A good idea solves many problems

In Derek Yu’s excellent book on Spelunky, he mentions a fantastic Shigeru Miyamoto quote:

A good idea is something that does not solve just one single problem, but rather can solve multiple problems at once.

This was bouncing around my mind when struggling with some problems in the vampire card game I’ve been working on with Bruno Faidutti. I was about to write him an e-mail describing a potential solution and the reasons for it, and I thought it might be helpful to other designers if I posted it here instead. I’m fleshing it out a bit more for context.

Note: This is pretty convoluted. The details don’t matter completely, but iterating designs to solve many solutions at once is the main point I’m trying to convey. Onward.

Context – Players draft 5 cards at the start of the game. Players can use three of these cards the first age, four the second and all five the third. Each age players add a card to their hand, which means that once they start playing with a card, they will keep playing it. This forms the balance between randomness/surprise and players being able to react to their opponent’s moves.

Players play their cards at one of three locations, then add some of their blood from their pool at these locations. Then all cards are revealed, the attack values and blood added up, and the winner takes the human at that location.

In the current version of the game, there are a few problems that are rearing their head up:

Problem #1 – Playing with all thes cards slows the game down exponentially and makes “mindgames” difficult. Going around a circle of players3-5 times is sllloooow.

This also means it can be quite hard to remember every card you’ve seen, and then brain-burning to figure out how THAT plays into strategy.

Problem #2 – Some people have mentioned a “lack of counterplay”. Because players secretly draft their cards at the start, sometimes even though they predict where and what their opponents will play, their drafted cards still can’t adequately counter them. They drafted their cards at the game start, so they can’t adapt their cards to adapt to their opponents.

Problem #3 – When playing blood as part of an attack without a card, it causes confusion in the minds of players. What does it mean to play blood by itself? Using blood to “power” attack cards makes sense, but played “naked”, it suddenly feels abstract. But for balance, players need to be play blood at multiple locations in an age.

Idea – reduce cards, add a universal “Feed”

The idea here is to reduce the total number of cards for each player from 5 to 3. But then give each player one more a “universal” card: Feed. Note no aesthetics yet, purely functional layout:

feed_card

Along with this, change blood placement so players can only play blood where they have cards (I’m calling this “one idea” because it all works in concert).

This is the idea that may solve many problems.

How this (could) solve the problems

Now players are playing 2 cards (1 drafted + Feed), then 3 (2 drafted + Feed) then 4 (all 3 drafted + Feed). With blood limited to card placements, it no longer feels abstract and still remains balanced. This solves Problem #3.

The first age, players play two cards: one they drafted, along with Feed. This solves Problem #1, as the addition of an extra card means other played cards can be more obfuscated (I realize this is probably hard to understand without playing the game). Playing this additional card per-player shouldn’t add to the game length too much as players don’t have to track many cards: they know everyone has a feed.

The part I’m most excited about though is how it could solve the issue of counter-play. In a rule-changing, chaotic game like this one, it’s hard to imagine how players might be able to improve their draft-picks vs. another player. One player might need extra blood capability to counter, another might need more attack strength, another information gathering. Adding a hard “counter” card (“Remove another card in play”) leads to players strategizing and bluffing well, but then very easily having all that hard work go down the drain with no skill.

But Feed works differently – it takes blood from the player that won the attack. This isn’t a direct counter, in that you don’t stop the player from winning. But if a player is going to play an unstoppable combo at a location, and other players can figure it out, they can all play their Feeds their and make sure the winner pays dearly. Lose enough blood and you’re out for the round while the other players make a run on the remaining targets without you. So it doesn’t stop you from being your all-powerful bad-ass vampire self, but it can make you wish you were a whole lot sneakier about it. This could very neatly solve Problem #2.

This could lead to a last unanticipated win too: theme. Vampires now are “feeding” often and turning on each other. But the more predictable they are, they more danger they are in. This could bring a Dixit-level of cunning to the game, where you must not only be powerful and predict your fellow players, but you must fly under the radar so they can never quite pin you down. I could still this feeling cheap, so another solution could involve beefing up the card, but having it be a one-time use.

Wrap-up

Bruno and I have seen many MANY solutions to problems that seem great in our minds, and then turn out to be terrible, or have some other terrible attribute. So I’m not holding my breath this will work as elegantly as it does on the page. But it feels powerful to start thinking about solutions in this multi-level way.

Finding the fun in game design

Designing a game often feels like finding your game.

First you have an idea, then you create a prototype (a “hypothesis”) and then you play it. Then you evaluate it to see what attributes you liked and what you didn’t, and try to surmise why.

You also notice subtle emotional and unexpected results, like a smile on someone’s face when they played a card, or how they pantomimed with a prop, or why they screamed during a YouTube playback. These subtle points can indicate important, exciting traits you didn’t know your game had. You just stumbled upon them. And then if you’re listening carefully, your next prototype has focuses more on these good things and less on the bad.

