Ridere, ludere, hoc est vivere.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Tale of Two Game Designs

Burton ship, image courtesy of
www.beer-pages.com
I've actually had two game designs in work.  I've already mentioned one, "East India Company," and today I typed up a number of rules changes based on the Father's Day playtest session that went so well.  I feel like just a few minor adjustments have really improved the initial setup (making sure that the initial commodity-colony tiles are not too far away from Europe), end game (going through two-thirds of the tiles rather than just half), dividend declaration mechanic (simplified to a table-read of dividends-to-points), cheaper ship construction, cheaper colony investment for taxes, and more appropriate physical component sizes.  I'm almost ready for another playtest.

I haven't mentioned the other work-in-progress, which I actually put together sooner and playtested a few times already.  This earlier design has the working title "Supply and Demand."  The board is a matrix with axes indicating supply (horizontal) and demand (vertical).  A cross-reference of each index yields a commodity price on the board.  A transparent marker on the board shows the current price of the commodity.  Players get partial information into cards that show positive or negative movement in supply and/or demand.  Players then buy and sell "contracts" among each other at whatever price they think will earn a profit when all the cards are played face up and the final market price resolved.  Players who bought markers have to sell them to the bank at the final market price; those who sold markers to other players have to buy them back at the final market price.  So a profit is made when a player bought lower or sold higher than the final market reconciliation price.  After two playtests (one at home, one with my local gaming group), I made some simplifications and other improvements.  I think the result is pretty smooth and ready for some serious attention.

The problem is that I just read on Seth Jaffee's blog about a very similar-sounding game called Panic by James Earnest, Greg Parsons, and Mick Sullivan.  This seems to be the story of my short game-design life.  I could dedicate an entire blog post to games I've designed just in time to discover another professionally made game that already does what I was trying to do, better than I did myself.

Oh, and now I find that there is already a computer game with the title East India Company, so I guess I will probably have to change the working title of my colonization-trade game, too.

Nature of the beast, I guess.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

East India Company: Father's Day playtest

Image courtesy of
www.nostalgicbay.com
My wife asked me what I wanted to do for Father's Day, and the answer was easy:  I wanted the whole family to playtest my game design work-in-progress, "East India Company."  So this afternoon was the first true playtest of EIC with real people.

Rules explanation took rather a long while, and the game started slow.  I was really afraid that I was going to lose the attention of my 11-year-old altogether.  But as the game started to flow and he started to get the knack of how it worked, he really started to enjoy it.

EIC involves loading money on ships, sending them to far-flung colonies to buy products, and then sailing them to another location to sell for profit.  Early on, only a few colonies produce only a few things, and the only market at which to sell them is Europe.  Generally, the more distant colonies produce the more profitable goods, so there is something of a trade-off with respect to profit vs. opportunity cost.

One fear I had in the early design stages was that the game was too linear and that a few basic strategies would dominate the game.  That didn't turn out to be the case at all in our playtest.  My youngest son took the short route to West Africa, bought tobacco there, and sold it in Europe for a modest profit.  The up-front cost was so low that he could afford a second ship, and before long he had a tobacco profit engine going as a reliable source of income.  My wife went for the long-haul big-money strategy.  She sent a ship all the way to China for a load of spices.  Unfortunately, she ended up without enough capital to send a second ship anywhere else, so she spent a good part of the game (eight turns) waiting for her China spice ship to come in.  I took the middle ground, picking up ivory in East Africa.  My 16-year-old was the big gambler; he took out a loan, invested in new colonies, and levied tariffs all over the trading world trying to make money off other traders (or else keep the best markets for himself).  So I was very gratified that the system motivated multiple approaches.

I found a number of significant (but not back-breaking) flaws and took a lot of notes.  Perhaps the biggest was my wife's down-time waiting for her slow boat from China.  All of her capital was tied up in her Chinese venture, and because it took so long to make the round trip (and no other spice markets opened up until late in the game), she didn't realize her profit until halfway through the game.  Until that happened, she was just passing in every Market Phase, unable to take any other Market actions while we were all loading and unloading ships in ports closer to home.  Now, admittedly, an option she chose not to exercise was to take out a loan from the European banks and finance a second ship to develop an income stream.  She took a conservative approach in that regard, and I wonder whether loans are too burdensome to motivate borrowing.  It's hard to tell whether the game is flawed, or whether I just need to tweak the risk-reward balance so that players may reasonably finance trade ventures if the profit margin outweighs the interest.

