Civ Pre-Alpha Playtest Report

Tonight was a revelation. It was another two-player test for Die Civilization with my friend L and I playing the game. I implemented a bunch of rules changes based on feedback and ponderings and we were able to reach the very last technology card in the stack! That was AWESOME! The points weren’t simply a runaway and the game was pretty close when we stopped. Even though I was the first player and we finished a full round for the end (the store closed early this week), the final points were very close. Oh, and it was done within 2 hours! Tech Level 5 in 2 hours is a HUGE jump in the speed and flow of the game since it took that long to get to Tech Level 2 in the past.

This has caused me to realize that I now need to figure out an end-of-game trigger for the technology race. I believe it’ll be: When you attempt to draw a new technology and can’t, the game ends. I think that’s appropriate for the game through this route. The winner will be the one with the most Victory Points after you take all the score modifiers into account.

What was changed in order to make this dramatic speed increase happen? Well, a couple of things happened tonight:

  • The number of techs per level was equal to the number of players.
  • The number of techs on display was equal to the number of players.
  • Dice ramp happened more quickly.
  • Players could spend research die pips to purchase a success.
  • An icon bonus was introduced to allow for reduced success cost.
  • Failure success purchases were modified.
  • Purchase points for techs were modified.
  • Slight improvements to the turn order were implemented.
  • Changes to victory points were implemented.

Let’s address these in order. Previously, I had double the number of players for the techs in the deck and display techs equal to the number of players. I also had a number of techs equal to the number of players +1 in the deck and the number of players -1 on display. I also tried different permutations of the number of techs in the deck and on display as well. This one hit the sweet spot. Due to this, neither player felt overly challenged to get a tech, though I did fall behind slightly due to bad luck. Some of the above changes happened through the course of this playtest. There were some techs that were left behind because they didn’t generate as many VPs as the next tech level cards did. I think with Wonders fully implemented in the game, this won’t always be the case.

Due to the completion of techs, new tech levels came out faster. In other playtests, the player needed a cube on the new tech in order to roll the extra dice associated with the tech level. This time, as soon as the tech was displayed, the players got to roll more dice immediately, starting with the next player’s turn. This turned into a wonderful way to offset the VP difference between players. The player whose turn it was got to roll more dice immediately following the completion of the tech, which allowed them a greater chance to complete a tech in return. This also sped the game up since players were now able to roll more dice for purchases and production. This was an excellent change which is marked for final implementation.

It gets to be very frustrating when you’re rolling dice and you cannot use something that you’ve rolled. This was apparent in every playtest to date. So today, players were allowed to do a few things to mitigate this issue. First, they could apply face values that were not a success to purchase a success at, say, 10 points. So you could save up die faces in order to purchase a success but all of the production points had to come from dice that matched the icon color you were purchasing. After a few times doing this (very successful, btw) we decided to make it more expensive based on the Tech Level the icon was sitting at. Now, it became apparent that it would be cool if there was a way to lower the cost of this fee based on how many icons you had already researched. After all, research isn’t all done in a vacuum since you build upon prior knowledge. So, the production cost was reduced based on the number of icons you “had a cube on”. This meant that any tech you purchased previously counted as having a cube on each icon on the card. So if it had 3 wealth icons, if you were trying to purchase a wealth success on another tech with points, the cost of that success was reduced by 3. In the above example cost of 10 points, it would cost 7 points which is slightly less expensive. There will need to be a minimum, probably the tech level plus the number of icons of that type on the card. That’s a good place to start anyway. Due to this new rule, I felt that failure purchases (you claim a certain number of failures plus production stores to purchase a success) were too expensive. So I lowered the production cost. It worked pretty well at first, but then I decided to add the tech level to the cost and it hit that sweet spot. It was challenging, but not overly so and easy enough to pull off if you pay attention to what you’re doing.

