Thursday, January 30, 2014

Working Paper: UNPUB 4 - Post Position

Working papers are where I review lessons learnt to help improve my board game designs and where I publicly brainstorm ideas.  Today I am going to talk about what lessons I learned about my game Post Position at UNPUB 4.

For those of you not familiar with Post Position here is a quick run down of the game.  If you are familiar with the game you can skip to the section titled “Lessons Learnt at UNPUB 4”.

Post Position is a stock market game with a horse racing theme for 3 to 12 players.  The goal of the game is to be the player that earns the most money at the end, although I like to say ‘if you have more than 100 dollars at the end you are a winner, if you have the most money you are the winner.’

Horses are moved five times in the race.  Players move the horses by secretly picking 3 horses on a straightaway and 2 horses on a turn to move.  After everyone writes down the horses they want to move, the orders are stacked in a pile to be read after the stock trading phase.

During a four minute stock trading phase people buy and sell stock with each other in horses. Players take advantage of their inside knowledge of horse movement to find horse stock that is mispriced.  Stock pays a dividend at the end of the race based on where the horse finishes.

Stock in the games comes from two sources.  At the start of the game the bank auctions a single share in each horse. The bank pays dividends to the shareholders who horses place 1st-6th.

The second source of stock isn’t really stock, but a promise by players to pay the stock earnings of a horse at the end of the race.  I call this second source of stock a “short position”.  When I sell a short position share in a horse, say A.A., I am promising to pay the dividend earned by A.A. at the end of the race.  So if A.A. finishes in 4th place, I owe 7 dollars to the person holding the short position share of A.A. that I created.  I make money if I sold the short position share for more than 7 dollars and I lose money if I sold A.A. for less than 7 dollars.

The logic for selling a short position share is the same as selling a share by the bank.  I sell either share types if I think people are overvaluing a horse because it will finish worse in the race than what buyer believes.  I buy either share when I think the horse is undervalued because the horse is going to finish higher in the race than what the seller believes.

The winner of the game tends to be the person who best reads what horses players are moving up and what horses players are moving down.

Lessons Learnt at UNPUB 4

If (people) give you feedback that makes your game a completely different game ignore it, they are only creating their own game.  But, (if) they tell you what aspect of the game they don’t like, take it to heart because now you can start to craft it.

-Chris Kirkman of Dice Hate Me Games on The State of Games Episode 57

The major feedback I received from publishers was the theme did not match the mechanics.

Game Salute was worried people would expect one thing and get another.  With a title and theme like Post Position, people might expect a typical horse racing game only to discover after they start playing they had purchased an intense stock market game.

Or as Bruce from the Party Game cast put it, when you start playing the game the Chainsaw Of Math starts making a soft buzzing sound - Math Math Math Math.  Next thing you know the engine revs up and saws off your legs.

Bruce and Game Salute emphasized that there is nothing wrong with the game having a little math in it.  There are people who like math games and stock games.  The problem is when people expect a gentle bout around the racecourse, and instead discover they are in an intense game of market manipulation.

Eagle Griffin was concerned the theme did not match player actions.  Specifically, his concern centered on the relationship between stock ownership and horse movement.  Since players keep trading stock during the race, the horses players select to move vary based on what horse stock they purchased.  In real horse racing, horses do not do better in a race because people make bets on them.  Yet, this is what happens when people play Post Position.

He brainstormed with me a bunch of different ideas on how to make the theme consentient.  All of his ideas involved a complete retheme of the game to something like commodities or companies.

All of this feedback left me a little shaken.  Half of me went through a brainstorm of finding a new theme that drastically altered the setup of the game.  The other half of me urged restraint, and pointed out how those drastic changes created a whole different game.

At that moment I remembered the previous night when Bruce Vogel said I should make a convention version with My Little Ponies for horses. He envisioned the My Little Ponies being gambled over by a bunch of large leering men smoking cigars in a back room.  And that is when I it hit me… The Mob.  I can solve my theme problem with The Mob.

People already joke at the end game of Post Position when someone went horribly bankrupt that they were going to be tossed into the river. Who does that? The Mob. And who would have the power to rig the horses at the race track? Again, The Mob. So who are the players pretending to be when betting on horses at the race track in Post Position...mobsters.

I can remake the box cover to emphasize money and betting on the box front to clearly communicate the game involves math at the start to players.  I can even show a mobster paying off a jockey to let players know the race is fixed.

