Tuesday, December 30, 2014

A helping hand

I have been getting a bunch of testing in on Camp Nightmare this past week while I am visiting my parents for Christmas.  There is a pretty varied set of people that have played with me from a few pretty serious gaming geeks to older relatives.  As you might expect the gamers found it straightforward to pick up but some people really struggled with the mechanics.  It is tricky because I have to be very careful not to try to please everyone.  The people that really want Go Fish and Pictionary aren't going to enjoy the same thing that the players of Agricola and Advanced European Theatre of Operations are.  Pick your target audience and make the best possible game for them, I say.

The trouble with testing the game by playing it with people is that I don't get to see what sorts of mistakes people make on their own.  This manifests itself in two ways:  First, rules explanations and basic understanding of mechanics is always smooth because any misinterpretations are squashed immediately.  I can also leave pieces of the rules explanation out until the appropriate time comes for them to be explained which lets people get a sense of how the game plays without being submerged under endless rules at the start, often rules clarifying mechanics they don't yet understand.  To figure out if my written rules are good and if text on cards in clear I have to step back and watch without playing.  This is hard because I love to play the game!

The second trick is that I don't get to see how people misinterpret situations and individual cards.  It can be very useful to know what sorts of strategies people will try and how those strategies will fail spectacularly.  The simplest example of this is the card called Telescope.

Any player may take a Stargazing Action in place of their normal Action.  Doing so costs them 6 Energy but gains 3 Fun.

Everyone who has drawn a Telescope seems hell bent on slapping it down and trying to use it even when doing so is a disaster.  The Telescope is powerful but situational - it is amazing at turning excess Energy into Fun but people often misunderstand how much Energy they need in order to have any to spare.  I have definitely used it to devastating effect but most of the time it is not the best card to play.  For new players though its appeal to efficacy ratio is way too high.

There is also the issue that players lead off with the idea that they should play a card every turn.  They drop down cards that improve Gather Wood actions and then nobody ever bothers to Gather Wood because they are so busy playing their own exciting cards.  Oftentimes they end up playing cards to zero effect because everyone is busy trying to be the hero instead of playing on the team.  This isn't a big issue long term because it rapidly becomes clear that you have to use your resources carefully instead of spending them like water but it is good to know how exactly this sort of thing happens.

One general thing that is completely clear is that new players who just read the rules and go for it will end up with absolutely miserable scores.  I expect a lot of starving to death in the wilderness while people figure out how to deal with all of the Disasters the game throws at them.  Good players will rapidly ratchet up their scores though and I think a group that learns the game together will have the great experience of slow but clear improvement as their mastery increases.  That is one really nice thing about coop games; rather than playing better against opponents that also improve you can actually see your numbers go up to mark your progress over time.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014


Sometimes I really get ahead of myself.  I have not yet taken any particular steps to publish Camp Nightmare and yet I find myself extremely involved in planning new expansions for it.  I feel like I have to pour out my ideas somehow, to turn them from buzzing noises in my head into cards and tokens and real things I can touch.  I know that one of the things bad game designers are most guilty of is sticking absolutely everything into their games so I must hold myself back and leave the base game alone but the ideas must go somewhere so expansions it is.

There are some real tricks to expansion design though.  In Camp Nightmare there are plenty of different Disasters and they vary widely in how terrible they are.  Crunch Oops for example is usually pretty innocuous while Poor Planning is really nasty.  Also Disasters determine the length of the game since you have to use all of them.  Given that I can't just print more Disasters and add them in because it would throw everything completely off.

New and more interesting Gear cards is another possibility and it is easier because the size of the Gear deck is not so important and Gear cards are all balanced.  Unfortunately this still constrains my design pretty seriously because the game is based around certain effects being available.  I kind of expect people to get a card that increases their Wood production, have access to a lot of Food cards, and have ways to boost Energy.  Unfortunately if I just create a bunch of new random cards to add to the deck people are often going to lack some of the standard effects and that will throw the game off.

Sleeping Bag
When any player Naps they gain +3 Energy.

