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