Thematic Solitaires for the Spare Time Challenged

A blog about solitaire games and how to design them. I'm your host, Morten, co-designer of solo modes for Scythe, Gaia Project, Wingspan, Glen More II, and others.
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How to make AI scoring feel satisfying – part 2

Morten Monrad Pedersen
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Instead of writing a long and boring introduction to this second part of yesterday’s How to make AI scoring feel satisfying I’ll just jump right in .

The challenge of ramping scores

In Charterstone the rate of scoring VP is paced fairly consistently during the game, so balancing the scoring was a simple matter of making the Automa score at a corresponding but smoothed out constant pace.

In Scythe the scoring instead ramps up towards the end. Had the game ended after a fixed number of turns it would have been fine(ish) to have a constant scoring pace because we could make it average out to be the same total as the human’s over the course of the game.

From gallery of mortenmdk

Simplified curve for number of coins (VP) scored per turn in Scythe for a human and an Automa with a constant pace.

The number of turns isn’t fixed, though, and so if the player drags out the game the result is this:

From gallery of mortenmdk

Simplified curve for number of coins (VP) scored per turn in Scythe for a human player and an Automa with constant pace if the player drags out the game.

The result is a boring runaway victory for the player.

To fix this we made the star tracker cards, mentioned in the last post, give the Automa stars at an increasing pace as seen in the picture of the star tracker card below. Since 6 stars end the game, this increased pace also ends the game faster which means that the player must be more efficient in ramping up their engine.

Like Scythe, Viticulture ends after a player has accumulated a fixed amount of something, in this case 20 VP. This typically takes 6-8 rounds depending on player skill and we used this to make 3 different difficulty levels by giving the player 6, 7, or 8 rounds for hard, normal, and easy respectively. This is a bit ham-fisted but corresponds well to how the game actually plays for people of various skill levels.

Going back to Scythe, another mechanism of the star tracker cards, mentioned last time, is that when the space marked “II” is reached the Automa enters phase II and its cards are rotated to use a part of the card that scores more VP that goes on top of the VP value of stars.

From gallery of mortenmdk

A Scythe Automa star tracker card. A token starts at the upper left space and advances in reading order. When the space marked “II” is reached the Automa changes phase by rotating its cards.

From gallery of mortenmdk

A Scythe Automa card. Halfway through the game, the cards are rotated, so that the bottom half is used, which scores coins (VP) at a faster average pace.

In Euphoria we also faced ramping scores but the rapid cycling of the small Automa deck gave us an alternative solution: After every pass through the deck, sets of cards are added that have a higher ratio of VP to non-VP cards, which results in a scoring ramp-up.

The systems we used to ramp Automa scores in Scythe and Euphoria also allowed us fine-grained control of the difficulty levels. In Scythe we could shorten the star track while keeping the same number of stars and in Euphoria we could tweak the ratio of scoring to non-scoring cards.

Terra Mystica also has ramping scores, but a player’s skill level isn’t limited to scoring more VP per turn it also affects the number of turns a player can take: A good player will be able to get more turns than a bad player in each of the game’s 6 rounds.

We simulated the ramping scores via a scoring parameter “X” which some cards award to the player. X starts low and is increased every second round.

From gallery of mortenmdk

Prototype Terra Mystica Automa card. Notice the X VP icon.

From gallery of mortenmdk

Prototype Terra Mystica difficulty card. Please don’t get overwhelmed by how much is on it , the player only needs to use less than one sixth of it at a time.

A difficulty level card is placed partially below the board so that only one half is visible depending on the level. In this post we’ll ignore the section at the bottom with the 4 colored circles. The rest of a card-half is divided into 3 sections, 1 for each of turns 1-2, 3-4, and 5-6. The X number determines how many VP the Automa scores when an Automa card with an X comes up while the number on the ship indicates how far the Automa can sail, with higher being better.

This system means that we have 2 parameters to control the difficulty level and scoring ramp-up of the Automa during the game.

As mentioned, a good player will get more turns than a bad player, we implement this for the Automa by controlling the number of cards in its deck, because that controls the number of turns it gets.

Changing the game

All of the above has focused on keeping the game experience as close as possible to the multiplayer game but if we allow ourselves to ignore that goal, we get a vast new toolset at our disposal.

In Viticulture we, for example, have a variant where the Automa scores specific numbers of VP at the end of each round and you instantly lose if you have fewer VP than the Automa. This is a major change to the game experience and requires rethinking your strategy.

Other possible ways are giving the player restrictions or extra goals that must be achieved. In Viticulture we do several of these things such as the player not being allowed to fulfill wine orders or being required to end the game with all 6 workers.

These are all scenarios and variants rather than the primary playing mode because they stray from the game that has undergone an amount of development that a solo mode cannot hope to approach and because such changes restrict the decision space of the game.

Scenarios and variants are a topic for another post, though, so I’ll skip it for now and call it a day .
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