After this, I tackled purchase prices for techs. Basically, it is tech level times a certain target number. So we had Tech Level 1 cost the base amount (say 10) and Tech Level 5 cost 50. We also felt that one of the dice involved during the purchase (when you actually take control of the tech) should be the same color as the tech. Each tech will match a color of one of the research dice. This was just a way to make things challenging and not meaningless. So now you need to have a particular colored die in your production pool for the last amount used to purchase. It worked out pretty well.

The turn order and how specific actions worked were slightly modified. It has always been that if you spend production stores to purchase a success by using failures, or whenever you purchased a tech, your production stores reset to zero. There is a problem when you purchase a failure success and then attempt to store production afterward. To clarify things, purchasing of a success, any success, is done after your main phase. Applying dice to production stores is now done strictly during the main phase then you move on to production purchases and finally to tech purchases. This makes decisions a bit more difficult and in many cases, you’re losing the use of many dice. This was very effective and caused both L and I to think critically about what dice to use for which purpose. Very nice!

Finally, Victory Points were changed up. The points for completing first didn’t change, but the points for finishing second did. I will need a 3-4 player game to test the VPs for those numbers, but I think we did a good job with this new formula. This caused the current winner to flip flop from one side to the next each turn. In the end, when we ended the game, the score was 41 for L and 39 for me. A nice grouping, but more testing is needed for this.

As for lessons learned, I found that it was best to limit pink dice so that their abilities were limited to production dice or research successes, rather than any free success. It curbed power creep for the die and allowed us to really make use of it. It also limits all successes, even purchased ones. So your failure purchase or production purchase of a success was also hampered if you had a bad pink roll.

This, however, brought another issue up. Throughout the game, we ended up stockpiling ONLY the pink die. There were times I stockpiled a white die, but we rarely, if ever, stockpiled any research dice. There has to be something to curb this and I think there are two routes. 1) You cannot stockpile pink dice. Due to what they represent, it is rather absurd. 2) Perhaps stockpiling will allow you to use 2 faces for success instead of just one, for instance a 5 or a 6 is a success instead of just a 6.

During the post-game conversation/questionnaire, we talked about wonders and how they could make or break the game. As it stands, the game is cool and all, but there’s a certain something missing. I think bringing wonders in would be the first step. Secondly, I think the lack of technology powers is also what’s causing some empty feeling for the game. The game needs a cheat sheet as well.

Final thought: I think I have another way to mitigate the success issue and I’m going to test this next time I do a playtest. I think it’s a good idea and it will provide a bit more of a speed boost as well as a variance to the game.

Next steps:

  • Design Wonders, how they are “built”, and what they do to modify the game.
  • Work on Technology powers/rewards.
  • Write more of the rules. It’s getting easier to explain them so let’s get that down on paper.
  • Work on a cheat sheet for what the dice represent and their abilities.
  • Work on the above additions/fixes and find solutions to some of the problems discovered.
  • Redefine what successes and ability activators are.

I think that’s a good place to go next! Also, I will have some alpha-quality docs with some formatting to them for when I playtest next. When I get to pre-beta stage (most game components designed), I will start looking for players to start blind testing.

Until next time…

Die Civilization Mk II

Well, that’s the working title anyway.

As I’ve said before, Die Civilization is a dice game. You roll dice in order to obtain successes or points in order to purchase technologies, build wonders, and meet achievement requirements.

Dice are used for two purposes: The first is to determine research or production successes. A research success allows you to complete a part of a technology or activate an ability. A production success allows you to purchase dice or gain additional successes for either production or research. Research points (the values on the dice) allow you to mitigate luck by storing points on a research in order to receive a research success. And production points allow you to purchase technologies as well as success through failure. Your pink production dice limit the number of successes you can use each turn.

It is planned that technologies, once completed, offer an added benefit that manipulates the basic rules in some fashion as well as victory points, requirements for wonders, requirements for achievements, and an extra die for your next turn.

Each die can be used for several actions with the two major ones listed above. All dice can be used to increase your production warehouse stores (with limits based on your white dice), stored in your die stockpile, or recorded as a failure. The trick is that you are limited to one die choice for your die stockpile and one failure each turn. Your production warehouse is limited by your white production dice.

