Saturday, November 29, 2014

Fiasco: How I Learned to Stop Caring and Love the 12-pound Mountain Howitzer

When it's firing on all cylinders, Fiasco might be my favorite game of all time. It's a weird mishmash of mechanics and GM-less roleplaying that basically lets you create a Cohen Brothers film. I just had one of the best sessions I've played yet and figured it was worth sharing. We used the Boomtown playset, which I've had good luck with; people seem to be comfortable with Western tropes, and they work well with Fiasco's themes. [gameplay details are in brackets. In Acts 1 & 2, each paragraph was a “scene.”]

The Setup
[Lacey & Anglebolt – The Past (relationship): a criminal & a detective – Weapon (object): 12-pound Mountain Howitzer]
[Anglebolt & Brisbee – Community (relationship): elected officials – Residence (location): a squalid apartment above a newspaper office]
[Brisbee & Doogal – Crime (relationship): gamblers – To Get Rich (need): through fraud and trickery]
[Doogal & Lacey - Work (relationship): professional/client – Information (object): contract with the Pinkerton detective agency]

Brisbee, a portly Southern gent with the sort of charisma possessed by used car salesmen, has been Mayor of Pendleton for quite a number of terms. This is because he's supported by...

James Doogal, a powerful crime lord (read “legitimate businessman”) who owns most of Pendleton legally or otherwise, including its mayor. Brisbee fell in with Doogal after accruing horrific gambling debts at his tavern, but he's been riding high ever since. However, the Mayoral election looms in a few days, and there are two relative newcomers he fears. One is a Lawyer, the other is...

Thomas Anglebolt, Pendleton's Treasurer. He's a rising star in Pendleton's community, but he has a dark past. He used to be a notorious outlaw, and staged a bank robbery with a 12-pound Mountain Howitzer he recovered from his days in the Civil War, but he has escaped to remote Pendleton to clean up his act and used his illicit gains to establish himself as a respected political figure. He has temporarily stashed his Howitzer in a small apartment he owns above the newspaper office, but he needs a more permanent hiding place lest it be discovered by someone like...

Dick Lacey. He's a private investigator with the Pinkerton detective agency who served alongside Anglebolt in the war and is convinced he is the masked outlaw he has been tracking for years, and he's come to Pendleton to find proof and closure.

Act I
Doogal confidently strides into the Lawyer's home. They exchange forced pleasantries and Doogal is given a sarsaparilla. Doogal explains that he has a longstanding “arrangement” with the current mayor, and after his goons draw weapons, the Lawyer hurriedly agrees to leave town (and even asks him to keep the glass as a parting gift).

Lacey comes into town and immediately heads for the saloon for information. The bartender doesn't know much about Anglebolt other than that he is very upstanding citizen, but he suggests Lacey should pay him a visit at his office above the local newspaper.

But Anglebolt isn't at his office, he's in a dank basement beneath the saloon playing high-stakes Poker and winning big. He slaps down another big bet and nobody will match him until... Doogal saunters out of the back room. He owns this place, it's where Brisbee first got in his debt, and he doesn't like the attitude of this upstart who is looking to challenge his friend's campaign. They agree to play another hand; if Anglebolt wins, Doogal agrees to take his “business” to another town. But Doogal's men rig the deck, and Anglebolt loses. Doogal lets him go unharmed (though significantly lighter in pocket), but says Anglebolt owes him a “favor.”

Brisbee pays Doogal a visit. He's glad to hear that the Lawyer has been run out of town, but he's nervous about his other opponent, the much-loved Anglebolt. Doogal says Anglebolt is too entrenched in the community to simply scare away or bump off without consequences, but his criminal network knows some things about Anglebolt's past that will serve useful, and he's heard that a new lawman has come into town...

Doogal arranges a meeting with Lacey. He tells Lacey that his network observed Anglebolt hauling a large crate into his office, that he thinks Lacey has been involved in illegally-requisitioned Civil War materials, and he's willing to hire Lacey for a substantial amount to expose the truth. Unbeknownst to Doogal, Lacey was already hot on the case, but he's happy to accept a bribe and some useful information.

