House on the Hill

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OK, so I love Betrayal at House on the Hill. It’s a theme-heavy, strategy-light romp through a haunted house, and about halfway through, you look up one of 50 (!) scenarios, usually involving one player turning on the rest and trying to kill them.

This game is a blast if you get into character, but one of its big flaws is that, if a new player becomes the traitor, they can feel WAY out of their depth. Each scenario (“Haunt”) has is basically a new game set in the already-explored haunted house, complete with its own rules, strategies, and ways to manipulate the game’s luck.

As I said above, I love this game. I’ve played almost every haunt, and, not to toot my own horn, but I’ve gotten pretty good at shepherding newbies through the complexities of the game’s second act.

That said, whenever it hits the table, I think, “Someone should make co-op haunts.”

Co-op (short for co-operative) board games like Pandemic or Flash Point pit all the players against the game, whose rules turn it into a murderous AI made of cardboard. Everyone wins or loses together, and they’re great fun if you’re worried about someone suffering because they don’t know the rules to a competitive game.

So, after lots of wishing for co-op haunts, I just sat down and made some. Here they are!

Download the PDF.

Enjoy, and let me know what you think!

 

Another Kind of Playtesting

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I. TWO KINDS OF PLAYTESTING

I’m relatively new to tabletop game design, but one piece of advice I have encountered again and again as I learn the craft is “Playtest as much as possible.”

I often hear this advice repeated as a reminder to prepare for “edge cases”: The rare play styles or occurrences that your rules might not have accounted for. This is good advice. Rules should be able to handle any and all play styles; an unresolved edge case could result in a game that quickly becomes unplayable, so this kind of playtesting is important.

There is another kind of playtesting, however, that I haven’t heard as much about, but is still just as important. If the usual advice is for the designer to engage in “edge case” playtesting, I’ll call this other style “high-skill” playtesting.

II. SELF-AGGRANDIZING THOUGHT EXPERIMENT

Imagine that your game, whatever it is, has achieved massive popularity and has a vibrant organized tournament scene. These players have spent hours and hours studying the efficiencies of your game, and know which move is the right one in just about every case. One of them has even written a guide book on playing your game.

Does your game hold up to this level of rigor? Most games should. Not every game requires this kind of playtesting. Immersive games, party games, games of chance; these games are not designed to create the kind of skilled play that classical perfect-knowledge/skill-only games like Go and Chess can create. But if your game involves mastery and skilled play, your playtesting regimen should include testing sessions with highly skilled players.

III. TWO NON-HIGH-SKILL PLAYTESTER TYPES

Most playtesting, in my experience, comes with a mix of edge-case players and middle-of-the-road players. No one has played the new game enough to develop intuition about correct moves or to grok the game’s core systems enough to understand them. The “average” playtester will follow the session leader’s cues, attempt to play the game well, and will end up playing at what is hopefully a representatively normal level of play. Other playtesters take pride in being edge-case wizards. These testers will not play to win. They will play to find the holes in your rules. Both playtester archetypes described here are valuable, but neither is a “high-skill” playtester.

IV. HOW TO GET HIGH-SKILL PLAYTESTERS

So how to you develop a group of high-skill playtesters to ensure that your game holds up to the rigor of top-level play? I’m not entirely sure what the answer to this conundrum is. As the game is in development, it is bound to shift, which means that no player can grasp the systems with the requisite depth to play at a top level. My answer so far has been to playtest it myself. As a designer, I tend to have blinders to some of the game’s flaws, so I’m NOT recommending replacing playtesters with yourself. I am, however, recommending supplementing your (hopefully rigorous) playtesting with some high-skill self-playtesting.

V. A FEW GUIDELINES

When self-playtesting at a high level, I’ve found it helpful to follow these rules:

1) Always make the optimum move: I’m tempted, when playing my games as multiple players, to develop a little personality for each of them: “Red will play defensively, blue offensively.” etc. Don’t. For high-skill playtesting, every player has to be a min/maxing machine. Always make the smart move.

2) Play the game all the way through: I tend to end my self-playtesting sessions once a winner is clear. It is useful, however, to see if a high-skill play style can turn a seemingly-certain defeat into a victory.

3) Take the time to run the numbers: This is my least favorite part, but high-skill players will do it. If you’re playtesting and deciding between two moves, use math to figure out which move to make. It’s time-consuming and annoying, but this is what high-skill players will do with your game once it’s out in the wild. Having done it yourself will give you real insight into whether or not your game will hold up.

Patio Pass-Through: A Real-World Game

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The weather is getting nicer, so I thought I’d share this game, to be played outdoors on a patio or flagstone plaza of some kind.

I was running a large-scale, multi-day scavenger hunt that (surprisingly) ended in a tie. I wrote this game on the final day of the hunt and played it with the two first-place-tied teams to break the tie.

Get together a group of 10 or more (5 per team; it scales up to 52 players total, if your plaza is 26 or more flagstones across), and transform a patio or plaza into a short strategy game ala “Stratego.”

Read the rules here.