I also had a few physical lessons learned, just in terms of game piece sizes and how they obscure information when placed on the board with each other.  Levying a tariff involves placing a poker chip and a player marker on top of the colony commodity tile; that placement prevents reading the tile without moving the tariff marker.  Also, the ships were so small relative to the poker chips that it was hard to tell the nationality of any ship with money on it.

All of us were reluctant or unable to build any ship bigger than a brigantine (the smallest size) until very late in the game, at which point the money invested in a bigger vessel is unlikely to be made back before the game ends.  I think I need to make ships easier to build.  Part of the issue in this particular session is that so few colonies produced timber, normally the most common product of all.  And cheap timber facilitates inexpensive ship construction.  In fact, six of the seven colonies could produce timber, but only one timber production tile came out during the game.  So timber was less common in our session than it would normally be.

Nutmeg from Spice Islands,
Indonesia - image courtesy
www.littlesmileorganic.com
But that uncharacteristic scarcity of timber actually evinces a strong positive feature of this game.  Tile draws determine which colonies produce or consume which goods.  I think the game gets a lot of replay value from the different trade relationships that can develop among the colonies.  In our game, it happened that China produced spices and consumed tobacco.  So we found great profitability in sending a ship to West Africa with just enough money for a load of tobacco, which it would bring to China and sell for more than enough money to buy a load of spices, which in turn brought a hefty profit back in Europe.  The net profit margin for the entire trip was therefore enormous.

I had some ideas for player's aids as well.  Some mechanics (especially declaring dividends for bonus points) seem more complicated than they need to be, so I should rework those for smoother execution.  And the early game seemed (to my family at least) to be very slow, only to end abruptly just when it seemed to be really picking up steam.  So I'll probably adjust the starting conditions and game end triggers.

But the great thing about the whole experience is that my eleven-year-old said several times afterward, "I really like that game," all the more gratifying after his early-game confusion and difficulty.  Once he got the hang of it (which really started to click for him when his tobacco route kept making money), he really enjoyed it.  I think everybody did, and I really appreciated their patience and willingness to be my Guinea pigs for an afternoon.  The bottom line is that I think the game is fundamentally sound and that I just have some adjustments to make to get it in good running order.

I'm very excited about where EIC is going.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Boardgames in the backyard: Perry Rhodan returns

The first time we tried Perry Rhodan: The Cosmic League in the backyard was the first time either of us had played.  It's not a complicated game, but it does take us a little while to come up to speed, so we never finished our first game.  But today we sat down out on the rocking bench in the backyard with our chips and salsa and cocktails, and launched right into outer space for our second round of PR:TCL.

Spring weather brings out the shorts and the backyard boardgames.
Before long, we were picking up and delivering all over the Rhodan solar system.  We came to understand the importance of acquiring technologies early.  We had essentially the same technologies in play by the mid-game, except that Kathy picked up an extra Replenishment card that I never matched.  That extra card draw might have made the difference in the game in the long run.  The lead changed hands several times before Kathy came up with several strong turns and pulled away for a big win.  

As I mentioned before, the game fits snugly on the little glass top table we have out back.  No board in the conventional sense, the play area consists of a sun for a point/money track, six planets in a line, and their associated goods cards alongside them.  There are not a lot of small parts that can get lost off the table into the paver gravel.  Card play is manageable in the available space.  The game play is pretty engaging despite a fairly small set of moving parts.  In our search for games that work outside, this one is a winner.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

East India Company: First prototype playthrough

Sir James Lancaster, commander of
the first East India Company voyage
This new game design project "East India Company" really has lit a fire under me.  In two days I put together a rough prototype and conducted a solitaire run-through to see what works and what doesn't.  I took some notes for immediate rework, like adjusting the commodity market prices to make them more profitable.  (No sense in sailing all the way to east Africa and back if you can't turn a profit on a shipload of goods.)  I also need players to each have his own colored ships (rather than common ships with player markers to distinguish who owns which).

