Gadgeteers Designer Diary

Here is a designer diary for Gadgeteers. This game was co-designed by myself and Michael Cofer. Michael will be doing the majority of the writing of these posts and I will be posting them here. Enjoy!
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Evolution of Mechanics: Growing the Tree

Dan Letzring

Rochester
New York
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The Evolution of Mechanics - Post written by Michael Cofer

Some folks believe – and I am one of them – that what makes a great board game is giving the player meaningful choices. As it turns out, the history of a game from initial concept to final product is the story of the meaningful choices made by the designers.

From the very beginning, Gadgeteers included the “remove your tokens to used this node” mechanism. The idea of a “worker placement” or “area control” game where control of the nodes swings back and forth easily was the initial concept the whole game was built around. While I won’t say that this was a non-negotiable, it was the core that all of the other mechanics would find their place around.

The first iteration of the game was fairly solid. Players took turns placing cubes on nodes. If they controlled the nodes, they could use its power. If they controlled the right nodes in combination, they could claim a victory point card.

In this initial draft the game had literally no hidden information, and very little uncertainty (the only exception being the shuffled victory point card deck). I like games like that a lot. I really enjoy games like Go and Chess. But games like that heavily favor the more experienced, mature, and clever players. In reality, a 10 or 12 year-old had almost no chance of winning against an adult board gamer. And games like Go and Chess are known (and even appreciated) for how they lend themselves to long analysis between moves.

Furthermore, the game felt good. Solid. But not great. It lacked… something.

One of the first things we tried was offloading the powers from the nodes to something else. We liked the idea of having to choose between pursuing control of nodes and investing in special powers.
We tried setting up those powers as nodes of their own. It worked okay, but playtesting showed many players weren’t inclined to use them. While my own playtests showed they were powerful and could really help in winning – many testers felt that they were better off not using them.

Meanwhile, I was thinking about the “arc” of our game. Was there a ramp up in tension? Did decision trees get simpler or more complex as the game progressed?

Assessing the game at this sort of mid-point in its development, there wasn’t a good “arc.” All of the choices were presented to the players from the very beginning. Each round presented players with the essentially the same question.

As a personal design ethic, I always shoot for simple and deep. So in seeking solutions for the issues we’d identified, we worked at finding ways to improve the game without adding too much. We needed solutions that would address several issues at once.

Hidden Information
The injection of hidden information did some really nice things to giving the game both a little more “bite” and a little more “wiggle room.” Because tokens are weighted and bidding is blind, the game has gained elements of bluffing, misdirection, and “mind games.” And while those elements are there, the game works fine for kids who aren’t able to assess at that level. In this way, the weight of the game self-scales with the abilities of the players.
The hidden Bonus cards make for a nice nudge away from the fatalism that open-information games are sometimes prone to. I think games are the most fun all the way to the end if no one is certain who won until the last move is made.

Arc and Decision Trees
In the mid-development version of Gadgeteers, players won by set collection: 3 of a kind of 1 of each kind. This sort of victory condition meant that as you approach the end game, the kinds of gadgets you want to collect narrow until there is one specific type you need to win.

In terms of providing a “catch up” mechanism, this worked pretty well. But it also meant that your tactical options started at their broadest and gradually narrowed to almost nothing. So the decision tree was wide at the beginning and narrow at the end. That may work for some games, but it felt wrong for this one… I wanted to have a ramp up in options as you progress.

Reverting back to a victory point system meant that your choice in which gadgets you should make doesn’t narrow towards the end. After making just that change, didn’t have a ramping down of decisions… but we wanted a ramp up.

Which leads to another significant change: offloading effects onto inventions you have built, and the inclusion of 0-weighted “Power Tokens” used to activate them. That means the first round of play, power tokens can almost be ignored. The game begins with simple blind-bidding for majority control. But as players start building, new options open for them to play and use Power Tokens.

The effect is a growing pool of options and an increasing level of complexity in the mid and late game. By reducing the options early in the game, it allows first time players to ease into the mechanics and also creates a more dramatic and dynamic experience by the end – the ramp up in choices as the game progresses.

While there are a ton of other meaningful choices that I could share, I thought these few would provide a nice overview into the process. But before I draw this post to a close, I feel compelled to share one last thing with you.

Much of what’s great about Gadgeteers as it is today came from the wisdom, insight, and wild hares of the people beyond Dan and I who played the game. I cannot overstate how much we owe to the other designers and avid gamers who have shared their experiences playing the game and offered their thoughts on how it can improve.

It takes a concerted effort of will not to argue back or explain away negative experiences that people have when playing your game. But those experiences are real. And it’s important to realize that if problems arose from them getting rules wrong, then your rules probably aren’t as clear as they need to be.

If they are playing it correctly and still have issues, it isn’t a problem with the player. Instead, you have to do the hard work of figuring out if there is a real problem to be fixed or if your game just isn’t for that kind of player. Having a clear vision of who your game is for and what the experience playing it should be like is the only way to make productive use of the feedback you get.

And I am immensely grateful to the dozens of people who have offered their encouragement, critiques, and crazy ideas leading up to Gadgeteers as it is today.
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