Thursday, May 19, 2011


All rules need reasons for existing. If you can't pin down a good reason for a rule to exist, it should be pulled out of the game. In fact, I'd almost go as far as stating that the rules need to have a mechanical reason for existing; if a rule solely exists for a thematic reason, it probably needs to be re-thought.

And then there's another step deeper, where you have to decide if the reason itself is important enough to warrant the reason being there.

And this is one of the things I hate about chess. Just what the heck is the reason for the en passant rule there for? Remember, all pieces have their own set of moves, which are strictly followed, well except, in the one special case...

(I'm willing to give the "pawns can move 1 Space forward, EXCEPT ON THEIR FIRST MOVE THEY MAY MOVE TWO SPACES exception," given that there are a few good reasons for that to exist: It speeds up play at the start of the game, and it does offer, I think, a few more strategic choices.)

Anyway, rules without reasons just clutter the game. Rules with poor reasons should be given better reasons or removed completely if you want a tight game that flows. Rules that provide for multiple reasons are even better.

There's probably some interesting way to analyze games by looking at the reasons. Of course, reasons are pretty subjective. Here's a sampling of reasons things exist, or in some cases removed, from My Little Vineyard.

Spoilage - Originally existed as a reason to include weather/seasonally effects...was removed to due "player reset" symptoms and made the game too restrictive.
Research Books - Currently probably one of the stronger rules/reason sets as they are currently implemented. They are used as a fallback option, when there is nothing else available to do for the player. And they provide for a general "growing machine" bonus over the course of the game without directly scoring.
Fertilizers - These are thematically very strong, but on first glance, they are a weak choice. However, while they typically don't provide many points, they are very strong in removing options for competing players.
Wine Cellar - Thematically strong, provides strategic options as to score now, or hope to score better in the future decisions.
Market Place - Thematically okay, provides tactical options and some screwage against other players.
Dice Pools - Flexible way of having a group of stuff meaning one thing to one player, while meaning something else to another. Also, it's the unique feature of the game
First Round Dice Roll exception - Yeah, I'm not to happy with the first round requirement of hacing players being FORCED to roll multiple dice, as opposed to letting them decide. But the reason is very strong why it exists; the dice pool needs to be seeded somehow in a somewhat balanced fashion.

Of, course there's a lot of weaker of stuff, too. The current variety of fertilizers have pretty reasons to exist; in fact, I could probably get rid of either wood chips and volcanic ash without missing much. On the other hand, variety is always nice to have.

Thers something to be said about the potential of drafting different sets of grapevines that a player can use to spice up the variety even more, just to be sure that there isn't one clear path to victory. I'm not sure I want to add that complexity to the game at this point...and that would entail all sort of other balancing issues, I think. Which is a good enough reason to leave it alone for now.

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Tuesday, May 17, 2011


I'm currently in a play-by-forum game of Fiasco using the All the Damn Time playset. It's considered to be a dangerous, expert playset, mostly because everybody plays the SAME CHARACTER just in different time periods of his life, and they start intermingling in strange time-travel-y ways.

Unlike my other Fiasco experiences, we've been playing this one pretty serious and "realistic" as far as a sci-fi time travel thing can go without all the wacky Fiasco-eque-ness that usually ensues. The core thrust of the story so far is that we are all playing Sam, a garage-shop kind of scientist with aspirations of time travel, who is married to an artist. He has received funding from a mysterious technology group. And, oh yeah, his wife's artwork will be worth a LOT of money in the future, somehow.

I guess I just wanted to save this "scene" here that I "played out." For reference, in the future, Sam and Abby have an argument that causes an experiment that Sam is working on in their studio/lab to explode, with Abby saving Sam's life in the process, even though she dies.

A black die was selected, indicating that the result of the scene should end badly for Sam.


Sam sits at his desk. It's 1AM, and the only light that illuminates his office is a single wash of light from a desktop fluorescent. All around him, journals and notebooks spread about, open to seemingly random pages.

With a sigh, Sam leans back in his chair. "It's not going to work," he mutters to himself, "nothing is going to work."


He stares around in his room in silence. Abby's not home, having gone to some high-falootin' art party. He thought that having the house all to himself would give him some time to think; to make the equations work.

But they don't. Not even close.

"Time to throw in the towel," Sam thinks. Too much of his life has been wasted chasing this empty venture. Time for a new beginning. A new start. Time for more time with Abby.

These journals have nothing of importance anymore. They are just a collection of flawed theories and bad math. Time to get rid of them....

THE KILN!!!! At Abby's studio. One big hot oven. Surely, that will burn all of these useless pages to nothing but a tiny pile of ash!

Sam gathers up a large collection of journals and notes into a big plastic storage bin. It's heavy, but he manages to carry it out to the truck of his car without pulling a disc in his back.