Creative Commons License
Patio Pass-Through by Greg Loring-Albright is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at https://docs.google.com/document/d/1Bnf6JILf2_SfTRPxwgSjSS28620Ge6ReyXlpMsbuNa0/edit?usp=sharing

Designer’s Diary: Hyperspace Smuggler

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I. Merchants & Marauders

After listening to some podcasts with designers where they mentioned setting down every step of their design process, I realized I’d been remiss in recording almost anything about the evolution of Hyperspace Smuggler.

The seed for this game was planted when I played Merchants and Marauders at a friend’s house in Chicago. I’ve sailed on tall ships, so I love anything pirate- or seafaring-themed. We sat down and jumped into the immersive, incredible world of this game.

After it was over, I found myself thinking “I wonder if there’s a way to do that without so many rules.” M&M’s “player guide” is a two-sided 8.5×11” sheet of paper. Early on, I wanted the game to have a sense of joy, tension, and wonder that come from exploring, so rather than use a board, I took a cue from another game, Betrayal at House on the Hill, and decided that this new pirate game would have the players laying tiles as they explored the seas.

The pirate game went through a few iterations and playtests, but it always suffered from the same problem: Exploring was too much fun. Player ships went off in two or three or four different directions, ending up at the end of long chains of tiles, each plying their own solitary waves. “You need a way to jump across the board,” said a friend of mine who was playing one of those early versions, “like Hyperspace in Star Wars.”

Loath as I was to abandon my favorite theme, that one sentence was the answer I needed.

II. Re-Theme

My tiles were spay-painted ocean-blue and my player figures were wooden ships, but I started testing the game as a space game. The new mechanic was this: Use a Hyperspace card. Roll a 6-sided die. Whichever face the die lands on, go to a symbol with a matching face (1s and 6s had no corresponding symbols on the tiles, and signaled a Hyperdrive failure). Those die-face icons survive even into my current prototype copies of the game, though in the final I’ll be replacing them with four shape icons (triangle, square, pentagon, hexagon). The ability to deconstruct the game’s topology was, at first, just an elegant solution to a problem, but soon, after lots of playtests and feedback, I realized that this feature was something unique.

Not entirely unique, of course (is anything in the boar gaming space entirely unique any more?); plenty of games utilize alternate topologies to allow for players to create surprising connections or movements — think of the caverns in Small World, or the secret stairs and passageways in Betrayal at House on the Hill. However, I have yet to come upon a game that roots itself in a map, and then creates a core movement mechanic designed to subvert that map.

It was at this point that I realized that I maybe had something worth honing down and trying to publish.

III. Mitigate the Chaos

In keeping with my design directive, I wanted to maintain a sense vastness, exploration, and suspense, especially in the laying of the tiles. Unfortunately, when you can discover anything in the vastness of space, the odds inevitably lead to one playing discovering lots of great things and another discovering lots of terrible things. This wasn’t the only random feature in the game (remember that six-sided die?), and the intersection of a bunch of randomized systems led to a game that was definitely suspenseful, often fun, but very hard to control with any measure of strategy.

I had to tune some of the randomness out. First I made the Hyperspace die optional (you could circumvent it by playing 2 cards instead of 1). Then I allowed players to look at the top two tiles and play one, leaving the other in place for their opponents.

IV. Stability

I wrote about this idea earlier, but it bears repeating: Games need some form of stability. In games with a board, the board provides that anchor. The board will never change, or if it does, it will be a big deal (i.e Pandemic:Legacy, which is kind of an edge case anyway). Or, consider a deck of cards: The semantics of the deck are stable. A heart is always a heart, and related to hearts in one way and to clubs, spades, and diamonds in another way.

When I set out, I had no idea how important it would be to create stability on the table. Betrayal at House on the Hill, my benchmark for tile-laying games (it’s not perfect, but I have never had a bad time playing it), manages this by making the character-ability system stable (you always want to increase, not decrease your abilities, and they only move up or down), and by linking the things that happen on the randomly-generated tile-space directly to the event, object, and omen cards (all of which are very text-heavy, and thus reinforce the game’s other point of stability) and to its theme.

Hyperspace Smuggler’s stability comes from theme (though not nearly as much as in Betrayal), but most importantly, from its card system. Players can draw Hyperspace, Engine, and Laser cards. These cards let them take actions with their ships. Regardless of the tile layout, if you have a hand full of Engines and Hyperdrive but no Lasers, you know for a fact that you are going to be able to zip through space very effectively, and you will be able to withstand attacks not at all. This basic hand-management aspect anchors the game, and makes it easy for players, even those new to gaming, to grasp (playing from a hand of cards is a familiar paradigm to most anyone).

V. Shifting Design Directive

As I tested this game further and further, I realized that it was losing its big-world sense of wonder. I didn’t feel, as I did when I sat down to play Merchants & Marauders, that I could do anything in this broad galaxy. I felt possibilities, I felt tension and wonder, but that feeling of “I can do whatever I want!” was gone. I think that’s okay. The finished (or almost-finished) game is much tighter and leaner than earlier drafts. The portion of my self-assigned design directive regarding simple rules, however, was a huge success. The current rules document is 3 pages, and half of one page is  just re-stating rules that are printed on easy reference cards. This shift led to a re-focusing of the audience: I had always wanted to make a game that was accessible to new players of board games, but now the new player (and the experienced player hoping to rope in new players) became my focus. In short, what began as a medium-weight exploration game became a gateway game.

