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Posts Tagged ‘tactics’

Zomblobs! is finally in a playable state!   It’s a tabletop tactical wargame, played on a map with hexagonal cells, miniatures (folded paper for this version) and six-sided dice.  It’s the beta, so it’s not yet precisely balanced or perfectly presentable, but it’s playable!  (If you print out the PDF and prepare some paper, anyway.)

Zomblob!

I’ve worked long enough in the game industry to believe that game testers are the last line of defense between a working game and a broken one.  There’s definitely more polishing I want to do before I call Zomblobs! an alpha-release-worthy product, but it’s in a state where the game will benefit greatly from playtesting and experimentation.

Polishing can be pretty prickly

If you all have the time to at least read through the rules and give me some feedback, I’d greatly appreciate it.  If you have time to print out the game and play it for a while, I’d really love to hear what you think of it.

Many thanks for your interest!  I’ll be writing more articles on the game, especially if there’s something important to address that I haven’t yet covered in my previous articles.

Consume or be consumed!

For Science!

UPDATED!

Now, in convenient just-under-19 MB size!  It’s a bit JPEGgy, but that’s just how the Zomblob crumbles.

Zomblobs Rules Beta Smaller

…and, because commenter “ironshield” down there has a very good point on printing, here’s the exact same data split into a “text” file and an “extras” file, just in case you want them that way.

Zomblobs Rules Beta Text

Zomblobs Rules Beta Extras (unit tokens, maps, map widgets, templates, that sort of thing)

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The original X-Com is on my short list of favorite games.  It was my first foray into tactical games, and since then, I’ve steeped my gaming sensibilities in other masterpieces such as Master of Orion 1 & 2, Master of Magic, Civilization, Front Mission, Tactics Ogre, Final Fantasy Tactics, Disgaea and Ogre Battle.  I never did play Laser Squad Nemesis, but the Gameboy Advance game Rebelstar: Tactical Command captured a bit of the old X-Com magic.  One of the first projects I worked on here at NinjaBee/Wahoo was our little gem Band of Bugs.

Similarly, I’ve spent a lot of time reading about tabletop tactical games like WarHammer and WarMachine, and I’m developing one of my own I’m calling Zomblobs! that may well wind up being a sister game to another one I have in mind (the sooper sekrit *redacted* project), not unlike the mesh between WarMachine and Hordes.  I have a lot of ideas for tactical games, and it’s been a blast to try to make one and see if there’s something to those ideas.

Let’s just say that I love tactical and strategic games.  They run deep in my gaming DNA.

So when I heard that the BioShock guys were making an XCOM game, at first, I thought “great, a resurrection of the fantastic tactical game by some guys who have no small amount of game prettification experience!”.  After a bit of cursory research, though, my response was pretty much the same as Shamus’ over at Twenty Sided and Jay’s over at The Rampant Coyote.  In short, it wasn’t quite the Darth Vaderish “NoOoOoOOO!”, but it was pretty close.  I had to go and play the original (I bought the whole bunch of them on sale over at Direct2Drive, also available on Steam, and conveniently on sale today), just to wash the 2K out of my brain.  Shamus later followed up with this lovely extended rant, and I found myself nodding along.  Seriously… this just bugged me so much I had to ignore it or slip into mild-mannered nerdrage.

…tangentially, I find it interesting that my flavor of nerdrage expression was to buy the original game in protest, even though I still have the CDs for the first two games in my library somewhere.  That probably borders on ineffective.  This might also be why my efforts to resurrect the Chrono series by buying ‘Trigger on all platforms and playing the OST for CT and CC every week isn’t doing so well.  Anyway…

Yesterday, it was with much happiness that I found out there is a team of intrepid indies working on a game they call Xenonauts, a little gem that looks to be nicely faithful to the original X-Com.  While I haven’t bought in yet, Minecraft is the only other game I’ve spent money on while it’s still in development, and I’m sorely tempted here.  Maybe I’ll get it after passing on a few more junk food runs (my gaming budget is what I might have spent on junk food).

Then this morning, Firaxis pulls a vaguely mean move and announces their own resurrection of the X-Com name.  I like Firaxis.  I trust them, at least for now.  I think they might actually understand X-Com and be able to bring it into the 2010s.  That sure has the potential to put the bootheel of Bigger Business on the Xenonauts team, though.

As ambivalent as I am about Firaxis maybe poaching indie efforts, both teams really are poaching the X-Com name in the first place, so I can’t get too fussy about it.  If anything, the competition between the two could be a healthy thing, making for better games.  I do hope that the Firaxis effort doesn’t destroy the livelihood of  the Xenonauts team, but mining nostalgia is a dangerous game.  (Never mind the IP legalhounds and shenanigans that come up with things like the Chrono Resurrection project.)  The squishy territory covered by tribute, homage, mimicry and plagiarism is a minefield.

May the true inheritor of the X-Com throne rise up!

…but if they both flub it, will someone else please try again?

…and I dearly hope that the 2K iteration doesn’t become the most successful one.  That would just be… sad.

UPDATED with more info at the following pair of articles,

Why Firaxis Loves X-Com

First Screens and Details

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I’ve written about most of the card by now, but I wanted to cover the other remaining bits and mention a few other things.  Once again, here’s the card:

Zomblob card Murmurer

And here are the other articles on it: Warming Up and Keeping Track.  There are other Zomblob articles, all tagged with the Zomblob label… I’ll make a comprehensive list when I post the beta ruleset and PDFs.  (This has been pushed back a little bit thanks to two other big projects that demanded immediate attention, but I want to get them before the 20th or so if at all possible.)

The biggest thing I haven’t covered yet is the combat resolution.  It works like HeroScape (which I still haven’t played, sadly, though I’ve researched it) or the WoW Miniatures game.  Each attack uses either WILL or POW, and the number cited is the number of six-sided dice you roll.  (So a POW 5 attack would have you rolling 5 dice.)  This number may be modified by a few things, so you may be rolling a few more or less.  The defending unit rolls dice as well, dictated by the attack.  Ranged attacks will have the defender rolling as many dice as the RDEF value lists, defense against melee attacks use the MDEF value, and defense against WILL attacks use the WILL value.  (If you’re using an Action on one of your own units, ignore the WILL values.)  A die showing 3, 4, 5, or 6 is a “success”, either in attack or defense.  A POW-based attack will deal damage equal to how many successes the attacker rolls, minus the number of successes the defender rolls.  A WILL-based attack is binary; if the attacker rolls more successes than the defender, the attack succeeds.

