30 Jun 2014
June 2014 - Tabletop Diagnostics

Welp, in keeping with this year's looser guidelines, I decided to spend this month working on something that wasn't exactly a game, but definitely something I needed to spend some time on, even if it turned out to not be any fun at all, because it needs to be done. For this month's optional theme of "Doctor," I did some diagnostics, some exploratory surgery, and possibly a little Frankenludology. I took three tabletop games I've created for One Game a Month over the past year and a half or so, and with the benefit of hindsight, more experience, more knowledge, and some playtesting, tore them apart to see if they could be put back together in better form, or if they're better off in pieces.

So this is the Tabletop Diagnostics Project.

Fated Duel

A Brief Review

Fated Duel was my 1GAM project for May 2013. Anyone interested can see the original post and game version over here, but the short version is Fated Duel is a two-player card game based on the theme of masters of various forms of physical combat meeting to battle each other, not for any gain, but simply to test themselves against some of the few people in the world who might be able to beat them. Each player uses cards and a few basic actions to engage in a cycle of defend-draw-maneuver-attack until one opponent takes too many wounds and is defeated. A match consists of three battles, and in the intervals between them, the players use their wounds as the currency to engage in a simple deck-building phase, allowing them to remove cards from their combat decks and add new cards from a training deck.

I just got the basic ruleset and cards done before the deadline the first time around, and barely had time to run through some matches on my own, so I knew this had all kinds of potential issues. The first job this month was to revisit Fated Duel with fresh eyes, print some cards, and start testing.

Fiddly Mechanics and Unitaskers

I choose to take it as a good sign that when looking back on a project from a year ago, I immediately see things that obviously need to be fixed. For one thing, there were some numbers that just simply didn't need to be there. Each combatant had a Speed value that served as a bonus to maneuver rolls and to determining which player went first in each battle, but each combatant also had an Agility stat. Worse, the Speed values and Agility stats were linked during design, so combatants with high Agility also had high Speed. So that's pointless. Speed is removed, and the mechanics involving Speed were adjusted to be based on Agility instead.

Similarly, each combatant had both a Power stat and a Wound limit, or how many Wounds they could take before being defeated. Since Wounds also became the Wisdom that each player used during the training phases, having a lower Wound limit also made it harder for that player to buy cards. The idea at the time was that this would be balanced by how powerful the trainable cards were for combatants with low Wound limits. This was a crazy notion — it would never be balanced. So, Wound limit was removed as a combatant stat, and all combatants gained a static wound limit of 7.

There were other changes here and there on the first reading, but then it was time to get to the real test...


You just need some basic card sleeves, any appropriately-sized playing cards that can at least temporarily be repurposed, and blank paper. Either print out your cards, or write out the important information by hand, and cut the paper to size and put it in each sleeve with a backing card. Now you have prototype cards that you can shuffle and deal easily, while still being able to pull out each card and mark it up and/or replace it as needed with minimal effort. This was a requirement for testing this game, since the prototype had four combatants, each of which has its own unique 53 card deck. So, cards were printed, decks were built, games were played.

Numbers are Hard, Apparently

The next issue was one that I've sinced learned to avoid, and just needed to go back and review this game with the new information in mind. Dice probabilities are not to be estimated and hand-waved. Fated Duel was originally based on a d6 roll with bonuses on each attack/defense. Nowadays I run all my dice planning through the fantastic AnyDice, so I know exactly how much a +X bonus is worth when two players roll against each other in various combinations. So when it was relatively easy to get a +3 advantage, on a contested d6 roll, that made it all but guaranteed that whoever had the bonuses on a roll would win. Long story short, the entire attack/defense bonus system was completely reworked, and the base character stats were all re-centered to lower values. Even with those changes, I also tried playtesting with d6 and d8 rolls, and I ended up deciding that the increased role of luck from using a d8 instead of a d6 was worth it, if it also kept things from feeling too pre-determined. I suspect the results could still use work, but they're better, and each playthrough was improving.

