A relic hunt by Jeff Warrender and Steve Sisk

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Enemy agents, encounters, and mounting tension

Yet another thought, about enemy integration and game pacing.

As I discussed, it's somewhat nice to have the possibility of a "safe but boring" outcome on each challenge card. This is particularly attractive early in the game, when bad consequences feel more punitive than a justified consequence. But you don't want that to last forever. Perhaps, as I said, each encounter card is fundamentally "safe", BUT, when the enemy is sufficiently "energized" -- ie, their presence in a particular city exceeds a threshold or the enemy track reaches a certain point -- this changes (either locally or globally, depending on which we settle on). The easiest way would be to have a separate deck of "enemy encounter cards", and when the enemy is energized, you face one of these cards instead of a standard card. And that could work well, but adds more components (and with all these illustrations, these encounter cards will be expensive components).

A different idea occurred to me; Lord of the Rings uses a masterful approach, whereby it's iconography is highly flexible, in that expansions simply change the meaning of icons. In the base game, "rectangle" means "discard a card", in Friends and Foes it takes on a new meaning "add a Foe card." The same principle could apply here, and it could be connected with the Agent cards.

So, when an enemy agent card is activated, it shows that a particular outcome symbol has taken on a new (or additional) meaning on the encounter cards. So, for example, your encounter outcome is "receive a check mark in the 'yellow' category", but you look at the row of Enemy Agents, and Agent Z is active; her effect is "receiving a check mark in the yellow category also results in the enemy progress advancing by 3".

This sounds a little convoluted, I know, but it allows some nice flexibility -- it makes some cities more dangerous than others, but the level of "dangerousness" is entirely dependent on how many Enemy Agents are active, which forces the players to have to worry about the enemy agents.

It would of course be simpler to say that when you face a challenge in an "enemy-controlled city", the full menu of bad consequences are on the table. But that would also effectively lock up whole cities, whereas in this scheme, only certain sub-locations become "dangerous" -- eg if you were going to go to the Ruin to get a check mark in the temple location category, better think twice about doing that if Agent Y is active (or at least take it into account). And of course, the purpose of the mechanic should be to nibble away at the "safe" outcomes, so that the game board gets more dangerous as the game progresses, without necessarily getting harder.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Integrating encounters and information

I think Seth's comment in the previous post was spot-on; at this point, finding ways to integrate systems is important, and connecting encounters and check marks could be a great -- and satisfyingly thematic -- way to do just that.

I'm also mindful of Steve's concern; sometimes, you want to stop in a city that you're "just passing through", and don't want to be encumbered by needing to pay out cards (or else you'd just pay them to get to your destination), but it would still nice to be able to do something beyond simply passing your turn.

I think I have an idea that might address both of these. We know that there are four city types (circle, pentagon, square, and triangle). Assume there are (say) 6 different "sub-location" types -- eg a library, a museum, a hotel, a tomb, etc -- and each city type has 2 or 3 associated sub-locations (eg "circle cities" all have libraries and museums, etc) Each sub-location has an associated deck of encounter cards. AND, each encounter has one or perhaps two different associated "characteristic outcomes", such that if you "pass" the encounter, you will get one of those two things. For example, maybe a "library" gives a check mark; a "hotel" gives a lead to a theme card; a market gives you an ally card, etc. So when you're in a city, even if it's just to kill time, you can still do something potentially productive, but you can also choose what potentially productive thing you want to try to accomplish. And, this could also aid route planning -- if you know you need a clue to the temple location, you might visit a city with a tomb. Etc.

This addresses half of Steve's concern; the other half of it was not needing to pay any adventure cards. Two possible approaches for that; there could be a "do nothing" option that's always available in every city (maybe it's thematically dressed up to be "go to the marketplace" or "go to the consulate", so that your action selection on your turn is always structured as "go to a city and pick a sub-location to visit") -- which could perhaps let you draw a card or look at a lead or something like that.

Another, not necessarily mutually exclusive approach, could be simply that ALL of the encounter cards provide safe passage at the lowest adventure payout, but the "safe passage" will be boring. For example, say you have a stat of 3 in Luck, so you select "Luck 3" for an encounter in which you face an Arab swordsman. Maybe the outcome is that you simply survive the encounter, but you don't get anything interesting for it, either.

A totally different, and again, not necessarily mutually exclusive, option is to have each player have a particular "skill" that connects to the visuals on the cards. I had originally thought this would be a special power, but maybe it's instead that when you see your "trigger" on a card, you get a check mark -- eg, your skill is "languages", so when you see a "book" on an encounter card, you get a check mark in a particular solution category. So this gives you something else interesting to be looking for when you have nothing you especially want to do; you can face an encounter and go fishing for a trigger to your skill.

