Emotional Design: Catan Dice Game Plus Review

By: Jason Waddell

Catan Dice Game Plus (CDGP) is a game that I wanted to like. I’m constantly on the lookout for light two-player games to play with my wife. CDGP is billed as a marriage of two of my wife’s favorite games, Settlers of Catan and Yahtzee, yet somehow manages to capture the magic of neither. The game simply doesn’t deliver at an emotional level.

diceplus

For those unfamiliar, the premise of the game is simple. Each turn, you roll six 6-sided dice over the course of three rounds. At the end of each round you may select any number of dice to re-roll. At the end of the third round, you buy any number of resources that you can purchase with your dice. With the right dice, a player can buy multiple resources in a single round (e.g. a road and soldier).

The object is to be the first player to reach 10 victory points. Victory points are earned in the usual Catan fashion, with 1 point for a village, 2 points for a city, and 2 points for the Longest Road and Largest Army bonuses. There is also a minor resource-management system, as purchased soldiers can be “used” once per game to add their respective resource to your dice pool.

yahtzee

Although the game sounds solid in concept, it unfortunately lacks the tension and emotional spikes that characterize Yahtzee. Yahtzee has players walking the tight-rope between trying to unlock the 35-point upper score-card bonus with the high-scoring lower-card rolls. There is some margin for error, but the game has just the right degree of tight constraints.

The upper score-card bonus is tuned to players scoring an “on par” 3 dice for each category (18 points for 6’s, 15 points for 5’s, etc.). A score of 24 for 6’s, while only earning 6 extra points “above par”, gives a player 6 points of leeway for scoring “below par” elsewhere. In Yahtzee, leeway is everything. You will miss, and like hastily cleaning up a messy apartment before guests arrive, your goal is to find enough compartments to hide your failures. As the game ticks on, that juicy 50-point Yahtzee box starts to look more and more like an appealing junk draw.

Yahtzee is very much an exercise in failure management, and when you finally hit that Large Straight or earn the upper score-card bonus, the emotional payoff is there. You took risks to get there, made non-lucrative early plays to set up the big payoff. Even the unearned random Yahtzees and Large Straights deliver on an emotional level. It’s not by accident that the term “Yahtzee” has entered our cultural lexicon.

Catan Dice Game Plus, however, has none of these hallmarks. You slowly trudge along gaining incremental advantage. You score the extra road or you don’t. You accumulate some soldiers. Each turn you tick a bit closer to victory, hopefully closer than your opponents. There’s some strategy, but none of the emotional spikes, nothing that makes you throw your hands in the air. There’s little risk taking, no zero’ing out your Full House to take another audacious swing at the Yahtzee. Worst yet, there’s a weak climax (if any). CDGP goes until it doesn’t.

The game’s fun factor never materialized. My wife and I tried it several times, hoping to find something in it that we’d missed. What I gained most from playing CDGP was a greater appreciation for Yahtzee’s design. I had never realized how closely the “failure management” system of finding places to score botched rolls played into the fun factor.

Catan Dice Game Plus looked promising on paper, but its failure was an inability to deliver an emotional level.

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“Split // Card” Testing

By: Jason Waddell

Earlier this week, forum member tomchaps posted about a new testing technique he read about on another forum. The idea is, when testing a new card, create your own “split card” between the proposed new card and the card that it would be conceivably replacing. The example given was an imaginary split card “Blood Baron of Vizkopa // Obzedat, Ghost Council”

Blood Baron of VizkopaObzedat, Ghost Council

The drafters would play with the split card, and could choose during games which side to use. After some testing, the following comment was made: “In the end, the numbers heavily favoured the Baron during the period where we had the Baron // Obzedat split card (and as a result, the Obzedat mode was never used).”

Through this exercise, the designer identified Blood Baron as the stronger card. As an academic exercise, we’re good so far. The question then becomes, what to do with this information. My central thesis in my writing has been to select cards that are good for your cube rather than good in your cube. This notion has been a bit contentiously received by some, but I think it’s helpful to take a step back and look at the abstract picture of what we’re doing as cube designers.

We are designing a game. Forget that this game is comprised of pre-existing materials from another game. Forget that Magic exists and just put yourself in the mindset of creating something entirely new. We can create whatever cards that we want, and have full control. It’s easy to create cards or moves that are powerful. Think of any game. Monopoly, Starcraft, Street Fighter, Dominion, triple Gatecrash draft. It’s trivial to think of moves, cards or mechanics that would be good in these games. Our job as designers is to decide what to make powerful. What kinds of decisions and gameplay to we want to incentivize.