VII. Wrap Up

Recognizing that the game’s target audience had shifted was difficult to realize, but once I realized it, it made a lot of decisions easy. The most recent part of my design process has been trimming the game: cutting out mechanics that I like, but that would make it harder for new players to grasp. I’ll miss these ideas, but I’m excited to be publishing the game via Kickstarter, because I can bring them back as stretch goals if I get that far. So, in short,

A Short Defense of Negative Feedback Loops

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I. Update

I’m still working on that tabletop game I keep talking about. Soon I’ll have a web link for you, and then (hopefully!) a Kickstarter project page.

Until then, I’m dumping some design journal thoughts here.

II. Negative Feedback Loops

I love negative feedback loops. I want every player to feel the other players nipping at their heels. It makes the game more exciting for me and hopefully for the other players.

The trade-off is that negative feedback loops seem to punish thoughtful players. A game without many negative feedback loops (ala a classic Euro worker placement game) lets players plan well, place their pieces, and reap rewards that increase over time. A player who made bad choices early on has no chance of winning.

I say “seem to” because I argue that a negative feedback loop should be considered in a thoughtful player’s strategy.

III. Consider the Loop

Just as the thoughtful player in our hypothetical Euro game has taken into account resource management, board layout, worker placement, etc. s/he SHOULD be taking into account negative feedback loops that may come into play throughout the game.

If the player does not take these things into account, I have no sympathy for them. I’m not suggesting they have no right to dislike the game, but I do think that negative feedback loops are no less a strategic element than others in a game, and thoughtful players should take them into account.

Violence in games

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I’m still working away on this tabletop game. Its theme is morphing, and its mechanics are streamlining, but one thing that keeps bugging me is that the game has a violent component.

As someone coming out of a pacifist tradition, I find this hard to reconcile. I want to tell a good story, one with conflict and emotional intensity; that’s one thing that games, particularly games involving violence, are good at. But I also don’t want to be complicit in the cultural myth that violence is the only path to excitement, conflict, conflict resolution, etc.

In the game itself, this is still an open question. I haven’t been able to work the violent aspect out of it entirely, and I’m not sure that I want to. I’m working on mechanics and situations that allow for a violent resolution, but ensure that the violent resolution is, more often than not, the most costly and least strategically useful option. For now I’m OK with that.

As I grappled with this, I stumbled across this piece on Board Game Geek: https://boardgamegeek.com/blogpost/36087/morality-war-games

While the writer here is arguing about a slightly different issue, it was encouraging to see someone else in the game-making and -playing community take such an honest look at these things that so many gamers are willing to gloss over.

Stability As a Design Element in Tabletop Games

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I’ve been designing a pirate-themed board game. I have mixed feelings about it (do we really need another pirate-themed board game? Do we really need another semi-simulationist game with a combat mechanic?), but it’s in my craw, so I’m going to work it out by making the game.

The basics are this: The board is not a board, but a bunch of tiles, played face-down as players’ ships move off the edges of the board (ala Betrayal At The House on the Hill). Players can then turn tiles over to search for islands, treasures, other ships, sea encounters, etc.

Making this game has made me realize why so many tabletop games have boards: Boards create stability. In-game text in this game cannot reference set points on the board, because the landmarks (or in the case, sea-marks, I guess) appear in a different place and at a different time each game.

Thus, the stability of the game needs to come from other sources — in this case, primarily numerical distances from the central island, which is visible and placed at the start of the game.

I tend to like tile-placement games; games with less stability than a more “standard” board game. I like the replayabilty and the surprise element that comes from starting with almost nothing on the table at the game’s beginning. The question I ran into while making the pirate game was “How to provide enough stability for the game to run itself without a board?” One easy answer is to assign one player to be the “Dungeon Master,” as in Dungeons & Dragons. This, however, removes a player from play, and requires one player to commit more time and energy to the game. This also breaks some of my unduly idealist notions about games as a self-contained set of rules and items.

I’ll list a few methods of providing game stability below, but mostly as a record for myself, as I may expand on this post later.

Board Games: The board provides stability. No matter what happens as the game plays out, the board is not affected (or affected in small ways) by players’ actions.

Tabletop RPGs (ala D&D): The Dungeon Master or similar entity provides stability by narrating, moderating, and maintaining the situations that occur on the table. This solution, however, eliminates a player, as discussed above.

Betrayal At The House on the Hill: Stability comes from the Event cards, which are fairly text heavy, and allow players to have adventures in the haunted house regardless of how that house is laid out. Most tiles have an Event occurrence, and while the nature of the event is unpredictable, the frequency of events is fairly common.

Carcassone: One of the more elegant instances of non-board stability (at least in the main game — the expansions get a little messier). The stability is supplied by the matching rules: tiles must be laid with like features touching like features, creating a predictable pattern for how the “board” develops as the game plays on.