Ludonarrative Dissonance, Killing My Darlings, and Other Smartypants Words

Don't get me wrong; I love some smartypants words, but I get nervous when I start to type something like "ludonarrative dissonance." But really, that was one of the basic problems of the game. Players were thematically told one thing, then incentivized to do the opposite. Specifically, they were told to avoid taking Wounds, and then the training phase used Wounds, represented as cards and now flipped over to convert them into Wisdom, as the currency to improve their decks. This was done by design and with good intent, serving as a catch-up mechanic. The player who lost each battle had more currency to improve their deck.

The issue was that if a player had a significant lead, it was in their best interest to refrain from attacking until they had taken more Wounds, so they would have more currency in the training phase. This leads to an unacceptable situation, where one player simply feels toyed with when they have little hope of a successful comeback. Also, since the third battle is all-or-nothing, players actually had an incentive to lose the first two battles, giving them the maximum possible training currency on their way to the final battle. To hopefully combat this, I revised the rules to give each player a specific motivation for winning each battle (removing a dangerous card from their deck that can't be removed by any other means), and gave each player the ability to yield on their turn, so if they feel they're being farmed for resources, they can concede the battle and move immediately into training. I also included a rule to prevent a dominant player from feeling unduly punished by guaranteeing that they have at least 4 wisdom in the training phase, even if they took fewer than 4 wounds in the preceding battle.

This also led to a sad moment. There's a little nugget of writing advice that's been passed around for a century or so and attributed to many people along the way — Kill Your Darlings. In short, sometimes you'll create little moments that you love, a bit of dialogue or description or a turn of phrase that just came out perfectly and did exactly what you wanted, and the only problem is that it doesn't work at all in context. For whatever reason, it doesn't work, and you can't fix it as long as you're hung up on that little gem and trying to change everything else to make it fit. Painful though it may be, it has to go. Kill your darlings.

The Wound/Wisdom mechanic was my darling here. I loved how it captured the theme of the game, giving purpose to your battles beyond simple victory and defeat, while also providing a useful catch-up mechanic. Being dealt Wound cards to track damage, then symbolically flipping your Wounds over after each battle to gain Wisdom from them, was perfect. It was also just extra fiddly things to lay out in play, and once I realized that any mechanic allowing a player to gain Wisdom without a Wound was unlikely to ever be immune from exploitation, converting Wounds to Wisdom became purely cosmetic, and added nothing mechanically to the game. It was easier for Wounds to just be tokens, which were then used as currency during training. The whole training system still needs work, but it's better without just being more cards to keep up with. I'll miss you, Wisdom cards.

The Verdict

Fated Duel had several over-arching revisions during this analysis,and at last count I'd made 57 unique revisions to the rules and cards. It's much tighter, better balanced, and less fiddly than before. That said, I'm still not sure it's any good. At one point during a playtest fight, I realized the creeping feeling I was trying to ignore was boredom. That's never a good sign. I'm resigning myself to the notion that Fated Duel is an interesting experiment that I've learned a ton from, and parts of it may end up repurposed later in some other project, but I think it may be as good as it's getting for now.


A Brief Review

I created d4dead in December 2013, and in doing so broke a couple of my own rules — no straight-up shoot-and-kill mechanics, and no zombies. That was a difficult call, but it also allowed me to experiment with something I thought would be interesting enough to justify the deviation: adapting an existing action-based video game to tabletop format while trying to preserve the theme and feel of the original game. The source game in this case was Left 4 Dead, and my original write-up about it goes into plenty of detail about how I tried to cram a cooperative FPS into a cards-and-dice tabletop game.

Overall I felt like this had worked out fairly well, and then right before the start of this month, I had an opportunity to put together a proper prototype and get some of my guinea pigs gaming group to try it out.

Actual Playtesting!

