Monday, July 23, 2012

2012 Fantasy Olympics: Finding A Competitive Balance (Part II)

Last week we decided to tackle the idea of creating a brand new fantasy league, the Olympics of fantasy competitions. We ended on a question of competitive balance; one in which we were looking for a solution to address the Olympic powerhouse trio of USA, China & Russia.

Now if we had three competitors we would have a simpler task but in our current scenario we have six lucky participants of which several are going to be left out in the cold. Let's evaluate several solutions and proceed with whichever offers the greatest benefit.

As mentioned in our introductory article last week the participants will be selecting countries in a snake style draft which will take place over the course of five rounds after which each person will evaluate their drafted national lineup and select from a limited Olympic event schedule what they feel they will perform best at. Three possible options:

            Quantity vs. Quality: Borrowing a solution from popular sports leagues around the world, often a franchise losing a player who was a major contributor will be met with some sort of compensation. In the case of the NBA or NFL these can be in the form of Compensatory draft picks. We can incorporate this into a snake style draft by having one or more rounds in between the normal sequence of draft picks for participants who were not fortunate to receive a high draft choice.
            The Upside: This addresses the issue directly by breaking our limit of five countries in order to achieve aggregate balance among competitors.
            The Downside: Deciding exactly how many compensatory picks and where they fall in the draft is difficult and there is a risk of overcompensating and tipping the scales the opposite direction.

            Change the Game: As aforementioned, we are utilizing a limited Olympic schedule and simple scoring technique. Each day participants will select one event and score points based on their own countries results in that event. Additionally everyone will score in four "Team Events" will score larger point values that will last much of the duration of the Olympics. This possible solution involves picking largely diverse and unpredictable events while still offering several more reliable options for countries beyond the Olympic Big Three.
            The Upside: In game design this is often a more feasible option than it happens to be here. The problem is the results can swing wildly and there is little semblance of balance added through this approach.
            The Downside: Potentially this method can backfire and cause a run away leader effect in a design with as much "chaos" (unpredictable results) as the Olympics if the the USA or China finds success in events they were not expected to. Surprisingly the downside isn't as dramatic as it seems. With three options per day the schedule can be called upon to limit the athletic strengths of certain countries (Excluding Basketball for the USA) while offering strong options for those with strong non-dominant countries (Including Cycling for Western European countries).

            Change the Scoring: The implementation will change for this option from one design to another but in this case our scoring is based on Gold/Silver/Bronze medal finishes with a possibility of a dominant country sweeping all three medals in a single event. In order to limit the dominance of a country we will allow only one medal to count for each country in an event.
            The Upside: This restriction evens out the field and with surprise upsets happening frequently in the Olympics the failure to get the Gold stings a little more even if your country earned you the Silver and Bronze. Additionally it opens up the strategy: as you can only pick one event per day it makes sense to draft natural complements to your previously drafted countries (A Kenya/Ethiopia combo for distance track events).
            The Downside: While a simple rule, it does add complexity. It deviates from our first design goal "Simplicity over all else" but does contribute considerably to our second design goal "Allow participants to create their own strategy". 

So how do we proceed? Which direction do we take? As one might imagine if there are three reasonable solutions that can be used in moderation we should try to utilize all three.

  • Participants unable to select USA, China, Russia & Great Britain will be given compensatory draft picks following the first two rounds and again after the fourth round. Great Britain will be given a compensatory draft pick only following the fourth round. This is in anticipation of Great Britain hosting in front of a home crowd with more athletes than anyone else and projections of 62 medals to as high as 95 medals. This could be the Olympics that we see the Big Four. If this is indeed the case a 6th country at the end of the draft won't effect much and if Great Britain doesn't turn out as optimistically its a little bit of added insurance.
  • Selecting diverse events in different event categories allows strategic draft selections where participants can create their own strategy to best position themselves for scoring each day or overall.
  • With a scoring limitation we create opportunity rather than purely limitations and strengthen the prospects of smaller countries in unpredictable events. Hoping to break through with an extra Bronze medalist every week is what the Fantasy Olympics is all about.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The 2012 Fantasy Olympics: An Introspective Look at Game Design (Part I)

Earlier this year Matt was in town and we were were catching up while enjoying some delicious frozen yogurt. We discussed our previous Fantasy Football season results and the upcoming Olympics in London. As our conversation evolved we realized the enjoyment that could be added to the Olympics by creating a Fantasy Olympics League.