It’s worth noting that the base values for these attributes will range from 1 to 6.  They might be modified by game effects, but they shouldn’t wind up too big.

Example 1:  A Banshee Feral Ranged unit uses a ranged attack with POW 4 against our hapless Murmurer up there.  The Murmurer is a Support unit, generally hiding behind the front lines, so it has a decent RDEF of 4.  Both players roll 4 dice.  The attacking player rolls 3 successes, and the defending player unluckily rolls 1 success.  The Murmurer takes 2 damage (loses 2 Health points) because it only defended against one of the 3 attack points.

Example 2:  An Interceptor Aspirant Melee unit uses a WILL attack (WILL 6) to try to lock the Murmurer in place for a turn.  The Murmurer is a stubborn unit, as its WILL value of 5 attests.  The attacking player rolls 6 dice and gets 4 successes.  The defending player rolls 5 dice and gets 4 successes.  The Murmerer thus defends against the WILL attack and does not suffer the lockdown.

Example 3:  The Murmerer then uses its own Action that prevents a unit from moving (the second one in the list up there), targeting a rapidly approaching Rhino Feral Melee unit to stall its charge.  The Rhino has a WILL of 5, just as stubborn as the Murmurer, but it has melee attacks with POW of 5 and 6.  The Murmurer doesn’t want to defend against that with its measly 2 MDEF, so keeping the Rhino away is a good idea at the moment.  Both players roll 5 dice.  The attacking player (the Murmerer’s controller) rolls 4 successes and the defending player rolls 2 successes.  The lockdown attack succeeds, but there are no other effects due to the 2 successes that were not defended against.

I chose this method instead of the WarHammer/WarMachine method of only the attacker rolling dice for a couple of reasons.  One is that I simply prefer it.  Two, it’s more interactive.  Klaus Teuber, the designer behind Settlers of Catan, suggested in an interview (that I can’t find at present, sorry for the lack of citation) that games that allow all players to act, no matter whose turn it is, tend to be more interesting and socially involving.  This might be why I prefer the technique.  It seems like the people I’ve played the WoW Minis game with have more fun, too, as they are actively participating in their defense, not just sitting back hoping their opponent doesn’t roll well.

It’s a subtle psychological trick, perhaps, but I think it’s important, especially when you’re dealing with a small group instead of big, impersonal armies.  Rolling your own defense simply makes it more personal and tactile.  It might also make it more annoying to keep track, to be sure, which is one reason why I’m trying to keep the numbers relatively low.  Sure, it’s possible to make an attack have 11 POW or something even bigger, but that winds up to be a lot of dice.  6 feels like a good baseline top end to me, but this is one of those things that really needs a good playtesting shakedown.

Other than that, the card shows a few other things.  One is the “unit specials” box under the unit type line.  Each unit will have something here, some personal quirk, though some may have the same quirks.  The Murmurer is a fairly strong support unit with decent defense (at range, anyway) and a pair of useful defensive abilities:

“may not be delayed” means the Murmurer cannot be given TP by any other unit.  (Time Points that delay its next action, as described in the Keeping Track article.)

“may not be flanked” means the unit does not lose RDEF or MDEF when it’s attacked from its back arc, which is what Flanking usually does.  (An defender loses 1 to MDEF and RDEF against attacks against its back arc.)

Other units might have “(unit) gains +1 POW against Feral units” or “(unit) can draw LOS through any units” or the like.  I’m hoping to make all of these fairly simple and self-explanatory, but useful and/or powerful enough to make each unit valuable and interesting.

This does intersect a little bit with what I’m calling Auras (one of the elements that the Murmurer doesn’t display), which are static abilities that allow a unit to affect the battlefield at all times (the Special box is something that only affects the unit itself instead of a space on the battlefield).  An Aura will take the place of one of a unit’s Actions, but it need not be activated, it’s simply always “on”.  These will usually affect the stats of nearby units, either buffing allies or annoying enemies, though there will be some “utility” Auras with quirky effects, like the Interceptor’s movement-impairing aura that affects every nearby unit.

Then there’s the Value box in the lower right.  This is the point value of the unit, relevant for army building and scoring.  I’ll initially be offering a six-unit team for each breed, balanced by this number.  There’s room for customization, though, and handicapping, which is where this Value will be useful.

There’s also the Absorption mechanic, which is why the last Action has a gold border.  Any unit may absorb an Inert blob.  (A blob that has lost all of its Health is rendered Inert, which means it stays on the battlefield, just a lump of goo that gets in the way.)  If a unit absorbs another unit, it learns its last Action for the duration of the match.  You’d place the absorbed unit’s card under the absorber’s unit card, showing that last Action.  That Rhino Feral unit might wind up with the Murmurer’s ability to delay and heat up a target unit via absorption.  This might also be a big deal in campaigns, where absorbed Actions carry over to the next fight.

…I’m playing with fire a little bit there, potentially giving units “off-breed” abilities (which is one other reason why that last Murmurer Action is a multipurpose tool instead of a stronger simpler one).  I’m not sure that it will work out well, but it fits the flavor of blobs so well that I really want to make it work.  We’ll see, I guess.  There’s just something delightfully appealing about the ability to take the enemy’s resources and bend them to your ends.  I love this about BattleTech and salvaging units, something that was really fun in MechCommander 2, so I’m hoping to capture a bit of that fun with the biological mutability of the ‘blobs.  It might be a “win more” mechanic, but those have value too, in speeding up the endgame.  Absorption is a universal Action, too, so you’d be trading the opportunity to do a native Action for your turn for the potential of a new tool in future turns.  This will require playtesting and experimentation.

