Prototyping

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Prototyping

Postby Groovy » Oct 31 2014, 6:30

Last Saturday, after weeks of hard work, I have manufactured enough of the game components to start play testing it. I've since played a game with a neighbour on Sunday, and with my work colleagues on Tuesday. Neither game was ideal - they explored the map either too timidly or too aggressively, and as a result didn't even see some of the core features in action. What the games did reveal, however, was that the game progression is too slow. This is partly due to the complexity of game rules, but is exacerbated by map fragment size and resource distribution.

4x4 map fragments are too big. When they are turned over, it takes a while to resolve all the random events that they contain before the player can resume exploration. I was going to replace them with 3x3 fragments for symmetry reasons, but wanted to try out my existing map before discarding it. This just confirms that 3x3 fragments are the way to go.

HoMM-like map resource distribution, where resources are sprinkled all over the map, doesn't work in the tabletop setting. It takes too long to place all the resources on the map and then remove them, especially considering their rather limited value. I've decided to replace them with several big and well defended piles of resources.

One of the players also suggested implementing randomised monster movement across the map. My knee-jerk reaction is no, since monsters guard important map locations that can give players a significant advantage when claimed, but I'm curious whether it would be workable in the tabletop setting, where I think randomness has traditionally been a force to contend with much more than in the electronic one.
Last edited by Anonymous on Nov 13 2014, 19:28, edited 1 time in total.

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Postby Panda Tar » Oct 31 2014, 10:47

Well, a monster can guard a small area, a 3x3 area then, some monsters that is. They might roam around, but I'm not sure about all the map.
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Postby Groovy » Oct 31 2014, 19:13

While I was busy making the cards and tokens for the game, it became clear to me that the whole game is much too big to be sold as a single complete package. Each faction will have about 25 unit types, each of which will require a card and multiple tokens to enable players to play with multiple units of the same type. I'm currently using 4 tokens per unit type, which looks like the bare minimum for two-player games. Each faction will also have 15-20 buildings, which also require a card each. There are also non-faction-specific cards, for neutral buildings, units and war machines. And tokens, for races, war machines, effects, resources, faction symbols and counters. With 12 factions, this adds up to over 500 cards and 2000 tokens. And this is only for the basic game features - no heroes, artefacts, etc.

So how should the game be packaged? I can think of the following:
  • Sell each faction separately from the neutral stuff, which can be labelled as the core game that needs to be supplemented with two factions to play. This would be the most flexible option because people could choose exactly the factions they want to play. The downside would be that they might not realise that the core game is not playable on its own, or they might supplement it with the exotic factions, which cannot be used to start the game
  • Sell the neutral stuff and the 4 core factions as a unit (core game), and each of the remaining factions as a separate expansion. People might end up having to buy a few factions they don't want, but they can't go wrong with buying the core game
  • Sell the neutral stuff and the 4 core factions as one unit (core game), the 4 expanded factions as the first expansion, and the 4 exotic factions as the second expansion. The simplest and the least flexible option

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Postby Groovy » Nov 13 2014, 20:10

I finished making a new map with 3x3 fragments and concentrated resources over the weekend, and play tested it. It worked like a charm. Both the initial setup and the turn-by-turn progression were significantly faster. The new game pacing can easily accommodate the complexity of the game, which is good news because I still want to add a lot of features.

I was also curious to see how the endgame would unfold in terms of micromanagement load on the player. So far it looks promising. A combination of resource and creature availability has been effective at keeping it low. Low-level units literally become useless once higher-level ones (level gap 2+) become available. Their growth outstrips that of resources, so the player has to choose quality over quantity in order to remain competitive.

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Postby Groovy » Nov 21 2014, 18:08

Just came back from a two-day conference where I used my evening for more prototyping. :D

One thing I’ve discovered is that the number of tokens available for each unit is an important restriction that significantly influences strategy. Because each unit only has 4 tokens, careful creeping soon leads to the situation where more townsfolk units are available for recruitment than there are tokens to represent them with. This means that players have to make capturing dwellings and lairs a priority, sometimes accepting combat losses for the sake of faster creeping. It also means that the Alpine townsfolk unit lineup, whose single Axeman unit is equally adept at melee and ranged combat, is not necessarily an advantage. It can lead to faster creeping initially due to it being able to fulfil both roles, but slower after the first week, when other factions are able to field additional 4 units.

Another thing I’ve discovered is that non-standard unit resource cost can be a major advantage. The Homestead faction has defeated the Barbarian faction for two games running because they were able to mobilise Stone Gargoyle units, whose resource cost is in stone rather than food. The availability of food was the limiting factor for the size of both armies, so being able to recruit strong units for something other than food proved decisive.