“Development can make players do what we ask by putting the power of the set in the proper place.”- Mark Rosewater

 

Fortunately for this exercise, the example Blood Baron // Obzedat example has some issues. The first question is, do I want a card in this slot that is harder or easier to cast? One of the problems with a card like Armageddon is that its splashable mana cost meant that often it wouldn’t make its way to the white aggro player at all. I’ve often been heavily committed to a Rakdos deck, opened an Armageddon and easily splashed for it. With modern card design, Wizards is much more mindful of the color commitments required of cards, and often make a card harder to cast to bolster a particular archetype.

Next, we look at the card text. Blood Baron raises some immediate red flags. Many cubes are home to underpowered aggro sections, and another lifelinker would further compound this dynamic. Further, Protection effects have a tendency to randomly hose decks and produce low-quality games of Magic. Blood Baron is also extremely blunt. His value is driven by raw card power, and the design is not one that really gets me excited as a player. Obzedat also gains life, and has some possible protection from sorcery speed effects, with the added benefit of some decision making required once he is on the battlefield.

Either way, there’s a lot to consider beyond the raw power level of the cards. Perhaps neither card is appropriate.

Wall of Reverence

Magic’s library is filled with cards that are good in cubes but not necessarily good for cubes. Cube writers and designers have complained for years about underpowered aggro archetypes, and I can’t help but feel that the problem is symptomatic of design philosophies that favor good cards over good environments.

Perhaps what is most overlooked in the whole discussion is that successful game design is often driven by specifically not giving players everything they want. You are your set’s design and development team. Where do you want the strength, and where do you want the weaknesses to be? What sort of trade-offs should your players have to make? How do you want to balance synergy versus raw card power?

Regarding the split card testing, I think it’s best suited for constructed testing, where you are really concerned with maximizing the power of your deck and clawing for every extra percentage point you can get. The split card testing method is engineered to force the player to answer the question “which card is more powerful” every time they encounter it. As a designer, you don’t even necessarily need to know the answer. Again, imagine you’re designing something like the upcoming Theros set. Your team of designers brings you 5 new card designs for a slot. It may be trivial to identify which is the most powerful card, but using that criteria is unlikely to lead to the most fun or cohesive set.

In my own design, I am debating between the inclusion of the following two cards.

Blood ScrivenerWretched Anurid

Wretched Anurid has the higher raw power level, along with a relevant drawback, particularly when combined with recursive creatures (Gravecrawler, Bloodghast), or other life loss effects like Bitterblossom and Dark Confidant. It’s been in my cube for a while, and is a known quantity.

Blood Scrivener is the new kid on the block, and it’s hard to know how often its trigger is relevant, or whether it’s fun to build a deck that encourage playing empty handed, particularly when Blood Scrivener would be the only card in my cube that rewards emptihandedness.

At this point, I really don’t need more information on Wretched Anurid. The gains of running a “Blood Scrivener // Wretched Anurid” split card are twofold.

  1. It is easier to remember which cards are vying for the same slot.
  2. Players are more likely to include “Blood Scrivener // Wretched Anurid” in their decks than Blood Scrivener. 

Both of these are artifacts of the fact that cube design is only pseudo game-design. Often we test only in competitive settings, with players who are less interested in testing than they are in winning. If you were working with a full-time team of designers, the other designers would be equally invested in testing and generating feedback for Blood Scrivener, rendering the split card method unnecessary.

As designers, we often make our best breakthroughs when we disregard what the player wants and give them instead tools they’ll enjoy. To borrow from another genre, one of Halo’s biggest innovations was that it restricted players to carrying only two weapons at a time. Prior to Halo, the shooter genre’s norm was to allow the player to carry every weapon in the game simultaneously. If given the choice, players will choose the more powerful “unlimited weapons” option. Choosing which two weapons to carry, however, turned out to be a very fun mechanic. Which of your existing weapons do you drop? What are the strengths and weaknesses of each weapon pairing? How much ammo does each weapon have left? What types of encounters do you expect to face soon?

Ultimately our job as designers is to make sure the strength of our set lies in the proper places. Players will power maximize, and our task as designers is to make the players’ power maximization process as fun as possible.

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[M14] Young Pyromancer

By: Jason Waddell

Dragon’s Maze is barely on the shelves and we’re hot into spoiler season already. Chandra is the marquee character of the new campaign, but she’s not the only red mage being introduced in this set. Say hello to Young Pyromancer.

youngpyromancer

Now, aside from the card name, which feels straight out of either the Young Adult literary section or the romance section… actually, hold that thought. Let’s let Google Images settle that score for us.YoungPyro2

Okay, so, from the romance section. But you guys are looking at a genuine artifact here, these Google Image results won’t stay the same for long. Now, what we have with Young Pyromancer is a Goblin Piker with an upside. About a year ago I fell for another card from this same school of design.

