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Stinker Challenge #39: “A superhero catchphrase”

Stinker-Challenge-39

Every week, I and a bunch of other people play a social media version of my doofy game Stinker on BoardGameGeek, Twitter, and Facebook, using a bit of functionality from the new app we’re developing for the game. Here’s this week’s Stinker Challenge on each of the three platforms:

Facebook

Twitter

BoardGameGeek

Stinker Challenge #38 – “The reason to master another language”

Stinker-Challenge-38

Every week, I and a bunch of other people play a social media version of my doofy game Stinker on BoardGameGeek, Twitter, and Facebook, using a bit of functionality from the new app we’re developing for the game. Here’s this week’s Stinker Challenge on each of the three platforms:

Facebook

Twitter

BoardGameGeek

Stinker Challenge #37: “The early bird gets _____”

Every week, I and a bunch of other people play a social media version of my doofy game Stinker on BoardGameGeek, Twitter, and Facebook, using a bit of functionality from the new app we’re developing for the game. Here’s this week’s Stinker Challenge on each of the three platforms:

Facebook

Twitter

BoardGameGeek

A Stinker Challenge, in which I give away a free copy.

Stinker-Challenge-36

I’ve been playing a social media version of my game Stinker on BoardGameGeek, Twitter, and Facebook, using a bit of functionality from the new app we’re developing for the game. I’ve enjoyed my kneecaps off doing it, and growing participation suggests others like it too.

Today’s challenge is special because I’m giving away a free copy, so I thought I’d post here to let this blog’s readers know about it. To play, just go to any of the following links, read the instructions, and post your answer within 24 hours:

Facebook

Twitter

BoardGameGeek

Catchup is now live in the app store!

Today’s the big day for me. My game Catchup is now live in the app store (both iPhone and iPad)

This is how I feel:

victory-catchup

BoardGameGeek was kind enough to let me do a designer diary for it, which you can and should read here.

A Request

While the game has buzz among those who know about it, the app store is so crowded, an app needs to be both good AND broadcast widely to have a chance. I badly want mine to have a hearing because if it succeeds, it’ll pave the way to more work in the game industry. What I’m saying is: if you spread this around to anyone who might be interested you’ll more or less make my life.

(also note: anyone who does help spread this around will be entered into a contest to receive an artist-commissioned table-top version of the game, among other things. See here for more.)

Can my best game design be improved? Probably. Can I improve it? Maybe.

new-and-improved

I have a game, called Catchup, debuting for iOS (both iPhone and iPad) on August 7.

I’m just a TEENSY bit excited about it. If it sells well (oh please oh god please god please), we’ll develop the app further.

Which begs the question (if I may jump the gun): what kind of improvements shall we make?

Some won’t be related to the game itself, but we’ll also add options which change gameplay. That’s my purview, and I’m writing about it today because, as usual, I want a pretense to talk about game design.

If there’s one thing I’ve come to believe about game design, it’s that every game, no matter how good, can be improved. There is always some way to make a game better.

The difficulty is, as a game improves, the fraction of potential modifications which will further improve it plummets. It gets to be like looking for water in the Sahara. One characteristic of great game designers, which I try to emulate, is they keep looking longer than everyone else.

It’s even harder to do for games which can be played at many skill levels. Some weaknesses only appear at high skill levels, which means the designer may not find those weaknesses without either achieving that skill level himself or finding someone who has.

Having worked on Catchup for years, it’s become hard indeed to improve it. Nonetheless, I’ve got three possibilities to share. None have been tested enough, so they could all be wrong, but here they are.

You’ll need to know something about the game’s rules to understand what I have to say. The following paragraph should suffice:

Players take turns claiming hexes on a grid, and the player with the largest contiguous group of hexes when the board is full wins. The trick is every time you increase the size of the largest group on the board, your opponent gets to claim an extra hex on her turn, which makes her more powerful.

A game of Catchup, in early mid-game

#1 – An adjustment to the catchup mechanism

This one I’m least sure about, as it’s the most fundamental. Catchup mechanisms (mechanisms which make the leading player weaker or trailing players stronger) are hard to implement. They have to be just the right strength. Catchup (the game) is built around a catchup mechanism, and it’s critical I get it right.

