10 games, which made Neuroshima Hex real thing!

Haker 3I have today guest post – follow up written by Michał Oracz.

1) Colosseum – this is my own logical game (quite old), it’s about battle between two factions, quite similar to NS Hex. I have used its basics, which have been changed later and in the end created a new game.

2) Magic the Gathering – many elements which are typical for Magic were used in Hex. It was natural for me to keep your army tiles hidden to create your “deck” (for very long time I have been using word “cards” instead of “army tiles”). What is more – 20 HP, and the fact that death of units does not affect player’s HP.

3) Light speed – this real time card game was source of initiative, which determines the order of units but also direction and strength of attacks, armour, which protects certain sides of the card (in NS HEX – tiles) against shoots. Obviously, we have used game design – you have to deploy your units first, and then all units take part in battle at once.

4) Zombiaki – this game was source for the rule of discarding one card (tile in NS HEX) at the beginning of your turn and some things like net, grenade, sniper, division into board and instant cards, blocking of line of sight etc. Even today while making a new army I am looking through Zombiaki (and other our games) searching for rules which might be useful. Every time we are able to do it I am very satisfied, it is great fun.

5) Kingdoms – this board game (finally board game not a card game!) was source for method of arrangement of tiles on the board and what is important very strong modules which affects adjacent spaces. When I was designing NS Hex I was convinced that I am designing battle clone of Kingdoms.

6) Chess – chess are deeply rooted in my mind every time I design any game – for NS Hex I have borrowed various figures of special usage which are easily to destroy, and the King which is the most important unit (in NS HEX it is HQ).

7) Knights of the Cross – although, it is a computer game in fact it is a very good board game. Like in chess, there are various pieces, some of them are very thought, other very strong or fast. In the game we use those pieces to compose our army and then to confront our enemy who has completely different set of pieces (also a few of them). In NS Hex I have been trying to reconstruct this system.

8) Illuminati – from this card game by S. Jackson I have borrowed connectors which combine cards into more powerful systems, what became modules connectors in NS HEX.

9) Cave Troll – NS Hex was put aside as useless for a long time waiting for the last piece which was later taken from Cave troll, and finally NS Hex started to work. To be precise NS Hex was waiting for Battle tile. After playing this piece it starts that what is the most important i.e. action connected with victory conditions and sums up the whole puzzle we prepared during the game (in the Cave Troll there was a token which was starting summing up of points, also several times during the game).

10) Neuroshima RPG – it was obvious that we have to place our game in our own universe, so I decided that world described in our role-playing game Neuroshima will be the best.

Sara

This is a guest post by Charles Beauvais
You can learn about his game and back it at Kickstarter!

Sara

“What are you playing?”, she asked.
“It’s a new game idea I’m tinkering with.” I replied, somewhat distractedly.
“I want to play.”, she said.
“It’s not ready yet.”
The first thing you learn about game design is that your initial attempts are always bad. Not just unbalanced, or filled with unclear edge cases, or too fiddly, but really bad. The opposite of fun.
As such, I always do some solo playtesting before inflicting the game on anyone else. Sara, my wife, is often the first innocent victim of unfinished designs.

“I still want to play.”, she insisted.
“I don’t even know what the rules are yet. I’m just rolling the dice and moving pieces around.” I replied.
“But, you’re coloring!”

***

We had played a lot of Matt Leacock’s Roll Through the Ages, and I thought it would be an interesting design space to explore. In particular, the one side of each die where a player had to choose between 2 food and 2 workers. My goal was to combine RTtA with something like Delve, the solo dungeon-crawl dice game. In my mind, it was “Roll Through the Dungeon”, where the symbols on the dice would be swords, shields, wands, etc.
But, before I could allocate the symbols appropriately, I wanted to get a sense for the probabilities. I replaced the symbols with colors, and now I could roll 4 green, for example, or 2 purple. But what to do with them?
I sketched out a landscape scene: a river, tree, bird, sun, and arbitrarily assigned weights to them – this required 4 yellow, that required 2 green. And this nascent game is what my wife wanted to play.

***
A few weeks later, Sara’s mom (my primary Dominion opponent) was visiting. One morning, Sara woke me up.
“You’ve got to print out more puzzles. We’ve already colored in all the ones we could find.”

