A relic hunt by Jeff Warrender and Steve Sisk

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Immediacy is important

We had a chance to playtest a few turns of the simultaneous system described in the previous posts.  In some ways it works -- it does reduce the total number of turns overall, it does provide some brinksmanship, it does speed up the resolution.


But there was one important thing that it lost.  When you're facing an encounter in the previous version you roll your white and red dice at the same time -- so you get some good results, but also the bad results at the same time.  Thus, with each roll, the enemy is getting closer and closer and the tension mounts.



In this version, we each take turns rolling, then the enemy rolls, and based on that brief description you would think that the tension is similarly pretty palpable.  But what really happens is, for each roll, you  collect your dice, then roll, then increment the track, then decide if you're going to get out, then (if you do) collect your rewards.  If you take a reward it may be upwards of a minute before the next person rolls while you do that.  Then the process repeats for each player and THEN, at last, the enemy rolls and maybe moves.  And then the process repeats.  The encounter just takes long enough that the sense of suspense is hard to sustain.



We had a very nice playtester suggestion that I think might help with this.  He proposed viewing the encounters as semi-cooperative.  Meaning that, at the start of the encounter, each player reveals how much they will commit to the encounter (equipment cards or black cubes).  Then the number of white dice the /group as a whole/ will roll is based on what everyone contributed.  Then, roll all those white dice, and the red dice, all together, and move a /single/ marker along the card's success track.  Each person can decide whether to get out after each roll (receiving rewards for whatever space the group marker is on), and a player who gets out takes their equipment card(s) with them, so the remaining group is a bit weaker. 



To preserve the quick resolution, I think it would be that you don't receive rewards until the challenge has ended.  So the encounter is the action sequence where Indy is frantically trying to grab the headpiece from the burning building, and then in the aftermath he looks at it and actually reads what it says and gets to think about it.  So thematically I think this approach is ok.  And we also thought that these temporary 'alliances' seem basically compatible with the theme -- in one sense we're all participating in the scene to make it exciting, in another sense our characters are perhaps temporarily cooperating to make the challenge a success but you're still trying to get maximal individual advantage out of the challenge.



One other problem was homogeneity -- everyone basically ends up with exactly the same information.  Perhaps it could be that if you get out early, you put a marker on the info you're going to claim, and anyone else who puts a marker on that same card when they get out must pay some cost to access it (or maybe they just flat out can't access it, although that probably won't work -- not enough info to go around in that case).


Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Small changes are sometimes big changes

In the previous post I proposed what seemed like a simple change -- switch from individual player turns to simultaneous 'group' turns, whilst keeping essentially the same turn logic.  However, as I'm fleshing out this idea, I realize that this actually fundamentally re-wires the entire concept of the game.  Specifically, with individual turns the game is basically an efficiency puzzle with a healthy dose of risk management tossed in:  you want to parse the information puzzle efficiently, and while luck plays a role in that, managing your luck is important to cracking the information nut.  Moving to simultaneous turns inevitably moves the map phase of the game in the direction of being a game of brinksmanship, again with a healthy dose of risk management tossed in.  It has to be this way, in fact, or the simultaneous turns make no sense. 




The encounters in their present form already have an element of press-your-luck tension.  You want to keep rolling because the more checks you get, the more rewards you get.  But you want to stop rolling before the enemy reaches your city lest bad things happen to you.  This will still be the case in a multi-player version, but it can't be the only thing; it seems that there must be some degree of competing not just against the enemy clock but also against the other players who are in the encounter.  One problem is that this has already been done to great effect in Diamant, and there's a real risk of just creating a clone of that.




I think there are three ways around this, and this system should use all of them.  The first is that the rewards are asymmetric.  For each encounter, there are two equipment cards available as rewards, and the ability to look up clues from a subset of the temple cards as determined by the theme card in the city.  Second, taking a clue lookup means you remove a cube from that temple area's 'bin', and either discard it (earning you a green cube, helpful for the final hubris challenge) or add it to the current encounter, making the enemy more powerful -- for everyone who is still in!  Taken together, getting out early means you're probably going to get less stuff, but you are less likely to get closed out of an equipment card and/or can make the challenge harder for the other players. 




The third thing is to add in 'effect' symbols to some of the encounters.  'Effects' are a new feature of the temple, and basically allow you to, essentially, use the machete to destroy the rope bridge.  We could add this kind of effect here as well.  Some encounters could have two tracks, one which is 'easier' (i.e. gets to more rewards more quickly), but has an 'effect' symbol, such that, if another player reveals an equipment card with a matching effect symbol, all the players on that path take some damage.  So in addition to 'stay in/get out', there's a decision about which path to take based on what the other players might be able to do to you.  Presumably, only players still in the challenge can trigger an effect, so if you have the right equipment card, you may want to stay in simply to have the opportunity to whammy the other players.


