Wednesday, September 08


Thunking Out Loud

About a year ago, when I frequently found myself working through the night doing system maintenance, I signed up for three online games: Billy vs. Snakeman, Tribal Wars, and some fantasy role-playing game whose name escapes me.

Within a few weeks I abandoned two of them.  Tribal Wars because it's a zero-sum game: Beyond a certain point you can only advance by destroying other players and ruining their day.  And the forgotten FRPG because it was kind of dull - not only did you not have to worry about being wiped out by other players, you hardly even had contact with them.

Billy (as it is known) I am still playing daily after a year.


Because it's fun.  Because while things can go badly for you, you never lose more than a day or two of progress, and the worst events are inflicted not by other players but by the random number generator.  (RNG Hate is an enduring theme in the game.)

Because you both compete and co-operate with other players.

Because there are lots of little games within the larger game, and you don't have to play all of them.  If you like Mahjong you can play it regularly; if you want to farm giant monsters for goodies you can do that; if you want to partake in robot combat or slaughter zombies or deliver pizzas those are all there too.  Some of the sub-games fit together better than others, but you an avoid the ones you don't like.  Mostly.

Because there are always new features coming along.

Because, while you really need to commit five minutes each day (and can spend an hour if you're trying to find particularly rare missions or honing your Mahjong skills), you don't have to be there at any particular time (a huge failing of Tribal Wars).

And because, while the overall game and site design are somewhat haphazard, the artwork is original and kind of neat and bugs are surprisingly few.

I'm not looking to duplicate Billy at all, but I'm certainly looking to take on some of the principles that I think make it a success.

Cities (or possibly Nations; I have both names down in my design documents) is a multiplayer online collectible card boardgame of city and empire and railroad building and defence against invading beasties, set in a roughly Victorian era of steampunkish arcana.

So, first principle: There's a map, a hex grid.  Each space on the grid contains a city (well, there might be some blanks, but most will contain cities).  At the beginning of the game, there are seven cities open in a circle, with another twelve closed in a circle around them.

Each day, at dawn and again at dusk, a new city in the outermost circle will open to players, connecting up by road, or occasionally rail.  In the early game, players will travel from city to city taking on missions and collecting the rewards - cards (representing special actions you can take), pieces (people and pets who will accompany you on your travels), tickets (required for travel and entry to special events), and coins (representing... money).

Some missions will be common and easily found, others rare, and some unique to a particular city, and the rewards likewise, so you'll need to travel widely to get all the best items.

You can freely choose which pieces are in play, but cards are dealt from the deck of all those you've collected, making it tricky to get the best combination of bonuses.  Cards in your hand provide bonuses to your actions, and you can play a particular card to provide much greater bonuses for a single mission.  Playing a card discards it, and you won't get it again until you've worked your way right through your deck and reshuffled.

Each city mints a particular colour of ticket (which are distributed to the residents of the city each day), and can set the colour of tickets required of arriving visitors.  This can make traveling about the map tricky; if you don't have the right tickets to make a direct journey, you may be forced into a slower and more expensive detour.

Cities are mostly connected by roads initially, allowing players to move one space per turn.  These can be upgraded to railroads, which can be organised into lines, allowing players to move multiple spaces per turn so long as they don't need to change lines.

Once a player has accumulated enough power and wealth from running missions, they can buy a position as mayor of a free city.  They actually need to travel to the city and be the highest bidder of the day.  This moves the player to the second stage of the game (a.k.a. Book 2), and increases the size of their hand from three cards to five, and their team from three pieces to four.

Cities also have hands of cards and teams of pieces, with five cards to the hand and four pieces to the team, just like Book 2 players.  Book 2 players can directly compete with cities in this way (via Foils and Fouls).  Book 1 players with smaller hands and Book 3 players with larger ones cannot, since the hands are not comparable.

Players working for the city can collect these city cards, which are often more powerful than regular cards, and provide them to their city so that it can build upgrades.

A player can directly control at most three cities (which must all be adjacent), forming a Free State.  Beyond that, they must join with other players to form a nation, either a republic with shared power and responsibilities, or a feudal structure.  A republic is likely more advantageous for players of similar power; a feudal structure has advantages for new players seeking the protection and assistance of more established powers.

Nations can only expand into unoccupied adjacent cities or by players joining them, so each nation occupies a single contiguous area on the map.  There's no open warfare between players, so an expanding nation must apply itself to politicking and horse-trading.

Once a city is sufficiently upgraded (which involves some surprises which I won't go into at this point) the mayor can ascend to the next level - Book 3 - acquiring a seven-card hand, like the game world itself, and leaving behind an empty and partly de-upgraded city for a new mayor to occupy.

The final stage of the game involves manipulating the rules of the game itself.  With a seven-card hand, and access to the world deck, players can compete with the world hand itself to change the flow of the entire game.  (The game world, like its cities, has its own hand which changes twice a day.)

Meanwhile, once the players are sufficiently advanced, external powers will begin to show up to compete for influence in the newly wealthy nations.  Players can fight these powers or ally with them - some are purely inimical; others are ambivalent or possibly even friendly.

That's most of the game design so far, except for Foils and Fouls, and time travel.

Foils and Fouls are the means by which you can interfere with (or if you're sneaky, assist) other players.  Basically, you play your hand or team against another player's, and if you win, reverse one or more of their cards or pieces (so that bonuses turn into penalties), or temporarily swap their hand with your own (with a number of variations on those themes).  This is intended to work rather like Bingos in Billy - annoying and inconvenient for the victim, rather than devastating as PvP can be in other games.  It is also intended to be open to exploits, quite deliberately, so that with the right hand and the right timing, you can gain benefits for yourself or your "victim" that are not otherwise attainable.

