Last week I talked about how different mechanisms for ending a game affected player's experiences and briefly touched on how I was using that to improve wizard academy. This weekend I ran some more playtests and came across a problem with the 'game over' conditions in my game. Today I'd like to talk about that and what can be done. I feel weird writing a sequel to a post with a title as final as "game over" but such things have worked out before.
Perhaps that's a bad role model, I don't know if people would appreciate each blog post starting with a twenty minute un-skippable flash intro. Back on topic, last time I talked about the game over conditions I only talked about those conditions in which someone wins the game. For (most) competitive games that's fine, but in cooperative efforts it's expected that sometimes the game will end in mutual defeat.
It's common for cooperative games to have two failure conditions. In Arkham Horror the end game is reached either by the players allowing too many portals to open or by taking long enough for the doom tokens on the great old one to fill up. In Pandemic the game can be lost either by allowing too many disease cubes of one type to build up or because the deck runs out of cards. In Shadows over Camelot you can lose through obtaining too many black swords in failed quests or through building up too many siege engines.
The common theme here is that the defeat conditions are serving different purposes. One condition will build up and eventually be met regardless of the player's actions, limiting the length of the game and applying a time pressure. This also prevents a stalemate where the players are just about dealing with threats as they appear but can't spare the resources to do anything towards winning the game, which could quickly become boring. The other condition requires players to be, at least to some extent, on top of the game at all times. This creates a tension between the players' need to achieve their victory condition and to deal with the threats the game has created. It also prevents a boring game in which the players know that they are going to lose, but must wait out the time limit created by the first condition.
I had attempted a similar thing with Wizard Academy. The disasters deck provided the time limit, once there were no more progressions running out of cards in that deck produces a game over. This works well. The mana crystal was supposed to produce the doing badly limit, as players make mistakes they die (which costs mana) or threats get out of control (which costs mana once the threats reach the crystal). In practice the second element of the game does not always hold up for new players.
The issue is that I'd been assessing progress based on whether it was possible to win, from my perspective as a designer. One of the features of this game is that you have a lot of options. If there's a troll in the way you could...cast a spell to do damage kill it, cast a spell to move it, cast a spell to summon a demon to kill it, cast a spell to start a fire to kill it, cast a spell to move rooms such that an existing fire or demon will kill it, use an ability to start a fire to kill it, use an ability to move rooms so that an existing thing kills it, use the unstable room ability to move rooms so that something kills it, use the scrying chamber's room ability to move it out of the room, use the awakened room's ability to create a robe to let you ignore it...I don't think that's an exhaustive list. Now of course a number of these options won't be available at any given moment, some of those spells might not be in the game, the characters with the right abilities might not have been chosen and the rooms you want to use might be on fire, underwater or otherwise unavailable. The game is about doing what you can with the tools that you have and there are enough tools that typically there is something you can do, if there isn't then the disaster is so widespread that it'll only be a few turns before it hits the mana crystal and ends the game.
The flaw in my reasoning is that this only applies if the players recognise all of their options. In someone's first game it's reasonable that they might not, in which case they will hit a situation that is unwinnable for that particular group of players at their experience level. When this occurs the game over mechanic does not occur as the game is theoretically winnable by some other group of players, so the new players are stuck playing a game that they can't see a way to win. Sitting around for 30-60 minutes taking moves that don't appear to achieve anything, waiting for an inevitable defeat isn't anyone's idea of fun. While this doesn't occur with a group that's played the game a few times, if it occurs on someone's very first game I wouldn't blame them for deciding that it should also be their very last game. Something must be done!
The obvious solution is to create a rule that detects how the game is going and ends it if the players are doing too badly. This sounds like a good idea, but is hard to implement without sabotaging some games that might have been fun. For instance the second playtest I ran on Saturday hit a moment where all of the rooms in the building except three were on fire, the players had one life left and they had only a few turns to go. However they had also discovered the spell that they needed to win and just needed to cast it a few times in specific places to end the game in a victory. It was a close ending, they lost by a small margin, but had loads of fun and it's something that definitely left them with positive experiences of the game.
I don't want a rule that'd go "95% of this building is on fire, game over!" and prevent that sort of experience. I have some ideas for more nuanced rules that might work, which I'll try out this week. I also got some excellent suggestions from Richard Dewsbury concerning how I'm organising the easy mode. At the moment easy mode consists of adding fewer botched spells, less dangerous threats and giving the players move lives. This reduces difficulty, but it doesn't reduce complexity, so it's not necessarily what a new player needs. A better option might be to write a tutorial scenario that uses fewer of the games elements to introduce new players to the game.
So lots to do this week, I'd best get started!