Ridere, ludere, hoc est vivere.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Eagerly anticipated box art

Hey, I just got a note from my publisher with a first cut on the box art for the "eagerly anticipated game."  They've got a good artist, and he's done a great job capturing the flavor of the game.  The company has also created a new trademark, apparently for their family game line, to distinguish those titles from their traditional wargaming base.  So it's all very exciting to see come together. 

It's a little intimidating to think about how important box art is to the sales of a game, but I guess that's a fact of the marketplace.  For my part, I'd like to think the outside of a game box doesn't drive my purchase decision.  To me, the most important factor in deciding whether to buy a game is whether I've played it before.  Second is whether someone has recommended it.  Third is seeing it demonstrated, as at a convention, for example.  Fourth is whether I recognize the designer or publisher and trust that I can buy something "untried" just because of their reputation.  Seldom will I buy a game based entirely on the box, but I have done it before, and with some success (as Can't Stop) as well as with some disappointment (as Clue: Secrets and Spies).  Conversely, I've seen some games I would never put money down for, just because the outside was so poorly done. 

I'm curious to know how many people there are who will buy a game just based on what's on the outside of the box, and what they look for.  I also wonder how big a company has to be to spend time, money, and effort on real research to analyze customer reactions to box art and appearances. 

A funny thing just occurred to me:  All else being equal, I think I'd be willing to pay more for a game if it felt heavy when I picked it up.  That sounds dumb, but it's important to recognize one's own human foibles, and that's one of mine.  I specifically recall a conversation at HistoriCon with the president of one wargame company in particular.  They have some excellent naval wargames, but as we discussed the latest release and why it was priced the way it was, I casually reached down and flicked the corner of the mapsheet with my thumb.  The map was essentially a glossy poster paper mapsheet, not hard-mounted.  Mind you, the graphics were terrific, and the reputation for the series of games is excellent, but to me, if I'm going to pay a lot, it has to weigh a lot.  That's dumb, but it's true. 

Something to think about if I ever get into the production end of the business.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

There's gold in them thar moons

I'm working in earnest on an idea I've had for a while and mentioned here once or twice.  The game will be set at a time in the future when mining expeditions to other planets and moons in the solar system become cost effective.  Precious materials like gold, uranium, and tritium are scattered all over the solar system, and earth-bound industrialists will pay top dollar for them on the commodities market.  Players are CEOs of newly-capitalized mining companies seeking wealth - that is to say, "shareholder value" - by prospecting and mining rare raw materials as close as the moon and as far as Mercury or even Titan. 

This game is going to be a step up from my previous designs in terms of complexity and, I hope, nuance of game play.  The real balance I want to strike is to make sure that there is no single run-away strategy.  I want players to be motivated to take risks, but I don't want the game to devolve into a matter of dice and card luck. 

One thing I might be in danger of doing at this stage is trying to do to much.  I want to include a corporate strategy element, in which players decide how much to borrow to fund rocket missions and how much to pay in dividends to keep stockholders happy.  I also want to include a commodities market element, so that players deal with rising and falling prices of the raw materials they sell and the aerospace products and services they need.  I'm even entertaining the idea of have a futures market, so that players can sell inventory for future delivery.  I also want to have a space mission element, in which players are faced with the problems of getting equipment and crews to distant planets and moons and then retrieving the raw materials back to earth. 

I think this is going to take some real time to work out, and a lot of playtesting to be sure I have the right balance.  I really want this one to work.  I really want it to be fun.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Know when to fold 'em

With a new printer and a new set of blank business cards, I printed my first prototype of the submarine card game for which I'd adopted the title, "Enemy Unseen" (thanks to the suggestion from my gaming friend Paul R).  Although my wife Kathy isn't much for wargames, she was willing to give this one a try, just so I could test out the mechanics and see whether the rules made sense.

Right away there were some obvious problems.  First, business cards didn't shuffle well.  (This has been a problem for all my previous prototypes as well.)  Second, the font size on the submarine cards was too small.  Third, the game depends on two distinct parameters - detection range and firing range - but to the new player, they are too easily confused.  I was careful to discuss all the parameters that affect detection range first, and that went well, but as soon as I got into the mechanics of determining firing range and combat resolution, the mechanics really seemed to fall apart.

