Friday, November 28, 2014


Last night I tested Camp Nightmare again and while we had a good time our score wasn't the best (12) and we spent much of the game on the verge of hitting 0 and losing.  We did have somewhat poor luck on the draw of the cards but most of the issues were because we didn't stick to a particular standard strategy.  The game flips back and forth between Night and Day and the players have some control over that process.  Each time you switch you lose resources and all of your cards in play get destroyed so the standard strategy is to stay in the current time as long as possible.  We didn't do that as well as we could have and it ended up nearly causing us all to starve to death in the wilderness.

Nowhere in the game does it say that you should use this strategy.  Moreover, expert players may well swap back and forth rapidly under certain circumstances in order to maximize their score.  However, new players definitely will be best off staying in the current time as much as they can.  The question I am asking myself today is if I should try to communicate that to people somehow and if so how I should do it.  The tricky bit is that I don't want to make them think that they *must* stick to Day as long as legally possible, just that they should do so unless they have a extremely compelling reason to go to Night.  I am not sure that I can communicate that effectively because conveying what an extremely compelling reason might be to someone who has never played before is difficult.

Other games don't provide such instruction.  In Hanabi you learn not to give people every piece of information about their hand by trying and failing.  In Pandemic you figure out that you can't clean up every single disease cube by trying and failing.  In Sentinels of the Multiverse you learn that you can't win if you are playing Absolute Zero by watching him stand there and be useless.  In every case I can think of good games just let people fail and figure it out for themselves.  Most times people learn games by sitting at a table where more experienced players show them the ropes anyway so aside from those first few adopters it probably wouldn't matter what the instructions say about strategy.

This is probably for the best anyhow.  The most fun part of a board game is the moment of inspiration where you finally figure out how to push past your previous best or finally see a strategy that you missed every time before that.  Watching your score slowly climb upward over many playthroughs as you figure out how things work is fun!  Given that, perhaps by trying to help people to skip past the most problematic of newbie mistakes I am actually robbing them of their best moments.

It is hard to watch people play and struggle when I can see all the angles myself.  I suppose I need to get past that and just accept that such struggle and eventual victory is actually the best part.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Know your Role

I have been testing Camp Nightmare a lot and really like the basic game a lot.  I constantly have new ideas for things I could add in to the game but as any good designer knows the easiest way to make a new project unwieldy to the point of uselessness is to continually add in everything you can think of.  In no time you will have a teetering tower of poorly connected ideas that will shortly collapse in on itself.

However, when thinking about board game design it is very useful to consider how you might create expansions for the base game to allow those who master the initial mechanics to continue to push themselves and stretch their abilities.  My goal with Camp Nightmare is to have a set of new additions for an expansion that don't substantially disrupt the balance of the base game but add a lot of interesting new things to think about.  Ideally I want something where the experts can play the expansion while the new players simultaneously play the base game.

The way I am trying to do this right now is by adding in things called Roles which are roughly analogous to classes or jobs.  Each player will have one and it will give them new mechanics and choices without actually adding in raw power.  Now we all know that every time you give someone more options you are indirectly increasing their power but the difference is a fairly small one here and mostly affects the worst case.  In the best case you draw all the most effective options anyway so the extra choice offered by Roles won't matter nearly so much.

Some examples:

Any time you gain Energy you may give 1 of your Energy to another player.
When any player Forages you may take -2 Wood to gain +2 Food.

These all do fairly straightforward things that mostly you could achieve simply by playing properly otherwise.  They obviously change the game a bit but they don't completely rewrite things.  The ones below though have more bizarre effects.

During your turn you may discard a card.  If you do all players except you play with their hands face up on the table until your next turn.
When you Rummage you may search the deck and put 1 card on top of it.  If you do you draw 2 less cards than normal.

