A relic hunt by Jeff Warrender and Steve Sisk

Monday, November 14, 2016


As I've probably observed in the past, there's one aspect of the films that we haven't yet figured out how to capture in a game mechanical way.  Namely, Indy doesn't actually defeat the enemy.  He finds the artifact, but then the enemy swoops in and take it from him almost immediately.  But then, the enemy operatives are undone by their own hubris.

Steve has suggested, and I agree, that the game might be more interesting if the Nazis aren't NPCs, but instead are represented by at least one player.  And a playtester suggested going all the way in this direction, to where all of the players are Nazis, and are all following Indy (an NPC), jockeying to position themselves to pounce right at the right moment.  I think either of these would work but I do suspect that some players would be uncomfortable being forced to play the role of the Nazis or even "the Enemy".  It would reduce the audience for the game somewhat.

So, the compromise solution, in my mind, is that each player gets 4 starting Equipment cards.  All players have the four canonical "Indy" items -- whip, pistol, fedora, satchel -- on one side of the cards.  On the back side of the cards are equipment items that correspond to a character who is perhaps a bit more "grey", shall we say, with respect to ethics and motivation.

I realized that this might give an opportunity to introduce the idea of hubris after all.  It could function something like corruption in Cleopatra and the Society of Architects.  It's a currency that you receive in exchange for taking more powerful actions, but it has a bad effect at the end of the game.  And if these effects are tied to equipment, it should be basically seamless; i.e., it doesn't need a separate set of rules to police it.

As for the bad thing that happens to you: I think we need something more interesting than the obvious "whoever has the most hubris at game's end automatically loses".  This game is about risk management, and so it would be most appropriate for hubris to expose you to risk.  My first thought is that maybe it's as simple as: if you are first to exit the temple with the artifact, you must face a "hubris" challenge.  I guess you would have to roll dice in the same way that challenges are typically resolved, with white dice giving you check marks and red dice giving x's.  You must roll as many check marks as the number of hubris tokens you've acquired (i.e. each success lets you "discard" a hubris) before you roll some number of X's, which is maybe scenario-specific.  So, the more hubris you've taken on to improve your position or hurt your opponents' position, it will make that final challenge harder to pass.  And if you fail, the next person takes their chance, and so on.  Of course, if you fail to recover the artifact successfully in the first place (e.g. you choose poorly for the grail), you don't even get to this point.

I suspect this will be tricky to balance but in principle it seems doable.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Simultaneity in the temple

We had a reasonably successful test of the ideas discussed in the previous post at Spielbany this weekend.  One player pulled a Forrestal and was killed by traps just outside the temple entrance while the other players jockeyed for position all through the temple.  In the end, both had a single "life point" left, but the one player crossed the finish line one space ahead of the other, and three spaces ahead of the Nazis.  The basic structure of the game worked pretty well.  The temple phase had too many cards and thus took way too long, and the external phase had some issues with challenges ratcheting up in difficulty too quickly, but the basic engine seems to be successful.  It's a bit weird to play without clues and check marks and solution lookups, but I think the game still seems to preserve the core idea even without those systems, surprisingly.

One funny thing is how this version recycled some of the version 7 ideas but gave them a little twist.  For example, as you can see in the image, there are cubes placed in cities as you do stuff there (ignore the colors, they don't mean anything), but instead of setting the challenge difficulty, the number of cubes set the number of bad (red) dice you roll when facing a challenge.  And, I didn't have time to get encounter cards made up so we used a die-roll and lookup table to tell what challenge you would face (lower right), and actually, it worked perfectly well.  

The rolling dice for information, and pressing your luck to try to get more clues, seemed to be really quite successful.   Things may need to be tweaked a bit but there are enough rolls that there's some scope for lucky and unlucky things to happen, yet there's some suspense with almost every roll.  It was a bit too frequent that continuing to roll would have no obvious down-side, so we need to worry about that a bit, but the basic idea seems fun. 

There were a few issues, of course, and the biggest seems to be controlling the traversal of the temple.  As mentioned, it's essentially a single row of cards, and you pass through one card at a time.  Except, you can be "aggressive", at some risk, and try to pass two cards at a time.  This resulted in players being spread out, which has a few problems.

