GenCon 2016 Recap

It’s hard to believe it’s already been several weeks since GenCon. The show itself was a wonderful whirlwind, and I’ve been just as busy after returning home. I spent my time at the Steamforged Games booth this year chatting with convention attendees and doing preview demos of Shadow Games and Dark Souls: the Board Game.

Shadow Games was my first contract project for Steamforged Games, and I’m thrilled to say that it’s now at the printer to be releasing shortly. Shadow Games is a card game with bluffing elements, filled with opportunities to trick your friends or catch them in their lies. More information will be available as we get closer to the release date, but Team Covenant made a great video introducing Shadow Games to pique your interest.

After our collaboration on Shadow Games went so well, Steamforged Games reached out to me to help develop Dark Souls: the Board Game. Needless to say, I was very excited to be part of this record-breaking board game. The gameplay has evolved a great deal since the Kickstarter campaign, and we rolled out the updated boss fight demo experience at GenCon.

It’s hard for me to put the experience of demoing Dark Souls: the Board Game at GenCon into words. I’ve demoed many games at many conventions for many years, but I’ve never demoed to crowds before. GenCon attendees packed around the demo table, several rows deep where space would allow. The demos themselves were quite interactive with onlookers calling out questions or letting out huge cheers (or groans) at a roll of the dice. We also set up demos for several YouTube channels and blogs. Here are the ones I was able to find. If you also created a Dark Souls: the Board Game video or blog, let me know, and I’ll happily add you to the list.

New Game Smell (Part 3)

A couple of blogs ago, I started a series about how game companies keep things fresh for their existing game lines. The three methods I wanted to focus on in this 3-part series were errata, expansions, and editions. This third blog covers game expansions, a fairly hot topic in the world of gaming.

Many games these days release new editions of their game in some fashion. Games we haven’t seen for decades are showing up on Kickstarter and other crowdfunding platforms after a decade or more of silence. Some of the longest-running miniatures games have released new editions in the past couple of years. And yet other game companies are looking to break the mold of what a new edition looks like.

I had a great deal of involvement in the most recent versions of Warmachine and Hordes. Their new edition has made quite a splash, with a great deal of positive feedback as well as some negative feedback. New editions always invite controversy. No matter how careful a game developer might be, there will be changes that disappoint or upset some subset of their players. BUT… the key is that they generate discussions and shake up the meta. Models that used to be sub-par have a new lease on life while models that used to impress now pale in comparison to other options. This generates new discussions, new army list options, and (most importantly for the game company) new sales.

Some companies use edition “resets” as a means to refresh their catalog, heavily revising their actual product lineup. Other companies pledge to keep all current models available in the future edition. Models might be more or less attractive in the new edition of the game, but all purchases remain an option in theory if not in practice.

Video game companies like Blizzard have long used a system of “dynamic updates” to their games. This allows on-the-fly adjustments to game balance and the rules behind the scenes. Traditional game companies have started to use some of the power and potential of a dynamic update system. The aforementioned Warmachine and Hordes game lines have pledged to begin annual balance updates while games like Guild Ball already introduce a new “season” each year allowing for incremental change that shakes up the meta.

No matter your opinion on new editions of a game, the fact remains that they create an opportunity to reinvigorate a franchise. New editions initiate new discussions which then initiate new sales that allow the game to continue for years to come.

Feel free to share you thoughts on new editions and which companies are making effective use of the edition change cycle in the comments below.

New-Game Smell (Part 2)

In the last blog, I started a series about how game companies keep things fresh for their existing game lines. The three methods I wanted to focus on (in this 3-part series) are errata, expansions, and editions. This second blog is all about game expansions, and for veteran board gamers, card gamers, role-playing gamers, or hobby miniatures gamers, expansion products come as no surprise whatsoever.

Let’s start out by looking at traditional board games, card games, and role-playing games where expanding the product line typically comes in discrete expansion products. A game expansion is certainly a way to reinvigorate a game experience, enhancing the game’s replayability in a big way.

Smash Up makes a great case study for the way an expansion creates new options for players. For those who aren’t familiar, Smash Up is a card game in which you choose two fantasy things (Aliens, Wizards, Dinosaurs, Zombies, etc.) and mix them together to make your deck. This allows you to play fun combinations like Ninja Pirates or Robot Princesses. Straight out of the box, you can create 28 different crazy combinations from the eight core factions. Each expansion adds another four factions, but that increases the number of combinations impressively. One expansion takes you up to 66 combinations, and just one more takes that up to 120. That’s a lot of new potential from a small box of cards!

Expansion content has several great “pros” for a game company. Expansions usually require less time than core games since a lot of the game development, graphic design, production cost analysis, etc. already has a firm foundation from last time. Additionally, the company knows how well the previous game sold, so they’ve got a better idea than usual of how many copies to order from the manufacturer.

