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Playtesting, Facing and Direction

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Context: Divergent Thought

Usually I'll write my Divergent Thought posts towards the end of the day's work, but after this morning I've got a lot on my mind and wanted to write some of it down before it escapes. I'll start off talking about how playing the game went, then get into some more general game design stuff about handling facing.


So: At the start of each turn you shuffle the cards. Then one by one you draw them. Each card corresponds to a piece on the board, when its card is drawn, the piece gets an action. Some pieces get more than one card. If a piece is killed all of its cards are removed from the deck.

When a piece gets an action it moves across the chessboard according to its move diagram and then makes an attack according to its attack diagram. Attacks are resolved by throwing dice against the defender, highest result wins. By default pieces are removed after one successful attack, but important pieces often have abilities that allow them to prevent some number of hits over the course of the game.

Each piece has a list of abilities, normally a very short list pulled from a shared pool that lets them do things like knock opponents back, make several attacks, disengage safely and standard stuff like that. Each faction also has a couple of abilities unique to that faction which will only appear on its pieces, to try to give them some character.

The zombiemasters have immortal zombies that get up again the turn after they're killed by anything other than fire or magic. However they need zombie masters to keep them in check, if the zombie's leader is killed then they attack the nearest target uncontrollably. In testing this "lie the model down, pick it up again next time its card comes up" really gives an unstoppable horde feeling, which I really like. However at the moment the "master disrupted, zombies eat their allies" thing isn't happening much, I need to take some steps to make that a more common occurrence.

The dragon god's special thing is that all of its pieces are represented by one model. They still have their own move and attack diagrams, but stick together. So when the card for the wings comes up the whole dragon moves somewhere else, when the card for the claws comes up anything in front of the dragon is in trouble, when the card for ... you get the idea. Some parts of it can't be targeted until other parts are gone (e.g. you can't get a clean shot at the head while it's got wings) so fighting it involves cutting it down one piece at a time until you can hit something vital. It's got an awesome Shadow's of the Colossus feel to it that I'm really enjoying. The main weakness I'm experiencing playing it so far is that it doesn't feel epic enough when it attacks, I think I worried about making it too powerful and didn't give it devastating enough attacks. The bite doesn't feel like being eaten by a dragon, so much as gently nuzzled. It needs fewer actions, but with a bigger impact.


The first test today was a bit farcical. The dragon managed to fly over the zombies such that they were back to back. The zombies had no way to turn around and strike it, largely getting in the way and failing to do anything. The dragon spent the whole battle cowering in the corner because it was outnumbered and that was the best way to stop the other side taking advantage of their numbers - however it was also unable to bring its bite and claws to bear from this back to back position.

I tried modifying the rules a bit, clearly there needs to be some motivation to take the centre of the board. In chess it's a contested spot because so many pieces have a much wider range of options from the centre four spaces - but that doesn't really apply to a lot of these unit's move patterns. Suppose each game had a place of power on the middle four spaces that awarded a victory point to whoever occupies the most of them - what happens?

In this case the results were pretty awesome. The dragon flew to the middle to start racking up points, but ran into trouble once the zombies all reached it at once and get their "swarm" bonus going. It backed off into the rear two spaces with the intention of killing at least one of the zombies on the other two and retaining the point and managed to kill the medic. A hardened survivor with knockback advanced to try to push it off the scoring spaces, it was forced to advance back into the worst of the melee to be sure of keeping its score. The second hardened survivor was killed by a wing buffet and it only needed one victory point to win - but this happened just as the zombies finished pulling its legs off, dragging its head into reach. With only one card left before the dragon scored its winning victory point the lead zombiemaster, a priest named Jebediah, got the first and only shot his side would get at the beasts head...

Long story shot: It was dramatic and fun and came down to the last action of the last round. Which always feels desirable.


