This is part 2 of my devlog about the game Starry Skylines!
If you haven't read the other entries, click this: [Devlog] Starry Skylines (Part 1)
Finally, my theme is helping me out here!
I think difficulty levels are a great idea for board games, but you must take some care when implementing them.
I didn't want to say "Level 1", "Level 2", etcetera
I also don't like "Difficulty: Easy / Medium / Challenging / Hard / ... " First of all: it implies people being stupid. ("You must play on Easy, because you're just so bad at this game") Secondly: this game is highly interactive multiplayer, so difficulty mostly comes from the skill of other players.
Then I realized: I can make each level a different planet that you discover! Each planet has its own quirks: new rules, mechanics, and buildings it introduces.
Even better, the theme is space travel, so if you don't throw away your paper after playing, you can go back to previous planets and turn this game into a whole campaign!
To be honest, I was feeling kind of down about this whole game, because there were just so many issues to solve -- but when I got this idea, the project was completely revived.
I distributed the mechanics over the planets, creating a set of eight planets modeled after our own solar system:
Learnth: your first game, only the most essential buildings and effects, no special rules.
Uronus: introduces space travel. You can now build stuff to go back to previous planets, discover a new planet during the game, or use things you built on previous games. Additionally, tourists will come, and aliens will attack.
Marsh: introduces nature. Adds different ground types, which can make a neighborhood more beautiful, or add obstacles. The most prominent addition is water, allowing you to create rivers through the city and build docks and whatnot.
Yumpiter: introduces food. (This pun by my little sister sparked the whole idea. She randomly wrote down Yumpiter after playtesting the game, and my brain thought: well obviously, that's a planet focused on food.) Now you can feed your citizens, which yields more points and attracts more people.
Meercury: introduces resources. This is where the resource grid mechanic comes in. All buildings from this planet require something (water, electricity, gold, etc.), so you must work to extend the resource grid and built the generators.
Intervenus: introduces (emergency) services. This adds a police station ( + criminality), a hospital ( + sick people), stuff like that. This was actually planned from the beginning, and I saw people being really enthusiastic about these mechanics, but I had to move them back because they added so much complexity.
Pluto: introduces wildlife. Adds several more environment types and the possibility to discover or keep animals. (When explaining these ideas to someone else, I called this planet and the next one the "pleasure planets". They don't introduce any difficult mechanics or buildings anymore, they just add fun additions to everything you've already learned.)
Naptune: introduces (advanced) entertainment. Adds all sorts of entertaining stuff, like theme parks and sleep centers (to help you sleep better with lullabies ... or as I like to call them, nap tunes.)
This distribution seemed like a good difficulty/learning curve and each addition was either something sorely needed (such as the resources, growing food or emergency services) or desired (many players called for certain themes, like animals and wildlife, or buildings, like a theme park).
Note that, at this point, I had not created any actual buildings for each of these. This was just a very general overview of what was probably a good idea.
As I make more games, I finally realize why so many games add events. Even games that don't really need it, often add a deck of 10-20 cards with random events.
Why? Because it's such an easy and accessible way to make each game more varied and challenging. Even if you have the perfect strategy, building the best city possible under the circumstances, you never know which event might pop up. And such an event might completely change your plans.
(It's also related to the fact that people just get excited about news or new stuff. The possibility of a new random event popping up, even if it could be something very negative, makes us excited to play on and react to what happens.)
That's why I decided to add events to this game as well, even though I felt like I'd already done that too many times.
For each planet, I decided to follow this template:
Add \~10 effects, with at least one of each type (entertainment, government, environment, enhancement, effect)
Add at least 6 events
Try to connect at least 2 events/effects to mechanics from previous planets. The rest may be self-contained (only referring to or using stuff from this planet)
The (website) code for this game is very straightforward. (Waaaay simpler than my previous OPG, Wondering Witches.)
I have a huge list of effects and events. Each of these has a name, a description, a probability and the planet they belong to.
When you start a game, I simply remove everything from a later planet than the one you're currently playing. I also calculate the total probability by summing all probability values.
