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Building a Better Solitaire Story Game

In which an unseasoned amateur game designer tries to invent his ideal game.

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Progress Marches On

Byron Campbell
United States
Valencia
California
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I've been putting off doing another update, though I am several weeks behind on what was originally intended to be a weekly blog. My day job has seasonal peaks and valleys, and this month is a peak, so I've had less time than I would have liked to playtest Frameshift, let alone write about it. I've got several big things in the works, but was saving them to write about when they were more complete.

A few salient points:

d10-1
The town in which the story of Frameshift takes place has been given a name--San Mutar, located in California, meant to be a bit south of San Francisco.

d10-2
After the previous update, I put in a request for early-early playtesting with the members of the 1-player guild, which is an awesome community and resource for solitaire gamers. I got responses from 8-9 individuals, with whom I've shared access to Dropbox files and Google docs for the game's playtesting. So far, 3 of them have been particularly active/helpful with their feedback:

TJ
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Chad Mestdagh
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Warren Tutwiler
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Major thanks to you three! Your feedback is instrumental in shaping Frameshift. In particular, radchad suggested I look at the molecular sequencing minigame (a major element of the first two scenarios) in isolation to shape it into the best experience it can be, as it is the backbone for the scenario(s). I've taken that advice seriously, and have spent the last couple of weeks working on a new set of Molecule cards that hopefully will make this part of the game more satisfying and strategic overall.

d10-3
As part of my personal playtesting initiative in getting this Molecule deck ready for outside eyes, I've started work on the VASSAL implementation I mentioned in an earlier blog post. While I do have access to a laser printer, some cardstock and a paper cutter at home, it's still hard to replicate the usability of real cards when playtesting this game, particularly as changes and tweaks occur over time, and particularly for decks (such as the Molecules) that need to be shuffled thoroughly. Creating the VASSAL module is more upfront work, since it requires creating each card individually in Photoshop (as opposed to a quick Word document), but will smooth things out in the long run and enable more accurate playtesting results.

Moreover, I'm going a bit above and beyond and creating more visually interesting (but still prototype-level) cards during this process. This is mainly an ease-of-use question: by implementing some iconography and colored backgrounds for the cards, I am making them easier to quickly parse, and it's work that will have to be done eventually in any case. I'm also taking this opportunity to work on scenario-specific map layouts (the previous implementation had location "tiles" that were laid over a static map, but radchad rightly pointed out that it would make things easier all around to just create scenario-specific boards with the location abilities printed directly on the map).

Here are some examples of my efforts over the past few days. Please forgive the garish colors and textures; graphic design is not my forte.

(San Mutar map, Evolution 0)


(some Incident cards, with flavor text)






(some additional Incident cards, without flavor text)




(a couple of Traffic cards, which alter your movement for the round)




Still to do: the actual Molecule cards and the Laura cards (essentially VPs with flavor text), then content for the second scenario.

d10-4
I have started work on Evolution 2 (the third scenario...sorry of the confusing naming scheme, but it will make sense when you play the story). This one drops the Molecule deck mechanic in favor of a more Pandemic-style disease eradication scenario. You play as a member of the FEDC (a Federal Epidemiology and Disease Containment group). Shane Pritchard, a molecular biologist employed by Laza Rx Pharma, has synthesized an antiserum for the mysterious mutagenic infection that has struck San Mutar. While the infection spreads, your goal is to A) gather materials necessary to produce the antiserum, B) treat the hostile, infected populace, and C) quarantine locations to prevent further transmission of the infection. I have not yet playtested the scenario, but I'm already very excited for the change-up in the gameplay. It's a good example of what I hope to do with this game: a series of quick-playing minigames, each exploring a different point of view on an evolving storyline.

Here's a teaser, for anybody who can decipher my chicken scratch:


(no, the missing connection to Egress Park is not intentional)

d10-5
The main point of this blog post. I follow the blog Thematic Solitaires for the Spare Time Challenged, which was a major inspiration for me starting my own blog and becoming more active in the solo gamers community. A few days ago, the blog's author Morten Monrad Pedersen posted The 3P-Principle - or what the craft of storytelling can teach us about solitaire game design, which is a great mini-essay about the craft of solitaire game design. The title instantly caught my attention, and the content of the post got me wondering: how does this principle apply to Frameshift?

Pedersen introduces the concept of "the 3P-Principle," which he defines as "Pressure, Pause, Even More Pressure." Basically, it is the tightrope you have to walk to avoid your game becoming like Agricola (VP optimization, with no external tension during the game) or Ghost Stories (such unrelenting tension that some gamers, like me, find it impossible to enjoy). The 3P-Principle is the middle line.

I think this is a brilliant synopsis of what separates solitaire games I enjoy (such as Friday, analyzed in Morten's post) from ones I don't (such as the two mentioned above). If I had to rephrase the concept, I'd say that over the course of the game, you want your player to feel two emotions, primarily:

Hope that they will win; and
Fear that they will lose.

Ideally, you want both of these emotions to be felt with intensity, and in roughly equal measure (or at most 66% Fear and 33% Hope). Richard Ham articulated a similar concept when comparing Ghost Stories with his favorite co-op, Pandemic. The difference, he said, is that in Pandemic, there is a natural tension to the gameplay: on one turn, things are overwhelming and the players are on the brink of losing, then (if they manage to get things under control) things calm down for a few turns and the players are given room to breathe...until all hell breaks loose again. In Ghost Stories, players are never given that breathing room--in Morten's terms, there is no Pause, and in my terms, there is no Hope.

At the start of the month, I picked up Flash Point: Fire Rescue at a Barnes and Noble sale, and I think it's a great example of this principle in action. Throughout the game, you have only one goal: rescue at least 7 victims before they are killed by fire and/or the building collapses. Each game begins with tensions already high: there is plenty of fire on the board, 3 victims to rescue, and hazardous, explosive materials have been seeded, possibly dangerously close to the starting fire.

As the game progresses, the situation will change. You may initially focus on rescuing victims, which will often result in a fire that spreads to take over half of the building, in constant danger of explosions causing structural damage. If you have at least one role that specializes in putting out fires, like the CAFS firefighter or the Driver/Operator, then you will very likely run into the opposite situation: most of the fires dead or reduced to smoke, giving you some breathing room to focus on rescuing victims. You might take time out early on to dispose of those hazardous materials, which reduces one source of threat but wastes valuable time. If you are smart, you will work on all three goals in alternation, which will create a naturally rising and falling tension: putting out fires when you must, saving victims when you can, oscillating between hope and fear, pressure and pause.

In my last blog post, I expressed some consternation: from private playtesting, my game seemed to be functional, but I wasn't getting the "fun," and I couldn't figure out why. After reading Morten's post, I decided to see if I could apply those principles to Frameshift Evolution 0 to find out what might be missing.

Step 1: Pressure - What is the source of pressure in Evolution 0? One word: Stress. In Evolution 0 and Evolution 1, Stress is a value that should naturally increase over time as the result of various events, as seen above. It starts at 0, with a maximum of 15--hitting that number is the only way to lose the scenario prematurely. Furthermore, as your Stress rises, it hampers you in other ways by decreasing the Actions allowed during your turn--you begin with 4 Actions per turn, but that number is reduced by 1 each time your Stress increases past a certain value.

What makes this more interesting is that Stress is also a sort of cost used to take a number of actions necessary to win the scenario. Specifically, the actions associated with Laza Rx Pharma and Sopona Teaching Hospital are necessary to win, and several Incident cards also give you a reward with an attached cost in Stress. I didn't consider this consciously when I was designing the game, but it's very similar to the way Life Points are used in Friday, as described by Pedersen.

Step 2: Pause - The goal of the scenario is to create a Sequence of specific Elements (a type of Molecule card). There is also a sub-goal of collecting Laura cards--basically, you can score your win based on how many Laura cards you ended up with. Thinking back to Flash Point, collecting Laura cards is like rescuing victims--something to do when you have breathing room. Working on your Sequence and keeping Stress down is like putting out fires--something to do to keep from losing and create that breathing room.

Where this falls apart a bit is that you are never given a choice of whether to work on your Sequence or pursue Laura cards. There are certain locations, as described above, that help with the Sequence, but you are mainly using your Actions for pursuing Laura cards. Molecule cards happen during a discrete end-of-round step, and there is very little interaction between the two elements.

I think that this is where part of my dissatisfaction was coming from. Because your progress pursuing one objective has no bearing on the other objective, they don't feel part of the same dynamic of rising and falling tension. I can be doing really well on my Sequence, or it can be going terribly, but I will probably pursue the same actions during my turn regardless. Pursuing Laura cards becomes like that VP optimization seen in Agricola.