I rolled out the changes for my last game test at UNPUB 4.  I explained to players that they were all mobsters betting on horses with each other.  Bets on a horse paid 22 dollars if the horse finished 1st, 19 dollars if it finished 2nd, 16 if it finished 3rd etc. and bets on horses finishing in 7th place or lower paid nothing.  At the start of the race the house auctions off a single bet in each horse, but throughout the race mobsters can sell and buy bets with each other.  When mobsters sell and buy bets they each have some inside information on the horse race because their influence with the jockeys enables them to push a few horses ahead in the race.

So if your question is “oh, so you changed the game?” the answer is no.   I tweaked the theme to make the mechanic easier to pick up and to help new players to get into the game faster.

Tentative results from the first play testing are good.  The UNPUB 4 playtesters found the tweaked theme to be more intuitive.  I am going to formally rewrite the rules to better fit the thematic tweak and I will talk to some past play testers to see if they buy the theme alteration.  If yes, then I will roll out the newly crafted theme for general play testing.

Say (to yourself), somebody had a really negative reaction to that (part of my game), how can I make it better?

-Chris Kirkman of Dice Hate Me Games on The State of Games Episode 57

Friday, January 24, 2014

Classics Lecture Series: Communicating With a Partner Through Game Play - Euchre

Euchre is a Michigan obsession.  At lunch time in high school there were Euchre tournaments in the cafeteria.  I carried a Euchre deck with me when I worked maintenance so we could play Euchre on our federally mandated breaks.  I met my wife in D.C. because she stated in her online profile she was looking for someone to play Euchre with and she spelled Euchre correctly.  Turned out she also had ties to Michigan too.

Why focus on a regional card game popular in the Great Lakes region?  In Euchre, the best players learn to read what their partner is doing without ever exchanging a word or hand signals.  Talking about your hand is illegal during gameplay.  Just imagine playing Pandemic without telling your teammates what you are going to do till after you have done it.  No pre planning.  No verbal hints of what you are about to do and where you are going next.  Only observations of what your teammates are doing on the board to give you any insights of what they are up to.  That is the challenge to the game of Euchre.

Below is a Quick Run Down How to Play If you do not know how to play.  If you do know how to play skip to the heading Euchre Communication.

Euchre is a four player trick taking card game.  You are paired up with a partner who is on the same team as yourself.  Your partner sits across from you and the opposing team players are split with one on your left and one on your right.

In each round 20 of the 24 cards are dealt.  The four remaining cards are placed in the middle of the table and the top card is flipped up.  Starting left of the dealer each player is asked if they want the card to be trump.  If anyone says ‘pick it up’ the dealer puts the card into their hand and then discards a card from their hand.

If the card is not picked up you go around in a circle to ask if anyone would like to call trump.  If everyone passes then the cards are throw in and the next person deals.  Once trump has been set upon the person left of the dealer leads in the first hand.  Players must follow suit of the lead.  Only cards from the same suit as the lead can take a hand (known as a trick in Euchre players) unless trump is played.  The lead changes within the round based on which player played the highest card that took the last trick.

If you and your teammate take all five tricks you earn two points.  If you and your partner take three or four tricks you earn one point if you called trump and you earn two points if the other team called trump.  When you call trump and you lose you have been euchred.  If a player calls trump and announces they are going alone, they play the round without their partner.  If they take every trick that round the team earns four points.  The first team to score ten points wins the game.

Euchre Communication
Communication is key in Euchre.  Without talking to each other you want to maximize the ability of your combined hands to take as many tricks as possible.  The biggest danger is you are going to nullify your partner's good cards by miss playing your own or call the wrong suite for the style of Euchre your partner plays.

To help new players they are taught a set of conservative rules on Euchre strategy.

1. Do not over trump your partner.

2. If you are starting a round lead with your highest non-trump card.

3. Do not draw out your partner's trump if you cannot take enough tricks on your own to win the round.

4. Do not call trump unless you have 3 trump cards and at least one is either the left or right bower.

Notice I did not claim that these rules by themselves always give you your best chance to win.  That is a fallacy perpetuated by even some experience Euchre players who consider it a mortal sin to violate these rules.

There are numerous times in Euchre with experienced players where you should break these rules.

That said, violate these rules as a new player and you risk a tongue lashing from your partner.  (Euchre is a serious game to Michiganders).