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Postby Panda Tar » Nov 21 2014, 19:33

I believe many other things will come forth in due course, as usual. Hopefully they won't be hard to address to if they happen to cause problems with play-ability.
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Postby Groovy » Dec 2 2014, 20:51

The latest dilemma: how to deal with composite units that are made from two or more non-townsfolk creatures? The challenge is that, in any town, only one race of creatures is guaranteed to be there - the townsfolk. All the others come from the countryside. In a Castle, for example, only Humans are guaranteed to be available in every game. This means that a unit like the Knight, which consists of a Human and a Horse, has a 1 in 3 chance of being available in a typical game, because these are the odds of finding a Horse lair on the map. A unit like the Griffin, on the other hand, has a 1 in 9 chance of appearing, because both Eagles and Cats need to be found in the countryside. I think that these odds are too low to warrant including such composite units in the lineup (feel free to disagree!).

One solution is to simply drop such units from the game. Not keen on doing that as they include many classics (like the Griffin).

Another solution is to find a way to make certain non-townsfolk races readily available in towns. I think this is the most obvious approach, so I'm open to suggestions here.

Still another approach is to allow for multiple ways of turning creatures into units. For example, allow Cats to fuse with either Eagles, Rocs or Angels to form Griffins. The downside is that both Rocs and Angels are more powerful than Griffins, so no one in their right mind would want to do this. A way out that occurred to me today is to break up creatures when forming units. For example, allow an Angel to detach her wings to make the Paladin, and then use the detached angel wings instead of an Eagle to make the Griffin. In other words:

Paladin = Angel without wings + resources
Griffin = angel wings + Cat + resources OR Eagle + Cat + resources

What do you think?

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Postby Groovy » Dec 2 2014, 20:58

Panda Tar wrote:Well, a monster can guard a small area, a 3x3 area then, some monsters that is. They might roam around, but I'm not sure about all the map.

I haven't figured out a way to restrict monster movement to a specific area, but it occurred to me that we can distinguish between roaming and sedentary monsters. Sedentary monsters would be assigned guard duty for important map locations, and would be as tough as their job required. Roaming monsters would be weaker, and basically just be there to spice up the game and make the players' lives more difficult. The distinction between them would be marked on the map at design time.

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Postby Panda Tar » Dec 3 2014, 16:19

Groovy wrote:The latest dilemma: how to deal with composite units that are made from two or more non-townsfolk creatures? The challenge is that, in any town, only one race of creatures is guaranteed to be there - the townsfolk. All the others come from the countryside. In a Castle, for example, only Humans are guaranteed to be available in every game. This means that a unit like the Knight, which consists of a Human and a Horse, has a 1 in 3 chance of being available in a typical game, because these are the odds of finding a Horse lair on the map. A unit like the Griffin, on the other hand, has a 1 in 9 chance of appearing, because both Eagles and Cats need to be found in the countryside. I think that these odds are too low to warrant including such composite units in the lineup (feel free to disagree!).

One solution is to simply drop such units from the game. Not keen on doing that as they include many classics (like the Griffin).

Another solution is to find a way to make certain non-townsfolk races readily available in towns. I think this is the most obvious approach, so I'm open to suggestions here.

Still another approach is to allow for multiple ways of turning creatures into units. For example, allow Cats to fuse with either Eagles, Rocs or Angels to form Griffins. The downside is that both Rocs and Angels are more powerful than Griffins, so no one in their right mind would want to do this. A way out that occurred to me today is to break up creatures when forming units. For example, allow an Angel to detach her wings to make the Paladin, and then use the detached angel wings instead of an Eagle to make the Griffin. In other words:

Paladin = Angel without wings + resources
Griffin = angel wings + Cat + resources OR Eagle + Cat + resources

What do you think?


I would be more inclined to find another way to make units readily available, given that fusing or breaking units apart might make the game full of details that might not be that fun or necessary, imho.

Perhaps, in each 3x3 area or any other place you have in mind, your town could donate, plus a great deal of resources, "to the wild" - maybe limiting it a bit regarding terrains (not going to donate a portion of a river to have a horse lair, for example). You can only donate 1 area for every 3x3 explored terrain under your domain.
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Postby Groovy » Dec 13 2014, 10:19

I have been pondering our unit designs and evaluating them against both the game vision and what I’ve learned through prototyping. I’ve come to the conclusion that they are suboptimal. They largely continue in the tradition of existing games like HoMM and don’t fully leverage the features of our game.