The problem I’m having with the game so far is how long it takes to do anything. The main issue is that due to bad luck rolling successes, the acquisition of technologies is severely hampered. It takes about an hour to get through 3 cards in Tech Level 1! That’s a bit lengthy, even for games meant to take a long time. When techs taking so long to acquire, it really bogs the game down. While you might have fun at first, seeing a die roll anything other than a success was tiresome and irritating toward the end of a half hour, let alone one and a half!

This is why I have added the research point rule. How it’s going to be tracked is up in the air right now. Mainly a design issue at this point. But I hope that doing this will allow players to put those “non-successful” rolls to good use. They have the option of adding the value to the production warehouse or they can add the value to the research track of a tech. I am also leaving the success mechanic in place (which is a 6 by default). The research track will probably cost 9 points per success via face values and a 6 will be a cheaper, automatic route. I was thinking about 8, but 9, which is just slightly lower than average for 3d6 (it’s actually 3.5 + 3.5 + 3.5 = 10.5), seems like a good number to start with. Success through failure requires a minimum of 2 turns, recording 2 dice for failures and 2 dice toward the 11 points needed to pay for the success. This 11 points may go down to 9 as well since we found ourselves struggling to get to 11 quite often.

So, to recap:

  • There is a lot of dice rolling in the game and therefore we need some way to mitigate the bad luck that some people experience with dice.
  • There are a lot of research dice that need something to do if a face that is not a success is rolled. If not, the dice have no real meaning.
  • The point costs for failures is disproportionate after having to wait at least 2 turns to utilize them for a success (of any color).
  • The number of cards that are displayed don’t allow for players to move from tech level to tech level in an appropriate amount of time.
  • There should be a winner at the hour mark or hour and a half mark with a 4-player game. Possibly sooner for 2 and 3 player games.

These are the things I need to fix first, before adding tech abilities, wonders, and achievements.

As I get closer to a game that can be put into “open beta” I will release a rough draft of the rules with instructions on how to set up a game using common components. With any luck, I’ll have a nice, “quick” civ-building game on my hands by then.

DieCiv Pre-Alpha Playtest Report

Today, I tried a few different things with the playtest, which was a 2-player game with my friend D.

  1. I set the number of techs to the number of players +1 per tech level,
  2. I drew a number of techs equal to the number of players -1, and
  3. Extra white dice were added only when a player got a cube on the next level tech.

What did this accomplish? Not much that was good. First, the player who finished the face-up tech first was able to pull away with points much faster than the other. Second, this did nothing to speed up the game. At. All.

Also, some things where highlighted: while Production Dice had something they did whether they were successful or not, research dice did nothing. There was no use in the research dice at all except to use for other game actions.

It is of my opinion that dice need two functions. One that relies on successes and another that relies on face value. To that end, I’m going to utilize research dice in another fashion which will help speed up tech acquisition.

I think what I’m going to do is make it easier to acquire techs. I found it was rather difficult to score the number of successes needed, even with the failure mechanic (luck mitigation). Basically, you can store a die as a failure and after a certain number of failures plus an amount of production points, you can get a success of a certain type needed for the tech you’re working on. While this is awesome, in theory, in practice it was a bit slow.

Also, the number of successes and production points required for a card are a bit over-inflated. Basically, I want to be able to make tech purchases possible, but not dirt easy.

To make tech purchasing easier, I’m going to employ the first of the ideas bandied about tonight. You’ll be able to use the face value of the research die to use as research points if it is not a success. After a certain amount of points, you gain a success on the card. It might make it a bit faster since you’ll be able to stockpile the points on the card for what you’re looking to get if you can’t roll a success to save your life. I’m thinking the average of 2 dice, each rounded up. Since the average is 3.5, that would round to 4 x 2 = 8 points to buy a success instead of rolling a 6 to gain a success immediately. The points you can spend would be limited by your white dice as normal and you would still need production points (reduced from current levels) to purchase the tech.