Why? Because I need it whenever I want to sample a random element. This is an algorithm that I've used extensively since the first time I encountered it, because it's a really simple way to pick random elements following some probability distribution. It looks like this:
Don't worry if you don't understand this immediately, just look it over a few times.
That's really all there is to it. The numbers are also weighted (numbers in the middle have a higher probability of appearing).
Once I have my random numbers, effects and events, I simply display them with some default HTML elements and CSS Grid markup.
As usual, the devil is in the details: all complexity and variation in this game comes from the gigantic list of possible effects and events.
This took me weeks to compile. (Spoiler alert: the final version of the list ook me months to compile.)
(Although I took many breaks, because after hours of non-stop brainstorming about buildings and events that are interesting but do not introduce inconsistencies, your brain is fried.)
Note: one interesting detail I forgot to mention, is my "double rule". When you play a planet, everything from that specific planet has double the chance of appearing! Why? Well, for example, when you play the Yumpiter planet, restaurants are introduced for the first time. To make sure they appear in the game, and that players get enough chances to use and understand them, I double its probability of appearing.
At this moment, I had completely written the first five planets, and implemented everything I mentioned above. I was able to play several games with the same group, which also allowed me to test the Planet Campaign. (Although I did not get to the fifth planet, yet.)
First reaction: yes, the game has improved! Being able to go back to previous planets, or planning ahead for future games, is a really interesting addition. Also, each planet introduces just enough to keep people interested, but not so much that they are overwhelmed.
Second reaction: but there is still much to improve!
Issue 1: play becomes repetitive after multiple games, presumably because it's always the same turn. Pick an option. Place the number, build the building. Repeat. Even with a great variety in buildings, this is still repetitive.
As an additional problem (as regular readers might know by now, I love solving multiple problems with one solution), when new mechanics are introduced, the turns become messy. For example, the Meercury planet introduces a third option (extend the resource grid) ... but, that's not indicated anywhere on the options! And it's not an extra, it's a replacement of the number, which is extra confusing!
How to solve? It took a few days of brainstorming (on the background, whilst doing other activities) to figure out any sort of solution. It happened when I could finally think "out of the box". Why constrain the game to this pattern of number + effect? Why not diversify the options?!
Instead, I could say something like this: each option can have 1-3 components. When you pick an option, you must execute all of these components.
A component can be one of the following things: a number, a building, an effect, a resource line, a person, maybe even more.
This way, options become much more diverse. One option might be "place these TWO numbers", while another option could be "place this building, extend the water grid, and add one person"
This adds a huge amount of strategy, while actually making the game simpler to read and understand. The options are right there in front of you. There's no hidden rule to remember, no extra option that's not displayed.
In fact, this solved another issue! (That's when you know you found the good solution!)
Remember when I talked about the board filling up too quickly? Well, if options don't necessarily add a square, this slows down considerably. On average, only one or two squares might actually be filled per round, because all other options were (for example) adding people to buildings.
Issue 2: still, turn order. I really need some clever way to determine who goes first, but without giving players individual turns. Why not? Because that destroys the "simultaneous play" aspect of the game, which is a key part in making it quick and accessible.
How to solve?
First of all, we can keep play simultaneous for players on different papers. I don't know why I didn't realize this before. If you are currently building on paper 1, you will never interfere with the actions of players on paper 2, for example.
Secondly, my solution above (giving each action 1-3 components) actually helps here as well! I can say that people must take their action after each other, but they only execute one component at a time. This ensures that turns are quick and people stay "in the game", because there's only a short amount of time between turns. (Perhaps, to prevent analysis paralysis even more, I might force players to execute components top to bottom.)
This completely removes the idea of "challenging", which removes the benefit from having the longest street. That's quite an issue, as building streets is a big part of the game ... unless we make the player with the longest street the starting player! During my playtests, I found there are often "highly contended squares" that every player wants for some reason, so being the first player to do their action is enormous.
Issue 3: player powers are not that amazing yet, could use slight improvements. Additionally, the rule for 2-3 players that forces you to pick unique options is weak. Currently, it's "the person with the most entertainment buildings wins". But there are way too few entertainment buildings for this to ever make a difference :p
How to solve?