Does all of this make sense so far?  I don’t have the rules completely written down yet, and I need to find the best way to explain them concisely, so I’m hoping that these concepts aren’t too crazy.  I’m spending a lot of words here describing what I think are relatively simple mechanics… but sometimes something makes sense in my mind and then doesn’t translate all that well onto the page.  I’d love to hear what you think of any of this.

Thanks!

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I’ve written about this a little bit before, in my Losing Control article, and I previewed it a little bit in my card preview in the Keeping Track article.  One of the key mechanics of my Zomblobs! game is the Heat mechanic.

Once again, here’s the preview card:

zomblob card murmurer

Of note for the Heat system (which I suppose could use a more snappy name, but hey, “Heat” worked for BattleTech, and this is inspired in big ways by that game, so I can’t be too picky) are the three key values in the lower left corner, and the Heat values in each Action Tile.  Action Tiles are the largest visual elements on the card, the stack of pink and blue rectangles on the right side.  They define what the unit can do for its Action each turn.

A unit’s options are limited by its present Heat value.  Heat is a scale from 1 to 12 (easily tracked with a D12, 2 D6s or pen and paper) which every unit needs to track.  The Norm value is where the unit starts along the scale in any given battle.  The Coma value is where the unit slips into a comatose state, unable to move, and only able to use the universal Recover Action instead of any of its other Actions.  The Fever value is where the unit crosses the threshold between cool and warm.  This is really where each breed (Aspirant, Feral or Zomblob) most strongly differs.

The card above shows a Zomblob unit, which starts in the warm section of the gauge.  While it’s there, it can only use Actions that have the pink “warm” background (and the standard Actions, Recover and Absorb).  These actions will make the unit’s Heat go down by the number noted in the costs section of the ‘Tile.  Zomblobs prefer to be hot and fevered, and when they cool down, they start malfunctioning.  This is reflected in the blue Action Tile; when in its non-Norm phase (cool, in this case), a Zomblob unit can only use the Actions with blue backgrounds, and as can be noted, the Murmurer’s cool Action isn’t quite as desirable as its warm ones (though it may be useful in mirror matches… otherwise, it’s going to be attacking its teammates).

Aspirant units, on the other hand, start off in the cool section of the gauge and melt down into mania if they get too hot, and their available Actions will reflect this.  Feral blobs are perhaps the most quirky here, as they are about as effective warm as they are cool, just in different ways.  A unit that specializes in fast melee single target strikes while cool might settle into slower strong Area of Effect or Swipe (arc) attacks while warm.  Ferals don’t particularly mind being warm or cool, they just function differently (and unlike the other two, they may use the Recover and Absorb Actions while in their “non-Norm” state).

This dance between heat states is one of the most important things to track in the game.  Sure, Health is important and the Time system is key to some tactics, but Heat will dictate what Actions you have available on any given turn, and that can make all the difference.

Consequently, one of the most crucial aspects of Support units in the game is the way they can help other units manage heat (or inflict heat troubles on opponents).  Notice the last Action Tile on the sample card up there.  The Murmurer can make a target unit gain heat (and time).  This is a multifaceted tool, usable on *any* target.  Sometimes it might be advisable to heat up your own unit, even if it does mean a time delay (though I might just reduce or omit that to make the Action more useful).  Sometimes it’s best to heat up an opposing unit to throw their tactical options off.  It might even be useful against an opposing Zomblob, purely for the delay.

Each unit also (often) has access to the universal Recover Action, which costs 2 Time Points but heals 2 Health Points and moves the unit’s Heat 2 units towards its Norm.  Sometimes it’s best to stop and take a breather.  (Though the healing part of that might be too strong… playtesting will be key to nailing down the magnitudes of these functions.)

This will probably make more sense with more cards to compare, but that’s the core idea behind the Heat system.  It’s a way to modify the tactics of combat, and a way to make choices and timing more important.  Do you go for the big attack that will put your unit in its “off” state, or do you play it safe and Recover or use a cheaper Action?  I think it’s these choices, and their concurrent risk and reward, that make this sort of game most interesting.

What think you?

Oh, and I’ll write more about the combat system next time.  That’s really important, too, I’m just trying to break these articles up into concepts.

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Welcome to the latest sneak peek at the current state of the Zomblobs! project.  This is a unit card for one of the Zomblob units.  Each unit will have a miniature, a card and some dice to keep track of game data.  The units will play on a hex grid by default, but the game engine can convert readily to a gridless system.  The core game that I’m making will consist of six units for each of the three breeds, Zomblob, Feral and Aspirant.

I’m in the middle of something at the moment, so I’m not going to dig a lot into much of this, but I’ll do a proper writeup of it over the next few days.  I just wanted to get this out there and see what sort of impression it leaves.  It’s not exactly final, as I want to tweak the visuals a bit for colorblind players, and I may tweak some of the values and effects.  This is pretty close to what I’ll call my beta version of the game, though, and while the details might change on this particular unit, and the graphic design may change a bit, the mechanics are all where I want them.

Zomblob Card Murmurer

See you in a few days!

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As noted before, Zomblobs! has three breeds of blobs vying over global control:  The Aspirants, the Ferals and the Zomblobs.  One of the high level design rules I’ve made for myself is that I want each breed to play differently, but still be as balanced as possible.  Call it the StarCraft influence, perhaps.  Balance between three factions is inherently more interesting to me than two faction balance.  As such, one of the big things I want to change between the factions is the finer details of controlling units in tactical combat.

Some time ago, I purchased the Privateer Press Hordes: Primal book so that I could learn about the game.  I have a passing interest in tabletop miniature wargaming, and I really like what I’ve seen of WarMachine, so when I found a great deal on the Hordes sourcebook, it seemed like a good purchase.  It’s actually an older version, but that’s fine.  All my WarHammer and WarMachine books are older versions, too; that’s how I get ‘em cheap.  Since I’m not on the cutting edge, itching to play in tournaments, older sourcebooks work just fine.  (Aside to Hordes fans… if I mangle some of this, it’s inadvertently.  I’m still digging into the system.  I welcome corrections.)