So, you’ll be given a choice, use that research die to put into buying a success or use that research die toward production points to buy the tech when you’re ready. Also, white dice become more important. This also gives research dice added reason to be in the game.

We’ve found that white dice and pink dice (the two production dice in the game) work very well the way they’re set up as limiters and how successes are utilized. The dice are meaningful when they’re rolled and that’s what I’m aiming for with all the other dice.

So next playtest:

  1. Research dice produce an automatic success (a 6) or
  2. Research pips can be used to purchase success at a higher price, probably 8.
  3. Number of techs in the deck is equal to 1 per player per tech level and
  4. Number of face-up techs is equal to the number of players.
  5. Production points to purchase a tech will be modified to account for the use of research pips as research points or production points.
  6. The number of successes for lower-tier techs should also be looked at, maybe that plus #5 above will be tied together…

Victory points, Tech powers, Wonders, and Achievements will all need to be examined. I want techs, Wonders, and Achievements to be interconnected somehow and I want one achievement to deal with victory points.

For now, I’m going to concentrate on the 6 elements for the next playtest. I am also going to be doing a lot of single-player playtesting to see what kind of appeal this might have for solo gamers.

DieCiv Pre-Alpha Report #1

Today, in addition to playing some FUN commander games, I was able to sit down with my friends L and C (until I get permission to use names, I’ll use letters for the playtesters) for another pre-alpha playtest. The focus of this game was to see how other players felt about what was going on with the core mechanics of the game.

The results? It took a few turns for everything to click, but luckily I was there to explain things. I believe the core mechanic is sound but there needs to be a concrete, documented explanation of the terms, zones, and actions that can be taken during a turn. I had to explain how the dice worked more than a few times and I kept going back to the core mantra that I set for the game. I was hoping it was a simple one…

The big hurdle was understanding what active dice were and how limiters worked. After a bit, we were able to push a turn around and go. There were still questions about what should be done with dice, what order things should be purchased in, what is the strategic value of this or that. But, after a while, I started seeing L and C start to think about where their dice should be spent, given their limited resources at times.

L said he had a fun time and enjoyed the game. C said the game was something he’d play if it was offered but he wouldn’t rush out and buy it. Mainly, C only saw a small portion of the game and we didn’t get to any of the stuff I’m still working on.

We were able to:

  1. Gain 2 VPs each by completing a technology,
  2. each research a tech,
  3. use the Wonder cards for their start player effects,
  4. and see all of the Tech Level 1 techs.

Some lessons learned:

  • There are still too many technologies being displayed for each tech level in order for the game to be considered speedy.
  • Players are initially very confused about the core success/failure mechanics and the value mechanic.
  • Players are initially very confused about how to use dice as successes on technologies (as Research Dice) and when to use them for actions (Action Dice).
  • Players are confused as to what can be done with dice if you don’t have any successes or are severely limited by the number of successes allowed.
  • More of the game has to be designed (the technologies and wonders at the very least) so that players can have a better view of the game.

To that end, here is a short intro about the game I’m working on. Not the particular mechanics, per se, but an overall description of the beast:

Die Civilization is a game about civilization building using dice. Dice represent production, manpower, military prowess, espionage, agriculture, think tanks, and other aspects of a civilization. Technologies are cards that represent milestones in human development from the stone age to the medieval era. And finally, you can build the seven wonders of the ancient world.

You win the game in one of three ways: Collecting the most victory points by researching and acquiring technologies, finishing your wonder before anyone else, or by completing the majority of the achievements available at the end of the game.

I’m still up in the air about achievements. Initial plan is to have them face down and hidden throughout the game. You can use dice and production to look at them throughout the game, but I’m not sure if this is a good thing or not.

The number of technologies available aren’t moving fast enough on a per-tech level basis. I think I’m going to revamp the initial deck to have less techs in the “play deck”. Currently, you draw twice the number of players for each tech level, shuffle them, then stack them with tech level 1 on top and 5 on the bottom. I think I’ll go to number of players + 1. That might be a better route to go and speed up the game. Everyone advances tech level at the same time–when a higher level technology hits the table. I think this is the most balancing way to do it, though the person who starts their turn with the new tech in play is going to have a small leg up over everyone else. But I have to see how well this works before I make the final call.

