Monday, March 26, 2007

Agents are.... GO!

In general, I shy away from the continual re-animating Theme-versus-Mechanics dead horse argument. I' not really sure I care about the chicken-or-the-egg issues that it devolves into (namely, which is more important), as games should be fun regardless.

But I thought I'd add this to the mix.

Early on, the story starts out like this: when the GameBoy Advance came out, I picked one up, thinking that it had the capabilities to do more adult games. Which it does, see Advance Wars. Sure it's cartoony, but it's pretty much a table-top chit-style wargame, with tons of strategic and tactical plays, especially against another human. But generally, the GBA pretty much became the heaping ground of poor games themed with whatever hot kids licenses were around at the time.

But not so with the Nintendo DS. Sure, there are the usual Pokemon games, and Dragon Ball Z games, and most likely Mary Kate and Ashley games. But there are an impressive amount of game available for the system that people over 13 can enjoy.

Games I've acquired so far along these lines are:
Brain Age: Basic quick play puzzles
Advance Wars DS: The DS verison of the cutest game of war and death you'll find
Hotel Dusk: An impressively artistic interactive film noir novel.
Trauma Center: I've already managed to kill a musician during a simple surgery involving lasering polyps off of his throat muscles.

And final game, which probably falls a bit younger than the above, but got me thinking about the theme/mechanics debate: Elite Beat Agents!!

Here's a game that is exceedingly well done at what it's supposed to do. Which is something that I didn't think would work well at all, which is do a Dance Dance Revolution-styled beat matching game using a stylus. But it does it well, and it's pretty darn addictive. Probably more addictive than Guitar Hero, or the original beat matching game, Parappa the Rapper.

But what REALLY pushed EBA over the top is the sheer amount of themed presentation tossed on top of the beat matching mechanics. It's utterly ridiculous the amount of stuff that you effectively never see because you are spending so much of your effort staring at the little "beats" you are trying to hit.

While I've often wanted to watch the little guitarists on screen in Guitar Hero do their thing while playing, ultimately, whatever those guys are doing on stage doesn't interest me too much. They are just sort of running through a set of jamming animations, with a few bizarre Star Power activation animations (however, kudos need to go out to the exploding drummer at the end of the Spinal Tap song).

Really, if all EBA did was just have a bunch of dancing animated guys with some trippy backgrounds during the songs, it would be a good game. But there is sooooo much more to enjoy.

Here's how the story works. At every song in the game, there is some crisis going on. However, the threat level of the "crisis" is sort of debatable. It's usually some personal crisis. Take the first stage, Jane wants the football player at school to ask her out, but the neighbor has dropped off all of the kids for her to babysit, creating a fairly ugly situation for both Jane, and the football player, who can't handle the hijinks of the kids. And as with all the levels, the introductory screen is played out in a comic book-styled storyline, with the main character yelling "HEEEEEAAAAALLP!" at the tops of their lungs.

This cry for help gets picked up somehow on the world scanner at EB control by Commander Kahn, who, with a flick of his wrist, announces that "Agents are......GO!" Which, by itself, always rises a chuckle.

The rest of the introduction is played out with the three Agents getting to the crisis scene (always in a different mode of transportation, often ridiculous). And then the beat matching game begins.

During the game, the upper screen of the DS is playing out the crisis based on how well you are beat matching. Not that you have any time to watch what is going on, mind you. At different breaks in the song, the game gives you time to rest, and let's you watch little vignettes of the story play out; again, based on how well you arematching the beats.

And all of it is completely absurd, silly, and continually cracks me up.

I've not really gotten very far into the game, but some of the nice touches in the presentation are simple things (even though they just add to the insanity of it all), like the shot of the three agents staring stoicly out of the window from the EBA Blimp on their way to the crisis. Typically, Commander Kahn is in uniform when surveying the world for cries of help; during a deserted island mission he is unexpectedly wearing a Hawaiian shirt for no good reason at all. Also during this mission, the three agents ride a large pool toy together to the rescue (still in theirEBA required black suits!), which is funny enough. But upon closer look at the quick scene, one guy has a pool ring around his shoulder, and at least two of the agents are wearing goggles and snorkels!