The idea is that every Role should make things a bit different and make you rethink how you want to approach the game.  Most of them end up being resource conversion but as we have seen there are a few really interesting ones on the list.  I like this implementation a lot because it hits every checkbox I was aiming for - small power increase, lot of new things to think about, and expert players can take a Role while not giving one to new players who aren't so familiar yet.  (Or they could give one of the very simple Roles to the new player so there won't be much thinking about it.)  Also there is a lot of great flavour that can come from the roles, exemplified by the examples below.

You are immune to Heat Wave.
Freezing Cold gives you -1 Energy each Night/Day swap.
When any other player Naps you may each spend 2 Energy to gain 1 Fun.

My next project is to start building flavour text for all the cards.  This is never the place that I start because I immediately start working on crunch rather than fluff (I was a mathie for a reason) but eventually you really need to make the game cute as well as balanced.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Controlling the zones

DnD has had zones of control (ZOC) and the attendant attacks of opportunity for a very long time now.  It was ill defined in 2nd ed, far too lethal in 3rd ed, but got a lot better in 4th and 5th.  The biggest issue with ZOC is that they create an arms race between melee and ranged characters that spirals out of control and becomes far too defining.  Instead of making it a deliberate choice whether or not to try to pin someone down the combat game often comes down to figuring out whether the melee character has more ways to keep in close than the ranged character has to get away and the result of the combat turning on that single calculation.

Naked Man recently came up with a bunch of ideas for making ZOC more important in Heroes By Trade.  He really likes the idea that once you engage someone in melee they can't just walk away trivially and he wants there to be a cost for retreat.  The idea that two combatants are really in the middle of a swashbuckling contest and not just trading blows sequentially does feel good and making retreat challenging supports that.  His solutions are very much like DnD in that people get to make attacks of opportunity when someone moves away from them but the package includes ways to get around that by skipping your Action for the turn.

There are real issues with this sort of implementation.  For example, it lets a single large creature rush in and put their ZOC on an entire group, effectively pinning the entire combat in place.  Nobody can afford to take a full extra attack from a single enemy nor can they afford to waste their turn walking away so they just stand there.  This isn't improving realism any because it isn't as though that ogre is meaningfully engaged in melee with six enemies at once, much less able to punish them all for retreating.  You can deal with this by restricting attacks of opportunity in some way but then you have to deal with facing, recording attacks of opportunity, or finding some other complex solution.  I strive very much to avoid complexity of mechanics particularly when it is overseeing trivial tactical decisions.

I think that complexity might actually be the real issue here.  If I design ZOC so that people can just ignore them because the penalty is low then all we end up doing is a lot of math for no tactical impact.  If I design them so that ZOC are critical then people will just stand there and brawl to the death as soon as they get adjacent to someone and that isn't the crazy mobile combat I want to achieve.  I don't know that I can actually hit the middle ground without ramping up the complexity so much that it isn't worth it.  You only get so much complexity before people just give up and tune out and I don't think this is the spot for it.

However, all this does make me question my current ZOC implementation.  Right now ranged characters take disadvantage on Hit Rolls while inside a melee character's ZOC.  That reduces their damage by roughly 35%.  It feels okay to me because it seems thematically sound that aiming a bow or a magical blast is harder while desperately dodging sword swings.  Of course you could make the same argument for dodging arrows or fireballs too and I don't do that at the moment.  This solution also does not restrict melee characters from wandering about at will.

I am hesitant to remove the system entirely though as if ranged characters don't have any sort of disadvantage when pinned in close I would have to amp up the numbers on melee characters massively to compensate.  I don't so much love the idea of melee characters getting whittled down as they rush in and then instantly annihilating any ranged character that failed at kiting.  That sort of thing just seems way too swingy.

My main concern in adding something that will consistently force melee characters to engage and then just stand there fighting to the death is that melee have traditionally been stuck with uninteresting choices in fantasy games and I really want to get away from that.  I like the idea of them dashing about and being able to decide who to bash on.

