Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The right fix

This past week I spent a good deal of time playing Sentinels of the Multiverse with Hobo out in Nova Scotia.  I have written about this game before - it is a cooperative game where each player picks a superhero and then all of the players try to fight the supervillain together.  The heroes, villains, and locales for the battle all have a variety of mechanics so the games are pretty varied.  Naturally after playing it a few times we spent hours sitting around trying to make it better.

The problem with the base game is that two of the heroes are notably underpowered.  Both Bunker and Absolute Zero are truly wretched characters, to the point that they often feel like they simply aren't playing on the team at all.  We came up with a way to make Absolute Zero passable but it was brutally kludgy (increase max health from 29 to 39, change power from "Shoot myself for 1" to "Shoot myself for 1 and any other target for 2") and I don't generally like playing with heavy handed changes that ignore lore and game feel.

Bunker, on the other hand, went through two stages of fixing that ended up in a really good place.  Bunker's issue is that he is supposed to be a dude in a big mech suit that shifts back and forth between various modes - Recharge mode, Upgrade Mode, and Turret Mode.  That is all fine and good but the problem is that the Modes are hilariously bad.  Recharge Mode makes Bunker tougher and lets him draw more cards but it prevents him taking any actions at all while it is active.  Using it for 3 turns nets you 1 extra card over playing normally but requires you to not do *anything* for those 3 turns which pretty much means giving up the game.  It is hard to imagine a turn based combat game in which an effect reads: "Skip your next 3 turns.  Draw one card." and have that effect be usable.  Bunker's other Mode cards aren't quite as abysmal as that but they are punishing enough that actually using them is pretty much a joke.  All of them have a very nice benefit and all of them have a disadvantage so crippling that you can't play the game.

Our first fix was to take advantage of Bunker's other theme which is discarding cards for useful effects.  Bunker has a couple ways to do this and so we tested out a version of Bunker where the player always draws an extra card every turn.  It worked pretty well as Bunker was able to dig to his decent cards much more efficiently and then discard all the rubbish to power his cannons.  Bunker really felt like he was a part of the team with this fix but there was still a problem - the feel was all wrong.  Bunker's discard pile was always full of Mode cards because that whole chunk of his deck was still garbage.  It might be balanced to draw loads of trash so you can discard it but it doesn't feel like it quite captures the morphing mech suit idea.

Our second attempt at making Bunker workable was to simply remove all of the penalties from Mode cards.  At first glance it seems like removing the text "You may not draw cards or play cards" from an effect *must* result in it being overpowered but Bunker's Modes are so bad that this makes them good but completely reasonable.  Playing Bunker with this setup meant that it was great to drop out a Recharge Mode early to collect some cards and find other combo pieces, swap into Upgrade Mode to play out all the stuff you have drawn, then swap into Turret Mode to gun down the enemies.  You don't have to do it that way of course but not only did this change make Bunker a hero I would want on my team, it also made him feel right.  Bunker felt like a dude driving a crazy shapeshifting robot suit that could do all kinds of things competently.

That is exactly the feeling I am shooting for when I hack games.  I used to be far more willing to just make the numbers work and just go with the a fix like the first one we tried with Bunker but these days not so much.  Now I work a lot harder to make the solution elegant rather than purely effective.

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