Sunday, April 20, 2014

DeckVille

I'm really not keeping up this blog very well, I see. Well, I've been busy, and my other blog over at solitairetilldawn.blogspot.com gets more attention—which is as it should be. But I can't spend every waking moment on solitaire programming, and I've been able to find time for some table-game design lately.

First a glance back: last post, I was talking about recent changes to my Spatial Delivery boardgame. After a lot of playtesting, I'm now pretty satisfied with that design. I think it's done, and I don't expect to do anything more with it. (No publishers in sight, but the market is pretty crowded these days, so I'm not holding my breath.)

And now I'm working on a new design called "DeckVille".

A while back Dice Hate Me Games held a contest for game designers. Entrants were to design games that could be played with only a pack of 54 standard-size cards. I was too busy moving to think about it at the time, and the contest is long over. (You can see a number of the winners on Kickstarter at Big Game for Small Pockets.) But the idea stuck in my head, so I recently set myself a challenge.

I have wanted to create a card game in the style of the kind of board game that Helen and I like best: an "economic builder". Simply put, this is a strategy game where you spend the early part of the game building things that make you efficient, and the late part building things that will make you points.

I wanted this design experience partly for fun, and partly in hopes of getting a compact, portable, playable game out of it. But mainly it's meant as a learning tool. I thought that this exercise in minimalism might give me useful insight into this kind of game.

I didn't worry about coming up with anything original. I happily stole ideas from quite a few different successful games by published designers: 7 Wonders, San Juan, Suburbia, and Ticket to Ride, along with a number of others.

In nearly all games of this type, the player is to jump through some kind of hoops to get <something> that is spendable, and later jump through more hoops to spend the <something> on <something else> that will provide victory points. I decided that DeckVille would be about building a city; that the spendable stuff would be several different kinds of resources (e.g. wood, brick, steel, etc.), and that the victory points would be provided by facilities: residences, shops, businesses, public buildings, and so on.

San Juan provided a crucial notion, one I've also seen in many other games: every card can be used for two or three different purposes, all useful; but in every case you must choose one use per card, and forgo the other possibilities. This gives the players decisions to make. The decisions should be significant (that is, they will affect the outcome of the game), amenable to reason (that is, their effects are somewhat calculable), but not obvious. (Sometimes these are called agonizing decisions.) In DeckVille, a card can be used as a resource or as a facility, but not both. The cost to build a resource is to discard some number of other cards from your hand (another notion from San Juan), while the cost to build a facility is paid by having previously built all the resources that the facility needs (7 Wonders).

Interest and variety come from making every card different, and by making the scoring value of cards interdependent. Every facility has a type, out of eight different types (public, housing, shopping, dining, etc.). The scoring value of a facility might be absolute ("2 points") or conditional ("1 point per public facility you have built"). This kind of variety can be found in quite a few games, but I took most of my inspiration here from Ted Alspach's Suburbia.

Given that basic framework, what's needed for a good game is balanced paths to victory. There should be a number of ways to achieve victory: for example, you might build a lot of business facilities, capping them with a facility whose score depends on that. Or you might build the right combination of public and infrastructure facilities; or a mix of housing and shopping. If the game is balanced, there will be quite a few good ways to make lots of points, none of which are overwhelmingly better than the others, but all of which will be difficult to achieve in the face of intelligent opposition.

I found that the original goal of a 54-card game worked, but only for two players. After some thought, I added a second deck of 54 more cards, with half of that deck marked for "three players" and the rest for "four players". You can still play the two-player game with just the original deck.

It needs more work, probably lots more work. But it actually plays quite nicely, even now, which is encouraging. I think I will eventually spruce up the artwork and post it for print-on-demand at TheGameCrafter, when I'm done with it.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Spatial Delivery: New Cards in the Works

Recent changes to my boardgame design-in-progress "Spatial Delivery" seem to be working out. Last Thursday, over at Rainy Day Games, three kind people gave it a near-blind playtest. They had a good time (I was watching) and they "got" the game, making the right kind of plays and doing the right kind of thinking. Most of their feedback had to do with ways to make the game more accessible on the first play: quicker setup, better player aids, improvements to the rulebook, and so on. (I screwed up and brought a somewhat out-of-date rulebook, so I had to intercede occasionally to answer questions and make corrections.) The actual rules and gameplay went over well.

Given that, Helen and I decided that it's time to re-think the physical bits, with an eye toward first-time players. We may eventually rework the hex tiles, perhaps eliminating them in favor of an actual board; we're still discussing that. But the urgent priority is a new card deck.