Why are these rules so important to new players?  These rules are important to new players, because if you follow them your partner knows what you are doing and can adjust their strategy accordingly.  If you are not taught to play in any sort of pattern your partner has no idea what you are doing and cannot plan any strategy based on your hand contributing to the teams success.

Advance players do not need the four rules.  Advance players learn during a game how to read their partner.

Why can advance players read their partner and not beginners?  Advance players understand enough Euchre strategy to read their partners playing patterns and are much better at counting cards to produce winning combinations.

Advance players, like advance diplomacy players know that the way you play your hand communicates to your partner what is in your hand.  In Diplomacy if you move your ship to the English Channel there is a good chance you are planning an attack on either France or Great Britain.

There are different levels of advance play.  There is the intermediate level of Euchre communication based just on knowing the rules.  Intermediate level of communication does not rely on any knowledge of deep strategy.

Standard strategy dictates that when a non Trump card is led; all the other player plays before you; and everyone has followed the suite that you play a trump card to take the trick.  When you do not trump the suit you are communicating to your partner that either you have no trump in your hand or you have only one trump in your hand that is the highest trump card not yet played.  This information will let your partner reassess their hand strategy to better utilize their own trump cards.

Advance intermediates start counting cards.  They are able to hand off trump to their partner by purposefully playing an off suite they know their partner does not possess.  They also realize that when their partner calls trump and does not lead with either bower that they are missing at least one of the bowers, possibly both.

Advance, not based on player patterns, recognize certain situations, such as trying to stop someone from taking all the tricks and start reading each other’s cards in an attempt to cover as many different suites as possible to increase the likelihood they have the proper suit led to have a chance to take the last trick.

Advance players can adjust how they communicate their cards by identifying the playing style of their partner. Advance players quickly figure out in the first few hands if their partner is a conservative play or an aggressive player.  Does your partner only call trump if they have a loaded hand or are they willing to rely on their partner to pick up a trick or try to win the hand with a bunch of off suites?

Once you figure out how your partner plays Euchre then you can start better utilizing moves to communicate that are appropriate to your partner's strategy.

In Euchre, if your partner calls hearts trump, they think hearts are their best shot of getting points.  Right away you can look at your own hand and think to yourself what do I know about my hand that my partner might find useful to know.

For example, if you have the left or right bower you decide you might want to find a way to let your partner know so they can play their hand more freely.  If your partner is a conservative player and your hand has little value for taking any more tricks you might play your high trump on a low trump to let your partner know its location so they do not feel constrained to act out the rest of their hand.  If your partner is an aggressive player you will only communicate to them you have a high trump if it appears they are not going to be able to take the trick since you cannot risk losing one of their trump cards if they called it on a weak hand.

None of this change in strategy is from talking to your partner.  All of it comes from watching how your partner plays their hands and adjusting how you play your cards.  By reading your partner you are able to more efficiently communicate with just your game play.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

A Dr. Wictz List: 11 Dr. Wictz Highlights from UNPUB4

1. Friday night’s standing ovation for John Moller from designers in appreciation for founding UNPUB.

2. The moment everyone else in the room knew Nick Ferris won the raffle before he did, even though he was holding his own tickets.

3. Almost missing the turn off the highway to UNPUB 4 if not for spotting an UNPUB 3 sign pointing the way.

4. Realizing I was with a group of designers when the free Danish were offered and the roll of tape next to it is selected first for last minute board game prototype repairs.

 5. Bruce H. Voge and Mike Goldman from the Party Game Cast signing a contract stating they must attend the conference debut of an enlarged game of Post Position using My Little Pony plush as figures.

6. Alf Shadownsong becoming a hawker for horses in the back of the race. “I.S for a dollar, I.S. For a dollar. Look! I was selling P.C. for a dollar two turns ago and now it’s in first. the same thing will happen with I.S. It’s a guaranteed winner.”

7. In the same game, total cash held by all players at the end of the game $527, total debt Alf Shadowsong still owed other players at the end of the game, a record breaking $528.

8. “Hey, when did you do that?” --Dr. Wictz
 “Sorry if the game was being played when you weren't looking.” --Other Playtester

9. Meeting and playing Charlie Hoopes’ Firebreak at the most difficult setting with Jeff Watson who has playtested the game over 200 times.

10. Selling my entire orange crop in a future for $4 an orange when each orange was worth $20 while playing Michael R. Keller’s Frozen Concentrated Orange Juice.