There’s an additional difficulty: the “right” strength for the catchup mechanism may be different for experienced and inexperienced players. As they improve, players often learn to better exploit a catchup mechanism, making it effectively stronger. If it gets too much stronger, both players will each try to avoid triggering the catchup mechanism for as long as they can, which leads to a boring sort of waiting game.

Now, I don’t know whether Catchup has that problem. I’ve played the game more than 1000 times, I’m the best player in the world, and it’s not a problem at my skill level. But I can see it might become an issue for players who become even more skilled. Here’s why:

As the game is now, the catchup mechanism is triggered when a player increases the size of the largest group on the board.

This makes it possible to take the lead without triggering the catchup mechanism, thanks to the tiebreak mechanism: if players’ largest groups at the end of the game are the same size, they compare their second-largest groups to see who wins.

If your largest group is smaller than your opponent’s, you can sometimes enlarge your largest group to match the size of your opponent’s. This doesn’t trigger the catchup mechanism, but if your second-largest group is larger than your opponent’s at that time, you effectively take the lead!

A good player can use this effect to “draft” – to stay neck-and-neck without triggering the catchup mechanism. If his opponent then triggers the catchup mechanism, he can take much stronger advantage of it: it becomes less of a catchup mechanism and more of a “leap out in front” mechanism.

As I say, this doesn’t make the catchup mechanism too strong at my skill level or any level below it, but it could make it too strong at higher levels.

My fix, if one turns out to be needed, is to trigger the catchup mechanism when a player increases or matches the size of the largest group. This would keep a trailing player from “drafting” as closely, and would thereby reduce the incentive to trail.

Of course, this change might also make the catchup mechanism too weak for lower skill-levels, which means maybe we should present it as an advanced option.

#2 – Different opening setup for larger boards

Catchup is played only on a hex board with 61 spaces. On larger boards, the game’s opening turns are harder to understand, too hard. Can this be fixed?

My proposed solution: when playing on a larger board, before each game, place a small number of “neutral” stones on randomly chosen spaces. These stones will not belong to either players’ groups, but will instead act as barricades. This would:

1. shorten the opening.

2. give players a strategic focus (how do you exploit those barricades to limit your opponent’s group size, and prevent your opponent from doing the same to you?)

3. add variety. Each game would play out differently depending on the random setup.

Because this would only apply to larger boards, we should present it as an advanced option as well.

#3 – A handicapping system

This is simplest modification and the one I’m most sure will improve the game.

Like many luckless games exhibiting emergent complexity, skill matters a lot in Catchup

You don’t want to feel like the outcome of a game is a foregone conclusion because your opponent is a little more or less experienced than you. My favorite fix (when adding luck isn’t an option) is to add a handicap system.

Thankfully, unlike for many games of its kind, Catchup allows for a simple, clean, and adjustable handicap: before the game begins, the players agree to add a certain number of points to the weaker player’s score (i.e. her largest group size, but not the size of any of her other groups) at game’s end. Scores are then compared as normal.

That’s it. If you like this stuff and want us to include it, by Jove look for Catchup in the app store on August 7, and please help us promote it by telling people you know about it. We’ll be grateful and will probably write Sonnets about you.

(also, if you help us spread the word, you’ll be entered to win an artist-created tabletop version of the game, which I will fly to you and present in person.)

Nick Bentley

How a “fractal tiebreak” made Catchup deeper

fractal-chess

Sometimes the best way to learn about game design is to examine one little issue like it’s a diamond under a jeweler’s lense. That’s what I’ll do with this post.

Here I discuss a problem that came up during the design of my game Catchup (coming out on August 7 for iPhones and iPads), which, as I’ve emphasized many times on this site, is one of the best games I’ve designed.

Background

You can read the rules of Catchup here, but the idea is players take turns placing stones of different colors on the spaces of a hex grid, each trying to create the largest contiguous group of stones in her color by the time the board fills.

A game of Catchup, in early mid-game

The trick is that if you take or advance the lead on your turn by creating a bigger group than has come before, your opponent gets to place an extra stone on her next turn. This keeps each player from making one big clump of stones in the middle and forces careful thought about how to time group growth – if you grow your groups too quickly, you give your opponent too many extra hexes, but if you grow your groups too slowly, your opponent can cut your groups off from one another so they can never connect together.