Firstly, the prototyping. What I have found is that some rather simple unit attributes have a lot of influence on combat. For example:
  • Defence. Because damage = attack - defence, increasing defence by a single point can be very significant. If four Bowmen (attack = 2) are brought to attack a Swordsman (defence = 1, health = 4), they will take it out from a distance without it getting a chance to retaliate. If that Swordsman is standing on a hill (+1 defence), however, the Bowmen will be unable to even damage it. Encountering units that their armies cannot damage is a major challenge for players that forces them to formulate alternative strategies
  • Cost. Based on how the game is currently balanced, army size is initially limited by creature availability, and later on by resource availability. Unit lineups with more diverse resource costs that minimise resource bottlenecks have a clear advantage over more homogeneous ones by simply enabling the player to spend more resources to recruit more troops. Because most units are made of flesh and cost food to recruit, having more wood/stone/iron units in the lineup than the enemy can be a game-winning advantage
  • Type. The purpose of unit types is to enable diverse units to be used for the same specialised purpose. For example, the cost of the Launcher war machine is 4 worker-type units and 4 wood. Any combination of worker-type units will do, say 2 Orcs and 2 Goblins. Being classified as workers gives these units a new lease on life in the game, because it allows level 1 creatures, which are obsolete in the later stages of the game, to be used to produce level 3-4 units, which are powerful.
The bottom line is that some of the most effective ways to make units distinctive and valuable is to tinker with their basic attributes. This can be more effective than adding complex abilities.

Now for the game vision. I haven’t formulated a vision specifically for the tabletop version of the game, so I’ll draw on the PC one. Here, the pertinent goal was one of maximising the strategic possibilities, with the motto:
  • There is more than one optimal way to play the game
  • There is no shortage of viable options in any situation
  • No item is worthless
This was to be achieved through interdependency of different game items – creatures, buildings, resources, terrain, etc. Ideally, everything would depend on everything else. The extent to which we can achieve this in the tabletop setting is obviously more limited than on the PC, but I think it’s still workable.

Putting the two together, I think I have hit upon the optimal way to design units. I’ve already mentioned it briefly in an earlier post, but I think it’s both important and challenging enough to describe it in some detail. The approach is that of making individual unit abilities very limited, but designed to synergise with the abilities of other units to produce progressively greater effects.

For example:
  • Give one unit the ability to cast the Mythril Armour spell, which gives the target unit magical armour
  • Give another unit the ability to strengthen the armour of all units wearing it, thereby increasing their defence. This produces an additional effect that would not have been produced had the first unit not cast its spell
A more intricate example:
  • Give a unit an ability to mimic the abilities of other units
  • Give a unit an ability to share its abilities with other units
  • Give a unit an ability to spread an effect (that has been produced by someone on the map) to other units
Then have lots of units with very simple abilities that end up being spread far and wide by these master manipulators.

Magic The Gathering card trading game has lots of examples of card synergies that follow these principles.

How to do this within factions and across factions?
  • I would design lots of units within each faction that follow the faction themes (reptiles and poison for Reptilian, armour and lightning for Alpine) and reinforce each other’s skills related to these themes
  • I would also design a handful of units that can amplify their effects, but are not tied to their specific themes (such as the generic master manipulators from the example above).
  • Lastly, I would design some units that don’t follow their faction’s themes, but instead synergise with the corresponding units from other factions. The obvious candidates are creatures, such as Dragons and the Morg, that are used by every faction

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Postby Groovy » Jan 2 2015, 18:45

It has just occurred to me that the tabletop setting, with its limit on the number of available unit tokens, naturally favours diversity. Finding another town of the same type as the first one just makes the same units available again. In HoMM, this was a massive advantage because the troops from the two towns could be stacked together into a single combined army. In Heroic, it is a massive disadvantage because the troops from the two towns are subject to the same restrictions on token availability, to the point where the second town might not be able to contribute anything to the army.

I haven’t yet made a map with neutral towns, so I haven’t been able to verify the above analysis, but I’m pretty sure that diversity will be naturally favoured by players. With this in mind, I’ll design hero skills to boost the surrounding units based on specific patterns – their race, equipment, constitution – without worrying that these might promote sameness in the army makeup.

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Postby Groovy » Jan 2 2015, 18:49

I have just played the most miserable game of Heroic thus far. Humans had some bad luck in drawing opposing neutrals and ended up with some pretty tough opposition early on. They took as long to break through this stranglehold as the Barbarian army did to clear the rest of the map.

The problem is that most of the countryfolk level 1 units are too weak to be useful against anything stronger than other level 1 units. They end up not being used as a result, leaving the townsfolk units to do all the fighting until level 2 units become available. When level 2 dwellings and lairs are strongly defended, as was the case in this game, the townsfolk efforts become hopelessly drawn out.