Hordes has a curious mechanic they call Fury.  Commander/spellcaster units they call Warlocks command a group of Warbeasts who can in turn generate Fury points as they are prodded into combat actions.  The Warlocks then can leach those Fury points from the Warbeasts, using them to fuel spells and special actions.  At first blush, this is all upside, which is a bit odd considering that WarMachine, the sister game, is one of resource management like the typical mana point system we see in RPGs.  Fury-generating actions are useful in combat, and spells the Warlocks cast are similarly useful.  Generation and use of fury points provide combat benefits.  So where’s the resource management?  Warlocks and Warbeasts have Fury limits, true, so there’s an upper limit to what can be done in any given turn, but an upper limit is a different thing from a pool that depletes.  It’s also important to note that Warlocks don’t generate Fury on their own.

The significant catch is that Warbeasts can “frenzy” if they fail to pass a “check” performed with a dice roll.  Warbeasts who have Fury points on them are more likely to fail this check; the more Fury points, the more likely they are to fail.  When a Warbeast “frenzies”, the Warlock (and therefore the player) loses control of the Warbeast.  They will tend to still try to attack enemies, but they do so in a blind fury.  They can even turn on allies or even their “controlling” Warlock.  As such, as the designers note, Hordes is a game of risk management rather than resource management, though there is still resource management on the battle level, as usual (losing units makes your team less effective, losing your Warlock means you lose the battle).  Warlocks need Fury to fuel their powerful abilities, but pushing their Warbeasts too far flirts with losing control of their most significant assets.  You will want those powerful abilities that come only with the use of Fury, but the more you use them, the more likely the Warbeast frenzy system is to blow up in your face.

So… what of Zomblobs?

Thematically, I really like the notion of losing control.

Aspirants are the most intelligent of blobs, and strive to always be in control.  They know that they could slip into the natural, instinctive mayhem the Feral blobs embrace if they lose control, and they aren’t sure they can get back… or if they would want to.  And Zomblobs, well… zombies have long represented the loss of control that most humans fear, a primal, deep rooted concern, as the loss of control wouldn’t be a surrender, but a corruption.  Aspirants are deathly afraid of losing control, either to become a Feral blob or a Zomblob.  They fight not because they want to rule, but because they do not want to be ruled… or corrupted.  They know passion, they know fear, but they do not lose control.  (Think Spock, not Data, and Trekkies know the trouble an uncontrolled Vulcan can get into.)

Feral blobs love being reckless and dancing on the edge of being out of control.  They draw strength from that savage adrenaline rush.  They don’t want to buckle down and bow to the sort of control an Aspirant cherishes.  They glory in acting, not thinking, the faster the better.  They love the hunt, and they cherish the kill.  Life is simple for a Feral blob, though they don’t follow directions well, especially once they get rolling.

Zomblobs are corrupted monsters, some were once Ferals, most were once Aspirants.  They no longer have full control of their faculties, though they are stronger in some ways for it.  They don’t follow detailed orders well, but their single-minded drive to consume and corrupt means they are utterly implacable and totally committed to their course of action.  Nothing short of complete defeat will keep a Zomblob from its destination, though they can occasionally be confused once they accomplish their orders.

Mechanically, I’m torn on this.  I believe that players tend to like to keep the reins and control their units.  Hordes does show that some fun can occur when that control is loosened a bit, and the WarHammer Greenskin army of Ork and Goblin fame thrives on a bit of chaos.  It still seems like an acquired taste, though, and I’m not sure how many players want to trade power for a more unwieldy toolset.

I’m thinking of two major design approaches to this.

On the one hand, I’d play it safe and go with a Fury-like system, where each unit has a threshold where they lose control and do their own thing in combat (though just for a turn in all cases; control can be reasserted pretty quickly once the fury is expended).    Ferals would have less control than Aspirants, and Zomblobs would be even less controlled.  The “frenzy” equivalent would balance this loss of control out, and indeed, it can be a calculated risk to intentionally drive units to go crazy.  I like the choices that might prompt.

On the other hand, I’d really like to make playing each breed a distinct experience, really embracing the flavor of the factions.  Aspirants would play like normal ‘Tactics games, with full control.  Feral units would pick a target at the beginning of a skirmish and begin hunting.  Players could nudge them with interim commands, but for the most part, Feral blobs would just go for the kill and then wait for new targets.  Zomblobs would just be given a direction and/or a location, then be left pretty much alone.  Players wouldn’t have much control at all.  It’s almost like the difference between commanding a group of snipers, a nest of rabid trench fighters, or a wind-up flamethrower automaton with C4 nailed to the tanks.

Now, in all this, players can play any of the three blob breeds, so they can always find one that fits their taste, and they would probably still have full control over the RNA layout, so they can prepare loose cannons before a fight.  Still, I’m not sure that diverging too much between playstyles, as I’m thinking of in the latter option, is a good idea.  I really want to make it work, and I think it could be a lot of fun, but how many players will bother with the Ferals or the Zomblobs then?  Might the game be poorer when players don’t like two thirds of the potential units?

Any thoughts?

…perhaps it’s telling that I’m leaning to the latter design, with elements of the first, though it could be more risky.  It seems like it could be more fun.

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I’ve written a bit about my own game design, using it as a template for practical demonstration of some game design elements.  There are nuggets in the Balance articles thisaway:

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5

In addition to the things I’ve written so far, outlining some of the features of my tactical RPG (think “hex-based Fire Emblem/X-Com/Final Fantasy Tactics inspired” cobbler), I want to splice on a larger, strategic layer.  That’s another place where the X-Com inspiration comes in.  That classic game has a tactical layer (turn based initially, real-time pausable later in the series), but it also has the Geoscape, a strategic layer where base management, research and politics matter.  This facilitates a sort of strategic persistence, where decisions you make in the tactical combat echo through the campaign against the aliens and vice versa.

For example, falling behind in research is especially damaging to the war effort, but if your soldiers can’t score some salvage to study, you’re going to fall behind.  If you can’t equip them with better gear through research, battlefield acquisition and plain old mercantile action, they won’t work well in the field.  If they don’t gain experience and become better soldiers, they won’t keep up.  The  little decisions you make all over the place add up to a greater whole.  (See also: The Rampant Coyote’s Game Design: Small Choices article.)

