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Development and Other Thoughts

Kanazawa in Moonlight by Utagawa Hiroshige

When I sat down to write this blog or at least planned to write it it was one thing and has gone through being something else since, so sorry if it gets a little vague at points. Moonflight has been through a few re-writes in the last week or two, nothing monumental but it did set me thinking about the stages of development. The initial idea is the fun bit, building the first prototype the tricky fun bit and then the playtesting and adjusting which is the work. If you're lucky each version will show enough progress to keep you engaged. During tests and adjustment there are further stages, basic systems, balancing, layering on theme and repeat.

With SSO the engine of the game took at lot of tweaking and balancing. Crew actions, movements and oxygen levels, but once they were balanced figuring out the various challenge decks was both clear and always rewarding. The machine was built and testing programs on it was easy. With Moonflight I'm using a better established framework with a deck builder so the central engine was relatively simple but balancing four different characters with asymmetric abilities and decks has been a whole other challenge. The sense is often of trying to adjust the cogs of a machine in motion, adjusting just the rate of occurrence of a single card can have significant knock on effects to game play and flow.

At the same time I'm working on Mike Hutchinson's/Planet Smasher's/Osprey games' A Billion Suns, Gaslands: Time Extended and Gaslands: Refueled; also additional content and promotion for SSO. Helping develop Mike's stuff and getting into the details of Moonflight brings me to the original subject of this blog, breaking the rules. Since Cosmic Encounter practically every game has set up a rule then immediately breached it. For that matter Monopoly includes the clear rule exception "Do Not Pass Go, Do Not Collect £200". In assisting in the initial development for Gaslands I was lucky enough to spend most of my time tweaking the set up of the sponsors. Mike had built a rules set, set up a playground, that I got to break and play in. In A Billion Suns we're still at the stage of establishing not just the rules prior to breaking them but what the rules to be broken should do. Which brings me on to the point of this point. Every games designer will know the moment when a playtester or friend starts a sentence with "it would be cool if ..." which usually precedes something which definitely would be cool but breaks about five rules that you don't yet understand yourself. Its an understandable urge but can create a significant problem. Equally, every rule has to be available for change so it has to be possible that a rule is written after the rule that breaks it. Creating rules breaches before nailing down the rules to be breached can be a source of ludo narrative dissonance.

Ludo narrative dissonance, or LND (which I'll be using from now on) is what happens when the rules mechanics for a game mismatch with its theme. Sometimes it barely matters but it can create serious issues. The biggest of which is that it makes your game harder to learn both in rules and tactics. If I'm armed with a pistol and a shot gun the shot gun needs to have limited ammo, broader spread, higher damage or knock back because that's what I'd expect, so that's what I'll remember. Also first time I play that's what I'll be planning for it to do. Psychologically players play to experience something happening. Clearly I don't want to actually experience the years of toil involved in setting up a factory or the pain and terror of being chased through the woods by an axe murderer but a game about one should involve resource organisation and build up while the other should involve tension and sudden surprises. Sometime it barely matters, such as when a game is abstract, Azul is an SDJ winning giant of a game but is it actually anything like tiling a palace wall? Certainly not, does it matter? Not the tiniest bit. Explanation aside, this brings me to a theory about one source of LND. By writing a breaking rule first it pins in place the rule that its breaking, often long after surrounding rules and themes have been removed. Breaking rules are built to result in cool moments and so give a false reason to keep them around, especially since an exception being a game's coolest moment is always a mistake. A rule left hanging without its support in theme or mechanics often sticks out, pulling players out of the theme and creating LND. In my opinion the second biggest reason for LND is designing a game to a brief, but this isn't the place to go into that.

In his "White Box" essay Jeremy Holcomb writes that creating a co-op game is much tougher for a first time designer than a verses game. Personally I'm finding the opposite, mainly because a co-op game smooths out the trickiest thing to deal with, human behaviour. James Ernest quotes an early "failure" Bleeding Sherwood (available as a Print and Play) as going wrong because players played the game "wrongly". Players can misunderstand rules, that's the creators fault, they can ruin the game to no advantage to themselves, that's their fault but players understanding the rules and trying to play in the spirit of the game ruining it is very much the game's fault. At the moment I'm balancing Moonflight playing all parts myself, so clearly everyone is playing it "right". Hopefully with the help of playtesters I'll be able to balance it for people playing it every other way. We're intending a partial Print and Play release for Moonflight so that should help.

Releasing a Print and Play of Moonflight should also help fix the biggest issue we had with the first print run/Kickstarter edition of SSO, in that its rule book was a tough read. I'm both deeply proud and satisfied that none of the feed back for SSO, even from its harshest critics have attacked its game play, pacing or narrative. All its criticism has centered on its rule book and marker tokens, both of which we intend to fix on a second edition and a deluxe expansion upgrade. For Moonflight, apart from the planned Print and Play, it does have a higher "complexity budget". Richard Garfield (creator of Magic The Gathering) talks about players having a maximum level of complexity in rules that they will accept, the designers "complexity budget". Almost every rule in SSO was used unusually or strangely presented. While players found it quite simple once learnt I blew my "complexity budget" early on in the belief that people would dig down to the good stuff, and to be fair plenty have, but I have lost some people on the way. I didn't help matters by doing this in such a tiny pocket sized package. Had the game been a big box event I might have bought myself more leeway, still, lessons learnt. With Moonflight I'm designing deviations from the gaming standard that is a deck builder. Just the statement "deck builder" ups my budget for complexity significantly because my target audience already understand a lot of the standards that brings with it. Frankly, aside from one big central rule experienced deck builder players should barely need to read the rule book. Hopefully, higher quality components with less to do and clearer, simpler rules will help Moonflight not need a second edition quite so soon.

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