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Subject: Calibration: Trial & Error or Dark Alchemy? rss

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Colin Goldberg
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Hey there,

I've never posted on bgg before but I was curious what you would all have to say about this so I figured i'd just ask.

SO: We have an idea for a game. We tested the central idea and the result is fun fast, and there definitely is something At Play, but at the end of the day it is not a full game yet. It needs a bit of structure, some victory conditions, and a reason to explore the different possibilities presented to the player. That's ok, we're up to the challenge.

Over the past week I've built the scaffolding of a game. The game has resources and currency all tied around the central idea that we started with. As I built this game, I had to set a series of prices for goods, upgrades, special powers, etc.

I feel like every single number I wrote down was plucked out of thin air.

How many resources should be available on a given turn? I made it up. How much should certain actions be rewarded? made it up again. There was a little 'I want this option to be more attractive than that option' but in general i felt like i was throwing darts.

Our next step is to build a prototype of the game and see if the idea At Play in our original design is still visible under the structure that has been built. Depending on how that works we'll either adjust the model or scrap the whole thing and go back to the drawing board.

The question I wanted to ask is: When you're designing a game, how do you decide what amounts, numbers, dice rolls, anything to use? Do you just say 'well lets start here and we'll modify it if it doesn't work,' or is there some equation by which all amounts relate to each other?

In my favorite games it seems like the relationships between the numbers and how I play the game represents a major aspect of what makes those games fun & well designed. It just seems a bit mad to me that the numbers were at some point plucked out of thin air, but I can't really envision any other way to start.

Thanks!

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J C Lawrence
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In most all cases the numbers don't matter in terms of their exact value. What generally matters are the ratios, for instance that XXX is 3.5 times the value/cost of YYY and YYY and is half the cost of ZZZ and such forth.
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Jason
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graffitoberg wrote:
I feel like every single number I wrote down was plucked out of thin air.

Surely you had some idea of what would be appropriate, though, based on your knowledge of how the game plays. From there, playtesting will determine what is right and what is wrong. You have to start somewhere.
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Colin Goldberg
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I guess I had a bit of an idea, sure. I just feel like there must be some perfect formula hidden under each design, but there is no way to figure out until you throw some numbers on a page and try it out. Its really fun but it also feels like a leap from the lions mouth, you know?

I guess I'm asking how much do you fiddle with those numbers before you build your prototype and try it out?
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Colin Goldberg
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clearclaw wrote:
In most all cases the numbers don't matter in terms of their exact value. What generally matters are the ratios, for instance that XXX is 3.5 times the value/cost of YYY and YYY and is half the cost of ZZZ and such forth.


that makes sense. I guess thats a more specific version of 'I want this to be more expensive than that.' As we test this out I'll make note of the ratios I've built in.
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Brook Gentlestream
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When I was designing Conquest For the Stars, I knew I wanted a game of starship battles. I designed one ship - the Hunter-class Interceptor by giving it stats that were essentially random.

From there, I used this as a baseline to design other ships, giving them a slightly higher or lower stat here and there.

I then ran a series of combat simulations between them to decide on relative costs, figuring that some ships were about 2x as good as Hunters, while others were about 2/3 as good, etc. This required some averaging and guesswork since some ships are better in certain situations than others.

Once this was done, I was able to start assigning special abilities and getting a rough idea of costs.

Then we made a prototype and started actual playtesting and were amazed at how off the numbers were, even when all the math seemed just right. For example, while the Guardian-class frigate should have a cost of 13, mathematically -- we found that the game became far more fun and some of the decisions much harder if its cost was reduced significantly, making it a bargain value, but something that has to be saved up for.

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Colin Goldberg
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lordrahvin wrote:

Then we made a prototype and started actual playtesting and were amazed at how off the numbers were, even when all the math seemed just right. For example, while the Guardian-class frigate should have a cost of 13, mathematically -- we found that the game became far more fun and some of the decisions much harder if its cost was reduced significantly, making it a bargain value, but something that has to be saved up for.



...so even when you went for dark alchemy, it turned out to be wrong?

I'm beginning to suspect that is more common than i'd want to believe.
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Brook Gentlestream
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graffitoberg wrote:
I'm beginning to suspect that is more common than i'd want to believe.


Why would you not want to believe it?

What I am saying is that you can tweak the math all you want, but there's going to be actual issues that you didn't account for that become revealed in playtesting. No matter how "balanced" you think everything is, it only matters if its balanced in the field, not on paper. This is because there's additional factors to consider in an actual gameplay environment than most simple equations would allow for.