As we are approaching the London games later this month it seemed natural to incorporate a brief blog series encompassing our very own quest for the Gold at the 2012 Fantasy Olympic Games. This will be a blog series beginning with the preparation of the rules and design framework moving through the competitive process identifying unforeseeable challenges and measuring the balance of the game design all the way through the final scoring.

Now that has been said, we need some design goals. These help us shape our mechanics, identify our audience and game weight and help guide our decision making along the way when we find a fork in the road with two equally enticing directions. Matt and I enjoy the Olympics and our goal is really to create a compliment to the excitement, something that gets us invested in more countries than our own and isn’t too large a time-commitment that it removes us from actually watching the events.

I’ll propose three primary design goals:
  • Simplicity over all else
  • Open-ended decision making allowing participants to create their own strategy
  • Generate millions of dollars
Wait, no... that last one isn’t quite right, but we’ll move on with the first two goals and I’m sure the third will come along eventually.

Now Matt and I want to be able to root for the Lithuanian Sailing team or the Mongolian Water Polo team to win medals so our focus will be on the final podium in a limited but diverse sampling of events which will provide a simple and manageable scoring system everyone can follow. We also need everyone to have plenty of small countries on their roster that expand our fanatics to our many fellow competing countries. I would expect 5 countries to be a very manageable country amount so that no one needs to carry around a list to remember who cheer for everyday.

To follow the theme of the family of Fantasy sports we will have a snake style draft of countries with five rounds. We’ve now hit our first two design obstacles. How many players can Fantasy Olympics handle? What can be done about the competitive dominance of the Olympic medal big three of USA, China & Russia. Now keep in mind we are going to use a limited schedule of Olympic events to reduce analysis paralysis and allow each event to be more meaningful. In looking at recent Olympic results, I’d estimate there are roughly 40 countries that can be routinely be counted on as medal contenders in numerous events. So for competitiveness purposes we should limit ourselves to 7 or 8 players max or reduce the countries-per-player to accommodate more participants.

Now the larger issue, what can be done about the sheer dominance of Russia, China and the USA? What can be done for players who draft 4th overall or later to maintain balance in our ongoing game design? We’ll answer this question next week and continue creating the structure in which our game design can both flourish and meet its design goals.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Quick Impressions: Bohnanza

When our friend Alan came back from a family reunion having seen not one but two groups of friends independently playing Bohnanza, we knew we needed to try it, and Alan bought his own copy immediately. On its surface, Bohnanza is a card game about trading, planting, and harvesting beans--and before criticizing it for missing the obvious "Beananza" pun, designer Uwe Rosenberg already thought of it, except in German, where "Bohne" means "bean".

That's the same Uwe Rosenberg who designed Agricola and Le Havre, so despite the game's cartoon graphics and family-friendly mechanics, Bohnanza is no slouch in the strategy department. Its basic mechanic is that you plant various types of beans in your field, and the more of the same type of bean you stack in the same field, the more points you get. The difficulty comes in that you can only plant two or three types of beans, and if you get stuck with a lousy one on your turn, you might be forced to harvest a more lucrative field prematurely. Fortunately, you're able to make trades, or straight-up give away cards to other players, to prevent such a disaster.

Where the game really sets itself apart is in one little restriction--the order of beans in your hand matters, and you must play the cards in the order you drew them. It's a little like Killer Bunnies in that sense, except that Bohnanza emphasizes making clever deals with other players to dump the dead weight from your hand. The possibility of asymmetric trades is another distinctive feature; unlike in Settlers of Catan, where each trade needs to resolve as soon as it's proposed, Bohnanza allows players to do each other favors in hopes that they'll net some positive karma and have a favor done for them eventually too.