Technologies really need to be designed next. I want them to have two benefits that the player has to choose from when they complete it. Then they place their tech under their tableau in such a way that the benefit they chose is displayed. Other players still need to be able to research the tech as well. So I have to figure that one out. Technologies give a free die and 2 benefits for completing it. The die is for the one who completes it first. You’ll want to complete it for the benefits and possibly for the achievements as well.

Wonders need to be designed. They are an ongoing project which is another place to dump dice. Each has a number of stages that need to be completed and each stage provides something interesting to the player completing them. I was going to have players draft their wonders, but then I realized that may break balance if someone has played a particular wonder enough to figure out tricks and grabs it every time they play (to go first, second, last, whatever). Random distribution is the best bet here.

One last thing on the dice: I’m debating making dice a limited resource and it may enforce player interaction to gain those resources. I like the idea, but I have to figure out if it’s feasible.

I hope with the initial game that there is enough randomness and components that the game has a lot of replayability. The game is being designed for 2-4 players with a customized 54-card deck of cards, a number of dice, and 10 cubes (or meeples) per player. That’s quite a number of components. So I may look at going into a digital version first and a physical version after. Again, something I’m examining.

Back to dev and work! Hope my meanderings are somewhat interesting to you!

Taking a Step Back to Leap Forward

While looking at my notes for Die Civilization (DieCiv), I began to feel like I was burying myself in bricks and concrete in an effort to build a house. I was trying to assign actions and effects to all the research dice and production dice, effects for the technologies, benefits for not rolling flat-out successes, and a whole slew of other things.

In essence, I was looking at the trees and ignoring the bear barreling down on me from behind…

So, I took a step back and asked myself a few questions:

  • What do I want to do with this game?
  • What roles do the dice play?
  • What roles do the technologies play?
  • Are technologies and achievements worth it?
  • Are the dice worth it?

And I asked myself a few others. I thought about the questions at hand and tackled them individually instead of all together. I applied a principle I learned years ago in programming called functional decomposition. Generally, you take all the stuff that does the same thing, create a function then when you need to do that thing, you call the function. So I pulled out everything that was doing the same thing and set that stuff aside.

I sat back and looked at what was left over and realized that what I was making the dice do more than necessary. Two dice act as limiters in addition to their normal functions and I really like that idea. But what about the other dice?

I realized that those benefits would be better served as bonuses provided by the technologies! Wow, now technologies have more of a reason (I’d spoken with a friend about this previously) to exist and dice are FAR less complicated.

Imagine that, even though I’m microscopically attuned to the game, I was able to take a step back, look at things from a different perspective (thanks to my programming experience) and rework things so that the game would turn out even better than the pre-alpha playtest turned out!

I’ll be working on this one for a long time, but I have at least 7 level 1 technologies that will start off with some good abilities! Now I just have to figure out which research matches which technology and to which color the technology belongs.

Balancing a Game for Pre-Alpha Testing

I am, by no stretch of the imagination, not a mathematician. My brain doesn’t quite work with O(), derivations, integrations, Omega, or natural logs (or any kind of logs, really). But when designing a game, unless you have a number monkey on your team, you have to sit down and hammer out equations, checks, and balances to ensure one player can’t overrun everyone else through mathematical exploits.

Since I am not a mathematician, I generally lack the patience to research proper theory about statistical analysis of randomness in games. I find reading proofs boring and I subconsciously ignore any and all math equations. This isn’t helpful when trying to figure out the best cost-to-player ratio of in-game assets, or how many dice is appropriate for the start of a game. I have to rely on the games I’ve played and a cursory glance at how the mechanics for these issues were designed (from a player’s perspective) for those titles.

That being said, I am by no means a slouch when it comes to understanding mathematics. I needed quite a lot of it for my graduate work in computer science. I’ve found that some basic knowledge in statistics and algebra will go a long way to a pre-alpha or prototype version of a game.

