Rewards, Not Penalties

Luther Hendricks has a design philosophy he regularly invokes: rewards, not penalties.

Give players a choice.  Ask them “would you prefer to earn a reward for jumping through a hoop or would you prefer to receive a penalty for doing nothing?” Luther contends that players will choose the reward every time.  He believes that players will generally make this choice even if the structure of the penalty is smaller than the reward.  Luther believes in rewards, not penalties.  People play games to enjoy a sense of success. Avoiding failure is dreary. They want accomplishments. They want the sense of harvesting the fruits of their labors.  They want rewards, not penalties.

And he’s right.

The analytical side of my brain is often numb to this point.  As far as the mathematics is concerned, these two options are the same:

(a) This 6 die attack loses 3 dice when the range is greater than 1.

(b) This 3 die attack gains 3 dice at range 1.

Luther sat me down and explained it to me in small words my addled brain could understand. Setting aside that (b) is a shorter rule, Luther explained that it is also the better rule.  It is better because it empowers the player.  If she chooses to move his character in closer, she will earn a reward.  Rule (a) by contrast penalizes her for failing to move in closer.  Rewards, not penalties.

Contemplating his theory revealed the importance of this design decision throughout the world of game design.

Attacking starfighters in the X-Wing Miniatures Game roll an extra die when the target is at range 1.  Defending starfighters roll an extra die when the attacker is at range 3.  No one loses dice in either case.  Rewards, not penalties.

Every missing animal type incurs a penalty at the end of Agricola.  This was not clear to me the first time I played and it soured me to the game.  How might my experience have been different if players earned bonuses for each animal type rather than a penalty for their absence?  Rewards, not penalties.

What makes gambling games so addictive to so many people?  Small losses coupled with big rewards.  Humans will endure setback after setback so long as a reward is within sight.  This trait gave us the perseverance to cross continents, fly into space and cure polio.  For good or bad, we have a drive to gamble because we’re hungry for that payout.  Rewards, not penalties.

What is it about a CRPG that makes us grind through the same monsters again and again? it’s because those little piles experience points pile up to make us powerful and those little piles of treasure accrue to buy the shiny prestige items.   Rewards, not penalties.

Traditional classrooms give students the feeling that they begin the year with a perfect score.  Every quiz, assignment and test is an opportunity to fail.  Should a student be ill, their strongest hope is to be excused from all missed assignments.  Classrooms that use a gamification model start students off with a score of zero.  Every quiz, assignment and test adds to that score.  Missing an assignment is equivalent to earning a zero because no points have been earned.  Which of these classroom models best reinforces positive academic behavior?  That’s right.  Rewards, not penalties.

How do you employ rewards and penalties in your games?  Which do you employ more?  Can you think of a game that benefits more from penalties than rewards?  Which do you prefer?  Share with your fellow readers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create an account with WordPress and follow this blog.  If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.

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Gaming Meets Media in Sword Art Online

How would you behave if the game you were playing was for keeps?

Most of us enjoy the power of games to create remarkable experiences.  Few of us get the chance to manage a town, to terraform a planet, to put out an inferno, to battle zombies.  Games provide these experiences and more. They give us the proverbial mile in another person’s shoes.

Most of us also enjoy games for a sense of power fulfillment. Games make us the masters of our destinies, offering control over a far wider range of factors than our mundane lives.

Gamers combine the desire to have remarkable experiences with a yen for power fulfillment.  It’s unsurprising then that many of us demonstrate in-game behavior which is naughty at its mildest and antisocial at its most extreme. The bonds of society would dissolve if we treated each other so callously. Gamers routinely drive their laborers in Carcassonne, lynch suspects in Werewolf, employ gunboat diplomacy in Risk, parch our neighbors’ crops in Santiago.

I’m not knocking this behavior; a natural extension of exploration in games is exploring the darker parts of our own souls.  Plus it’s fun to exert power over other players (or at least those little bits of wood, cardboard, and plastic that stand in for them during the game).  And since we clash in a virtual world of totems and avatars, we can do it all while understanding that there truly was no harm done, no foul called.

Sword Art OnlineI’m not much of an anime fan but discovered Sword Art Online while Netflix spelunking.  It seemed interesting enough to watch the pilot.  Now I’m about halfway through the first season now and finding that SAO offers an interesting question for game enthusiasts–the one I posed at the beginning of this column.

Shortly after the launch of the eponymous Sword Art Online MMORPG, players begin discovering that they are unable to log out.  The game’s designer announces that he’s trapped them all AND if they die in game, an em pulse emitter hidden in the control helmets will kill them in real life AND that em emitter will also kill them if if anyone in real life tries to remove their helmets. For its players, SAO has literally become a game of life and death.

And now every one of the ten thousand inhabitants of this virtual world must answer that question.

