A relic hunt by Jeff Warrender and Steve Sisk

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

More thoughts on Encounters

I've talked a fair bit about Encounter cards, which are a replacement for the bland and fairly wooden "you face a challenge based simply on the number of enemy cubes in the city." There's a new game out called "Fortune and Glory", which apparently involves players being tested in various skills (though in that game, it appears to involve dice and skill checks instead of cards and hand management); however, the mechanic elicited this comment, which I found interesting:

"The dangers seem almost entirely identical in nature. There doesn't appear to be much difference between tackling a Giant Sea Squid or a Zeppelin...it doesn't really sound like it will make you feel like you are encountering one specific danger over another."

(As an aside, I have a tendency to read negative reviews and comments of games that are similar to the one I'm currently working on; if there's something that players don't like about a similar game, it seems prudent to try to avoid these "shortcomings" if possible...)

Now even though the Encounters/Challenges are a minor element of Lost Adventures, it's true that making them feel different, apart from simply having each card have different artwork, could be satisfying to the players, as long as it doesn't require a lot of rules. One idea is to make the consequences of failure different for the different categories: eg failing an Escape challenge costs you some time, failing a Fight challenge costs you some health, etc.

But I thought of yet another way that the visual aspects of the encounter cards, and the ability to have hidden information on solution cards, could combine to create interest. Basically, the idea is this: the encounter card would show the scene that your adventurer faces, and nothing else. No icons telling you the challenge category, no number telling you the challenge difficulty, nothing. To face the encounter, you get to choose what skill you want to apply (luck, wits, escape, fight), and what your skill level is (as determined by your base skill level plus whatever cards you want to contribute to the challenge). Then, you flip the Encounter card over, (because the back side contains a solution table!), and slide it into the solution slot corresponding to the category and skill level you're putting up -- then the card tells you whether you've succeeded or not (or maybe it just says what the outcome is -- ie you get to reveal your lead card, or you're whisked off to an enemy dungeon, or whatever...)

Now, our solution scheme permits 12 different entries, so that means we could have 3 levels in each of the 4 skill categories. Maybe they're 1-2-3, or 3-4-5, or whatever seems best with some testing.

Some obvious challenges with this: for one, replayability could be an issue -- when you see the "Arab swordsman" encounter, maybe you remember that last time you played a Fight 4 and it worked. But in practice it's not that simple; you don't know in advance what card you'll get, and can't always guarantee that you'll have what you had last time -- maybe you're Joe the wimpy librarian instead of Hercules the beefy brawler, and wits, rather than fighting, is your strong suit. Additionally, there are essentially 12 options to try on each card, and more than one might work (certainly it won't be the case that there's only one "solution" for each card). Relatedly, you know that last time Fight 4 worked, but how about Fight 3? Could you press your luck by playing a weaker skill, conserving your cards if you succeed? Or what about trying to defeat the swordsman with Wits instead of Fighting?

This actually leads to what I like most about the idea -- it permits some player creativity, and rewards the player for scrutinizing the scene and determining what plays might be viable. A big swordsman might require a more substantial outlay of cards than a young street tough, for example. And maybe you see that cart full of logs near the swordsman, which you could release on the swordsman with your whip, instead of trying to fight him. Different approaches to each encounter will be possible, but may lead to different outcomes.

It also does what a previous iteration of the challenge system did; it lets you possibly overpay for challenges, in order to guarantee a successful outcome. There was some debate whether that approach was actually favorable; the thought was expressed that it was always better to overpay than to risk failing a challenge and losing a turn. Here, of course, it may not always be obvious which category you could max out in order to guarantee that you pass the challenge card, so even overpaying brings some risk.

Of course, it's an open question whether people will like a system where they have to guess at the cost of the card rather than simply be told by the card what it costs to get by it. And this act of guessing adds a decision point, which will add time. The encounter system is supposed to add interest and flavor to the globe-hopping, but not become a game unto itself, so it will be important not to clutter this system with rules, as this would get in the way of the part of the game that's supposed to be the focal point.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

A crazy idea that will presumably be discarded quickly

In the "crazy idea that probably won't survive past this post" department...

I still like the previously mentioned idea about having some of the game elements having visual elements that integrate with the gameplay. It would be neat if this could persist through to the temple as well, but how to enable that? As I mentioned previously, in a much earlier version, the temple was assembled from a series of room cards, each of which showed a room from an adventurer's perspective, along with several exits and perhaps a testable "feature", like a rope or a pressure plate. Imagine that the temple is constructed as you explore -- you look at the card, place it on the table, pick an exit (let's say you pick "West"), draw a new card and place it to the left of the room card you had previously explored. So yes, somewhat like the most recent version, this temple would be randomly assembled. However, also like the most recent version, your search through the temple isn't a completely random walk: if you've accumulated the right clues, you can know what sorts of features you are looking for, eg a clue might tell you that pulling a rope will open a hidden wall to reveal the map room.