Taking all this into account I think the current system is the best one I have found.  It puts some pressure on ranged characters to make up for the simple fact of having ranged attacks and it allows melee characters to make lots of choices and be mobile instead of being pinned to the first thing that swings at them.  Those two things seem like things I want and achieving those goals with a fairly simple system feels good.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Not a nerf, promise

Diablo 3 has been all about Demon Hunters for a while now.  The thing about the game is that right now the endgame is utterly dominated by insane set bonuses.  You know things have gotten a big nutty when people say "So, how about a make a build that casts big spells at the enemies?" and everybody laughs at them.  The idea that anyone can accomplish anything of note by just attacking the enemies is a joke.  Demon Hunters have a set that lets them drop several invincible pets that each spam the best Demon Hunter attack spells.  Once the pets are down the player doesn't even have to be on the screen and they can go hang out in another room while their ludicrous pets mow down the enemies like grass.

Blizzard has decided that this playstyle is both overpowered and boring.  I tend to agree on both counts, and the fact that Demon Hunters are obviously crushing other classes in achievement and popularity supports that hypothesis.  However, Blizzard doesn't want to just say "We are nerfing you guys TO THE GROUND" because people will scream.  Instead the latest patch notes try to claim that they are changing the offending set bonus to something else without it being a nerf.  Essentially the change is that the pets only fire when the Demon Hunter fires, forcing Demon Hunters to actually attack and manage resources and such instead of just hiding.

As they are currently listed it seems completely clear that the changes are a huge nerf to Demon Hunters.  Not because their numbers will go down in the land of spreadsheets but because in practice the enemies actually attack you.  Having pets that do all the work while you hide is insanely powerful because it lets you ignore defensive stats and go pure beatdown.  In the new model Demon Hunters are going to have to spend a lot of time attacking and being in line of sight of the enemies and that liability is crushing.

All this is a good thing in general because it will make the Demon Hunter playstyle actually respect the enemies a bit and bring them back into line with other classes.  The interesting thing to me is how Blizzard is trying to present this as a neutral change and avoid the perception that it is a big nerf to Demon Hunter power.  There is a huge amount of politics involved in this sort of thing because players do appreciate it when their favourite class is competitive but once they have switched to the flavour of the month they get pissed if it gets nerfed TO THE GROUND.  I think Blizzard's strategy is a good one though ultimately I don't know if it will work, or indeed if anything would.

You can claim that their changes are neutral when the opponents are trivial but everyone knows that after this happens there will be a mass swap away from Demon Hunters to other classes because their absolute dominance will be at an end.  Toughness and mobility matter and when a change suddenly destroys your ability to stay alive it doesn't matter if your theoretical damage is the same.  The conclusion that this is a nerf is inescapable.

Sometimes though you have to do the best you can even when you know you can't win.  I suspect Blizzard is in that boat right now and they know it.  They will claim these changes aren't a nerf to preserve plausible deniability and go ahead and do it because it is the right thing to do.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

The end of clicking

I hit the wall in Clicker Heroes.  At some point playing the game you get to a spot where there just isn't anything relevant you can do to get better and I finally got there after buying 21 of the 28 ancients.  I could farm up 40k souls very efficiently just one shotting monsters but the only useful thing left to do was slowly increase my current ancients in power - the remaining ancients were so pathetic in terms of return on investment that it felt sad to buy into them.  (Thusia, Chronos, Khrysos, Pluto, Energon, Kleptos, Juggernaut)  The last round of ancients I bought to increase my clicking at the end of a run didn't even feel worthwhile and these are much worse.

Unlike Cookie Clicker I can't just let the game farm up more stuff and slowly make progress.  In order to accomplish anything of note I have to sit there and click on things regularly and when there are simply no more interesting decisions to make I can't see the use in sitting at the computer constantly pushing buttons to just make the numbers bigger.  I do like numbers getting bigger, don't get me wrong, but Clicker Heroes has hit the absolute worst style.  I can't click all the time but I have to be at the computer ready to click every minute or so.  This means it is impossible to get into flow and yet it still keeps me from doing anything else.  Yuck.