11. Having a playtester ask to buy a prototype copy of Post Position to take to conventions.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

UNPUB4 Preview: Ben Rosset

For some reason you are still not yet excited for UNPUB4 ( then you need to check out my next interviewee, the Ben Rosset.  You know...designer of Nevermore Games' Mars Needs Mechanics and Dice Hate Me’s Brew Crafters.  After salivating over what Ben is bringing to UNPUB4 you can also check out my interview with Alf Shadowsong & Kiva Fecteau and Josh Tempkin who will also be demoing their games at UNPUB4.   But enough with this chitter chatter and onto the main attraction.

Dr. Wictz:  Mr. Ben Rosset could you give the readers a quick overview of the games you will be playtesting at UNPUB4?


Ben Rosset: I'm still working on getting 4 or 5 different games ready and not entirely sure what I'll be presenting. I'm working feverishly to have Homebrewers ready. Its a stand alone prequel to Brew Crafters, my upcoming game from Dice Hate Me Games. That's my number one priority right now. I will also be bringing Brew Crafters the Travel Card Game with me. Its a 54-card version of the full Brew Crafters that plays in 20-30 minutes. It was inspired by Dice Hate Me's 54-card Unpub challenge. In non-beer related developments, I may also bring Stranded, a wilderness survival game that I've been working on for a couple of years, as well as Building the British Royal Navy, an auction game about building ships for the British Navy in the 19th century.
Dr. Wictz: From my understanding only Stranded has been presented at other UNPUB events, how has Stranded changed since you started presenting it at UNPUB events?
Ben Rosset:  I've recently redesigned the way players gather resources in Stranded. I'm very excited about the changes I've recently made and looking forward to getting it in front of a few publishers.
Dr. Wictz: What inspires the themes in the games you are taking to UNPUB4?
Ben Rosset: I'm always inspired by topics that interest me or by everyday events. For Stranded, I was camping with friends, and we got on the topic about surviving in the woods if we somehow got lost. Building the British Royal Navy was really inspired by my old Axis and Allies days. I've always had an interest in the history of the British Navy. And Brew Crafters (and all the derivative games) was originally inspired by a tour I took of Dogfish Head Brewery in 2012.
Dr. Wictz: How did you get into designing board games?
Ben Rosset: I was hanging out with a good friend who I played games with all the time, and he was showed me a game that he and a couple other friends started working on. I thought that was the coolest thing---up until then I had never thought about designing my own games. I went home that night and started thinking about ideas. That was about 6 years ago. I've been a designer ever since.
Dr. Wictz: Why do you love making board games?
Ben Rosset: First, I love the challenge of seeing what I can create. This is my creative outlet. I don't paint, draw, dance, or write, etc. So designing games for me is a way to engage the rational side of my brain, but also to balance it out with the creative side. To put it succinctly: It makes me happy.
Second, I love sharing what I've created with other people.
Dr. Wictz: You have attended a number of UNPUB conventions, what is your favorite moment from a past UNPUB?
Ben Rosset: At UNPUB 2 (January 2012), a playtester bought my prototype from me on the spot because he loved it so much. That was really cool. Its part of what gave me confidence that I was a good designer.
Dr. Wictz: How does UNPUB compare to other game conventions you have attended?
Ben Rosset: UNPUB is so focused on unpublished games, so its very different from everything else. The great part about UNPUB is the opportunity to connect with other designers and publishers, people really engaged in the industry. Its an intimate affair (even though its growing rapidly, which is great).
Dr. Wictz: What draws you the most to UNPUB?
Ben Rosset: Hungry, motivated people attend. Hungry designers and hungry publishers. Its a great match.
Dr. Wictz: Any shout outs to your most dedicated game testers (cough  cough, wife, gf, etc.)?
Ben Rosset: I had a lot of wonderful playtesters for Brew Crafters, but the game was immeasurably helped by Kevin Barefoot, Lauren Kologe, Eric Handler, Clyde Wright, and Chuck Hughes. I can't thank them enough.  I'd also like to give a shout out to the Table Treasures Game Design Group in the Baltimore/Washington DC area. I probably wouldn't have 2 published games today without them.
Dr. Wictz: Thank you very much for talking to me today.  If you want to learn more about Ben Rosset and his games you can follow him on twitter @BenRosset or connect with him on Boardgamegeek: user name rosset37 .