Here's the first departure from the previous version: in that version, there are 8 temple tiles (cards), each of which depicts 1 of 8 features; in this new version, there would be many more cards, and each feature would be present on multiple cards, BUT would be somewhat more overt on some cards than on others. For example, there might be several cards that have a "rope" but on some it's right there in the foreground, while on others it's very hard to see. This slightly abandons the conceit that there is one and only one "solution" to the temple -- in this version, whenever you notice a rope on a room card, you declare that you'll be testing the rope, and if a rope reveals the map room, then the rope you pulled was the "correct" one -- the game makes no distinction between them (*). Since multiple cards may have the same feature, you may want to spend some time scrutinizing each card to see if you can find the feature you're looking for lurking in the shadows of the artwork.

But how do you deal with the problem that this creates, whereby the longer a person looks, the more likely he is to find what he wants? There are two possible ways: the first is to add a timer. This is boring and uninteresting; in game design, it's always better to steer your players with incentives as opposed to limitations. The second is the crazy idea part -- make the temple a real-time free-for-all. To wit, players are all simultaneously exploring the temple. So while you're looking around in the "Treasure Room" hoping to find a hidden pressure plate, the other players could be frantically hopping from room to room, trying to catch up to you, or exploring other aspects of the temple.

This will create LOTS of issues; here are just a few:

1. Originally, players could enter the temple at different times; if you discover the temple and want to make a run for it on limited info, you can, but other players can linger outside the temple hoping to acquire more info before coming in after you. That's easy to emulate here; players announce when they're ready to enter the temple, and only after everyone has entered does exploration start, BUT, for each additional turn that you spent outside the temple relative to another player, you must wait 1 minute before you begin exploring.

2. Movement from room to room could be quite chaotic. To slow this down a bit, maybe each player must count to 4-Mississippi before passing to the next room, so you can't "sprint" across the temple simply by flipping cards. Challenges and traps are probably also a natural way to force players to slow down.

3. Vicarious exploration: This could actually be helped in this scheme; you are the only one who is allowed to look at the card for the room you're in, and when you leave that room for another, you place the card face-down on the table. (Not sure how to resolve having multiple people in the same room at the same time).

4. Rules enforcement: This is the toughest part; how do you guarantee players are following the rules regarding challenges, solution card lookups, etc, when everyone is going through the temple at a mad dash? Typically oversight from other players is the most reliable way to ensure that a given player has complied with the rules of a game; this becomes a challenge when play becomes simultaneous. Maybe some events pause the action temporarily while a given challenge or lookup is being resolved.

5. What about the enemy? Not too sure what their role is; the most obvious thing is to make one of the players be "the enemy", but I'm reluctant to go that route.

(*) If this turns out to be truly thematically unsatisfying, we could always introduce an action-at-a-distance effect, eg you pull the rope and look at the solution key for the "rope" feature, and it says "Map Room = Crypt", and now it's revealed that the "Crypt" room card is the map room, so now you have to go and find the crypt, or get over to it if it's already been revealed.

I think this is ultimately a different game than Lost Adventures, unless the whole rest of the game also became a real-time game (which could be cool as well, but likely too chaotic), but it would definitely successfully simulate the mad dash through the temple in a satisfying way.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Gameplay examples

I've posted a blitz of ideas in the last few days, but what will these actually look like in terms of the player experience? Let me try to provide a gameplay example of each of three possible arrangements to show what the game might feel like. I'll describe only what the player actually does, over the space of a couple of turns. In the interest of not expending a ton of effort on this excercise to make it accurate, I am completely making up the actual details of the cards off the top of my head.

Scenario 1: Rules Version 7 ("last known good")

I begin in Calcutta. Surveying the scoring mat, I see that "Franciscan manuscript" offers 2 yellow VP tiles and "Located Grail Room" offers 1 yellow VP tile; since sets of 3 VP tiles in the same color are worth 1 extra VP, I decide I will emphasize these two clue categories initially (as an added bonus, the MS provides a symbol for the Grail Room). Surveying the available theme cards, I notice that Marcus Brody and Elsa Schneider, both of which provide a symbol for the Manuscript, are located in the West (in London and Venice, respectively). I plan a visit there, but on my first turn head east, to Bangkok. 2 enemy cubes are there, and I roll the die -- I must face a "Wits" challenge. I discard a Satchel (+3 towards Wits) to dispatch the challenge, and capture an enemy cube. Then I "visit" the Col. Vogel card, receiving a check mark towards "Grail Room", and add 1 enemy cube to Bangkok.