Older versions of the game had very simple cards. Artwork aside, each card just had a color: red, yellow, green, or blue. But when I added the new Card Powers feature (see A Bit of Game Design), the cards became more complex. Each card now has one of nine different Card Powers, each of which can be used only at certain times in the game. Initially I'd hand-scribbled some rough icons for the various powers on my old cards, with explanations in the rulebook. That got us through our recent playtests; but the players always had trouble learning what the powers were and exactly when each one could be used.

So Helen and I are now brainstorming iconography and card layouts, trying to make the cards and their effects as easy to understand as possible.

In general I like to avoid text on cards if possible, because it makes international editions of a game more expensive to produce. But the various card powers are complex enough to need one to three sentences of explanation each. We want new players to be able to understand each power without having to constantly look them up in the rulebook. A separate player aid would be a reasonable compromise, but for our prototypes we've decided to put some text on each card, in addition to the iconography. If the game is ever published, the publisher can decide whether to keep the text or not: the icons are sufficient for players who are already familiar with the game.

We've decided to try a smaller card size, to reduce the area needed for the game on the table. While the card displays aren't the biggest offender, the game does take up a lot of table space so we're trying to minimize that without impacting ease of play.

Even though the cards are smaller, some elements of the card design still have to be reasonably large, because they must be visible from a couple of feet away when the card is lying face-up on the table. At the same time, compact iconography is needed along the left edge of each card (the "index column"), so that players can fan their hands and easily see what they've got. I was originally fixated on point symmetry, which would mean an index column along both sides; but that was taking up too much space. Helen broke my fixation by showing me that an asymmetrical design gave us enough room for a nice layout.

Here's a mockup of the new design. The actual size is a bit bigger than shown here, and of course the printed cards will have finer resolution. We've printed some proofs to be certain that the text will be readable.
The new card layout
Anybody got any suggestions for improvements?

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Whitish Christmas

It's not Christmas yet, but if the weather keeps on like this, Christmas might well be white when it gets here. That will be a novelty for us. We're already enjoying the novelty of having a little bit of snow, right in our very own yard. It's not much, just a dusting; but it comes with several days (and counting) of day-long freezing temperatures. We are used to San Jose, where we counted ourselves lucky if it even bothered to rain in the winter. (There was one really cold winter during my 30ish years there, where icy winds drove snow from higher airs down to the ground in our yard; but even then, none of it stuck.)

The view from our deck.
We've just returned from the grocery store: a shopping trip at 25°F. Helen figured we should stock up the larder in advance of the snow forecast for tomorrow. While we don't expect the snow to be deep, we do live halfway up a small mountain; there's no route to our home that doesn't involve some really steep climbs. If those roads ice up, we may have to cocoon for a bit.

A neighbor's fountain, after several days' freeze.

Most of the rest of the country is having a terrible winter, according to the TV news. We're having a "just right" winter: enough cold and snow to be interesting, not enough to cause trouble. So all the rest of you, stay warm and stay safe, and don't worry about us. We're having a good time!

Saturday, November 9, 2013

A Bit of Game Design

It seems ages since I've spent any serious time on any of my own game designs. What with the day job (followed, after retirement, by the exigencies of moving to another state), the two expansions I helped design for Railways of the World, my musical activities, and the need to work hard on Solitaire Till Dawn, my own designs have been given short shrift for the past few years.

But I'm retired now, and we finished moving in a while back, so that's over with. Solitaire Till Dawn isn't done yet and is still getting most of my alert-and-working attention; but all work and no play makes Jack want to stay in bed instead of getting up in the morning. So I've given myself a few evenings and weekends off recently, and put some time in on one of my oldest and best designs.

I started work on Spatial Delivery in 2007, and it won the Game Design Contest at KublaCon in May 2008. At that time I thought it was pretty much done, but it wasn't. Experienced game designers know that you have to playtest a game a lot to discover its warts and inadequacies. Like a software product, a game design must be tested, evaluated, fixed, and refined many times before you can be sure it's done. (Just the other day I saw a major, successful game designer apologizing for a "bug" in one of his new games: he and his testers hadn't found it, but the people who bought the game did. He's working on a fix.)

In the years since that KublaCon, I've revisited Spatial Delivery a number of times. I've been aware of a number of flaws in the design, and searching for ways to fix them. I think I've made some solid progress. I hope to take the game out of the house and have some strangers play it in the next few weeks, after a bit more in-house polish and maybe the making of a revised card deck.

