A relic hunt by Jeff Warrender and Steve Sisk

Thursday, May 20, 2010

History, Part 4: The Wrong Turn

One of the attendees at our Spielbany playtests is Zev Shlassinger of Z-Man Games, and he played the game with us several times and made lots and lots of helpful suggestions. By late 2008 Steve and I felt the game was converging but Zev suggested that it lacked a certain something; that it felt too much like a Euro and that it needed to be more thematic and more immersive. We had resisted making changes of this sort because of a concern that too many additional rules would add to the game's already considerable length and complexity, which some players already found overwhelming. We concluded that any rule we'd add would likely need to be offset by removing a rule or system somewhere else.

This seemed pretty daunting, but I nevertheless went ahead and played around with a few ideas. Namely:
- When you arrive in a city, you face a challenge. Previously, the "difficulty" of the challenge was given by the number of enemy tokens in that city. This works but felt dry. I replaced it with a deck of cards for each city type, that shows a scene appropriate to that type of location (eg a library or university in a major city, a seedy bar in a rustic backwater-type location, etc), which tells you what challenge you face.
- Instead of having automatic access to theme cards, each one is hidden: you have to follow clues to find where they are located. (This seemed like a good use for all of those "location" clue cards)
- Instead of simply providing check marks on your clue sheet, the theme cards acquired all sorts of different functionalities: upgrades, special powers, etc.

For some reason, this seemed like it would work in my mind, but the very first playtest of the system failed spectacularly; after about 2 hours, I think maybe one person had acquired one piece of information. It was just too much complexity and the information hunt had become too convoluted. Still, a couple of ideas seemed promising:
- The challenge cards do seem like an easy way to add a bit of additional theming
- "Adventure cards", the game's currency, are drawn automatically rather than as a turn action -- speeds things up a bit
- The tiles representing challenges you face in the temple previously told you what category they were in; now, the backs are all the same, so there's a bit more uncertainty and "exploration" in the temple.

I think that armed with these simple changes, and integrating them into the proven system we'd already built, we're in a good position to move the game ahead to the next stage, where it's simpler and faster to play but gives a richer and more immersive player experience. We'll use this blog to post information and developments as they occur!

History, Part 3

In parallel, we settled upon another big abstraction. Originally, the game contained a "clue table", and each card gave you a unique clue. The problem was, we never came up with a great solution for how a player could know what he was going to get a clue about -- if you know the temple is in Asia but really want to find someone who knows what city it's in, how do you get that information specifically? We experimented with a few things but never found a clean solution. In the end, I suggested a different approach that we eventually adopted: Each theme card has several symbols representing "subjects about which this card has some knowledge", eg "the temple location" or "the challenges you'll face in the temple". When you track down a given theme card, instead of that card giving you a specific piece of information, what it actually gives you is a "check mark" on your player notepad, in each category about which the card has knowledge. Then, when you go to look up a clue in that category, you count how many check marks you have (1, 2, or 3) and look at a clue of the equivalent level. So, for example, a level 1 clue might tell you "the lost temple is NOT in Europe", and a level 2 clue might tell you "the lost temple is NOT in Europe but IS in a major city". This is of course an abstraction, but it represents the idea that consulting multiple sources on a subject is going to provide you with better information than consulting a single source.

The last core ingredient of the design is the Nazis, or as we call them, "the enemy". These are represented in two systems; first, there were "enemy cubes" that were placed on the various cities, and that set the difficulty level for the challenge that you face when you arrive in that city. This worked well enough, but didn't really convey the idea that players are racing against the enemy to be the first one to find the grail. Originally, this didn't bother me too much -- although the game doesn't assign roles, you can think of the other players as your rivals, and the race between players seems to capture this well enough. The problem with this system is that if the "groupthink" is such that no one rushes into the temple, and all players linger outside the temple to get perfect information, then the temple phase falls somewhat flat, and the overall feeling of the game is not as tense and suspenseful as the theme calls for. So, we added an "enemy track" that abstractly represents how close the enemy is to finding the temple or the lost relic, and once it reaches 0, the game ends. What's more, the rate at which the marker on the track progresses accelerates as the game goes on, which gives a heightened sense that "time is running out."

