Lines of Questioning: Update

First and foremost, Jake Thornton is back to posting at Quirkworthy! If you haven’t taken a look at Mr. Thornton’s blog yet, I would urge you to give it a try. It’s a mix of theory posts informed by his decades of experience and behind-the-scenes discussion of his games, all of it fascinating.

With regard to what I’m working on: an excellent Unity meetup led me to a whole new way to build Lines of Questioning’s PC version, one that largely frees rules enforcement from relying on Unity’s physics system. This will put an end to some unpredictable, difficult-to-replicate bugs that arose from fractional irregularities that could crop up in tile positioning.

Figuring out this new approach reminded me of the importance of bouncing one’s ideas off of others. I was dead set on how I was doing things, and was spending a lot of time ironing out my method’s flaws. Talking with the rest of the meetup group got me out of a mindset where I had to bash through the walls in front of me, and showed me that I could sidestep them entirely.

Of course, the first thing that happened was that I ran into an entirely new wall. 😉 That’s all right, though; fresh challenges are always interesting. Time to open a new scene . . . .

Lines of Questioning: Further Updates

I banged up my hands and wrists over the weekend (winter sports are lots of fun, but it turns out they hurt quite a bit during the learning process), so I have to keep this update brief–too much typing starts to hurt. 😉

Recent work has been devoted to finding the best way to handle rules enforcement in Lines of Questioning. This has involved writing a lot of pseudocode in search of an approach to checking for legal tile placement that is both (a) correct within the rules of the game and (b) proof against errors resulting from how the rules are programmed–e.g., race conditions where two tile exits are both trying to update the list of valid exits, and the result depends on which of these hypothetically simultaneous activities actually begins and ends first. I haven’t found a completely satisfactory answer yet, but some avenues have been promising; it’s only a matter of time.

My wrists are starting to complain again, so it’s time to sign off. Back Wednesday!

Lines of Questioning: PC Version Update

I’ve been hammering away at implementing rules enforcement in Lines of Questioning’s PC version. The process generally goes like this:

1. Figure out how to do something.

2. Code.

3. Debug.

4. Realize that it would have been better to do it entirely differently in the first place.

Occasionally there’s also a further step:

5. Determine that some seemingly separate aspect of the game is causing a problem, and that needs to work completely differently as well.

Today was a step 5 day; fixing bugs in the system that registers whether a new tile correctly links to the existing line required thoroughgoing changes to how the player puts tiles on the board. None of that is a bad thing–the changes are for the better–but it does mean the day’s progress has to be measured in absolute terms, not relative to where we were yesterday.

I’m pleased with how the project is going so far, and looking forward to getting it into your hands. Stay tuned!

Lines of Questioning: “Standard” Variant

Following up on the last post: below is a revised rulebook for Lines of Questioning, offering a basic version focused on the core concept. It’s called “standard” because that sounds a lot better than “basic.” 😉 In my defense, this variant earns the upgraded name; the rules are simple, but the difficulty is sufficient to challenge players for a long time.

Let me know what you think!

Lines of Questioning 1-21-15

Lines of Questioning & Theory: Test the Boring Option

Sometimes you need to test the simple thing that will probably work, even though no one will be impressed that you thought of it. As a designer I always feel good when I come up with a unique solution to a problem. Recent playtests of Lines of Questioning have reminded me, however, that basic fixes are considered basic for a reason: they consistently do the job. Flashy solutions that bring excitement to the table are much more likely to come apart under the pressure of play. It’s therefore wiser to check the simple possibilities first, deploying unique and tricky mechanics only when their necessity outweighs the risks involved.

Last time we talked about Lines of Questioning I was looking forward to testing a new player power.

Lawyer - Unexpected Revelations One of my expectations for this power was that it would make the game substantially easier. Lines of Questioning was fun, but incredibly difficult. Providing an easier victory condition in return for engaging with a lesson seemed like a reasonable fix.

To my surprise, however, this power fell flat on its face. One of the things I track in playtests is how close a losing player came to winning. Based on that data, I estimated that the power would turn approximately 20% of near-losses into victories. In practice it had virtually no effect on the win rate.

Even now I’m not sure why the power didn’t work. Variance is a possibility, either in the pre-power data (lucky players got close to victory more often than the game’s difficulty made sustainable) or in the power testing (unlucky players had tougher games than normal, canceling out the effect of the power). Whatever the cause, the result was clear: for all its theoretical advantages the power wasn’t working.