To reach this state I had to make a painful decision: I had to throw out the one really original mechanism in the design. That mechanism wasn't a completely awful idea and I may be able to use it in some other design; but it wasn't a good fit in Spatial Delivery. It had to do with how players acquired cards ("Goods") for delivery to worlds in outer space, and that phase of the game was plagued with a variety of problems. I can't count how many solutions I've looked at for that process; but I'm hoping my new design will stand up.

Without going into too much detail, there had been four different types of Goods (red, green, blue, yellow—they have thematic names and icons, but never mind that). No form of random and semi-random distribution or drafting was working: it was always too easy for a player to get screwed over by an unfortunate shuffle, and there was little challenge or interest in choosing which cards to draft. My nifty mechanism that let players challenge each other over card selections didn't make it any better. I had to throw out the whole notion of shuffling all the Goods cards together.

Instead, I separated them into decks by type, and I invented a bunch of "Card Powers" and gave one power to each card. So now you shuffle just the red Goods cards together in one deck, and the blues in another, and so on. When players draft cards, they can always see one face-up card in each color, and choose any one of them. That way, every player gets the color mix he wants. But the Card Powers come up randomly, because they're scattered evenly among the Goods types.

This gives the players more to think about, even while allowing them easy access to the colors they want. The Card Powers give them new options during the next phase of the game, when they play the cards they've drafted.

This opened the door to a good solution for another of the game's nagging problems: turn order. Turn order is fairly important; it's an advantage to be able to play before anyone else. That means that the turn order needs to change, every round. But the game only lasts for a small and odd number of rounds (too bad, but otherwise the game is too short or too long) so simply rotating the turn order every round isn't really fair. I solved this (I hope) by inventing a Card Power that affects the turn order for the next round. Players can now decide for themselves how important it is to go first rather than last, and do something about it if they're willing to pay the price by grabbing and playing a Turn Order card instead of a different one.

It's surprising how hard it can be to let go of an old design feature. Another change I made recently was to make it cheaper to travel longer distances as your spaceship goes to visit planets in outer space. Originally I felt that it was important to keep travel distances short; I can't even remember why. I had a somewhat cumbersome rule that allowed long-distance travel at a nearly-ruinous price. I've now realized that this was dumb. The price of travel is high enough anyway, and the incentive to make frequent stops is strong. The fancy rule wasn't needed and I threw it out. The game is now easier to understand and more interesting, because long-range travel is now easier to do when a player has good reason to do it.

There's a wonderful company called The Game Crafter that can print and ship single copies of games on demand. It allows new designers to self-publish pretty easily, and it can be a great way to manufacture just a few copies of a game under development. When they started out their offerings were fairly limited, but they've been expanding. I see that I could now self-publish Spatial Delivery there, if I ever decide that it's ready for that. I'd like to license the design to a real game publisher someday, but in the meantime The Game Crafter is a good solution for turning out a few copies for playtests and publisher submissions. I won't do this until the design is a lot more finalized, though, and I'll have to drum up a few bits of artwork that I can legally use for symbols and icons on the cards and such.

Monday, June 17, 2013

After the Flood

No, there hasn't been a flood; I'm just being hyperbolic in my post title. The process of selling and buying a house, and moving the family, the cats, and all our stuff to a new state has felt kind of Noachian at times. (I just read a book in which I learned a new word, "Noachian", and I've been dying to use it somewhere. You like it?)

But we did it! We are here, in our new-to-us home, and it really was worth all the effort and misery of getting here. We are loving the house, the neighborhood, and the Oregonian scenery and culture. We are well settled in (a few things to do yet, but not much and the urgency is gone), and even the cats are happy.

Part of the view from our deck.

I didn't expect to have much time for anything fun until we reached this point in the unpacking-and-settling-in process, and to a large degree I was right. There've been a lot of seven-day-weeks of 14 hours a day of hard work: building and moving furniture, shifting boxes around, and all the rest. (Factoid: we bought something like 20 bookshelves for the library, the game collection, and our offices! We let Ikea build most of them but we built a fair number ourselves.) But we did make time at least for "scheduled events", like seeing Helen's folks on a fairly regular basis, hosting Nat when he could come up from UCSC, and going to boardgame nights at the Lucky Labrador in Portland.

And also music. This was a surprise, and a very pleasant and rather heady one. I was sad (and still am) to leave all my friends in the Bay Area jazz circles, and I was worried about finding places to play up here. I thought I might find myself a bit stranded, since nobody here would know me. But quite a few of my Bay Area friends are known up here, and they did an absolutely amazing job of introducing me to the Portland, Salem, and Eugene trad jazz scenes. Within a week of the move I had made some friends and had a place to go and jam every Tuesday night (Libbies in Milwaukie, if you're ever in the neighborhood). Three Sundays in every month I can go to one of the monthly jazz club sessions and do more jamming; I did so and made still more friends. These people have been incredibly warm and welcoming, not just about jam sessions but even inviting us to parties and such.