On my next turn, I pay a plane card to travel 3 additional spaces to arrive in Venice, where 3 enemy are present, and the die roll indicates I must face another Wits challenge! Unfortunately, I'm tapped out of Satchels and can't pay the 3 AP, so I am captured and whisked off to Berlin, and my turn ends. On my next turn, I draw 2 cards (1 satchel) and go back to Venice, and this time face and pass the Wits challenge, receiving an enemy cube. I "visit" Elsa Schneider for one check mark on the "Manuscript" category (and add an enemy cube in Venice), then travel to London, facing a Luck challenge, which requires discarding a Fedora card. Then, I visit Marcus Brody, (adding an enemy cube), and receiving a 2nd check mark in the Manuscript category, (adding 2 enemy cubes to London). I look up a level 2 clue, which consists of a level 1 clue ("That which you seek is in a White city") and a level 2 clue ("That which you seek is in the Far East"). I know it's either Bangkok or Shanghai. On my next turn, a plane card is available to draw, and I take it, travel to Bangkok, face an Escape challenge of difficulty 2, and fail it, again being sent to a stronghold (Peking, this time).

On my next turn, I draw two cards, travel to Shanghai, face a Fight challenge of difficulty 2, remove an enemy cube. The next turn after that, I spend an action to dig for the Manuscript. I slide the Manuscript location solution card into the "Shanghai" frame -- but it's not there! I now know that it's in Bangkok. Unfortunately, so does my fellow player Jim, as he has also acquired a Level 2 clue in that category (*). He spends his turn high-tailing it to Bangkok, and successfully digs for the manuscript. He then uses his free action to draw a card. On my turn, I draw a card, then move to Bangkok, passing a Wits challenge and removing an enemy cube. I attempt to steal the Manuscript from Jim, playing a card with 3 fight symbols to his 2 cards with 1 each; I win the challenge, and the Manuscript is mine. I then play the free action that this entitles me to travel to nearby Calcutta, spending 1 AP card to complete the 2-space journey in one action, and deliver the manuscript to the museum there, receiving the two VP tiles for the Manuscript from the scoring mat.

On my next turn, I spend an action "visiting" the Manuscript for a check mark in the "Grail room" category, then looking up the clue for the Grail room, which tells me that the Grail room is found by pulling on the Lever in the temple. Armed with this knowledge, I set out to look for more information that would help me find the temple itself...
(*) One of the advantages of the composite clue structure we've created is that a player with no knowledge or limited knowledge doesn't automatically acquire full knowledge from watching another player dig and fail. A player who sees me dig and fail could infer that either I must have known the type of city the relic was in, or the region it was in, but he won't know which of those I actually knew, unless he has level 2 knowledge himself.

Scenario 2: New system

To start the game, I am dealt the identity of "Jack Cavanaugh", a mid-level FBI operative with an overactive trigger finger. I begin in Calcutta, and am dealt a "Lead" card from the "circle" deck, which informs me that I receive a strange telegram from a theme card from the "circle" deck (I flip one over, it's Elsa Schneider). The telegram says that I should meet Elsa in the Library in London.

I start my first turn by placing an enemy cube on each of my existing leads (of which I have one at this point), then drawing 2 cards (because I'm in a "pentagon" city), and spending an airplane card to fly immediately to London. Once there, I reveal the topmost card from the "Library" encounter deck -- it shows a view of a deserted basement in the library, and that I must face a "Wits" challenge (difficulty 3) to access a Lead symbol. I have a Wits stat of 1, and play a Satchel card (+2 Wits) to overcome the challenge and have access to the Lead symbol (an L with a circle around it, corresponding to a Library in a circle city, or major city). This authorizes me to reveal my Lead card, which features the same symbol, and to indicate that I have located Dr. Schneider. I place her theme card in the "London" box, and move the enemy cube on her card to London. I see that she has associations with Walter Donovan and Henry Jones Sr., and has knowledge on the subjects of "Inscriptions" and "The West". I ask for a clue about the True Grail; she has no knowledge on the subject but suggests seeing "Card 11", the Fransican Manuscript. (I advance the enemy progress track by 1, since there is 1 cube in London). I see that Donovan has an association with the Manuscript, and ask Elsa for a lead to Donovan's wherabouts -- I receive a Lead card for Donovan (also in a circle city), and pull the Donovan theme card from the deck and place it on the table, placing an enemy cube on it.
The lead card indicates that Donovan is in Bangkok.

I begin my next turn drawing 3 cards (because I'm in a "circle" city), and spend two of them to travel to Cairo, where Sallah has been revealed to be located. I visit the Marketplace, flipping a Market encounter card, where I must face the Arab swordsman, a Fight challenge of difficulty 4. Luckily, fighting is my character's specialty, and my Fight 3 stat, combined with a single Adventure card, easily ends the threat of the swordsman. More importantly, it authorizes me to meet with Sallah, and I interview him about his knowledge about the Temple Features. He reveals that he knows a Level 1 clue, which turns out to be "Do not activate the rope or the lever in the temple!" I note that one of Sallah's areas of knowledge is "The Near East", which is also one of the subjects that Walter Donovan knows about. I invite Sallah to join me on my quest, to help boost my Fight stat even higher. He agrees (really, he has no choice...), and I discard down to 4 cards (since having an Ally reduces my hand limit by 3).

