Changing the Game

Changing the Game

I spend a LOT of time testing out my games before they get published. This is part of the legacy I inherited from the late lamented Ensemble Studios. I remember once attending a seminar at the Game Developer’s Conference with Greg Street (a fellow designer). The speakers were the designers of a popular and well-respected real time strategy game (like the ones Ensemble Studio produced). The following exchange happened.

Audience Member: Give us some tips on developing a real time strategy game.

Seminar Speaker: well it’s really important that you spend LOTS of time on playtesting.

(Greg and I look at each other and smile, sagely agreeing with the speaker.)

Seminar Speaker continues: we cannot over-emphasive the importance of playtesting.

(Greg and I nod vigorously in approval.)

Seminar Speaker finishes: In fact you may want to spend as much as THREE WHOLE MONTHS in playtest.

Greg and I stare at each other in disbelief and start to laugh. 

At that time, our current game, Age of Empires III, had been in daily playtests for more than 18 months! So clearly our world view was far more playtest-focused than these guys.

And I’ve maintained that view since then. I playtested The Gods War for 18 months after the initial design (from January 2014 to June 2016). I playtested Cthulhu Wars for 14 months, Orcs Must Die for about 12 months, and over a year for Planet Apocalypse and Hyperspace, my most recently designed games. There are three different things I look for during my playtests.

Speed of Play

I always want to speed up gameplay. Partly this is selfish (I can get more games in), but also I just simply like games better that move faster. I remember when Cthulhu Wars came out, people openly mocked my estimated play time of 90 minutes, only to find that this was actually the case. Lots of games under-estimate their play time, sometimes grossly (I’m looking at YOU Axis & Allies 1914). I don’t.

I am looking at two factors for speed of play. One is that I don’t want people to have to wait to do something. I want a quick turn-around per player. Second, I want the game overall to be short enough that you can get to it, teach the rules, and finish a game in a single evening.

Gods War lasts about a half-hour longer than Cthulhu Wars, mainly because of the Council phase, which takes a few minutes of discussion and often negotiation every turn (in contrast to Cthulhu Wars’ Doom phase, which is lightning-fast). I don’t mind this extra duration, because it doesn’t increase the time between making decisions. Instead, everyone is doing stuff in the Council phase, and stays involved.

Game Fun

Why play a game that’s not fun? I am always looking for things to modify or change that make the game more fun. What is “fun” to Sandy? Lots of things. One obvious thing is “making decisions that matter”. The Gods War has a plethora of these. A typical game ends with the top two scoring players often only 1-2 VP apart, which means literally every decision these players made may have affected the victory. Another fun thing is exploiting abilities or game features. The Chaos player gets to lord it over everyone else during the Chaos Rift segment, and this is always super-fun for him.

The Earth Gift Extinction is fun for Earth. This ability lets you earn a Rune when a kill is scored in a battle containing her Behemoth. And if the Behemoth itself gets killed, you earn an extra Rune. This is fun not only because you often get to make a decision (should I kill off my Behemoth for an extra Rune?), but because you can make other players squirm. I remember in one closely-fought game when I moved my lone Behemoth into an area with an enemy Ziggurat. When I declared combat the other players shrieked in protest because they suddenly realized that my Behemoth was certain to die vs. the Ziggurat, and therefore I would earn 2 Runes, possibly giving me enough Victory points to end the game during the Action phase and win, before the next Council phase. Man that was a glorious day. Even though I didn’t get the 3 VP I needed, and lost the game by 2 points during the ensuing Victory phase, it was great.

Game Balance

In a highly asymmetrical game like The Gods War, keeping the various empires equal in power, while still differentiated, is key to making the game fulfill its promise. Therefore, when we play a sequence of games, and a particular empire seems to be struggling, or to be winning too often, we take steps to address the issue.

The Last Balance Change

The very last change I made to The Gods War, before considering it complete, was a change to the Moon empire. For a long time, the Red Goddesses unique ability was to advance the lunar cycle 1 step when she was in a battle. But this seemed like not enough. We also noticed that she often didn’t have enough units out and about, so we changed her ability so that she got to spawn a Selene when she entered battle. This was cool for a while, but then we wanted … more.

So we altered her ability (called Menses) to give her an interesting choice. When the Red Goddess enters battle, she can choose either to add an Assassin to her area pre-battle (so it participates in the conflict) or to add a Selene post-battle. The Selene is a more expensive unit (with a gift that makes it even better), but the Assassin can boost combat and possibly soak up a hit. It’s a real decision. It also bumps up Moon’s threat enough to make her a competitor, and Moon players have said it makes the Goddess seem way better psychologically.

Anyway, that’s how it works at Petersen Games. Now you know.

– Sandy

Hannah Hazard

Hannah Hazard

Hannah Hazard

Hannah Hazard is an Israeli-trained sniper:

Hannah’s start attack is 1d6, with a toughness of 2, starting Luck of 6 (!), and a mere 4 health. That health is bad, and keeps her out of the front lines, but her extra Luck means she is encouraged to take Luck-using Gifts, with the extra power and oomph they offer.