Option 1: Add more entertainment buildings, but that's not really the strongest solution.
Option 2: just use the result of my solution above. If we use turns, and we have a starting player, well ... then players simply aren't allowed to choose something that somebody else has already chosen before them.
(I do need to make entertainment buildings more valuable in some other way then. Otherwise they are literally only in the game for entertainment :p)
Issue 4: Several small issues.
On later planets, there might be so many different things to build, that the probability of any one appearing is really low. This might make the game too unpredictable and too widespread, making any sort of long-term strategy quite impossible. But I don't know this for sure, as I haven't played the full game in all its glory (multiple times).
On one game, we completely forgot to count the points for one type of building (the radio station). That's a downside of having the complexity/explanations hidden inside the computer: you can forget some of the rules or how a building scores points exactly. The fact that we only forgot this for one building in all games, shows this isn't a big deal. But I might add a full list of all buildings and how they score points somewhere, which you can quickly search.
Darn it, I wanted to mention another important issue here, but then I went to grab a drink and now I completely forgot what I wanted to say. Maybe it was one of these things:
Games can take a bit longer than I want. Then again, these were mostly first time games, and we went a little overboard with drawing all the buildings.
With many different building types, it can be hard to draw them in a distinct way and see at a glance what they represent. I already recommend people to write the name of the building (or an abbreviation) if it's unclear. But I might create some icons or designs for different building categories, just to give players a first line of defense against visual unclarity.
YES! This was what I wanted to say: right now, most buildings and effects work anywhere. Which is strange and defeats the purpose of planning ahead with your buildings and roads. So, most of them should only work if adjacent to a street/building you own, or under other conditions that require some thought.
This is the moment, which happens in all games, where I just need to put my ass to the chair and finish all the content.
I have three planets left to create. I have all issues above to fix (which require significant changes in the rulebook and even more significant changes in the website code). And then I have to create some nice images/icons/logos to display everywhere, and playtest the game into perfection.
It will probably take a few more days to do this, depending on how well my other projects progress. (Recording music is always an uncertainty. Sometimes I play something once and it sounds great, sometimes it takes me three hours to flawlessly record a simple melody I composed myself. Anyway, let's continue talking about games.)
This took me waaaay longer than I thought. Coming up with new buildings and mechanics was the easy part, balancing them all and picking only the best/most intuitive ones was hard.
In the end, I managed to get some strong new mechanics for each planet, and they seem to be working quite well together, although more playtests are surely needed for some vital finetuning.
(Updating the website to the new system was actually a breeze, partly because it is more intuitive and straightforward than the old system. Now I can just load 1-3 components for each option, picking randomly from a set of options/icons. It looks good, it creates interesting choices, and the code is much simpler.)
These were some of the issues from this playtest:
Some buildings really need to appear more often, otherwise it's almost impossible to get "combos" that score lots of points.
I need to implement more rules about the older planets, otherwise the whole "campaign" thing feels a bit flimsy. (And besides, that's just an interesting aspect of the game I want to explore. I could say easy things like "for this game, the player who had the most people on the previous planet may start, or gets another big starting bonus or reward" If you know this, you can strategize even more!)
Right now, you can usually place your buildings and streets anywhere. The number of buildings/effects that require (or forbid) a certain placement is only about 20%. (For example, a house gives you a bonus person when placed next to a street you own.) This isn't really ideal, as it makes play more random than I'd like. So I'll need to go back and change some buildings to use these conditions.
Perhaps events need to appear more often, as many buildings only have a benefit if certain events show up. And right now, they often don't.
So, I will now solve these issues!
Additionally, I think it's time to build the solo mode (which is a small part of the website you can play against) and a random board generator.
This shouldn't be too hard, as my previous games (Timely Transports and Wondering Witches) features way more complex computer components. I only need to place some random rocks, streets, trees and buildings across the paper, instead of finding routes between cities and all that complex stuff from the previous games.
Continue reading this devlog at part 3! (At which I'll tell you why I'm both happy and disappointed when it comes to this game, and how that relates to having too much stuff in a single game.)