For example, I have the card Sleeping Bag which lets the players regain Energy from Naps very efficiently.  I need cards that increase Energy production so I don't want to remove it entirely.  I also don't want to just replace it with an identical card from an expansion called Blankets or something like that - Sleeping Bags are iconic!  I could just make a list of cards that always stay in and put Sleeping Bag on that list but it is a giant pain in the ass to sort through all the cards before each game.

The other difficulty is that some Gear cards interact directly with specific Disaster cards and if I change either deck both of them cease to work as well as a unit.  Dull Blades causes the players to lose 1 Fun for each Axe, Saw, Knife, or Kukri in play and that doesn't work if those cards don't exist!  Unfortunately the only way out of this dilemma seems to be to rebuild both decks completely and in tandem with one another.  Essentially this would mean replacing all of the cards in the game with new ones which unfortunately requires either abandoning a lot of the flavour of the original game, having a big list of cards to take out and put in, or having many of the expansion cards be the same as the original.

The best way around it as far as I can see is to make expansions that include standard cards like Sleeping Bag but which are completely self contained.  The idea would be that you simply choose an entire set of decks before play, either the standard game or one of the expansions.  In theory they are balanced the same as the normal deck but in practice that would be very difficult to achieve precisely.  Not that perfect balance is necessary in a cooperative game mind you but it is definitely something I would like.

My current plan is to make a horror expansion where the players are not only trying to survive mosquitoes and food shortages but also a maniac in the woods who wants to kill them all.  After that it is time for alien invasion and a new mechanic where the players have to keep the aliens from getting a fix on them or they risk being pulled up into a UFO for some bad times.  I can't imagine anyone else playing a camping game with aliens tacked on top of it is going to take the balance as seriously as I will but that has never stopped my obsessions before so I can't see why it would now.

Friday, December 19, 2014

More wiping

I am still addicted to It's A Wipe!  Running a raiding guild where I can raid exactly when I want to rather than on a fixed schedule is really fun!

This game does a lot of things right that I find rare in any game, let alone one developed by a single person.  The standout surprise is how good the numbers are in the fights.  As you push through the game the dungeons get more challenging both strategically and numerically and it strikes a nice balance between requiring farming without requiring *too* much farming.  Gear scales up quite dramatically between dungeon tiers, roughly doubling in efficacy.  This works out well in that new tiers of fights are extremely difficult at the start but become pretty trivial by the end - it actually feels a lot like raids did in WOW in terms of that ramp up.

The developer did a good job tuning those numbers correctly, especially in that the final dungeon tier is really quite challenging even if you are almost fully geared out from the previous dungeons.  It is the last challenge after all (until the expansion!) so making it a bit of a brick wall is completely reasonable.  There are a lot of decisions to make in terms of who you take to the dungeon and how you are going to gear them and it is not clear to me what the optimal answers are.

Luckily that doesn't mean that there are no bad choices - on the contrary, there are a million ways to play stupidly.  What I really enjoy in games though is a situation where there are a bunch of interesting ways to be good.  If there are a million ways to play and one hundred of them are solid then there is a lot of room to play around hunting for the *perfect* solution without feeling like experimentation is just a waste of time.  I like finding the ideal setup but I want the sense that once I find it there might still be something out there a touch better and that is easiest to achieve when there are many ways to be good.

There are a couple of exceptions to the rule of good balance though.  Trinkets are really weird items and their abilities are all over the map unlike weapons and armour which are fairly predictable.  The good trinkets boost spell power, dps, crit chance, hit points, or armour.  These are all totally reasonable choices that you will use at some time or other.  The trinkets that boost damage usually give a ~10% boost, hit points go up by 10-200% (which isn't as broken as it sounds because dps classes with excess hit points aren't actually much better) and armour is useful.  So far, so good.

Then there are the awful trinkets.  Not just subpar, but on the verge of having no game effect.  Specifically there are trinkets to increase or decrease threat generated by 8%.  The way threat works is you assign a tank to each enemy and the enemies attack that tank no matter what.  Even if the tank never hits that particular enemy and the rest of the raid is beating on them the tank holds aggro.  How a small change in threat generation was supposed to be useful when tanks have literally infinite threat is a bit beyond me.  I am totally okay with items that aren't very good but these aren't a skill tester - they just don't do anything.  You can tell an item has issues when it does 8 of a thing and you wouldn't consider using it if that number was 1,000,000 instead.