- Trailing players get to know 'for free' what cards await them.  This loses the suspense of the reveal, and also decreases the importance of the information system (although being prepared with the right equipment is still important).

- The rules governing the order in which players attempt to move "simultaneously" were extremely fiddly; I was annoyed by them and I wasn't even playing!

- It wasn't clear what happened to you if you failed to pass a card, or if you passed the card but triggered a trap and then failed to pass that, and so on.  

I think that to preserve the row-of-cards temple, the rule must be that all players explore simultaneously -- we all progress to the next room together, every step of the way.  How, then, to choose a winner?  I think that there would need to be a track that monitors our relative position.  

The resolution of the cards would also change.  Currently, each card tells how many successes you need to roll in a single roll of the dice; you roll your dice, and succeed and advance, or fail and stay put.  This would change to "keep rolling until you succeed."  Then, whoever succeeded with the fewest rolls would move to the front of the line.  This rewards knowledge and preparation, since having the right equipment will make you more likely to succeed.

It doesn't exactly allow you to open up a big lead.  However, cubes are a resource, so players who are poorly prepared will have to burn cubes to get die rolls (whereas you, with the right equipment, will get dice to roll for free), and/or will need more rolls to succeed, exposing them to more risk of taking damage.  So hopefully it will balance out.

There would also be an effect whereby you can try to step over the player(s) that are ahead of you by taking a more risky action, reflected simply by rolling a die that may trigger a trap or noise that alerts the Nazis.  So you can actively jockey for position, or you can hope that you have better knowledge and equipment than the other players and that they'll stumble, letting you shoot past them.  This should become more tense later in the temple.

One nice thing is that this can also integrate the Nazis straightforwardly as an NPC.  Each card has a number of successes that are needed; that number can be "par", and the Nazis always make par.  So on the rope bridge, maybe the number is 2, so the Nazis will take two 'rolls' to cross.  If you can cross on one roll, you move ahead of them.  If you take two, you maintain your position relative to them.  If you take three, and you were ahead of them, you fall behind.  And so on.

I think this keeps everyone in the game until the end, but with the limited black cube supply there will still be elimination, but the game ends quickly enough after players are eliminated that this shouldn't be too much of a problem.

The key to making it work seems to be getting things very tightly balanced:  you have to have just the right number of cubes that losing even one is painful, and information has to be valuable enough that having the right equipment is crucial to suppressing your risk of losing those precious time cubes.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

New new directions?

The latest new direction described in the previous post was to expand the role of the turn-end cube-pulling concepts more broadly into more aspects of the game.  The intent was to create a way to modulate the player's exposure to risk, by changing, based on various factors, the composition of black and white cubes in the cup.

Limitations of the old new system

Solo playtesting of the idea has gone ok, but live playtests of a couple of permutations of these concepts haven't been very successful.  The tests are showing that these cube-pulling concepts don't introduce as much tension or suspense as was hoped.  Part of the reason seems to be that players will generally suppress risk whenever possible, and will do so at the expense of efficiency; so, for example, they will "overpay" to put white cubes into the cup to reduce their risk of drawing black cubes.  This reduces the number of failures of challenges and things like that.

Second, the latest solution for exploring the temple as a 2D grid, similar in some ways to the version before that, just isn't succeeding.  Or rather, it's no more successful than the previous version, whether you draw cubes to resolve effects like noise and traps at the turn end (the way the previous approach worked) or during each action (the way the new version worked).  I think the turn end approach is superior, but still, the overall flow of the temple isn't communicating the experience that I think the game's interested publisher wants.

Third, the idea of enemy operatives chasing you around sort of works -- they do indeed chase you around increasingly aggressively as the game proceeds.  But it's not yet clear what they should do when they reach you.  My idea has been that they make the challenges harder, but if you don't attempt challenges and just draw cards, they are just kind of sitting there watching you; it's a bit weird.

A new new way forward?

