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Objective Difficulty

United Kingdom
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Original Post

The work on Space, Monkeys and Cannibalism (or Kill all Bananas or Monkeygame, let me know what you think of the titles that get thrown around for this thing or if you can think of an awesomer one) continues apace. The most recent change is to try to classify objectives by their difficulty. I'd previously calculated that drafting objectives would result in significantly more balanced hands than simply drawing three objectives at random. My assumption was that players end up with the easiest objective from their initial hand, the second easiest objective from their second hand and the third easiest objective (aka second hardest aka the one that will be a huge pain to complete) from their final hand. Of course, this isn't what happened.

New players couldn't tell which objectives were the easy ones and which were the hard ones. For instance "Two items have been fired from the launch tube this turn" doesn't sound so difficult, but is actually one of the harder objectives. If no preparation has been done the steps to firing an item are (1) Pick it up (2) Put it into the tube (3) Hit activate. Since a player only gets three actions in a turn the objective requires some tricky planning over a couple of turns, for instance spending one turn loading it and picking up the object you will fire second so that you can go (1) Fire (2) Load (3) Fire. One option would be to accept that and acknowledge objective selection as part of the skill of the game, but it creates a barrier to entry and veteran players aren't going to need more help to beat newbies.

I was also having a problem with ties. When the game ended and two players had completed the same number of objectives I wanted there to be a winner most of the time, some ties are acceptable to me, but I think if a third of games are ending in a tie then the measure of victory needs to be more granulated. I went with whoever completed an objective most recently, since this created a catch up mechanic (when a player pulled a point or two ahead the other players only needed to equal rather than exceed the achievement to be winning in real terms) but it did feel like it cheated someone who managed a strong start.

Ultimately I looked to solve both problems at once, as I often do. The solution was to assign each objective a difficulty and use that to break most ties. The objectives having a difficulty printed on them makes it easy for players to select the simpler objectives during a draft even if they're unfamiliar with the game and served as a much more fair way to break ties. These are printed very simply, but the cards are going to start getting some graphic design love later this week, which will be awesome to see.

For some reason boardgamegeek isn't happy taking the card image from the original post. Please enjoy this alternate image

As might be expected, players didn't to react to these new objectives in the expected way. There'd be no point in playtesting if players did exactly what I expected. This time there was a tendency for some of the more experienced players to grab the high difficulty objectives to challenge themselves. It's definitely suboptimal to play this way (the bonus in a tiebreaker situation is not significant next to completing more objectives), but I've seen it happen a few times. In general I don't think that it hurts the game and is probably a function of the social dynamic of some of the testers, but it does cause a weird effect in some cases. If an experienced player takes a tough objective then they pass an unusually easy objective to the next player in line, if that's a new player then all is well and good, but if it's another experienced player who is selected objectives to give themselves a high chance of winning it can give them a huge advantage. Perhaps this isn't something that matters since competitive groups wouldn't engage in this behaviour and less competitive groups wouldn't care, but I still spend a bit of time musing on whether there's a solution to this.

The second and more significant problem is one of implementation. While some objectives are easier than others, each game varies and there is no absolutely objective objective difficulty. For instance "All rooms are exposed to space" requires nine actions to complete, most of which can be undone by other players without disrupting their plans and will be undone by humans that aren't interfered with. It gets much harder in a bigger game, but can also be trivially easy if someone else has an objective like "All rooms that do not contain humans are exposed to space". The degree to which other players engage in blocking behaviour influences it as well, some groups focus on completing their own objectives, others undo each others' moves whenever possible (at least once I've seen someone capitalise on this tendency to trick other players into completing their objectives for them). The difficulty of a task depends a lot on the situation.

In the end I decided to assign objectives difficulty across all games. Over the last few playtests I've got players into the habit of scribbling notes on the cards if they felt they were particularly hard or particularly easy to build up a more detailed picture. I've experimented a bit with more complex symbology (for instance a symbol to indicate if the objective gets easier or harder as more players are added to the game) but ultimately this contridicated the objective of offering straightforward help to new players and made calculating who actually won in a tie much more of a hassle. Playtesters who liked that objective drafting was part of the skill are pleased to see that sometimes their experience lets them select better objectives where the setup of a particular game favours a particular objective and it does add more variety to the game for different choices to be optimal in different games. Again, it does leave me slightly uncomfortable, like there's a better solution hanging onto the edge of my brain and I can't quite grab it.

Actually, I think I feel like that most of the time on most issues I'll keep testing and improving and see if anything else jumps out. The first blind playtest will be on Thursday, so I'm really excited to see how that goes.
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