A relic hunt by Jeff Warrender and Steve Sisk

Friday, August 11, 2017

Into the temple again

A playtest this week seems to indicate that the latest version of the encounter mechanic outside the temple is working reasonably well.  You flip a card, which describes the scene you face and provides you with a track.  You collect some white dice (good) and red dice (bad), and roll; successes move your marker up the track, bad results move the enemy pawn closer to your city, and when the pawn reaches you, further bad results start to cause damage.  It's straightforward but surprisingly enjoyable and tense -- you can feel like you're safe and then suddenly the enemy closes in on you really quickly!  So it does at least seem to be a way of creating tension and suspense in the encounter phase

A more interesting design challenge is shaping up to be in the temple phase.  At present, three are two rows of three cards (representing, in the Grail scenario, the traversal from the start city to the temple, and the temple entrance to the grail room), followed by the grail room itself, and then the final hubris challenge.

Each of those two rows of cards has three cards in it, and I tried something simpler than what the previous post describes:  each card has a single 'peril' on it, of which there are six types.  You must roll four red (bad) dice against the challenge, less one for each symbol you have on an equipment card that matches the card's peril.  And then each 'hit' on the red dice gives a token, and at the end of each card, whoever has the most tokens flips over and resolves a whammy card, and then discards their tokens.

This system turns out to be a bit fragile with respect to two different forms of what I call the "trivial strategy".  The first form is, I forego acquiring information and simply acquire equipment cards, since there's a good chance that any equipment card I pick has a good chance of doing me at least some good.  The second form is, I do almost nothing outside the temple, accept that I'm going to roll poorly in the temple and take damage, and then just try to scoot through the hubris challenge and win by being furthest back on the time track (which increments each time you actually do stuff on a turn outside the temple).

It's hard to address both of these trivial strategies with a single solution.  For example, if we want to make the 'do nothing' strategy a loser, then we could make the whammy cards really bad, such that being totally unprepared means you're really going to get whomped by the temple.  But that doesn't make me want information -- if anything, it pushes you even more into the arms of the 'just get equipment' strategy, because you want as many cards as you can possibly get.  Whereas, any system where I want to get equipment AND info to know what to do with it takes twice as many actions, and so I might feel that just doing nothing is ultimately a better solution.

What makes this even harder to solve is that any modification probably adds steps to the resolution phase, which right now is very quick, and probably adds additional information that you have to record in the map phase as you're getting to look at temple cards.

The next thing I'm planning to try is hopefully an acceptable compromise that also addresses both trivial strategy.  Each slot in the temple will now have a 'peril' card and a 'challenge' card.  You roll 4 'temple dice' on each card, less one for each symbol on your equipment that matches the peril card.  The outcomes on this die are either 'traps' (which cause damage), or 'noise' (which give you 'noise tokens').  On each future card, you also roll red dice, one for each noise token that you hold.  These are the same dice you rolled in encounters and represent the enemy, so it maybe makes thematic sense -- make noise in the temple and it draws the enemy closer to catching you.  The results of the red dice also cause damage.

If you discard an equipment card that matches the 'challenge card' for your current temple slot, you get to cancel the damage you get from traps or from the enemy die.

But!  Prior to revealing the temple card, everyone puts a marker on any one of their equipment cards, and that card's symbols are doubled.  So, this can help you roll fewer temple dice as well as cancel the effects of BOTH traps and enemy dice with a single discard.

But!  You also have a special card with all of the peril symbols and equipment symbols on them, and you can place a marker on any one symbol on that card instead of on one of your equipment cards.  This is useful if, for example, you know the peril but didn't acquire the right equipment for that peril -- at least your info still helps you a bit.

I think that this helps counteract both trivial strategies.  Having equipment and knowledge is strictly better than equipment alone because of the doubling effects.  And both are better than having no equipment, because you're going to take a beating both from the temple dice and the enemy dice.

It might be possible to get a similar effect out a single type of die but I sort of like the feedback loop of noise begetting enemy dice.

The biggest downside seems to be that it's just a bit fiddly for each person to set up for each card.  It would go much faster if each player has their own stash of dice, but including 40 dice in the box doesn't seem very likely.  Maybe dice could be sold separately as a way of accelerating the game, though.  Or maybe there's a way to roll all of the dice together for all players but each player only looks at the number of dice that they're supposed to have rolled. 