I’m going to use Die Civilization (DieCiv) as my example game since I’m working on it as we speak. The original game required a LOT of custom dice—ten with different colored faces. Each die was somewhat unique in that I used frequency analysis on the cards for a game called Innovation (by Carl Chudyk). I went through each age the cards represented and figured out the frequency of each color icon as it appeared in that age. With that frequency analysis, I was able to determine how many faces on each of the ten dice were of any particular color. Each die represented an age in Innovation, so I had a way to collect resource cubes with dice.

It was pretty exciting! The problem came when players began to interact. It was done through combat, posturing of red and green cubes, actions that happened during, before, and after combat, and a whole slew of other complications. The resource market was meant to be both functional and thematic in that you built a pyramid of the resources and had to spend resources to get more. The game became slow and sluggish. Not fast and sleek like Roll Through the Ages.

So I went back to the drawing board. I’d done a lot of footwork and guesswork with the previous incarnation (I believe v1.1a), but the game didn’t feel right. I wanted a push-your-luck game. I wanted a game that allowed you to do things with the dice, not with a bajillion cubes.

Enter DieCiv version 2.0a. There will be a lot of dice in the initial game (approximately 58) that represent concepts such as production and manpower to agriculture and combat units. The majority of the game’s mechanics rests on two different concepts: success/failure and point accumulation.

The problem with balance is introducing technologies which will cost research and production points to claim. Also, the type of research needed, how much the technology costs, and the benefits the technologies provide. In addition, each type of research die provides a benefit if the success doesn’t happen.

That is a lot of probability, luck, and math. We have to look at luck mitigation techniques in case someone just has a bad time with the dice. We have to look at limiters in case someone is having a wonderful time with the dice. And we have to weigh in the probability of the draw of cards from the technologies, wonders, and achievements.

This is not a light game. During the first playtest, the pre-alpha (of which there will be many), the game lasted for over one-and-a-half hours. The interesting thing about the experience is that even though we were tweaking and talking about what was going on as we played, it felt like twenty to thirty minutes. We had fun, never got bored, and played strategically. The rules as written (RAW) made us think about nearly every move. I wish all playtests were like that.

In any case, to balance the game for the playtest, we used Innovation’s cards as the technologies (because that’s what they are). We found that the lack of certain icons on these cards was keeping us from even looking at the majority of the components for DieCiv. We also discovered that purchase prices for the technologies were rather…low. Victory points were…OK (twice the technology level for the first one to complete the tech’s acquisition, the tech level otherwise). And the cards were definitely large enough for the size cubes we were using.

I need to look into balancing seven dice across eight cards (eight per tech level) so that there’s a chance that players will see most, if not all, of the dice in the game. There are ways to acquire all the dice which are a part of the catch-up/luck mitigation mechanic. So their abilities can be used once acquired.

To that end, I have decided there are three total requirements to purchase a technology:
1) A research success for each color shown on the card,
2) Production points of a certain amount, modified by tech level,
3) and at least one production point produced by a die that matches the card’s color.

Now it’s a matter of choosing the colors of the cards, the colors of the icons, the cost of the cards, and whether or not I have variable numbers of required research icons on them. Additionally, do I want to add a tech tree to ensure players progress through certain technology chains? Well, that’s a question to answer another day. For now, I’m just going to make my closing remarks.

When you’re working on a game for the first time make sure you play a lot of pre-alpha and alpha playtests before you move into the beta state. Refine your rules as you go along and observe any outliers which may cause the game to break down.

In terms of balance, it’s important to know approximately what you’re looking for in the components. Nothing has to be laid out in a plan or set in stone! You’re trying to get a feel for how the game plays, how long it takes, and what you need to keep your eye on. Balance can be as simple as using another game’s components and expanding from there. It can be more complicated by studying up on the mathematics behind all of your mechanics.