Barbarians neatly avoid this problem by having their level 1 animals (Wolf and Spider) combine with Orcs to produce level 2 units (Wolf Rider and Spider Rider). Humans can do the same if they find Eagles on the map (to produce level 2 Longbowmen), but not with any other level 1 animal or countryfolk creature. This leaves them vulnerable to unlucky dice rolls.

This brutally educational game has made me realise two things:
  • It is not practical to have a large number of low-level units. They all need to be made relatively strong to ensure that they are useful, which makes it difficult to differentiate them
  • Designing units in isolation from other game features doesn’t work well. The result is a unit lineup that is generally fun to play, but definitely below the game’s potential

To overcome this, I’m going to apply the spell design philosophy to unit training as well. For this to happen, I’m going to need creatures to produce a wide variety of effects and not just be trained into units. These effects can then be combined in various ways with a select group of creatures to produce the faction’s unit lineup.

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Postby Groovy » Jan 9 2015, 7:07

With all the time I’ve spent working on the Sylvan faction during the holidays, I thought I’d be finished with it by now. But I keep getting outlandish new ideas that require me to make revisions. Taking a holistic approach to faction design is also many times more work than designing units, etc in isolation, as I have to pay attention to how they all interact with one another, as well as introduce game features that I was originally planning to leave until much later. So, with no end in sight, I’ve decided to share what I’ve done so far before continuing to expand and refine it.

My redesign efforts are centred on the faction unit lineups. This is where prototyping has revealed serious weaknesses in addition to the generally below par gaming experience.

Unit lineups were designed with the assumption that the map would make a dwelling and a lair of each level available to each faction. These would supply the creatures that the towns need to develop. Some smaller maps may omit higher-level creatures, but the progression in levels up to this cap would still hold. The key requirement for these structures is that they increase the power of the town so that its troops can continue to explore the map at an optimal rate – neither getting bogged down by more powerful neutrals nor breezing through them.

In the previous iteration, I designed all the creatures from all these structures to serve as troops. It basically amounted to taking the HoMM creature lineup, moving creatures beyond level 1 from towns to external dwellings, and randomly populating each dwelling from a pool of three candidates. Unfortunately, this has created many troops, particularly in lower levels, that weren’t useful.

The approach that I’m taking now is to design only some of the creatures to serve as troops, while others provide different kinds of benefits. I’ve realised that, for town power to grow at the optimal rate, it is sufficient that only one of the two creature buildings (dwelling and lair) furnish the necessary troops; this leaves the other one free to focus on various other benefits.

One pitfall that I had to watch out for is designing dwellings and lairs so that each supplies a portion of the troops. Say that 2/3 dwelling creatures and 2/3 lair creatures serve as troops, while the remaining creature from each structure provides other benefits. The problem with this approach is that the player might get unlucky and end up with the one creature from each structure that doesn’t give him troops. In this event, his army strength would not grow to the next level, and he would struggle against higher-level neutrals on the map. My goal is to rely on randomness to influence how players progress through the game, not whether they progress. No matter how unlucky a player gets, he should always have some options at his disposal. Hence the decision to dedicate one of the two structures to troops.

Another change I’ve introduced is a distinction between creatures and races. I’ve used the terms interchangeably in the past. Now, with some creatures not serving as units, I think it’s useful to introduce them as a distinct game item for the purpose of faction lore. Otherwise there’d be nothing to differentiate these creatures from one faction to another. I still need to figure out what attributes they will have, if any.

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Postby Groovy » Jan 16 2015, 5:29

Hard at work playtesting the game during December holidays.

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Postby Panda Tar » Jan 25 2015, 15:45

That looks so nice! :)

Hope you all had some fun.

I found this pic while looking for Necropolis possible would be grim reaper. I thought this one was a rather nice concept for an undead unit. It follows the idea of the War Chariot, hohoho.
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Postby Groovy » Jan 25 2015, 19:28

A nice one! I've saved it for potential future use. It might not be for Grim Reaper, though. This is because my Grim Reaper is an angel, and as such would presumably not be travelling in a horse-drawn chariot.

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Postby Panda Tar » Jan 26 2015, 12:02

These pieces you used for the table, hm, board? What is it? Card paper?
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Postby Groovy » Jan 26 2015, 15:18

Cardboard from Kalahari postal packages. Kalahari is a local equivalent of Amazon.com. It's not ideal, but it works well enough for now.

The cards, tokens and counters are made from cereal boxes.

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Postby Panda Tar » Jan 26 2015, 15:59

Hm, so you print on normal paper and glue on those cards, yes?

The appearance, from this far in that photo, is quite good. :)
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Postby Groovy » Jan 26 2015, 16:24

Yes, it's a print-and-glue job. It looks very much like a homemade effort up-close, but it's adequate for now.

The cards, tokens and counters look much better, because the cardboard is not visibly corrugated.


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