My solution: leverage the one spot where these two elements connect, which is Stress. Stress directly affects your ability to accomplish your sub-goal of pursuing Laura cards by reducing your available Actions. It also keeps you in fear of it climbing high enough to end the game prematurely, very similar to Flash Point's damage cubes.

As for Molecule cards, there are a few that cause Stress, but for the most part they are avoidable. In the previous model, you draw 3 Molecule cards at the end of each round, choose 1 to play, and put the rest back on bottom of the deck. Then, at the start of the round, you gain a set amount of Stress. Even with the redesigned Molecule cards, which give the player more enticing choices to pick over the obvious Element cards, this model wasn't playing out as I'd hoped.

Step 3: Even More Pressure - New model: Remove the start-of-round Stress gain. At the end of each round, draw and play the top Molecule card. Before drawing, you may gain up to +4 Stress to draw that many additional Molecule cards, choosing only one to play and placing the rest on the bottom of the deck. Suddenly, there are more interesting press-your-luck choices to be made, as well as a chance to mitigate potentially disappointing endgame scenarios where you are forced to play a card that messes up your Sequence on the final round. Now, if you've got the Stress threshold, you have a much higher chance of avoiding this fate. And the more Stress you contribute toward your Sequence, the fewer Actions you will have available to pursue Laura cards. Suddenly, the tension is there again!

As you get closer to the end of the game, this will naturally ramp up as it becomes increasingly important to protect your Sequence from cards that could disrupt it. Particularly if you've got your Laura cards taken care of, you might find yourself letting your Stress rise and accepting the reduced actions rather than wasting time reducing it. But if it gets too high, you might not have the leeway to avoid a tragic Molecule draw. I love it! And it works better thematically, too, as the player character now gets to choose how much of himself he devotes to the labwork during the hourly progress reports from his subordinates.

It may still not be perfect, but I think this is a great evolution for the scenario, and I would never have reached this breakthrough without reading that blog post. Thanks,
Morten Monrad Pedersen
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Wed May 14, 2014 11:45 pm
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Addressing Scope and Replayability

Byron Campbell
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It's been a few weeks since I posted about Frameshift, and that's because I've been spending my time mostly engaged with the boring tasks of playtesting scenarios. Not much I can share publicly about that. However, I did face an interesting design conundrum that seemed like a good topic for wider discussion.

Taking the FUN Out of FUNctionality

Playing the second scenario (counterintuitively called Evolution 1...there's a reason for this) last week, which I designed the week before, I found myself beginning to question the value of the game as a whole. I was banging my head against the same problem I ran into with all of my previous original game designs--the game felt FUNCTIONAL, but fell short of being FUN. What I mean when I say that is that everything was playing out pretty much the way I had intended it to, I was moving around the board, gaining and spending resources and dealing with Incidents, but I wasn't really getting exciting about anything that was happening in the game.

To be absolutely fair to myself, this might just be a byproduct of playing your own solitaire game. Nothing in the game was going to surprise me, since I had designed it all; in contrast, when I play a game that I've designed a solitaire variant for, I'm still coming across rules and mechanisms that I didn't author myself, so there's a bit more excitement there. And if I were to design a multiplayer game and playtest it with friends, I'd have the unpredictability of human interaction to deal with.

However, I think there are also a few flaws built into the design itself, and I'm currently working to address those. The biggest flaw was that, for what started out as a goal to "build a better solitaire story game," I wasn't really getting a sense of story out of my plays. It felt very mechanical and abstract. The other flaw had to do with a conflict between my plans for the game as a whole and my design of the individual scenarios, and that's a more subtle, trickier problem.

Scope and Personal Investment
When I realized I wasn't getting the story I wanted out of my test plays, I almost broke down and abandoned the game completely. Were my original mechanics getting in the way? It would have been much easier to create a game that hews more closely to the Arkham Horror/Eldritch Horror gameplay model, with all its flaws, and focus my attention on the singular task of writing more interesting and focused story text. I also have another, much more story-focused game design I could focus my attentions on if I dropped this project completely. But then I remembered that the purpose of this blog was to help me commit to developing the project to its conclusion, so I made the comparatively more difficult choice of actually looking at the game objectively and seeing what needed to be reinvented.

What I realized was that the problem was one of scope. When I was brainstorming the game, one of my first concepts was that of the circular board, with 12 locations arranged like the numbers on a clock, and the basic choice on your turn: move to an adjacent location for free, spend resources to skip one or more locations, or move to the opposite space on the circle (e.g. from 12 to 6 on the clock) by passing through a dangerous "no man's land."

This would create interesting gameplay decisions in terms of where and how to move...I thought. In practice, though, at least in the first two scenarios, it created an abstract board that felt nothing like moving through an actual city and led to a ton of uninteresting non-decisions, since it was usually worthwhile to just slowly work my way around the circle, stopping to activate each location in turn.

Let me stop and define what I mean by "scope." In a game like Arkham Horror, the scope is pretty tight. The spaces on the board represent streets and buildings within the town of Arkham, the characters represent individual investigators or monsters, and the player moves across the board one space at a time. This kind of tight scope makes it easier to personally identify with your character, because you feel as though you are controlling their actions on a smaller scale. An even tighter scope would be any game in which rooms are composed of individual spaces or hexes, and you literally move your character one step at a time.

It seems like it shouldn't matter, but I think it does. Pandemic has a much wider scope that is appropriate to the theme of the game. Although you still control individual character, you are moving them from city to city, and the action is implied to take days or weeks. This tends to make the players feel less directly attached to their characters and more attached to the team as a whole--you feel as though you are coordinating teams of (unseen) doctors and scientists. The game feels less personal as a result. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, because it meshes well with the theme--the epidemics themselves are equally impersonal.

Mage Knight Board Game is a bit of a midpoint. The map is on the scale of a continent, with mountain ranges and lakes taking up individual hexes. It only takes a few turns to finish a single day or night. You'd think that would make Mage Knight feel impersonal, and while you do feel like you are accomplishing great things on a great scale, commanding small armies, the restrictive movement rules help make it feel as though you are controlling your hero on a smaller scale than the map implies. It takes a tremendous effort to cross several desert hexes during the day, for example, and that sense of effort gives you back the personal connection that the zoomed-out map took away.

I wanted Frameshift to take place on a very personal scale, as appropriate for a solitaire game in which you control just one character at a time. Each scenario is supposed to take place in a single day, and each round represents roughly an hour. The Incidents are very personal events that happen directly to the character, and the scope of the map is a single city, the same as Arkham Horror. However, there were other aspects of the game that weren't meshing well with the scope I was going for, the biggest of which was the abstract way of moving around the map.

The biggest change I made in this draft of Frameshift was completely redesigning the layout of the map (see the doodle below). It still uses the same locations, but now they are laid out in a more interesting way that feels more like moving through a real city and allows for more interesting decisions than "Should I move clockwise or counterclockwise?" I also redesigned several of the abilities of the locations (which are scenario-specific) and the Incidents to reflect the scope a bit better. Finally, while this doesn't specifically have to do with scope, I redesigned most of the Incident cards for the first scenario so that they present some kind of choice for the player, aside from whether or not to go to that location at all. Hopefully, this makes moving through the city feel less arbitrary and, with increased control over the character's actions, makes the scope of the game feel tighter, allowing for more investment in the unfolding story.


(Ignore the curved lines...I was just having fun playing with the idea of orbitals. The straight lines connect the locations. Look a bit like a molecular model kit?)

Replayability: Always a Good Thing?
The other issue I've been toying with is the problem of replayability. As a gamer, I'm conditioned to think of replayability as a necessity in games. As such, when I was designing and playing these first scenarios, I instinctively focused on things that would improve replayability: I gave the scenarios a lose condition and tooled them so that winning would be a challenge. I also created the Incidents so that you never knew the exact order they'd come out, and there were always a few that weren't guaranteed to appear at all.

However, this just didn't mesh with my overall vision of the game, which was to be played as a campaign in which each scenario is played only once. Win or lose, you would move on to the next part of the story, and the status of your previous play would have repercussions on the next scenario. I liked this from a storytelling perspective--too few games fully explore the consequences of failure, usually treating it like a magical reset button.

Typing it up now, I'm still excited by the concept of a game in which you can continue the story even from a losing state. However, I don't know if that game's Frameshift. It introduces so many other problems that I don't know if I have the design chops to deal with. There's a big psychological difference between a scenario that is only winnable 40% of the time, but you can replay it until you win, versus a scenario that is winnable 40% of the time and you have to accept your loss permanently. Moreover, the second scenario suggests a game that lacks depth, one in which you're not expected to improve with repeated plays (because there are no repeated plays built into the model). In other words, replayability is actually a bad thing with this design.