On my next turn, I draw 2 cards (since Cairo is a pentagon city), and travel to Bangkok to look for Donovan. Once there, I go to the Nightclub, as instructed by the lead, where I face a "poisoned drink!" challenge, requiring Wits 3. Wits again, not my strong suit! I reluctantly fork over 3 adventure cards to pass the challenge, and reveal my Lead card to place the Donovan card in Bangkok on the board. I interview Donovan first about the Temple Features, and he reveals that he has a Level 2 clue! "The grail room is found by pushing on the obelisk". (This also confirms my suspicion that "The Near East" is a pertinent category for the grail room category, and suggests I should look for another theme card that shares this category, to see if I can get another clue on the Temple Features). Then I ask Donovan for a lead as to the whereabouts of the Franciscan Manuscript; I draw a triangle lead card, which instructs me to go to the Ruins in Nepal, just a short journey away.

However, before my next turn, an opportunity emerges; another player locates Henry Jones Sr. in nearby Shanghai, and discovers that he provides a Level 2 clue about the Temple Location; on my next turn I travel to Shanghai, where I visit the Marketplace and face an Escape challenge ("trapped in a narrow alleyway!"), paying a Whip card and taking advantage of my "Escape 2" stat and a +1 boost that Sallah provides. After passing the challenge, the Encounter card does NOT provide a "lead symbol", indicating that I am NOT authorized to visit Henry Jones Sr (I guess I couldn't find him); but it does let me choose between capturing some enemy cubes or moving some around on the board (I choose the former). On my next turn, rather than waste more time in Shanghai, I travel to Nepal, to the Ruins, where I face a Luck challenge ("cave-in!"), and pass it by paying two torch cards that I just picked up before leaving Shanghai. I reveal my lead card, and take the Manuscript Card. I can keep it to myself, or place it on the board and receive 2 VP; I choose the latter, and spend the remainder of my turn looking at the card for a clue about the True Grail; I learn that it its construction is "clay" (having played the game before, I know that this narrows it down to just two possible Grails).

On my next turn, I set out to try again to find Dr. Jones Sr...

Hopefully these excerpts provide a bit of a snapshot of how the game used to play, and how it could play in the new framework. I would characterize version 7 as a combination of a route planning game and a risk-assumption/press your luck game. You want to get the best clues you can, but you know in some cases you're going to be forced to take some 50-50 guesses. In the new version, with the leads, I think you'll spend much more time dancing to the tune that the leads you draw happen to play for you, so there may be a sense in which it has a stronger feeling of being an "experience" than a "game" -- but you're also trying to assemble for yourself not just "what is the solution?", but also "what cards are the ones I should visit to get me to the solution". You're rewarded if you pay attention to what the other players are doing, so there is less downtime, and your turn should feel much more organically themed -- the stuff you're doing feels more like the actual stuff Indy would be doing -- arriving in a city, facing an encounter, tracking down an important person, asking them for what they know about the solution, and inferring based on that who he should visit next. Obviously in the films the search process only has about 2 or 3 steps and the rest is all action; here I think there's space in a 2 hour game for a bit more depth to the information hunt, to let it unfold more gradually, and to hopefully give an experience that provides a steady level of interesting action throughout, with several exclamation points along the way.

Which version sounds better at evoking the theme? Which sounds like it would make for a more enjoyable game?

Integrating visual elements with gameplay

Another idea that could add some immersive quality could be to try to have visual information from the cards play a game-relevant role. In other words, the illustrations on the cards aren't just artwork to look at -- there could be in-game effects or systems that cause you to scrutinize the cards and activate certain game systems depending on what you find. I don't know if I've ever seen another game that does this, and it makes sense why. In most games, especially Euros, cards have icons, numbers, text, etc, to specify exactly what a card's function is, and it's always the same, every time. But the idea of cards having variable effects, depending on the players' attentiveness, seems to fit well with the theme of this game.

Nevertheless, this idea isn't completely new. In a pretty early version of the game, the lost temple was actually a series of cards, each of which showed a room of the temple from the adventurer's perspective, and each of which had several "features" that the players could test, like ropes, levers, and exits; and a solution table would tell you the result of testing each feature. Several images and icons were present on each of the cards, and the clues would correlate to these. For example, a clue might tell you to look for "baboon" symbols to help you find your way to the grail, and so if you saw a baboon symbol on the wall of a room you were in, you might conclude you needed to test the feature on that wall to see what it does. This was all kind of cool, but horribly cumbersome in practice. And we've since abandoned a fully-constructed temple anyway, in favor of a randomly assembled temple, for ease of setup and playability.