***
We’re out shopping, and I pick up a few boxes of crayons that are on sale, half-price.
“Buy more”, advises Sara, but I’m not sure.
“I’m still working on the game, and it might be a dud. I don’t want to be stuck with boxes of crayons.”
“You should buy them while they are on sale.”
“I’m sure crayons go on sale periodically. There’s plenty of time.”
Did I mention this was during September? When all the stores have their back-to-school sales? Periodically is right, I’d have to wait a year before crayons would be that cheap again.

***

“What is that?”
“It’s my coloring for this stained glass puzzle. I’m going to for an even distribution of the six colors.”
“It looks like a clown threw up. Print a blank copy for me, please.”
You be the judge. My version actually inflicts damage on the eyes.

***
Before finding a publisher, I created some copies of the prototype to demo and sell. While “how much would you pay for this game?” is a good question for playtesters, it’s even more powerful when it’s not hypothetical. I started with a print run of 250 dice, then another 250-die run, followed by two 1000-die print runs. That’s 2500 dice, all of which had to be stickered by hand. Each face of each die had two stickers, so, yes, we (with help from our friends) applied 30,000 stickers.
Three of the four corners can be stickered easily. Is it a purple die? Surround one corner with purple stickers, another corner with blue, and another corner with red. Simple. The last corner, however, required the remaining three colors in a specific configuration. For all 2500 dice, Sara was the only person I trusted (other than myself) to do this correctly.

***

I’m teaching the game to some new friends, and I start explaining the color bank mechanic.
“Wait,” interrupts Sara, “that’s not how it works.”
“Yes it is. I’ve changed it.”
“Well this new version is stupid. The last version was much more powerful.”
She’s right. The new version is weaker, but much simpler to explain. New players didn’t understand the old version, and thus didn’t use it correctly.
Game designers aren’t the only ones who find it hard to let go of clever mechanics. It affects early playtesters, too.

***

It’s 8:00 PM. We’ve just had dinner, and we sit down to sticker some more dice.
“I think it’s time.”, Sara says.
“Okay, let’s just finish this batch of dice.”
“Okay”.
We finish the last batch of dice, and then drive to the hospital. Twelve hours later, our daughter is born.

***

“The publisher wants to add a trading phase at the start of each round.” I inform Sara.
“That won’t work. It’ll slow the game down too much. It’ll be a disaster.” she replies.
I also have my doubts. I could see the need for more interaction, but I was worried about slowing down a quick-moving game.
“We won’t know until we give it a try.”
We try it with some friends, who are new to the game, so we introduce trading after they’ve got the basic flow of the game going. And what do you know? It works. It doesn’t slow down the game, it gets players to interact with each other, pleading, threatening, and having a great time. It’s a great addition.

***

There are many emotions involved in game design: elation, despair, pride, and disappointment. But I’d like to talk about gratitude. I wouldn’t have been able to produce this game without Sara’s help and support. She’s guided me through the disappointment of being rejected (again) by potential publishers, and she’s shared the joy of reading great player feedback. She’s supported me in this crazy dream of being a game designer, and I hope I can show the same support in her next ambitious project.

How does a good expansion smell like?

missisipi-3-1024x852[this is gues post by Michal Oracz]

Do you guys know how many fragrance notes there are in perfumes? 

I do. Three: the top note, the middle note and… uh… and the base note. 

The top note is the first and the faintest, short-lasting stage of a fragrance. You could even say it’s the least important because it lasts for only about few minutes after using the atomizer. These ingredients will be gone after a while, uncovering other ones, those that more lasting, they were used by the perfume designer in order to be the second stage, the middle note. It’s the middle note that we will carry so it better be really good. Finally when it is gone as well the third and most lasting stage of the fragrance will stay, the base note, composed of longest lasting ingredients. It’s some knowledge for a guy, isn’t? 

I know all this because for quite a few years I’ve been living in a perfumery. My girlfriend’s passion is perfume and since she likes to share this knowledge with me, every day she sticks blotters under my nose, about half a kilo of them to be precise, and she questions me about the aromatic compositions. 

It was rather interesting at the beginning. But when one catches himself on analyzing the aromatic composition of a steak or a cucumber salad it’s a good signal to start worrying. 

Today, I think for the first time, I can say that this knowledge finally was somehow useful to me. Why? 

Let me explain. 