After mulling it over, I am going forward with the concept that each scenario will be loseable, and that a loss necessitates replaying the scenario. As cool as the other idea sounds, I want to be able to fully embrace the notion of replayability and the more interesting and subtle design decisions it allows.

Well, that's it for this week. I'll keep you posted as Frameshift continues to evolve!
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Tue Apr 22, 2014 12:19 am
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Harder Better Faster Stronger

Byron Campbell
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Valencia
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Well, maybe not faster. But for this Frameshift Friday, I focused on overhauling the first scenario to make it feel a bit meatier. This meant doubling nearly everything in the scenario.

Frameshift is a story-driven solitaire board game about change played over a series of sequential scenarios, or "Evolutions." Each Evolution adds or removes rules from the game as the characters and situations evolve. The outcome of one Evolution can have a minor or major effect on subsequent Evolutions (though not necessarily the next one in line). It's strongly suggested that you play each Evolution only once, and in order, without looking ahead, though you are welcome to replay the entire cycle again once you've finished. When design is finished, I plan to release Frameshift as a series of free print-and-play files with a possible physical version after that.

Last week, the inaugural Frameshift Friday (where I devote myself to prototyping, design and playtesting for at least a few hours a week), I made a prototype version of Evolution 0 and played it about 6-7 times, maybe more. I even had an impromptu outside playtest when a couple of friends came over on Sunday. After the first play, in which I changed a couple of major rules and scribbled over half the cards, Evolution 0 seemed...pretty solid.

This disturbed me. I have nothing to change, nothing to tweak? I must be doing something wrong!

My one complaint about the scenario was that it felt a little (okay, a lot) quicker than I had imagined. It takes place over 15 turns. Each turn, the player is allowed a maximum of 4 actions--up to 2 movement and up to 2 "interface," or using the special ability of the current location. In practice, the game takes about 15 minutes to play, and feels very light.

Since this is a tutorial scenario, "very light" was fine by me, but as I was thinking about the future scenarios, I realized that 15 turns just wasn't going to cut it. So with this next prototype, I modified that number to 30 turns. But because the Molecular Sequencing, one of the central mechanics of the scenario, is tied to the turn timer, this also meant doubling the size of the Molecules deck (which probably needed to happen anyway). And so forth.


Is It Big Enough?
This brings me to an interesting question: what is the appropriate size for a solo game? As a gamer, I know I am drawn (irrationally) to those games that are absolutely overflowing with bits: Arkham Horror with all the expansions has a physical presence I can't resist. I like the sheer voluminousness of the game more than I like the game itself! Android is another favorite that's got a small forest's worth of cards in it. Ditto for Mage Knight Board Game and Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island.

On the other hand, one of my design goals with this game was to keep it as small and elegant as possible. Part of this is just in recognition of my skills as a game designer--I don't know if I have what it takes to juggle 10 50-card decks and make it all balanced. Part of it is in recognition of the fact that publishers are going to prefer a game with fewer bits, and if it's delivered as a print-and-play, fewer cards are better there, as well. And part of it is in recognition of the fact that bigger is not always better.

As a gamer, I'm drawn to big games that seem to offer a ton of variety. But is variety really what makes a game replayable? Betrayal at House on the Hill has 50 potential endgame scenarios, each of which plays out very differently. But that means interrupting the game to learn new rules the first 50 times you play. It also means, for me, completely whiffing the strategy the first time you play each haunt, and then not being able to replay the same haunt until you've forgotten what you did wrong the first time.

I think this last point is true of other games as well. Space Alert does not have that many threat cards, especially when you separate them out by color and internal/external and serious/normal. There are probably something like 4 in each pile by that point. It has just enough to keep the game feeling fresh and unpredictable, but few enough that you can actually improve at the game by getting to know the threats and how to counter them.

As I play more games, I'm getting more and more into eurogames, which tend to go for a more elegant approach that is lower on components but still endlessly replayable. In Le Havre, only minor elements change between each game, with the same basic buildings being seen every time (it's still a big game, components-wise). In The Castles of Burgundy, you will see all of the knowledge tiles after 2-3 games, and every other tile is a duplicate, but the order they come out and the board you're playing on makes each game feel different. In both of these games, I feel as though I have gotten into a groove where I am comfortable playing the game and can get fully immersed in play.

So, what is your opinion? What is the "right size" for a solo game? As a gamer, do you ever find your eyes bigger than your stomach?

P.S: Happy International Tabletop Day!
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Sat Apr 5, 2014 2:00 pm
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It's Frameshift Fridays!!!!

Byron Campbell
United States
Valencia
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After Entropy (see the previous post) started up, my life took a turn for the hectic. Although I love what I am doing, there are a lot of little projects I'm working on now that I couldn't have anticipated when I started this blog. In addition, I was actually approached by two separate game publishers to review their games, one for Entropy and one for Nerdspan. Both of these games seem absolutely amazing, and I'm stoked to have a chance to review them, but it's also another thing on my plate.

On top of all that, I am finally biting the bullet and learning VASSAL. When it was brought to my attention that Pay Dirt is not crazy overfunded (as it should be) on Kickstarter, I decided it would be a perfect opportunity for me to try my first VASSAL implementation, since I don't have the materials or the mindset to craft the free, full-art print-n-play of the game. If I have time before the campaign ends, I'm going to try my hand at coming up with a solo variant for the game, which I can test using the VASSAL module. I haven't gotten the publisher's permission to distribute the VASSAL module generally, but if anybody wants to collaborate on it and/or just take a look at what I have, please send me a geekmail. At this point I have each card/board element in the appropriate type of file, and I have the boards and most of the tokens actually implemented in the module.

(On a side note, what is the best VASSAL tutorial you've come across? I tried reading the module design manual and it was...well, maybe written with wargamers in mind? Very hard for me to follow. I found a VASSAL video tutorial by GMT Games that is MUCH better, but it does seem to be skewed a bit more toward wargames, and things like making decks are pushed all the way to the last video. Is there another good alternative out there?)

I've hardly gotten to play board games at all in the last few weeks, let alone playtest Frameshift. That's why I've decided to commit to Frameshift Fridays. The other days of the week, I will work on my various other projects, but Fridays, I will be devoting at least several hours a week to Frameshift. This Friday, I FINALLY typed up a very rough version of the cards and locations for Evolution 0 and ran through it roughly 5 times. Here are some pictures (edit: BGG image upload wasn't working for me, so here are links to the pics on Facebook):

https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10152250053286166
https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10152250053481166
https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10152250053811166
https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10152250053866166
https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10152250053921166

A game takes about 20 minutes, I'd say, which is a bit shorter than I'd like, but it's feeling good. This is the tutorial scenario, so it is very streamlined, but I think it is still interesting to play. In this one, there aren't enemies to fight or timed Incidents to worry about; it's just a day in the life sort of thing. At first, it was very bland, but I tweaked some of the numbers and rejiggered a few key rules (now you get 4 actions per turn, which can either be moving or activating locations, but you can only do each type of action a maximum of twice; in addition, at least for the first scenario, a new Incident comes out each round, no matter how many are in play already). After the changes, it's a lot more fun, capable of surprising even me. There's a main goal (create the correct sequence of elements) and a sub-goal (collect as many Laura cards as possible), and so far, I am finding the main goal consistently achievable, but the sub-goal very tough, which seems about ideal for an intro scenario.

If you are interested in VERY early playtesting of Frameshift, let me know and I will send you the files for Evolution 0. This is purely "In what obvious ways is this broken?" kind of playtesting, and you should be prepared for me to A) change a lot of things very suddenly and B) completely ignore your advice, but I won't turn down any help that's offered to me
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Sat Mar 29, 2014 2:00 pm
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Entropy

Byron Campbell
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Progress on Frameshift (I am really favoring that title now) was put on hold for the past couple of weeks, along with all of my other boardgaming activities, as I wrapped up a large editing project and worked up to the launch of Entropy, a new website for which I am a contributing editor. What's Entropy got to do with this blog? Well, to quote the welcome post by Peter Tieryas Liu, Entropy is

Quote:
a fusing of influences, HTMLGiant conjoined with Kotaku, Millions, and all the other amazing magazines out there. We knew what he wanted; the orphans, the brilliant pieces on gaming, genre fiction, drama, movies, and more that have a hard time finding homes. We wanted conversational reviews, 1-sentence reviews, speculations on the heat death of the universe, epistemological inquiries into religion and ontology. We wanted to make people’s eyes supernova over 1000 words. I’ve sometimes read reviews on my FB feed of various things that are way more brilliant than stuff in the best of magazines and we wanted to give those pieces homes. So we’re starting a new site—scratch that—a new COMMUNITY of like-minded folks who want to share, discourse, laugh, cry, yell, weep, and debate. We’re starting Entropy. We love submissions. We love you. Lots of amazing folks already involved and too many more to list here. Don’t blink, take deep breaths, swim in lava, run across hurricanes, devour whales using toothpicks. Literary chaos unleashed.