But the idea could still fit. My most recent thought sprung from looking for ways to boost the sense of the enemy pursuing you, beyond the timing track. One neat effect would be if you could realize that a certain enemy operative was following you. And I realized that a way to enable this could be to incorporate this effect into the illustrations on the encounter cards; some of them could include, lurking in the background somewhere, various shady characters; perhaps if you happen to notice the same shady character on multiple encounter cards, you can announce that you've discovered that an enemy operative is following you, and then weaken the enemy in some way. Or maybe it's that there are several "enemy operative" cards, showing their image, and when you see that operative on an encounter card, you get to take some special action or whatever.

Separately, I thought a fun way to integrate ideas like Indy's fear of snakes is to give each player-character a "phobia", and if another player spots your phobia on an encounter card that you face, perhaps you automatically fail the challenge. Maybe this could add some fun, as well as some incentive for you to pay attention during other players' turns (and the clue system amplifies this).

This is different than the way most games work, and I suspect it hasn't been tried because it opens the door to the rules lawyers to come in and suffocate the fun of the idea. Specific considerations like "how long are you allowed to look at the card to search for an enemy operative?", "does the active player have to pass the card around for all of the other players to scrutinize?", etc will invariably pop up. And that also doesn't take into account the consideration of memorization; once you've played the game enough times, you may start to memorize the various encounter cards and know which operative is shown on which, or which phobia is present on which.

[Incidentally, coming back to the "enemy operative" idea -- this could instead be a different way to actuate the "ambiguous character" lever. In Last Crusade, you see these guys with fezes pursuing Indy and Elsa but you don't really know who they are; come to find out they're actually good guys (more or less). We could achieve this by dealing out, say, 3 "ambiguous character" cards face-up, each with a picture of that character, and dealing each a "true identity" card face-down next to each. During the course of facing encounters, if you spot one of the ambiguous characters on an encounter card, you can undergo a mini-challenge to confront that character and reveal its true identity, which then has some effect on the game. Of course, this doesn't really work for major-character ambiguous characters like Elsa, the Maharajah, or Mac, but only for minor-character "people who are pursuing Indy" ambiguous characters. Presumably having two tiers of ambiguous characters in the game is putting too much game-mechanical weight behind a system that isn't the main focus of the game. But again, it's simply something that this idea could accommodate seamlessly.]

So there are practical issues with implementing an idea like this, and making it even more challenging, it so strongly depends on the quality of the artwork that it will be nearly impossible to playtest without first commissioning the game art. But I like the potential of the idea, and it could find its way into other games as well.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Thinking way too far ahead

One possible advantage of the "relevance" system I proposed (whereby each theme card has three "subjects that he/she/it knows about", rather than 1-3 "icons corresponding to clue categories that the card will definitely give you a clue about") is that it could enhance the flexibility of a given deck; specifically, it could enable creation of multiple adventures using the same deck of theme cards.

Although it's quite premature, I was thinking a bit about what would be included in a published version of the game, mostly to make sure the component requirements aren't completely off the deep end. I think they're certainly IN the deep end...

12 Theme Cards
24 Lead cards
24 Location clue/solution cards ("category A")
12 "Adventure 1, category B" clue/solution cards
12 "Adventure 1, category C" clue/solution cards
12 "Adventure 2, category B" clue/solution cards
12 "Adventure 2, category C" clue/solution cards

It's a total of 108 cards. This suggests a format for possible expansions. Each could include 108 cards: a new deck of theme cards, and two adventures that you can play with those theme cards, both of which share the same lead cards and location cards. (Of course, the adventure cards, encounter cards, and identity cards add another double-deck of 108 cards to the base game).

So for each theme deck, the game provides you with 2 separate adventures you can play, and because of the nature of the solution cards you should have nearly unlimited replayability from each adventure. (A different version of an expansion could use the same theme deck and just add 2 new adventures' worth of clue/solution cards, 48 total cards instead of 108). Granted, for a game that emulated the IJ films, the ability to play multiple adventures with the same theme cards may be somewhat beside the point -- presumably you want to choose between "The Last Crusade" and "The Temple of Doom", not "The Temple of Doom" and "Some Other Adventure That Involves All Of The Same Characters As The Temple Of Doom" -- but in the somewhat likely scenario where the game gets re-themed to a more generic setting, having the same theme cards participate in several adventures won't seem as problematic and may even seem like a feature.

Incidentally, the player who will say "I want an expansion that offers MORE theme cards in a given adventure (eg 18 instead of 12), to make the puzzle even MORE complicated" -- well, that person probably doesn't actually exist, but if he did, sadly this can't be accommodated in the way he wants, because we only (plan to) have 12 solution slots, so 12 is always the magic number. BUT, we could placate this person by allowing TWO adventures to be played concurrently, each with its own set of theme cards and solution cards (but presumably sharing the same lead cards and encounter cards).