I finally learned why so many games use tile pulls rather than card draws for some randomization functions.  It's very difficult to shuffle cards that have information on both sides without inadvertently compromising the randomness and uncertainty.  So right away I know I'm going to replace the 21 colony-commodity cards with tiles in a tile bag.  (I'm not sure how I'm going to do home-made tiles for my next prototype; I'm open to ideas if any reader has some.)  Right away, that fixes the two-sided card problem, plus tiles will take up a lot less room on the board.  My first prototype map was enormous (three-quarters of the dining room table), but now I have a way to scale everything down to much more manageable dimensions.

A lot went right in this play-through, though.  The mechanic I came up with for pirates and rebellions works very well - significant enough to require some risk management, but not an outrageous random turn of fate that shifts the balance of the game.  I think I like the way I have trade routes laid out on the map.  There is a nice conundrum between shipping cheap timber in from colonies to build ships, or to pay for the timber in Europe at premium prices to save time.  Many things seem to have worked right the first go-round on the table.

I think I should type out all the rules before my next play-through.  I found that I kept changing the order of events in the market phase, which means I haven't got a clear idea of how it should really go.  Putting it down in writing should clarify my thinking on that part of the game.  I'm also happy with how the loan mechanism works.  I had one "player" go into debt to finance an expedition, but the interest payments started exceeding his cash flow, to the point where he needed a subsequent loan just to finance the first debt.  Classic money management problem.

The bottom line is that I've accomplished more in about three days with "East India Company" than I did in many months with "Gold on Mars."  I'm really excited about this project.  More to follow, I'm sure.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Sometimes it takes a whole new theme

I had not been able to make my interplanetary mining game "Gold on Mars" work in a way that made sense to me.  I was frustrated with trying to model space flight in a workable yet representative way.  Things just weren't making sense on the drawing board.  And the things that did make sense ended up looking too much like High Frontier.  I shared the difficulties I was having with my game-playing historical-mystery-writing wife, and she said, "instead of setting it in the future, have you considered setting it in the past?"

Coins of the Modern East India Company of England
Image courtesy of emeritus.ancients.info
It wasn't long before I had turned the theme around completely.  My working title is "East India Company."  Instead of CEOs of aerospace mining companies, players in this new design represent 18th century investment and trade companies. Players seek exotic commodities in far-flung places of the New World and the Far East, rather than rare earths among the inner planets and the moons of the gas giants.  Ships travel by trade winds rather than rocket fuel.  The result is a much more elegant design, eminently more playable, one that retains the commodity market elements that I really wanted to keep without a lot of unnecessary complications that I had adopted in the course of trying to make space flight investment work.

I've sketched out a basic map and typed up an initial set of cards, each of which describes a marketable product from a colony somewhere around the world.  Players will seek to monopolize colonies, build ships, and find ideal trade routes to maximize profits.  One element that I have just begun to consider is the ability to corner a market and how that might improve profitability.  Trade with the most active colonies will be threatened by pirates as well.

I've pretty much got the entire concept in my head and the most crucial, numerical elements on paper.  The next step is, naturally, a playable prototype, followed by playtesting.  I'm hopeful that I've got a good concept that I can develop into a game that crosses commodities trading with pickup-and-deliver in a fun, approachable way.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Boardgames in the Backyard II: Discovering Perry Rhodan

(c) Z-man Games
Used by permission
As a joint birthday gift, my good friend Grant G. gave Kathy and me a copy of Perry Rhodan: The Cosmic League (designer Heinrich Glumpler, artist Swen Papenbrock [webpage in German], publisher Z-man Games).  Grant knows that I play more games with Kathy in a two-player format than I do any other format with anyone else, which makes PR:TCL a particularly thoughtful gift.  As it happens, I'd read a few reviews and already tagged it as a "must have" on my wish list, so I was particularly happy to receive it.