So, what can we learn from this? While the game is pretty great from a mere mechanics standpoint, it's the lunacy of the theme and presentation that really makes the game shine. Maybe this is why there seems to be some rumbling about "geez, not ANOTHER European board game about building a 16th century town/building." While the mechanics may be good, or great, do you really need to spend time rehasing the same theme again?

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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Time of March

This month is pretty busy for me. I've had a family trip to an indoor water park the first week, a business trip to Reno this week, and a business trip to Las Vegas next week.

Needless to say, my time required to get my head around working on Leviathan has been/will continue to be short this month.

However, in the various spare minutes and hours here or there I've managed to do a couple of gamey things. I've submitted Minsterpool to the Games Club of Maryland game design contest, so we'll see where that goes.

Additionally, I did manage to co-opt another person's game concept on BGDF, and implement it with my vision of how the game should work. When I get the time, I might detail some design theory to that game later when I link to it.

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Friday, March 16, 2007

June 2005 - Doppleganger

Since BGDF has moved over to a new server, they will eventually lose all of their old posting. So now I have to keep a record of my showdown entries somewhere else.

With this game, I have finally archived all of my GDS entries. WHEW!

This was my first attempt at an entry. While everyone thought it was an excellent concept, it wound up in fifth place due to the fact that it didn't meet the "pick up and drop off" requirements (something that I completely forgot about when working on it). My updated version of the game has this element NOW; of course, the rules are a bit longer than 800 words, too. I'm still not sure how viable the game is in it's current form; at some point in the distant future, I may even be able to play it.

I've learned quite a few tricks since this first attempt at creating "award winning" GDS entries. Namely:
1) Keep it simple. First of all, you have only 800 words. That's not a lot. Secondly, people don't vote for games that they can't understand.
2) Really, REALLY, make sure you have met all of the requirements. In general, people don't have the time to go over all the entries with a fine-toothed comb. And so, people are looking for any simple way to pare down the list quickly. And at first glance, if the game doesn't meet the requirements, it gets chopped off the possible vote-getters quickly.
3) Along with number 2 above, never, EVER go above 800 words. Unless you want your game passed by like a hitchhiker on the side of the road with a severed head in his hand.

Dopplegangler: Unleashed From Groom Lake!
OBJECT: Investigating the abandoned Groom Lake test site, the players have found conclusive evidence of past Alien experiments. However, their vehicles have been sabotaged. Now, the team is trying to cross the desert to civilization with their proof, but one team member has been taken over by an Alien, trying to foil their plans.

Each player gets one hidden character card.

One player will be randomly assigned the ALIEN card. If all HUMANS and the BOUNTY HUNTER die before reaching civilization, the ALIEN wins, regardless if he is still alive.

One player is an ALIEN BOUNTY HUNTER. The BOUNTY HUNTER wins solely if he kills the ALIEN.

The rest of the players are HUMANS. HUMANS who are still living who make it to a Civilization tile win the game.

There is one tile designated as GROOM LAKE (the start tile). Tiles are drawn and placed to form a map of the Desert. Also, some tiles have Events on them which must be followed.

The Group pawn starts on the Groom Lake tile. The rest of the tiles are divided into three piles, shuffled, and placed face down. The three piles are determined by icons on the back of the tiles: 3,6, and compass.

Each player draws 12 Supply cards, and discard 6 at the start of the game. ALL SUPPLY CARDS CANNOT BE SHOWN TO ANY OTHER PLAYER UNTIL THEY ARE PLAYED DURING THE GAME.

HAZARD chits are played on marked Desert Tiles as they are revealed. The Group cannot move onto a Desert Tile unless the Hazard on the tile is removed by the group discarding the appropriate Supply Cards, or possibly by discarding a life token.

Each player starts with 5 Life tokens. Player with no life tokens have died.

A player has two Desert actions:
--Scout the area.
--Move the group to a neighboring Desert Tile.