That left me with only one idea for how to handle the excessive difficulty issue. It wasn’t neat. It wasn’t interesting. It did, however, have the merit of being simple.

Facts:  Testing has demonstrated that some tiles are better than others. In particular, tiles with multiple entrances and exits are very strong. Such tiles offer the player lots of options, can be used in unusual ways to get out of trouble, and enable efficient movement around the board.

90-degree turn tiles, on the other hand, are quite weak. This is both because of their limited usefulness and because there are a lot of them. Hands entirely made up of 90-degree turns are common, and are quite challenging to play through successfully.

There is almost no situation where this hand is good.
There is almost no situation where this hand is good.

For that and other reasons, Lines of Questioning is very difficult. While opinions may differ on how challenging a solo game should be, a win rate near 0% is clearly unacceptable by any standard.

Issue: How should Lines of Questioning be made easier?

Rules:

1. Try the simple thing that will probably work.

2. Having more of the stronger tiles, and fewer of the weaker tiles, makes the game easier.

Holding: Replace these lawyer tiles:

1-19-15 - Replaced TilesWith these tiles:

1-19-15 - ReplacementsDo the same for the witness tiles as well.

Thinking it through: I’ve been trying to do all sorts of complicated things to make Lines of Questioning easier—but what about the simple solution? If 90 degree turn tiles are bad, especially when there’s a lot of them, why not have fewer of them and more of the good ones?

As it’s turning out, this change works like a charm. The win rate is substantially higher, and frustrating all-90 degree-turn hands are rare. Having more diagonal entrances and exits also allows for some interesting strategic maneuvering, like doubling the lines back on themselves.

In fact, this is going so well that it’s providing a great foundation for the “basic” variant I’ve been wanting to lock in. Up to this point I’ve been looking at new rules to make the basic game easier, which of course runs contrary to the goal of a simple, quick-to-learn version. Lowering the difficulty without needing more rules makes that variant realistic.

Sometimes a game needs an additional, complex rule. Sometimes, though, what it needs is a willingness to try the obvious solution to a problem. Exchanging bad tiles for good ones isn’t a remarkable design achievement, but if it makes Lines of Questioning better, then so be it. I’ll trust the extra impressiveness from the game being good to take up the slack.

Lines of Questioning: Implementing Player Powers

Part of elegant game design is killing as many birds as one can with as few stones as possible. To that end, I’d like some of the player powers in Lines of Questioning to serve both as a way to make the game easier and as a kind of “tutorial mode” for new players. Let’s hammer out how that might be accomplished.

Facts: Bending the line where tiles connect is a powerful strategy in Lines of Questioning, and is important to success. It’s also fun; bending the line in this way opens up many new possibilities, and players consistently enjoy using the technique to get to unexpected places. Put simply, it feels smart!

However, new players often take several games to realize that the line can bend in that way. As a result, during those first few games they routinely miss possible moves. This is a problem for two reasons.

First, it makes the game less interesting. New players who don’t see the moves bending the line allows think the game has fewer options than it does. They also miss some mandatory moves that they would need to weigh and either play into or around.

Second, missing a line-bending move sometimes leads new players to think a line cannot continue when in fact it can. These errors have an unpredictable effect on the game’s difficulty, depending on whether the line that’s incorrectly ended is a useful one or one the new player wants to get out of. Unintended variations in difficulty are a likely source of unsatisfying experiences, so these errors aren’t just bad in some abstract sense; they can do real damage.

Separate and apart from those considerations, Lines of Question’s “basic variant” is extremely difficult. The player badly needs a power boost.

Issue: What player power would simultaneously give the player substantially more power while also helping new players master bending the line at sharp angles?

Rules:

From the last post:

1. Use a weighted power when (a) the power should help players, especially new players, decide how to approach the game; and/or (b) the power is meant to add satisfaction to the game experience.

2. Use a unique power when (a) the goal is to create a new set of decisions; and (b) the power will not frustrate players by being difficult to use correctly.

Holding: Try this power: Lawyer - Unexpected RevelationsReasoning: Since an important goal of this power is to teach new players about the game’s strategy, a weighted power is more appropriate than a unique one. Weighted powers encourage players to do something, and we want this power to encourage players to try out crazy bends in the line.