So, what to do next?  As a result of discussions after the playtests, I'm considering trying some changes that seem a bit extreme but actually hearken back to some of the earliest ideas in the game.

The first is to abandon the 2D approach to the temple, and to replace it with a row of cards (or tiles or whatever) the represent your progress through the temple, possibly broken up into a couple of phases.  These abstractly represent the different layers to the temple.  So in the Raiders scenario, it would be "Locate Tanis", "Find the Well of Souls", "Retrieve the Ark", for example; and a row of cards would correspond to each of these layers.

I think the idea might be that each card has a couple of different parallel paths, going from left to right, and each card you choose which you want to be on and then reveal the next one.

The second is to replace the idea of adventure cards with a static hand of cards, from which you "equip" yourself with perhaps 3 prior to each temple phase.  So, your knowledge of the temple phases dictates which cards you'll bring along.  The "base" cards you start with will give some help, or there will be better cards that you can acquire that may be even more helpful, but more specialized/situational.

The third is to change the way challenges (outside) and temple moves (inside) are resolved, with (gulp) die-rolling.  The idea might be that you have a "good" die, and can add more through various means, and have a number of "bad" dice dependent on the enemy presence, and hope to roll the number of "good" results you need before you roll enough "bad" results to fail.

The fourth is to perhaps go back to the old cubes-in-cities way of representing enemy presence, but with a twist.  Give each player 15 cubes (or whatever), which represent "how many things you get to do before the enemy finds the artifact", so it's essentially four clocks running in parallel (assuming 4 players).  But when you take an action in a city, you place one of the cubes in that city.  And the number of "bad" dice you roll when you attempt to do something in a city is equal to that number of cubes.  So it's actually in some ways very much like the v7 system.

The fifth is the most extreme.  During setup, the temple phases are arranged by randomly drawing and constructing the indicated card rows from the corresponding decks (with some rules governing how to do this of course), and the cards are all placed face-down.  Visiting a theme card then entitles you to look at one or more face-down cards in a particular phase.  The temple cards will have on their backs one or more icons that authorize you to look at that card, and so if you visit a theme card having that icon, it could authorize you to look at that card.  (Keeping the idea from the old new version, it may be that each card look during a visit requires a certain number of "good" results on the dice, so there could still be a press-your-luck thing -- you can keep looking at temple cards as long as your luck holds).


This still retains some of the thematic ideas we've wanted to include, e.g. "digging on partial info".  Maybe you've seen two of the four cards leading from the start city to the temple entrance, and you know that (a) on card two, you'll pass through jungle terrain, so better bring a machete, and (b) on card four, the south path leads to a trap so don't end up on that one if you can avoid it!  You don't have knowledge about cards one and three, so you'll have to do your best with those once they're revealed.

Exploration of the temple would be, I suppose, simultaneous -- everyone pick a path and move onto the next card, then reveal the card and each player resolves in turn order -- and the enemy's location in the temple would be abstract and represented by which card the enemy is on, or something like that.

I'm not sure these ideas collectively work.  I think they're a dramatic simplification but I wonder if that isn't what the game wants at this point; maybe it wants to be a 75 minute beer and pretzels "dice chucker".  I still like the Euro version of the game, but my latest attempts to make it more "thematic" with cube pulling ideas seem to not have given the desired results, so maybe going all the way to dice-based challenge resolution and theme cards letting you look physically at solution info will help give the right feel.  My hope is that the cube timer rules will impose the interesting decisions on you -- you're time-constrained overall so you have to strike the right balance between getting info and getting equipment.  Since you can only "activate" a few pieces of equipment at a time, there's no benefit to having a huge inventory of equipment, so efficiency is the name of the game.

Spielbany is a few weeks away; perhaps I'll have a proto with these ideas ready by then...

Monday, June 6, 2016

New ideas: post playtest thoughts and changes

We playtested the new ideas mentioned in the last post, and while the general reaction to having challenges outside the temple resolve with a cube-pulling system was favorable, some tweaking is needed.

The two biggest concerns were (a) it takes a little bit of time and effort to set up the encounters (putting all the right cubes in the cup), and (b) if the rules for the "outside" and "inside" phases are different, the game may be too complex.