The best way to do this, I think, would be to add another full-size, 12-city board, which features The Americas (the main board features Europe, Africa, and Asia), and to set up the boards on two separate tables. The players would play normally at one table or the other, but would also be allowed to switch to the other table, if their clues and information encourage them to do so. It would a be huge, time-consuming, and extremely difficult thing to play, but would require almost no additional effort on the design side other than coming up with an additional map (which we already have in the works). Realistically, adding an Americas board and the associated theme, lead, and solution cards, probably requires adding a separate stand-alone game (with identical rules), and you can combine the two games for a mega-adventure.

Obviously, that's way downstream from where things stand at the moment! But I'm at least thinking even at this early time about how to make the game compatible with such an approach.

Friday, August 5, 2011

"I'm sorry...but, you should have listened to your father..."

The last few posts have talked through some possible ways to enhance the cinematic or narrative feel of the information hunt aspects of the game, but I've said little about "the enemy" or "the temple", or even "the enemy in the temple", which are also opportunity areas for thematic enhancement. In the game as presently conceived, the enemy functions mostly as a game clock, that ticks with accelerating speed as the game progresses, and in practice, it does a pretty good job of communicating the feeling of time running out. But there isn't a strong sense of interacting directly with the enemy, and this seems like an especially egregious omission inside the temple -- did we really not notice that big group of Nazis that are digging for the artifact right next to us?

[An interesting side note is that in the IJ films, Indy actually doesn't always beat the enemy to the artifact (or he doesn't hang onto it for long even when he does) -- the enemy is beaten not by Indy outpacing them, but ultimately by their own arrogance.]

Anyway, I have at least one idea for the temple that I rather like. A previous post talked about ambiguous characters, and one of the great dramatic highlights of the films is when there's a big Double-Cross. It seems like the game could potentially capture this in a simple way: when the enemy "catches up to you" in the temple (whatever that means), any ambiguous characters that you've taken as an ally are revealed as either loyal allies, or traitors. And then...something happens to you (?)...you lose the artifact if you're carrying it, or some cards, or something like that.

But wait, who said anything about theme cards being taken as allies? Well, one thought that emerged in the last version was that theme cards, instead of staying put, could be picked up by the players and carried around, as allies. The intended effect was mostly related to the information hunt -- to get higher level clues, you had to have multiple cards with the same symbol all in the same place at the same time. But maybe if theme cards provide boosts to your stats, then an incentive is created for you to want to take ambiguous characters as allies, particularly if the stat boost they provide significantly exceeds that of other theme cards.
But wait, who said anything about stats? Well, one of the suggestions that emerged during playtesting was to give each player a concrete identity in the game world, and some stats and perhaps a special power or two. Certainly this will help communicate the theme if you have a well-defined persona, and the stats could also help with the strategic layer: since challenge categories are correlated with different location types, your starting stats might lead you to emphasize visits to one type of location over another, and correspondingly to build your information hunt around the theme cards that are also associated with those locations.

Local rumors

Although the game has done a pretty good job capturing the idea of interviewing experts to accumulate information about the nature and whereabouts of the Lost Temple and the artifact therein, it never had an element of going to a locale about which you have a hunch, and investigating the situation to see if there are rumors about the temple being in that city.

I think there's a perfectly easy way to achieve this, mechanically. Just like there's a 12-element (3x4) solution grid on each card that lets you test a location to see whether the temple is there or not, we could equally well put a second solution grid on the opposite end of the card, to check for local rumors. The key question is what form that information would take; space in the grid is tight and it would be limited to a several-letter clue at most, or more likely, an abbreviation.

This scheme would integrate well with the "climbing" approach to giving location clues. In such a scheme, the several levels of clues about the temple's location would track the progress of the artifact that rests in the temple, from its origin at some location through several additional cities (or not, keeping in mind that sometimes, the clues don't "climb" at all, and Level 1 or Level 2 knowledge is the end of the line...) If there's an additional guideline imposed that prevents the artifact from "jumping" more than two cities away between links in the chain from clue to clue, then local rumors could say simply whether the artifact passed through that particular city or not. Based on your other knowledge, you could judge where such a result points to the temple potentially being located; maybe additionally, digging in a city that does test favorably for local rumors, even if the temple isn't there, at least authorizes you to look at a clue, so you at least get something for the knowledge.

Like so many other things, this feels a bit like one thing too many, but at the same time, I like the idea of letting players assemble information in different ways and from different sources. It's probably important not to have the "temple location" category work in this same way in every scenario, lest it get stale, but it may have some potential. (Actually, the bigger concern I have is just with the physical component itself -- will a player inadvertently put the wrong end of the card into the board, thinking he's checking local rumors but in fact checking for the temple?

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

New directions: ambiguous characters

At all points during development, each theme card has fallen into a category: "Relic", "Protagonist", "Item", etc. One of those categories has always been "Ambiguous Character" -- people like Walter Donovan, the Brotherhood of the Cruciform Sword, Satipo, etc, that you aren't really sure whether you can trust or not. Up to now, these categories haven't really had any game-meaningful effect, and that's not too big a source of disappointment -- except for the ambiguous characters. To achieve a truly "cinematic" feel, it really seems like at some point, you should find out whether the ambiguous characters are good guys or bad guys. But even if you do get this "reveal", what does it mean in game terms and how does it impact the game?