I like that a good commander needed to keep the bigger picture in mind, and that sometimes, short-term sacrifices needed to be made to make a long-term plan viable.  I like that tactics and strategy have their own compartments in the game design (they are different, after all), but that they influence each other in profound ways.  That’s the sort of gameplay that can make planning and analysis very rewarding, even as randomization of things like alien attacks makes flexibility valuable.  I love that about X-Com, and it’s something I’ve tried to let weigh heavily in my own designs.

So, what sort of large scale conflict I’m thinking of for my game?  Well, the short form is “post-apocalyptic DNA soup, where blobs are the dominant life form”.  Players choose one of three Blob breeds and deal with their neighbors; the Aspirants, the world’s mental giants (these guys correspond to the Focus strain of previous articles), the Ferals, blobs of the wild (Agility units), and Zomblobs (Strength units), slow, relentless, mindless monsters.

In age-old blob tradition, consume your enemies, or be consumed.  Use their strengths as your own and rise to be the dominant species.  Build blob bases, claim favorable geography, research the apocalypse and dig for hidden DNA caches to give your group the edge via mutation and adaptation.

Or else.

The zomblobs are coming.

Zomblobs! ...and neighbors

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Time is an interesting thing in games.

At a very basic level, you usually have the power to pause a game.  Some games play with time more explicitly, as the recent Prince of Persia games have.  Yet others take time manipulation even further, like Braid‘s suite of time-bending mechanics, or maybe just temporal echoes like The Misadventures of P. B. Winterbottom.  Like death, time is one of those immutable things that we face in nature that is ripe for fictional and mechanical treatments in games, both in the narrative and in the play.  (That could be an article in itself, though, so I’ll save that for another time.)

On a more specific level, I’ve been looking at time and how it functions mechanically as a game design element, working on my own game design again.  I’ve been pulling in ideas from a variety of sources.  From the differences between “speeds” of cards in Magic the Gathering or the World of Warcraft TCG (instant, sorcery/ability… and then there’s phasing, delay counters and other oddball mechanics) to warmups and cooldowns, from turn-based RPG notions of speed to real-time games and rate of fire or travel speed, there are a lot of ways that time makes a difference in games.  Specifically when considering balance, I tend to look at speed as another “handle” to tweak in order to nudge around valuation of varied game design elements.  Mark Rosewater has written about similar things when talking card design in MtG, so before I blather too much more, may I recommend an article or two of his?

Mark Rosewater Q & A

Plenty of Time

You Make the Card FAQ

Equipment to Be (especially the Topic #6 subsection)

That last one is likely where I latched onto the idea of “knobs” to tweak when defining costs on game mechanics.  I’m pretty sure he’s written about it elsewhere, but durned if I can’t find those articles.  Point being, the cost/benefit ratio for each game design element is an important factor of balance.

In MtG terms, two similar cards might be allotted the same level of power but that power might be expressed in different ways.  One might be an “instant” card with a cheap effect, while the other is a slower “sorcery” card with a more powerful effect, but both have an equivalent abstract power level.  (And yes, something like a 2W 1/4 creature with an ability might have its power balance figured differently against a 2W 3/2 creature with a different ability.  MtG design isn’t always about the card’s speed… but speed is what I’m looking at today.)

So what of turn-based tactical RPG design, since that’s what I’ve been looking at in my other articles (this, a game of my own design, so I can speak with some authority about the thought processes behind it)?

Balance, Part 1: Tao of Picasso

Balance, Part 2: Asymmetry and Art

Balance, Part 3: Systems, Defaults and Munchkins

Balance, Part 4: Triangles, Trinity and Triage

I’ve pulled inspiration from a lot of different sources on this, but four major examples stick out: Final Fantasy Tactics, Band of Bugs (the first game I worked on here at Wahoo/NinjaBee), World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy X.  Some thoughts, then…

Speed

In physics terms, “speed” is distance per unit of time.  Many RPG systems incorporate speed as a core characteristic of units in one form or another.  Sometimes it’s “agility” which affects a variety of things, sometimes it’s a simple measure of d/t.  Band of Bugs expresses unit speed purely as distance (number of squares on the grid a unit can move) per turn.  Each game “turn” consists of a single action (with or without a move) by each allied and enemy unit.  Once everyone has had a shot at doing something (even if it’s only defending in place), a “turn” is over.  A fast unit can move farther each time it gets to move, while a slow unit can only move a few steps each turn.

BoB units alternate activation.  A player gets “action slots” within the turn to move their units, and a turn allocates all of its slots more or less randomly between all of the units on the field, friend or foe.  Players can choose to move whichever unit they like in their time slots.  The first two slots might be reserved for the player, but then the computer or other player might get the next two, then they may alternate single slots, then back to two.  Since it’s not “all my team moves, then all your team” like Disgaea, FFT or Valkyrie Profile, Covenant of the Plume, you’re never sure which unit the other guy will choose to move during their time slots, so it’s a little trickier to plan things out.  This rewards a more conservative set of tactics.  I’ll admit, I’m a bit annoyed that I can’t predict my opponents, and that I can’t gang up or make a front by using my units all together, but it does make for a more chaotic sort of feel, which again, rewards a different sort of play style.  It also makes more chronological sense than “all my guys go, then all yours” as if mortal combat were some sort of square dance with weapons.  …which might be sort of interesting in the right context, but I digress.