The game was fun and I liked doing the research to figure out the optimal line.  I also enjoyed testing out new effects and seeing how buying various ancients changed the way the game played.  Unfortunately unless new things are added in there just isn't any compelling reason to keep on Clicking.  Cookie Clicker isn't really grabbing me either, but at least all I do is buy one more prism every day as I wait to get to 200 prisms - it doesn't stop me from doing all my other things.

I am very interested to see what sorts of idle games come out as time goes by.  There is clearly a market for these things and I have a real interest in their evolution but I won't claim to have a good sense of how exactly they should be designed.  It is still too soon and my understanding of how and why people play these games is not well developed.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

When I wasn't looking

Recently I got frustrated with managing all of the different documents associated with Heroes By Trade.  It was starting to drive me crazy because having multiple versions of a variety of files is a nightmare when you have links embedded in all of them pointing to the other documents.  It was high time to combine everything together into a Word doc for easier editing and version control.  When I finished slapping it all together I had a single spaced document 188 pages long.  I wrote a book when I wasn't looking!

So now I face the task of bulking it up a lot.  There is a lot more that needs to be added, mostly in the fluff department.  I need tons of examples of the various races and classes to provide background and inspiration as well as huge stacks of enemies for the players to smash in search of that sweet, sweet loot.  I don't actually have any sense of how this size a document translates to a finished product - how many pages would this be if it were printed like a normal roleplaying manual in terms of size, font, etc?

One thing I have been looking at is the way in which I present character Powers.  This is an example of the current wording of the Bird of Prey Power:

Rank 7
Effect:  Take a Move.
Target:  One creature adjacent to you
Hit:  Physical damage.
Effect:  Take a Move.

Rank 17
On a hit the target is Stunned for 1 round.

This is a very precise Power that makes it easy to adjudicate in combat.  However, if I wrote it as follows:


Rank 7
You take a Move, make an attack, then take another Move.

Rank 17
If your attack hits the target is Stunned for 1 round.

The second one just *feels* better.  The first example is much more like DnD 4th edition and like that system it is very straightforward to know exactly what happens and when.  The second is more like earlier editions of DnD where people need to exercise a little more thought.  It feels more organic, more like a description of a combat move than an entry in a spreadsheet.  There are definitely more complex examples out there and the wording of those may get trickier but I do like the idea of adding in a bit more fluff to the extremely crunchy Powers sections.

It is all well and good to have absolutely unambiguous descriptions but unless people want to use the ability in question it doesn't much matter how clear it is.  I think I need to lean more towards making everything sound cool and a little further away from making sure the descriptions are tight.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Helping yourself

In Camp Nightmare I initially designed cards around two styles.  Either the card helped everyone, like Saw, or it just helped you, like Axe.


All players gain +3 Wood when they Gather Wood.


You gain +4 Wood when you Gather Wood.

The thing is I want this game to work with any number of players from 1 to 5 so Axe wasn't really going to work as is.  In a 5 player game you would often not get to use your own Axe before it got trashed anyway and at most you would get a single use out of it.  To get around this I introduced the concept of Borrowing where players would pay 1 Energy to use someone else's equipment for a turn.  That worked out all right but it ended up being a serious balance concern because games with a lot of players poured *tons* of Energy into Borrowing and everyone had to keep track of which items were universal and which were personal.  It worked, but it was clunky.

I decided that a different approach that wasn't so strongly based on number of players was in order.  The new design has gear that just helps you but it does so based on what other people do.  Essentially you have selfish gear that doesn't diminish in power based on how many players are in the game, like the Hammock below.


When any player Naps you gain +3 Energy.