USS Scorpion
Artist - Viktor Stepansky
First, the submarines:  I included an assortment of NATO and Soviet 1970s-era submarines, both conventional and nuclear, including attack, guided-missile, and ballistic-missile boats.  The point value for each ranged from a one-point deisel attack boat to a six-point nuclear ballistic-missile submarine.  Each also had a "sonar quality" that could improve detection range by up to four kilometers (km) and a "noise factor" that could contribute to the opponent's detection range (i.e. increase the distance at which you would be detected) by up to four km.  The submarines would not be revealed until combat was initiated, so you would not know your actual detection range - nor your opponent's - until you had committed to combat.

I included some complicating factors:  Action cards could be used to modify the acoustic conditions by changing the strength of the thermal layer, or to change (secretly) a submarine's depth between "deep" (below layer) and "shallow" (above layer).  The strength of the layer and the relative depths of the two submarines would affect their detection ranges.  Also, combat options included firing a single shot, firing a salvo spread, or evading without firing. 

Image by Mike Stapp
 For the combat mechanics, I tried to work from a basic premise similar to the idea of a stand-off in an old Western movie.  At one end of the dusty town street stands the Bad Guy, pistol holstered, gun hand poised.  At the other end stands the Sheriff, likewise ready.  "Bart, I'm going to take you in."  "You're going to have to come get me, Sheriff."  One pace at a time, they approach each other, closing the range until one suddenly draws his weapon and fires.  The other draws and fires immediately as well, so that the shots are virtually simultaneous and the resolution immediate.  "You got me, Sheriff."

Okay, a little corny, but here's the point:  The gunmen approach each other until the distance between them is close enough that one of them believes he can hit his opponent, but the other hasn't drawn his weapon yet.  In other words, the distance at which shots are exchanged is the greatest distance that either of them believes he can hit the other - or, perhaps, the shortest distance that both of them feel secure that they have a reasonable chance of not being hit.  The idea is to initiate combat close enough to hit the opponent but distant enough to have a chance that the opponent's shot will miss. 

My thinking for combat resolution was that once a player decides to initiate combat at a certain "firing range," that range is compared to his "detection range" to determine the chance of hitting the opponent.  As long as the firing range is less than the detection range, there is a chance to sink the enemy - the greater the difference, the more likely the sinking.  But it must also be remembered that the opponent shoots from the same distance and compares that same firing range to his own detection range, so that if he has a better sonar and/or you have a noisier submarine, you are more likely to be sunk than to sink your opponent.

In my first iteration (which my wife and I playtested last week), I had the players "bid up the shooting range" until one of them "calls" by initiating combat.  That was really counter-intuitive to my wife:  Why would the shooting range go up if we're supposed to be getting closer together?  There were also some problems with how to force combat if one player has a high-value submarine and he just wants to get away without getting sunk.  What keeps a player from bidding up the range indefinitely until there's no way either submarine could sink the other?

Now, in both the gunslinger example and in submarine combat, it actually happens backwards - they bid down the firing range until one pulls the trigger.  Perhaps we ought to say that the players reduce the "too-far-to-shoot" range, or the "I-feel-pretty-sure-you-can't-hit-me-from-here" range, until one player decides they are close enough to take a shot.  So in my second iteration of the game (playtested the other day), I started with a set of range cards dealt face up between the players to represent the distance between the submarines.  Each player could elect to remove a range card to reduce the total range, i.e., to close with the opponent.  If a player felt the range to be close enough, he could elect to shoot, and the opponent would shoot or evade in response.

To solved the "difficult to shuffle" problem, I used some card protector sleeves (provided by my son) in several different colors (the kind used by Collectible Card Game [CCG] aficionados - you know, the Yu-Gi-Oh fanatics).  I put the Soviet submarines in red sleeves, NATO in blue, Action cards in black, and Range cards in grey.  That seemed to work very well physically.

But even the second playtest wasn't very satisfying.  Although my wife said the firing range mechanic made a lot more sense, I realized that players are not in general motivated to change the acoustic conditions, since acoustics affect both submarines in essentially the same way.  I had intended to create a certain "cat and mouse" effect, in which players tried to second-guess each other's vertical movements while attempting to close the range without getting too close.  Instead, though, we found ourselves continually closing range to some arbitrary point, and then shooting at each other.  Whoever had the better submarine generally won. 

So the bottom line is that I didn't really have the variety of options that I'd intended, I hadn't created any key decision points, and basically didn't have a game that was fun to play.  So I think "Enemy Unseen" is a bust, at least for now.  I think an important lesson in project management is to know when to kill a project that isn't working, and this might be one.  That's okay.  Not all game ideas are good game ideas.  I might go back to it again, but for now I think I'll just put it in mothballs.