That’s all you need to know to understand the dilemma I’m about to describe.

The Dilemma

Early versions of the game had the following rule:

You may not take your turn such that at the end of it, the players’ largest groups are the same size.

I’d included this rule to prevent ties, which would be too frequent otherwise.

But fixing problems by banning actions players feel like they should naturally be allowed to do is a bad idea. I knew this at the time, but I was in a bit of denial, probably because I didn’t know how to fix it. That was my dilemma.

The Solution: A Fractal Tiebreak

At around this time I was playing a lot of Reiner Knizia‘s ingenious game…Ingenious. One of the bits I’d come to love about it is the tiebreak mechanism, which I’ve come to call a “fractal tiebreak”.

The game Ingenious

The game Ingenious

A fractal tiebreak is a series of nested, tiebreaking win conditions, all with exactly the same form, and all replicating the form of the game’s overall goal.

In Ingenious’ case, each player has a bunch of different point categories, and the goal is to have a higher score in your lowest-scoring category than your opponent does in hers’. If there’s a tie, players compare their second-lowest scoring categories, and so on, until they come to a pair with different scores, and whoever scores higher wins.

I realized I could add something similar (but conceptually simpler) to Catchup: if the players’ largest groups end up the same size, players compare their second-largest groups, and so on, until they came to a pair which weren’t the same size. Whoever owns the larger wins.

By adding this fractal tiebreak I could dump the rule against placing stones such that the two players’ groups were the same size. This fix was straightforward and intuitive and had the added bonus that, if the board you play on has an odd number of spaces, ties are impossible.

I was proud of that rule to begin with, but in retrospect, I’ve come to think of it as my niftiest Catchup design maneuver. The reason, which I didn’t appreciate until after I became skilled at the game, is that it made Catchup deeper, but that extra depth is hidden out of view such that new players won’t be troubled by it or even realize it’s there – a critical feature given I wanted the game to be inviting and unintimidating.  This was a complete and completely pleasant accident.

Why the fractal tiebreak makes Catchup deeper

As I’ve mentioned, it’s common for the players’ largest groups to end up the same size. It becomes even more common as players become more skilled. This fact, combined with the fractal tiebreak, forces players to maximize not just their largest groups, but their second-largest groups, and so on.

As a result, more stones on the board matter, and players must focus on more areas of the board. There’s more pressure to develop a “whole-board” strategy.

This whole-board strategy entails choices about how to deploy your stones which are equal parts complicated and agonizing. Here’s why:

Imagine you’re playing a game of Catchup and you can see the players’ largest groups will likely end up the same size, so the game will be decided on a tie-break. So you start trying to ensure your second-largest group ends up bigger than your opponent’s second-largest group.

But when you do, you realize something more confounding: you don’t know how to ensure your second-largest group is larger than your opponent’s without simultaneously making your largest group smaller than your opponent’s – because a stone added to your second-largest group is a stone not added to your largest.

Each stone you place must somehow bring you closer to achieving both goals simultaneously, but they conflict. Whether you can solve this riddle (there are a couple of different general kinds of solutions) depends on patterns established back in the beginning of the game which seemed inconsequential at the time.

Anyway, when you realize this, that’s when the real thinking about Catchup starts. You realize every little thing matters, all the way back to the very first turns of the game, and so you start thinking about every little thing.

So far, in nearly all games of Catchup I’ve played in or watched, only the largest and second-largest groups are in play, which is complicated enough.

But I’ve also played in 4 games decided by the third-largest groups, and I’ve even played in one game (out of more than 1000) decided by the fourth-largest groups (I lost). I suspect such endings will become more common as players get more skilled. The thinking required to win such battles will be ferociously complex (assuming no one figures out how to break the game before then).

But, thankfully, inexperienced players should and will remain blissfully unaware of this complexity. Most players need only worry about making the largest group, and the other stuff will slowly dawn on those who play enough to start losing frequently on tie-break.

Nick Bentley

fractal chess image via fdecomite

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