Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Press Gang

I have a new boardgame design under development. Its name is “Press Gang”. It got its start several years ago, when I thought up a mechanism for players to select tiles from an array of tiles on the table, by “walking” a pawn from tile to tile to reach the one you want. The cost of acquiring a tile would be the sum of the cost of walking your pawn and the cost of the tile itself. I wrote up a page of notes and thoughts about this mechanism. Here’s a quote from that page:
Players must balance the perceived value of a tile against the expense of acquiring it; and every move will change that equation for the next turn by putting the pawn in a different neighborhood. This sounds like a reasonably rich set of choices.
I filed my write-up, and forgot about it.

In late January of 2015 I was browsing old files out of boredom. I found my page of notes and starting thinking about it. In fairly short order I had the outline of a complete game, got excited, and started developing it.

Tile collection immediately suggests set collection as a goal: there would be different classes of tiles, and different individuals among those classes. Players would score by collecting appropriate sets of tiles.

Variety is important. Without it there is no compelling reason to walk an expensive distance to get a tile over there, instead of grabbing a cheap one nearby. Reiner Knizia’s amazing game Ra was my model for this: scoring would be different for each class of tile, giving players some difficult choices in deciding which tile might be best to acquire on any given turn.

Budget management usually adds interest to a game. I decided that there would be money, which could be spent to gain extra actions and get more done, or saved to be worth points at end of game. (Money is also a nice balancing system: if a choice is so obviously good that it’s a no-brainer, make it cost some money and tune the amount until it becomes a tough choice.)

A lesson learned from the games Ra and Coloretto, among others: it’s good to have “poison pills” in set-collection games. A poison pill is anything that reduces the value of your collection, but that you have to take anyway as part of collecting something good. Poison pills make players balance conflicting goals. Do I want this really good thing even though it comes with this really bad thing, or do I want that lesser good thing that comes with a lesser penalty?

When I’d reached this point in my thinking, I found a good theme for the game. I’m a fan of C. S. Forester’s wonderful novels of Horatio Hornblower, the fictional captain in the British Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. Recruiting a crew for a ship of the line was not an easy business. A captain needed a variety of experienced officers, but he also needed deckhands, which as often as not came from the press gangs.

This gave me thematic classes: each tile was a crewman, who might be a Lieutenant, a Midshipman, a Petty Officer, or a deckhand. And deckhands provided a great poison pill: you must have them, but you must get them from the Press Gang. They are landsmen who know nothing of the sea, and who must be trained in order to become useful.

Each class needed some feature to make it different from the others. For example: I felt that if the entire game were merely a matter of walking around and picking up tiles to fill your collection, it would not be sufficiently interesting. So when your recruit a Midshipman, you get another choice: you can keep the tile for scoring at the end of the game, or immediately sacrifice its score to get a benefit called the Privilege. There are several different Privileges: they can help you move your pawn more quickly, get you money, recruit another officer, change your end-game scoring, and so on. The decision you must make is whether the benefit will eventually be worth more points than the Midshipman’s basic score.

Within a couple of weeks (which is remarkably quick compared to my usual rate of progress), I had a perfectly playable game on my hands. Since then I have been tuning the game: adjusting the costs and values of things, and trying to streamline the rules. I think it’s getting close to done, but it’s not there yet. But more than one knowledgeable person has told me it’s my best design yet, so that’s encouraging!

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