Greg's Design Blog

A collection of posts by game designer Gregory Carslaw, including mirrors of all of his blogs maintained for particular projects. A complete index of posts can be found here:
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Secret Game

United Kingdom
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I started writing about the process of game design and how I start a project by creating and playtesting three games in order to pick the best, I'll still write that sometime, but in doing it I decided to link back to the posts in which I described the six games that I've worked on. However, on closer inspection, there are only five. Somehow I designed, tested and rejected a game without ever mentioning it here. Let's talk about what it was and where it went wrong.

The folder "Martial Arts Game Thing" still contains all of the rules and prototype cards for this game, but that's not a very snappy title so let's call it "Lies and Lightning" after the signature moves of the two characters I created for the game. The theme was a confrontation between two warriors, with gameplay focusing on asymmetrical power sets and bluffing.

Each turn a random pool of tokens was drawn. Players took it in turns to eliminate tokens from the pool until one player gave up and let their opponent take the now-diminished pool, keeping the discarded tokens for themselves. They then took it in turns to move or attack, expending the tokens to do so. Once a player was out of tokens they could initiate drawing on a new pool of tokens, but their opponent gained an advantage.

Attacks were dealt with by having players hide the tokens they were using in the attack or defence and revealing simultaneously with the highest total winning. Once an attack landed that player scored a point, both players got a new ability for their character and a new round started. The first player to three points won. In theory a lot of the game came from the bluffing element of the fighting and the asymmetrical powers the characters developed.

In practice Lies and Lightning didn't live up to its promise. The token draft was supposed to create a balance between a player who got an extra token and the player who'd had more control over which tokens they got. In practice it almost never mattered which sort of tokens a player obtained, having the extra one allowed them to get a preferable position in the token draft, which in turn lead to having more tokens after that draft, this could be repeated indefinitely to gain a huge advantage.

The bluffing element did not work as effectively as it could. I'd envisioned frequent subpar attacks to try to force the enemy to overspend on defence, but in practice once the warriors had closed one would typically have a big enough attack to overcome their enemy’s maximum defence. Perhaps changing the balance of tokens to make defence tokens more common might have dealt with this, but then it may have been the case that it was never worth doing anything other than spending the maximum possible total on defence.

Finally the tech tree didn't work out how I'd envisioned. Each decision lopped off half of the tree, which in principle should lead to a wide variety of possible strategies and forms of counterplay where one player grabs an ability in response to their opponents choice. It also added in options such as having weak abilities lead to a very powerful ability at the top of the tree, enabling a longer term strategy. In practice there were very often 'best' abilities, depending on the characters in the match. With the combination of quantity of abilities and possible opponents on show, balancing it would have been a waking nightmare. I think if I'd chosen to develop this game I'd still be there, tweaking it.

All in all Lies and Lightning was pretty much doomed to failure. Arena and Monkeygame were both more promising candidates and looking at how 404: Law Not Found is working out I'm pleased with the decision, but that doesn't mean that there's nothing I can learn from the experience.

I think that the most important thing to take away is an insight into how I handle asymmetric abilities. I like for different characters or options to really feel different. As such I'm generally unsatisfied with having one character having +1 range and another having +1 damage, I'd much rather throw out exotic abilities that fundamentally change the way that they play (I should acknowledge that sometimes a flat bonus achieves this). Options to walk through walls or reflect attacks or swap places with an opponent or anything tricky like that always feel more fun than a numeric bonus.

This isn't a bad thing, but it can kill a game if I'm not careful about how these are balanced. 404 works so well because the draft allows players to deal with unbalanced missions by selecting an easy one from their starting hand and being forced into a tough one at the end. Wizard Academy does something similar by ensuring that players have a large pile of randomly selected tools, which will always contain something that the players can use in a given situation even if it isn't strictly the best option.

There are other lessons to take from this failed experiment, but I think that it's important to know yourself and your strengths and weaknesses. I think a love of asymmetrical game play and incomparables is something that I could leverage as a strength in the games that I develop, so long as I'm aware of it and its limiations and actively seek ways to overcome them.

What're your design habits? How do they make you strong? How do they make you weak?
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