This way you can actually use cards that act on you personally and forward your own strategy without worrying that you won't get a turn to use them.  Of course your allies will need to work with you and take the Actions that activate your gear but the game is a cooperative game so that makes sense.  Of course a lot of the cards are more complex than the examples give above and take a form more like the Flashlight or Camp Chair where they are a hybrid between selfish gear and group gear.


When any player Rummages they gain +2 Energy and you draw 2 cards.

Camp Chair

All Food cooked on a Fire gives +3 Food.  You gain +3 Energy when you Nap.

The new design has the pleasant side effect of removing the need for the concept of Borrowing completely.  I take great pleasure in hacking out chunks of the rules because one of the signs of a good rulebook is brevity.  Take everything out that can possibly be taken out.  The easier it is to get new players in to the game and the less that needs explaining the better your design is.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014


I found a great post on one of my favourite topics:  How to deal with what characters are holding in their hands in RPGs.  The post talks at length about the history of this particular issue but is light on solutions.  That is expected largely because this is one of the most tricky areas of RPG design I have come across.  In particular it is extremely difficult to balance the need for three things:  Cinematic flexibility, simplicity of rules, and preventing twinking.

I have often seen situations come up where players want to do things like fire a longbow one round, next round attack with two swords, then fire the longbow again.  I would ask "So, where exactly did that longbow go in the middle round?"  and they would answer "I stash it on my back."  Somehow the idea of a two meter long bow that is strung magically hovering above the character's back, cemented in place by nothing but hopes and poor bookkeeping never ceases to amaze me.  While these players weren't trying to break the rules or do something unfair they certainly were willing to think of the character like a hero in a first person shooter who carries around twelve different assault rifles, eleven of which are simply invisible at any given time.  For these players I really want the rules to be simple.

Then there are the twinks who use move actions to swap in a shield after they attack, get the benefit of the shield for the round, then use their move action next round to stow it and draw their weapon so they can make a regular attack.  It is a thoroughly ridiculous sort of thing because you can't even imagine a combatant doing this in a movie - nobody regularly swaps a shield in and out like this except to try to game the system.  When these players are on the field you need rules that prevent twinking in this way.  Most systems rely on the GM saying "Oh, you are doing *that* again?  Fine, the ogre hits you for 97 damage.  Make a new character, and try for one that isn't a pissant."  I could simply go with that system of abuse prevention but I would really rather the rules accomplish it on their own.

Thing is, there are players out there who really do want to sheathe their dagger, swing across the room on a chandelier, draw the dagger again, and stab the baddie in the back.  This is the sort of thing that is fun, makes for great stories, and isn't abusive.  I really want a system that lets people do this sort of thing because the mechanical "I hit for 12" bit of combat isn't nearly as entertaining or memorable as a chandelier swing.  That cinematic flexibility is great.

I haven't found a lot of good solutions to maximize all of these things though.  In Heroes By Trade at the moment people can rearrange their weapons with a Move so the shield swapping shenanigans described above are possible but costly.  Constantly swapping from a bow to a sword is feasible but you can't do it on the run - which I think is a fair tradeoff.  I tried a lot of systems to try to allow more cinematic moves and quash twinking but in the end I really just swung towards simplicity.  I have a nice out in terms of cinematic combat though in that players have Fate Points they can spend to do outrageous things and break the rules if they want to so they have only their own spendthift natures to blame if they aren't able to swing from a chandelier at the perfect moment.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Showing it off

My new game, tentatively titled Camp Nightmare, is now available for your viewing pleasure.  I have posted the current rules, cards, and pictures so you can take a look at what I have built or even print it out and make a copy of your own.  As usual you are free (and encouraged!) to read, share, or build but not to alter or sell the documents.

You can find the link on the sidebar with my other games.

If anybody has any suggestions for a better name I am all ears - I love the game itself but a name that really wiggles my waggle hasn't come to me yet.

The new version using coloured cards to represent Day and Night cards seems a lot better and I am really pleased with how it is coming along.