One nice thing about these additional considerations is that they afford some additional 'handles' with which to differentiate the encounters and maybe make them feel more thematic.  Version 7 was just 'roll a die and that tells you the challenge category' -- quick and effective but quite bland.  Version 10 had encounter cards that showed you the scene you faced, but it was just chrome -- the 'basket game' or 'x marks the spot' weren't functionally different except in the challenge category and difficulty of the challenge.  But now with the success tracks and a couple of simple effects it's possible to make them feel different.  For example, maybe with the 'basket game' there's an 'explosion' symbol late on the track, so staying in too long runs the risk that another player will blow up the truck, costing you a life cube; whereas 'X marks the spot', on one track you can get to the answer with fewer total rolls but must spend a 'time' examining the room, whereas if you charge in you will have a harder time finding the tomb AND might put yourself at risk of another player throwing a 'lever', which lights the oil in the catacombs on fire...


One semi-related and also nice thing about the simultaneous system.  As I might have mentioned in the last post, each player would have several location cards, and each turn, the player who is furthest back on the time track plays one of these cards, indicating where that turn's encounter will take place.  There will only be nine turns total, so this controls the game length and makes it the same for all player counts.  But more importantly, it essentially eviscerates the 'do nothing' strategy.  If you try to sit out too many of the encounters, you'll end up in the back of the time track and will have no choice but to take turns, and this is compulsory -- you can't pass if you're last on the time track.  In light of this it might be worth revisiting the changes to the temple that were intended to kneecap the 'do nothing' strategy, as some of them might not be necessary any more. 


Apart from this it may add an additionally interesting dynamic, whereby you want to participate in a given encounter to potentially get the info that it will provide, but sitting one or two out will leave you in the back of the track, giving you the ability to control where the next encounter will be, which may sometimes be important.  So I think there will be jockeying for position on the time track and jockeying for position on the success tracks, and hopefully these together will create a really nice level of player interaction.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Alleviating tedium

An "influential playtester" had a chance to play the version of the game prior to the changes described in the post before this one.  That playtester reported on enjoying the game but now found the external or "map" phase too long and tedious.  We're awaiting some clarity on those comments but if I had to guess I suspect it's something like this:

In the latest incarnation of the map phase, turns are simple.  You move to a city, reveal an encounter card, read some flavor text about the scene it describes, collect dice (white and red, which are 'good' and 'bad', respectively) and then roll.  'Hits' on white dice move you up on the reward track, 'hits' on red dice move the enemy pawn closer to your city, and when it arrives, further hits start doing damage.  Whenever you want, you end the encounter and take whatever rewards you're entitled to. 

The problem is that although this is simple, it's not always quick:  because you might roll 6 or 7 times before the encounter has resolved, the entire turn could take as much as 3 minutes.  Each player gets seven or eight turns in this phase, so, for four players, that's almost 90 minutes.  And because the encounters are all similar in structure I could see how this could feel tedious after a while.  As this playtester is very influential, we're obligated to take this concern seriously.

There are a few things we could do:

1.  Accelerate the dice:  make the dice stronger so the challenges resolve more quickly.

2.  Accelerate the rewards:  each encounter gives you more stuff (info or equipment), so each player needs fewer turns in total

3.  Accelerate the nature of encounters:  make them more impactful or consequential as the game progresses

4.  Revamp the turn structure completely:  shared turns and simultaneous encounters.

Option 1 is easy to do but it still has the same total number of turns, so it may save some time but won't alleviate the repetitive feel.  Option 2 would require some rebalancing, and one of the nice things about the current system is that luck has time to even out over all those turns; 3 or 4 turns wouldn't be enough for this.  Option 3 might be viable as a way to relieve tedium but I'm not sure it helps with length, plus it probably requires more rules.

I'm therefore somewhat leaning toward option 4.  Instead of individual player turns, players face encounters as a group.  One way that this might work is to give each player a hand of 'city' cards.  When your turn comes up (turns in clockwise order?  Last on time track chooses?) you play one of these cards, which sets the active city for the present turn.  The active player must go there, and other players can either go there or sit the turn out -- but there's some system that caps or effectively caps the total number of turns regardless of whether you sit out or not.

The encounter card that's revealed is faced by ALL players.  Each player rolls their own white dice and moves their marker on the success track accordingly, and then the red dice are rolled for the whole group.

The upside of sitting a turn out is obvious -- it saves you some position on the time track.  But there needs to be some way to make this unfavorable.  And, there should be some way to make jockeying for position in the challenges a bit tense.  One simple thing might be to put some markers on the temple cards.  Each time you receive a card lookup you remove one of its markers, reducing the number of times that card can subsequently be viewed by other players.  So sitting turns out means that the total amount of info available is depleting.  Perhaps also there's an internal timing issue whereby dropping out of a challenge early means you get to receive your reward first, but the longer you stay in the more rewards you're likely to receive.

The real advantage of this system is that you can reduce the total number of encounters to about 8 or 9, which has the other advantage of keeping the game length about the same for all player counts.  You see fewer encounters from game to game so the 'newness' of the flavor text on the encounter deck lasts longer.  Perhaps the nicest thing about this system is that it adds direct player interaction, which the game has pretty much never had in the map phase (except that you could steal a relic in v7).  So I'm inclined to tinker with this a bit and see if it can be made to work. 

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.