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.

Lines of Questioning: A New Variant

Holiday time means time for playtesting. I’ve been fiddling with a promising variant of Lines of Questioning, tweaking numbers here and there to see if I can get it to a satisfactory state. While I haven’t succeeded quite yet, I think it’s getting there.

Two weeks ago we had identified four issues with Lines of Questioning:

1. The lawyer’s tiles are handled differently from the witness’ when lines end; this makes learning the game more difficult.
2. Picking up the lawyer’s tiles sometimes feels bad, as though the player’s effort has been wasted.
3. It’s often best for the lawyer to create a series of brief, two-tile lines, which takes away some of the fun of wrangling a longer line.
4. The endgame often involves the witness stacking tiles in the corners while the lawyer just stays away, having nothing to do but keep her distance.

A rule change addressed number 3:

Check whether the lawyer’s line can continue at the end of step 2. If not, the line ends immediately and the lawyer’s topmost tiles are removed. After this happens, start a new lawyer’s line the next time you reach step 1.

That wasn’t a perfect solution, since it reinforced problems 1 and 2. Lawyer tiles were still being picked up, and their ending was being treated differently from the witness’ tiles. In fact, it doubled down on problem 1 by making the end of the witness’ and lawyer’s lines as different as possible; now whether the line ended was being checked before the witness played and drew, but after the lawyer played and drew. Ouch!

For all its weaknesses that solution did seem to work, so I decided to leave it in place and look for answers elsewhere. If the rules for ending lines had become much more complex, perhaps it would be possible to simplify other parts of the rules. Problem 1 would still exist, but it would be less of a barrier to learning the game because it would be the only barrier; the player could invest all of his energy in learning that one tricky area.

To that end, I’ve been trying out a variant that works like this. Play the game as normal (the rulebook is here), except:

1. Follow the rule change noted above.

2. Do not use the the rules for off-topic witness answers. Just ignore section II.g of the rulebook, and all references to it. Answer tiles are never added to the lawyer’s hand of questions by any means.

Playtesters overwhelmingly cite the off-topic answers rule as the hardest thing to learn in the game. Omitting it cuts the mental overhead required to play drastically.

3. Replace the first two paragraphs of section II.e, regarding how to win, with this:

You win by revealing four key facts. To reveal a key fact, you must build a stack of tiles in a corner space at least four-high, in this pattern from top to bottom:

Answer tile
Question tile
Answer tile
Question tile

It is not harmful to have more tiles in the corner, but tiles outside that pattern do not count toward revealing the key fact. (So, for example, if the bottom tile of the stack in a corner is an answer tile, that tile does not help reveal that corner’s key fact.)

Remember that the normal rules for playing a tile apply in the corners just the same as in any other space. In particular, answer tiles may not be played on top of other answer tiles.

Everyone has an intuitive sense that a question-answer-question-answer pattern is “normal.” The current rules, which allow (for example) an answer-answer-answer-answer stack to reveal a key fact, feel “game-y”–so much so that some playtesters assumed the “normal” pattern must be required, even though it’s (a) harder and (b) nowhere in the rules! This variant brings the game in line with expectations, again reducing the mental overhead involved in playing.

Removing the exception allowing answer tiles to be played on top of each other when the witness starts a new line also simplifies the game. Having the rules regarding how tiles are played apply consistently makes the new line rules much easier to learn.

Last but by no means least, this variant beats the stuffing out of problem 4. The lawyer has to be involved until the very end.

4. Replace the second paragraph of section II.f, regarding starting new witness lines, with this:

If you cannot continue the witness’ line in step 3, begin a new one by placing an answer tile in the first corner where an answer tile can legally be played, starting with the lower left and proceeding clockwise. (Remember that answer tiles cannot be played on top of other answer tiles!) This new tile must follow all the normal rules for playing answer tiles.

This final change brings this part of the rules in line with the previous change: no more stacking answer tiles on top of answer tiles in the corners.

Playing this variant is a very different experience. It’s much easier to keep track of what’s going on; the ministerial aspects of the game are greatly simplified. Winning, however, is enormously more difficult. Keeping control of the witness is a challenge, and the endgame is a tightrope walk, with few spaces available and each new tile critical.

If you’ve got some time over the next few days, give this variant a try. Either way, have a happy holiday!

Lines of Questioning: Playtesting Update & Possible Rule Change

The law has been gobbling up my time, so just a short update today. Playtesting on Lines of Questioning is continuing apace. Several variants have been shot down, but each one has provided useful information. In particular, they’ve consistently shown that the change intended to discourage repeated two-tile lines is working well.

That change concerns how the lawyer’s lines end. Currently, the rule is that one checks whether the lawyer’s line can continue at the beginning of step 1 of the turn; if not, the lawyer’s tiles that are topmost in their respective squares are removed and a new line begins. The new rule is: check whether the lawyer’s line can continue at the end of step 2. If not, the line ends immediately and the lawyer’s topmost tiles are removed. After this happens, start a new lawyer’s line the next time you reach step 1.