There are some cases where you WANT a game to be inbalanced in a particular way that will throw off your numbers. For example, what if you made two strategies of equal weight? Then what emphasis is there in choosing one strategy over another? You may think you're giving players choices, but if the consequences are more-or-less equal, then you're really not. As a game designer, you're constantly trying to balance your own needs of encouraging player choice while also emphasising a certain kind of gameplay.

This is the trap I fell in when assigning costs to my starships in Conquest For The Stars. I figured out roughly how much value is in one "resource point" and what you could buy from that and started assigning costs. Then I used combat simulations to test them -- so I knew, for example, that buying one ship was the same as buying 2.5 Hunter ships from a gameplay perspective, and priced those equally. All very good, but I didn't take player psychology into account. I didn't figure that players would want a better reward for having saved up cash, and that the value of each ship wasn't as important as perceived and expected values while playing. The math worked out in regards to "challenge" but didn't account for fun. By adjusting the costs we made some highly variable decision processes to the game -- which was a central design goal. Tough decisions.

Ideally, the best "on paper" plan isn't a series of mathmatical formula that balance out elegantly, so much as a complex/messy chain of "if...then" statements.

Playtesting will always invalidate much of the planning and force you to change it. This isn't a bad thing, and it doesn't mean that the planning was fruitless. I would hope MORE decisions get amended and created through experimentation and fudging numbers, not less.

Planning has its place. You can create the perfect blueprint for the design of a house and create one to your specifications. But you couldn't decorate it the same way. No matter how good your plan is, you could never make it a home. You can make the house, and people who like it can then move in, and make slight changes here and there, and make it their own.

In the same way, creating a game has different requirements that constructing a simulation or mathematical model. Much of it may be built on or inside such a model, but there are psychological, artistic, and even narrative concepts that need to work too in order to make your model into a game.

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Ben Pinchback
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clearclaw wrote:
In most all cases the numbers don't matter in terms of their exact value. What generally matters are the ratios, for instance that XXX is 3.5 times the value/cost of YYY and YYY and is half the cost of ZZZ and such forth.

This ^

Matt and I generally just pluck numbers out of thin air that seem to make sense based on playing hundreds of different games. Once you make your prototype and start testing, you start to tweak things that need it. Moving numbers around and balancing is how you force players to do the different things you want them to experience during gameplay. The tweaks that are needed generally become painfully obvious after each play. A little basic statistics and probability goes a long way too. There's a ton of starter threads around here for that.
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J C Lawrence
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graffitoberg wrote:
I guess I'm asking how much do you fiddle with those numbers before you build your prototype and try it out?


I build spreadsheet or software models of the game and use them to determine the right values.
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TC Petty III
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What's great about dark alchemy (or math), instead of choosing numbers out of thin air, is that it provides an excellent base of operations. I find that creating a simple formula for "weighting" is super-helpful, and having friends with economics degrees even more so . Sadly, I don't usually follow my own suggestion, and 90% of the time, when I do the math, I discover that my initial guess is way off and I save so much time.

Usually it has to deal with probability of the components. Dice are easy because they provide an innate range of possible results. If you want a game to end at a set number of points, simply calculate how many rounds you feel the game should take and try to offer an average percentage of that total each round. Yes, this is a guess, but I'm sure you can determine if you want around 50 turns or 5 turns. If it's cards, start with small number totals. If your prototype has values as high as say "34" you're probably providing a range that's too large to start. Usually, the smaller the range, the better; it's much easier to playtest a game that should last 2 hours, but ends an hour early, then one that lasts 3, but should take 2.

But, like everyone else says, the game will be played about 50 times (or many more) before all the elements are cohesive, so be prepared to update the math over and over.
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Joshua Lougheed
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lordrahvin wrote:


This is the trap I fell in when assigning costs to my starships in Conquest For The Stars. I figured out roughly how much value is in one "resource point" and what you could buy from that and started assigning costs. Then I used combat simulations to test them -- so I knew, for example, that buying one ship was the same as buying 2.5 Hunter ships from a gameplay perspective, and priced those equally. All very good, but I didn't take player psychology into account. I didn't figure that players would want a better reward for having saved up cash, and that the value of each ship wasn't as important as perceived and expected values while playing. The math worked out in regards to "challenge" but didn't account for fun. By adjusting the costs we made some highly variable decision processes to the game -- which was a central design goal. Tough decisions.



I think, besides purely psychological factors, there is often one strategy that is riskier. For example, saving resources for a big unit or building or whatever is risky in some games because you might never get to finish it. In another game, converting resources to units early on might make it harder to react to what your opponents are doing.

I think proper calibration should make the risky strategies competitive with the safer ones (with the advantage that different players can try the approach they enjoy best and still be in the game). I am quite new to game design, though, so I haven't got the ideal system for when to start play testing and when to focus on the math.
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