Within weeks, friends and jamming led to some actual paying gigs. And then I was asked to play a couple of gigs with the excellent Black Swan Classic Jazz Band, one of the finest groups in Oregon. When those went well, I was accepted as a member of the group, a very happy moment for me. We just played a concert in Tacoma, and I'm looking forward to going with them to the Pentastic Hot Jazz Festival in Penticton, B.C., Canada in September. So thanks to my friends old and new, my worries about music have been groundless: I'm busier than ever, and having tons of fun.

All that was leading up to the present, when we are finally finding some time to "do as we please". I've resumed working on Solitaire Till Dawn after an enforced hiatus of half a year, and last night we finally got around to watching The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, which had the ill grace to hit the theatres shortly after we became too busy to even think about going to see it. I've even owned the Blu-ray for weeks, but only now have had the time and the home theatre setup (thanks, Helen!) to watch it.

In other news, Nat did stop and visit us this past weekend, en route to Pune, India where he will be taking a summer course at the University of Pune, the "Oxford of the East"! Pune is near the west coast of India. As I write, Nat's actually in Mumbai, waiting for a bus to take him and the other students in his group to Pune. We're looking forward to hearing about his experiences when he returns in the fall.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Almost There

I see that I haven't posted since I retired, last November.

There are two reasons for that. One is that I've been terribly busy since then. The other is that I generally prefer to post upbeat things, but the stuff that's been keeping me busy mostly hasn't been fun.

Retirement sounds great: a day off from work, in perpetuity. Now I can do whatever I want with my time! Turns out, it's not like that, at least so far. In my darker moments, I worry that it may never be like that.

Retirement means I can't afford to live in Silicon Valley any more. No problem, we'll move to Oregon, a step we've been thinking about for years anyway. But when I retired, we realized that we had to move immediately, or as close to immediately as we could manage. We were instantly embroiled in complex plans to find a new home, put ours on the market, and rearrange our nest eggs appropriately.

But it was mid-November then: the start of the holiday season. That slowed things down quite a bit, while doing nothing to relieve the pressure. Then in January, we realized that Helen's knee surgery could not be put off until after we'd moved, which slowed things down even further while adding more pressure. (Now I sound all whiney. See, this is why I usually only post upbeat things.)

Helen deserves a medal of some kind: she's persevered through all this, often through great pain, and with great success. I do my best to be helpful, but she's the one in charge, and she's amazingly good at it. As I write, we are (in theory, at least) less than 24 hours away from taking possession of our new Oregon home, and everything looks to be on rails—although we'll be watching intently for any signs of last-minute trouble.

So! Are we done now and can I have some free time at last?

No, of course not. We haven't moved out of San Jose yet; we haven't moved into the Oregon house yet. There will be months (at least!) of unpacking, furniture rearranging, and furniture shopping, not to mention home improvements: paint this, fix that, replace those appliances, remodel this room. Ugh. (Sorry, more whininess there.)

Still, I think there's light at the end of the tunnel and cause for optimism. Oregon seems like a great place, and the house does not really need too much spiffing up. Eventually there'll be time to relax. I'm looking forward to that.

But first, we've gotta move the cats 600 miles. Augh!

Friday, November 23, 2012

Retirement!

Solitaire Till Dawn fans: Please see the new Solitaire Till Dawn blog for news about the game. Posts about Solitaire Till Dawn will now appear exclusively in that blog; I am returning the focus of this blog to matters of interest to myself, my family, and my close friends.

I have retired from my day job! No more 40 hours per week of working on other people's projects; no more way-too-early alarm clocks; no more wasting 8+ hours per week on commuting. Hooray!

So what now?

Actually I have lots to do. I expect to be extremely busy, even short on time, through the holidays. Sometime early in the new year things should settle down a bit. When I can get a routine going, I still expect to be busy, but no longer hurried.

We are going to move house, and fairly soon. That, along with the usual holiday fuss, is what will be keeping us extra-busy for a while: selling the house, finding and buying a new one, preparing to move, settling in to the new place. It will take time, but we expect to really enjoy our new digs and new location once that's done.

Aside from that, I plan to spend several hours per day (most days) working on Solitaire Till Dawn. This will be more time per week by a factor of ten than I've been able to devote to it for the last few years. That's going to be fun. Most of the rest of the time will go to my more serious hobbies: music, boardgame design, and playing games with Helen, friends, and the kitties.

I'm looking forward to it!