The player picks up two Desert Tiles. HE CANNOT SHOW THESE TILES TO ANYONE ELSE. He chooses one, and discards the other. If the group is 3 or less tiles away from Groom Lake, he takes tiles from the “3” pile of tiles. If the group is 6,5, or 4 tiles away from Groom Lake, he takes tiles from the “6” pile. otherwise, he takes the tiles from the “Compass” pile.

If the tile shows a prt of the desert, he must place it next to the tile that the group is currently on, the graphic edge elements must match (ie, the paths must continue across both tiles). If the tile cannont be placed next to the current tile the group is on, the player loses a life token and places the tile anywhere on the board. Again, the graphic elements along the edges must match.

If the tile indicates that it has a Hazard, the player draws two Hazard chits, selects one, and places it face down on the tile, discarding the other one. PLAYERS CANNOT SHOW TO THE OTHER PLAYERS OR DISCUSS FACE DOWN OR DISCARDED HAZARD CHITS until they are flipped over during play.

If the tile is an Event tile, the players must follow the directions of the Event.

Event tiles can let player find supplies, swap character cards, or result in life token/supply loss.

M the pawn to the next tile as long as it follows a path.

Moving to a town (civilization) tile wins the game for all remaining Humans.

If the tile has a Hazard chit on it, it is flipped over, and the players must play Supply cards and/or Life tokens to remove the Hazard. If the Hazard is not removed, the Group token is moved back to the previous tile.

Some Hazards require cooperative card play from the entire group; other Hazards require play from each player individually.

After any player’s turn, any player may accuse another player of being the Alien. Then a vote is taken to determine if the accused player should be killed (removed from the game). If a simple majority vote a player to be an Alien, then that player is removed from the game. DO NOT LOOK AT HIS CHARACTER CARD.

Instead of taking a vote, the Alien Bounty Hunter may reveal his character card, and independently kill another player. That player’s character card is flipped over. If the Bounty Hunter selected the Alien player, the game is over, and the Bounty Hunter wins. If the player is a Human, the Bounty Hunter and his target are removed from the game.

When a player is removed, his supply cards are dealt randomly to the remaining players.

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Saturday, March 10, 2007


After watching the viral-ness of the internet take it's time, PocketCiv has made it on to boardgamegeek by itself (well, somebody other than me). I've seen a few comments about it in various threads, and have gotten a few email links to some session reports, so I've been kind of looking around for it. Of course, it's spelled "Pocket Civ" with a space, so it was kind of tough for me to find. Looks like I'll have to update the game name to include the space for completeness sake. And it's also listed as a "2005" game. I didn't start messing around with it until...checking blog archives...July 27, 2006.

It's nice to see such a high rating for it, even though there's only 6 votes for it. Heck! Those could be 2's and 3's. So I'm glad that people are enjoying it. What is particularily engrossing about the ratings is that I was able to develop a game that people like within the fairly tight contraints of the PocketCiv goal of "a solitaire sprawling epic in the tiny space of an airplane tray." I think that just pulling off a working game within those limitations is a tough cookie to crack (Lord knows that Leviathan isn't going to be going anywhere near that), but the fact that it's also fun to it's target niche audience is encouraging. The component list for initial entry into the game is fairly small (16 cards and rules) compared to other Print-n-Play games most likely helps. Just another hurdle for Leviathan to cross. Or fall down on it's face on.

I hope that at some point, there will be some amount of critical mass that gets hit where people will start submitting their own scenarios for it. Or better multi-player rules. Or something else to keep it fresh and engaging.

Anyway, for those who might have played it, and don't know about it's entry, here is the link to it: Pocket Civ at BGG. And if you have the ability and an inclination, feel free to give it a rating. A nice rating would be good, but a honest one would be better.

ALERT! A vote has been added since I started this post! Can't stop this train now, baby!

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Friday, March 02, 2007

The Natural Migration of Sea Monsters

My definition of a game is broader than the typical game geek. It is, simply, "a set of rules the paticipants agree to follow for primarily their enjoyment." This pretty much encasulates things like Chutes and Ladders and slot machines, which the geeks would disallow since there is no control over the game, and things like Rubik's Cubes and The Sims, which geeks would argue are toys.