I personally think it's going to RAWK like Rawk Hawk, the Feral Nuclear Reactor of the Glitz Pit. I'm going to be doing a lot of gaming reviews and other content there, and would welcome any submissions you have if you're of like mind. Feel free to contact me by geekmail at any time.

I did make a template for the incident cards (pre-alpha version), and I have all of the mechanical stuff for the first scenario already worked out, it's just a matter of filling it in and printing it out. I know it looks not fantastic, but I am no graphic designer. Why go to the trouble of making digital versions of the cards while still doing the early testing? Partially it's because my day job leaves me stranded at my computer for long periods of time, so it's actually easier for me to work in photoshop than to draw on a bunch of index cards. The other reason is that I'd like to do at least some of the testing in VASSAL, if it doesn't prove too laborious, so that I can harness some of that aforementioned computer time. Problem is, I've never created a VASSAL module before, so I have no idea how time consuming it will be to go from digital images to playable cards.

I'm also contemplating big changes to one of my other projects, Lonesome Journey - How I Turned My Entire Collection Into A Solitaire Smorgasbord. At the present time, I just can't keep up with the geeklist in its current format, and I'm debating switching to a more casual, blog-like format where I post about new projects as I start them. However, I had also considered just rolling it up with this blog, which I had already planned to eventually use to discuss my general adventures in game design beyond Frameshift. What do you think?

Sorry about the somewhat anticlimactic update after a week of silence...I wasn't sure whether it would be better to post some "no news" news, or let the silence speak for itself.
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Fri Mar 21, 2014 2:00 pm
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Putting the Lie to "Difficult" Solo Games

Byron Campbell
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Work on Frameshift is progressing well this week. I have gotten to a point where I am going to start withholding more information about the design, because this game is shaping up to be an experience and I want to avoid spoilers. However, after the last update, I am focusing more on the campaign/scenario progression element as a way to bring out the theme and story. I've got a rough sketch of each of the 11 scenarios, or "Evolutions," of the campaign, and have started work on the first one. The Evolutions will introduce (or remove) gameplay elements slowly, so starting with Evolution 0 seems to be like the thing to do. It follows Shane Pritchard, a project lead for the Novel Molecules division of Laza Rx Pharmaceuticals. It's mostly about introducing the Molecular Recombination aspect of the game, which is all about manipulating a deck of cards to bring out the ones you want and avoid the ones you don't. However, he'll have some personal problems to deal with as well, and the scenario will show the setting of the game before the infection sets in.

It was another busy week, as I found out that an online litmag project for which I'm contributing editor, and which has been slated to happen "soon" for a while now, will be going live at the end of this month. That means lining up content of my own and reaching out to others. This e-magazine, Entropy (like us on Facebook), will be focusing on literature as it's traditionally thought of, as well as all the other things that people who are into literature are into...and that includes games. If you'd like an alternate venue for your game reviews or musings...well, I'll be posting an official invite to submit in the Press Release forum after the website goes live.

For now, since I don't have much to share this week, I thought I'd try another open question for anybody out there reading this. One thing I'm constantly hearing from solo gamers is that they expect their solitaire games to be...well, the harder, the better. Whether it's Ghost Stories, Arkham Horror, Space Hulk: Death Angel – The Card Game or The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game, there seems to be an overwhelming preference for games with a vanishingly low win rate.

Here's my question: Why? What is it about these punishingly hard games that appeals to solo gamers? As I mentioned in my Best Practices post, I would personally prefer a game that is moderately easy to win, but with scoring that accurately reflects how "well" you won. The reasoning behind this bias is that I have a suspicion that in most solo games, the word "difficulty" could actually be rephrased as "luck sensitivity." If veteran players are repeatedly losing to the game system, there must be a significant element of luck required to win...and if that's the case, then where's the satisfaction in victory?

However, I'm open to reevaluating my opinions on the subject. For instance, I'd be willing to concede that some solo games with a higher win rate (such as Pathfinder Adventure Card Game: Rise of the Runelords – Base Set) probably rely just as much on luck...it's just that the threshold for winning the game is set lower. Another way to say that is, when a game is "difficult," it probably means that without good luck, you won't win; when a game is easy, it probably means that without bad luck, you won't lose. It's all about how much luck is accounted for in the balancing of the game and where the threshold for winning is set. In Ghost Stories, I feel like I can do everything right and still lose, because the game requires me to have a little bit of luck in order to win--at some point, you need to submit to chance and fight a ghost knowing that you won't defeat it without a good roll. I think it's fair to say that the threshold for winning was purposely set very high by the designer, and that while both an experienced player and a novice might both lose, the novice will lose more.

I'm also willing to consider that it's possible for a game to be difficult without relying too heavily on luck. In Lord of the Rings: The Card Game, I played through the first two scenarios in the core set using the pre-assembled single-sphere decks, and found the experience pretty challenging (i.e. if I got unlucky, I could lose). However, once I built and rebuilt my own decks to face the scenarios, the challenge level decreased significantly, because I was able to pick and choose cards that could nullify the worst encounter cards in the deck (the "unluckiest" cards). In that case, my strategy in building the deck had a much larger impact on the outcome of the game than luck did. As I play through the expansions and the available card pool grows, I think that the influence of my decisions on the game's outcome will only increase.

What do you think? Is "difficulty" just another way to say "luck sensitivity" in solo gaming? Do you prefer games with a low win ratio, and why?

Another quick question before I end: when is the appropriate time to list my game design on boardgamegeek? When I have images to share? When the print and play files are ready? Or just when I have played the prototype enough to know that none of the major mechanics are going to change anymore?
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Fri Mar 7, 2014 12:00 pm
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Can Board Games Terrify?

Byron Campbell
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Some say that when you give something a name, you give it power. Others say that by naming something you make it known, and that which is known is mortal. In either case, I think it's time I gave this "Project X" a title. That's not to say that the name or theme are set in stone, but it's becoming awkward referring to it as "the game."

After several phases of rigorous clinical testing, I've narrowed it down to 2 candidates: Mutagen or Frameshift.

Mutagen refers to something that changes the genetic material of an organism, causing mutation. A frameshift is a specific type of mutation--it's when one of the building blocks of a gene is added or deleted, causing the entire chain to shift sideways and become unreadable. I like Frameshift because it sort of describes an aspect of the gameplay, the way the player moves around the board by sliding to adjacent locations or "shifting" to non-adjacent locations. Actually, now that I think about it, the way the player can move to opposite locations across the board is a bit like genetic translation.

Mutagen, on the other hand, is much more evocative of the theme and gets the genre across much clearer. Frameshift sounds a bit abstract, but I'm going to run with that for now as it's more unique.

Which do you prefer?

As I said in my first blog post, I'm not a professional game designer. As such, I don't have the luxury or the rigor of designated game design time. I take it when I can get it, in between playing other games and spending time with my family. Because I work from my computer and have to take jobs on an "as available" basis, I usually can't tell at the start of the week whether I'll have lots of free time to work on creative projects, or none at all.

This week fell into the latter bucket, so unfortunately, I made less progress than I'd hoped on the pre-alpha prototype of Frameshift. What did I do? I made a page for the location "tiles" to print and cut out later. I also made a template for cards so that I can quickly fill in the text once I've got it worked out. I started working on the text and game effects of the encounter cards (it has to be a side-by-side process for me--I can't do mechanics first and tack the theme on later), but there is still more work to be done.



(Yes, I'm aware of the typo in "Elixers.")

I'm also working on the story behind the basic scenario, as a way of getting toward possible encounter ideas. The character for this basic scenario, I've decided, is called Nightingale--after Florence, the mother of modern nursing. As alluded to in a previous post, she is just a regular person trying to survive in this infected world until her elderly father contracts the infection. She's his only surviving relative and caretaker, so it's up to her to try to halt the progression of the infection within her father before he reaches the point of no return. A contact at the Teaching Hospital said he could produce a serum if she gathered enough inoculations, but time is ticking....