While designing factions for Neuroshima Hex I am most interested in the middle note and the base note. All my efforts are focused on them. I completely ignore the top note. 

The thing is I no longer speak about fragrance notes, I speak about game balance notes. 

I don’t care about the first impression. The player sits in front of the game, he takes a new army and crushes the opponent without any problems. Or he gets crashed even thou he almost overloaded his brain. He states his first verdict: this faction is unstoppable. Or otherwise: this faction is completely ineffective. The next few games might look similar. 

This is because I assume that Hex is not a game for just a few plays. The same goes to new factions. 

I assume that I must deliver the perfect product to those players who will play the core version and it’s expansions over and over, hundreds of times. To those players that will search for tactics for playing with each army and against each army. Those that would be capable of finding every possible winning strategy, every breach and weakness of each of the armies, should such a weakness exist. Then Hex’s place would be in the trash. 

Sure, there are many games in which the first impression is the most important, in which the designers never even assumed that they will be played hundreds of times over and over. Not all games are created with an eye for tournaments, record setting or gaining experience throughout time. Sometimes it’s enough that the game will work for the first few games and during these few sessions it will provide good entertainment. 
Hex is a game strongly oriented towards tournaments. It must work in hundreds and thousands of plays. It’s the balance of armies in hands of the experienced players that is important here. 

That’s the theory. How does it prove in practice? 

Monday, a couple months ago. A batch of results arrives from a large group of testers. I glance at it and am shocked. I immediately forget my theory. I look at the test results with eyes wide open from disbelief. This cannot be true. 

Mississippi loses. Loses damn hard. 

How could I have been mistaken in my tests? In hundreds of plays, in all possible combinations and different strategies? 

The balance regarded not only the perfectly scaled results but also the tiniest details of gameplay. The army was well fitted for all kinds of threats of each of the other armies. It has a remedy for Borgo’s or Hegemony’s expansion on the game board. It has a whole range of nasty offensive actions, it has an ace up the sleeve which forces the opponent to declare the battle stage, it is balanced, it does not depend on just a few tokens, it can force it’s way through opponent’s Headquarters’ defenses, it has perfect tools for defending its own Headquarters. 

It’s not even 1% too strong nor too weak. It’s damn even and tested. 

Yet I see the results. It is losing. 

This was the exact moment where I could have wasted the balance. All I had to do was panic and strengthen Mississippi. It’s really easy – precise strengthening of a faction is trifle. 

Were I to have strengthened Mississippi back then, I would have committed an unforgivable mistake. I would have balanced the faction for the first dozen plays but simultaneously I would have destroyed the balance for a hundred more. 

Panic is a bad advisor.

I looked at the results once more and saw more information that were hidden before: Mississippi lost mainly in the first few plays, then it starts to compensate. Second thing is that Borgo raises the statistics, the less experienced players often have problems with this fast army because they don’t yet see it’s obvious weak points. 

Exactly the same as in the exorcisms, when a priest is trying to tear out its name from the daemon so he can submit it, in the case of a strange upsetting of the balance you need to precisely locate and name the problem in order to solve it. Wins or defeats happening too often can be a result of something completely different than the strength or the weakness of a faction. Especially in tournament games like Hex. 

Each army has its own Achilles’ heel and its strongest tactics. The thing is that in some of the armies it’s really easy to spot them and in some it’s hard. Borgo is one of the simplest armies, its weakness is invisible at the first glance. As soon as they are discovered, Borgo stops to be the bully on the board. The Outpost is the most complex of the basic armies, its biggest strength is invisible at first glance. So does that mean that any of the experienced players would call it a weaker army? Of course, not. 

A well balanced army can seem to be too powerful at the beginning but with each game and with experience this advantage will grow smaller and smaller until it is statistically equal. An analogical situation takes place with the armies that seem too weak at the beginning. After a few dozens of games the player becomes an experienced player – and this is the moment when all officially issued armies become equal. 

What Mississippi lacked were strategy hints. Something that would speed up learning of how to lead this peculiar army. This faction is of the more complex sort but after getting the hang of it, it will more than make up for the invested time and effort. 

So let’s have a look at Mississippi: 

We have a medium range of units with medium initiative. Weak melee attacks and weak ranged attacks. No additional life points nor armor. Limited mobility. No modules improving initiative and attacks’ strength. 