Talrand, Sky Summoner

As it turns out, banking on casting spells for added value Turns 5 and later just wasn’t a very effective gameplan. Talrand was a flop. Most of the time you’d prefer to just get the value up front, without jumping through any hoops.

Talrand's Invocation

But hey, a two-drop that produces tokens is a lot different than a 4-drop that produces tokens. Thankfully, we’ve had one of those too in recent months. Perhaps we can start to triangulate in on power level.

Precinct Captain

Not a perfect comparison. Precinct Captain had a much more prohibitive casting cost, with the added benefit of First Strike and an extra point of toughness.

Mogg War Marshal

Yet another comparison point. Mogg War Marshal likely doesn’t make most tight lists, but has served quite a valuable role complementing my cube’s recent sacrifice subtheme.

Delver of SecretsAugur of BolasSnapcaster MageChandra, the FirebrandChandra's Phoenix

Regardless of power level, Young Pyromancer looks to be a great fit for the burgeoning “spells matters” UR archetype. Red is already full of high-efficiency beaters at the two-drop slot, and I believe that the quality of a cube environment greatly improves from cards like this that promote synergy, thoughtful deckbuilding and sequencing.

For added bonus, combine with spells that can be cast multiple times.
StaggershockDeep Analysis

As far as decks go, Young Pyromancer could slot in perfectly to a deck like this one, which won our last draft:

gertDeck

 

 

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Android: Netrunner, First Impressions

By: Jason Waddell

Today I had my first hands-on session with Android: Netrunner, a revamping of a two-player card game originally designed by Richard Garfield in 1996. The game’s “cyberpunk dystopian future” setting is hardly original, but is one that I have a personal affinity for. Neil Stephenson’s “Snow Crash” ranks among my favorite works of fiction, and if you haven’t read it, I give you the same recommendation I received from a friend: just read the first two chapters. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a more intense section of prose about pizza delivery.

Netrunner’s theme is intertwined with its asymmetric two-layer design, with one player assuming the role of the Corporation defending servers, and the other playing as a Runner attempting to steal information (Agendas) from said servers. Per Wikipedia: “The Runner’s goal is to gain 7 or more points by hacking into the Corp’s computer network and stealing agenda cards; the Corp’s goal is to gain 7 or more points by activating agenda cards.”

The crux of the design hinges on the fact that Agenda cards are found only in the Corporation’s deck. The runner must interact with the opponent’s deck to win, which is a refreshing change from Magic, where gameplans are often more proactive and self-focused in nature. The cards and mechanics in Netrunner are very opponent-focused. The decks can’t be goldfished.

The emphasis on interaction is amplified by a hidden-information mechanic. The Corporation’s cards are played to the table face-down, and can be turned face-up by paying a “rez” cost at any point in time. Enter bluffing. Let’s take a simple example:

Say the Corporation holds three cards: a trap, an Agenda, and a defender (ICE).

The Corporation may, for example, play both the trap and the agenda card face down, then place a face-down defender (ICE) in front of one of the cards. Which do you defend? On the following turn, the Runner could choose to spend an action to make a run at either card. The undefended card will be accessed immediately, whereas the runner risks suffering damage if they attempt a run on a card with ICE in front of it. Intuitively, the defended target appears to be of greater value, but it could all be a ruse. It’s a familiar quandry:

VIZZINI: But it’s so simple. All I have to do is divine from what I know of you. Are you the sort of man who would put the poison into his own goblet, or his enemy’s? [pauses to study the MAN IN BLACK] Now, a clever man would put the poison into his own goblet, because he would know that only a great fool would reach for what he was given. I’m not a great fool, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you. But you must have known I was not a great fool; you would have counted on it, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me.

MAN IN BLACK: You’ve made your decision then?

VIZZINI: Not remotely. Because iocaine comes from Australia, as everyone knows. And Australia is entirely peopled with criminals. And criminals are used to having people not trust them, as you are not trusted by me. So I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you.

Of course, it’s not a pure random guess. The game state and style of the opponent will both factor into the reasoning. And like Poker, I suspect it’s important to mix-up your play, lest you establish a play pattern that can be easily exploited. Game Designer David Sirlin often refers to these types of decision states as “Yomi”, and while some perceive this mechanic as mere “Rock Paper Scissors”, tournament game scenes have established Yomi as a skill you can exceed at well beyond the rate of chance. Games with Yomi also have a certain playfulness to them, which are well suited to repeated play with a friend. There is no mathematically optimal line. It’s a dance that can be played out time and time again, with some real emotional satisfaction to be gained from timeless “Gotcha” moments.