Point being, speed in BoB has more to do with how far a unit moves than anything else, and this is pretty common among TRPGs.  It seems to be largely rooted in the “turn” structure, where the balance comes in giving each unit an action per arbitrary large chunk of time we call a “turn”.  True, this may mean an enemy squad that outnumbers the player team 2 to 1 will also get twice as many actions per turn, but that’s just something that designers have to keep in mind.  (On the other hand, if a player team of four units against a computer team of eight units simply alternated these “time slots” without the overall turn structure of giving each unit one action each turn, the player units would effectively move twice as frequently as the enemy units… also clearly a weird notion of balance.  More on frequency below, though…)

Contrast that with Chess, where each player has the same number of units, and they take turns moving a single unit at a time according to that unit’s rules.  It might be said that the Queen has extraordinary speed potential, if framed in distance/move terms.  We might call her flexibility “agility”, while we’re talking about RPG terms, thereby differentiating her from the Rook and Bishop.  All three have the same speed potential (as far as they can see in a clear line), but different agility.  Of course, the game doesn’t track all that well with RPG design; imagine how the dynamics of Chess would change if you could move all of the units on your team once before your opponent got to move anything at all.  It would be almost unplayable.  (Which could lead to discussions about why TRPG teams tend to be small, and turn order advantage…)

Of course, there are the Fire Emblem games that take speed and use it differently.  The FE games use speed to determine whether a unit can attack a foe twice in a combat round, and to determine how likely an opponent is to actually hit you.  High speed means better dodge rates, then, and enough of a speed disparity between attacker and defender may well lead to one getting hit twice per exchange.  Speed doesn’t affect how often a unit moves, then, or how far (the former is determined by the “all my team, all your team” system, the latter is class-based), it affects combat.  It’s probably closer to what most games call “agility”, then, though the two-for-one strike bit does feel like a unit is simply much quicker than its opponent.  It’s such a strong tactical effect that it seems to me that many FE players prefer speed over raw power.

So, there are several different directions to take the notion of speed.  The direction you go with it will depend mightily on what you want the game to play like.  I find I like the effect speed has in the FE games, though I like the tactical utility of letting speed affect motion range.  In something like Phantom Brave, where you aren’t constrained to a grid, it can be even more useful to have a big range of motion.

Warmups and Cooldowns

Timing on actions can also be an interesting knob to tweak.  Final Fantasy Tactics has a quirky magic system (the Faith mechanic is something I’ll revisit later; I’ve used something like it in a tabletop miniatures game I’m designing) that might be parsed easily by a World of Warcraft veteran.  WoW character abilities tend to range from instant cast abilities with a wide variety of cooldown timers (time before you can use them again) through a range of what I’m calling “warmup” abilities; those that require a bit of time between activation and effect, whether it’s a “fire and forget” missile sort of thing or a “stand here and mumble for a while and eventually your effect will happen” thing.  There’s even a sort of hybrid; the “channeled” technique where the effect happens while standing there mumbling, and it keeps happening for the duration of the mumble period.  There’s also the instant-cast, lasting effect sort of spells.  There are a lot of knobs to tweak with timing there, both with the casting and the effects.

By comparison, the FFT system is pretty simple.  It’s just a warmup system where magic spells take time to cast, but once cast, they have an immediate effect.  The only cooldown is waiting for another turn to move your mage and start a new spell (and refilling magic points, I suppose, but combat doesn’t usually last that long).  There is a marked lack of what I’m calling “smart” or adaptive targeting in FFT, though.  In WoW, even your spells with a warmup time are still cast at the initial target, wherever they may be.  (OK, assume your cast isn’t interrupted, anyway.)

In FFT, you choose a target and a spell strength.  Stronger spells take more time to warm up.  …more time to allow the targeted space to change.  If memory serves, you target a place on the ground, and units may move into or out of said target.  (I don’t think you can keep targeting a unit… though if you can, you don’t know where it will move, so you may well hit friendly units with splash damage.)  Using powerful spells then naturally changes into an exercise in prediction and spatial control.  That’s all well and fine from a “depth of tactics” standpoint, or for the “I want the game to hate me” crowd, but the trouble is one of feedback.  It’s been a while since I played the game, but I seem to remember that you can’t tell when the opponent units will move.  You know how long your spell should take to cast, but not exactly who will move between casting and the effect.  It’s hard to pin down what might happen to that targeted space.  That makes it hard to use bigger spells.  If you knew who would move and when, you could predict where they might move thanks to blocking and baiting, but absent that knowledge, magic is little better than slow artillery.  Carpet bombing locations has some tactical value, but it’s an indelicate, imprecise weapon.

It seems to me that the missing piece of “when” is crucial to making that sort of warmup-based location-targeted magic useful in a turn-based system.  In WoW, where everything is real-time, that question largely goes away, since most players can just move anytime (mobility controlling spells aside, of course).  Later FFT games (FFTAdvance and FFTA2) have moved to an “instant cast” system that make tactics simpler and easier, for better or worse.  (I know, old school is the best school, and all that.)  It’s a change I like overall, but I think the predictive potential of delayed warmup magic could be better realized with better feedback on who would move when.

Back to cooldowns, though, WoW tends to use cooldowns to throttle the use of certain abilities.  More powerful abilities tend to get long cooldowns.  Utility and common abilities get short cooldowns so they can be used more often.  Players get the benefit of being able to use something right now if it needs to be used, but they have to wait to use it again.  It’s a nice balance between usability and throttling, permitting powerful abilities without them overwhelming the more common ones.

Similarly, the Kingdom Hearts series has fiddled with its magic in each iteration of the IP.  Early titles used instant-cast magic point-consuming spells (MP being yet another knob to tweak for balancing things, of course).  MP could be refilled by collecting drops from fallen foes, recharging at save points or by using items.  Later iterations of the game have dropped MP altogether and have used cooldowns to throttle magic use.  It’s an interesting change that sort of smooths out the pacing of magic use.  Instead of using a bunch in a flurry then refilling MP, players can use magic spells more regularly over time, but without the temporally concentrated burst of activity they once were capable of.  The spells refill automatically, so resource management moves from keeping track of MP and items, and more into keeping track of time.

Time as a Cost

Or, “where it all starts to come together”.

I really like using time as a cost for abilities, ideally with a mix of warmups and cooldowns.  To really make things work, I want enemy turn order to be crystal clear, so that prediction can work.  When time becomes the coin of the realm for using abilities, as a matter of feedback, it needs to be clear how things change during that time.

That’s where I’m borrowing from Final Fantasy X.  It’s one of my favorites in the FF series, partially because of the combat system.  It’s a turn-based sort of system in that it’s not “real-time, always running”.  The game waits for your input, and your characters and the enemies take turns beating on each other.  It’s a different sort of “turn” from the games I’ve written about above, though.