BUT: 

We have Mutations – special modules that provide a lot of toughness to the units. 

We have the Toxic Bomb that will detonate a part of the game board whenever we want. It’s a terrain tile so the opponent can’t do almost anything about it. 

Our Headquarters can push. 

We have the Zone which sets enemy units’ initiative to zero. We also have Pollutions that paralyze units. 

We have Shadows… 

And most of all – we have HUGE possibilities and resources to poison opponent’s Headquarters. 

This is Mississippi – a poisonous, deadly monster that hides in toxic fumes and gurgles with toxins. 

During tests and final polishes of a new faction I note down a lot of things besides the results. Among these notes are difficulties with specific factions and tactical, strategic insights. It comes in really handy. 

I briefly described the basics of efficient strategies for Mississippi. Sent it. New results came after few days. 

I checked how Mississippi works now. 

Phew… 

The exorcisms were successful; the daemon of balance upsetting was banished back to the hell of broken games. 

The players appreciated the importance of Venom and its multiple ticks in each battle. They appreciated Paralysis and started to use it properly. They learned how to use Shadows and Boilers, they appreciated The Poisoner and Toxic Bomb, learned how to efficiently use Mutations. And the opponents learned how to deal with Headquarters’ ability to push. 

Mississippi is not the new Borgo, nor Moloch, it does not welcome the player with arms wide open. It’s neither the new Neojungle, nor Vegas, nor Mephisto, nor the Dancer – meaning it’s not a new weird, experimental army. It’s more like a new Outpost or a new Hegemony. It includes a package of curious but not obvious serves both defensive and offensive. 

And you are probably curious how does Mississippi smell like in the year 2050, in a world where machines submitted mankind? Well let me just say: you’d better put your gas masks on…

Sci-fi is childish

monastyr (5)

[this is guest post by Michal Oracz]

 

On one of the forums I’ve recently encountered a very curious thread, where gamers discussed how it’s often the case that the theme of the game repels them from even giving it a try. The discussion was dominated by hating all kinds of fantasy, horror or sf.

Many voices declared that they will never play a game in which there are zombies, space ships, vampires or elves. The only exception they allow is when such game reaches the top of all rankings, then and only then can these very serious people stain their gravity – to simply check out if under these silly clothes there is something noteworthy enough for them to participate in this child’s play.

Is it really the case that so many board game fans hate fantasy?

Something is not right here because when you look at the BGG’s ranking around half of the games in the first fifty are pure fantasy.

Why so many enemies than? Do they think of sci-fi as flippant?

I checked few threads ahead: the same people wondered why so many other people, who know nothing about the world of board games, think of it as childish, that such people look on board games having in mind the image of Snakes and Ladders. They wondered where all that ignorance and aversion comes from. Well isn’t that a similar situation?

Honestly sometimes I am flabbergasted when on a convention I hear my board games buddy doesn’t like fantasy. How could I have missed that? Do I assume that all board game people are also sci-fi people? I guess I do, completely unknowingly…

I partially understand the problem. For example a macho-guy want’s to play with his prettier half. If he doesn’t want to be seen as a nerd (nerd = a child with a beard – author’s annotation) taken directly from X-Files, he will think thrice before taking out a game with dragons or vampires in it. I am dangerously approaching the gender topic and I might get it in the neck but it is a fact that on conventions, forums and through my own eyes I see that: it is the fairer sex that hates sci-fi.

Fortunately there is a large percent of the notable exceptions (I salute you with the vulcan gesture, live long and prosper!) Luckily my second half included!

Coming back to our macho: it is a lot safer to put an economical game with some historic setting on your table. It’s serious as fit for adult people.

Maybe our potential co-players are a whole family, together with its mature members? Or we are playing with colleagues from work. The serious kind of work. We persuaded them for a weekend with board games. I think I’d hesitate myself thinking whether should I introduce them to this hobby through a gateway game with aliens and wizards in it.

You know how it is. Yes I play but only historical games. The serious ones. Logical. Optimization oriented. Space adventure games? No, never. I grew out of these a long time ago!

Don’t grow out of everything, too many people do. Sci-fi is an ability to look at yourself, your situation and your surroundings from a distance. And as you might know it’s easier to notice all that is hidden without a proper perspective. A useful tool, really it is.