With these ideas in hand, Steve built a lovely prototype and we began testing the game extensively at "Spielbany" (
http://www.spielbany.com/)", our quarterly playtest gathering. Our friend Seth Jaffee was also kind enough to print the game and play it quite a few times with various groups. The feedback we received helped us tremendously to sharpen the game's focus, so that the excitement of being in an IJ movie could come through more clearly. During this process, one realization we made was that the clue categories ("where is the temple?", "what feature contains the grail?", etc) were each independent of the other categories, meaning that instead of a single clue/solution table for each adventure, we could create cards that would have clues on the front, solution elements on the back, and have a separate deck for each clue category. Each time you play the game, you shuffle each clue category's deck, take the top card, and begin playing. So we have a system that provides unlimited replayability, which we found very exciting.

History, Part 2

One of the first contributions Steve made to the game was also one of the most important. The design I was pursuing was really more of an archaeology game, with players traipsing around, investigating dusty old museums, interviewing locals about long-forgotten lore, etc. I think in retrospect, I wanted to design something that sounded similar to Mad Monks and Relics in scope, but with abstractions that probably eventually would have resulted in a game like Thebes. Steve correctly observed that you can't have an Indiana Jones game without the Nazis. He pushed for a more "cinematic" feel to the game, with more action, and a game flow that would be built more around players having to face Nazi challenges and to outpace them to discover a lost temple, wherein the relic was contained.

Steve also successfully advocated for several conceptual changes to the game. The most significant of these was to build the game's action around visiting "theme cards", cards that correspond to characters and items from a given film (eg "Henry Jones Sr.", "the Grail Diary", etc). We decided that each card would give you access to some particular clue in some sort of clue table, possibly a paragraph book like in Tales of the Arabian Nights.

But what do the clues tell you? Our first approach was to loosely emulate the story-line of The Last Crusade, and so the clues became centered around "where is the lost temple?", and "what challenges will I have to pass in order to get through the lost temple and find the grail?" Our first attempt involved a temple consisting of 6 steps, straight in a row, each requiring you to pass a challenge (spend some cards). If you looked up the clues corresponding to the challenges, you would know what cards to load up on, so there was a nice risk/reward balance, but nevertheless, we found that (a) generally, the first person in the temple would just run through the whole thing in one shot, and, more importantly, (b) it was kind of boring. It didn't feel like an exciting climax to the fast-paced information hunt.

We developed a more involved temple phase in which players had to actually enter the temple (represented variously by cards and tiles at various stages of development), and navigate their way through it to get to the objective. We began with a "structured" temple setup, in which there was a best path through the temple that was provided by the clues, but have since moved to a temple whose layout is random, and whose important features are governed by the clues. So, the game doesn't actually "know" where the grail is located, but it knows what "feature" contains the grail, and you go through the temple, testing different features until you find the right one. This is an abstraction from the game having perfect knowledge but we've found it helps considerably at promoting ease of setup and playability.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

History, Part 1

Design of Lost Adventures began in about 2005 when some ideas I had been kicking around for an Indiana Jones-themed globe-trotting relic hunt began to crystallize enough that I thought there was a playable game in there somewhere. Foundational to the core idea, and a guiding principle throughout the game's development, was the notion that the game had to "know" where the lost relic was hidden, and the gameplay would be all about trying to parse the game's information system to find where the lost relic was hidden, and to be the first one there.

In my original conception, there would be several relics up for grabs, and you'd have to travel around the world to get clues to each of them, acquiring cards that would give access to different "travel routes" connecting the cities (eg to cross the desert, you'd need to acquire a "camel" card; to cross the mountains, you might need a "hot air balloon" card, etc). I came up with what I still think is kind of a nifty solution system, whereby the location of the relic is hidden on a "map" card, and the game consists of acquiring irregularly shaped "artifact" tokens, which you lay on the map in an order prescribed by the "clue cards", and these collectively point to the location of the lost artifact on the map. Then, to test your guess, you shine a small flashlight against the map card at the location at which you're "digging", and if you've followed the clues correctly, a light will shine through the map card -- it has a hidden middle layer that contains holes at the correct locations.

Late in the year, I asked Steve to collaborate with me on the design. Steve is a professional graphic designer, and in playing his designs at our Spielbany sessions, I was impressed with his talent for creating fun games with an easy-to-play visual environment that really immerse the player in the game's thematic world. Steve graciously agreed to join the project, and we went through a flurry of brainstorming email exchanges to define our goals for the game and lay groundwork for a set of simple gameplay mechanics that could evoke the rich theme of the IJ films.