Anyway, games are pretty much rules with parts. It is up to the other players in the game to provide the competition. The game, itself, usually doesn't provide any competition, aside from getting screwed by a bad random event. The standard bearer for this seems to be the "Settlers of Catan bad dice roll syndrome." But even that, I don't really consider to be "competition," the game is just doing it's thing; it's not out to get you. That's the odds.

To make a long analysis short, since board games really can't do the artificial intelligence (coming up with a battle plan or strategy based on player actions) like a computer game, it's generally hard to pull off any some of semblance of "Game versus Player." But they can do something that I have termed, for lack of something better, "Automatic Intelligence" (or a.I. for short). This is basically where a game is pre-programmed, or in the case of a board game, somehow designed, to get harder or more challenging as the players progresses. Since the game can't do much in terms of creating alternate stratagems to whatever the player is doing, all it (and it's designer) can do is make educated guesses that at certain points in the game, the player will be at a strength of X and therefore the game needs to somehow combat this at some level.

To be honest, I can't think of too many competitive games that actively work against the player(s) using some sort of a.I. mechanism. The few examples that I can think of would be the co-operative Lord of the Rings game and it's sister Beowolf (with it's funky 3 paneled folding board), and strangely enough Prince of Florence. I'm sure there are others, and people who are much more versed in many more games than I can come up with them. Again, since most games are designed to be player versus player, there's really not much reason to spend time and effort on a.I.

In the PoF case, the a.I. mechanism is the ever increasing minimum value that a work of art must need to be completed in that round. One of the things that strike me most about this part of the game is this: I can't fathom a reason as to why it's there. Winning games of PoF HAVE to include creating art well above these minimums. I assume this fixes something that was found to be broken in the playtesting at some point. Since you have a limited amount of actions to use to create artwork anyway, just whipping out a bunch of crummy 5 VP creations is a path to failure. I'm left to ponder what happens to the game if you just don't follow that rule.

Beowulf does a really good job of implementing the LotR mechanic of collecting and playing cards along a definite path, but turning original game on it's ear by making it competitive auction game. It uses a.I. well, as various auctions get more interesting as time goes on, leaving players with a lot of decisions regarding "Do I play these cards now, or get bloodied now while holding on for future rewards."

I have trouble including LotR in this list, as it is co-operative, and strangely enough, it usually becomes somewhat of a solitaire affair, with one player making all the decisions for everyone. As a solitaire game (which again, it often turns out to be a solitaire game with three friends helping hold cards for you), it is a pretty fascinating usage of a.I.

Which leads me to this...

Solitaire games, I feel, need some semblance of a.I. to make them have any kind of fun. Just doing something and then rolling dice for some random event doesn't seem to cut it, as a player can't really plan against pure randomness. The player needs to have some feel that he can control his destiny against the game with some amount of strategy. Something logical.

A lot of the design in PocketCiv went towards the Event Cards to make it seem like there was something evolving in the world around the player, that within the randomness of the card draws, there was some logical plan to the chaos. Looking at an excel sheet of all the cards, one can see a progression to the events.

Early Eras have fewer Events, hopefully allowing the player to get a foothold into the game. Later on, Events come nearly every turn; hopefully, the player has built up the resources to protect him from them.

Additionally, the types of Events change over time. Early Era Events are mostly natural disasters, with a few Visitations thrown in for good measure. As the game progresses, so do the Events, in their complexity, the damage they can cause, and within some amount of relationship to where the player should in his civilization at the time. Additionally, the scaling of the scalable Events also helps the game keep up with the player as he grows more powerful, but that's a more obvious effect.

Just throwing dice and looking up Event XX wouldn't be the same. Getting dumped with a Civil War before you have a chance to actually HAVE civility doesn't make much sense.

Actually, the whole Event concept, as originally created in (and, I admit, borrowed from) the grand-daddy Civilization is a nice example of "a.I.-lite," in that it does a good job of throwing out the desired calamities into the mix as the players advance. The rule about secretly trading the calamities to other players somewhat lessens it's a.I. usage, however. Even though I think that themewise it works; as a civilization trades more with other civilizations, foreign ideas can pollute the nirvana that was once a well planned group. But isolation is hardly a good answer as outside ideas and trade also can help foster ideas and speed along civilizations in many ways. So, you take your chances, I guess.