Book 1 players have three card hands and three piece teams, and can compete only with each other.  Book 2 players have five card hands and four piece teams, the same as cities.  Yes, a Book 2 player can Foil or Foul a city.

Book 3 players have seven card hands and five piece teams, and can Foil or Foul the world.  With a World Foul, the bonuses and penalties and rules applicable to the player's hand suddenly apply to everyone but that player, until the next World Foul or the next deal at dawn or dusk.

This doesn't affect Book 1 players much - maybe missions become more difficult (or easier) for a while, but for high-level Book 2 players trying to organise complex long-term plays it can really cause headaches, and that goes triple for Book 3.

That leaves time travel, which is the game's built in mechanism for cheating.  Time travel lets you play quite a number of tricks: You can time-loop cards and pieces, so that you temporarily have two copies of something; you can repeat a mission, even a unique one; you can run a mission without taking a turn; you can undo a mission so that you never did it in the first place; you can travel backwards to a city you visited previously to carry out a mission there without having to travel across the map in the present; and you can generate paradoxes.

A simple example of a paradox would be to loop a card so that you have two copies of it, and then play both of them, so that you no longer have the original card to be looped.  Anything logically or physically impossible counts as a paradox and rewards you - so to speak - with paradox cards.

One of the things I forgot to mention earlier is that every time you add 13 cards to your deck, you are forced to discard your current hand and draw a fresh hand (though you can do so earlier if you choose).  While you are running a paradox you will continue to draw paradox cards, so there's a time limit on any paradoxical hand of at most 13 turns.

So eventually you end up with a hand of paradox cards.  What do these do?  Weird things.  Random things.  Impossible things.  For example, you can end up with permanent duplicates of unique items (rather than temporary time-looped duplicates).  You can have cards and pieces changed into others, including ones that do not normally exist.  You can find yourself moved about the map.  Your city can move about the map.  Short of world cards, paradox cards are the most powerful force in the game, but at the same time the least predictable.

Well, that's a very quick overview of the broader features at the current level of planning.  There's also catgirls.  I'll leave the role they play for you to discover.

Posted by: Pixy Misa at 02:27 AM | Comments (2) | Add Comment | Trackbacks (Suck)
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1 Sounds like it's got some interesting concepts, but it's also open to some outright griefing.

It's also difficult to reconcile the paradox system with gradual advancement. Sure, you can work like a beaver, getting various tickets and gaining access to more/better cards and pieces... or maybe you can just time-loop stuff irrationally, create as many paradoxes as possible, and wait for the Big Shiny events to occur. You're not really trying to play the normal part of the game, so negative events that get in the way don't bother you much there... and since you point out the design philosophy of BvS ("you never lose more than a day or two of progress"), it's unlikely that Big Shiny will be counterbalanced by Big Stinky. And if it's doing odd things to the game world, eh, so much the better...

Now multiply that by dozens of players. Suddenly the odd events you envision are CONSTANTLY going off. Players will be lucky to get from Town A to Town B without having one or the other warp across the game world while they're in mid-transit.

Trying to put together beneficial combos will be of limited utility, especially at the world level; the higher chance that it's useful, the higher chance that some high-level player will play a random crappy Foul just to knock the interesting stuff off the map.

It sounds like the sort of game I wouldn't mind sitting down and playing as a board game, but playing it with random internet asshats? Griefproofing it would be awful hard.

Posted by: Avatar_exADV at Wednesday, September 08 2010 01:14 PM (pWQz4)

2 Your points are well-taken, but I probably need to clarify a couple of things here.

Just as there are three levels of play, there are three sets of cards.  Each player has a deck that they build up over time, each city has its own deck, and the world at large has a deck.

Normally, each deck can only have one of each card; I'm considering allowing trading of duplicates, but you won't be able to put found (as opposed to time-looped) duplicates into play.

Now, the normal run-of-the-mill player cards only affect you personally.  City cards affect the city, but there's only one of each card per city, so they're a lot harder to come by.

And there's only one of each world card for the entire world, so getting your hands on a full hand of world cards is really, really hard.  Well, supposed to be, anyway.

So it takes a lot of effort to manipulate the world as a whole, and one you've done it, the hand you used to do it is discarded and you have to cycle through all the remaining cards in your deck, reshuffle, and then try to draw another such hand before you can try again.  And the more players active at that level, the scarcer world cards become, and the more wheeling-and-dealing you need to do to actually assemble a workable hand.

Also, it's intended that the world cards have a greater impact on higher-level play.  A World Foul that switches the season (for example) from Summer to Winter might only give Book 1 players a +1 Turn penalty for travel and leave them otherwise unaffected; Book 2 players (the ones running cities) find themselves suddenly facing a whole different set of production bonuses and penalties; and Book 3 players find all their Fire cards at half effect and their Frost cards doubled.

Another thing is that to play a successful foil or foul, you have to beat the opponent's hand.  So you actually have to have a strong hand to even attempt it; if you lose, your end up foiled yourself, or in the case of a foul, your hand gets forcibly discarded.  There are ways to exploit that too - if you have a bad hand (deliberately or through random chance) and fail a foil, the penalty can actually improve your hand, but which cards and how many are affected is random, so you takes your chances.

And the other other thing is that time travel is also accomplished through cards - you need Clock, Time, or Eternity cards (depending on the scope of the action you're attempting) to do it - and the cards are discarded after use and can't be used again until you've run through your entire deck and reshuffled.

Overall you're quite right though; balance and gameplay are my main focus at this stage of the design.  I definitely want to have a meta-game going on, but we can't have it messing up the regular game too much.

Posted by: Pixy Misa at Wednesday, September 08 2010 03:41 PM (PiXy!)

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