Monday, May 15, 2017

Progressing steadily

We've had several tests of the system described in the previous couple of posts, and in principle things work well.  The three main ingredients that this new (version 12) system uses are:

- Encounters.  On your turn outside the temple, to get info about the temple you roll dice to move your marker up on a track, but must also roll 'bad' dice to move another marker on a 'whammy' track.  When you choose to stop rolling, you take whatever clues you're entitled to and whatever whammies you're obligated to take. 

- Linear temple.  The temple is now a row of cards, and your clue lookups really just consist of getting to look at those cards.  Each has a couple of pieces of information, the most important of which is the card's 'aspect' -- knowing this helps you to know what equipment card you need to acquire to give you more dice.

During temple exploration, you again roll dice to pass each card, and move your marker for each roll you take.  So, having more dice on a card is better because it boosts your likelihood of needing fewer rolls on the card.

At the end of each "stage" of the temple, we rearrange turn order based on how many rolls everyone took to clear that level.  Being in front when the temple ends is good, because it puts you in first position to face the Hubris Challenge!

- Hubris.  Some equipment cards let you take a hubris in exchange from some improved ability, and then the final challenge has you roll dice, with each success allowing you to eliminate one hubris.  And, you hope to purge all of your hubris before the timer runs out.    First person to do it wins.

We've tested this a couple of times and it seems like the game still takes too long.  It plays in about 2 hours, which feels like too long for the amount of stuff that you actually get to do and the significant role that luck plays in the game.  While some of this can be attributed to new/slow player effects, the turns don't seem to get faster.

A couple of simple-ish changes might help with this.

- Better dice.  Currently the 'success' die has three 'success' faces, and the 'whammy' die has two 'whammy' faces.  Even when you're rolling two or three of each die, it's not unusual to have a couple of rolls in a row that produce little or no progress, so it often takes six or seven rolls to reach an outcome on the encounter track.  For four players over seven or eight turns outside the temple, that's a lot of rolls in total, and maybe we just need to get the absolute number of rolls down.  Simply having more 'success' faces could accelerate things.  I also think we could change the meaning of the 'whammy' result.  It could be that there is a single 'enemy pawn', and when you get a 'whammy' result, it moves one space closer to your city.  If it reaches your city, [bad thing] happens, so there's some tension in the enemy getting closer and closer.  Details are TBD but this may be promising.

- No dice in the temple.  I had been thinking that all three phases of the game (external, temple, hubris challenge) needed to have dice-based challenges so that the mechanics all felt like they hung together.  But I am starting to think that in the temple, we can get away with just a quick knowledge check style of resolution rather than a die resolution for each card.

The problem is that in v12, having knowledge means you get the right gear which means you roll more dice which means your odds of passing the cards quickly are improved.  To make this work in a strict knowledge-check system, what might work is that each temple card has three 'paths', two of which contain a whammy (one is worse than the other), and the third contains a shortcut if you have the right equipment card.  At the start of the card everyone picks a path (A, B, or C), then reveal the card to see whether you picked the 'right' path.

So if you've seen the card you can try to get the right gear, but if you can't get it you at least know to pick the less bad whammy path.  Whereas if you happen to have the right gear but don't know the path that uses it won't help you that much.  You might still get lucky but over a few cards knowledge should win out.

- Time track.  What form do those 'whammies' take in the temple?  I think it's that you take hits on a 'time track'.  This makes thematic sense -- if you don't have the rope you can't take the shortest path to the canyon floor, and must go around, which costs you time.  Expand this to all aspects of the game, including the exploration phase -- traveling a greater distance takes more time, etc.  So in the end, the player who retrieves the artifact first is the one who is furthest back on the time track. 

- Hubris expanded.  In the previous version hubris was a bolt-on to the system, and it sort of felt that way.  Since the final challenge is all about purging hubris, it seems that getting hubris must be more front-and-center.  I think that this can be enhanced simply by having certain equipment cards, and certain encounters, and maybe certain theme cards, require that you take on hubris to access them.  Removing the sacred shield from its resting place to get info about the temple is a hubristic act, for example.  I think this puts time and hubris in tension with one another, and makes the value of information more subjective.  

There's a balance to be struck here.  On the one hand, the bad guys are always undone by their own hubris in the end, so clearly hubris needs to be key to being able to win.  On the other hand, the IJ movies are action/adventure stories, not Greek tragedy, so we want to be careful not to make the whole game about hubris.  I think the existence of the time track may help provide the right thematic balance.  Ultimately, you're trying to be first to get the artifact.  Using less hubris than another player may result in that player beating you to the finish line, but at the same time, if you use too much hubris in pursuit of the artifact, there's a reckoning in the end.