On the “con” side, though, each expansion will typically have fewer customers than the last. There are exceptions, of course, but the trend is for expansion sales to taper off over time due to saturation. Game companies can mix things up by introducing big new mechanics or popular licensed properties, but eventually, the well runs dry.

One of the interesting trends for board game expansions in particular is the “expanshalone.” Not exactly an expansion, not exactly a stand-alone game, the expanshalone gives existing players more game content and gives new players a gateway into the game regardless of whether they own the previous game or not. Zombicide is one board game series to use the expanshalone system highly effectively, but it’s popularity is easy to understand. Expanshalones get most of the “pros” while eliminating some of the “cons” of game expansions.

For collectible card games, living card games, and miniatures games, each new card or miniature is essentially a mini-expansion for the game. Some games, like X-Wing, embrace that nature. Each new ship miniature introduces new pilots, equipment, and sometimes whole new game mechanics. More commonly, however, each new card or mini simply provides one more option for players.

In the early days of these types of games, every new card or miniature brings lots of new possibilities to the table. Once you’ve hit hundreds (or even thousands) of options, however, the game begins to creak under its own weight. Getting into the game becomes daunting to prospective players from a gameplay standpoint as well as a financial standpoint.

One method for dealing with this issue is introducing limited formats of some kind like we discussed in Your Turn Next Ep 14. Another method I’ll address in the next blog brings us right back around to our “keeping things fresh” options – edition change. I hope that you’ll stop by again then for the conclusion to the series. Thanks!

New-Game Smell (Part 1)

It’s hard to deny the allure of that “new-car smell,” and I’ve seen plenty of folks take a good whiff of a freshly cracked book for that “new-book smell.” You don’t hear nearly as much about “new-game smell,” but when it comes to gameplay, many gamers are looking for fresh and exciting experiences.

A new game can certainly deliver on that promise, but what about existing games? Hobby miniatures games, collectible card games, dungeon crawl board games, and their digital equivalents frequently require a healthy investment of time and money. Their players don’t want to simply move on to the next game but to enjoy their investment for a long time to come.

Three common ways that publishers reinvigorate their games are errataexpansions, and editions. In Part 1 of this series, we’ll look a bit at errata and how it can breathe new life into a game.

Errata (in the physical game world) or dynamic updates (in the video game world) are fairly common. Such updates to how the game functions shake up the balance of the game and create new room for players to explore. When the top tier models, cards, abilities, or what-have-you are rebalanced, players need to rethink the strategies they’ve grown accustomed to using. It allows new armies, decks, and character builds to rise to the top, and it re-creates that “new-game smell” for the players.

Issuing a new errata document or pushing a new dynamic update to the server is reinvigorating. The Warmachine errata update earlier this year and the Hearthstone dynamic update earlier this week showed similar results. Passionate players flew to their twitter feeds, forums, and podcasts to laud or lament the updated models/cards. Established army/deck archetypes were reconsidered in the new ruleset, and players felt that forgotten rush of discovery. What new possibilities would emerge with these changes to the status quo?

From the outside looking in, such updates might seem problematic. Why make changes that provoke so many complaints and cause so many players to second-guess the game’s developers? The adage “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” comes to mind, here. Some players who had grown a bit bored with the game were upset, and others were excited, but on both sides of the spectrum, those players were engaged with the game. They were enjoying that new-game smell and thinking about what the future of the game would hold.

Before closing, I’d like to briefly address game formats. In many regards, a new format is a type of errata. It changes which game components a player can use and/or changes the path to victory. Regardless, it creates a change to the existing rules of engagement that reinvigorates its gaming community.

The next time you see an errata update, take a quick peek at the community’s response. Whether the words are full of love, hate, or some other emotion altogether, you’re bound to see players who have re-engaged with a game to enjoy that “new-game smell.”

Too Much of a Good Thing?

My last blog talked about the basics of mathematical models and how they can be used in game balance. Almost universally, when players play a game, they’re encouraged to look for “powerful” cards, characters, abilities, etc. to reach certain goals. Even in fully cooperative games, players gravitate to what they perceive as strong and shy away from weaker options.

Since the goal of the game, by definition, is to accomplish the goal of the game, it makes perfect sense for players to seek out the tools that will be most effective at helping them reach that goal. It also makes sense for players to stratify the available options. It even makes sense for them to critique certain options as “overpowered” or “underpowered” when those options continuously rise to the top or fall to the bottom. It also makes sense, however, to dislike a game because it is too balanced.

I’d be willing to bet that most readers have never claimed a game was too balanced or heard other gamers do so, but without some differentiation between the capability of different cards, characters, abilities, etc. in an asymmetrical game, there is very little meaningful player choice. If playing any given card, miniature, tile, etc. in any way it could be played had no net impact on whether a player won or lost the game, the game wouldn’t be enjoyable. There needs to be some differentiation to encourage players to interact with the game, to explore its possibilities.