Other comments were: (i) encounters should just be about getting check marks -- having rewards like adventure cards as part of the challenge system was a distraction;  (ii) instead of an enemy progress track there could be an enemy progress "pool" of black cubes, and this could be integrated with the cube-pulling tangibly; (iii) in some way enemy interest in you could build as the game goes on, making the game more difficult for you and maybe forcing you to take a turn to go to ground and lose some of the heat.

So, I have been tinkering with a system that pulls these together and integrates with the temple concepts.  At your turn start, you take a black cube from the pool and add it to an (empty) cup.  You're given 4 white cubes, which you can add to the cup at any time.  Then, you take actions, all of which involve pulling cubes for the cup.

If you choose move or "reward", you draw a cube.  Whether white or black, you complete the action, but if black, you add that cube to your personal enemy track, and, if there's an enemy operative that is as close to you as the number of cubes on your track, you move that enemy to your city. 

This mirrors the way movement in the temple works -- pull a cube and resolve -- and this idea of a "pull radius" mirrors the way that noise will work in the temple.  If you generate enough noise, the enemy comes looking for you; outside, if you generate enough "noise", that enemy informants can take notice of, they come after you.  I think this is a nicely thematic solution for how to get the enemy to seem like they're chasing after you.

When you face an encounter, add an extra black cube to the cup (from the pool) for each enemy operative in your city.  You can pay cards to add white cubes to the cup, then you start pulling cubes.  With each black cube that you draw, something bad happens, and the severity of the bad thing depends, I think, on your enemy track.   After 3 black cubes, you fail the encounter outright.  But if you get enough white cubes to pass the encounter, you get to visit the city's theme card.

After the encounter (I think), you empty the cup of white cubes, but not black.  So if you keep going in your turn, the enemy is still putting you at risk.  And with each move or each reward, there's the possibility that they'll follow you.  More actions in the same city just increases this risk.  Of course, you can use cards to try to mitigate your risk.  And the hope is that the tension will simply be between holding cards to help you in the temple, vs. needing to use them to get info about the temple.

Another suggested big chance was to not use a physical 2D temple, but instead represent the temple abstractly, with the temple rewarding you more for better info/guesses.  The way I suppose this could work is that each aspect of the temple (grail room location, true grail, etc), would have a solution card, and you'd enter your "guess" using the solution sleeve, then flip the card over.  It would then tell you how many cubes you need to pull from the cup and resolve.  The better your guess, the smaller this number will be. 

Maybe the temple is physically represented as a row of 4-6 cards with "gates" between them, and each gate is patrolled by one of the solution cards (each card could have more than one gate).  These gates are, of course, abstractions; one might represent "where is the temple?", one might represent a key puzzle, one might represent the search for the grail room, one might represent picking the true grail, etc.  The point is, it's a way of capturing what goes on in the temple without needing to balance a set of 2D movement rules. 

I think the 2D movement system will align more with the publisher's preferences, but it may be that this more abstract system combined with the cube-pulling might give the right effect where information is beneficial but there's still unpredictability as to the outcomes.  And since this is roughly how the very first temple worked (without the cube pulling), this is something of a full circle moment!

Another thought: if the temple itself is an abstraction, perhaps the need for a separate temple phase can also be abstracted away.  In other words, you have a "board pawn" and a "temple pawn"; certain actions you take, as you acquire more information, authorize you to advance your "temple pawn".  Not sure this is a good idea though.

(Relatedly, encounters could work this way too, as we previously discussed; the encounter card could give you a row of options for how to attempt to resolve it, you pick which one you want to try, and then the encounter card tells you how many cubes you need to pull.  I like this idea but think it adds too much complexity to the encounter resolution)

Finally, the idea of using small cubes instead of check marks to represent info worked fine.  But I wondered if even better might be that the clue cubes could become clue chits, that are labeled with the clue that they give you, and you need maybe 2 of the same clue chit to get that clue -- two halves of the map, as it were.  I like this idea in principle -- encourages you to want to move around with bigger jumps, maybe motivates some trades -- but I worry that it might be too fiddly in practice.  But it helps answer the question, "why would I want to shoot across the globe to interview Sallah to get his yellow cubes, when there are yellow cubes right here in my city on the Grail Diary?"  If it's that I have a Yellow A clue chit and Sallah has one of those, whereas the Grail Diary has Yellow B, maybe that's an answer.  (Of course, I might want to get B before shooting over to try to get that second A!)