I got destroyed in the only game of Bohnanza we've played, and it's because I didn't trade aggressively enough. It's easy to avoid trades in trading games, especially because you don't want to do something that results in your opponents netting advantages. Bohnanza, though, basically mandates that you cede advantage to the other players some of the time with the hope that they'll remember the kindness and cede it back later in the game.

Bohnanza's rules are incredibly simple, but it's so overwhelmingly social that it's probably impossible to "solve" it. There's certainly optimization decisions to be made, but the game much more strongly hinges on who can swing the best trades and land the most lucrative deals. It's easily picked up by a group of new players, and the pace is fast enough and the mechanics interactive enough that it's tough to get bored during the game. We'll be playing this one a lot, especially as a nice change of pace from ultra-complicated strategy board games.

2-7 players, 45-60 minutes, $20 at a gaming store or $15 on Amazon.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

July Board Game of the Month: Pandmic (On the Brink)

Every month, Ludi Berkeley will post its Board Game of the Month: a new game that we've played recently, an old game we like, or an upcoming game we're excited about. This month's is Pandemic: On the Brink, a new-ish expansion to an older game that we've liked for a while.

Style and Gameplay

Pandemic is a multiplayer strategy game where the players take on the role of experts trying to save the world from pandemic disease. The game takes place on a world map, with major cities across the world serving as the "spaces" on the board. Even though it looks like one at first glance, it's not a territory control game per se--the point of the game is essentially to prevent diseases from "controlling" cities. Cities can be infected with any of a number of diseases; it's the players' job to treat the diseases and eventually develop cures for them. Players' roles are randomly assigned, with each providing a small bonus; for instance, the Medic is especially good at treating disease, while the Scientist is especially efficient at developing cures. When the players develop cures for all the diseases, they win. There are a (frustrating) number of ways to lose Pandemic, some of which I'll talk about later from my close personal experience with each.

The mechanic that distinguishes Pandemic from other strategy board games is that it's cooperative rather than competitive. In other words, the players all win together or lose together. That means players have an unparalleled ability to plan strategy together and look for synergies among their various roles. Other games (Settlers of Catan, Carcassonne, etc.) encourage temporary and shifting alliances, but Pandemic may be unique in its unconditional cooperation among players. For that reason, Pandemic is one of the best games out there to heal feelings that Settlers hurt or to make sure everyone at the table is equally engaged.

The expansion, On the Brink, is more of a collection of extra options and scenarios you can add to the base game than one massive chunk of gameplay. It adds extra player roles and event cards (events come up occasionally and randomly, and they allow you to bend the rules in a small, clever way). There are some aesthetic improvements--the expansion provides petri dishes to store your game pieces; these don't affect the mechanics at all but sure do appeal to my inner wannabe microbiologist. There's an extra Epidemic card for increasing the difficulty to "legendary" (Epidemics also come up occasionally and randomly, but they ruin your day; increasing the number of Epidemic cards is the how to increase the game's difficulty).

One addition that's easy to overlook but actually quite important is the extra rules for playing with five people. Four to five players is a jump that a lot of board games seem unwilling to make, but it can be an important one if you're playing with four of your friends.

But the bulk of the content in the expansion is the addition of three extra "scenarios" that add complexity--and a certain degree of difficulty--to the game. "Virulent Strain" gives one of the diseases even more fun and exciting ways to wreck you. "Mutation" adds a fifth disease that plays by its own cheater rules. And "Bio-Terrorist" turns one of the players against the other, taking the side of the diseases.

Analysis and Anecdotes

One of the best things about this expansion is how modular it is. Want to play with the base rules, no extra scenario, but with additional options for player roles? You can do that. Want to go completely over the top and play with five players, two scenarios, and a boatload of possible events? You can do that too.