The final dungeon in It's A Wipe! is changing my tactics a fair bit.  The main consideration is that there is a boss that mind controls one party member each round and dealing with that is an issue.  Your healers, wizards, bards and tanks just hit the tank for 1 damage so they are no problem.  Rogues stab the tank for a lot of damage so that is bad.  Mages however hit the entire raid for 50 damage which probably kills all of your wizards and mages!  Until I manage to farm up HP trinkets for all my wizards and mages I basically can't take a mage to the final dungeon.  That particular mechanic seems way out of line if I was actually playing with real people - the mages would be on the forums crying up a storm.  In this case though it just means I try to win with my mage riding the bench.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

It's a Wipe!

Ziggyny told me about a new game on Steam called It's A Wipe! which is essentially a simulation of being a raid leader running raids with a bunch of annoying and incompetent raiders.  It is cheap in all senses of the word - art and animation that would be reasonable for a game released in 1985 and a price tag of $5.  I don't mind incredibly craptacular graphics if I can get a good core game though, and It's A Wipe delivers.

You play as a raid leader and so one of the characters is your own.  The other nine are drawn from seven different classes with a variety of specializations across buffing, dpsing, healing, and tanking and divided amongst AOE and single target specialists.  The raids are very much drawn from World of Warcraft (unofficially, of course) and just like in WOW you need to pick your raid and your strategies based on what sorts of fights you are having difficulties with.

You get to both direct your raid in fights and also perform the other challenges of raid management like talking to players who need extra attention, worrying about which raiders deserve the next drop, and figuring out who to bench.  Raiders all come with personality quirks like being hardcore raiders and never wanting to take a night off or being particularly obsessed with loot and taking it hard when they get passed over.  Initially I tried to have a deep roster so I could bench people on a regular basis when they needed time off but eventually I settled on running just ten total raiders and just taking nights off now and then when people got burned out.  This meant that they geared up faster because they weren't sharing loot and that I never had weird raid compositions.

The fights themselves have enough interesting mechanics to force you to pay attention but just like real raiding as your gear improves you can eventually trivialize mechanics and just brute force your way through.  The initial raid dungeon is pretty boring but the ramp up works pretty well, I think.  There are a ton of different commands you can enter to tell your raiders to swap roles, heal a specific target, change dps targets, get out of the fire, hug the monster, and more.  The trick is that these raiders often get bored and do things you do not like.  Sometimes the healer will decide to start attacking and you need to yell at them to get back to healing but you also need to tell people to get out of the fire.  This is a challenge because you can only yell one thing a round so you have to prioritize.

There are some issues with the game, primarily that of combat speed.  There are some combats that take a long time and have limited inputs and the fastest possible game speed isn't very fast at all.  I would have liked a game speed called Ludicrous to actually be Ludicrously fast instead of just twice as fast as Normal speed.  It would be good to be able to speed past the spots where there aren't a lot of decisions to be made because the fight is already on farm.

I don't think It's A Wipe has a ton of longterm potential because once you have beaten it I don't know that it will be worth going through again with a different team.  However, for the price tag I think it is a real win especially if you have fond memories of raiding in times gone past.  You can have fun learning raid encounters on a friendly schedule and gear up and that is good times.  It is a game worth playing.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The math

On Tuesday I suggested a model for monsters in Heroes By Trade that removed their damage rolls and allowed them to deal fixed damage.  Normally monsters roll 1d10 and add their damage bonus to it but with the new system they would, for example, deal 11 damage instead of 1d10+5.  This is generally a raw damage increase because 1d10+5 averages to 10.5.  A couple people talked about how this was potentially an issue because if a player managed to get their Armour value to 10 they could become nearly invincible to the monster hitting for fixed damage.  This is a valid concern so I decided to crunch some numbers and see how it actually shakes out.

