Permanence and Balance (by Rob Daviau)
· What are the assumptions people have when they play a game?
· How to spend four times longer designing your game so that your players end thinking the designer is an idiot
· Heroscape, Betrayal at the House on the Hill, Clue, Risk, Axis & Allies, Risk Legacy, Seafall
· Legacy game = actions you take in one game has effects on future games (upgrading cards with stickers, destroying cards, writing on the board), everything is permanent, it’s a one way trip
· Make all the assumptions you can about a game or genre (obvious and unexpected), write them down, then say “what if” and turn them on their heads
· Assumptions about worker placement (Lords of Waterdeep) = you place your own workers, your workers work for free, workers take one action, there can only be one worker per space, workers automatically come back to you, everyone has workers, your workers do whatever you say, you want to place your workers, your workers like working for you, you don’t work for them, your workers won’t quit, your worker won’t murder anyone, your worker won’t steal cash from you, the game comes with workers, you can see the workers
· An unexpected idea from Clue = swear Mustard does it about 2/3 of the time, Why do we keep inviting him to the dinner party? Why do games reset each time we play them? What if a game doesn’t fully return to its start state every time? What if one game could affect the next?
· Legacy game - A way to tell a story, the story of a world as told by the armies fighting on it, a way to get a group to really own their game, a way to codify “remember that time…”, a challenge to Rob himself…
· Why permanence? If you play board games, you are doing it already. Ups the stakes and makes people care from the beginning. Changes the tone and makes the world real and unique.
· Cardboard and plastic are not special, the experience and design is special
· Why Risk? It’s known, it’s solved, it was a Hasbro brand, Rob had done 6Risk games before, Risk already has a metagame
· How do you design and balance a game with permanence? You don’t. It’s about recognizing it can’t be balanced, at least not by the designer.
· An incomplete game – legacy games are about 80% done when they ship, let the players finish the last 20% as players (not designers), the rules enable players to complete it by playing, these rules need to also allow them to balance it.
· “You can’t predict what one person will do, but you can predict what most people will do in the future” – Asimov’s foundation
· Risk Legacy runs for 15 games (enough to feel epic, but not long enough to feel daunting).
· Wrong = random permanence (roll to nuke a country), every decision needs to be on the player’s hands. Right = chosen permanence (scar cards), players choose when to nuke, player controlled city locations
· Wrong = gimmicks without a point (recording winners, naming continents, naming cities). Right = gimmicks with a point (recorded winners get one missile per win, named continents get +1 power, named cities are players starting spot).
· Wrong = it didn’t change enough (factions didn’t change, there were few board changes that were too powerful), too much too soon. Right = locked up content that players earn by achieving things, this prevented people from using all the permanent changes in the start of the game.
· Right = using a “solved” game like Risk, players don’t own factions, unpredictability with unlocks, introducing a draft, pulling from non-games (cliffhangers), gimmicks (do not open, ever), unboxing turned into a ritual
· “Do not open ever” used to be “do not open until instructed” but he realized he would kill some gamers who go through the rulebooks so many times. People came up with house rules to open up the last packet.
· Unboxing – the box is closed with a sticker (NOTE: what’s done can never be undone), you have to sign the back of the board and say you take responsibility for what’s about to happen, every faction has a choice of two powers (you pick one and tear up the other one), you must sticker the power factions at the start (you can balance the game yourself)
· How do you balance 15 games? You can’t but players can, but players don’t always do a good job of it, some people mess it up completely.
· Left Hasbro to start Ironfist Games, working on Seafall: A Legacy Game
· Based on the unknown, finding islands
· Design objective = people to find islands but not too quickly, finding islands to be a viable path to victory, more research and preparation to lead to greater but not guaranteed chance of success. Did not want it to be blind luck, to be pure skill, or a big letdown if you don’t find one.
o Started with a Carcassonne idea where people had tiles and placed their own, but it was too uncontrolled for the designer.
o Then made a hex based grid with only an island on each column.
o Made a deck building game, but it was too much card counting.
o Made a dice pool system.
o Made a whole separate mini-game, put tokens down to “zoom in” to how the ship is doing. But the rules became so long and complicated.
o Went back to a dice pool system, but as you go west, it gets harder to hit the number. You can play cards to get a fixed dice roll. So you can rely on luck, or some control. If you fail your roll for an island, you’ll still find something (rock, pirates, etc.)
QUESTION AND ANSWER
· Designing player experiences vs. systems. It’s not exactly a dichotomy. In a successful game, aesthetics and mechanics are in service of each other and integrate together to become expressive. Board games are narrative toolbox and have inherent randomness to them. Rob wants players to talk about the narrative story the next day instead of the mechanics. Risk Legacy is not an elegant game at all, but it’s meant to be unpredictable narratives with unexpected outcomes.
· Betrayal at House on the Hill captures the sense of unknown and mystery.Seafall also captures the sense of wonder. Rob starts design from theme, and finds the mechanics to fit the thematic.
· Legacy games don’t work well if the players swap out between games.
· Role playing games shouldn’t have rules, they should have guidelines. Board games can’t crash if the rules were played wrong.
· Written rules should be quick enough to get started, but thorough enough to use while players are playing. It’s very hard to find the balance between the two, and it’s not a solved problem.
· Bernie Dekoven’s new games movement. He turns the rules explanation into a performance.
· Digital board games have many problems. The screen is too small, you lose something when it goes completely 2D, private information is hard.
· Was Risk Legacy playtested with people who never played Risk before? No, because it was assumed this was a hobby market game. Seafall is a much more complicated system so the rules will be introduced very slowly. Creating an advent calendar for what you discover at the island. The gambling and the unknown really engages people.
· Emergent narrative vs. elegant game design. They’re not opposed. It’s not binary, it’s a continuum.
· Some board games are just math covered with graphics. They are for people who like the system.
· The rules to role playing games are nebulous. It’s about the experience.