Debtzilla - Game Design Diary Part VI: Random Dice vs Strategic Cards
The bane of modern board game design...
As the tastes of board game enthusiasts become more sophisticated over the years, the demand for games with a a higher learning curve on a more strategic level has increased. This compares to the easier to learn games with high level of randomness that punishes both new and seasoned gamers, which as a lower learning curve.
For those that are not familiar with game design, a game high in luck factor allows players to learn the game quickly but is often low in the need to make strategic decision creating a situation whereby seasoned players have no advantage over new players. This will make gamers who are very competitive very, very unhappy. Examples of such games include Uno and Snake & Ladders. On the other hand, A game with a high strategy level often has more complex rules and seasoned players will often win as compared to new players. This will often make new players unhappy after repeated attempts at trying to win the game, only to be crushed by the veteran. Chess and GO are examples of such games. A game designer often have to wrestle between these two extremes, base on the target market they are designing the game for.
Learning from the lessons of Wongamania: Banana Economy, I aimed to design a low luck, high strategy battling mechanic for Debtzilla. The first 8 prototypes require players to manipulate their Hero's attributes (Strength, Technology, Charisma) which can be enhanced by equipment. Meanwhile, the villains require different attribute checks to be defeated.
After a few months of game testing, I couldn't achieve the level of tension and joy that comes with defeating a difficult Villain. Yes, it is strategic as players have to discuss which gadgets to buy in order to defeat the different types of Villains, and the result of the battle is almost a foregone conclusion once the strategic planning phase is over. Fighting the Villains is simply a "Ok, you will hit Villain A. Two of us will hit Villain B andddddd we will definitely win! Hurray!"
Frustrated by the lack of joy in defeating the Villains, I took up a bunch of dice and was just tossing them for the fun of it and tried defeating the Villains using pure randomness of dice throws. Strangely, I found myself going "yes yes YES!" each time I succeed in getting the randomness of dice working for me and the fight was a lot more satisfying than the 8 different kind of attribute check systems which I have designed previously. It also streamlines the battling process allowing non-gamers to pick up the game much more easily.
However, my marketing instinct started howling at this point. "Games with high randomness is out of flavor! DON'T DO IT!"
On the other hand, I love the tension before the throw of dice and the elation of success and the "Holy S*it" moments that occur when I see Citizens being mowed down by Villains.
Can we achieve a compromise? That's when I set out to develop on the dice mechanics, seeking a balance between the tension of the unknown before throwing the dice and the strategic value of advance planning to mitigate the luck of dice throw.
The roles of the gadgets are changed from attribute boasting equipment into dice modifying cards whereby with the right combination of gadgets and hero's power, one will be able to eliminate the luck of throw completely with proper planning and strategy.
I also further fine tune the strategies which the Heroes can adopt to confront the Villains:
Brute Force but random - A strategy that relies on a huge number of dice to mitigate luck
Precise but accurate - A strategy that allows you to hit the target no matter what you roll but has few dice to manipulate
Support and Control - A strategy that focus on controlling the damage of Villains and the health of Boss. Hero is weak in a real fight with low dice throw and no modifiers.
After completing the design, I invited a couple of hard core Euro gamers to try out the game and asked for their opinions on how random they feel the dice battles are. In general, they feel that the dice modifiers and hero powers have done a good job to mitigate much of the randomness. They will prefer not to be throwing dice though.