By the time he reaches the studio, it's begun to drizzle. By the time he manages to carry the bin into the back door of the studio, there's a steady stream of rain.

And by the time he warms up the kiln, and opens the bins, it's a full-on thunderstorm that is brewing outside of the small studio.

CRACK!!! An instant flash of white and a loud boom of thunder knocks Scot-Sam to the ground as the light quickly flicker off. Sam fumbles in the dark to a far corner. "I think that's where the flashlight was," he thinks. The wind of the storm howls through the back door.

But it doesn't stop. It's a voice. A woman's voice in pain.

Sam doesn't find the flashlight...but the burning coils from the kiln glow bright red through some cooling vents, powered by natural gas. His eyes adjust to the darkness and growing soft light of burning red heating elements. They are adjusted well enough to see the shape of a woman crumpled on the floor by the door. The smell of burnt clothing a flesh begins to flood Sam's nostrils.

"Sam...." It's Abby's voice. Dear God, it's Abby.

Sam rushes over to her, tripping over a small tricycle, "How the heck did that get here?" he thought, kicking it out of the way. The tricycle rattle quickly over to a bookshelf near the kiln, banging into the wood structure solidly, dropping some unused telephone books behind the kiln, which in turn knocked around the valve that connected the natural gas line to the kiln.

But all of this didn't matter to Sam. He knelt down next to Abby. Even in the dim red glow of the room from the heated kiln he could see she was badly scarred across the left half of her face...a recent burn.

"Christ, what the he'll happened to you?"

Abby lifted her head up weakly, as another thunder clap rumbled from above. She smiled slightly, "'re whole again. You're..." she grimaced in pain.

"Jesus, stay right there, will you. We'll get you to the hospital"

Sam raced over to the desk, noting a small pack-and-play crib off to one side with a glance of lightning through the front window.

He reached for his cars keys with a quick grab. Followed by a swipe at his cell phone in which his arm stopped still as a statue as the blue glow of his phone emitted a string of text messages that froze him.

"Party went longer than expected"
"Staying at my moms tonight"
"got a couple of good sales leads, talk to you in the morning"

Sam found himself breathing heavily, the rest of his body still. He jerked his head around to look at the shadow of the woman behind him.

Abby had managed to crawl herself up the door frame. She leaned against it in a hump, exhausted, wincing. In between painful breaths she muttered.

"I saw it, Sam. I saw it....all. The tradeshow...the morning after that night...on the library roof...the...trial...that accident at the lake...that night you won the trophy....bowling alley...the..."

Her eyes got wide with fear.

"The explosion... MY GOD, the explosion...the operating table...what they were able to piece back...the CNN interview..the foothills over by the zoo..."

She crumpled to the floor writhing in pain.

Sam rushed to her side and picked her up. Even though she had been talking slowly in short breaths, Sam's mind was racing with what he was hearing as if she was talking at a million miles per hour. Some of the things she mentioned had indeed already happened. But others? Were these future events? This clearly wasn't "his" Abby.

But now there was no way he could take her to the hospital either. He knew the philosophical issues of two Abby's existing in the same time stream like the back of his hands.

He carried her over to the old, musty couch that Abby would often take naps on during her long "creative impulse" sessions. He held her close, feeling how heavy and slow her breaths were.

Another lightning flash. Across the room Sam noticed the family portrait on the wall. It was a picture of him in his finest suit (granted, not too fine, all things considering), with his arms around the waist of Abby, who held an infant boy. Both parents smiled proudly.

Sam rubbed his eyes, wondering what kind of tricks the night, the storm, and this other Abby were playing on his mind.

"You're so warm," she spoke softly, "and you're whole again." She looked up at him, longingly, determined, "Don't let me wake up again."


Her one good eye that wasn't scarred burned into his eyes with as much energy that she could muster, "When I wake up...that's...when it happens....I don't want to it hurts tool...much..."

"What? What happens? What do you want me to do?"

She put her head down on his lap. He could feel the tangle of burnt hair through his fingers.

"I'm too tired..I can't do it...but you..have the strength...don't let me wake up..."

A flood of memories came pouring in to Sam's mind, an uncontrolled river of images, and sounds, and touches, and smells all at once of his son. His son, Max! Maximilian!! How could he ever forget about his only son!!!!!

"Please, for me, Sam...let this be the end of it..." her voice trailed away.


Her heart didn't take long to stop beating after he had made the cut. It was only a few bucketfuls. Hopefully, the heat of the kiln would scorch the blood away. The body on the other hand....

