Formal Ferret Games

Gil Hova designs, publishes, and plays board games

Category: 101

MacGuffin Market 101

MacGuffin Market cover

Once upon a time, I had a game called Wag the Wolf.  It was a good game, but its rules were too dense for its gameplay, and the whole thing wound up being less than the sum of its parts.

So as I may have mentioned in the past, I’ve been taking various bits of Wag worth saving and putting them in new games.  One of the coolest parts of Wag was its brutal, evil auction.

I built a new game around that auction, based on some ideas about the military-industrial complex I had at the time.  That game, PaxRobotica, grew to the point where its focus was its other mechanisms, and I recently decided to remove its auction.

So now I have this great auction, and a blank slate on which to plate it.  Hence, MacGuffin Market.

A MacGuffin is an object in a film that drives the plot, but its actual identity or contents are irrelevant.  TV Tropes summarizes it very nicely…

To determine if the story is using a MacGuffin instead of another plot device, check if replacing the item with another would make relatively little differences to the core plot. For example, in a crime story, the MacGuffin could be the Mona Lisa, a large diamond, a bank vault, a computer terminal, or a museum artifact; the story would be exactly the same. It doesn’t matter what specific power or value the item possesses, only that there is a desire for the characters to possess it.

In so many games, the players are simply after MacGuffins. It doesn’t matter if it’s silk from 16th-century Venice, or a robot translator from 25th-century Alpha Centauri. So this game’s theme reflects my frustrations about theming a game where I’ve already set up the mechanisms. I could’ve pasted on a theme, but it would have resulted in a dry and somewhat dishonest game.

So I threw up my hands and gave up.  The game is about MacGuffins.  The players are bidding on items that have no value within the game, other than VP.  I’ve defined them within the game as “beeping black boxes” or “big honkin’ gems.”  That’s the best I can do, I think, because if I made it about collecting cars or diamonds, it would’ve felt like every other game out there with a pasted-on theme.

This is a good thing, because I was very upset about the game for awhile.  I actually didn’t enjoy it, and was stunned when my playtesters did.  Once I realized I could keep the theme and play off the idea of the players going after silly items, I relaxed and realized that I might have something here.

The auction was never a worry; I know the auction works.  For those who don’t, it’s pretty simple.  A player makes a bid on the bid track, and slides a bid pointer so its “High Bid” arrow points to his bidding pawn.  This bid marker also has a number of “Underbid” arrows, but the total number of High Bid and Underbid arrows is always one less than the number of players.  So players can underbid the high bid and remain in the auction, although the high bidder will always get the spoils.

What are the spoils?  Turn order is the first one.  The auction winner has the first crack at buying a MacGuffin, which gets him VP.  I want turn order to be critical in this game.

The second spoil is gems, which is a brand-new addition.  Previously, the auction winners received VP, but that just didn’t seem right.  Under the newest ruleset, the winning bidders get gems, with the highest bidder getting the most.  They can cash these gems in for MacGuffins instead of using money, and in fact, the exchange rate of gems to MacGuffins is better.  This solves the problem of a player bidding his wad of cash at the auction and not having enough to buy MacGuffins afterwards.

Instead of buying MacGuffins, players can also take Bonus cards, which give them special powers during the games.  Finally, players can take an Income chip, which is how one makes money in this game.  The only thing is that taking an Income chip ends your round.

The game takes five rounds, and runs about an hour.  I’m aiming for it to fill the same niche as a game like St. Petersburg; a pleasant and quick economic game.

Battle Factory 101

The working cover

The working cover

Battle Factory is my newest prototype.  It’s a 2-hour economic game for 3-5 players, featuring perpetual war, lots of robots, and a brutal auction.

In the game, you and your opponents are companies who manufacture war robots, and sell them to various warring nations.  The idea is that you don’t care too much who you’re selling robots to, though you get more points if they survive.  Of course, bots get blown up, but that just means you can sell a better bot in its place.

This game is still an early prototype, which means that it’ll be changing a lot over the next few months.  But I’ve been encouraged by its progress so far.

Wag the Wolf
A couple of years ago, I designed a game called Wag the Wolf.  It’s a game about media companies trying to profit from news about the end of the world.

Wag has two notable features.  First, it has a bizarre deduction mechanism that allows you to score points for publishing information that is somewhat accurate, but not entirely.  Second, it has one of the most evil, brutal auctions you’ll ever see.

I’m quite proud of Wag, and I was blown away when it performed well at the Hippodice game competition in 2006.  But as I was pitching it to publishers, I realized that it had a lot of flaws.  It’s a tough game to teach, and its weight doesn’t really justify its learning curve.  In other words, it’s like waiting in line to go to the supermarket.  If there’s that much buildup, there has to be something behind it.