Hannah starts with the Sighted-In ability, which lets her attack demons in adjacent areas. This is even better than it sounds, because as always in Planet Apocalypse, a hero rolls their dice before assigning targets. This means that she rolls her attack, then chooses which area she’s going to kill demons in. If she is rolling 2 or more dice, she can kill demons in two different areas with a single attack!

Her earned abilities are Head Shot and Zeroed In. Head Shot lets her add two dice together into a single total – this basically makes her super-effective against demons who have high toughness, such as Fiends and certain lords and fourth circle demons. Zeroed In lets her increase ALL her attack dice by a step if she doesn’t move. So this is super-handy as well, but does tend to make her a sitting duck for enemies.

Her weakness is that she cannot have more than a single patrol trooper with her at a time. This means she can’t make up for her low Health by bulking up on troopers. She has to be careful about hand-to-hand combat. Like a sniper I suppose. So she is kind of an eggshell with a hammer. She can dish it out, but she can’t take it.

What’s Up With Her Weird Sighting Technique?

Some observant fans have noticed that Hannah appears to be sighting with the “wrong” eye in using her scope. The fact is, during the demon uprising, she lost one of her eyes, so she is forced to take this measure.

Some other fans may have noticed that Naomi Joslyn, another hero, is wearing an eyepatch. “What’s this obsession of Sandy with one-eyed girls?” you wonder. Well actually Naomi’s eye, under the eyepatch is operational. Too much so, actually. Read her corner to find out the truth!

How Hannah works

Hannah is one of the most popular heroes in the game (judging from my playtesters’ experience). She tends to station herself somewhere interesting, and then start gunning down the enemies until she is finally forced to shift her position due to an encroaching horde.

Her ability (with Head Shot) to KO Fiends almost at will, makes her incredibly useful in the late game. However, she needs protection, and her best positioning is in an area that has a large ambush, so if she is attacked, she can use the ambush troopers to absorb her hits. She can’t set up a good ambush on her own, not only because she has to recruit her troopers one at a time, but also because she tends to sit immobile in an area, instead of running around and trying to recruit. This means she has to rely on the rest of the team to set up a good “sniper perch” for her.

Hannah’s tech tree only adds 1d4 to her attack (every tech tree adds 1 die to the hero, but it’s different dice for different heroes), but it has two options that boost an attack die by a level. Of course, her Head Shot ability means she doesn’t necessarily need huge dice anyway, plus her high starting Luck means she is a good candidate for a great Luck-using Gift such as Frag Grenades or Wizard Eye. (In fact, Frag Grenades almost seems custom-made for Hannah. If it shows up, get it!)



Sleeper Cult Board

The Sleeper board is full of Skulks, including the unique Ritual Skulk, the Flex Skulk, and the Block Skulk.

Sleeper also has a site which rewards the user with 4 Treasure. However, the player must have at least one cultist on any Skulk (including the other cult board Skulks) to use this site. More than one Skulking cultist won’t increase the reward.

The Ritual Skulk lets the player place a cultist on the Start (only) of any ritual track. He must pay the 2 Treasure price at this time. When the Ritual board activates, this cultist does advance to the next stage and gain rewards, because the Skulk is placed before the Rituals are advanced. Of course he must still leave his cultist on the ritual board for the next turn (or longer, if he chose Dragon Ascending). You may be familiar with the Ritual Skulk from the Black Goat board, which also features one.

The Flex Skulk lets you place the cultist as per EITHER the normal Town Skulk or the Ritual Skulk. Your choice. The Block Skulk must be the first Skulk assigned. It acts exactly as a Flex Skulk except no other Skulk can be assigned to its spot! I.e., it blocks other Skulks (hence the name).

Changing the Game

My Support System

My Support System

To design a game, you need more than a brain & some construction paper. You need a support system, to permit you to focus on the ideas & game at hand, to give you time to do your tasks. If you are constantly interrupted with brief tasks throughout the day, you will not be able to devote your attention for prolonged periods of time to solving design challenges or creating game elements.

In our modern world, we are probably working on a computer which, at a single click, takes us to vast realms to explore which have nothing to do with our game project. Plus we are carrying smartphones in our pockets which can do the same thing. A designer needs to have some way to be able to stay on target.

I am not saying you need to be a hermit. Every design – EVERY design – is improved by the views and suggestions of others. Even suggestions I reject are useful, because they cause me to consider my own solution carefully, and usually improve it.

Every designer has his own methods of staying on target. At this point I want to give full credit to my beloved wife, Wendy. I have been married to her since 1979 (do the math) and her unstinting support has been what enables me to be the designer I am. Quite literally, if I was not married, or married to someone less amazing, I could absolutely not have designed Cthulhu Wars.

