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.