We finally got it to the table during one of our few cocktail hours this week, in the backyard on a beautiful spring afternoon.  (She had a French 75; I had a Margarita.)  We discovered that Perry R. sets up very comfortably on our little outdoor table - a sun with a spiral scoring track, a row of six planets, and five goods cards alongside each planet.  The game is compact, visually very appealing, and relatively quick to set up.  We both picked up the rules fairly quickly.  Money and victory points are equivalent; the first player to reach 70 currency units wins the game.  (The names of the planets, the races, and even the unit of currency are ridiculous and nearly unpronounceable, so I won't bother to look them up and repeat them here.)

Agent Infiltration intervention card
Image uploaded to
boardgamegeek.com
by David Gerrard
Each turn consists of a move action, two planetary actions (load a container with goods, unload a container to sell the goods, or buy a permanent technology), and two interventions (single-play action cards).  Those five steps can be taken in any order, so it is not uncommon to load a container (first planetary action), move to another planet (move action), unload a container (second planetary action), and perhaps play one or two intervention cards, such as delivering a passenger to his/her/its home planet.  Unloading containers and delivering passengers gain money, i.e. victory points.

Some interventions are innocuous, but others have a "take that" flavor, such as switching locations with your opponent or switching contents of containers.  Kathy seemed to get the knack of the game first, but I found my groove and caught up to her after a few turns.  The lead traded hands a few times before we had to stop the game prematurely for dinner.  (We had a late start from having to learn the rules - not uncommon when we pick up a game for the first time).

So we came away with a very favorable impression of PR:TCL as a light, compact, fun game with quite a bit of nuance and tactics to keep it interesting.  I think card luck might turn out to be a significant factor as we play it more, but tactical decision-making still seems to count heavily on the game progress.  We look forward to trying it again.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Sand-blasted in Samarkand

(c) Queen Games
Used by permission
In my last post, I mentioned that I'd picked up Robber Knights as an after-thought in the FunAgain Games spring cleaning sale.  But the game that I snapped up with deliberate intent in that sale as soon as I saw it was Samarkand: Routes to Riches (designers David V.H. Peters and Harry Wu, artist Jo Hartwig, publisher Queen Games).  I had put this game high on my wish list after reading good reviews and then realizing that its designers included Harry Wu, inventor of one of my very favorite games, Chicago Express.

As I read the rules the first time, I feared that S:RtR would turn out to be a warmed-over version of CE.  Camels replace trains, merchant families replace railroad companies, ... was it just a variation on a theme?  But now that Kathy and I have a played it through a second time, I realize that S:RtR is a different game altogether, one in which a few similar mechanics are combined in some altogether new ways to make for a completely different decision space.  

Each turn a player may take one of two actions:  Pay a dowry to marry into a merchant family, or expand the trade routes of a merchant family into which he or she has already married.  Merchant families form trade relationships when their trade routes meet for the first time.  Players earn points for forming trade relationships involving families into which they are married.  Among other things, points are also scored for trade routes that reach trade locations corresponding to goods whose cards they hold - with a bonus for being married into the family of such a trade route.  

Cocktails and camel trails
The result is a game that encourages network-building among trading families, with a premium on being married into the right families and on initiating the trade relationships.  I'm reminded of an article (or podcast perhaps) I came across some weeks ago that discussed the transitional course of some games, particularly network-building games, where things seem to happen in isolation early in the game and then reach a kind of tipping point in which every move seems to create another connection.  Acquire is an example of such a game, in which hotel tiles are added in bits and pieces around the board early on, until before you know it, medium-sized hotels are taking over other hotels and forming huge hotels over the course of just a few turns.  Ticket to Ride can be the same way, as train routes suddenly start to collide.  It's almost avalanche-like in the way the game accelerates into a phase-transition from the early stages to the end-game dynamic.
Dromedaries dot the landscape of the Middle East

The significance of this network-building effect is that players need to be alert to the fact that strategy changes drastically as the tipping point is approached.  In our game this afternoon, I played very conservatively early on, not wanting to deplete the resources of the families into which I'd married by expanding the camel routes too rapidly.  I thought I had a sound, methodical approach to the game.  Kathy and I developed trade routes practically on opposite sides of the board, and I actually worried at one point that we might not interact at all, and that the game would be very boring.