It might be the case that I am under my own illusion. As Portal Games, from the very beginning and for many years, we created role-playing games, obviously sci-fi at that. Neuroshima (post-apocalypse), Monastyr (dark fantasy), De Profundis (horror), Frankenstein Faktoria (horror) etc. Only later did we enter the world of board games.

RPG and fantasy were always bound by an inseparable bond. It was so for many decades, right now it is starting to change. Still 99% of RPG games are sci-fi, space opera, horror, post-apocalyptic, gothic punk, fantasy, steampunk, primal punk etc. Something non fantasy? No way.

After so many years spent around fantasy role-playing games it’s not hard to forget yourself, to forget that we don’t design board games for the same people. That some PLAYER might hate fantasy. I will try to remember this in the future, it will save me the shocked expression on board games conventions.

I promise myself that, in the name of breaking with habitual behaviors, I will finally do something non sci-fi.

Meanwhile on my designer’s desk there is a new add-on for Theseus – Robots. Have you heard about Saturn 3? 2001: A Space Odyssey? Moontrap? Death Machine? Robots have quite a history in claustrophobic sf horrors.

And to celebrate it I’m going to the cinema tonight to watch Robocop, yet another remake of the 80s classic. Quite a few good ones lately, even though they lack all that red-violet reflectors and hectoliters of fog…

What will crawl out of the toxic ooze?

[this is guest post by Michal Oracz]

The end of January. High time to postpone all other projects and seriously focus on the new add-on for Neuroshima Hex.

I take out two boxes from under my desk.

I empty the first one and tokens fall out. They’re wastes back from the first edition, fortunately we never threw them away. That was a good choice since for years they’ve served us for developing new fractions. Their numbers are thinning, I have only around 200 blue ones used for Borgo. I count 50 and token after token I rip the printed layer off. My fingers hurt but in my bag there are 50 blank tokens.

They wait as a clear canvas waits for a painter.

I look into the other box. It’s filled with unfinished armies. I have to choose something.

On the top I notice Gas Drinkers, a fraction of crazed junkies who got their hands on a overabundance of explosives. Their headquarters is a refinery station near Detroit, taken both by force and cunning. They have been already tested as a new fraction but it was a false start.

Next there is a bag with Warriors of Ice. Certainly in this case quantity goes before quality – the troglodytes spread through out the game board like a disease. Last time when I tried to sort out this fraction during tests, I ended up changing them into… Sharrash. And as the rats of Sharrash it went to print. So maybe I will return where I last started and… well maybe next time.

What else?

The Parker Lots gang. A rather small group of ninja-snipers. We created them while working on the Neuroshima RPG supplement describing Detroit. This fraction has a lot of instant tokens. A freaking lot.

And here in one bag I have two sketched, a little bit similar to each other, fractions: Sand Runners and the Desert People. The first being soldiers highly specialized in desert combat and the second being mostly Native Americans living with perfect harmony with the desert. Oh I know that the fans of these desert McGyvers are waiting for their appearance for years.

The few plastic bags with scribbled tokens are a couple of mutant fractions:

Night Stalkers are a tribe of silent warriors. Only once were the mutant hunters able to capture one of them alive. His name was Vraanach and he quickly became a wonder of the gladiator arenas.

And Mesmerites – a very nasty band of telepaths, the most hated type of mutants. A bullet put in a Mesmerite is never a wasted one, as they say on the desolate continent.

What else do we have here?

Dead Breath – a disease raging in the North of the country, changing people into living dead, or something like zombie runners, as we know them form „28 Days Later”. The chain of infection seems very promising. And I love zombies. Tempting…

Or maybe Tetra? Powerful cyborg-mutants from the underground compounds spreading on the Moloch’s grounds. Would Borgo finally have a chance to fight someone of his own size and would Moloch stop bragging about his armored packaging?

The heck with Tetra, I just pulled something out of the box that I almost forgot about: Dark Visions! A motorcycle gang that runs the board over like the Monster Truck show! There is no fraction in Hex that will ever be more mobile and more offensive during their movement phase!

What else do we have left in that bag of mine? Oh yeah! Notes for the second gang for the core rulebook for Neuroshima RPG, the mighty Iron Gang. These guys are madmen who live only for the fight and like swarm they wipe out everything in their path to nowhere. Just like the Warriors of Ice they found their way to the pages of the Neuroshima RGP rulebook because I was inspired by one of the records of the Voivod band.

