Dear Jamey – expanding the worlds of Stonemaier Games

Keeping Jamey and the community in the loop on my work on making expansions for Stonemaier Games.
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Rage Against the Ultimaszyna

Morten Monrad Pedersen
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The hardest challenge that Jamey has created for me so far. I think that’s a fair assessment of the challenge that creating a solo mode for Scythe has presented and when we started neither Jamey nor I knew whether it would work out.

We want our games to allow as wide a player count range as possible, but it has to be done without compromising the play experience, so when I started work with my partner David Studley, we knew that we would need to make something good or it wouldn’t be published.

Backside of a card for the solo mode.

The Automa Approach

When I set out to make a solo mode for one of Stonemaier’s multiplayer games, I set out to replicate as much of the multiplayer experience as I can. I don’t want to create a new game that just happens to use the same components as the multiplayer game. Instead, I want the player to feel like he’s playing the same game as someone playing the multiplayer game.

The way I’ve done this so far is to create artificial opponents, which we call “Automas”, the Italian word for Automaton, because our first artificial opponent was made for Tuscany.

Now, the majority of humans I know are more intelligent than a stack of cardboard, so it’s clear that you cannot make an artificial cardboard opponent that plays by the exact same rules as a human player if it is to provide an interesting challenge.

Therefore my approach to making Automas is to figure out which points of player interaction are core to the game experience and which parts aren’t. I then focus on making the Automa mimic the important parts and remove everything else.

In Scythe, for example, it’s not that important, whether your opponent gain stars via upgrades or structures, and you have little influence on whether he does, but the pace at which he gains stars in general is highly important to you.

Therefore, the Automa do not do upgrades or build structures instead that’s replaced by a simple track that (with a bit of randomness) determines when the Automa gains some of its stars.

On the other hand the award of a star for winning combat, and particularly the threat of combat is something that influence your decisions a lot and so we made an Automa that could move its combat units towards you, is able to do combat, and can gain stars when winning combat.

Making a Smooth Automa

Stonemaier Games is not targeting hardcore solo wargamers, who are used to putting up with large flowcharts and numerous exception rules, instead we’re mainly catering to Eurogamers and therefore we need to make Automas that are reasonably simple and not stuffed with small exceptions.

Removing all the aspects of an opponent that don’t impact directly (such as the upgrades and structures) helps us reach this simplicity and it makes the workload on the human player small. For our audience the fun is in playing the game – not in spending hours trying to figure out the next move for the bloody Automa.

A mockup of an Automa card made by Lines J. Hutter. This design, which might be altered when the graphics designer starts her work, can be turned three ways depending on the situation. Blue on top during the first half of the game to determine the Automa’s actions. Green-yellow-whatever-ish on top for the second half. Finally, it can be turned sideways to be used for resolving combat.

The “Bothersomeness” Scale

Because of this desire for not burdening the player, one of the major design goals I set up and carried into the external playtest was that the workload caused by the Automa should be low and thus I created a “bothersomeness” scale and we asked playtesters: “How big a burden was running the Automa?”. They could rate this on a five point scale from “No bother at all” to “So burdensome it killed all fun”. Unless the majority of playtesters rated this at the middle level or below then I’d deem the Automa too bothersome to publish.

Luckily, we only got the worst of those ratings once, at that was at the beginning of the process where the rulebook was rather rough. We got 12 ratings of “It was quite a bother”, 110 ratings of “It was OK”, 119 ratings of “It was fairly easy to handle”, and 60 ratings of “No bother at all”.

Those ratings made us satisfied that it was not too much work to handle the Automa, though it’s clear that Scythe Automa is harder to handle than our first Automa (the one for Viticulture), but that didn’t really come as a surprise given the nature of the games and what we were trying to achieve.

The BGG Scale

Of course having the Automa reasonable to manage is not enough, playing against it also needs to be fun otherwise it shouldn’t be published. Therefore, we required playtesters to rate Scythe Automa on the Board Game Geek 1-10 scale each time they reported the result of a playtest.

After the first ten playtests, the average rating was an unimpressive 6.15. In response to the playtests we improved the Automa over 37 revisions in as many days. The ratings rapidly improved and the average of each playtester’s final rating for the last wave of playtesting was 8.37, which we’re interpreting as the Automa being fun to play against :-).

An Automa game in progress. Final components might vary slightly from these ;-)

Rage Against the Ultimaszyna

The Automa can play all factions and has slight faction dependent differences in what actions it takes, but as said this is a slight difference, since we don’t want to add to the learning curve or the burden of running the Automa. We might give the Automa more faction personality in an expansion, though.

Originally, we did three different Automa difficulties, with the hardest being called Automaszyna. That name was coined by Scythe artist Jakub Rozalski when I asked him to help me name the hardest Automa. The name fuses the word “automa” with the Polish word “maszyna”, which means machine or automation in a way that I quite like.

It turned out however, that a few of the playtesters were too badass for Automaszyna and so I came up with an extra difficulty level for them, Ultimaszyna, and they rallied to take on this new threat. They only had one demand: Their team should be called “Rage Against the Ultimaszyna” :-) and together we shaped the new difficulty level.

Ask Away

I’ll of course be here to answer questions and maybe my design partners David Studley and Lines J. Hutter will also chime in if you have questions for them.
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