Too-balanced games aren’t typically criticized for being “too balanced,” though. They’re dismissed as “boring” or as not having “meaningful player choices.” Given that games need some degree of imbalance to be enjoyable, it begs the question “how much is enough?” The answer depends on the game in question.

For casual games, the degree of imbalance should be very small. Games like Lanterns and Sushi Go give players choices, but the difference in score between a player making the right choices and a player making the wrong choices is typically fairly small. Scores are very close, options are narrowly balanced, and that suits these games very well.

For intermediate games, there’s more leeway for imbalance between game components. Players want their various characters, monster races, kingdoms, etc. to feel varied in their strengths and weaknesses. Some might excel slightly or lag behind slightly, but having lots of flavor is more important than perfecting the balance. Plenty of board and card games fall into this middle category, as do most dungeon crawl games and role-playing games.

For hardcore games, the balance pendulum swings back again. If a game has frequent large-scale tournaments, it qualifies as a hardcore game that needs tight game balance. The various games that fall into the category of “esports” certainly fall into this category as do many hobby miniatures games and collectible card games.

With such an emphasis on balance, though, how do such games avoid the trap of being boring?

First off, they recognize that only the top choices truly need that razor’s edge of game balance. In a pool of 100 player options (deck builds, heroes, army generals, etc.), it’s difficult if not impossible to make all 100 choices truly unique and truly balanced. But you only really need the top choices among these player options to have such finely tuned game balance. “Lesser” options should still be interesting, creating more diversity in the game and generating additional appeal for gamers approaching it as an intermediate-weight game rather than jumping into hardcore tournament-style play.

Second, though, they recognize the power of situational effects. If one option is more powerful in certain positions, match-ups, combinations, etc., while another options excels in others, it creates additional depth of gameplay without creating an option that is strictly “more powerful” or “less powerful” than the alternative. Collectible card games embrace this direction. Games like Magic: The Gathering and Hearthstone have plenty of cards that are more or less powerful than other options based on some aspect of the game state – what you have in play, what your opponent has in play, what you have in hand, etc.

Third, they shake things up on a regular basis. New gameplay formats, new releases, new balance updates, and new editions all force players to reassess the strengths and weaknesses of the tools in their toolbox. Sometimes, players resist or even resent changes to the status quo, but those changes are necessary to keep the game fresh and to keep gameplay engaging.

I hope that you’ve enjoyed this look at how a little bit of imbalance is critical for good game balance. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

Getting Started with Mathematical Models

In an earlier blog, I briefly mentioned mathematical models and how they’re a great tool for game development. Some folks are already familiar with mathematical models in the context of gaming. For those who aren’t, however, I’d like to take a look at the basics in today’s blog.

The goal of using a mathematical model during game development is to assist game balance efforts by creating a formula to help determine the value of similar components. Those components are most often cards, but they can also be miniatures, dice, tech upgrades, treasures, or any other game component that we wish to present as a viable option that is not an overpowered option relative to other choices. A good mathematical model behind the game can save a lot of time in the playtest process or even lead to a better balanced final product.

As noted in the asymmetrical game balance blog, not every game has components that need to be balanced against one another. Even for the games that do, some games are a better fit for mathematical modeling than others.

For our look at a few building blocks of a mathematical model, let’s assume we’re talking about a card game with lots and lots of different cards that fight against one another (a very good type of game for which to use a mathematical model). We’ll assume they have some sort of Attack stat, Health stat, and Mana cost. The most basic place to start our mathematical model is with ADDITIVE terms in our formula. We could, for example, say that “Attack + Health = Mana.” It’s not a terrible place to start, and it could even lead to some decent game balance. We don’t typically see games use this as-is, because the in-game math surrounding the Mana resource would become unwieldy for players. Unwieldy math behind the scenes is fine, but not in front of the players.

So let’s add a SCALING term to our formula. Let’s move to “(Attack + Health) x (Scaling Factor) = Mana.” A scaling factor of 50% is a decent starting point. It’ll reduce the mana our players need to track, but it also introduces some new questions. We’ll have to figure out how to handle rounding, for one. We also need to consider whether the game in question values Attack and Health comparably. We might need to go to “(Attack x Attack Scaling) + (Health x Health Scaling) = Mana.” If the game favors min/max-ing your Attack and Health stats on different cards, we could even start squaring, scaling, adding, and then taking a square root, scaling that, and then… hmm… I seem to be getting ahead of myself.

