Friday, July 25, 2014

Building vs. Upgrading, and a game called Scorched Earth

Lots of games are about building. Over the course of the game, you're creating a sort of engine that generates the conditions for victory. You start out with a few simple functions that you can perform, and as time goes on you add more and better functions. From a single corn field to a plantation processing coffee and sugar in Puerto Rico. From agriculture to nuclear power in Innovation. From a monster to an even scarier monster in King of Tokyo.

The Fire of Moscow (source)
What if we turned the building idea on its head? A while back my wife inspired me with an idea for a game called Scorched Earth. In this game, you would be a commander in charge of a slice of Russian territory as Napoleon's army advanced. Your goal would be to destroy as much as possible of your territory's assets, with the game ending when Napoleon's army starves or is forced to turn back from lack of food.

Thematically, Scorched Earth seemed intriguing. But building is a common game mechanic for a reason. It gives a game a sense of motion and purpose. Players feel like they're accomplishing something and creating something. When you're building, you're going somewhere. You're excited about the next piece you want to add and the steps you plan to take to get it.

The momentum and narrative arc associated with building suggest some problems with going the other way. I found this to be a problem with another game idea I had, a "deck destroying" game called The Fall of Greenland. In TFoG, players would begin with a big deck of cards representing elements of a Norse settlement, which they would gradually lose as calamities hit. Like Scorched Earth, the goal was to have the best stuff remaining when time ran out. In playtesting, though, TFoG fell flat. Strategically choosing what to eliminate from your deck wasn't as interesting as choosing what to add to your deck.

As common as building is, many games that seem to be about building are perhaps better thought of as being about upgrading. Building makes things bigger, while upgrading makes them better. The deck building genre, I would argue, is -- despite the name -- as much about upgrading as about building in the sense I'm using the term here. And that's revealed by the importance of being able to get rid of your early components. Dominion has a variety of cards that let you trash a card -- often, but not always, in exchange for a better card. Quarriors lets you cull a die whenever you score.

Why would you trash a perfectly good copper card in Dominion, or a perfectly serviceable assistant in Quarriors? Because the best strategy is not to build up a huge deck, but to make an efficient and streamlined deck. In these two games, you only have access to a random sample of your deck at any one time. So low-value components just dilute your ability to access your better ones. Simple components are useful only until they can be replaced with more powerful ones.

So let's apply that to Scorched Earth. Instead of just destroying your capacity, perhaps your real aim is to consolidate. If you can build a triple-size factory back in Smolensk, then you can afford to tear down the three smaller factories in Vilno, Minsk, and Mogilev (relevant map). The advance of Napoleon's army provides a clear incentive to streamline and trim the fat from your game engine.

I don't know that I'll ever develop Scorched Earth as a full-fledged game -- the theme is certainly outside my core competency, though I suppose it could be rethemed. But if nothing else it's a useful design exercise.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Kickstarter bonanza -- Vici and A Duel Betwixt Us

The gears at Game Salute have cranked away and finally spat out a couple games that ran Kickstarters some time ago, landing them on my doorstep last week.

Vici is a two-player battle game, in which players command ancient armies to attack each other's camp. The designer and artist, Ben Shulman, is a friend and game design collaborator, so I've gotten to see a number of iterations of this game as it made its way toward publication. It's very cool to finally see a manufactured copy with heavy chipboard pieces and so on. The published version highlights the good work he did on designing the ergonomics of the game -- it feels clean and intuitive to play.

Vici has a nice balance of strategy and luck. There are good strategic choices to be made about where and how to deploy units, but the outcome of their confrontation is not a sure thing. The unique powers of each unit add a lot of depth. The powers are well-designed to work together -- each type of unit plays off the others, such as having special strengths when battling certain other units or being able to initiate chains of battles in certain ways. The luck element makes it hard for one player to entirely dominate the game, though it can be difficult to come back from a deficit.

A Duel Betwixt Us is also a two-player battle game, but with a very different theme. In this game, players are Victorian gentlemen engaged in contests of strength to win ladies' favor. You employ miners to produce precious ore, which you then use to purchase and construct weapons and armor, as well as carry out various extra actions. Once equipped, you can challenge your opponent to a duel with various specific rules (swords only, no armor, etc).

The art for A Duel Betwixt us is absolutely gorgeous. It has a perfect humorously old-timey look to suit the feel and appeal of the game. This is one of those games that may be worth buying just for the art. The gameplay, on the other hand, was a bit disappointing. Most of the time in the game was spent building up the weapons for the type of duel you wanted to declare. Once a duel was declared, the outcome was almost entirely foreordained -- it was easy to pick out a duel type for which you were well-prepared while your opponent was not, and the various surprise tricks that could be played added only a little uncertainty. Conducting the duel merely consisted of counting up the attack and defense points for each player. Our favorite duel was the "throw everything" duel, because it involved a back-and-forth series of choices (what do you throw, what do you hang on to) that shaped the course of the fight. It was also the zaniest, which was important because I was expecting a much zanier game based on the theme. As a final note, the box for this game was far too large -- a few small decks of cards in a box nearly a foot square. I blame Game Salute for this particular issue, as the box is the exact same size as the one for Vici (which fit it better) and several other GS games I've seen.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Cards for Bunny Money Gunny

We'll have an "early edition," pre-Kickstarter version of Bunny Money Gunny available at the Indie Game Developers Network's Indie Game Showcase at GenCon next month. Check out the great card art by Cynthia Lee!