Lacey pays a visit to the newspaper, but the receptionist won't let him upstairs without Anglebolt being present. He decides to stake out the place.

Despite Doogal being the “unbiased” moderator, Anglebolt crushes Brisbee at the mayoral debates. Brisbee waxes about his dam projects and the expansion of a nearby mine (which Doogal just happens to have stake in), but Anglebolt's plees for education and a railway win over the hearts and minds of the people. With the election a couple days away, Brisbee is getting hot under the collar.

Deciding that Doogal's approach is taking too long, Brisbee decides to take matters into his own hands. He discovers that Anglebolt owns insurance policies on several of Pendleton's amenities, including the mine. He drafts a document detailing an elaborate plan to break the dam and flood the mine, and he crudely forges Anglebolt's signature on it. He then attempts to break into Anglebolt's office and hide the document so he can later alert the Sheriff. However he lacks athleticism and struggles to try and reach the upstairs window, and he is discovered by Lacey (who has been staking out the premises) and flees into the night before he's identified, dropping some of the pages detailing the alleged plan!

The Tilt
[Innocence: the wrong guy gets busted – Mayhem: a frantic chase]

Act II
Lacey finds the pages and brings them to the Sheriff. The Sheriff happens to know that Doogal has stake in the mines and thinks he finally has something to solid on him. They immediately head to the saloon and arrest Doogal.

Seeing that nobody appears to be around, Anglebolt attempts to sneak the Howitzer out of the newspaper office so he can bring it somewhere where people aren't asking around for him. He loads it onto a wagon with the help of some criminal assistants, but Lacey returns to his stakeout just in time to spot him and the two recognize one another. A chase ensues! Lacey is in hot pursuit along with the Sheriff's men on horseback while Anglebolt flees with his men! Anglebolt manages to lose most of his pursers by escaping into the mine, but Lacey has a hunch and gives chase on foot. He meets a couple of Anglebolt's goons and without instruction (not knowing who he is) they decide to beat him within an inch of his life with mining equipment. Even though Anglebolt has no idea this even happened, Lacey lies in a hospital bed, consumed with boundless rage, thinking that his old friend ordered the beating. Now he doesn't just want Anglebolt brought to justice, he wants him dead.

Brisbee visits Doogal in his jail cell, panicking about his campaign. They both piece together what happened (though Doogal has to violently strangle Brisbee through the bars to make him explain that he went behind his back with the forged document plan).

Doogal is furious, but the evidence against him is shaky at best. He is told that he will be released.

Brisbee is summoned to Lacey's hospital bed. Lacey offers him a solution to his problems: they'll kill Anglebolt together.

Anglebolt wins the election in a landslide.

Brisbee arranges for the inauguration to take place just outside the mine since it's “a symbol of the town's prosperous future.” As he ceremoniously passes off the key to the city, he makes sure that he gets Anglebolt to stand directly in sight of Lacey, who hides in the mine with a rifle. However, Lacey's injuries, combined with an untimely glint of sunlight in his scope, cause him to miss his target and strike Brisbee directly in the heart!

At that very moment, Doogal arrives at the ceremony and steps out of his carriage with a theatrical flourish. Unfortunately he does this precisely as Brisbee is shot, appearing to have signaled the attack, and the Sheriff immediately takes him back into custody for murder.

The Aftermath
[Brisbee – 3 black]
[Doogal – 10 black]
[Lacey – 3 white]
[Anglebolt – 15 white]

As Brisbee lies dying on the ground, with nobody around caring all that much, he thinks to himself that if he were to be involved with further crimes, he probably ought to just leave it up to the professionals.

Doogal calls in his favor with Anglebolt and is soon after released again. He decides it might be best to move his enterprises to a different town.