Some strive to be the ideal hero.  They work to train and protect the Newbs. they fight on “the front lines,” working to reach the end of the game and thereby free everyone.  They became babysitters for the children trapped in the game.  SOA’s hero Kazuto “Kirito” Kirigaya becomes so much the embodiment of the hero that he even refuses to kill digital NPCs.

Some strive to be at peace with this world.  They become merchants.  They become blacksmiths.  They become cooks. The become fishermen.

Some strive to be the ideal villain.  They mislead players.  They lead players into ambushes.  They trap them.  They assassinate them.  They kill them in their sleep.

How about you?

Have you watched Sword Art Online?  What do you think of the questions it poses?  Share with your fellow readers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create an account with WordPress and follow this blog.  If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.

Star Realms–An Application of Triggered Effects

Star Realms is a game I kickstarted several months ago. They brought a solid presence to Gen Con and dropped a free app onto the iTunes store.

Robert Dougherty and Darwin Kastle share the design credit for Star Realms.  They, along with Chad Ellis, were the minds behind the card-based minis game Battleground: Fantasy Warfare.  Dougherty’s ludography includes Ascension while Kastle’s credits feature the excellent The Battle for Hill 218.  Star Realms a solid creation by both.

Since I happen to be studying triggered effects and since Star Realms revealed some interesting implementations of triggered effects, we simply must take a deeper look.

Gameplay

Star Realms bears a strong resemblance to Ascension.  Both are deckbuilding games.  Both start players with a 10-card deck, most of which generate one coin, the others of which generate one combat.  Both feature a tableau of cards for purchase which come from a common deck.  Both offer the player additional cards to purchase in addition to the tableau (In Ascension these are the Mystic and Heavy Infantry while Star Realms offers Scouts singularly).  Players take turns playing from a hand of 5 cards.  Most cards move from play space to discard pile during cleanup while others remain in play to provide continuing effects.    These similarities are natural enough, considering its pedigree.

The most striking difference between Star Realms and Ascension is in the application of combat.  In this area, Ascension follows the pattern of most Eurogames, offering only indirect attacks.  Star Realms is direct, in the pattern of TCGs like Magic: the Gathering.

Combat in Ascension is used to defeat monsters.  In Ascension, some monsters offer negative effects on opponents in addition to their point value. In this way, players may attack one another only indirectly–through the proxy of these monster effects.  A consequence of Ascension’s structure is the occasional midgame lull.  This lull generally occurs because players have either (A) filled their deck with combat cards but no monsters are on the tableau or (B) filled their deck with money cards but only monsters are on the tableau.

Combat in Star Realms is used to attack your opponent. A contrasting consequence of this design decision is that it has no midgame lull.  There are always cards to buy in the middle. There is always an opponent to attack across the table.

Triggered Effects

Dougherty and Kastle employed two broad categories of trigger–faction and autotrashing.  They managed to pack some interesting ideas into these two triggers.

Faction Effects

Every card in Star Realms belongs to one of X factions; Blob, Federation, Machine Cult and Star Empire. Many cards award a bonus when multiple cards from the same faction are in play on the same turn.

Blob Fighter

The Blob Fighter card shown here generates 3 combat naturally but also draws a card if you have any other Blob cards in play.

Federation Shuttle

This Federation Shuttle awards 2 money naturally but also gives the player 4 hit points if she has any other Federation cards in play.

These faction effects are a consistent inducement to try and build a faction-concentrated deck–or to block your opponent from doing the same. These effects make a nice addition to the realm of game triggers and I look forward to seeing how Daughtery and Kastle–and other designers–employ this trigger in future designs.

 

Autotrashing Effects

Many cards in Star Realms have the ability to trash themselves to trigger an effect.

Battlecruiser

The Star Empire Battlecruiser shown here generates 3 combat naturally and naturally allows its player to draw a card.  The Battlecruiser forces the opponent to discard a the player has any other Star Empire cards in play. This Battlecruiser also has an autotrash effect; you may choose to trash this card from play and if you do, draw a card and destroy a base.  Since bases are your opponent’s first line of defense, this can be quite a powerful move indeed!

These autotrashing effects serve two purposes. Their combined effect is often multiplicitave rather than additive. You get their effect and you clean out your deck.

I find this effect particularly powerful in the case of the Explorer card. Late game play in Dominion often finds me wishing I could make my Silvers disappear. Explorer are Silvers I can trash to damage my opponent. And that is what I call a win-win situation.

Closing Thoughts

The objective of this column was to examine gameplay mechanisms and their consequences rather than  to provide a review in any traditional sense.  However, I do feel that Star Realms offers an interesting take on triggered effects and it’s a pretty darned decent deckbuilder besides.  If you’re a designer with any interest in deckbuilders or in triggered effects, Star Realms is definitely worth the time you’ll invest checking it out.