Rather than bore you with details of what I didn't do this week, I wanted to spend this week's blog post talking about a wider issue. As I started to work on bringing out Frameshift's horror theme, I realized that I've never actually played a board game that I would classify as "terrifying." I have played plenty of games in the horror genre, but it is almost always an aspect of the visual design more so than something embedded in the gameplay. Mansions of Madness is an example of this. The visual design and flavor text exude horror atmosphere out of every pore, if you stripped away the theme, the game could be any other dungeon crawl or detectives-versus-gangsters game.

On the other hand, I've played lots of video games that work their horror magic excruciatingly well. In fact, I think that video games, because of their mix of interactive and visceral elements, are the best medium for the horror genre. Board games share the interactive element, but they don't have the same immediacy of sound and animation. On the other hand, books (House of Leaves) and graphic novels (Uzumaki) can be effective horror vehicles as well. What do they have that board games don't?

First, I should define what I mean by "terror." There's a popular distinction between the terms "horror" and "terror" that usually holds up "terror" as the more lofty ideal. "Horror" is when you get something violent or revolting shown to you and recoil at the sight of it; "terror" is when the actual horrifying object or event is obscured, so you are left in dread of it. I don't usually follow this distinction (by habit, I use "terror" to refer to fear or shock and "horror" to refer to something more deeply psychological), but for the purpose of this blog post, I am going to go with the classic definition and talk about a game's ability to cause terror or dread.

As I said above, I can't recall a single board game experience that made me feel terror. Therefore, I'm going to draw on my much deeper stores of video game experience in an attempt to classify what I consider to be the two primary methods by which games can inspire terror, then see if there's any hope of translation into the board game world. I won't guarantee any of this thought process will make it into Frameshift due to its already somewhat defined mechanics, but I was beginning to feel it was skewing more toward sci-fi than horror -- I'd love to find a way to crank up the terror in some way.

Method One: Fear of Dying
Obviously, unless you somehow wandered onto the Saw set, games can't actually hurt you. However, many video games capitalize on the player's investment in the game in order to activate their fight-or-flight instinct. The classic example is Resident Evil, which popularized and cemented the genre we know today as "survival horror." The classic tenets of survival horror involve putting a series of external limitations on the player in order to ratchet up the tension of dying in-game. This includes limiting ammunition (so that the player is sometimes forced to get up close and personal with the enemy), limiting inventory space (so that you can't carry 5 health sprays), and most importantly, limiting the player's ability to save--when you're pushing a half hour or an hour past your last save point and exploring a new wing of the mansion, unsure if the next door will reveal a typewriter room or a mutant ape capable of ripping your face clean off, it's impossible not to feel the dread of the unknown.

If Resident Evil instigated the survival horror movement, Fatal Frame perfected it. It took the survival horror building blocks of limited ammo and limited saves, and it twisted them in the most diabolical way possible: instead of zombies, the enemies are ghosts, and instead of a gun, your weapon is a camera. This folds in all sorts of other innovations, but the most important ones is the way the game actively encourages players to set themselves up to be be terrified. Want to do more damage to the enemy? You'll have to hold it in focus for as long as possible and get as close as you can bear. Want to upgrade your camera? Then seek out the hidden ghosts in dark corners and other unsafe places--these usually don't actually harm you, but they set up some of gaming's most effective shock scares nonetheless.

Recent notable games that employ this type of terror are Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Dark Souls (or its lesser known but more horrific precursor, Demon's Souls).

So, are board games capable of mimicking this method?

I don't think so, but I'd be happy to be proven wrong. If you take out all the moaning and exploding mirrors, what we're really talking about is a game's difficulty. There are lots of difficult board games with horror themes--Arkham Horror and Ghost Stories are two. Yes, there's tension involved, but I don't think there's any actual fear or dread.

I think there are three reasons for this: One, you're always in control of a board game. Even if you are following an algorithm or just drawing a card and doing what it says, you are manipulating the board for the bad guys as well as the good guys. It's a small thing, but I think it makes a significant difference in your psychological investment in the game.

Two, and more importantly, board games aren't going to activate your fight-or-flight instinct because they almost always allow you to take your time and fully analyze your situation. There are a few real-time board games, but even then, you have to reference point number one. There are very few ways I can think of for a board game to draw you along, poised on a knife's edge, and have you screaming in surprise just when the tension is highest (unless you're playing Atmosfear: The DVD Board Game).

Finally, while there is a tension inherent in board games--a powerful enemy that you don't want to draw, a die roll that you can't afford to misroll--this tension is usually very short-term. You feel a moment of dread, then it dissipates as soon as the card is drawn or the die is rolled. If there were a way to draw it out, have the tension mount turn by turn by turn, I could see board game horror being much more effective. There is an RPG that plays with this that I've been itching to try, but I don't have an RPG group--Dread, it's called. If you're interested in horror games that play with the idea of mounting tension, definitely give it a look.

Method Two: Psychological Disorientation
I chose the word "disorientation" carefully. If the previous method was mortal terror, then this is straight up terror of the unknown. The former is completely understandable, even if the fear might be misplaced (we know it isn't real), because protecting our own life is one of our most basic instincts. Terror of the unknown is a bit more difficult to pin down--there is no obvious threat, except that your understanding of the universe and ability to predict is called into question. I guess it is, in one sense, the psychic equivalent of mortal fear: fear of the loss of mind, of self.

Silent Hill is the poster child for this method. Released just three years after the first Resident Evil, the original Silent Hill followed the survival horror formula fairly closely. However, where Resident Evil was fairly grounded, Silent Hill was dangerously surreal. A small tourist town where all roads end in crumbling cliffs, where you might hear an air raid siren and suddenly find yourself in a dark, rusted nightmare version of the world, Silent Hill knew how to make the player question everything they thought they knew about the world. Silent Hill 2 upped the ante with one of the most talked about plot twists in gaming.

Modern video games are perfect for psychological disorientation because they take place in 3D environments that feel solid--walls stop you, the floor holds you up, and doors tend to lead to the same room consistently...until they don't. This is different from games that are completely surreal from the start--they have to lure you into a sense of consistency and reality before strategically pulling the rug out from beneath you. Rule of Rose and the excellent piece of interactive fiction, Shade, are two more great examples of this technique.

It seems like board games should be better at creating psychological terror than mortal terror. And if interactive fiction, a close relative of the RPG, can do it, what's stopping a board game? Again, the main issue is the player's agency in making the game move forward. For psychological disorientation to stick, there needs to be some feeling of things devolving or evolving beyond your control or understanding; that's difficult to match up with a system that relies completely on player input in order to tick. I can conceive of psychological experiments that are as much mind games as they are games, in which the rules change during play until they become literally impossible. The Legends of Andor system, in which rules are introduced gradually via cards, could pull it off. But I'm not sure a game could achieve this sort of psychological disorientation and still remain a good, replayable game.

Where does this leave Frameshift? Once again, I am taking a cue from Siren (I would be honored if this ended up becoming Siren: The Board Game!). Siren, like many of the games listed above, takes time for its horror to evolve from fairly mundane origins. As I said, you need to start from a foundation where things are normal and predictable before you can make them go all wonky. I am not even going to attempt doing this in a single play session--but that's the beauty of a scenario-based design. I'm not sure where this is going to end up, but I'm already throwing around ideas for a linked campaign in which players record the outcome of each scenario but don't know, at least during the first play, what the consequences of these outcomes will be. I'm also imagining content that remains hidden until the right time, Risk Legacy style (easy enough to do with a print-and-play, in which each scenario can be contained on a separate PDF).

But that's all far in the future. Before I can make an epic, evolving campaign, I need to get a single scenario right. And hopefully, I can even make it a little terrifying.