The new "hub" card system would offer a way, but it's not terribly pretty. Basically, it would be built around the idea that since ambiguous characters that turn out to be evil are evil, any information they've given you becomes suspect. In game terms, this could be achieved by having each clue card give out 4 clues instead of 3, and instead of ordering the clues sequentially (3 is better than 2 is better than 1), they're all independent (it would be the composite clues approach, most likely). Here's the trick: one of the clues is wrong -- it does NOT lead to the correct solution, and when you visit the ambiguous character who is secretly in league with the enemy, he feeds you that false clue. But of course, you don't realize it's false unless you subsequently force the reveal and determine that he's really evil.

Now I kind of like the idea of having some clues potentially end up being false, but I strongly suspect that it would be too much for players to wrap their heads around. And even if they did learn that a card was evil after a reveal, it would be hard to go back through and remember which clue came from which card, and what the implications of the "false" clue are for the tentative solution you've been working to assemble.

So I don't think this will actually work, but with the hub card system, it at least could be implemented. And of course, that system could still enable the reveal, it's just that the implications of a card being "evil" would have to be something else -- like a player in the same city as that card has to immediately face a challenge, or something like that.

Monday, August 1, 2011

New directions: the return of relevance

In the original version of the game, the "solution" was contained in a clue table, and each theme card (I think there were 18 originally) provided exactly one clue. There were only perhaps 6 "real" clues that added up to the solution, and the rest were fillers or dead ends. But reading all 18 clues to get those 6 actual clues would take a long time; how could a player more efficiently parse the clue table to get the genuinely useful info fastest? The system we came up with was called "relevance". Each theme card had 3 "subjects", which represented "things that this person or item has knowledge or information about" -- things like "iconography", or "maps", etc -- each of which was shared by multiple cards. Each card also had, in a separate column of the clue table, a "relevance number" between 0 and 3, representing how many of its categories were "relevant" to the solution. The idea here was that a card with a high relevance had an uber-clue, and you could infer from that card which other cards might also be relevant -- but you didn't know exactly which of the 3 categories were the "relevant" ones (unless you happened upon a card with a relevance of 3). You had to physically be in the same location as a card to get its clue, but could look up its relevance from anywhere.

So if you looked up "Henry Jones" and found he had a relevance of "2", you might conclude that (a) it's worth visiting him to get his clue, and (b) you might want to look at the clues, or relevance, of the other theme cards that share some of the same categories.

We abandoned this system quite a while ago for reasons I can't entirely recall, but one of the big ones must have been that it's just visually much easier to look at and evaluate an array of 12 cards that each have 1-3 icons than it is to look at and evaluate 12 cards that each have 3 text fields. But what it did do, and what no version has done since, is communicate a sense of following a hunch by utilizing info about cards that may be "connected" to each other. It did this in an abstract way, but it still was a good first attempt in this direction.

Again, although complexity is the last thing the game needs at this point, I've been thinking again about something like a "relevance" system. Picture this: instead of each theme card having 1-3 clue category symbols (which authorizes the player to look at clues or get check marks in those categories), each card has 1-3 "areas of information", which represent "things this card might have knowledge about." Also imagine that each clue category gets a "hub" card associated with it, and when you want to ask a theme card about a clue category, you slide the hub card into the solution frame for that card's number, and it tells you what you get -- ie, the level of the clue you're authorized to look at, or perhaps nothing. And then from there, if you're authorized by the hub card, you get to look at the actual clue on the back of the solution card. (This two-step process is one of the main things I dislike about this approach)

Since the hub card "knows" which theme card is which, it also "knows" which categories are present on each card, and thus, cards that share a category could similarly provide access to clues. So if you determine that Marcus Brody authorizes you to look at a Level 1 Location clue, and he has knowledge about "Egyptology" and "Languages", you might look for another theme card with one of these same categories in the hopes that it will provide a clue.

But wait, there's more -- imagine that the hub card is physically hard-wired into the solution card in the same category. Then, the categories themselves can be connected to the solution. For instance, if Marcus' knowledge about Egyptology or Languages are "relevant" to the solution, maybe it's because the lost temple is (or was) in Egypt, or maybe it's because the "Coptic Manuscript" is important.

Such a scheme could do two neat things. First, it could enable a somewhat more comprehensive "solution", where different pieces of information can all talk to each other to assemble a more robust solution for each clue category (but yes, each clue category is still orthogonal to every other category). Second, each card could be less formulaic and more free-flowing. Sometimes, the association between the categories on a theme card and the element of the solution will be overt, sometimes it will be highly indirect, and the player's creativity and intuition may be required to connect the dots. The "brute force" approach of acquiring every clue will still be available, but a savvy player may be able to get to the solution more efficiently by relying on some guesswork, hunch-following, and utilizing the local rumors (to be discussed in another post).