Hey there’s something more.

Wait a sec, I need to blow the dust off. What does it say?

Gladiator’s… League… Oh nooo… In brief we just call them the League. There was a time when these guys were the most worshiped organization among Neuroshima RPG fans. These are the guys who throw motorcycles at a distance and can run around with an axe in their back, well at least that’s what the advertising poster says. And the advertisement doesn’t show half of it.

Oh and here is my favorite, the Church of The Red Sun, worshipers of the great bomb, more messed up then anybody else. One huge bomb is already in possession of a certain red bunch but the Church of The Red Sun has an even bigger one, I can assure you.

Some other notes. What have we here? A draft of doctor Alluvach’s guerrilla, The Claws gang, Schultzs all dressed up in suits, The Eighth Mile and the Black City, a mecca for all sorts of scum.

I almost reached the bottom of my box.

As in a good book the best is always at the end: The Fourth Generation.

The Fourth Generation of what? Mutants of course.

When Moloch created mutants for the first two generations it experimented and today the results can be seen everywhere from West to East coast. Third generation was solid work. Maybe even too solid if you look on the mob gathered around Borgo.

But the Fourth Generation is a completely different story. They’re not walking piles of muscle nor telepaths with huge bald heads. Fourth Generation is a perfect creation. They are the real replacement for the human race, the aristocracy of the new era. Ominous and deadly angels walking on the surface of Earth.

I push all of that aside and put it back into the box for the years to come. For the new layer of dust to settle on them.

This time I’m not picking any of the above mentioned fractions because a time has come for one of the major fractions of the Neuroshima world to enter the stage – this is what we agreed upon as publishers. So far we have Moloch and The Outpost, Hegemony and New York, Sharrash, Vegas and Neojungle. What else is left of the main locations of Neuroshima RPG?

Only few fractions: Appalachian Federation, Salt Lake City, Detroit, Miami, Texas, Mississippi, Saint Louis. And that’s all.

Among these main fractions I only have two ready drafts: Mississippi and Texas.

Moreover each of the fractions, excluding Texas and Saint Louis, already have fan made armies.

The fanmade version of Mississippi has been designed by FanTomas.

Does that mean I have to choose Texas?

No.

Many years ago in an interview for „Hexomaniak” I wrote that there won’t be reservations for a certain fraction or for the special features of tokens – and I still stand by my word today. Back then I wrote that if anyone wants to create a DIFFERENT version of The Outpost or a DIFFERENT Moloch, I don’t have a problem with that. These are fractions that we invented for the Neuroshima RPG and any kind of booking or reservation is out of the question.

Today I will use that privilege myself, for the first time… So sorry FanTomas, I’m picking Mississippi. But you don’t have to worry about your divers as I have a totally different draft. Maybe we can overcome what was in the past: my Mississippi against yours? It’s a big river and it can fit a dozen of such packs.

Blank tokens will soon contain the first version of the army – the one taken from the notes. For sure 90% of the draft will land in the trash. Long months of tests and changes, hundreds of games played in each possible configuration await us.

Do I know what is it that I want to design? Sure. We described the Mississippi of the year 2050 in the core rulebook for Neuroshima RPG over ten years ago and for many more years we got deeper into this topic while preparing many other books. It’s not a pretty landscape along the blue, whispering river. Oh no, it’s not. It’s a different world separated as some kind of a Plan of Existence, as a terrifying Lovecraftian vision, full of all kinds of mutants and completely poisoned by Moloch. The gurgling and steaming toxins created a landscape similar to the surface of Venus.

Mississippi is a great scar of black ooze that divides the continent in half, with noxious gasses constantly floating above. Where under the hulls of armored boats, things live and slip through that are better left alone.

Mississippi is the mutated people covered in waterproof rubber coats who almost never take off their gas masks. Ordinary people wouldn’t even last few hours over there.

Trust me I know how it looks in 2050. I’ve got the draft of the fraction and their unique abilities. I know the system of designing Hex add-ons inside out. And yet I feel as if I were on a beginning of a new adventure.

I’ve got no idea what will be the final result of all this and I love this stage.

Alright, it’s time to finish, time to scribble some blank tokens with the first version of Mississippi.