There’s a timeline that all unit actions fall on.  Units act when they are ready, with the frequency of their actions depending on their speed rating.  Faster units get to act more frequently.  Time itself ticks on underneath the turn order.  There’s no “each of us gets one hit on each other” ad perpetuum, it’s just characters checking against the underlying clock to see if they get to act again.  (I’m not sure what the system does in the case of a tie, but I’m not sure it matters to the user since they know ahead of time and can plan accordingly.)

As for feedback, you always know who takes the next turn and the next handful of turns after that because there is a UI element that shows you the next several actors (not their actions, just who is up to bat next for the next ten actions or so).  Further, those actions can be modified by things like Haste spells (higher frequency of actions) or Quick Attacks (low power, shortest cooldown), and the turn order shifts around to reflect that.  You can also swap characters in combat and the time layout may shift to reflect changes in the order because of the new character’s speed.  You can predict the next few moves very nicely this way and react with much more control.

It’s that sense of “time goes on” that I like, rather than the Red Rover sort of game where teams alternate attacks.  Yes, you will always get some of that “wait ’til I hit you” time stutter-step with a non-real-time combat engine, but I think that the FFX system hits a nice compromise.

This time treatment is actually fairly similar to the World of Warcraft Miniatures game, which I like quite a bit.  It’s not something that functions to the depth of a WarHammer or WarMachine tabletop game (go check out 6 Inch Move for some great articles on tabletop gaming, by the way), mostly as a matter of scale, but the WoWMinis game is pretty solid for a simplified tactical game.  That game also has a ticking time line that progresses all the time (though players track it, not the computer).  Each unit has a personal clock, and they get to act when their clock matches the master clock.  Moving (or doing nothing, actually) costs a tick, and unit attacks or abilities each have a “tick cost”, effectively a cooldown.  Their attacks are balanced against the time cost.  There are no magic points, just time costs.  (OK, if you use the optional ability bar cards, those effectively have a “ten tick round” potential cooldown, as they can only be used once per ten ticks of the master clock, so they function a little differently, but still, that’s a time-based throttle.)

I played a game with my wife where her Orc Warrior was able to use an ability to get some extra range on one of his turn’s moves and then immediately take another turn simply because everyone else was on cooldown.  He subsequently squashed my fragile mage, winning the game for my wife.  That sort of tactical situation (effectively a last-ditch two-for-one double turn) doesn’t come up in a game where you just alternate actions.  Yes, I lost, but it was awesome that the game allowed that sort of thing.

My Turn

So, for my game, I want to have a FFX-like time system, where units act according to their own timing measured against the master clock.  There will be a display of who will be acting for the next handful of “turns”, allowing for predictive tactics.  I love the idea of both warmup and cooldown abilities, and I want to make a system that makes them interesting and fun.  I will probably include a UI element that shows when a warmup ability will actually trigger within the master clock’s queue.  Unit speed will dictate the frequency of their actions (and other subtle effects we might usually attribute to agility), and actions will be paid for with their time cost.

I want the gameplay focus of the game to be on smart tactics based on solid intel.  There’s a place for guesswork, but that will be optional, as players can turn off the timeline UI or introduce fog of war.  At its heart, I want my game to err on the side of ease of use (not necessarily ease of conquering the game’s challenges, mind you) so that the challenge comes from the game’s tactical situations, not fighting the system’s limitations.

One More Thing

A few final quirks of time in games:  Talking is a free action; time moves at the speed of Plot, or as fast as players need it to.

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Balance, Part 1: Tao of Picasso

Balance, Part 2: Asymmetry and Art

Balance, Part 3: Systems, Defaults and Munchkins

Last time, I wrote about what I’m calling the DNA Grid, my tactical RPG’s character advancement system.  That happens to be only a part of the system, and stepping back a layer, there’s a triangle that I’m using to give the game’s three major factions flavor and unique functions while trying to give them asymmetrical balance.

It’s at least partially built on the old gaming triangle of Paper-Rock-Scissors.  Paper beats Rock, Rock beats Scissors and Scissors beat Paper.  (Or, as my family has played, Chicken-Pickle-Elvis.  Chicken eats Pickle, Elvis eats Chicken, Pickle chokes Elvis.  Long road trips and tired kids make for interesting game design.)  The Fire Emblem games use other triangles that function almost in the same way, Axe-Sword-Spear, Wind-Thunder-Fire or Anima-Light-Dark.  They aren’t absolute triangles, they are just advantages, but they can be key in combat.  They also have some outliers like triangle-reversing weapons, knives, ranged weapons and healing, but the core triangle interactions are going to cover the bulk of combat.

DNA Codex Full

My design uses Strength, Agility and Focus.  Like the FE games, it’s not an absolute triangle, but rather, it’s a series of advantages.  Strength has an edge over Focus, Focus has an edge over Agility and Agility has an edge over Strength.  Each should perform mostly the same in the DPM (Damage Per Minute) over time against a neutral target.  Strength units hit harder but less frequently and with low critical rates, Agility units hit more often but with less power, also with low critical rates, and Focus units have power between those two, but act infrequency with high critical rates.  The RNG (Random Number Generator) makes the Focus units more “swingy” or “spiky” than the other two unit types (with an uneven damage distribution), but over time, all three should be more or less even.  Of course, the point is to play to your strengths tactically, and make your units more effective by how you use them.  That will be different with each type, if I do it right.

Key to this balance is how the metric for “over time” is chosen, or more accurately, how the DPM is split up into discrete attacks when it comes to balancing numbers.  If there are too few samples per minute, Focus units will be too erratic.  If there are too many samples required to create balance, the pacing of the game can suffer.  I’d like the baseline combat session to have about three segments of “balanced” time, or, put another way, enough time for a unit of each type to defeat three neutral units in roughly the same overall time.  If the Focus unit defeats one foe early thanks to a lucky critical hit, it might take a little longer on another unit as the RNG swings the other way, but over those three time segments, it should be roughly on par with the others.

These are rough ballpark guesstimates, by the way.  Balance is an iterative beastie, and this may well require some more tinkering.  That’s the point of playtesting, and why early playable prototypes are important… but that’s another article, perhaps.