Kathy's mercantile in-laws
That changed rapidly when I married into the Alan (yellow) family, where Kathy already had an interest.  Suddenly neither of us could take for granted where the camels of the Alan family would go.  She soon responded by marrying into the Hun (black) family that had been my focus area for much of the early game.  Meanwhile, she also developed a number of trade relationships among her own families and snapped up goods tokens at every opportunity.  She made the point-gathering transition much faster than I did, and before long she was moving to trigger game-end.  Suddenly I found myself scrambling to grab points that I thought I'd be able to accumulate at my leisure.

The end result was that Kathy beat me in every category of victory points with a final score of 83 to 61.  Clearly I had been out-married, out-traded, out-cameled, and out-cashed.  We both had a great time with Samarkand, and next time I will be watching out much more closely for the network avalanche.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Boardgames in the backyard: Robber Knights

Now that the weather is nice, the annual challenge for Kathy and me is to find two-player games for our cocktail hour that work on the tiny glass outdoor coffee table that we have in the backyard.  We have a number of favorites that I'll discuss in the coming weeks, but today's game, Robber Knights (designer RĂ¼diger Dorn [website in German], artist Michael Menzel [website in German], publisher Queen Games) is a recent discovery that is quick, compact, and a tight game-playing challenge.

I came by Robber Knights as an afterthought during the FunAgain Games 2012 spring cleaning sale (which at this writing is still going on).  RK was one of those checkout-window, "hey, by the way, before you go, we're selling RK at 67% off - why don't you throw that one in your shopping cart, too?" kind of links (which at this writing is apparently still available at that price).  For ten bucks, based on a cursory review of the boardgamegeek.com entry, I decided to take a chance on it.

We've played twice now, and I have to say that RK is a clever little game-playing challenge.  Players lay up to three tiles in a turn.  Tiles depict various terrain, some of which (cities, villages, castles) are worth points if controlled by a player's knight at the end of the game.  At the time a castle tile is laid, a player may deploy knights from that castle along a row or column of previously laid tiles to claim them.  Previously claimed tiles can be subsequently claimed by an opponent's knight, but only if certain movement and stacking constraints are satisfied.  Once deployed, knights do not move for the rest of the game; they simply hold claim to the tile until it is taken by another player.  So the strategy comes in laying tiles in a way that allows one's own knights to lay claim to points while leaving tiles minimally vulnerable to knights of other players in subsequent turns.

I think of this game as a cross between Carcassone (tactical tile-laying) and Othello (row/column driven shifting control of spaces on the board).  The "robber knight" theme is minimally engaging; the game is abstract to all intents and purposes, and as it happens, that suits me just fine in this case.

Kathy and I have played twice.  In the first game a week or so ago, our scores were tied by pure luck of fumbling around trying to figure out the tactics and techniques of taking and protecting points and preserving resources.  The rate at which you use up tiles and knights is discretionary - one to three tiles laid per turn, and zero to five knights deployed every time you lay a castle tile.  Once you've deployed your last knight, you can gain no more points.  Once you've laid your last tile, you're done with the game while the other player(s) continue until all tiles have been laid.  We haven't quite established whether there is an advantage in harboring tiles for the end of the game, but it certainly seems important to keep track of how many castles you've laid relative to how many knights you've deployed.

In today's game, we played much more quickly than in our first round, albeit more thoughtfully and more conservatively.  We were not eager to spend knights or lay three tiles in a turn unless sure that the point return was worth it or the points acquired would be safe from re-claiming.  I won this afternoon's game by five points, owing in part to one turn of perfect tile luck in which I drew a city, a village, and a castle and was able to deploy five knights to score eight points (including a village that was already on the board) in a protected location that Kathy could not come back and claim later.

I should point out that although tile luck is a bit of a factor, it is tightly mitigated by a semi-ordered tile stack. I'm reminded of the cards in The Speicherstadt, which are divided into four "seasons" that are each shuffled independently and then stacked to form a semi-ordered draw pile.  Here in RK, a player's tiles come in five ordered groups of five shuffled tiles each (plus four specific tiles on the first turn), so there is a semi-predictable distribution of castles, villages, and cities that become available over the course of the game.

Given the relatively quick play of this game, the compact table-space it occupies, and the tight tactical challenges that it offers, I expect we'll play RK a fair amount this summer.