(Incidentally, another thought -- can check marks be lost?)

Friday, October 21, 2011

Check marks revisited?

As I discussed in the last post, we had a pretty informative playtest at Spielbany, and while there are a number of areas for possible improvement, I think Steve and I were separately dissatisfied with two things that I claim are two sides of the same coin.

Steve opined that there doesn't seem to be enough to do -- you go to a location, you look for a theme card and find it, or not, but then your turn ends; shouldn't you be able to ask around for info, look for helpers, get some supplies, fight some Nazis, etc?

Separately, I liked the idea that each theme card gives you a clue, but in practice I thought it fell a little flat -- once you know that card X gives the Level 3 Location Clue, there's really no reason to go visit any other card than Card X, and everyone goes straight to that card. This does one of the things I want -- create "convergences", where all players (and by extension the enemy) all rush to the same place, but it would probably need some sort of time based trigger to create tension around this, otherwise it's just too obviously the "correct" thing to do.

Now these are actually parts of the same problem, which I alluded to in the last post, which is this: because the crux of the game is supposed to be the information hunt, all of the interesting mechanisms in the game should be built around the information hunt, and everything that doesn't contribute to that is probably extraneous. So to Steve's concern, yes we could add more action, but if it isn't related to the information hunt, it may not be constructive. But on the flip side, if the information hunt is trivial, and is easy for everyone to participate in to the same degree and in the same way, then the hunt won't result in the asymmetry between player knowledge that makes the game interesting.

I've previously discussed the "check marks" system, and while it was abstract, it did a great job of making the information hunt a structured endeavor -- you absolutely can't get a level 3 clue until you've gotten those 3 check marks. I think I like that better than letting you just happen upon a level 3 clue -- I think a level 3 clue should be harder to get, not just more rare. BUT, I still don't like the abstraction of the check marks; it just seems weird that you go and ask a guy what he knows, and he gives you check marks, and also a clue, if you ask him for one. The check marks seems like a bizarre middle-man to the info hunt.

I tried to address this in the "wrong turn" version 8 of the game, by forcing players to go to a "clue space" to get a clue, and the level of clue you get is given by the number of symbols of that category you have in your entourage (ie, you have theme cards traveling with you). It didn't work well, but it at least divorced "authorization to read a clue of a particular level" from "the actual act of reading the clue that you're authorized to read".

However, there might be a cleaner way, and of course, it involves check marks. And it's simply this: originally, the check marks had a 1-to-1 correspondence with clues. Each check mark equated to one level's worth of a clue, so 1 check mark = level 1 clue, 2 check marks = level 2 clue, etc. What if, instead, each clue level is equivalent to 3 check marks each, but there are more ways to get check marks, which have different payouts? For example, a theme card might provide 1-3 check marks, whereas some of the "adventuring" actions that Steve suggests could each pay out 1-2 check marks, and maybe the type of adventure you face determines the category of check mark you get (or maybe it varies from scenario to scenario?).

I like that this could potentially fit nicely in the context of encounters. Visiting the scriptorium in an abbey may bring you in contact with an ancient tome, which could conceivably bring you in contact with some information about the temple whereabouts, or digging around in a tomb could show you an inscription with info about the temple's contents -- but how would those be incorporated into the game under the previous system? But if each of those could provide, say, 1 or 2 check marks in their respective category, then they contribute positively to the player's progress towards information, but still must be combined with other information sources to get over those thresholds. And it also leads automatically to player differentiation. If I'm at 4 check marks in "temple location" and you're at 3 check marks, a 3-check-mark theme card is very valuable to you, as it will get you to 6 total (and the level 2 clue), but it's no more valuable than a 2-check-mark card to me, so our interest in that card will be different.

This could provide a good framework to permit some variety in the stuff that players do each turn, while still fitting everything together into progress towards the actual solution.

Note that an alternative approach could be to simply have 9 pieces of actual information that you have to accumulate before you know the full solution in each category. But I think that would just be too hard to write, and too difficult to play. The check marks may once again be an appropriate abstraction.

Playtest at Spielbany

Steve and I had a chance to playtest the newest version of the game at Spielbany on Saturday. It was a stripped-down prototype with hand-written cards, me acting as a "GM", etc, but the players graciously overlooked the shortcomings of the prototype, and I think we got a pretty fair evaluation of the underlying ideas. The game played through to completion, which surprised me -- I hadn't expected we would even make it to the temple, and didn't come up with much of an AI for the enemy in the temple. We collectively came up with an ad hoc solution that worked, but that would need some tweaking. Overall the game was definitely shorter -- with 4 new players it took about 2 hours.