Me? I carry a notebook and pen with me when I’m designing to jot down ideas whenever they show up. I sketch out layouts and how things may look down the road. I draw a lot of diagrams trying to figure out placement, how many things of something I need, averages of dice rolls, and point systems.

This may have been a ramble, but I hope you walk away with a little insight into what I’m doing and maybe some of it can help you…

Why I Love Innovation’s Mechanics

I’ve been playing games for quite some time. Many of those games have a card component where you either follow the instructions on the card or you add values together from one or more cards.

Games like War, Hearts, Spades, Cribbage, Poker, Go Fish!, and others have been staples in my gaming pantry for years. It’s pretty easy to pull out a deck of Bicycle cards and play Solitaire, Tri-Peaks, or Old Maid. And games like these tend to be “time passers” rather than for excitement.

In the nineties, Magic: The Gathering changed all of that for me. Cards were no longer about a value or a suit. They were instead creatures, spells, enchantments, and artifacts. Taking my love of fantasy into a new realm and making cards a part of a strategic game more akin to my beloved Stratego.

Since then, I’ve discovered other games that use cards in ways different than the traditional value comparison, set collection, or point accumulation games. I’ve seen games where cards represent units in an army (Summoner Wars), creatures (Talisman, Magic), or abstract ideas (Dixit).

My favorite, thus far, has been from Innovation. Cards represent technologies during certain ages of human history. But that’s not the mechanic. Splaying (or fanning cards in a particular direction) is where this game is unique.

We’ve seen splaying when people hold their cards or when a prestidigitator fans cards out on the table for someone to choose. But innovation does this in an interesting way.

Each card has four icons on it. One hexagonal and three square icons. Each icon represents something, an abstract something, about human culture, society, religion, or other ideal. The splaying mechanic is what makes these icons, or rather the placement of the icons, unique and interesting.

If the pile of cards you are splaying (a single-card pile cannot splay) is splayed left, the pile shifts to the left until the right-most icon on each card is displayed. If the cards are splayed right, the two icons on the left of the card are displayed. And finally, if the cards are splayed up, then there are three icons at the bottom of the card that are displayed.

Each time you splay your piles (Innovation has from one to five piles per player) your civilization becomes stronger. The more icons of a particular type that are visible, the more adept your civilization is at performing card actions associated with that icon. This means that your attacks will work more often, or that you will share your actions far less. But this also means that you get to partake in other player’s shared actions, which gives you board and/or card advantage in many situations.

I enjoyed the splaying mechanic so much, I designed a game called GalaXism off of that mechanic. In this game, you are piloting a starship. Each part of your ship is a stack of cards (starting at one card per stack) with one stack in the starboard, port, aft, fore, and command sections of the ship. Each card has icons which represent weapons, shields, armor plating, thrusters (a fast ship), maneuverability (an agile ship), and initiative (a trained crew). You ready weapons by choosing a stack and splaying that stack to a level equal to the number of weapon icons on the top card. So, if you have one icon, you splay to “Shift Level One” which equates to splaying left. If you have four weapon icons, you splay to “Shift Level Four” which shows all icons on all lower cards. This is slightly expanded from Innovation.

Overall, the mechanic is pretty awesome and I believe very usable for different genres of games. GalaXism suffers from an unbalanced set of icons (one player can turtle so effectively, nobody can hit him) and a cumbersome tableau. Shifting all those piles of cards around then back again makes it somewhat sloppy to play. I consider this game to be a success at re-purposing a mechanic, changing the theme if you will, but a failure as a fast, fun game.

The game has gone back to the drawing board to be redesigned for more components and to allow for some balance to be added. Until those rules are ironed out, I’m going to enjoy playing Innovation, well when my gaming crew is in the mood for it that is.

What Does IGLPR Mean to Me?

It seems that I’m releasing an Indie Game Let’s Play & Review (IGLPR) video every day now. What started out as an attempt to break into the world of Let’s Plays and Minecraft has instead turned into applying my computer science education to indie game reviews.