Lacey lies injured in the mine, fleeing further inside to avoid the authorities. With nothing left to lose, he searches for Anglebolt's mysterious crate. Locating it, he uncovers the 12-pound Mountain Howitzer. In a blaze of fury, he arms it and fires into one of the mine's primary support structures, causing water to rush in and bringing the whole thing down around him and his enemies!

Except that Anglebolt is long gone. Settling nicely into his new position as Mayor, he's surprised to discover that some insurance policies he held on the recently collapsed mine will be paying him substantial dividends, and he uses them to help fund a new railway and usher in a golden age for Pendleton! Sometimes he wonders what ever happened to his old war buddy Lacey though.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Steampunk Rally - 565% funded!

The Steampunk Rally Kickstarter has just closed out at an astounding $237k and 565% funded! From the bottom of my soul, thank you so so much to everyone who contributed! I wish I could personally buy each of you a pint, but Gavan tells me that's tricky to send through post without spilling.

I was hopeful that we would fund, I was cautiously optimistic that we might manage that 75k and get sexy metal cogs, but I never in my wildest dreams imagined that we might become the #1 highest-funded Kickstarter from Alberta ever (by quite a lot!) or the second-highest tabletop game from Canada!

And we even got that pony!

Once again I want to thank David Forest and Lina Cossette for their breathtaking artwork (check out the trailer for Davids amazing looking upcoming short film), Joe McDaid for his fantastic video and editing chops, Tom Sarsons and everyone else who helped us shoot it, Adrian Vaughan for lending us his incredible voice, Gavan for a spectacularly professional and tightly-run campaign, and all of you who backed and helped spread this project. It means the world to me, and I'm eager to see what I can present to you next!

You folks are the Real McCoys!

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Speaking of Cannibalism

[Possibly NSFW and/or damaging to one's soul]

No Words

This may be the single greatest video the internet has ever produced:

Bonus points for the Citizen Kane reference.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Steampunk Rally Designer Diary - parts 6-10

The last 5 parts of my designer diary are up! You can read them here or on boardgamegeek. From the bottom of my heart, thanks so much to everyone who's helped make this Kickstarter such a resounding success. (currently we're 216% funded with ten days yet to go!)

One of the core ideas of Steampunk Rally's theme is that you're frantically clamping new components onto your vehicle as old ones break and fall off, tenuously managing an ever-changing mass of jury-rigged gizmos, sometimes having everything work perfectly in tandem but never able to hold on to the perfect combo for too long. In order to have parts fly off, I needed some method of constantly introducing new parts into the game.

The most logical thematically was that you'd stop at various towns and villages along the way and spend time rebuilding and reconfiguring your invention, and this was how things worked in early versions. However, this paradigm had two basic issues I never found elegant solutions for. The first was how to deal with players breaking down between towns. Would you go straight back to the previous town, or have to drag yourself to the next? Both were pretty dreary options. The other issue was that in a racing game, spending turns not getting to race feels like work. Even if the decisions are interesting, it's still like “eat your peas and next turn you can have dessert.”

The other idea for distributing parts I never got to work properly is having players' destroyed parts create card-draw tokens which can be picked up by players behind them. I still think this is really thematic and adds a cool catch-up dynamic, it just maybe belongs in a different game. If the draw tokens were claimed by being landed on, then a player directly behind someone playing very recklessly would get a huge windfall, so to be fair they probably needed to stay on the board, benefiting every player behind the one who spawned them. But this made the rate of card-draw very swingy and nearly impossible to balance because I couldn't (or rather didn't want to) directly control the rate at which players lost parts. The mechanic also provided no cards to the player in first, so it didn't fully address my original need.

It became pretty clear that, for things to stay exciting and strategic, everyone had to somehow be getting new parts constantly.

I really like auctions. They allow everyone to walk away with an advantage over others, they make direct conflict palatable to Eurogamers, and they auto-balance items of different value, making my job that much easier. Thus, the first card-distribution idea I tried under the new dice-placement system was an auction.