 

A weighted power “make[s] the player better at a game action everyone can take. The player might pay a lower cost for the action, or get a bigger payoff, or be able to take it when other players cannot.” Lines of Questioning is a relatively simple game, so there isn’t as much design space for weighted powers as there might otherwise be. For example, there are no costs to playing tiles other than the opportunity cost of choosing this one over that one, and that cost isn’t amenable to being lowered.

 

There is, however, room to improve the payoff when a player bends the line at a connection point. Giving an additional payoff is also a very direct way of giving a power boost, so this seems like a valid avenue to explore.

 

Lots of new payoffs are conceivable, but this power is specifically aimed toward new players. That means the payoff should (a) be obviously impactful, as new players might not appreciate subtle game effects, and (b) not be difficult to use.

 

My feeling is that the reward here achieves those things. It’s a blatant, desirable payoff that’s virtually impossible to use incorrectly. Although it needs more testing, I also think it’s appropriately strong, a sufficient power boost to make the game winnable without being so much as to make the game easy.

 

In fairness, this does edge into the realm of unique powers. However, my first impression is that it will comply with the rule that unique powers not be frustrating. The only wrong way for a new player to use this power would be to pick a space that already has a winning stack in it. Any other choice is at least fine, and might be great. Since bad choices will be both hard to find and clear when they exist, they shouldn’t be made very often.

We are somewhat violating the rule that unique powers should be used only when the goal is to create a new decision; that wasn’t one of the objectives here. Unfortunately, the limited design space for weighted powers makes it difficult to give a reward without doing something new. I feel that the benefits probably outweigh this downside.

 

Last but not least: one of the rules for Lines of Questioning, instituted back when it wasn’t even called Lines of Questioning, is that the gameplay needs to be thematic. Casting the player power as a strategy pursued in the courtroom makes the power less of an artificial construct, keeping the theme of the game intact.

 

Testing will likely reveal that this power needs to be tweaked, or perhaps even changed wholesale. As an early attempt, however, I’m happy with it. On Wednesday I’ll let you know how it’s shaking out in play.

Status Report

I’m wrapped up in end-of-year lawyer stuff, so I thought I’d use this update to provide a quick overview of where Law of Game Design’s projects are.

Over the Next Dune: the case study which was the focus of this blog for most of the year is not forgotten! Design work has been paused while I try to get enough playtesters in the room at the same time; it turns out that testing a game designed for five players is no joke.

To break that logjam, I’ll be working more aggressively to get Over the Next Dune to the table in 2015. A massive component upgrade is in the works, and will help with that quite a bit; the old components were very simple (and thus easy to change), but were almost completely abstract and did nothing to sell the theme. “Let’s try this game involving a number of circles and some squares” is a pitch that only another designer could love. The new components will be easier to work with and more attractive to the eye, which I hope will make the game more appealing to testers.

Lines of Questioning: this is my current focus, and I’ve been very pleased with how the game is working out. Feedback so far has been positive and the game plays well. There’s still lots of room for further refinement, but I feel that Lines of Questioning’s foundation is very strong.

In related news, the digital implementation of Lines of Questioning is coming along nicely. At the moment the game is in an alpha state; it’s playable, but not feature-complete. The road ahead is well-mapped, so I expect steady progress on this front. Unity 4.6’s new UI tools, in particular, are a tremendous boon.

Narrative-driven miniatures game: an older concept, but something I keep simmering on the back burner. Recently I started thinking about mapping power-ups to a three-act structure, gating power by having players guide a “leader” figure through the things a character in a three-act story must do. That would cast players in a different light than most minis games; rather than being a general or a battlefield combatant, the player would serve as author. Perhaps, just as authors must put their characters through the wringer, the player would then want to throw some curveballs at her own troopers?

More than anything else, this is the game that makes me wish for a 25th hour in the day.

Game for parents with toddlers: I haven’t been able to put as much time as I would like into this one, not least because the digital implementation for Lines of Questioning is eating into time that might otherwise have been devoted to it. With that said, I have more out-of-nowhere ideas for this game than I do any other. This is very rapidly becoming my “wake up in the middle of the night with an insight” game.

Moving forward, the priorities are:

1. Lines of Questioning, digital implementation: reach a feature-complete state and build an appealing digital experience.

2. Lines of Questioning, ongoing design work: continue testing and find the ideal variant.

3. Over the Next Dune, component revamp: build an attractive, functional prototype for OtND.

4. Over the Next Dune, testing: get OtND to the table more often, putting the current version of the game through its paces.