This chart shows the average damage dealt given the Armour values on the left.

Armour value
Fixed Damage (11)
Random Damage (1d10+5)

What we see here is that fixed damage actually does more damage right up until Armour reduces the damage to 3 and isn't a big deal until Armour gets the damage taken down to 1.  This looks like a bit of a problem in theory but I am not sure in practice that it matters.  Here is the critical thing - any player with enough Armour to be taking 1 damage from attacks is basically invincible in any case.  Upping the average damage / round from 1 to 1.6 is hardly relevant to the outcome of the battle since when you account for hit chance the character can almost certainly stand there and just heal through 8 enemies beating on them constantly in either case.  Heroes By Trade is not designed for solo battles to the death so presumably those 8 enemies will eventually realize the futility of their efforts and go bash on somebody a lot squishier, disarm the character, or run away.  Characters with that much Armour tend to be very slow and clumsy so they are vulnerable to such tactics.

Also there is the consideration that if the battle includes multiple enemies with different attacks things will likely balance out.  If a character with 11 Armour is being attacked by 1 enemy that deals 11 damage and 1 enemy that deals 17 damage they take 7 damage per round.  If the same character is attacked by enemies that roll for damage instead they take 7.1 damage per round.  The only time the high Armour character is really out of line is when they are exclusively being attacked by enemies that fit in a very tight damage band and if those are the only enemies the character is going to mop them up no matter what system is being used.

There is an argument that carries much more weight though - if the system feels bad and players don't like it then the numerical benefits aren't particularly relevant.  Personally I have no issue with monsters dealing fixed damage because an ogre that hits for 23 does not feel in any way more realistic or immersive than an ogre that has precisely a 10% chance to hit for any value from 18 to 27.  What does get me going is that the fixed damage ogre gets its turn done faster so we can get back to doing cool stuff to blow said ogre up.

It is pretty clear to me that the combat math works just fine with fixed damage or rolled damage.  The only question is whether or not everyone has more fun.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Fast monsters

My next big project for Heroes By Trade is to find some way to make the GM's job easier in combats.  This was definitely one of my goals from the outset and I hoped to accomplish it by making resolution of actions quick and simple.  Unfortunately I think that I missed the mark along the way due to my tendency to go for complicated but pretty solutions instead of fast and dirty ones.  Imagine for the moment that a Giant Spider is standing next to a character and is going to attack on its turn:

First the GM rolls 1d6 to see if the Spider gets to use its special Acidic Bite or if it has to rely on a Basic Attack.  If the GM rolls 4+ the Spider will Acidic Bite.

Okay, so, 1d6 gets a result of 5.  Comparing that to the chart... it gets to use Acidic Bite.

In either case the GM then makes a Hit Roll and compares the result to the target's Dodge to see if the attack lands.

1d20 comes up with 13.  Add the Spider's Hit Bonus of 4, total of 17.  Does that hit your Dodge?  Cool, the attack hits.

Then the GM rolls damage, adds the Spider's damage bonus, and the target reduces the damage by their Armour.  Finally damage is applied, and if the attack was an Acidic Bite the target also gets Persistent damage to deal with later.

Okay, so 1d10 damage roll is 7.  The Spider's damage bonus is 4, so you take 11 physical damage.  Also tack on persistent damage so you will take another 10 next turn.

Even a very simple turn for a straightforward creature requires 3 rolls.  That isn't quick and because the GM doesn't even know ahead of time if the monster is going to have access to its special abilities there is limited planning that can happen.  I think that checking the monster chart four times for it to make an attack is just too many.  (Roll for Power usage, check which Power to use, look up Hit Bonus, look up damage bonus.)  I need to figure out some way to make things easier.  There are a lot of options.

1.  Remove special attacks from monsters.  This gets rid of the 1d6 roll and removes the need to choose attacks but it makes monsters boring.  No good.  Boring is a dealbreaker.

2.  Remove Hit Rolls.  This would require a complete system rewrite because automatic application of debuffs would make the game unplayable.  Not reasonable.