Friday, May 27, 2016

Three new ideas

The game is currently being evaluated by a publisher.  The publisher has called attention to a few areas that they feel could be improved, so I've been brainstorming possible solutions.

First, the publisher feels the challenges are insufficiently tense.  We could switch from the current "pay cards to resolve" system to a "press your luck" system.  When you face an encounter, you need a certain number of 'successes' to get a reward (some rewards have a few tiers or "stop points"), where a success means "you drew a white cube out of a cup containing white and black cubes" -- correspondingly, "failure" means "you drew a black cube". 

Before you start drawing, you have to add cubes to the cup, of course.  You add one black cube automatically, plus one for each Enemy Operative in the city.  Then you can pay adventure points to add white cubes.  However, the catch is that you don't get "extra" white cubes back even if you pass the challenge -- whatever you committed to the cup is lost.

This is part of an overall simplification of the outside-the-temple system, which used to have Enemy Operatives, Ally Cards, Item Cards, Reward Tiles, Theme Cards, and probably a few other things.  It wasn't unmanageable, but game length is a concern of the publisher's so streamlining will give the players less to do, which should make things quicker.

Second, the publisher wasn't happy with the temple; they felt that it wasn't tense enough.  Specifically, they would like something more interesting with the temple challenges.  The new idea changes the way the temple is navigated and the info about the temple that the game "knows".

To move through the temple, you'd now pull a cube from the cup for each move.  White means "safe move", black means "you hit a wall", which physically gets added to the board.  Brown means "you triggered a trap!": draw a trap tile, place it on the room and resolve.  Some of the traps could have special effects, like the boulder that continues to roll through all rooms in a row until it hits a wall, or poison gas that affects all adjacent rooms.  Resolving a trap, though, will be quick -- just pay a card in that challenge category, or else...not sure what, get sent back to the entrance, I guess.

So the topography of the temple -- its obstacles and routes -- will be assembled on the fly.  The location of important features in the temple, however, would now be contained on solution cards.  The cards will no longer know "the grail is revealed by pulling the Lever" and it's that you have to find the Lever; rather, it knows that the grail is in room D3, and you have to use the clues to navigate the temple to find that the grail room is D3.

Finally, though not directly in response to the publisher, I also had the thought that instead of giving clues in order, it could simply be that each card has 3 or 4 available clues and you can access any one you like.  I'm not sure if they're all equally good or perhaps some are slightly better (maybe it's known which is which and the better ones cost more?)  I like this idea because I think it will create more asymmetry between the players.  If there are 12 total clues in each game and a player typically accesses, maybe, 7 or 8 of those, then you know a lot but not everything, and what you know is different from the 7 or 8 things that other players know (although there's some overlap).  If Joe goes east in the temple when you went west, is it because he knows something you don't know, or are you equally clueless? 

There are two other ideas that I don't think are as game-changing but that I still think are worth trying.

The first is quite simple:  players can use Adventure cards twice.  The first time, you play from the hand to the table; second time you discard.  I think may make intermediate-range planning a little easier on you.  And, it might give you tougher decisions about possibly using a card "inefficiently"; you know you'll get to use the card again so maybe you're tempted to use it just for an AP instead of holding out for a challenge in its category.

The second is to allow player trades through a simple card-based mechanism.  Open negotiation is a time sink, but structured trades could work.  There would be three "trade cards", each of which shows two rewards, one on either end of the card.  To initiate a trade, you simply place the card between you and another player, with the reward that you want to get facing you.  The other player can accept, or counter by replacing the card with one of the others.  The trades would be to swap check marks (which represent information) or for adventure cards, mostly.