May 16, 2012

Gaming the Design - Infamy - Designer Response

Travis Chance has sent a response to my feedback in the Gaming the Design article about his game, Infamy. It is presented unedited below.

After the testing session in which Michael played, many suggestions were proffered to address concerns I had about Infamy. Although the game seemed uniformly enjoyable by those who played during this session, this information had the clockwork in my brain whirring from the moment I left the meetup. The following is a summary of suggested changes and my verdict after some thorough consideration and testing:

1.) Bribing process: I have tried a few iterations of bidding on contacts. The only one of these that seemed to work consistently, as well as offer that risk vs. reward element I was after, was what Michael pointed out as the "Glum Loser Scenario." On the whole, this was a uniquely polarizing element of my game. The two camps of love and hate made it something I had questioned fixing by means of compromise. In prior tests, no-consequence-bidding where players got back what they put in if they lost proved negligent and far less strategic. On the other hand, the Glum Loser approach was punishing to those who committed too much on a single contact, resulting in two people effectively losing--though one would walk away with a contact.

Although this may seem like an easy fix, I was dead against anything that involved even rudimentary book keeping--no rounding up or down, halfsies, or the like. Michael suggested a great solution: for each bid, the player commits a bribe (this would include raising). The player that wins the bid commits all the bribes (spent, as well as the sum bid) and wins the contact; those that do no win only lose the spent bribes, not the sum bid This was just the answer I was seeking.

2.) Passing during the bribing process: This wasn't so much an issue, and, to be honest, was something I rather liked in terms of making bidding more strategic. Michael suggested that players that pass on a given contact can no longer bid on that contact. This expedites the process, simplifying it, as well as adding a different strategic element: get in or get out.

3.) The Saboteur: One particular contact in the game blows up a mission card before it can be attempted. This mission is not replaced until the end of the phase. This served a few purposes, which I likened to one of those suckerfish that cleans a fish tank:

a.) It is a countermeasure to stop a runaway leader that commits all their bribes to garnering resources. This allows other players to minimize options, as well as potentially control either or both of the victory paths in the game as means to catch up.

b.) I have an alternate end game trigger when a mission would be replaced but can't. This is expedited by this contact, and can potentially be used as a means to secure this specific victory path.

c.) It clears away missions that could not be accomplished because of game state (this is unlikely but COULD happen).

d.) Having less missions in a given turn promotes more collisions.

Admittedly, this contact always seemed lackluster in many situations, often a consolation prize of sorts for those who didn't win a bid on a more substantial contact. OR, he was an engine of spite that seemed almost overpowered. Michael suggested that by replacing the mission immediately with the top mission (which is always visible), this offered another strategic angle: get rid of a mission someone else was after to get one for yourself. In short, I agree with this quite handily.

4.) Encouraging Collision: One of my primary goals with this design was player collision. I loved the idea of mercenaries going after the same objective, totally unaware of one another until that moment when they cross paths. While the level of interaction and collision (a term Michael used that is quite perfect really) is considerable, there could be more.

Michael's estimation was that the collision aspect was much more accidental than designed. At the time of testing, my board had 7 sectors, each of which contained 2 locations. There was a harmony to this, a nice overlap and balance that was quite intentional. But, upon closer examination, the collision could be increased while maintaining the majority of the aforementioned balance by reducing the sectors to 4 in total: one for each of the three factions and a single neutral sector.

The new neutral sector would house a location for each of the four resources. And the factions would now have only a single location (none of them henchmen) and a headquarters. I spoke with Michael about this after the session, and he suggested that the missions ONLY take place in these headquarter locations. I felt this was the extreme opposite of the 7 sector layout, where you could often avoid collisions, now they would be entirely inevitable. I wanted most of the missions to function this way, but not in such a narrow, binary fashion. The real fun of Infamy is in not knowing where someone is headed. This suggestion seemed a bit two-dimensional to me, giving players too few in the way of options.

The last suggestion was to not use simultaneous revealing, and do it based on initiative. This would make the game more of a strategic placement game, as well as fix an ongoing issue I have with the ability of one of my resource tokens: arsenal. Applying this edit to the rules would make the arsenal token much more useful and justified in design, as it currently feels a bit like a wash: I shoot you, you shoot me back, now nothing happens. This was something that I knew I didn't want to do before leaving said session. Despite my fiddly Strategy Cards and players sometimes messing up, on the whole this element works and creates an atmosphere of tension and fun that this deployment that would work akin to Cyclades bidding would not.

Sadly, I still have no solution for the arsenal tokens.

5.) Missions: While Infamy is quite easy to learn, one issue I have noticed is that my mission format can cause quite a bit of what I call "scanning paralysis." Technically, each mission is three: one for each faction. With 2-4 of these on the table (dependent on the number of players), the potential for collisions, and trying to ascertain who is eligible for what combination of missions, the amount of bribes each player has... well, things slowed down for enough players that it gave me pause.

The suggested solution was to have three separate mission decks, one for each faction. Mathematically speaking, this should encourage even more of these collisions, as it vastly reduces the number of variable for players to consider. This would also address another issue Michael pointed out: the current mission format would not allow for varied continuous effects on a single mission without some sort of way to track it as you switched factions during a game.

Michael also suggested that the missions be setup so that the level of difficulty was controlled--currently the missions are randomly dealt, sometimes high value/difficult missions coming out on the very first turn. Furthermore, the way status was awarded could also change: rather than have varied values, a player would be awarded an amount of status equal to the level of mission completed.

I left the session entirely convinced I would make these change, thinking them answers to what seemed precarious issues. However, upon actually working through what this would entail, this proved quite the contrary.