3.  Remove damage rolls.  This is actually very possible.  If monsters have a damage listing that looks like this:  10 (+4) the GM can choose between 10 flat damage and rolling 1d10+4.  This makes it very easy to speed up the damage portion of the fight but allows people to retain extra randomness if they want it.  The slightly higher but more predictable damage is probably a wash as far as the players are concerned.  Predictability favours those who are rated to win, after all.

4.  Remove Basic Attacks from monsters so they always use specials.  This is the reverse of 1. and has interesting effects.  There is less rolling, which is good, but more time spent choosing Powers.  However, with no roll the GM can plan ahead and have a horde of monsters all do the same thing which speeds things up considerably.

Combining 3 and 4 would result in much more rapid resolution of monster Actions without losing any strategic depth.  The only real downside is that fixed damage could occasionally be gamed by the players - if they know they will take 7 damage from the next attack they can plan around that.  Having the players plan to get their Focus down to 7 exactly in that circumstance seems pretty sketchy.  Perhaps that is territory best reserved for "A meteor hits you.  Make a new character."

A turn from a Giant Spider would go somewhat differently with these changes:

1d20 roll comes up with 13.  Add the Spider's Hit Bonus of 4, total of 17.  Does that hit your Dodge?  Cool, the attack hits.

The Spider decides to use Acidic Bite over Web Shot so it does 10 damage.  Also tack on persistent damage so you will take another 10 next turn.

This sequence has 1 roll instead of 3, and 2 lookups instead of 4.  Much faster.  The question is, will it *feel* good?  My hunch is that the players want the monsters to do their stuff fast so that the players can get back to doing fun stuff so the small loss in damage variability will be hugely offset by the chance to do more things.  This warrants testing for sure.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Writing things is hard

The question of the day is as follows:  What do you think the card below does?


At the beginning of each player's turn they either pay 1 Energy OR trash all of their Equipment.

Specifically, what does it do if you start your turn and have no Equipment in play?  Think on that a second.

In my mind this card gives you the choice to either pay 1 Energy or execute the function Destroy_Equipment(currentplayer, all).  Since you have no Equipment in play you execute the function and it does nothing.  Easy!  Unfortunately it became clear last night that other people read the Windy card and conclude that if you have no Equipment you must pay 1 Energy since you have nothing to destroy.  I think it is my math training that makes me think this way - I have no problem with performing an operation on all elements of an empty set.  Normal people don't seem to see it the same way though.

This is one of the things that playtesting thoroughly really brings out, especially when you get people to playtest without the game creator being involved.  Sometimes the numbers are right, the flavour works, and yet different people come to very different conclusions on what a card does.  This is why I find it so useful to test games with my hardcore math gamer nerd friends as well as more mainstream folks.  Tremendous insight can be found in the observations of people who have no real interest in the numbers at all.

The correction required for this card is a small one but it is critical to include so that the effect of the card is not warped completely out of shape.


At the beginning of each player's turn destroy all of that player's Equipment.  They may pay 1 Energy to prevent this from happening.

Hopefully this version makes it more clear that you are allowed to just ignore the card if you don't have any Equipment in play at the moment.  Of course I might be introducing some other issue into the mix because no one person is ever going to be able to see all the ways that other people will (mis)interpret a card.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

A proper test

I got to test out Camp Nightmare on the weekend and learned a lot of useful things.  In theory the game would play well with up to six people but I hadn't had the ability to test it with more than four people up until then.  It turns out that my intuitive guesses about how well it would play with six were close but missed a few key things.  There were two cards in the game that really didn't work at all in the six player version and they looked roughly like this:


You can take an Action to go swimming, which gains you 1 Fun and 1 Energy.

In a game with a few players this works fine but in the six player version you often wouldn't even get back around to your turn to be able to actually go swimming.  Getting to swim twice was pretty nearly impossible and that meant that this card was a pure trap.  While I don't mind cards having different values in different circumstances I don't want players to draw a card and realize that it will never under any circumstances be right to play.  Originally my solution to this was to let people pay 1 Energy to borrow a card for a turn but borrowing swimsuits just seems like a mistake somehow.  If you are into doing that, why aren't you all just skinny dipping?  My solution is to rebrand the card and change it up a little.