The main problem is that it has both deduction and bidding elements.  That’s a tough combination.  Both have significant learning curves, so putting them together really hurts.

So this year, I started planning to split Wag into two games.  The first half, the auction mechanism, is in Battle Factory.  The other half, the deduction mechanism, will get its own game that I’ll work on early next year.

Game Summary
Battle Factory lasts five rounds.  Each round has four phases.

  • First, players draft Bot Tech cards.  There are four types of Bots to draft, and for each Tech you have in a Bot type, you can build a more advanced Bot for that type.  For example, if you have 3 levels of Stompbot Tech, you can build a Level 3 Stompbot.
  • Second, players bid for turn order and Government Cards, with the highest bidder getting VP.  Government Cards give players VP, and offer a special benefit depending on the card.  Some Government Cards are one-time use only, others last the whole game.  More about the auction is below.
  • Third, players build and sell Bots to warring nations.  This is represented by four battlefields on the board.  Each battlefield has five squares, but most of the time, only the leftmost square is available for a Bot.  Each square only accepts a specific type of Bot. Every time a player sells a Bot, he gets VP. Higher-level Bots are more expensive to build, but are worth more VP and have a better chance of surviving.
  • Fourth, Wars break out. The more Bots are on a battlefield, the more likely that region will break out into war.  Wars will destroy the lowest-level Bots in a battlefield, but surviving Bots will score VP.

Repeat that five times, and you have a game of Battle Factory.

The Auction

The auction deserves some special mention.  Players bid money, and move their pawns up a special bidding track.  As their bid pawn goes up the track, a Bid Pointer follows along, pointing to the highest bid.  The Bid Pointer has an arrow pointing to the High Bid, as well as a few arrows underneath where other players can actually bid slightly less, as “Underbids.”

The catch is that there are two fewer Underbid arrows than players.  So in a 3-player game, there is one High Bidder and one Underbidder.  In a 4-player game, there is one High Bidder and two Underbidders, and so on.  It’s a bit of Musical Chairs, as the players battle over not being the last one out.

Another cruel catch is that the higher a player bids, the more he has to pay when he folds.  So if you keep bidding up and eventually fold, you’ll have to pay more than if you just fold at the start of the auction.

The High Bidder gets 2 VP and first choice of the Government Cards, which are also worth VP.  Underbidders then choose Government Cards, with the highest Underbid going first.  Players who folded don’t get anything.

Really?  VP?

My friend Carl thought it was athematic to have VP as the victory condition.  He felt that a game like this should be decided by the player who had the most money.

I respect his opinion, and I see where he’s coming from.  But I prefer VP for two reasons.  First, it makes decisions more interesting.  You’ll probably lose money when you sell the higher-ranked Bots, but you’ll get VP.  That’s important, because it’s less money for next round’s auctions.

Second, this game is very susceptible to positive feedback.  That’s the old “runaway leader” syndrome.  It’s tough to address that with a one-dimensional economic system.  So adding a second axis, VP, which are converted from money, is something I’m going to insist on, at least unless I’m proven wrong later.

Recent Changes

This next bit will only make sense to the lucky few who have playtested the game.

  • Were you fortunate enough to play with the orange First Folder cards?  You’ll be relieved to know that they’re gone.  These cards penalized the first player to fold.  I wanted to add some of the savagery from the Wag auction (which presented a separate twist from the deduction side of the game), but once I made the Government Cards worth VP, the First Folder penalty became too much.
  • I had a pretty complex financial mechanism in the game, but I’m going to gut it.The idea was to reward exact change, so a player would prefer to bid a certain amount.  This presented the situation of getting outbid when your bid is exact change, and then having to decide if you’re going to risk overspending, or folding.

    But I wound up with a monstrous financial system, and I was running into the same learning curve problem as Wag the Wolf: too many rules, not enough payoff.

    So my friend Michael had a brainwave: replace the obtuse financial system with straight money, and make the bidding nonsequential.  This means players will be forced to bid more money the higher up they go, like the bids in Amun Re (though I won’t necessarily use triangular numbers).

    This sounds great! It’s exponentially simpler, but retains all the interesting decisions that I wanted, because the breakpoints are now in the bid values instead of the player’s hand.  Do you risk increasing your bid, if it means you can only build two Bots this turn?

  • Another thing I noticed about the game is that players tended to sell Bots to only one side of a particular battlefield.  This is because in the current rules, when a war occurs, the winning side loses its lowest-valued Bot, and the losing side loses its two lowest-valued Bots.Players found this athematic.  They wanted to be rewarded to sell to both sides.  But at the same time, just opening it right up to selling to both sides would remove a lot of the rich tactical nature that the game promises right now.  I want there to be some sort of bonus for selling to the winning side, even if it’s smaller.