He turned to watch the final ghost of Abby's body simply fade away, as if it was never there, returned to the ether. The buckets he held, on the other hand, still contained her fluids. His mind still raced. Time travel MUST be possible! Maybe it has something to do with REM sleep, or brain chemicals during the waking process? Of course...Sam had never taken into account the human elements in his equations!!! That must be the missing puzzle piece!

The storm had passed outside. There was no thunder anymore, but a constant potter of rain continued. It would be dawn soon.

He opened the top of the kiln. He had this niggling thought that he should avoid walking into a tricycle by the kiln. But it was a foolish thought, and Sam laughed at it as having a tricycle in this place would be ridiculous. He looked at a bare corner of the room, and felt like "something" should be there, like something had gone missing from it's proper place, but he couldn't fathom it.

Once dawn broke he sat on the couch, reviewing his notes, looking for places where he once had mystery, but now had clarity thanks to the "other" Abby. He looked at the morning light that was streaking across the bare wall opposite to where he sat, and had this funny feeling that that would be a perfect place to hang their wedding picture.


It didn't end badly for Sam in the typical Fiasco style, which usually means getting thrown into a trunk of a car. But he did wind up killing his wife-from-the-future at her request, and doesn't remember the son he never had.

So I can't say it ended that well for him. Well, except that he doesn't give up on the time travel thingy. At least he's got that going for him.

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Tuesday, May 03, 2011


Well, my suspicions were correct. Another playtest of My Little Vineyard with a "looser" set of rules did many things, all of which led to a better experience. Many of the rules changes weren't changes at all, but removals. Which is a good thing. Solving problems by subtraction instead of addition, or worse, addition of exceptions (as discussed a little bit later) is generally a bad place to be.

A lot of the complexity of rules centered around the removal of spoilage. During various parts of the game, most of your warehouse of supplies would be returned to the stock if you didn't use them "before winter came." Thematically, this made some amount of sense. But from a game play aspect, it really required way too much pre-planning for a player to think of, especially in a game using dice where you might not get the die roll you want. Not only did spoilage punish the player who rolled unlucky, or poorly selected a roll based on bad stategy, it resulted in a case where it "reset your world" thought various points in the game.

And that reset of the world turned out to be a problem. Early on in the design of the game, the desired reasoning was that the risk to make the better scoring wines was the potential that your supplies for it would be spoiled out of existence. As it turns out, just the fact that the higher scoring wines simply "cost more" is good enough. One of the more interesting statement on the last failed playtest which turned out to be wiser than it seemed at the time was that a game of this type should be a steamroller where you start by building little things, and end with building big things. Spoilage never let you reach beyond the little stuff.

Another aspect that was changed to fit into this simpler world are the way the research books are implemented. And their change resulted in killing two birds with one stone. The research books now apply across the board to any barrel of wine you make, and you can purchase a research book at any time for yur turn for the cost of one die. Before, you only got a book when you produced a barrel...and it was only good for the type of wine you produced to earn it. Which resulted in some confusion as to when the book applied it's bonus (when you first picked it up) and tended to make player concentrate on a single wine type.

Now, with the one die pick for the book, it gives player something they can always do when there are no other actions available (the game was missing a fallback action when the was no other decent option available) as a beneficial side effect of a generalized bound-for-all book.

Anyway, I'm back to feeling good about the game again.

One other discussion about the game that we had was about defining different rounds to as doing something specific. For example, when you produce a barrel of wine, you can store it in your wine cellar, whee it will "ferment" and gain points at the end of every round, or simply ship it to score it's current value. The problem with barrels in your cellar is that they don't score for you unless you ship them out of your cellar which requires an additional action.

One of the things I liked about this system is that over the course of the four or five rounds you play, the first rounds are spent storing barrels, while the last rounds are spent shipping barrels. However, it is up to the player to decide whethat tipping point occurs. If players aren't careful, players will wind up at the end of the game with barrels stuck in their cellar scoring zero points.

Anyway, this is a choice OF THE PLAYER. There was some discussion of programming the rounds (round 1 and 2 are storing only rounds, 3 and 4 are shipping only rounds, etc). I believe that this is needless rules creep, and could prevent players from experiment with unusual strategies as they get better with the game, and falls into the category of "rules exceptions" which I don't like. Otherwise known as "the rules are this, except when..."

Chess has a few "rules exceptions" that bug the he'll out of me. Castling your king, and en passant, which are both rules that break piously discussed rules.

As it is, the game currently has one rule exception...on the first round of a season, every player must roll at least 5 (changing to 4) dice to add to the center pool. After that, it's one or more. I'm not a big fan of this exception, but it helps with first player advantage, and gets a lot of dice out in the middle of the table to start the round in a methodical manner. So, I can live with it.

I hope to have the next version of it up soon, but another, stranger project is sucking away at my time. Which I may or may not talk about depending on how that works out.

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