I don't think any of the new ideas completely flopped, but not all of them may end up as keepers either. Here's my sense of what worked and what didn't work as well.

Enemy in the temple: No one liked this very much. The AI we came up with was clearly rough, but it was more the idea of having to have an AI was unpopular -- you want players focusing on how to plan their own best route through the temple, not having to worry about policing the rules by which the enemy explores. In a game with no GM, enemy movement just didn't seem to fit, and everyone agreed the time track was an appropriate abstraction.

Enemy outside the temple: I liked this quite a bit more. We played that you add an enemy when you move into a city; you reduce the enemy progress track by the number of enemy in the city at the end of your turn; and when there are 5 enemy or more in a city, you roll a d6 and the enemy either digs for the temple (1-2), kidnaps the theme card in the city (3-4), or activates an "agent" (5-6) (which simply controls the speed at which the enemy explores the temple). I think it worked pretty well -- you were worried about the enemy becoming too big in a particular city, but it didn't lock the game board down like the old system.

Lead cards: Neutral to negative. I don't think there was any specific excitement about this system, whereby you're told where you can find someone. But the implementation was at least part of the problem -- it was sometimes the case that you'd draw a lead to the same city you were in. And they weren't easy to get; facing a challenge to get a lead, or asking a theme card for a lead, were useful but not heavily used by the players. So as a result, it felt like you were just supposed to chase down whatever lead you were initially dealt, which lost some of the route planning that originally made the game fun. Maybe if, instead, every theme card has an associated whereabouts, and you need to get a lead to be authorized to look at it, this could be an acceptable compromise between the previous version, where all cards are always available, and the new system, where no cards are out at the start.

Encounter cards: Neutral to postive. These had descriptions of a scene, rather than an actual image, so players had to use their imagination, but they were all good sports about this, and most everyone saw some potential in the system. Concerns about knowing the "right" way to beat each card emerged, and the observation was made that there's no difference between the various skills -- they're just different numbers, but there's no difference between a "fight", an "escape", etc. A very interesting suggestion emerged to switch this to a group vote dynamic, a la Dixit, whereby you'd all look at the card, the active player would select his "response", and the inactive players would select what they think the solution ought to be, and if they match, the player passes -- or some permutation of that idea. There are some issues to be thought through but I think it could work, the question is simply whether there's enough to make it interesting.

Clues instead of check marks: Neutral. I think it was nice to be able to get a concrete clue from everyone you interview, but on the other hand, once you reveal that card X gives a level 3 clue, everyone else pretty much just wants to go visit that card to get a level 3 clue. This does what I wanted -- it creates convergence at a particular location, which boosts the enemy's strength by giving the enemy die rolls and progress track movement; but that doesn't create a disincentive to the other players to go there to get the best clue (*). The previous version made it harder to get better clues, this version makes it more statisically unlikely, and I think I like the previous version better, because it introduces more challenge to the decision of how much effort to expend to get the better clues?

(*) A couple of players suggested that a city that is full of enemy is locked down, and can't be entered by the players, period. And probably, that players have some ability to pull enemy out of the location they're in.

Theme cards as allies: Neutral to positive. Most players liked this thematically; Steve suggested separating the theme cards, which give info, from a separate category of ally cards, which give boosts to your stats.

Turn structure: Neutral. Turns were pretty quick, but on the other hand, there wasn't quite enough for the players to do; I think we'd like to see a little more action. Steve specifically suggested wanting there to be things you could be doing even in a turn where you won't going for information. I think this is a fruitful direction for further thought. But there are two important considerations that have to guide such thinking. The first is that the game can't tolerate much more complexity, and the second is that any system in the game should ultimately relate back to the information hunt in some way.

With respect to the last point, I think the "problem" is that there just isn't that much information in the game -- 3 clues with 3 levels each = 9 pieces of information, and you can possibly skip over the lower ones if you luck out or pay attention. I don't think we can add much more information than this, though -- breaking a clue into more than 3 levels would be difficult and/or would render the lower-level clues nearly worthless. So, the action in the game is really about adding obstacles to make the info hunt more challenging or time-consuming or interesting. The variable difficulty of visiting each location used to be the way that we did this, the current version makes it hard to find the people that give clues, but maybe there are additional ways to achieve this that we haven't considered yet.

Overall, it was an informative session that I hope will lead to some promising next steps for the design.