I knew I wanted players to be able to remove dice from their inventions in case they couldn't manage to get new parts that synergized, but I also knew I wanted it to be more efficient to add new parts so as to encourage players to keep building and changing their invention. Having new part acquisition and dice removal hinge on the same resource would let players choose how heavily they wanted to lean on one or the other, and a player with a big awesome invention would have tons of dice to remove, thereby pulling their resources away from the n00bs with small inventions and few dice who thus needed new parts the most. So players used “time” every round to bid on the right to select new cards first, and any time they had left over was used to remove dice.

The auction worked great, and it did exactly what I wanted it to. The problem was that it slowed the pace of the game to a crawl, and felt especially out of place because the rest of the game was resolved simultaneously. This was the hardest change for me, but eventually I was convinced (largely by Gavan) that it had to go.

What would take its place that could do the things I needed in a hastier manner? It turned out that the solution was more simultaneity: a card draft! Originally part cards could be discarded during the draft to either receive or remove dice, presenting a difficult choice between adding parts, renewing parts, and powering them. The final change was having cards be discardable for cogs, which could be spent to remove dice, rather than directly removing dice through discarding. Both functioned nearly the same, and the primary reason (aside from adding a bit more planning) was that playtesters frequently didn't realize that they could discard cards during the draft to remove dice, whereas it’s harder to miss a whole separate phase devoted to dice removal.

The lesson I learned is that occasionally a purposefully clunkier and less elegant turn-structure improves everything for everybody.

After the auction went, simultaneous turn resolution was the last major point of contention between Gavan and me. By this point he'd told me he wanted to publish the game, and I was totally on board. Gavan is a great game designer, so I knew than any changes he wanted to make would at least be sensible. And he's an amazing graphic designer by trade, so I knew whatever he did with the art and presentation would be mind-blowing (was I wrong?). We just needed to get Steampunk Rally to a state we were both happy with.

The vast majority of boardgames out there are turn based, and resolving stuff in turn order has some notable advantages: it's more familiar, it's easier to learn a game when you are watching other players interact with the mechanics, and when you do something cool everyone gets to (has to) watch you. The problem is that if I made the current Steampunk Rally mechanics turn-based, the game would be maybe three hours long with crushing amounts of down-time.

The damnatory term “multiplayer solitaire” has been leveled against many euro-style games over the years, but I see this not as an indictment but rather an opportunity. If a certain portion of the game does not involve other players, why must they wait for me? Steampunk Rally has interactive elements (counter-drafting, offensive boost cards, watching in fear as an opponent creeps past you), but when it comes to operating your lovingly-crafted invention by placing dice on it, it's all between you and the machine. We experimented with several turn-based round structures, and eventually Gavan conceded that these didn't do a whole lot except slow the game down. Through the development process I learned the value of traditional turn order as well, and I'd suggest resolving the racing phase in turns for the first couple rounds if you're learning the game for the first time. But by resolving simultaneously, Steampunk Rally crams a ton of game into a short playtime with virtually no downtime, where everything resolves at the speed of the slowest player. And I think, whether or not you prefer it to more traditional turn resolution, it will feel different from any other worker-placement game you've ever played.

The last design element to come together was boost cards (originally called action cards). In earlier versions, there had always been the option to equip vehicles with weapons of various sorts that could blast away at opponents Mad Max style. But these proved incredibly awkward to implement under simultaneous turn resolution. If you and I both have the potential to shoot at each other, we both want to wait and see how the other is operating their invention first so we know how much damage we need to deal with (and how much vengeful retaliation is necessary). Because of this, all the ideas for parts that could affect other players were converted to action cards that could be kept hidden and played at specific moments. (I also liked the idea of having virtually no text on the parts comprising your invention since it makes them much easier to visually scan, lets us make the cards a bit smaller to conserve precious table-space, and just looks cleaner. Action cards with text gave us a way to play around with wacky ideas outside the basic mechanics.)