Although, I must confess, this is all a bit of conjecture on my part. Before you “unlock” the mind games, you must first become proficient with the game’s basic mechanics and flow. There’s nothing like learning a new game to remind you of how complicated modern games can be. Even after thouroughly reading the rulebook and digesting a couple YouTube videos on how to play, I was still rather lost in my opening games. Although thematic, the game’s terminology isn’t doing a newcomer any favors. Your hand, deck and discard pile are called “HQ”, “Research & Development”, and “Archives” if you’re the Corporation, and “Grip”, “Stack” and “Heap” if you’re the Runner. Not that the names really matter, but every little thing increases the barrier to entry for a newcomer.

While the game does offer deckbuilding possibilities, it thankfully comes packed with 7 preconstructed decks (3 Runner, 4 Corporation). This allows for 12 unique match-ups, which feels rather generous (cost aside) when compared to a game like Blue Moon that includes only two decks out of the box. Further, the rules recommend newcomers start with the “Shaper” Runner deck and the “Jinteki” Corporation deck, presumably for ease of access. Even with these considerations, there are still intimidating factors. Take this card:

Index
(Card art by Lexxy Douglass, contestant on Penny-Arcade’s Strip Search)

As a first timer, Precognition made me anxious. Casting it meant I would have to read through five new cards, try to process their strategic value and rearrange them in a profitable way. It was too much. In Cube I relish my instant-speed Brainstorms and assorted library manipulation affects, but here I experienced negative emotion when I so much as drew the card. I didn’t want to waste a move casting it. I’m sure this will change, but it’s interesting to see how different things look at different levels of experience as a player. Players can tolerate all sorts of complex cards, decisions and mechanics, but they have to get there in baby steps. This is something Wizards has shown great mastery of over recent years, with an entire pipeline of products and formats designed to ease players into the game. Sometimes as cube designers it’s easy to lose an appreciation for just how far we’ve progressed from the day we first encountered Magic.

And when it comes to games, first impressions are everything. I played Netrunner for about 90 minutes today, and lord knows I’ve given up on dozens of games in far less time than that. As far as Netrunner is concerned, I’m itching to play again, and hope I can track down a friend to play with me tomorrow. There’s a wealth of depth to this game that I’ve only scratched the surface of, and I can’t wait to test-run the remaining five starter decks. Best of all, Netrunner is a so called “Living Card Game”, which means that the base game and all expansions are non-collectible. Netrunner has been on the shelves for just over a year, and you can pick up the core game and all its expansions for about the price of a Tarmogoyf.

 

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Ludevic’s Test Subject

By: Jason Waddell

Ludevic's Test SubjectLudevic's Abomination

I first ‘discovered’ Ludevic’s Test Subject while playing another player’s cube. The 0/3 seemingly innocuous defender appeared to be an odd inclusion. Yet, by the end of the round I’d suffered two losses at the hands claws of an Eldrazi-sized Lizard Horror.

At first glance, Ludevic’s Test Subject seems unplayable. It teeters on the brink, with just enough power in each of its design elements. Three toughness is just enough to hold back hordes of two-power beaters that populate cube lists. The ten-mana flipping cost would likely be too steep without the transformation and addition of counters happening at instant speed. The 13/13 body would be far less effective without Trample.

Thankfully the card is sufficiently powered, as the Test Subject is one of the more captivating designs from Magic’s history. Unlike most finishers, Ludevic’s Test Subject requires some real planning and intuition to use optimally. Do you need to hold open countermagic mana for an opponent’s kill spell, or are you free to tap out four hatchling counters at the end of turn? When it correct to invest resources in counters rather than spending mana on other cards? There’s an element of planning ahead, both with and against.

Strangely enough, one of the best comparisons for Ludevic’s Test Subject is Celestial Colonnade.

Celestial Colonnade

While the two are by no means of equal power level, they do share a number of similarities. Both fill slots that cube control decks already need (lands and early road blocks). Both serve as late-game mana sinks that can finish off an opponent. Whereas Celestial Colonnade requires a five-mana investment on your turn each time you want to attack with it, Ludevic’s Abomination can be yours forever for only five easy two-mana payments at instant speed. If the late Billy Mays were still around, he’d be peddling it in direct-response advertisements worldwide.


“Hi, Billy Mays here with the best egg since Ped Egg.”

So put Ludevic’s Test Subject in your cube. Most importantly, put it in your cube decks. Far too many players make the mistake of leaving it in the sideboard when it comes to narrowing down the final 40.

Take it from Herm Edwards, Ludevic’s Test Subject plays to win the game.

 

 

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