Ridere, ludere, hoc est vivere.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Congress of Gamers 2013 Part 2: "Firebreak"

At the World Boardgaming Championships last August, I met up briefly with Charlie Hoopes but never got a chance to play his game Fill the Barn.  I had also missed out on playing "AtataT" at UnPub 3 last January.  Fortunately, I was able to make up for it at Congress of Gamers last week by playing his latest co-op prototype, "Firebreak."  We were joined by Bruce Voge of The Party Gamecast and Aaron Honsowetz and Austin Smokowicz, designers of "Post Position."
Bruce Voge, Charlie Hoopes, Austin Smocowicz, and Paul Owen playtesting "Firebreak."
Photo by Aaron Honsowetz
In "Firebreak," players are forest rangers trying to contain forest fires that are breaking out all around a national park.  Only a few sources of water are available to extinguish a conflagration.  Rangers can slow down or block the spread of flames, but a shift in wind direction can cause a fire to get out of hand in a hurry.  Rangers are particularly motivated to save deer preserves, cabins, and airports.

Our first game of "Firebreak" ends badly for Bruce, whose
ranger is surrounded by fire in the northwest corner
We played three five-player co-op sessions.  In our first round, poor Bruce got completely surrounded by the fire while gamely defending an airport.  We were soundly beaten by the forest fire, so in our second game, Charlie tried starting with just five random fires rather than six to take things down a notch.  The difference was dramatic; we had all the fires extinguished or contained in just three or four turns.  So we played one more time, going back to the initial condition of six starting blazes, and we got our pants burned off again.  Even playing out one or two turns more past the end-game trigger was insufficient to turn the tide; the fire was out of control, and there was nothing we could do about it.

It was hard to tell in just three plays whether the game really is so sensitive to such a small change in starting conditions, so Charlie will probably do more tweaking and testing to make sure the balance is right.  He mentioned that the designer of Pandemic and Forbidden Island, Matt Leacock, once commented that his target design was such that players should be able to beat a co-op game about 30% of the time.  Any easier, and the game ceases to be an interesting challenge; any more difficult, and the frustration level becomes too high.  So by that measure, Charlie may be pretty close to the right balance level already.

Some time ago I had an idea for a co-op game that I think I may dust off again when I've got "East India Company" done and out the door.  I can see from playing "Firebreak" that co-op games pose a unique design challenge, and I'm interested to explore the possibilities.


  1. Paul - Thanks for the CoG coverage!

    The Matt Leacock advice was actually a 30% lose rate for a co-op game. The win rate for the weekend was only 3 of 10, so yes, it was way off (yet it seemed to keep bringing players back for one more game to try to beat it).

    Some of the player feedback from the summertime Unpubs was "too easy". Looks like I overcompensated. Your group's experience with the difference in number of starting blazes was what I needed to realize the need to vary other factors to get the balance right.

    Maybe a co-op from Paul Owen? I would love the chance to playtest that when it comes to fruition.

  2. Can anyone explain why the design co-op win rate shouldn't be 50%?

  3. I think it's just human nature. People play a co-op game thinking that it should be beatable, so if they only win half the time, they will lose interest. But of course, if they win 90% of the time, there is no challenge. So the 70% win rate suggests that you have to play it well to win, but if you play it well, you will probably win. But I'm just guessing on the psychology of it.