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The Ferrets Cometh

United Kingdom
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The 404: Law Not Found Kickstarter has been launched and is off to a fairly solid start. 44% funded less than 24 hours in I've already sold out of the £50 "add a code to the rulebook" level and the £100 "choose the theme for a card in the game" level is doing pretty well. Now seemed like a good time to offer an insight into the process that will go into implementing that reward level. Backers don't need to make decisions before the Kickstarter is over, but obviously it's good to get going early where possible, this request was very simple: "I've paid my money. I demand a ferret-based anomaly."

Designing the "Ferret Anomaly" card requires me to satisfy two sets of constraints, a mechanical constraint and a thematic constraint. The card needs to integrate into the anomalies mini-expansion in a way that adds to the game without undermining any of the existing elements and it needs to feel like the influence of ferrets. As the anomalies stretch goal hasn't been hit yet, I don't have a finalised anomaly layout so this exercise can also serve to highlight aspects those cards might require. The prototype anomalies just used mechanics text, but this might not be enough here, there may be a requirement for some flavour text or at least a title.

Starting from the mechanical constraint, I ran playtests using the anomalies and found that some types worked better than others. As a rule of thumb anomalies that might randomly undo a player's progress were disliked, whereas ones that provided opportunities for new ways to progress added to the game. For instance "All robots drop items they're carrying" decreases player agency as it can undo a previous turn's work and doesn't add anything to the game. However "Whenever a robot picks up an item they drop an item" is much better, as a player is in control of when they pick up an item. A canny player could complete their directives more effectively while this is in play, by arranging their plans such that they save an action by getting a "free" drop upon picking something up. It's still possible for a player to get lucky and get the anomaly they want when they want it, but the relative skill of the players will have a greater impact on how much of a difference that makes.

There are other mechanical restrictions, such as making sure the card does not require an extra token in the box or a two page rule supplement, but these are generally fairly obvious pitfalls that are easy to avoid. The notion of keeping mechanics focused on effects that the players control and can take advantage of is the most important thing to bear in mind.

The second step is to think about the sorts of issues that ferrets might cause.

It's important to stick to perceptions about ferrets rather than facts about ferrets. As much as I could theme a card around the crew metaphorically adopting the crepuscular nature of ferrets and therefore only taking actions at the start and end of the game I can be reasonably sure that the average player wouldn't see the link to ferrets. Conversely everyone seems to intuitively grasp that the monkey will be able to open bulkheads in order to hunt for bananas despite the relative scarcity of this behaviour in the wild.

There are a bunch of problems that could relatively intuitively be caused by ferrets on the ship:

* They could get into the machines which would affect how they worked (Behave as if they contained an extra item?).
* They could chew through wires, making things on the ship behave incorrectly (Machines activate randomly? Doors can't be opened?)
* They could distract the crew, making the humans behave differently (take no action? Skip certain types of action?).
* They could be a tripping hazard, making robots stumble (move an extra space?) or drop items.
* The doors could automatically open for them as they approached (open all doors exposing everything to space?).

Pulling this together, a fair few of those options are quite destructive or would require extra rules. Opening all doors to space could set back a robot that needs a living human by several turns through no fault of their own. Making machines behave as if they contained an extra item would broadly have no effect without adding a "ferret" option to each machine. That would require a large rule complexity increase in order to open up a small amount of design space, which is a terrible trade from a design point of view.

Noodling around the subject for a while two effects stand out as being the best that I've considered:

"Whenever a robot enters a room they drop the top item on their stack into a zone of their choice"
"Whenever a robot moves through a door it opens if it was closed and closes if it was open."

Thematically the first one represents ferrets chewing on the door wires making them behave oddly (normally a robot can choose the state of a door behind them) and the second represents piles of ferrets everywhere tripping robots up. Both seem to work with the theme.

Mechanically both are triggered from robot actions, so players will be able to control when they happen. The first option does a better job of enabling players to influence the world, being able to move into a room and load the machine with an item from their stack is a powerful double action if used well. The second option strictly takes away a players option (usually a player chooses the state of any door they pass through) but on a tactical level changes play. If a robot cares about the state of the doors then they'll need to plot their route carefully, which adds a new puzzle to the game and gives an advantage to the player who finds the best solution. Both seem viable, so the next step would be to run a game or two including them to see how well their actual game effect lines up with their intended game effect. Testing is always important. I've budgeted the time for it into my plan for delivery on the Kickstarter, though since I can pull together 50 hours of testing a week it doesn't cause as serious a problem as one might suspect. So here is where I would stop and test the ferrets. For science.

There is a second half to the card that I need to think about, how it communicates that its effect is down to ferrets. While either of these effects could occur because of ferrets, they could all occur for several other reasons, so the mechanics text is not enough. This is a change to the prototype where the theme of the anomaly was not important, they didn't need an explanation, they were anomalous! I think that it mandates a title box, which should give away the origins of the problem. Here I should thank the backer who is having the card designed for an excellent suggestion.

"Title: Ferret in the cloning machine
Rules: Whenever a robot enters a room they drop the top item of that they are carrying into the zone of their choice.
Flavour Text: Someone shut that thing off before they cover the entire ship!"

I hope this give a bit of an insight into my design process and how I intend to handle the EMPOWER KICKSTARTER level reward. It's a bit of a partial glimpse since it doesn't show the testing and improvement cycle, but it's how I get started
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