Despite having played a great game, I still worry about the facing issue. I can see how if things had gone on a bit longer the zombies might've surrounded the dragon (unless it was willing to give up the scoring squares to avoid it) and it'd be really bizaare that the ones surrounding it on the top wouldn't be able to attack it.

Really there are three ways that games model facing:

No facing. Plenty of games have pieces that have symmetrical capabilities in all directions. Nobody worries about which way a Go stone is facing.

Fixed facing. Some games (including this one at present) have pieces facing in a fixed direction. Their capabilities are affected by which direction an opponent is in relative to this fixed direction, but they cannot change it. Checkers pieces would fit into this category, always moving towards the opponent (at least until they are promoted)

Relative facing: Many wargames take the approach that a piece faces in a particular direction. When a piece moves it can change that direction, but it can be put at a disadvantage by an opponent who's able to manoeuvre to the right position. God help you if your Warmachine army is somehow facing the wrong way.

I don't want to move to "no facing". Faction and piece identity is at the core of what I'm going for with this game and it's currently getting a lot out of distinguishing units in this regard. The game is also played on a relatively small board, the mobility increase would be very noticeable.

I may try a "no facing" version, as it's often interesting to do things that you don't want to do as a game designer. Sometimes you find that things weren't as important as you theorised that they were.

I could stick with "fixed facing", I've had a good game under fixed facing and further optimisation in this direction could lead to something exciting. I am really feeling the limitations though and in what's a very thematic game it can be undermining to put up with something so infuriatingly illogical.

I'd feel remiss if I didn't try alternatives.

I could go to a "relative facing" approach. I think turning would need to be expensive in a way that made it worthwhile to get behind an opponent and shiv them in the back. It would add a lot of design space for units that distinguish themselves with respect to this mechanic (An agile unit that can turn faster, or even turn off turn? An amoeba that treats all sides as "front"? An assassin that does bonus damage on a backstab?) but I don't know if I really need that extra design space or if it'll justify the extra complexity in the game. It also makes glancing at the board and understanding the play state a bit harder and could be physically awkward if you're trying to place units with specific facing in the middle of other units that you shouldn't knock. On the other hand it'll still outperform a lot of "relative facing" games because (a) The units shouldn't be in base to base contact and (b) There's a board to orient to so if a model is placed slightly imprecisely you don't need a measuring stick to say which square is "behind".

Ultimately there are a lot of pros and cons to different ways of handling facing. It's interesting to think about what some of my favourite games would look like if they'd taken a different approach and to consider the wisdom of those design decisions.


I also want to consider the direction of the Divergent Thought project as a whole. At the moment it's looking dangerously like fighting a single giant monster with a bunch of semi-independently functioning (and breakable) body parts is the most fun way to play it.

It's still early days for the project, I've only been working on it for a few months, so I'm in the ephemeral "I could change everything if it looked like a good idea" stage. I'm open to the idea that in trying to design a skirmish wargame I've accidentally built the basis of a really good monster hunting game.

I'm going to take some time to explore this aspect and see if what I'm working on has more potential in this direction. The system has opportunities for more than two players baked in at various places, which could let it function as a many against one game. Perhaps even a true coop if I did a bit of cardboard AI. Heck, it's also a reused parts game, so if some of the monsters were lego constructions you could even tear the bits off as you managed to wear it down. In a nutshell: There's lots of potential in this direction.

I don't know if this is a worthy thought or if I should focus on my original goals, but capturing the feeling of giant monster hunting in a board game seems worth spending a week or two to investigate options.


I'll end with this: I don't yet have anything I'd be comfortable playing with another human being, it's too rough around the edges. However I'm making a load of progress by playing the game against myself and I'm convinced that when I do start sharing it with playtesters I'll have cooked up something that makes them glad they volunteered. I think that this is a really important part of game design and I know that some people will be reading my blog for the game design articles rather than the Divergent Thought articles so I wanted to conclude by drawing attention to it:

Playing with yourself is really desirable.
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