    So I’m going to try something different for my next playtest.  For each War Cube you pull out for a specific region, each side will lose one Bot.  Players will then score 1 VP for each bot they have in the region… but only if they have Bots on the winning side.

    I like this because it rewards players for picking the winning side, but it doesn’t necessarily punish players for selling to the other side!  I’m not sure if there’ll be a “squatting” problem, where one player is able to do well by just selling to both sides of the same region, but I doubt it’ll happen.

It looks like I’ll have two opportunities to playtest this game in January.  I’m excited to see where this game will go!

Prolix 101

My baby

My incredibly artistic game cover

Prolix is my baby.

I’m a fairly literate guy.  I’m not afraid of multisyllaballatic words, I have a decent vocabulary, and I can write fairly well.

So why have I never gotten into word games?

I don’t enjoy Scrabble.  Never have.  The closest I came to was when my college buddy Jones and I played “Sounds Like” Scrabble, where you have to come up with not-words.  Scoring was crazy high with bingos left and right, as the only restriction on a word was that a) it couldn’t be real, and b) you had to come up with a definition.

But real Scrabble?  Where turns take 30 minutes, the slightest skill discrepancy results in a blowout obvious after the first three turns, and a prerequisite for success is memorization of obscure two- and three-letter words?  Where you’re always one tile away from that awesome word?

Nope, don’t enjoy it.  Not for me.  And that was that, for awhile.

I guess it was at a con in November of 2005, when I played a card game that was significantly influenced by Scrabble.  I’ll withhold the name to protect the guilty, but I’ll say this: it’s awful.  It has all the problems of Scrabble, plus arcane, counterintuitive rules, and the “feature” that someone else can play a card to cancel out one of your words.  Ack!

So an amusing thought came to mind: couldn’t I do better?  People played this card game like crazy.  Okay, maybe they saw something in it that I didn’t, but still, was this the best of all possible word games?

As a lark, I threw together some rules and ran them by some players.  Slowly but surely, I started realizing that I had an honest-to-goodness good game.  I’ve designed 3 games that are done or close-to-done, and of them, Prolix is my favorite.

The main feature of Prolix, and the first thing I put in the game, was the idea that you don’t need all letters present in order to score a word.  So there are a bunch of tiles out on a central board, and on your turn, you say a word.  Any word.  Okay, nothing capitalized, apostrophed, or hyphenated, but it’s so much less restrictive.

And the words people come up with!  Bacchalaureate.  Ornithicopter.  Words that you’d never see in Scrabble, or any other word game.

This isn’t to say that the game was easy to design.  On the contrary, it’s been a real pain in the tuckus.  It’s an incredibly elegant game, which sounds like a boast, until you playtest the damn thing, and realize that anytime someone makes a suggestion, no matter how good, there’s no leeway in the ruleset to slide it in!

I mean, if you’re designing a game that’s about the battle of the 5th Cavalry of Foontcawcil charging into the fray of savage Hoodkivliar barbains, and you feel that the Hoodkivliarians’ ranged attacks are a little underpowered, you can toss in a whole lot of rules to fix that imbalance.  But in a simple word game, the slightest change, the slightest tweak, messes up the whole works.

For example, one problem I had was that the game kept locking up.  People would take forever on their turns, and it would drive me crazy that a game meant to be played in 45 minutes would take two hours.  There were a bunch of ways I addressed this, but one of the easiest?  I changed the number of letters out on the board.

But wait!  I quickly found out that if I had too many letters on the board, a player could immediately shout out “antidisestablishmentarianism” and get a decent score.  There had to be enough letters so that there was at least one good word out there, but not so many letters that any stock big word would earn a respectful score.

So tweaking the game has been a lesson in emergent complexity for me.  Slight changes over here would result in massive changes over there.  I’ve gained a huge respect for those simple games like Lost Cities and 6 Nimmt! that just seem to design themselves.

There are a bunch of other features the game has that I haven’t even gotten to yet, but I’ll save that for later.  Suffice it to say: I’m pretty proud of this game.  It’s a game where a player says a word, and then everyone makes a hushed, respectful “Ooooh.”  There’s a real skill to playing it, and with all due respect to all you Scrabble pros, it feels much better to score big points from the word “bicentennial” than it does from the word “xi.”

So when will it be published?  Who knows?  I’ve had it at one publisher for a surprisingly long time, but I’ve already given them a November date as to when I’ll start shopping it to other publishers.

Prolix will be one of those things I’ll keep mentioning in this blog, so stay tuned…