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Subject: Advanced Game Design (Need Advice!) rss

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Mike Perez
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Disclaimer: I know there are some very experienced designers on this site. I apologize if my definition of "Advanced Game Design" deviates from yours.

When I'm solo or group playtesting a game, I like to have a sheet of paper close by where I address certain problems as they pop into my head.

I've noticed there are always 4 types of problems addressed:

1. Design Problems (ie. How can I make components easier to distribute? What symbols should I put on these tiles? What is the most effective way to represent this mechanism with the components I have available?). These are solved by figuring out the best way someone can play my game without having to fiddle much with setup, while having the best visual experience, etc.

2. Intuitive Problems (ie. Should worker placement still be included in the game? Can I remove this resource?). These are questions I can answer with my mind and gut, with a solid understanding of the tension I want to create in my game and how the options available affect that. Some basic math may compliment this process.

3. Simple Math Problems (ie. How can I start players so that it is impossible to eliminate someone within 2 turns? Improbable in less than 5?) These, I can answer with basic probability formulas, decision trees, simulations, etc.

HOWEVER...

I've noticed a fourth type of question that I am having a very hard time answering. These are questions about specific aspects of gameplay, especially in the middle and later stages, that are very hard to calculate (ie. how much should that piece cost to be fair? Should allies be able to pool resources for bids, or will that cause more chaos than benefit? Should there be a few different pieces at different strengths available to purchase at different prices?).

Although it will help to get an overview, I can't just playtest the answer, because it would require more games than I can imagine to understand every outcome. It's too mathematical to just use my intuition and gut. However, it's SO mathematical that I can't figure out any realistic way to solve it.

I'm having an especially hard time with this game, because there are 5 different resources available, all able to be traded with each other (3 value tiers), and all able to purchase a combined total of 9 different items/actions that contribute to a different aspect of your game. On top of that, there is a bidding aspect that is greatly impacted by player politics.

The possibilities for different strategies are immense...finite but immense. I'm experimenting with different ways to answer these questions, but have yet to discover a solid one yet.

How do you answer these types of questions? Should I just run hundreds of playtests to experience the many different possibilities? Should I use advanced mathematics to simulate them? Should I trust the power of intuition? None of the above? ALL of the above?

How do you typically settle these issues, and what tools/methods do you use to settle them? Do you know ways other designers have solved similar issues?

Any insight would be greatly appreciated!
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Corsaire
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Simulation. Playtest through inflection points by yourself and simulate the game states from a fixed midgame startng point with extremes of your decisions. Excel is also useful for doing a wide set of simulations.
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Jeremy Lennert
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All of the above:
1) Use as much math as you can to improve your understanding of the game, and therefore your intuitions about it. Rule out as many "wrong" answers as possible.
2) Make the best guess you can.
3) Try out that guess in a playtest. Prove or disprove as much of your theory as possible.
4) Repeat until you're satisfied or you run out of cake.


Use math to get as good an understanding of the issue as you can; try to identify what factors could potentially cause one option to be stronger or weaker than another; estimate the average values of those factors based on your playtests so far.

When you can't compare two variables to figure out which is better, make your best guess at a conversion factor, or figure out what you'd like the conversion factor to be--are gold and silver roughly equally useful? or maybe 1 gold is roughly as good as 2 silver? Try to apply that conversion factor consistently across all your comparisons--if there's any tradeoffs that break the rule, check if they really deserve to be exceptions, and if not you may need to revise either that tradeoff or your conversion factor. (Make sure you account for opportunity costs--if you can convert 2 silver to 1 gold as an action, that doesn't imply a gold is worth 2 silver, it implies a gold is worth 2 silver plus an action.)

Ask yourself if you would ever use a particular option, and if so, when. Ask yourself if you would ever not use a particular option. Argue with yourself (and/or friends) until you're truly convinced that option is legitimately useful--or if you can't, change the option until you can.

If you can't find any particular reason that something is necessarily good or bad for the game, choose the answer you want and make it true by using it as a standard that you balance against.

Then playtest some more. If you've done a good job, you should now have a deeper understanding of your game's strategy, which should make you a better player than you were before--are you? During playtesting, do game variables fall in the ranges you predicted when balancing? If not, how does that affect the viability of the strategies you planned around? Are you willing to trade resources at the exchange rates you imagined when you're actually playing the game--and if not, was your conversion rate wrong, or is it just an exceptional circumstance?


The example problems you've listed in your fourth category don't seem to me to be fundamentally different from your other categories--just harder.

Keep in mind that it's good that this is hard--if you could easily solve your game and figure out the best elements to include, then most likely your players could easily solve for the best strategy and it would become boring. Interesting games exist in the twilight where you can make a plausible guess about the best option but you can't be sure.

That means you're probably never going to be 100% sure whether you made the right choices. That's OK; that's how it always works. But if you're an expert at your own game, and you can't tell, then any mistakes you made are probably not obvious to your players, either.
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Ian Richard
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^All of the above^

Remember, you'll be doing hundreds of play tests no matter which choice you make. If I have a decision that needs to be made, I'll run a couple dozens tests with "Rule A" and a couple dozen with "Rule B". After that, I pick whichever rule felt like the better option.

If neither rule seems superior I'll invoke my favorite decision making method... flip a coin! My people underestimate the amount of time that is wasted choosing between two equal decisions. Inaction has a real cost and you'll want to limit it.

Keep in mind, my method includes all of the above options too. I don't play test until I've narrowed the options by doing some math, run some sims, looking at other games etc.
 
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Mike Perez
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Good advice everyone, thanks! I've never been a mathematically inclined person, so understanding its full contribution to game design is like learning a new language.

It's good to hear how you all approach this level of game design...I suppose like Antistone says, it's a good problem to have, and just means that there are many different strategies a player can choose from.

I also like Corsaire's idea of playtesting from different fixed midgame starting points.

All of the above seems like the sound strategy. I've helped myself from being overwhelmed by listing every single unique element of my game. The goal is to have every one "perfect" in my opinion before blind playtesting. Some I can tackle with my gut, basic math, etc...others require a much more advanced approach.

It is also interesting to include, that some elements of the game, while they seem perfect on the outside, I will continue to think on because something else is telling me that it can be improved. Usually after some creative thinking, I will discover a new way of approaching the idea that gives me a feeling of true satisfaction. Well...intuitive problem solving is easy for me. Now it's time to master numbers, especially simulations...
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