The playtest went almost troublingly smoothly, in that very few things had to be clarified and adjusted along the way. The mechanics were working as intended, with the players forced to almost constantly make decisions about how best to deal with a threat that was sometimes easily managable and other times seemed dangerously close to game-breakingly unbalanced. I knew from experience DM'ing tabletop RPGs where I wanted the group to be, and they spent a satisfying amount of time right where I wanted them — thinking they were in imminent danger of dying, talking about how best to deal with the situations, and then not dying. Good times.

That said, there were some revisions that needed to be made, and some others that still might improve the game but which I haven't pulled the trigger on. Heh, it's a gun pun. How drole. Anyway, the major lessons from the playtesting were fairly specific in their targes and effects:

I pretty significantly underestimated how much time would be eaten up by the housekeeping and decision-making processes during play, so what was intended to be a game that, once learned, was playable in an hour or less was on track to take maybe 3 hours. The game had two types of Locations where the players could find themselves - basic Locations, and Challenges. There was already guidance in the rules to adjust the game's difficulty by changing the number of Challenges in the deck, so I just added new wording to limit the number of non-Challenge locations to 20. This reduces the overall length of the game by about half, which should bring it more in line with my intent.
When zombies swarm the survivors, a d4 roll determines where each one moved. I knew this could get cumbersome if a large swarm occurred and offered suggestions for speeding it up in the rules, but it still took too long. I revised the rules to be slightly more involved, but they now allow up to 4 zombies to be assigned at a time, significantly speeding things up at the cost of a little more complexity, which I think was worth it.
Another thing slowing the game down was that when the group scavenged for supplies, it was a group decision and action. Group turns only occur when the group wasn't in immediate danger, and scavenging as your group action means you're not moving forward to the next location, or in other words, it requires delaying the game. Scavenging was changed to an individual action - if the group thinks their best bet is to have one person (or more) looking for supplies while the rest are fighting, that's a decision they should be able to make, and now they can.
The Big Goodbye
The group can't split up. They either stay put together, or move forward together. However, it's possible for a group to get into a situation where their best chance of survival as a group is to leave someone behind. To avoid making the mechanics hopelessly complicated and/or turning this into a board game or something similar, the group has a second option instead of moving forward together - players may choose to target another survivor with an attack. You can't leave any living person behind, but now the rules accomodate the group deciding how to interpret that statement.
Horror Difficulty
This is the big one I haven't committed to yet. The four types of Horrors, overall, were not as threatening as I'd hoped. Large swarms of regular zombies did more damage to the group than the horrors did. However, this may in part be just luck of the draw. My players had some uncanny luck with having Horrors appear at times when they were nearly or entirely alone, with no zombies to divide the group's attention, and they were easily burned down. Some tuning may be needed there, but I haven't made any changes as of yet for fear that the game could end up being too difficult unless the group has a run of good luck.

The Verdict

I'm still pretty happy with this one, mechanically and thematically, and the group seemed to enjoy it as well. Of course, this is the one game that I have no chance of moving forward with unless I totally re-theme it, but that's okay. It's a fun project, and maybe it'll see some more playtime at some point.

Didn't You Say Three Games?

Why yes, yes I did. My third game that I re-examined this month is something I'd worked on a few times last year, but which had never made it past the brainstorming and planning phase for several reasons. The biggest problem was that it would have required an unreasonable number of cards for a one-month project (it was looking like 600+ to execute the design properly), and even if I could make that happen, with no art or niceties of any kind, balancing, prototyping and playtesting it was totally out of the question. Now, looking at it with a fresh perspective and a much greater knowledge base, I've got the same theme and basic mechanics, now in a tighter and more streamlined form, and in a way that I think still captures the same idea but currently only requires about 140 cards. So that game may get a proper fleshing out and prototyping in the near future.

The Diagnosis

So that's how I spent my dev time this past month. Not exactly a game so much as a game-related project, but good experience and skills to learn, and encouraging to see that my game from 6 months ago seemed to be in much better condition in several ways than my game from a year ago. Maybe I really am learning some things here.