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Fixing Randomness Required an Orthogonal Solution
January 01, 2015
This is an analysis of one aspect of my new pirate game, Scoundrels. Also, if you want, sign up for a chance to win an early-release copy of the game.
Hi, I'm Randy! I've never made a tabletop game before now. I make video games, but that's a different beast.
Three things inspired me to try this physical game thing. One: I was spending entirely too much time staring at a screen. Two: a few years ago there were barely any "fun" pirate games out there. And three: I had just been given Cash 'N Guns, a game I adore that is wonderfully social. So I decided to make something that requires face-to-face interaction.
Of course now I'm terrified because there are suddenly A LOT of pirate games.
BEGINNINGS (Setting Sail, har-har-harr)
I bought a tabletop game called Dread Pirate for super cheap at Barnes and Noble years back in college. Man, the production values on that game; I would've loved it when I was ten. But it was just a tad simple for adults. However the thought of stealing all those beautifully crafted pieces and making my own pirate story was appealing.
I made 3 major revisions to Scoundrels in the first 3 months. They changed the game from a terribly confusing and boring POS into the core of what it would become.
Scoundrels operates on a simple system in which all players are pirates sailing around an open grid of ports and islands and X's, pillaging for Treasure cards and attacking and stealing those Treasure cards from each other, maybe burying them too.
(Original card types)
The basic mechanic of the game is that each player "acts" using a hand of eight hidden "Action cards". Action cards are Sails, Swords, and Cannons, and are randomly drawn from a deck every round. The cards at the beginning of development had values 1-3 on them equivalent to their power. Play (Discard) a "Sail 3" card to move 3 spaces. Attack a port with two "Sword 2" cards to attack for 4 points.
Sails move you, Swords board opponents, Cannons shoot opponents, pillage with either Cannons or Swords. Pretty simple, right?
The problem with getting a random hand of Action cards is that it may not be useful at the current time and place. But I wanted a random draw for myself and other more casual gamers to have a chance against skilled players. The more I tried designing skill-based distribution or collection, the less it felt appropriate. Also, according to my "Pirates of the Caribbean" and LEGO-infused childhood, being a pirate is NOT about skill.
The challenge I spent over a year tackling was how to resolve the misfortune of a bad hand.
(A typical hand from early prototyping. Very defined choices.)
Solution 1: NEW CARD: The Wild
Get a bunch of Sail 1 cards, your hand is bad. As is a hand of Sword 1 cards. The first (obvious) solution was that all value 1 cards would become Wild. Thus a 1 card can always be useful, even if not particularly powerful. Wilds are always 1, and the other card types are values 2, 3, and 4 (progressively fewer cards as the value goes up).
(Suddenly a player has lots of choice.)
Solution 2: FREE SAIL POINTS! (which exacerbated a problem)
Up until now, all core actions (move, shoot, board, and pillage) required Action cards.
With Wilds added we had a hand that you could probably find two sufficient actions that you wanted to perform. Perhaps Sail and Sword, Sword and Cannon, or just Cannon the heck out of someone. But people often were forced to use all their Wild cards to move anywhere useful. (You have to be in the same space as something to act against it.)
Two free sail points every round for every player, I decreed! And movement is so critical to basic operations, it worked. People now could perform a little movement without fear of using up a significant portion of their hand.
Solution 3: FEWER SAIL CARDS
Now I had too many Sail points in the game. But as most anyone knows, it's super satisfying to have equal counts of items. The thought of fewer Sail cards than Swords and Cannons was depressing as a designer.
My friend argued for an alternate solution. Reduce the amount of Sail cards, but maintain the same total value of Sail points in the deck. So you'll get fewer Sails, but they'll more likely be powerful/useful.
BUT THE PROBLEM REMAINED
The fun of the game is attacking other players, but Cannons and Swords get you different rewards. Cannons hurt an opponent and give you Infamy points, while Swords let you steal Treasure cards from that opponent. Some players were frustrated that shooting and boarding were split across two card types. What if they had a ton of Cannons and near them was a pirate loaded down with Treasure cards.
Ignored Solution: CONSOLIDATE ATTACKS
People (including the game's biggest fan) wanted "Attack" cards rather than Cannons and Swords. But I refused. I like the somewhat uneven balance of actions you can take. That sometimes you just have to shoot someone, even though they may carry valuable stuff. To reduce it to Move and Attack was not acceptable to me. Maybe it was a good idea, but it wasn't my game. I wanted Cannon and Swords, not Attacks.
THE BIG SOLUTION: WRAP THE MAP
Okay, so I've just spent a bunch of probably confusing paragraphs trying to solve the misfortunes that occur from random draws, from a game you've never played!
And none of those solutions provided the answer I needed. Don't get me wrong, the above three solutions are still in the game. They are tweaks necessary to balance the game. But the biggest change I made required no rebalancing, no new card types, etc.
The answer to the randomness was to make map movement wrap in both axes. The pirates had been in a world with edges. I don't like edges. Edges let leaders hide. Edges leave weak players powerless to affect things across the map. The world was the main problem. As soon as I allowed players to traverse from one side of the world to the other, no one was safe any longer, exactly as I wanted. Where once there was one nearby pirate, now most pirates were within reach.
SOME OTHER CHANGES
Other things I did to Action cards:
-HAND SIZE: Originally a player's hand was 7 cards. Then I raised it to 9, then down to 8, where it has remained. Too many cards gives the player the illusion of power with more points, but just causes more chaotic distributions across players.
-DECK SIZE: I started with about 70 cards in the Action deck. It's currently 107 cards. When I printed my first draft of cards off Artscow.com, I made about 150 cards in the deck because I was tired of the amount of reshuffling required by a deck of 70 cards. But consequently I discovered that, like, hand-size, the more cards in the deck, the more chaotic the distribution to players. Annoying, but I found a satisfying balance around 100-110 cards. You can still get a heavy Wild hand (they are 40 of the 107 cards), but it deals well otherwise.
-CANNONS: Originally I tied number of Cannon cards in an attack to the distance you could shoot them. This was really confusing. Many of the changes over the last year have been related to simplifying complications.
-DRAWING WHEN ATTACKED: One of the things I glossed over in this post is that you can only draw new cards at the end of the round. It makes turn order (which can change) very important. But one essential change I made is that you can draw a single Action card when attacked. And that one card can change defensive balance. It encourages you to Act, knowing you're not completely done for if you play most of your cards. And it creates that extra little fun moment where you draw an incredible card and fend off opponents or take the victory.
Scoundrels is pretty much the game I've wanted it to be. (There's way more to it than talked about here.) It's fun, it's intense at times, and due to the constant proximity of all opponents, it is always down to the wire in who wins the game. It's not out yet, as I'm still writing the damn rulebook and prepping the inevitable Kickstarter, but I wanted to start writing about this game that I've spent 2.5 years testing endlessly and refining and drawing, in the hopes that I might appeal to more than just friends and locals to East Bay game shops.
I hope this has been informative! I plan to write at least one or two more blogs about the design of the game here, but I'd like to know if it was useful.
Also, if you want, sign up for a chance to win an early-release copy of the game.And let me know in the comments if you're interested in a PnP of the game, I need a few more blind testers!