What do you think? Can board games invoke terror?
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Fri Feb 28, 2014 12:00 pm
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Solitaire Story Games - Brainstorm Session #4

Byron Campbell
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Flow of Play
I haven't actually broken down the flow of play yet, though it could be inferred from previous posts. In any case, here it is:

Each turn:
Add Encounters--if there are fewer than 3 Encounters in play, draw the top card from the Encounters deck and put it in play at the location listed. If there is already an Encounter at that location, remove 1 time token from the active Encounter and discard the new one. When a new Encounter enters play, put the indicated number of time tokens on it.
Move (optional)--move to an adjacent location. You may pay Water Filters to move to non-adjacent locations, as described in previous posts, or move through No Man's Land to the symmetrically opposite location at the cost of encountering a random Enemy or Event.
Disinfect (optional)--if there are infection tokens at your current location, you may Disinfect it. Draw cards from the Enemy deck and discard infection tokens from your location to put them into play; if you can't pay a card's cost, put it aside and continue drawing until you have discarded all infection tokens from your location. Then, encounter all cards that were put into play in this way. Disinfect may be done multiple times in a turn if the first Disinfect added additional infection tokens. You may not activate your location until all infection tokens have been removed.
Take Action (optional)--activate your current location or take a special action listed on your character or equipment cards. Activating a location without an Encounter triggers the effect listed on the location; activating a location with an Encounter active at it resolves that encounter (the positive effect triggers if you can afford it). You may not activate your location if there are any infection tokens remaining on it.
Resolve Encounters--from each Encounter in play, remove 1 time token. If any Encounters are left with no time tokens on them, they are resolved immediately (the negative effect automatically triggers). You may resolve Encounters in the order you choose.
Time Passes--the player may contribute resources, scrap etc. to Scenario Counters freely at this time. Move the round marker to the next round. If necessary, resolve Scenario Encounters. When Scenario Encounters are resolved, if the positive outcome condition has been met, put the corresponding positive outcome. Otherwise, put the corresponding negative outcome in play. These Outcome cards remain in play for the remainder of the game.

Then you go back to the top. I'm thinking, preliminarily, a 15-round timer, with 5 rounds to resolve each Scenario Encounter, but we'll see how it feels when I play it.

A Note on Scenarios
Everything I've described in this and previous posts is what I'm thinking of as the "basic" scenario. This doesn't necessarily mean that it's the first scenario players will encounter, but it's the one that envelops the core concepts of the game with no bells and whistles. As I said from the start, I'd like there to be many scenarios for this game...but I want to start small and make sure that this "basic" scenario is tight first.

Back in real time, it's been a couple of days since Brainstorm Session #1 was posted. In the comments, BGG user
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came up with a rather clever concept for random encounters that could be "scouted" ahead of time, with better potential rewards for "pre-knowledge" vs "post-knowledge." I loved that idea, and ran with it...but it doesn't have any place in this "basic" scenario. It would need its own special location and special deck...

Luckily, I had already planned for the locations in this game to be modular, so it would be easy peasy to replace one of them for a specific scenario! I've earmarked this for a future scenario: a researcher, perhaps one of the ones who was responsible for creating the infection (maybe the scenario itself tells that story!). One of the locations is replaced with a "Research Station," which has 2 possible actions: Research (look at the top card of the Molecules deck and either put it back on top, put it on bottom, or discard it--only if it is a "junk protein," i.e. a "no effect card); or Develop (draw and resolve the top 2-3 cards for the Molecules deck). You could be looking for specific compounds to resolve your game-winning encounters, and I could even get really fancy and have the molecules interact with each other in different ways. Some would have a good effect, some bad. And the whole time, you'd be racing the clock!

I've also had some thoughts about other character/encounters. One is a weak character...perhaps a child, maybe somebody with brittle bone disease...who has a mysterious affinity with molecules. He/she doesn't roll dice in combat, but receives an extra Antiviral Spray or Immune Booster each time he/she gains them. There's another character who is tough, maybe military, who is only focused on kills...receives some sort of combat boost, maybe starts with a good weapon, and has the ultimate goal of emptying out the enemy deck. I also want to do a scenario with somebody who has already been infected, and begins the game with a maximum infection level...the goal is to get it back down to 0 and remove all symptoms. That could lead the way to something familiar to Siren players. Finally, for the "basic" scenario, my current idea is a woman whose elderly father has been infected...she is trying to gather Inoculations to fight off his infection before it reaches the Point of No Return.

Encounters
This is where I'm running into trouble. As you can (hopefully) see from this and previous posts, I can come up with the basic concepts for a game okay. But the small, important mechanics, balancing those and making them interesting...that's tough!

I should have no problem writing the story bits. I am a fiction writer, so that biggest challenge in that arena will be making sure they fit on a card! But mechanically, I don't even know where to start.

The best way I know how to do this is to list all the possible reward/benefits/requirements and mix and match. I'm going to take inspiration from Lords of Waterdeep in this arena. I recently got the app, and it's the closest thing I can think of--quests that require a certain mix of resources and pay out in resources or other benefits. The biggest difference is that my encounters won't pay out in points...or will they?

Possible Encounter Rewards/Penalties: gain/lose basic resources, gain/lose scrap, gain/lose rare resources, remove/add infection tokens, decrease/increase infection level, heal/gain Symptoms, gain/lose equipment, encounter enemies (penalty only), gain/lose health, add/remove time tokens from other Encounters, scenario-specific rewards and penalties...

Possible Encounter Requirements: Anything from the list of penalties, but to a smaller degree.

Do any readers know of a good way to come up with these kind of things?

Symptoms
For the "basic" scenario, I think I am going to keep the Symptoms simple. Each one gives you -1 to dice rolled in combat. Remember, you gain a Symptom by crossing a certain threshold in your infection level...just decreasing the infection level doesn't get rid of the symptom immediately. It will be something like "infection level >= 5 - gain symptoms up to 1," so if you cross the same threshold again, it's not necessarily a problem. But when you get to 10, you gain a second; 15, you gain a third...it will probably max out at 20 and 4 Symptoms.

In future scenarios, these basic Symptoms will be shuffled in with other ones with more diverse effects.

Benchmark 7: It's Not Whether You Win or Lose...
There has to be final scoring! And there might be even more... In this game, winning or losing depends on how the final Scenario Encounter resolves. If it resolves positively, you won! If it resolves negatively, you lost! If I get far enough to work on other scenarios, I might have the outcome of these Scenario Encounters have an effect on future scenarios as well...

As for scoring, I obviously can't work out the numbers until I've played the game, but it should be: big boost for winning, medium boosts for other positive Outcomes, small boost for remaining health and resources/scrap/equipment etc., small negative results for infection tokens on the board and player's infection level, and medium negative results for negative Outcomes and Symptoms. Plus scenario-specific scoring.
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Fri Feb 21, 2014 12:00 pm
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Solitaire Story Games - Brainstorm Session #3

Byron Campbell
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I am on fire, I tell you. As Tobias Funke would say, "Oh, the burning! It burns me! Evacuate all the schoolchildren! This isn't a fever!"

You're not getting the full effect, since I've got these posts set to publish a week apart (originally, I thought I was going to need all that time...), but let me give you an inside look at the real process. As I'm writing this, it's 5 days after the first post was published. The second post hasn't even gone up yet, and I already feel like I'm nearing the point where I have enough tangible ideas to start proof-of-concept trials (or whatever they're called in the game design world, basically a rough draft). Like I said, I'm burning up.

Speaking of burning, I'm considering adding in multiple types of damage to the game. Since my last post, I've been brainstorming enemy types and how I could make them unique--one way would be immunity or weakness to certain types of weapons, such as fire. I can think of a trio: piercing, blunt and fire (any more variety would be overkill, I think). If an enemy's immune to fire weapons, you can't use that weapon to add dice to your check to defeat it; if it's weak against fire, your fire weapon adds an extra die. This isn't a problem in and of itself, but it does raise a few difficult questions:

Question 1: These damage types are boring! While logical in a real-world setting that certain things are resistant to heat, penetrating or bludgeoning, those are also very generic damage types. How can I express the same concept in more flavorful terms?

Answer: I have no answer yet. Help!

Question 2: Are players allowed to carry multiple weapons? Is there any limit? If multiple weapons are allowed, I can't see any downside to just carrying one of each type, making the damage type immunities pretty much a moot point.

Answer A: My first instinct is completely intuitive--it just struck me as the "right answer," although you could say I subconsciously borrowed the concept from Talisman (Revised 4th Edition). I'm planning on having both weapons and other types of equipment, and may even have mission-critical items as well. So why not just impose a hard limit to how much gear you can carry--say, 4 items at a time. That means that if you are carrying one of each type of weapon, you are severely limiting your ability to carry other types of equipment. This would be especially devilish if I included the scrap needed to acquire the weapons (see below) in the inventory limit as well.

Answer B: Weapons could have limited uses. I don't like this as much; it's a less elegant solution and probably requires fiddly tokens. However, I should keep it in mind as an option. I'm also considering a non-typed damage (nothing is immune to it), x-ray, which should definitely be limited-use if you acquire a weapon that deals it, so perhaps I will employ both methods.

Question 3: How are players getting these weapons? Are they random draws, or do you get to choose what you get? Do you purchase them, and if so, with what?