Now there's still the potential for information overload, but perhaps it's not as bad if not every card has 3 categories, and/or not every card is out and available all at once. If the board starts empty, and theme cards are added as players chase down "lead cards", then you'll only be adding a few "categories" at a time, so it shouldn't feel as unmanageable.

Basically, it transfers the "problem" of finding out which theme cards are germane to the system from something that the game automates for the players, into one that the players must actively determine for themselves. It's probably too much complexity, of course.

The question really boils down to what the problem for the players ought to be with this aspect of the game. It seems there are four choices:

(a) You know what info the theme cards will provide and it's just a matter of finding where they are ("lead card" system only)
(b) You know where all the theme cards are, but have to figure out what info each will provide ("relevance" system only)
(c) You need to figure out BOTH where the theme cards are AND what information each will provide ("lead cards" and "relevance" added)
(d) You know where the theme cards are and what they provide, and must simply parse the information in the most efficient way (present system)

I'm inclined to consider systems like the lead cards and the relevance system because they feel to me like approaches that could add more cinematic scope to the experience of playing the game, that they'll make each playing feel unique, and that they could provide more variability to the different scenarios that the game could include.

Composite clues or climbing clues?

In the current version of the game, each clue really consists of three sub-clues, and the number of check marks you have in that clue category determines the level of the clue you're authorized to look at. The three clues each present a different piece of information which, when put together, add up to complete knowledge of the solution. For example, for the location of the temple, one card might have the following:

1. The temple is in a "white" city.
2. The temple is in the Near East.
3. The temple is in a "triangle" city.

Taken together, these point to Nepal. This scheme works well and permits a secondary mechanic whereby a player can reveal the clue he just read to the other players, in exchange for some action cards; but the structure of the clues is such that reading a given level doesn't give away complete information to the other players.

But in some cases, this composite construct seems forced. Consider how we would construct clues for the length of the Staff of Ra in Raiders of the Lost Ark, which is crucial in determining where to dig for the Well of Souls. In the composite approach, it might look like this:

1. The staff is at least 4 feet tall.
2. The staff is at most 7 feet tall.
3. The staff is not 5 feet tall.

Again, this is functional, but it just doesn't ring true as the way information about the staff would really appear in the books, tomes, interviews, etc, that Indy would use to gather information -- it's rather forced and artificial. What if, instead, the clues "climbed"? Consider again the same clue, in a different scheme:

1. The staff is (at least) 4 feet tall.
2. The staff is (at least) 4 feel tall.
3. The staff is (at least) 6 feet tall.

The level 2 clue isn't a typo -- what this idea conveys is that instead of each clue giving partial information, each clue may have the full solution. You only know for sure if you go all the way to the level 3 clue, but you may not have to -- a level 1 clue may be sufficient.

Consider how this could enable a more story-like structure to the location clues:

1. The artifact was carried out of the Holy Land by a Franciscan monk to the desert north of Cairo...
2. ...whereupon it was carried across the desert to Marrakech...
3. ...and there may it sit until our Lord returns.

To make this approach work, there would have to be some cards where the level 1 clue really does point directly to the solution, some where the level 2 clue does, and some where only reaching the level 3 clue leads to the solution. Maybe the distribution is roughly 33% of each, or maybe it's 25%/37.5%/37.5%, not sure.

Now the difference between these approaches is subtle but important; in the composite approach, the clues help the player to narrow down the possibilities, so if he acts on partial information, it is based on a guess, and the goal of the game is to maximize the odds that your guess will be accurate by accumulating as many clues as you can. In the climbing approach, the clues lead the player toward the solution step by step, and the guesswork comes more from how far up the clue chain you need to climb to have correct information. Because the game is a race, time spent chasing down "extra" clues is time wasted, but if you don't chase down those clues, you risk having incomplete information. I think the climbing approach is more thematically consonant -- you could end up digging in the wrong place, but not because you guessed wrong on a 50/50 guess -- rather, because there was more information out there than you realized.

Again, this difference is subtle, but I also think the latter approach is more amenable to enabling the players to get additional information from hunches via "relevance" (see the next post), or from "local rumors" (maybe the next post after that...). By piecing together the clues and little pieces of additional information, players may be able to develop a good feel for whether a given level is the final clue or if there are others that follow it.

Gameplay-wise, I especially like the way this potentially focuses importance on the level 1 clues, which are mostly useless at present.

Of course, it could be possible to use both approaches, and letting the situation dictate which is appropriate. For numeric values (the height of the staff of Ra, the weight of the idol in the Chachopoyan Warriors temple), climbing clues make the most sense; for other categories (challenges in the temple), composite clues may be more appropriate.