The first problem was the idea of levels. The driving idea about altering the format was to simplify the process and have less options out at any given time, but as I made some proxy missions to test this I hit a few walls:

a.) How would I handle the levels for each faction? Let's say there were 3 levels of difficulty per faction. Would you have a deck out for each, totaling 9 decks? This seemed even worse than the prior format, which was far more condensed. Additionally, it would cause even more scanning paralysis as players tried to plan ahead. Someplayers might attempt a mission in a higher level than they were permitted accidentally, causing a game play hiccup that is hard to reverse in a game where simultaneously revealing occurs.

If the levels of difficulty were not separate decks, then they would be within a single deck. This offered a sloppy set of operations at a glance: a level sat out for people to see, then one player moved on to the next level and this card was beside it? Would they have to dig through the deck to look at the card back until they found the appropriate level they were seeking? This seemed messy and counter-intuitive in execution, and when I tested this with two other players they were much more confused than I had expected.

b.) Levels created less interaction. If one player managed to get to level 2 in one faction, and other players had yet to complete a level 1 for that same faction, they had no direct competition until someone in the same faction caught up to them. This was the antithesis of what I wanted Infamy to be. Furthermore, this would sink players into a single faction, as switching over to catch up would be a protracted process with no guarantee of success.

c.) Separate decks created less interaction. The current mission format represented a single event or task that each faction shared. Separate missions did not have this same thematic strength, nor did they guarantee that players would cross paths--unless I severely reduced the variables to make it happen with absolute certainty. In doing this, I would be sacrificing my objective at creating tension based on potential collision, those "OH SH!#" moments where two or more people go after the same mission or different missions in the same place. Quite simply, this element was fun, and not something I wanted to throw by the wayside. That, and I quite strongly felt that the variable missions popping up made the game more interesting, adding to the replay value.

6.) Status: With the idea of levels came the idea of scaling status to be proportionate with them. I intentionally created two separate scoring paths to have some diversity and promote different strategies. Infamy points were always the abstract victory point element; they did nothing but win you the game once you had enough of them. Status, on the other hand, was intended to be a potential victory path, but one that offered pros and cons. In this way, Status was more powerful, therefore, in my eyes, could fluctuate. Most importantly, players would score varying levels in both of these, giving them room to adapt and start tailoring their designs for victory. Variable point values pushed this a step further. This more structured Status scoring made Infamy points feel irrelevant, as though Status suddenly was the ONLY way to win the game. I didn't like this for a number of other reasons:

a.) It detracted from the theme: a player amassing such a reputation that upon victory they assume the role of a fourth faction that rivaled the other three. Why are these factions so complacent with you working with their bitter rivals?

b.) One scoring path made the game feel less strategic. I quite liked that players were working their way up two different paths early on and then would commit to a strategy once they hit a rhythm. The system was forgiving and pliable in this way.

c.) It would half the pros and cons Status currently provided--granted, I could rescale the scoring to accommodate this, but I always wanted 3-4 missions to give you victory in one way or another.

d.) There was no incentive for players to ever switch factions. Why would a player ever want their second mission to be for a different faction for 1 Status when staying loyal would give them double and put them at 50% victory. This would mean that in a 3 player game, each player would more than likely assume the role of one faction and Euro game their way to a relatively non-interactive victory. In a 4 player game, the two players that ended up in the same faction would have a much more difficult time than being a one-man-wolf-pack.

e.) It gave rise to a feeling of mechanical contradiction in terms of retaining Status for more than one faction. I liked that in my current incarnation, players had to consider the pros and cons of switching sides. Maybe they were after Infamy points so they would take an easier path for a mission, switching factions in the process, and foregoing Status advancement. Some players ping ponging between factions was something I very much wanted to happen throughout a game. I couldn't really imagine this happening if the Status scored cumulatively rather than variably.

7.) Factions: Michael made a comment about how the factions alignment was in fact "fake." I think what he meant by this was I had made the conscious decision to make all the Status advantages symmetrical, meaning that the factions had no inherit difference. Beyond the factions having access to 2 of the 4 resources in their home sectors, they seemed identical. But this is something else with which I disagreed. The flavor of the factions, their identities, and the incentive to be in them, was in the missions. The Cartel are ambivalently after money and quick turnaround for profit, using Compound to grease the wheels; the Conglomerate can't rise above their horrid reputation so they drag their rivals into the muck with information, often sending henchmen to do their bidding, and spending their funds without hesitation; the Militia are extremists of the most violent variety, finding a way to make a gun a necessary part of any mission, desperate for recognition and respect, and quick to light the fuse on a home-made explosive.

The incentives to be in a faction are entirely based on two factors: game state and mission availability/benefit. If two other players are in two of the factions, the last guy in will inevitably join the third to steer clear of competition. If the payout is juicy enough for one faction over the others, it could entice even a Status hungry player to jump ship. This paradigm offers a massive amount of replayability. These elements make Infamy different than the usual fare of FFG-centric games, not predetermined notions that motivate decisions before the game even starts. In doing this, I also have avoided balance issues.

I have in fact tested faction-specific Status advantages, and it proved more complicated and imbalanced than I wanted. Even when I found what seemed to be a balance within this concept, players would not even bother to see what advantages they had, whereas before they were very aware of their pros and cons (because other players shared them).

This is the part where I thank Michael for allowing me to participate in this series, for his tremendous insight, and for offering genuine solutions. It is a rare and wonderful knack in a world where most people just point a stick at what's wrong without offering any notion of an alternative.

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