Fluffy Towel

Any player can take an Action to go Swimming, which gains them 1 Fun.  No one can Swim on two consecutive turns.

I added in the extra line at the end to restrict the card somewhat because most cards that boost Actions aren't spammable to the same extent - you only need so much Wood or Food but Fun is useful in any amount.  Plus it makes a lot of sense that you need to let the towel dry out again before somebody else can use it to dry themselves off from a dip in the lake.  Go making sense!

The other thing that needed tweaking was the two major ways in which people could boost their resource production.  Gathering Wood is an Action that produces 2 wood normally, but is boosted by the following cards:


Each time any player Gathers Wood they gain +3 Wood.  


Each time any player Gathers Wood you can spend 1 Energy to increase the Wood gain by +5.

A typical circumstance is a player playing one of these cards and then people Gathering Wood 3 times.  With the Saw there is a total of 15 Wood generated over 4 turns, while the Axe provides 21 Wood at the cost of 3 Energy.  The Axe looks better because it generates 18 total resources instead of 15 but it has a major problem in that the person playing it needs a large store of Energy to make it work.  In the six player game getting enough Energy together to do that was a major issue and was completely infeasible at the start of the game.  Right at the beginning a player dropping the Axe would only have enough Energy to power it once and that leaves it as a very unreliable and situational way to gain Wood.

The main reason this was an issue is that in all games the Food and Wood are communal resources.  If the group needs more anybody can fix that on their turn.  Energy on the other hand is a personal resource so if you need Energy to power a card you might well have to spend a turn Napping to get Energy and by the time your next turn comes around the card you wanted to play probably isn't legal, never mind being a good idea.  Anything requiring specific people to spend Energy is extremely difficult to use profitably in six player games.  My new design isn't a complete overhaul but hopefully fixes the issues to a large extent.


Each time any player Gathers Wood they gain +2 Wood.  When this happens any one player can spend 1 Energy to increase the Wood gain by +3.

The idea here is that if you are constantly pouring Energy into the Axe it is quite a good card and produces a lot of Wood.  If you don't have extra Energy though it is still a reasonable investment compared to the Saw.  The breakpoint is that if you are simply Napping as your Action to gain 2 Energy and then pouring that Energy into the Axe it is not as efficient as the Saw.

Axe - Nap, Gather Wood for 7, Gather Wood for 7, total 14.
Saw - Gather Wood for 5, Gather Wood for 5, Gather Wood for 5, total 15.

However, if you are able to generate Energy efficiently through some other means such as a Sleeping Bag then you could get the efficiency of the Axe higher than the Saw.  This is pretty much exactly what I was aiming for - depending on your situation either of the two tools might be desirable but until you get into the game it is not at all clear.  The Saw has the advantage of being simpler and more reliable but the Axe has the advantage of offering choices and choices are powerful, particularly once you know the game very well.

I chose another direction with a card that had very similar problems to Axe called Survival Guide.  Here is the old version followed by the new version.

Survival Guide

When any player Forages you may pay 1 Energy to increase the Food gain by +5.

Survival Guide

When any player Forages increase the Food gain by +7 and trash Survival Guide.

The second version has a huge benefit in a short timespan and isn't especially reliant on game state.  This makes it very appealing and also means that it works just fine in games both large and small.  However, it is not able to generate really enormous benefits if used very efficiently by clever players as its contribution is set.  Now it is a card that I expect new players to always use and be very happy about but which experts will generally avoid in favour of trying to find a way to get a really high score.  You can't beat the record score by playing predictable cards - you need to play high risk, high reward if you want to set new records.  For that style of play you really want the Berry Basket and to find a way to keep it around long enough to use it a ton of times.

Berry Basket

When any player Forages increase the Food gain by +3.

I have also had new ideas for cards just flowing out of my brain.  Here are two of my favourites:

Air Horn

When any player Naps you can gain 1 Fun but that player gains no Energy.

Can of Icing

When any player cooks food you gain +2 Energy and then the cook gains +2 Energy.