Let me give an example. When I am working apace on some task, the outside world vanishes away. All reality is The Game. She knows this. So if she comes to me with something (important) on which she needs my feedback, sometimes I look up with a blank stare, my fingers still typing as my mind churns on The Game. Many a spouse would try to wake me up, or snap fingers before my eyes, or punch me on the arm, to call me back to reality to get that feedback. Wendy realizes I’m “in the groove” so to speak and unable to pay proper attention (and, if I did, it would probably ruin my train of thought on the project) and she departs quietly, and makes the decision herself. Or waits till later, when I get up to get a drink of water (or pee, or whatever) so I am no longer lost in my own private universe.

She always has my back and even more important, she has faith in me. This was particularly essential for Cthulhu Wars because I spent over a year with no pay working on it. We just lived off our savings, watching our nest egg shrink. That’s a hell of a thing for someone in their late 50s. You want your retirement money to GROW, naturally enough. Remember too, that I have a pretty stellar resume as a designer, so could easily have quit on Cthulhu Wars, and gone back to work for a game company at a decent salary instead of blowing the wad on this insane project that no one else would publish. But she felt that I had the skills & the talent & the will to do Cthulhu Wars and actually is my cheerleader and inspiration when my spirits flag.

Today I told her that we now have a fallback plan. If Petersen Games goes bankrupt after producing and shipping Onslaught Two, and all our money goes towards fulfilling the campaign, we have so many firm backers who love us we can basically travel the world, living and eating with them on a week-to-week basis.

Hannah Hazard

Doc Hunter

Doc Hunter is an MD who has been living on the road since the apocalypse. When he saw the horrors advancing towards his hospital, he went to the pharmacy, grabbed all the drugs and medical gear he could cram onto a gurney, and headed for the hills. Since then he has been helping people the best he can, but the sights he has seen have tragically led him to seek solace in his own drugs.

Now he has decided to step out of the pure support role, and start taking on the demons directly.

Doc Hunter’s Abilities  

His start attack is 1d6, toughness is 2, health 5, all average. He is the only hero who starts with 0 Luck which makes sense as an addict.

His start ability is useful, but perhaps not a surprise – he is a healer, so his First Aid restores 1 extra health to the target. There are several healing-oriented gifts in the gift deck, and in my opinion (though not everyone’s), it is wiser NOT to give these to Doc Hunter. For example, one such card is Medikit, which also gives +1 health per First Aid. If you give this to Doc Hunter, then of course he will heal 3 points each time. BUT if you give it to someone else instead, then they can heal 2 points as well as Doc Hunter, which is a total of 4 health! Of course, if you expect to be paying courage when you use First Aid (because of an enemy’s presence), then the good doctor is a bargain. Still, I think it’s usually better to spread the wealth. At least inasmuch as healing goes. Again, not everyone agrees, and I’ve seen the rival theory (i.e., give it all to the Doc) put into action.

One of the doctor’s earned abilities is Stimpacks, which lets him spend 1 Luck to instantly heal 1 damage on another hero, or add +1 to that hero’s move. This is obviously an expensive price for the healing, so why is it so great? Well, because he can use it at practically any time. This includes while fighting the Lord, so he is just about the only way you can heal up a point or two while facing Baphomet. That’s not trivial. The +1 Move is less common, but sometimes it is really critical, when a hero absolutely has to get to the exit area, or to a particular demon, or to launch a Lord attack.

His other ability is Autopsy – it lets him give up his First Aid during the team phase to kill a Limbo minion (automatically) instead. Remember that if a Limbo minion is in his area, it would cost him 1 courage to First Aid. This way, he can GAIN a courage instead, which is nice.

The Doctor’s flaw is the aforementioned Addiction. Basically, if he has 2 or more courage at the start of his hero turn, he has to discard one. This means he has trouble saving up for a big purchase, and tends to look for ways to spend it all before his turn (during the team phase, or when helping other players). It’s also an incentive for him to use first aid even when it costs courage. Example – imagine he has 2 courage in the team phase. He can use First Aid, spending 1 courage (we’re assuming demons are in his area, which is often the case), and drop his courage to 1. Now he won’t lose it, plus someone (possibly himself) got healed 2 points.

How Doc Hunter works  

Obviously he can keep the other player’s health up, but there are more subtleties to his nature.

First, every single gift on his tech tree gives him 1 Luck, except one. That one gives him 3 Luck. So though he starts with none, it builds up rapidly over time (in my head when I designed him, this represented him overcoming his addiction). He generally doesn’t want to buy Luck-using gifts though, because Stimpacks is his main way to apply that Luck.

He gains 1d6 attack on the tech tree, plus 1 die boost, so his final total (not counting possible gifts that boost his combat) is 1d8+1d6, which is quite respectable. He can also gain 1 toughness – with such a good attack and toughness (and his Autopsy power), this means you want him right in the front lines. Of course he can heal you there too, but you want and need his battle oomph! So he is not a boring healer sitting in the rear like my former World of Warcraft healer – he is a real combat asset. The healing is a nice perk, though.

He is a good example of my design theory that there is no reason support characters have to be dull. I want to put them right into the firing line!