Anyway, back to the DNA Grid, each type of unit, Strength, Agility and Focus, has a separate third of this overall grid (they won’t have access to the whole tripartite grid, just their section).  Combine that with the RNA Salvaging mechanic (units can steal RNA from foes they defeat, no matter the unit type), and the flexibility of a unit’s “build” can be pretty crazy.  A Focus unit might be able to use a midlevel Strength RNA sequence to shore up its baseline damage, or use an Agility RNA sequence to increase the frequency of its attacks.  The shape of the DNA Grid means that each type will have exclusive RNA sequences (and choosing a five-unit long exclusive RNA sequence locks out three-unit long RNA sequences from other types), but there’s room to tinker and fudge things around to tailor the play experience.  Since you’re tasked with controlling a squad of units instead of just one, you can make specialists or generalists, whichever befits your tactical style.

This, for example, is a Strength unit using a 5-wide Strength RNA Sequence, a 4-wide Strength RNA Sequence and all three units using the same 3-wide Strength RNA Sequence.  Note that the 3-wide cuts off different options for the Agility unit and the Focus unit.  The Focus unit could use that 3-wide Strength RNA Sequence and four 4-wide Focus RNA Sequences, but the Agility unit is more constrained when it’s using Strength “offspec” RNA, a simple byproduct of the geometry of their DNA grids.

Strength RNA Sequences

…and yes, I know that I’m going to have to make cleaner and cooler UI design for usability on this.  This is by no means the final art.  I need to communicate base type and function for each RNA Sequence… though maybe the base type is implicit in the shape.  Of course, when you get shapes that bend around a corner into two major axes, well, that’s another thing yet again… and maybe a good reason to just let the shape do the communicating.

———————————————————-

But speaking of triangles, what of the (un)Holy Trinity of HP-depletion based game design?  So long as there is damage to be dealt, damage to be avoided and a healing fudge factor, are we stuck with the trinity of “tank/damage dealer (DPS)/healer”?  Well, a few links are in order to start with, perhaps:

Syl issues a lovely rant/request on the trinity of MMO combat and how Guild Wars 2 is changing the game, and Nils takes that and runs with it, then takes a flying leap into the breach.  Big Bear Butt ranted magnificently on it not so long ago.  I’ve written about the trinity before, here and there.  I agree with these fine authors, that the trinity is functional, but I want something different.

To that end, I’m adopting a triage model, effectively the Battletech “battle of attrition” model with a slight healing fudge factor on top.  I’ve taken to thinking of it as a sort of multipart boxing match, a battle less about who gets in the big hits, and more about who can take the hits and keep going.  (This being what some boxing aficionados would have one believe is the heart of boxing.)  I want a battle of endurance where units aren’t always healing through big unavoidable damage, or finishing a fight in pristine condition.  Real fights hurt, and the winner is all too often just the last guy standing, no matter his condition.

As such, I’m going to push healing to the curb a bit.  I still like that healing can be a fudge factor for tactical mistakes, but on the other hand, if a single mistake doesn’t hurt as much, it’s not as necessary.  That’s where I’m coming from on this, at least.  I intend to avoid OHKO (One Hit Knock Out) moves, and make each fight be one where smart tactics of positioning, careful target selection, communication (AI units can communicate across certain distances), focused fire and careful planning carry the day.

Healing will be changed under this triage and attrition model.  Each unit can perform a small self-heal or heal another unit, but those actions cost time, and sometimes time is the most important element.

…but time is a big topic for another article.  Balance, Part 5… when I get it put together.

Still, when each unit can afford to take a handful of hits, the hope is that healing won’t be quite as necessary as a fudge factor, and the focus can be on smart offensive tactics rather than simply wading in and healing through mistakes.  Again, playtesting will be crucial here, to make sure this winds up being fun without being onerous, and that the tactical play can stand on its own without players leaning on the healing crutch.  It will be a lot of number crunching, I think, and some systems analysis, but I think it can work.

Battletech is very playable, after all, and it has no healing at all in most iterations of the game.  Repairs come after the mission is done, not during combat.  (The MechCommander games played a bit with this by including Repair Bays, which changed the game significantly in some cases, though they notably only used them for longer, tougher missions.  That seems like a fair compromise to me.)  Similarly, Fire Emblem games tend to have sparse and somewhat weak healing, making smart tactics more important.

Short story long, I’m not opposed to healing as a fudge factor, I just want to see if I can shift the focus to a different set of tactics.  Healing works, but as with the holy trinity of MMO combat, it’s not the only way to do things.

There’s a lot to consider in my design still, but these, as always, are submitted to public airing in the hopes that they can spur thought and discussion.  My design is by no means the One True Way to design games, it’s just the way I’m doing things, for better or worse.  And, as noted before, I’m not much of a programmer.  I’m not certain at all that this will ever be made.  Still, it’s nice to at least go through the logic and think things through, especially if what I present here can help someone else.

See you next time!

Oh, and just for fun, if all this blather of game design hasn’t bored you yet, and the industry interests you, try this:

So You Want to Work in the Video Game Industry…

Maybe there’s good reason I’m instinctively writing first about the game design, rather than start with the story/setting and snazzy concept art.  Y’see, I’d rather have substance over style.  I can add style very easily (and indeed, the terminology I’m using is certainly not inviolate if I come up with a more flavorful theme)… getting the core game down right is more important to me.

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My company’s latest XBox Live game update has finally hit the virtual shelves!

Band of Bugs

It’s been updated with the ability to put your Microsoft XBox avatar in the game as the lead character, and multiplayer is crazy fun with a lot of different avatars.

There’s also a whole new tileset and group of characters in a new storyline (Tales of Kaloki), and since it’s set in space, it changes the game considerably with different tactical attacks and options.  It’s almost a whole new game for a whopping $3 in MS points.  The multiplayer in that mode is a blast as well.

I don’t just say that because I did a significant amount of art on it either.  That’s just a bonus.

Of course, the irony of me promoting a fun game that I’d buy without reserve, while not having a machine to play it on, is not lost on me.  At least I can play it on occasion at the office and actually get paid for it.  (Well, OK, only while I’m technically testing it, but hey, I’ll take what I can get.  It’s a fun game!)

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