The Case Study: How We Got Here

To fully understand where we are, I think it’s worth talking about how Over the Next Dune has evolved so far. My hope is that this will explain how certain decisions were made, show why they were made, and make discussion about the game more productive since everyone will know where we’ve been.

In its original form the game was quite a bit different. First and foremost, there was no grid–players moved using rulers, as in a miniatures wargame. After a number of playthroughs, I found that this had several problems. The players and the searchers often overlapped, and keeping the various pieces in the right place on the board (with no grid, there was no way to be sure things were back when they belonged after they were jostled) was very difficult. In addition, it was hard to get the angles right–when a searcher had to turn 45 degrees it was more likely to end up turning 40 or 50. The problem was small, but it did sometimes impact the game.

Relying on measurements also made evaluating the effects of rule changes difficult. For example, when I was trying to figure out exactly how close the searchers could be to the players at the start of the game, I found that very small errors could make a big difference–8 inches might seem appropriate, but only because during the test I had accidentally set the searcher up at 8 1/8 inches away, and that extra 1/8 of an inch had saved a player three turns in. Between measuring imprecision and the problem of slightly incorrect angles, I found that I couldn’t reliably say whether a change had made the game easier or harder. It was impossible to discount the possibility that the in-game effects I was seeing were simply the result of a missed measurement at a key moment.

Perhaps most damning, the freeform board wasn’t making decisions more interesting. The players were doing all same the things they do in the current version of Over the Next Dune–dodging or tricking searchers, rescuing each other from trouble, racing for the finish line–but they were doing it more slowly because measuring and moving was so laborious. One of the rules for OtND is that its decisions have to be interesting; as a corollary, players should be focused on making those decisions rather than on physically managing the game. I put OtND on a grid starting with the 22nd playtest game, and haven’t looked back.

The second major change between the game’s original form and its current incarnation is that OtND was originally about infiltrating a trench in World War I–and that trench was guarded. Players tried to get into an irregularly shaped trench on the other side of the board while avoiding guards who patrolled the trench. To win, players had to either get everyone into the trench or eliminate the guards by sneaking up behind them.

Having guards as part of the game actually did add something to it. About midway through the game, players had to start thinking about how they were going to approach the trench. They then had to maneuver to enter the trench at just the right spot while also avoiding the searchers (which, in this version of the game, were searchlights). Furthermore, players pressured by the turn limit and approaching searchers at times had to jump into the trench at risky points, which could be exciting. Overall, the guards added a distinctive endgame.

Unfortunately, managing the guards caused the game to take a great deal longer. There was a whole separate deck of cards that moved the guards; between working with the deck and just pushing the guards around, the time to play a game almost doubled. (Currently, I find that players who know the game can play OtND in about 25 minutes; with the guards, the game took 40 or more). Again, interesting decisions were being obscured by downtime.

What was worse, however, was that while the endgame was distinctive it wasn’t always interesting. Once a player understood how the guards moved (e.g., they’re 75% likely to stand still and 25% likely to move; if the guard moves he will end up at this spot facing in this direction) it was easy to tell where the right place to enter the trench was. Moreover, if a player entered the trench at a risky point his or her fate was generally just down to the card flip; there was a 75% chance that the player got away with it and a 25% chance that the player got caught, and there wasn’t much the player could do about it. (Building on the previous discussion of counterplay, there wasn’t any play here–the player did something and then there was a 25% chance that the opponent hit the “no” button.)

I spent a long time trying to make the guards work. Ultimately, however, I found that I couldn’t get them and everything else right at the same time. As a result, I removed the guards from the game entirely. I’m hoping to add them back in in the future, when the core gameplay is locked in.

The irregular, curving trench created its own problems. At the most prosaic level, searchers tended to get stuck in the bends; this was pretty silly and also spawned lots of corner-case rules for getting them back out. On the whole it made for fewer interesting decisions (players don’t need to work hard to avoid a stuck searcher) and added delays between those decisions. However, the greater sin was that the curved trench encouraged players onto specific paths. Since getting into the trench was part of winning, players almost always went for the places where the trench bent outward (i.e., closer to their starting line). This game element was very definitely violating the “multiple ways to win” rule. I got rid of the curling trench, and so far it hasn’t been missed.

Initial setup was also a lot different when the game was just getting started. Originally the searchers (there were fewer at the time) were arranged around the edge of the board, and moved inward. This was easy to set up, which was good; one got on to making decisions quickly. However, it was also pretty predictable. Since the searchers were pressing toward the center, it was usually best for players to shift sideways at first and then inward as the searchers passed each other and started back out toward the edges. Over the course of many games this emerged as the dominant strategy.

Dominant strategies are inimical to having lots of ways to win, so I went back to the drawing board. First I tried adding more searchers to cover the areas where players were inclined to go; this proved only to change the best path rather than getting rid of best paths entirely. Next I fiddled with the starting orientations of the searchers so that it was more dangerous to move down the sides. However, the unpredictable movements of the searchers (which were necessary to making them interesting in play) meant that they were bad for reliably discouraging a single strategy.

In the end I decided that this was one place where adding more complexity was necessary, which led to the current randomized setup for searchers. I’ve been pleased with the results; in tests since, no best path across the map has emerged. Unfortunately, setup is now quite a bit longer. I’m not sure yet whether the setup time can be cut back down, or whether it just has to be accepted as an investment in a good game experience.

Terrain has also changed a lot. Originally, it was concepted as barbed wire–a single line that players had to sacrifice some movement to cut through. In that form, however, terrain created “congo lines” where one player cut and everyone else followed that player’s path. That might have been realistic, but it wasn’t very interesting.

The current form of terrain is intended to solve that problem. It simulates rough patches of ground that slow the players down but that the searchers–who don’t have to be sneaky and who can therefore use jeeps/trucks/motorcycles/etc.–can just pass over. There’s nothing any one player can do about it, so there’s no need to follow in someone else’s path; each player can individually decide what route is best. I think the new terrain is working as a mechanism for promoting interesting decisions and for creating multiple ways to win, and also as a way of putting weight on the no-communication rule.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that there are some whole game mechanics that have been cut out. Originally actions would create “noise” that would attract the guards; when the guards went noise went with them. Specialized equipment was in the original plans, but I have yet to find a way to implement it that is not just adding complexity for little gain. At one point players could intentionally attract the attention of searchers, causing the searchers to turn toward them. There have been lots of experiments that didn’t pan out, though each was informative.

I have my complete notes from each playtest game. If there’s interest I’ll post them, but this hits the highlights of the past and I’d like to move forward. On Wednesday I’ll put up detailed notes on a new solo playtest game.

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