Have you played Star Realms?  What do you think of its triggered effects?  What do you think of it as a deckbuilder?  Share with your fellow readers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create an account with WordPress and follow this blog.  If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.

Designing Microgames–Duel, Part 10

The Story So Far…

A new microgame is in development.  Duel supports two players, each with a deck of 20 cards.  Players have a hand of 4 cards and may (1) play a card into an empty space, (2) play a card onto an enemy card, or (3) move a card one space.  After this, the player refills her hand.  The game ends if a player is down to 3 or fewer cards in hand and chooses to end it.  The player controlling the majority of spaces in a 3×3 grid wins.

Kevin (APE Games) Brusky has given the prototype a look and wants to proceed together.  APE Games will release the game in two-player packs containing two unique armies.

We have taken an extensive look at three decks–Pirates, Sea Monsters, and the Shogunate.  Now we look at the Masters of Kung Fu deck who bring the Merge ability into the game environment.

A New Deck: the Masters of Kung Fu

In the late 1980s, every Saturday night at midnight, right after Saturday Night Live, our local NBC affiliate ran Black Belt Theater.  These beloved B-movies boasted bombastic titles like Kid with the Golden Arm, The Nine Demons, and The Invincible Armor. They frequently packed the entire hero’s journey into their allotted 90 minutes or less.  I would argue that these movies even set the visual style for modern action masterpieces like Django Unchained, The Man With The Iron Fists and Tai Chi Zero / Tai Chi Hero.

For years, I longed for an excuse to create a game in this high-flying setting. Developing Duel has given me just that excuse.

While this set is still in flux, its variety of card interactions has proven popular with playtesters.  Unlike the Pirates or the Shogunate who tend to cover one another with their remote Strike abilities, the Masters of Kung Fu deck boosting through cards that directly enhance one another.

Chi FocusThis theme is in the three Sword Sisters–Strength 6 cards which gain +1 Strength for each other Sword Sister in play.  This theme is in the slippery Drunken Master–a slippery fighter who cannot be pinned down and can therefore jump to the assistance of a beleaguered ally.  This theme is seen in the Flying Punch–a Coup de Grace that immediately returns to your hand.

The card which drives this theme home is Chi Focus–the first appearance of the Merge ability–which can join another card, effectively increasing the strength of the original by +3.

Testing the Masters of Kung Fu

As of this writing, the Masters of Kung Fu deck is undergoing its first major overhaul.

The Drunken Master was too powerful at Strength 8. In response, he has been reduced to Strength 6.

Flying Punch stands accused of being too weak since its low strength cannot hold any spaces on its own.  We have a few possibilities being passed around–the most prominent among these being the simple addition of the phrase “you may.”  No definite resolution has yet appeared however and the version given here is its original.

Kung Fu 1  Kung Fu 2Kung Fu 3

As Duel enters its next extended playtest cycle, we depart from it here for a while.  Our next entry in this column will take a look at one of the big buzz games at Gen Con 2014 and what it can teach us about triggered effects in a deckbuilding environment.  To what game am I referring? You’ll find out next time!

What’s your take on the Masters of Kung Fu?  What do you find most intriguing about them?  Which cards would you change?  How would you approach them?  Share with your fellow readers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create an account with WordPress and follow this blog.  You keep reading. I’ll keep writing.

Quintessential: the Fifth Element–A Gen Con Success Story

A few years ago, game designer Shawn Storie gave my group the opportunity to blind test a game he was developing–Quintessential: the Fifth Element.  Like most prototypes, it still needed development.  Despite this, it was clear that Quintessential has promise.

Like any good designer, Shawn kept working to develop his creation.  As we chatted at conventions, he frequently spoke of its current state, how publishers were responding to it, what his next steps would be.  This is the biggest and the hardest part of being successful–maintaining consistent enthusiasm over years of effort.

When we bumped into one another at Gen Con, he shared his good news and now it’s my pleasure to share this news with you.

Congratulations Shawn.  You’ve certainly earned your success!

Designing Microgames–Duel, Part 9

The Story So Far…

A new microgame is in development.  Duel supports two players, each with a deck of 20 cards.  Players have a hand of 4 cards and may (1) play a card into an empty space, (2) play a card onto an enemy card, or (3) move a card one space.  After this, the player refills her hand.  The game ends if a player is down to 3 or fewer cards in hand and chooses to end it.  The player controlling the majority of spaces in a 3×3 grid wins.

Kevin (APE Games http://apegames.com/) Brusky has given the prototype a look and wants to proceed together.  APE Games will release the game in two-player packs containing two unique armies.