“Whether the line can continue” means, in this context, whether the lawyer could make another play right at that moment. It’s not sufficient that by the time step 1 comes around again the lawyer would be able to place another tile; the lawyer needs to be able to legally place another tile at the end of step 2, or the lawyer’s line ends.

If you get a chance, try this out and let me know how it goes!

Lines of Questioning: Learning from Failed Experiments

I’ve been getting a great deal of playtest feedback on Lines of Questioning over the last few days. As always, that’s both very exciting and a source of new challenges. Feedback highlights problems, which then demand new solutions.

Previous playtesting revealed two issues with Lines of Questioning:

1. The lawyer’s tiles are handled differently from the witness’ when lines end; this makes learning the game more difficult.
2. Picking up the lawyer’s tiles sometimes feels bad, as though the player’s effort has been wasted.

My hope was that these could easily be fixed by leaving the lawyer’s tiles on the board when the lawyer’s line ends. The two types of tiles would be treated similarly, and the feed-bad moment would be gone. Further testing suggested that the change made the game easier, but that could be all right.

Unfortunately, as testing continued some dynamics that weren’t all right started to appear. “Seeding” every corner with a lawyer’s tile had become risk-free; Where once setting down lawyer tiles that the witness would not reach for some time courted disaster if all of those tiles were removed, now that work was guaranteed to stick around. No-risk progress made the game quite a bit less exciting.

What was worse, it became clear that the lawyer’s and witness’ lines could be run completely independently. With removal, players needed to use the witness’ tiles to “lock in” the lawyer’s tiles. That created a tension between separating the lines (to get each where it most needed to go) and keeping them together (to avoid losing progress). Without removal, that tension–and the decisions it created–were gone.

No-risk seeding of lawyer tiles and independent lines worked together to create a third unpleasant dynamic: the lawyer’s lines grew shorter and shorter. With no incentive to keep lines going (and the opportunity to reposition as a strong incentive to end them instead), lawyer’s lines trended toward two-tile affairs. The first would be placed next to a corner, and the second would end the line in the corner. Since the line had ended, the player could then start a new lawyer’s line adjacent to the following corner and repeat. This approach was effective while completely undermining the fun of wrangling the lawyer’s line–and “good yet unfun” is never a combination a game designer wants to see.

Since a number of playtesters had said that they’d like to see a no-removal design, I decided to keep hammering on the idea by taking out the off-topic witness answer mechanic. The idea was that without the ability to play answer tiles, the lawyer’s tiles would build up and ultimately become a hindrance unless the player brought the lines together, solving the independence problem. In addition, that version of the game would lack the two hardest rules for new players.

Unfortunately, that approach also turned out to have serious problems. First, the lawyer tiles didn’t build up enough in practice to force the lawyer’s line toward that of the witness. The lawyer and witness could still play independent games.

A second, new problem also started to crop up: it became increasingly clear that there were situations in which the lawyer was worse than useless. Once every corner with an unrevealed fact had a lawyer’s tile on top (which would never be removed), the lawyer could not contribute to scoring and just had to stay out of the way. That was interesting, after a fashion, but hardly thematic; in a game about an attorney questioning a witness, the attorney wasn’t participating in the questioning!

The “base” game, without these modifications, also has endgames in which the lawyer’s best move is to stay clear. However, the off-topic answers mechanic means that those situations end very quickly as the witness’ stack of tiles runs down. Without that mechanic the lawyer might have to keep to herself for quite a while, which made the strategy unpalatable.

Faced with these results I decided to revert the game to its original state. Removing lawyer tiles had turned out to be more important to the game than I had realized, and I was ready to get back to a version of the game with that rule in place. However, even after resetting the changes I felt the experiments had highlighted two points that should be addressed:

3. Seeing the proliferation of short lines emphasized to me how often they appear in general. A standard opening, for example, is to have both lawyer and witness begin next to a corner. The lawyer then gets into the corner and the witness follows; even if the lawyer’s line ends, the player has locked in two tiles in a corner. Quick two-tile lines of this sort are easy to set up, have little cost, and are prominent in the lawyer’s game even when removal is in effect. They’re teetering right on the edge of “good yet unfun,” and should probably be weaker.
4. While it’s thematic for the lawyer to hem the witness in, it’s not good when the lawyer sets the trap and then has nothing to do during the endgame. The lawyer needs to be more involved in the final revelations.

Having all of this playtest data is great, and seeing these issues now is going to result in a much better final product. The trick, of course, is that the playtest data doesn’t say what fixes will work. 😉 I have an idea in mind for (3) at the very least, and will keep you updated as I go.