But even as action cards, these powers needed to be constrained. It wouldn't feel good to resolve your turn carefully budgeting sustainable damage only to have someone play a weapon card right before resolving damage and incur catastrophic losses. Weapons were meant to add another challenge for players to deal with, not random screwage. So I made these action cards only playable before the racing phase, right after the draft, but this introduced other issues. If players could play them in any order, there were frequently timing issues, so the opportunity to play action cards was resolved in turn-order, which felt incredibly clunky. And since action cards mostly affected multiple opponents (to limit kingmaking), the game changed radically with different player counts since this affected the rate at which these cards were played.

I experimented with several variant ways of incorporating these interactive effects, at one point even having public events that players could claim or trigger by blind-bidding cogs. (As I said, I like auctions.) It turned out the solution was much simpler: I just had to reduce the number of cards that affected other players, replacing them with Gavan's suggestion of cards that give personal bonuses which can be played at any time (and changing the name to “boost” cards to reflect this change in focus). These cards add lots of fun planning since they are essentially mini-goals you can strive for to try and maximize their effectiveness, and a reduced frequency of offensive cards sped up flow of play, evened out the wonkiness of different player-counts, and actually made the attack cards feel a lot more special and impactful.

Sometimes it turns out the mechanics are working fine, it's just the math that's off.

Steampunk Rally has lots of dice. That's one of the many production challenges we've faced thus far. (We even played around with ways to mechanically reduce the potential number of dice used until Gavan thankfully found a supplier that will provide bulk orders within our budget.) Full character standees are awesome yet require the racetrack to be made that much larger to accommodate them. But for every unexpected challenge, there've been two unexpected delights. I am absolutely blown away by the game's art. David and Lina Forrester are incredible talents, and their work on Steampunk Rally has continually exceeded all expectations.

As always, I'm also extremely impressed with our video guys Tom Sarsons and Joe McDaid. As I write this, I'm merely preparing to spray-colour a very important wig, but I know that by the time this is posted, Joe will have edited together whatever disjointed shenanigans we manage to capture this weekend into some breed of cinematic masterpiece. [Update: Was I wrong??]

I also want to give a huge shoutout to Adrian Vaughan, our voice of Tesla. I based the script for our video off of the amazing trailer for the indie videogame Crawl, and having their voice actor agree to do ours feels like writing a Star Trek fan fic and then having Leornard Nimoy agree to narrate it. This man deserves to be famous.

Above all though, I want to thank Gavan Brown for funneling some of his manic energy into a project so dear to my heart. After seven years, the feeling of seeing this game come to life with such verve and passion behind its production, and having it meet with such cheerful enthusiasm by the gaming community, can't be adequately described in words. (The fact that I still love playing it after all this time is just icing on the cake.) And so instead I'll just say that I know with his talent and dedication, Roxley's going to have a breakout hit sooner or later, and regardless of how this one ultimately pans out I thank him for letting me along on his caffeine-powered ornithopter and feel like a hero-scientist for a while.
[Update: This one seems to be panning out pretty well seeing as we funded in a week! You people rock so hard!!]

Several years ago, an intelligent, informed and well-intentioned man advised against my developing a game with a steampunk theme as he felt it was probably a flash-in-the-pan fad that would be over in a couple years. Much thanks to all of you for making this wonderful subculture bigger than ever, or at least letting it stick around long enough for me to finish this darn thing.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Ada Girl! Steampunk Rally has funded!

Steampunk Rally has officially funded!!
That means that the inventor poll has officially closed, with Ada Lovelace the strong front-runner (sporting awesome artwork). But don't worry, there's still plenty you can do help out. Go check out Roxley's contest on facebook and enter to win a free copy of the game, 'like' our images on boardgamegeek so it gets up in the hotness, and tell a friend so we can get metal cogs! Or check out my interview with Meeple Mechanics, which just featured us as their #1 Kickstarter pick!

(...and if you hurry, we just put out another round of handcrafted deluxe 'Tesla' editions, so you might be able to snap one up before they dissipate into the aether.)