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Wednesday, December 21st, 2011

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Machine Civilization

Tirade's Choice

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"I lived on the same street from them until last year - they are awesome folks! They always have a smile and give out the best stuff for Halloween." -- Wingsofazrael, commenting on a thread on about Alison's awesome customer service

Rash returns with a travelogue from his recent trip to Japan and a comprehensive table of space shuttle info.

Pyramid Shambo & Lunar Invaders

Happy Holidays! Yes, it's that time of year again, and in keeping with our Holiday Gift tradition, we have released a new game for the occasion, called Pyramid Shambo. You already know this if you read the recent Notes From the Lab e-Newsletter, and perhaps you've even tried it already. But if it's news to you, please check it out -- it's surprisingly fun! It can be a hard sell sometimes, since on the face of it, a Rock-Paper-Scissors (RPS) tournament doesn't sound that exciting, but the escalation rules I came up with make it much more fun than people expect!

But just in case that game wasn't enough for you, I have another new game to give you. I call it Lunar Invaders, and it's also a game for pyramids. It's a very different type of game, but it does have an optional RPS rule, which was central to earlier versions of the game. Indeed, these similarities are part of how both games came to be, which is why it seemed appropriate to release them more or less simultaneously.

The rest of this article will explain that last sentence. (It may prove uninteresting for those who aren't students of game design, but we'll see.)

To begin with, Lunar Invaders is based on Cosmic Coasters, a game I designed back in Y2K. (12 years ago!) I've always been proud of it -- it's got some great concepts -- but I've also had to admit that it's flawed. It's a very slow seller, and the gameplay frequently bogs down in a seemingly endless showdown of RPS battles. So I've long been wanting to re-visit the design, to see if I could fix it. And I did!

Cosmic Coasters uses ordinary coins as game pieces, a concept that sounds neat but ends up being problematic in a couple of ways. Lunar Invaders uses the same basic gameboard design, but instead is played with Looney Pyramids. The 3 sizes provide game piece texture that's missing with a fleet of identical units, and that difference alone makes the battle format far less prone to the deadlocks that occur when forces are equally matched.

The other major difference between Cosmic Coasters and Lunar Invaders is that the new game abandons the special powers that gave each player a minor ability. Like the heavy importance of RPS in the original game, the special powers added an element of chaos that was needed with uniformly-strong fighting units; however, as a pyramid game, I wanted more emphasis on strategy and less on zany abilities.

So how does any of this relate to Pyramid Shambo? I hear you asking. Well, I came up with Pyramid Shambo at around the same time as I was having some of the key ideas for Lunar Invaders, to the extent that I feel like I split elements of one game, Cosmic Coasters, into two others, one featuring just the core strategy game, the other featuring just the RPS chaos.

This feeling became even stronger after various Starship Captains convinced me to downplay RPS even further than I'd originally planned, using a die roll instead. (I did keep RPS in the rules as a variation, because I personally prefer playing it that way, but I realize that some folks just don't like RPS, and I'd rather not scare them off.)

But there's more to the story of how I invented Pyramid Shambo, and I need to give some credit to my friends and game design peers, Mike Selinker and James Ernest. After contributing my own chapter to Mike's excellent book, The Kobold Guide to Board Game Design, I've been reading the others chapters, and there's some great stuff in there! Of note to this story is James Ernest's chapter on designing gambling games, called "Let's Make It Interesting." His insights definitely helped shaped Pyramid Shambo.

If you're really interested in the subject of game design (and you must be if you're still reading at this point) then you ought to get the book and read it yourself. But here's the gist of his essay, and why it helped inspire me.

According to James, the four elements required for a good gambling game are Familiarity, Clarity, Ease of Play, and Volatility. I think it's easy to see how well a RPS tournament fits the first 3 of those: everyone is familiar with RPS, the action is super clear, and the game is extremely easy to play. But where I think Pyramid Shambo really succeeds is in that fourth point, volatility. On that subject, James writes, "Something amazing ought to happen once in a while, or your game will be no fun."

I've seen a lot of games that use RPS as an element, and obviously, I've even done so myself. But I've never seen it used such that the penalties increase when the players make the same choice.

Because you know how that goes -- ties usually end by the second or third throw, but every now and then you get one of those sequences where two people make the same choice over and over again. And with escalating penalties, that occasional event becomes very exciting indeed. Kristin and I had a round recently in which we tied NINE TIMES IN A ROW before she finally defeated me, which of course was enough at that point to knock me right out of the game. That was exciting and fun for me, even though I lost!

And that's the story of how I recently invented these two new games. I hope you enjoy them!

Thanks for reading about my game design process... was this interesting? As your reward for reading this far, here is an extra Holiday Gift - a free copy of the original game, Cosmic Coasters! Just put Cosmic Coasters in your shopping cart and enter the code "MOONZRGR8" when you check out and the $5 cost will be credited on your order.

AndyMerry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Sensational Solstice Season, and an Excellent New Year!

PS: Special thanks to Jeff Wolfe, Bryan Stout, Robert Dudley, Scott Myers, Russ Williams, and everyone else who reviewed the rulesheets for either or both of these new games in advance and provided feedback via the Starship Captain's Forum. As usual, your editorial comments were incredibly valuable!

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