There’s something else to consider in our cost beyond just mana, though. Playing a card costs mana, but it usually also costs a card. Most card combat games allow just a single free card draw per turn, so let’s put an OFFSET into the formula to account for the cost of the card. This brings us to “(Attack + Health – Offset) x (Scaling Factor) = Mana.” Now we’re cooking. For those who are familiar with Hearthstone, consider “(Attack + Health – 1) x 50% = Mana.” Glance through a few Hearthstone cards, and it sure won’t take long to find one that fits this formula.

On the topic of Hearthstone, we know there’s more to a card than just Attack, Health, and Mana, but the tools we used in our foundation of mathematical models will continue to serve us well! Cards with a specific minion type (like Beasts or Dragons) have card synergy that increases their value. Well, let’s just add a “Minion Type Scaling Factor” customized for each Minion type (typically in the 105% to 115% range). Cards that belong to each Class could also have an additional scaling factor by Class (typically 85% to 95%). Then we’ve got abilities. Yikes! Some simply add to Attack or Health, which keeps things simple, but others get quite a bit more complicated. Some are direct damage. Some are conditional increases to Attack or Health or are conditional direct damage. We’ll ultimately need a lot more terms in our formula.

We’ll also need to add quite a few more tools to our toolbox before we’ve got a comprehensive mathematical model for Hearthstone or for our hypothetical card combat game. This gives an idea of how to start the ball rolling and hopefully gives a slightly better idea of what’s going on behind the scenes. By the time I completed my model for High Command, I had dozens of individual terms in my formula, and some of those terms had separate mathematical models generating just one term.

I hope you enjoyed scratching the surface of mathematical models for game development. The next time you look at the numbers on a card, I hope you can catch a glimpse of the mountain of numbers behind those numbers and appreciate how that card came to be.

The Balance of One

Point costs, mana costs, gold costs, resource costs. You don’t need to be a hardcore gamer to be familiar with costing methods for game components. These costs ensure that the more powerful cards (or miniatures or characters or whatever) require more of an investment than the weaker ones. Costs are a critical tool in the game developer toolbox for creating a balanced and fun experience for the players.

A friend recently asked me if there were any miniatures games out there that use a game balance system other than point costs. There are plenty of miniatures games that use some sort of army composition system and/or field allowance system, but those elements are typically built on top of a point scale rather than replacing it. There are also miniatures games that ignore the concept of a balanced battle between two players altogether and therefore have no traditional point system. And there are also a few miniatures games out there in which each different component always costs “1,” and that’s the type of game I decided to write about today.

Such games don’t usually have a printed point cost of “1” on every card, but that’s the gist of the game’s balance. In certain card games, each card has a cost of “1 card.” In online games like Heroes of the Storm or League of Legends, every hero costs “1 hero.” There is no point system to let you know the value of different cards or heroes. They’re all (theoretically) created equal.

My first experience working on a game that used these principles was on the development team for Monsterpocalypse. While the small-based units in Monsterpocalypse had a cost, the monster figures did not. Each monster had a cost of “1 monster.” This style of game balance leads to unique challenges during game development. In most miniatures games, if a particular model is proving a bit strong in playtesting, the development team can simply tweak its point cost up a little, and if it’s proving too weak, its cost can be reduced accordingly. If a monster figure in Monsterpocalypse was performing too well or too poorly, however, a mere cost tweak was not an option. We’d have to look carefully at the stats and abilities to see what we could change there without overcompensating for the imbalance and without altering the intended strengths, weaknesses, and character of that monster.

When creating new content within such a system, it’s also possible to cheat a little bit. In Arena Rex, most models count as “1 combatant,” yet Titans count as 2 instead. In Guild Ball, a team can have six player models. Four of those models have a cost of “1 player,” but the team must have exactly one captain (who is more powerful than the average player) and one mascot (who is less powerful than the average player). Steamforged Games, the makers of Guild Ball, could even switch things up on us by creating a guild in which the average players were slightly weaker, but the mascot’s power was amped up considerably. Alternatively, they could create a guild in which the captain was a weak player who directed the big plays rather than making them himself, allowing the average player power to come up to compensate. At that point, we’d want to look at the balance of “1 team” to “1 team” instead of the more traditional “1 model” to “1 model.”

Card games sometimes include little cheats in a balance-of-1 system as well. Without any sort of cost stat on the card, it might seem that you’re locked into valuing every card as “1 card,” but game developers can use the word “discard” to give some cards a cost of “2 cards” (or more) or can use the word “draw” to introduce the (dangerous) possibility of reducing a card’s cost to “0 cards.”

Granted, using this sort of game balance system doesn’t guarantee good game balance (or bad game balance, for that matter). Whether a game has some sort of balance-of-1 system or a more traditional point, mana, gold, resource, etc. cost system, the actual balance of the game is still in the hands of the game developers and requires a whole lot of testing and analysis along the way to the finished product.