Most of the additional roles and events have a very "expansion" feel to them, something that's common not just to board games but also to roleplaying supplements and video game expansions. They're more "situational" than the mechanics in the base game, they tend to have lots of words, and they generally require more specific strategy to use them rather than being generally useful. All that said, they represent more options, and in the hands of experienced gamers, those options will be discovered and exploited, contributing to a slight "power creep" for every expansion added. My gaming group isn't nearly experienced enough with On the Brink yet to have optimized the new roles and events, but we've already found a few synergies, and it seems that powergaming could eventually become far more possible in the expansion than in the base game.

Basic Pandemic was pretty well balanced for 2-4 players, and you get the feeling that the balance might be just a little off for 5. In the one game we played with 5 players, it felt like I got one or two turns too few and that too much of the deck was already in play at the beginning (because each player starts with a couple of cards). But it wasn't enough to destroy the game, and I'll gladly take a turn too few for the chance to include another player.

We haven't tried--and probably will not try, at least for a while--the "legendary" difficulty. We won the "hard" (i.e., six Epidemic cards) version exactly one time, and that involved a lot of things going exactly right for a group of experienced players. Another wonderful thing about Pandemic is that it represents a definite challenge when played at its most difficult, even if you've played it a lot before, because you can't predict how any individual game is going to unfold. Has anyone actually tried the "legendary" difficulty, and if so, did you come close to winning?

We have, however, played two of the scenarios, and enjoyed them both even though we ended up losing both times. The first one we played was "Mutation," and a poor early-game draw doomed us almost immediately. I was playing with Zach, who had played before; Alan, who hadn't but plays other games with us pretty often; and Joe, who only plays occasionally. We decided to go with the "easy" difficulty (four Epidemics) but with the extra challenge of the mutation (which adds three Mutation cards). Our first three card draws were Mutation, Mutation, Epidemic--in a deck with dozens of cards, the first three draws were three of the seven that did terrible things. One of those ways I mentioned to lose this game is to have eight "outbreaks" of disease occur; we saw four before everyone had finished their first turn, and it didn't take long to pile on four more.

Our second experience with On the Brink went a little better, but we still lost. This time, we played "Virulent Strain" with five people, four of whom (Zach, Tom, Josh, and I) knew the game pretty well, so we decided on "medium" difficulty. Almost right off the bat, we got hammered with "Government interference," which made it tough to move through the region infected by the virulent strain. We played through most of the game pretty well, but ran out of cards in our draw pile at the end (another of the many ways to lose), so it seemed that the interference slowed us down the half turn that we would have needed to win.

One moral of the On the Brink story is that the extra scenarios represent not just more things going on in the game but also extra difficulty. In basic Pandemic, "easy" mode is straighforward enough that it's not tough to win even in a group of all new players, and "medium" is fairly readily tackled by a group that's played before. Minus the scenarios, I would have expected to win both of those games, but the extra twists kept us from getting there both times. But they were fun, which is what really counts. We'll be playing both of these scenarios again--certainly until we figure out how to win them--and I'm particularly excited to try my hand at a little bio-terror. (Strictly in-game, that is.)

Overall Impressions

It's tough to say whether any of these scenarios will become my preferred method of playing Pandemic, but it's nice to have the option to rotate them in with the "vanilla" game. This is one of the better board-game expansions out there, mostly because of all the options it gives you and all the ways in which it lets you customize your game. For the most part, the new content integrates smoothly into Pandemic, which is something that can't necessarily be said of all game expansions. Even though Pandemic never felt "stale" per se, On the Brink manages to reinvigorate it while still feeling like Pandemic.

For a group of new players, I'd recommend playing basic Pandemic a few times to see if it's your thing and get the hang of it before moving on to the expansion. If you're an experienced player playing with completely new players, it might be best to introduce the group to basic Pandemic before adding in the more complicated scenarios. And established fans of Pandemic won't be disappointed--this expansion keeps everything good about the game and adds ways to make it more interesting.

2-5 players, 45-60 minutes, $35 at your local game shop or $25 on Amazon. Not a stand-alone game--requires Pandemic to play.