We have taken an extensive look at two decks–the team boosting Pirates and the lone swimming Sea Monsters.  Each was created to focus on a certain part of the game.  Now we look at the Shogunate deck and bring the Ally ability into the conversation.

 

Rules Update: Terminology

The “Support” ability has given many players issues.  We have repeatedly seen them mistake this ability for a defensive boost rather than an attack boost.  This is natural, considering the connotation of the word.  To clarify, we ran through a list of replacements and came up with “Strike.”  The rules have been updated accordingly.

Duel Rules 3-2

 

A New Deck: the Shogunate

NagamakiClose on the heels of the Pirates and the Sea Monsters were the Shogunate. This deck was conceived around the kind of large-scale battles we see in films like Akira Kurosawa’s Ran.  And Ninjas.  You gotta have ninjas.

The Shogunate became an effort to blend elements from each of the previous two decks.  In this deck, we see the Ninjas equipped with a first strike ability akin to that used in the Sea Monsters.

We see Archers with a Strike ability similar to that of the the Pirates.  

The Shogunate also feature the first appearance of the Ally ability–Nagamaki cards that can to add to the defense of a space.

Testing the Shogunate

As of this writing, the Shogunate deck has been through three major overhauls.  The Ninja were too weak at first, the Swordsman too strong.  The version you’re seeing here has been testing well, however and I don’t anticipate any major changes any time soon.

Shogunate 1 Shogunate 2Shogunate 3

 

 

We’ll take a look at the Shogunate’s chief rivals next time when you’ll see The Masters of Kung Fu deck.  How do these decks interact with one another? You’ll find out Friday!

 

What’s your favorite Microgame?  What do you like best about it?  Have you written one? How did your players respond to it? Share with your fellow readers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create an account with WordPress and follow this blog.  You keep reading. I’ll keep writing.

Designing Microgames–Duel, Part 8

The Story So Far…

A new microgame is in development.  Duel supports two players, each with a deck of about 20 cards.  Players have a hand of 4 cards and may (1) play a card into an empty space, (2) play a card onto an enemy card, or (3) move a card one space.  After this, the player refills her hand.  The game ends if a player is down to 3 or fewer cards in hand and chooses to end it.  The player controlling the majority of a 3×3 grid wins.

Kevin Brusky has given the prototype a look and wants to proceed together.  APE Games will release the game in two-player packs containing two unique armies.

Several sets have been created. The first core set will be Pirates vs. Sea Monsters.  These two decks have therefore been receiving the most attention. Let’s check in on these two core factions…

 

Change is the Only Constant

Iteration is the heart of design.  Constant cycles of playtesting and tweaking sessions between each cycle are the best way to home in on something that is both balanced and fun.  Throughout this test cycle, we’ve been using a randomizer (from random.org) has been used to set matchups.  This data is helping us to identify the relative strengths of each deck. Because we’ve also used this randomizer to set the starting deck, we are able to look for any player order advantage as well.

 

Checking In With The Pirates

The last time we discussed the Pirates, they were being toned down a bit.  We lowered the power level of both the Dagger and the Cannon.  Since these changes came in, there’s been no need to adjust the deck any further.  The Pirates are sailing high.

 

Checking In With The Sea Monsters

JellyfishRecent testing indicated that the Sea Monsters had failed to keep up with the overall power level of the game.  They were beefed up a bit but still fell behind in general.  Even worse, one card–the Whirlpool–has been described as counterintuitive by players.

WhirlpoolOur last iteration gave the Jellyfish a limited first strike ability.  At the time, this first strike would immediately eliminate any card of strength 3 or lower, regardless of its position as attacker or defender.  When this ability was conceived, I’d kept the option open to raise this threshold to Strength 4.  This option has been activated and a similar version has been given to the Whirlpool.

 

With that all having been said, here is the latest cardset for our Sea Monsters faction:

Faction Sea Monsters Page 1Faction Sea Monsters Page 2Faction Sea Monsters Page 3

 

 

Checking In With The Ruleset

The biggest rule debate has hung on the ability to rotate revealed cards.  This rule matters quite a bit to the Pirates since their fiercest weapon is an array of support arrows.  We tried playing the game both ways–first where rotation was allowed as an alternative to a normal move action, second where rotation was disallowed.  These tests were met with mixed feelings.  Some testers enjoyed the extra option.  Others felt that the ability to rotate a card was a massive force multiplier.  For the moment, I’ve elected to deny card rotation once revealed.

 

 

Closing Thoughts For the Moment

Overall, Duel seems to be progressing well.  Its core decks are focused but still interesting to play. Next, time, I’ll be posting another faction for your gameplay pleasure.

What’s your favorite Microgame?  What do you like best about it?  Have you written one? How did your players respond to it?  Share with your fellow readers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create an account with WordPress and follow this blog.  You keep reading. I’ll keep writing.