Which brings us to Leviathan. The game as it stands now, in it's simplest terms, move to a sea area, and then see if there are any ships that you can attack. It would be reasonable to simply just roll some dice and look up some ship data in table.

But I want the game to have some intelligence. It needs to have some a.I.

I want the player to have to reason to move about the board, to move to different areas. In order to make this work, I need to have the Fleets change their locations during different parts of the game. Weather and seasonal changes give me a logical reason to do this; during the Winter, ships travelling across the Altantic (especially in the north) will be few and far between, and ships will most likely follow the coast lines; in the Summer, voyages crossing the Atlantic become more plentiful.

I want the game to start being more aggressive as the player become more powerful, and if enough Tales reach land about the fearsome beast that lurks in ocean blue, I want the game to be actively searching for the player.

And, at least for now, here is how I am doing it. Of course, at any point I can change this, but this is my first pass at making this all work.

The Discovery Phase

The Discovery Phase is derived from a small deck of Discovery cards. Each card of the Discovery deck shows all 7 areas of the Atlantic Ocean that the player can occupy. Each card has a different psuedo-random order to the ocean areas. In order for me to better "control the randomness" of the game, ocean areas that are more northernly tend to hang out at the top of the list on the card; southernly areas tend to be on the bottom.

Additionally, there is a Discovery Board (labelled by Years) that Discovery cards will be placed on, one per turn. The placement of the card moves one notch over for every turn. When a card is placed, a player can look up data from the board that is directly to the left and right of the ocean area the player currently occupies. As the player progresses through the board, the type of data changes, simulating the changes that the "world" would be experiencing during those seasonal changes.

The data itself is two codes (a letter and a number) which is derived from referencing the current ocean area that the player is in. The letters determine a Weather Event, or a fleet's Port of Origin and Destination, and the numbers determine the size and strength of the fleets that the player will interact with. Much like the Discovery card and their "sorted-randomness," the data on the board points to Ports that roughly correlate to Northern-to-Southern Ports.

A lot of this organization of Northern-to-Southern stuff has to do with trying to make sure that there are no goofy weather conditions, such as snowstorms in the Carribean, and to make sure that Port Destinations and Origins also make some reliable sense, such that a fleet wouldn't be travelling in the North Atlantic while going on a route from Port Royale to Sierra Leone (a typical southernly route). However, there is enough random slop in the system to keep it from being too predictable.

So, if a player is desperately trying to get more Tales (Tales are the main point system of the game, which are awarded when you take down ships) in Halifax, he can make some informed decisions as to when, and where he should be for his most likely chance of success; but there is no guarantee.

While it's a confusing system from a design standpoint (and involved a lot of excel charts to figure out "the math" behind the numbers), to the player it should play fairly straightforward:
  1. Draw a card, place it in the "slot" of the current turn.
  2. Based on his current location, look up the letter that is to the left of the card in the Ports Chart to determine the ports of Origin and Destination for a Fleet (I'll describe the importance of ports of Origin and Destination in a later post). Place the appropriate Origin and Destination markers on the map as a reminder. Or play out the Weather event.
  3. If he has found a Fleet, look up the number on the right side of the card (again, based on the player ocean location) in the Fleet Chart, which will reveal the composition and strength of the Fleet, and then the battle may or may not begin.
But what does this really mean to the player?

Since the main point system is based on getting Tales "told" in Ports. A player's score is, right now, derived from the port with the LOWEST amount of Tales told. So players will want to naturally target fleets that come and go from all Ports equally, as getting a lot of Tales in one Port is worthless if another Port has zero. However, all Ports are not treated equally due to seasonal adjustments (and, well, map locations). Hopefully, the player can latch on to this, and learn to best adapt to the a.I. of the Seasons to help him focus on the Ports where he needs more Tales. He will need to learn to naturally migrate with the seasons.

At least it is my hope he will.

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