Answer A: The obvious but not very exciting answer is to have weapons and equipment be some sort of random draw, either from visiting a location or killing enemies. The plus side to this is that it could add excitement and variability to the game--everybody likes getting a lucky draw and finding that uber-weapon. Of course, luck is something I'm trying to limit, so I'm not convinced by this answer.

Answer B: The more interesting but complicated answer is to have weapons and equipment be purchasable at locations, but not with the standard resources mentioned in the previous post. In fact, I've already come up with a revision to what I mentioned before regarding basic and rare resources--I've decided that enemies, when killed, should drop Biological Samples, which can be used to synthesize Inoculations at a specific location (meaning that it's Samples, not Filters, that are traded for Inoc's at an 8:1 ratio). With this many types of resources, I'm probably going to have to have a cube-pushing resource tracker rather than collecting tokens. But that's not all! Samples can also be used to purchase non-offensive equipment, such as Surgical Masks, which reduce your chances of getting an increase to your infection level. What about weapons? This is more interesting, and deserves its own section.

Samples and Scrap
As already mentioned, I've decided, at least tentatively, that weapons and equipment should be purchased with resources other than the ones being used to resolve encounters. I think that adding additional resource type(s) was necessary to keep the design from stagnating--it would be boring if every encounter or combat reward was more of the same 6 resources. I also wanted the player's choice of equipment to be semi-random, but with at least a small element of player control.

So enemies (and some encounters) will now drop Biological Samples, as described above, and/or Scrap. Unlike all of the other resources, Scrap is not homogeneous. When something says "gain 2 scrap," instead of pushing your cube up 2 spaces on the resource track, you draw 2 cards from the Scrap Pile. These take up space in your inventory--but you can probably carry multiple pieces of Scrap in one inventory space--and will have multiple types, somewhere between 4-8. When you want a weapon, you need to trade scrap. For a flamethrower, let's say, you would need some metal, some fuel, some aerosol, or whatever, whereas for a bludgeoning weapon, you would just need lots of metal (probably). Thus, your options are limited by what types and how many of scrap you have on hand, but it's not a completely random draw--if you could trade for multiple weapons, you get to choose. And it adds an interesting little set collection subgame to the mix.

I'm thinking 3 scrap for most weapons, 4 scrap for powerful weapons and 5 scrap for the uberweapon. If I go that route, the uberweapon will require 5 different types of scrap, meaning I should probably do 5 types total. The other option is for each weapon to require only 3 Scrap, but have some types rarer than others, corresponding to the value of the weapon.

This is probably a good time to talk about the Encounter Locations I've found probable uses for so far (remember, there will be 6 total). The (Unknown) means I haven't come up with a name yet--I'm still early in developing the world of the game.

Encounter Locations

(Unknown) Pharma: A major pharmaceutical company that was working feverishly to develop a cure for the virus, but they were too late. Their abandoned labs have been taken over by well-meaning but eccentric survivors who will synthesize Inoculations for you, if you bring them enough Samples.

(Unknown) Teaching Hospital: It used to be a hospital that offered free health care from medical students and interns. Now, the surviving students are doing what they can to develop a cure--they'll trade you medical equipment and other necessary tools in exchange for Samples.

Larry's Scrap Shack: Larry ran a used car dealership before the outbreak; you remember seeing his ads on TV. Now, he builds weapons and other gear out of the Scrap that people bring him from No Man's Land. In exchange for the right goods, he'll trade you some of his creations.

(Note: Both of these "merchants" will have an always-visible display of 3-4 pieces of gear, so that you know exactly what you're collecting for. When you buy a piece of gear, a new, random one takes its place. If you don't like what you see, you can use your action at this location to request a restock--discard as many cards as you like from the gear on offer, and draw new cards to replace them. However, you can't do a restock and a purchase in the same turn--it takes them time to dig through the backstock and see what they have.)

(Unknown): One of the locations should probably be for healing damage, although I could be mean and make that an irreversible process. Will probably require Filters and/or Inoculations.

(Unknown): One of the locations should definitely be capable of reducing your infection level and/or curing Symptoms in play (remember, when your infection level reaches a certain point, you gain a random Symptom, or negative condition, which doesn't automatically go away when your infection level drops). This will probably cost Samples.

(Unknown): There are 6 Encounter Locations, and currently 3 of them use Samples, 1 used rare resources, and 1 uses Scrap. Since resources are used for many other things, I think the final location should utilize Scrap. But how? Trading it in for other resources? How about discarding 5 Scrap, regardless of its type, for a random weapon draw? Keeping in mind that locations can be blocked if there is an Encounter there, I would like there to be a secondary way to get weapons, and this seems like it. Probably a junkheap or pawn shop of some sort.

I've also got some ideas for a few basic enemy types. Remember that enemies will have a "cost" in infection tokens, with stronger enemies costing more. They also have an Immunity, which is how many pips are needed to deal them 1 point of damage, and a total amount of damage needed to destroy them. If they are not killed, their remaining health becomes damage to the player.

Enemies

Host: A Cost 1 enemy. Latent carriers of the virus. Barely contagious and showing none of the more...gruesome symptoms, they're still mostly human, which means Antiviral Sprays aren't too effective, but they're still easy to incapacitate by normal means.
Immunity - 3 Health - 1 Resistant to Antiviral Sprays (effectiveness is halved)

Carrier: The standard Cost 2 enemy. The infection is in its early, most virulent form.
Immunity - 1 Health - 6 Before combat, you get +1 to your infection level automatically

Leatherskins: A Cost 3 enemy. A mutant strain of the virus that is highly resistant to known treatments.
Immunity - 6 Health - 2 Resistant to Antiviral Sprays and Piercing damage (effectiveness is halved)

That shows you a bit of the variation possible. There can be enemies resistant or immune to fire, piercing or blunt damage, or even all three. Enemies can be resistant or immune to Antiviral Sprays, or they can render Immune Boosters ineffective. Their Immunity and Health can range anywhere from 1 to...well, who can say before I test it, but I'm thinking 12-18 is a solid maximum range. I'm going to be honest--this part (coming up with enemies and weapons and abilities) is really tough for me, so any suggestions here are welcome!

Benchmark 5: Keeping It Small
This is something I can only really test after I've got a playable prototype in front of me. Ideally, the game should take less than 5 minutes to set up and fit on an average bedside table. Total playtime should be less than an hour. Looking at the ideas I have so far, it looks like setup will be:

1. Set up the modular board (if I choose to have one).
2. Shuffle the Enemy/Event deck, the Weapons deck, the Equipment deck, and the Scrap deck.
3. Set each resource on the resource tracker to its starting value.
4. Spawn the first 3 Encounters and the first Major Encounter.

That seems easily doable in 5 minutes or less, and I'm guessing the space required will be minimal--larger than Friday (a benchmark game for this category) but smaller than Space Alert, maybe comparable to Space Alert without the player boards.

Game length, who knows? Keeping it under 60 mins is a must for me. My main concern is whether the new resources (Scrap, etc.) will slow things down too much. I am thinking that 30 total turns sounds like a good length to start with--10 for each Major Encounter.

As part of Keeping It Small, I also want to limit the total amount of cards in each deck to roughly 30, or 120 cards overall. Tokens, too, but it looks like I am using a resource tracker, so only cubes are necessary.

Benchmark 6: Imagination
Another one that will be tough to track until I've got the game playable! But I must say, I can feel my imagination firing already, as you can probably tell from the fact I'm coming up with thematic stuff simultaneously with the mechanics. For better or worse, that's the only way I know how to design a game--start from a theme and let it inform the mechanics, then balance the mechanics until it's fun to play. Hopefully, this game gets there some day.

I probably wouldn't even be at this point in the design if not for this blog, though, so thanks to anybody who's reading this. Yes, it's true that I've been cooking up these ideas so far without the benefit of your insight and feedback (probably a good thing, while I get all my ducks in a row), just the fact that I know I'm writing for an audience gives me purpose. I did always like to be the center of attention. It's helping encourage me to write my ideas down and dig a little bit beyond surface musings, such as with the locations above. Thanks to you!
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Tue Feb 18, 2014 12:00 pm
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Solitaire Story Games - Brainstorm Session #2

Byron Campbell
United States
Valencia
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Last time, I promised I was going to talk about Scenarios and Role-Playing in this post. Well, I still will, but only briefly. To be honest, those concepts are still far in the future for this game...I want to work on getting a single scenario to work before I go all-out on variations. And besides, I've been working on developing the ideas from last time, and I'm getting pretty excited about what I've come up with.

