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!

YTN Episode 017

The 17th Episode of Your Turn Next is now available!

This episode, Ryan and I are joined by Seppy from Fight in a Box games. We kick things off as usual with a brief discussion of the games we’ve been playing, miniatures we’ve been painting, and the games we can’t wait to play next.

The second segment covers our featured games, and this episode we feature:

Our topic segment for the episode looks at coming up with ideas for games versus executing those ideas. We talk about how important (and difficult) a successful execution can be and close the episode with a brilliant new game idea from each of our podcasters.

YTN_AvatarWe’d love to hear from you! Let us know in the comments or via email if you have any topics, questions, or ideas you’d like us to discuss in a future podcast.

The email is: contact@clockworkphoenixgames.com

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.”

YTN Episode 016

The 16th Episode of Your Turn Next is now available!

Wow, the last few weeks have simply flown by. I’ve been busy with AdeptiCon 2016 and with some game development work, so I’m a little later than I meant to be, but I hope you enjoy this new episode of Your Turn Next. This episode, Ryan and I are joined by Tony, and we kick things off as usual with a brief discussion of what we’ve been up to in the world of gaming.

The second segment covers our featured games, and this episode we feature:

Our topic segment for the episode features free rules. We discuss downloadable and print-n-play rules for board games and card games, and we also discuss downloadable rulebooks and stat cards for hobby miniatures games.

YTN_AvatarWe’d love to hear from you! Let us know in the comments or via email if you have any topics, questions, or ideas you’d like us to discuss in a future podcast.

The email is: contact@clockworkphoenixgames.com

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!

YTN Episode 014

The 14th Episode of Your Turn Next is now available!

This is the first episode to use our new format. Starting now, Ryan is the permanent co-host of the show, although you can expect Your Turn Next veterans Tony, Reese, Geordie, and Jess along with new guest podcasters to be joining us in future episodes from time to time. Speaking of which, Jess joins us for this episode as we kick things off with our intro segment where we discuss what we’ve been up to lately in the gaming world.

The second segment covers our featured games, and this episode we feature:

Our final segment covers a gaming topic. This time around, we talk about how having multiple constructed formats with limited selections of cards or models (for card games and miniatures games respectively) can actually help create more choices for players in the long run rather than limiting their choices as it appears at first glance.

YTN_AvatarWe’d love to hear from you! Let us know in the comments or via email if you have any topics, questions, or ideas you’d like us to discuss in a future podcast.

The email is: contact@clockworkphoenixgames.com

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.