In Vampire game, it started very simply: I loved rule-breaking games like Cosmic Encounter and Magic and wanted to make one that was simpler and suitable for a dinner party. But I was blocked: I wanted this to be the ULTIMATE game, and no prototype is good enough for that.

So I gave myself 2.5 hours in one evening to create a horrible game, one that didn’t have to achieve my goals. It could be total crap. But it had to be a complete game, and one that we would playtest the next day. This is truly designing for the garbage can.

But with such low expectations, I suddenly was on fire and typing as fast I could – I was completely unblocked. The next day, I printed the rules, borrowed some components from other games and played a game. It looked something like this:

moonlight_1
First playtest, using Coup tokens (July 2015)

The main concepts in the game included 1) A unique vampire power for each player 2) humans in between each player which could be taken 3) blood for each player and on each human 4) simultaneous action selection with the same actions for everyone 5) a hunger element which had every player losing 1 blood per turn so they had to feed.

Now I was excited about board game design, like I always thought I would be. Then I got to work.

After 500 hours of work in a year, 8 major versions and 40+ smaller revisions, the game is quite different. In fact, the only concept in the game that remains from the first version is…blood for each player and on each human. Even the founding element of the game, a unique “Cosmic” like power for every player has finally just been thrown out. I held onto it longer than I should have, because it was dear to my heart, but the game is better with the removal.

september_vampires
Ready for publisher submission (September 2016)

But, is this a good, or efficient way to make games?

It makes me think of the apparent paradox when looking at an old picture of yourself.

Who is this?” your friend asks.

charlie_magic
Charlie, age 10. Yep, still a geek.

It’s me.“, you reply confidently.

But since that photo was taken, every single cell in your body has been replaced.

You are still you, even though no part of your physical being remains the same. But the DNA that (re)created every piece of you is the same, so your body continues to “make” you in your own perfect image.

It seems to work the same way in game design. The “spirit” of a game can carry through, even when every single other element changes.

Not only that, but to me it actually seems necessary to have all this change. Only then, will you know for sure that you have “created”the best game you can. One that’s truly worth your time, and that of your players.

Using theme to solve player elimination

Using theme as a powerful tool to address player elimination

One of the big recurring problems in board game design seems to be dealing with player elimination. That is, how do you allow players to interact with each other and set each other back without eliminating them from the game entirely? I don’t know anyone that doesn’t mind sitting out while everyone else finishes the previously-fun game without them.

In Vampire Game, I was having a huge problem with player elimination. Vampires normally attack humans to gain influence and their abilities, but when another player starts to get ahead, sometimes you need to attack their vampire instead.

Cosmic Encounter is balanced around the fact that players can take action against leaders, and Vampire Game is the same way. It’s critical. Without it, vampires can’t have incredible game-breaking powers. But allowing players to freely attack other players leads to negative feelings: it just feels bad to have everyone attacking you, even if it IS the rational thing to do. Once a player got too far ahead, the other players would immediately attack that person to take their blood and maybe eliminate them completely.

I tried changing the rules so a vampire that loses all their blood goes to “torpor” – a deep sleep where the vampire is out of the action for now, but is slowly regenerating. This seemed like a perfect solution: players can stop a player temporarily, but not permanently. As is often the case in economics and games, this lead to some serious unintended consequences.

Namely, a vampire that was low in blood due to being attacked, or due to recently being in torpor, was suddenly no longer attacked. You gain their blood after all, and if they have almost none to give, players didn’t want to waste their precious actions attacking. It also led to a lingering impotent state, where vampires could be sent to torpor, they heal a little, come back, then are immediately sent to torpor again, and they could never get back on their feet again. The problem was maddening. Every time I tried to fix it, the problem would appear in a new form.

Finally I decided to try to get some inspiration from the subject material. So I watched Interview with the Vampire instead. And therein was the solution, dropped in my lap with no more effort.

503588_1280398798007_full

The world changes, we do not, there lies the irony that finally kills us. -Armand

This quote is where I realized that the vampires were outsiders, to a constantly changing world. This is a theme that’s present throughout the film, and something that I realized could be used to elegantly solve the elimination problem.

Up until this point, the vampires had been battling over a pool of humans. There was no time or year represented, it was just one deck. In order to make humanity change while vampires stayed the same, I broke the game into three ages, three acts.

  1. The first age was the late 19th century, with cobblers, bottlers and stagecoach drivers.
  2. The second age was the early to mid 20th century, with the dawn of modern technology with scientists, schoolteachers and miners
  3. The third age was modern day, with SWAT members, drug addicts and DJs.

Now vampires could be sent to torpor if they lost all their blood, but they would be back to play in the next age, their blood restored. This actually makes sense with the theme, and it meant I could theme the humans much better to paint a picture of the world at that time through a small amount of text. It meant vampires wouldn’t be limping along after death, it just meant they missed out on some victory points in the meantime.

Finally, the addition of granting influence to vampires that were still surviving at the end of each age allowed them to “catch up” in a way that made sense. There were alive and active in the intervening years after all, of course they would gain some advantages in the meantime.

This was such a breakthrough that using theme to solve design problems has become one of the most potent design tools I know about.