 

You see, an IGLPR isn’t a method for me to get new games to play. It’s all about providing feedback to the game developer by using elements of a usability test. This is a type of analytic tool that developers employ to better understand how users interact with software. Usually, a person who is taking a usability test is given a script to follow that asks for specific actions to accomplish. “Open a document from the USB drive”, for example. The user is expected to perform the action and describe what they’re doing, what they’re thinking about, and other factors in their experience in performing the task requested. There are usually several tasks, questionnaires, and maybe a short survey. All of this data is recorded, whether it’s a good experience, bad experience, how difficult or easy the tasks were, and things of that nature. The developer then has information that can be acted upon to make an interface easier or more intuitive to use. You see, usability testing is a valuable tool that allows a developer to improve a product and make the user experience (or UX) more “enjoyable” for those who are the intended audience.

 

Usability testing is not the same thing as alpha or beta testing. These types of tests are used to find and report bugs, for the most part, and are usually not set in a controlled environment.

 

From my time as a game dev (very limited at that), I usually had one or two people to bounce ideas off of and check out my game’s interface or limited functionality. Usually, I got feedback that was meant to make me happy or to encourage me to continue. I love my friends for thinking of my feelings like that, but as a developer, I want the good, the bad, and the ugly for what I’m presenting. If a feature sucks, tell me with all the vitriol in the world if that’s how it makes you feel. If something is awesome, praise it if that’s what you want to do. If something needs work, give it the praise or hate you feel fit to provide and then suggest alternate methods to how you would like to see the interface handled. I didn’t really have that. And any time I got a partner to work with, I did the communication, the work, and then things fizzled with me holding the project and doing it by myself anyway. Which ultimately lead to failure. Which is not a bad thing, in and of itself, just something that kept me from getting something out there in a more permanent fashion.

 

The long and the short of it is: If you’re working as a solo developer, it is really, really frustrating and difficult to get good, honest feedback. Especially if you don’t have presence in the indie dev world. It is very hard to do everything yourself. It is very easy to become invested in the way you present a game, design the interface, apply the mechanics and physics of the world. You become too close to what you’ve created and that means you generally don’t see things as clearly as an “outsider” might.

 

So, with my IGLPR videos, I provide a valuable service. First and foremost, I provide a first look/first play of a game. I refuse to do an IGLPR for any game I’ve played before. Why? Because that initial reaction you get from a new player can’t be captured after the first time the game is played.

 

I play many games without reading the instructions first. Why? Because that’s how an average person is going to play the game. They are going to start it up and jump right in, feet first, shouting about their new game all the way until they hit that wall. If there are in-game instructions, that makes things easier. Though, if it’s a lot to read, I’ll skip right to the action and start playing, using the in-game instructions as a reference. This shows how intuitive the game is to play, how easy it is for a new user to start the game and just go.

 

I ignore the graphics, audio, technical aspects, and gameplay when I give a rating. Sure, I comment on how they look, whether they’re pleasing or whatnot, but these things are superfluous and can change at the drop of a hat. The only thing I harp on is the ability to customize a user’s controls. There are many people who aren’t right/left handed, that are handicapped, or have issues with certain control setups (WASD irritates me). Without giving the users the ability to change how they interact with your game is a sure-fire way to lose those players.

 

I play the game for roughly twenty to thirty minutes, though sometimes the length can get out of hand if I’m really enjoying a game or if the game is really complex. Even games that are simple to play and have rounds that last only a minute or so get at least a full twenty.

 

And why do I do this? Why do I do it free of charge? Well, it’s my hope that I can help devs improve their games and make them more fun. A lot of indie devs can’t afford to pay for proper usability tests and, to be honest, I don’t think many even realize that they can do this. They’ve heard of playtesting (alpha or beta) or unit testing but may have never even heard of a usability test before.

 

In the end, I hope this helps get my name out there, that I’m here to help others, and that I can become a successful game reviewer. I hope that one day I can do this for a living, devote more time to it, and have fun doing it.

 

Well, this was a bit of a chaotic read. I hope you got a bit out of it. And, as always, this is Excalibur. And I’m out.

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