Resources
Last time, I talked about encounters that would be resolved with spending resources rather than rolling dice (I compared the idea to the Crisis Cards in Battlestar Galactica). I've done some thinking, and I've come up with 6 resources that I'd like to use for the game. But first...I see a theme on the horizon!

Theme
I've decided that the game will follow a medical horror theme. Imagine a plague that nearly wipes out humanity...yeah, I know, this is sounding a lot like a Zombie Apocalypse scenario. I'm going to do my best to give it its own unique flair. This makes for some interesting gameplay concepts...the hero will have to manage not only health, but infection rate. If the infection rate gets too high, the hero might develop Symptoms (some sort of negative condition card). Spreading infection will also be something you will have to manage at the locations--before you can use a location's ability, you need to Disinfect that location by removing all infection tokens that have previously been placed on it. That means spawning random monsters and other negative events (which each have a "cost" in infection tokens) until all the tokens are gone. I might also have an end-game condition tied to the infection tokens, a la Pandemic.

Back to Resources
Oh yeah, I was going to tell you about my ideas for resources. Well, the concept so far is that there will be 4 basic and 2 rare resources. Basic resources can be "cultivated" from certain locations, while the rare resources can only be gained by resolving encounters or defeating powerful enemies. Each resource will be needed to resolve encounters, and they also have additional special abilities, as seen below.

Basic
Antiviral Spray: A basic resource. You can spend it before rolling in combat to decrease an enemy's Immunity (basically, its defense points).
Immune Boosters: A basic resource. You can spend it after rolling (poorly) in combat to reduce damage or infection rate taken, or to neutralize other bad events.
Culture Medium: A basic resource. You can spend it to modify rolls to cultivate resources (described below).
Superagonist: A basic resource. It "slows" the rate of infection, giving you more time to resolve active encounters.

Rare
Water Filters: A rare resource. A valuable commodity often used in trade. You can spend Filters to hire transport to non-adjacent locations (1 filter per location skipped). You can also trade in 3 Filters for 2 of any basic resource. In addition to being available as an encounter reward, you can trade 2 of any basic resource for 1 Filter, which means that if you really need a specific resource but have no Filters, you can trade another resource for it on a 3:1 basis.
Inoculation: A rare resource. It is used to resolve the major, game-winning encounters. In addition, if you are really desperate, you can use it to discard 3 infection tokens from your current location before you attempt to Disinfect it (can be repeated). It can be bought for 8 Water Filters.

Locations
There are 2 types of locations: Resource Locations and Encounter Locations. There are 6 of each, arranged in a circle like the numbers on a clock. It will be set up so that it alternated between each type of location, and could possibly be done in a modular way. On your turn, you get to move to an adjacent location in either direction, then (optional) Disinfect the location and (optional, only if there are no infection tokens) use the location's ability. If you want to move farther, you need to pony up some Water Filters or prepare for a dangerous trek across No Man's Land.

No Man's Land is a space in the center of the board connecting each location with the location directly opposite it. This means that No Man's Land allows you to move halfway around the circle in one turn. Sounds powerful, right? The only problem is that No Man's Land is seething with infection. Passing through it causes your infection level to rise, and in addition, you'll most likely have to fight off an infected creature or face some other negative event. These draws are from the same deck you use when Disinfecting, but they ignore the enemy's "cost," so you could find yourself facing something extremely powerful. But sometimes, that's just the risk you'll have to take...remember that each encounter is a ticking timer and can only be resolved at a specific location and armed with specific resources. I hope that, between these 2 methods of modifying movement, there will be lots of strategy and calculation going into how you achieve your goals.

Resource Locations
Resource Locations are where you Cultivate your basic resources. There are 6 of them, and each offers a pair of basic resources. The trick is that you're never quite sure what you'll get when Cultivating resources. Let's look at one location that offers Culture Medium and Antiviral Spray. When you activate the location, you roll a die, and depending on the result...

1 - Gain 4 Culture Media.
2 - Gain 3 Culture Media.
3 - Gain 2 Culture Media, 1 Antiviral Spray.
4 - Gain 2 Antiviral Spray, 1 Culture Medium.
5 - Gain 3 Antiviral Spray.
6 - Gain 4 Antiviral Spray.

Except for the extreme high and low rolls, you always get the same amount of stuff (might be altered if I find out certain resources are a lot more powerful than others), but it might not be what you were looking for. If you have a Culture Medium on hand, you can use it to either flip the die to its opposite side or increase/decrease it by 1. You can only spend 1 Culture Medium per roll.

Encounter Locations
These are where the encounters happen. When you draw an encounter card, it shows which location it's happening at. As long as the encounter's active there, the only thing you can do at an Encounter Location is resolve the encounter. If there's no encounter active there, Encounter Locations have other abilities that I haven't defined yet. Some may allow you to reduce your infection level or get rid of Symptoms, others may let you heal your health, others may let you purchase weapons or equipment that make certain actions easier, and there may be some more elements of the game I will add in later on. Oh, speaking of weapons...

Combat
This is the last major concept I have been working on. As much as I loathe using dice to resolve stuff, I think it's the appropriate system to use here considering I am reducing randomness in other aspects of the design. How it works...

Each enemy has an Immunity, which is the number of die pips needed to cause the enemy 1 damage. Some enemies have a high immunity, others take multiple damage to defeat, and some have both.

First, you may spend Antiviral Sprays to reduce the enemy's Immunity by 1 for each Antiviral Spray spent. It cannot be reduced below 1; if the enemy's Immunity is already at 1, you can spend further Antiviral Sprays to cause it automatic damage, 1 point per Spray spent. You can defeat the enemy this way without rolling.

Then, the player rolls 1 or more dice (depending on equipment) and adds up all the pips on them. Divide by the enemy's modified Immunity, rounding down. The enemy takes that many damage.

If the enemy is defeated, the player receives a reward--some resources or other positive effects. If the enemy is not defeated, the player takes damage equal to the enemy's remaining health and increases his infection level by 1 or more, depending on the enemy. You can spend Immune Boosters to reduce this damage by 1 for each Booster spent (to a minimum of zero) or to negate the increase to your infection level, but not both. Either way, if you did not defeat the enemy, you do not gain its reward.

That's it for the game development so far...I actually think it's pretty well on track! I've got these posts scheduled to publish 1 week apart, but I'm actually writing this only a few days after the first post went live. Let's hope I can sustain this momentum!

Benchmarks 3 and 4: Scenarios and Role-Playing
Two sides of the same coin, the way I see it. Remember when I talked about the major, game-winning encounters? Those will be your overall goal for the game, something to focus on while trying to keep the minor encounters and infection tokens in check. My idea is that, in addition to having unique powers and backstory, each character will have his own deck of major encounters to work through. I haven't finalized the details yet, so I don't know if it's going to be a fixed progression of 3 encounters (3 seems like a good number) or a randomized selection out of 5 or some combination. For instance, the first 2 encounters could be randomized out of 4 available, with the final, game-winning encounter being fixed...that's the idea I like the most so far. It won't be necessary to pass the first 2 major encounters to win, but they'll have lasting effects for the rest of the game (and maybe even future games, see below).

This makes these major encounters similar to the Personal Stories in Arkham Horror and the Plot Cards in Android. It also means something interesting for the story, though. If you're a video gamer, and you've ever played a game like Siren, you know what I mean. With each character's story being self-contained, that means they don't all have to have happy endings...I can create a campaign where some characters die, turn traitor or become infected, even in the "good" ending. I can also play around with simultaneous events effecting each other...another interesting idea from Siren is that things you did as one character sometimes opened up new subgoals for other characters, progressively working their way to the "true" ending. Could I do something similar with this game? Anything's possible!

Here's a list of things that might change depending on your character/scenario: 1) The major encounters; 2) The cost of travelling through No Man's Land; 3) Some generic encounter rewards or penalties (similar to how it's done in Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island); 4) The names and uses of the different resources; 5) The abilities of the Encounter Locations; 6) The makeup of the encounter deck and the enemy/event deck. For instance, I can start with a scenario that's happening right when the infection hits, in which crossing No Man's Land is free, the most powerful enemies and events aren't in the deck, and moving to non-adjacent locations costs 1 of any resource. The focus of this scenario might be keeping the infection tokens under control. Then a later scenario/character might play out as I described above, and the final scenario/character might have an entirely different set of rare resources that could wipe out the infection for good!

So that's it for this week's thoughts...next brainstorm session, I'm going to work on hammering out some ideas for enemies, equipment and, most importantly, the encounters. I'll also talk a bit about Keeping It Small and the importance of Imagination. Stay healthy!
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Fri Feb 14, 2014 12:00 pm
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