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[People's Hero] A first stab at saving USSR from itself

Started by Eero Tuovinen, September 20, 2009, 07:29:59 AM

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Eero Tuovinen

I haven't been playing much of anything lately, but luckily the gaming train runs on schedule around here nowadays, whisking me with it even without much initiative on my part. Yesterday we convened with a bunch of local teenagers for an ill-defined one-shot sort of thing. I haven't played much with the people who came to be present; the gamer population around here has been undergoing some reneval as many long-term participants have fled to college. My first impression of this winter's gaming is that I can work with these guys, we'll just need to find some common ground in what we want to play. This time it was basically introductory gaming on all our parts, however, not an established group of any sort. Like convention gaming, in many ways.

Anyway, we had basically two game-choises here, People's Hero and another stab of mine at an action adventure game similar to Zombie Cinema. As I wasn't too certain on the latter, I pushed for and got the former. We played for four hours, give or take. We started with six players and dropped down to five half-way through.

External factors that influenced play to some degree:

  • Teenagers are not much for gambling, they're poor and stingy. I negotiated them down to 50 cents buy-in and 20 cents per extra power, and they still bitched about it. In hindsight it would probably have been better to leave out the monetary angle altogether; it's a stylish aspect of the design, but in this case it probably caused more grief than good.
  • The game is a pain in the ass to play if you haven't prepared for it by making components. I only had a dozen Fudge dice with me when the game requires something like a hundred; this caused some overhead as we had to use normal dice and whatnot. We copied the Dragon sheets and heroes we used by hand; this got easier as play proceeded, but it could have been less effort had I prepared more thoroughly.
  • The game text is evil and needs to be expurged with fire and editing. This doesn't strike one so much when reading, but as a reference the text sucked: there are contradictions and procedural vagueness that is difficult to resolve in a board-gaming style reading of the text. I imagine that another session will be much easier to run now that I've puzzled through the text in practice and know where to make my own calls.

We played around 15 turns in total, I think. At the end I was close to finishing the game in Dragon victory, while others were teamed against me. The dice totals ranged from 10-20 at that point, with strong growth patterns all around. The strategic structure of the game was largely shaped by the specific order of early turns: we played a couple of turns for practice before I explained the Dragon power purchase option, at which point a couple of players passed on the opportunity to buy them, allowing me to start my own first Dragon turn by buying Skim to complement my drug lord. There was one hard-core boardgamer at the table who I've played a lot with; he is something of an alarmist in nature, so the rest of the game was structured narratively (strategic narrative, that is) as a campaign against me and my supposedly superior Dragon powers. As the other players didn't take to the Dragon power game too powerfully, I could pick up a couple more; three extra powers made me so powerful that I could in fact overrun the table by creatively combining Re-structure, Skim and Invest.

The strategic level of play was mediocre at best here, partially because the players were confused and confounded by the roleplaying elements and narrative exhaustion (more on that later). A big factor in this regard was the murky strategic field presented by the game; we took our time figuring out which parts of the game were meaningful and which weren't, so some players were pretty tired already when the game actually found its legs. After that much of the strategic interest was directed towards exploits related to timing and meaning of individual Dragon powers and their combinations.

I did not understand the narrative level of the game, I think - or at least we got no great value out of it. Is the narrative element supposed to have a reward cycle of some kind, or does it exist solely for its own sake? By this I mean, when I narrate some daring derring-do of the people's hero, does this lead to something or mean something, or is the quality of the narration the only purpose for narrating in this way? There are boardgames that encourage this sort of narration for its own sake (Bang! springs to mind), but they do not impose the responsibility on the players; here we felt responsible for providing narration but never got any payout for it, which made the narrative duty feel tiresome. In hindsight the narrative elements were sort of enjoyable, but no more so than they'd be after any creative writing session.

A close reading of the game text reveals that you're supposed to retain individual members of the People and provide them with personalities, names and other narrative depth. The epilogue rules of the game even seem to rely on some sort of audience commitment on the part of the players in this regard. There is also a sense in the rules that the narrative reality might or is supposed to influence your decision in whether to let the people's hero die or kill a member of the People (and take KGB points for it). I wonder whether there are some narrative goals here, or if this is just extra flair on top of the strategy game?

Conclusions about the game design itself:

  • Dragon powers are key to the strategic structure of the game, because they are the only component that statistically allows a Dragon to triumph - without Dragon powers the expected statistical number of pips you get per turn is close to zero, while some of the powers change this pattern radically. Am I right if I conclude that the game will in fact never end without the Dragon powers, due to how the ratio of individual players' dice pools against each other approachs one as the game goes on? (In other words, as the sizes of the dice pools grow larger, the size differentials between them lose in relative significance, which means that individual players will win and lose pips 50% of the time.) Is the game supposed to work with a slow start that escalates into a power-bid powered by the Dragon powers? If so, this facet of the game needs to be developed greatly: .
  • I appreciate the aesthetic of ever-growing dice pools, but they really are a bitch to roll. Realistically you're going to need 50 Fudge dice to play this game, and even then that's just enough for the players currently rolling, with the others keeping track of their dice on paper or something. The amount of dice-counting overhead becomes significant any way you look at it. Would it be worthwhile to introduce some sort of "market crash" or "revolutionary break" mechanics that'd cut the size of dice pools periodically? There could be certain circumstances where everybody has to discard large amounts of dice, for instance. Depending on how you'd execute it, something like that could serve as source of strategy and maneuver as well as keeping the dice pools within sane ranges.
  • The dicing for MVD and KGB intervention feels somewhat clumsy as a matter of game procedure; it feels like a bother and an annoying afterthought. This is likely connected to the larger issue of how hero survival impacts anything in the game at all: I find it likely that most groups will find the survival or defeat of the hero to be of little interest strategically - perhaps it's supposed to be of primarily narrative interest? Alternatively, the individual identity of the hero would need to have much stronger strategic impact on the game for the players to care about the issue. Like, just out of my head: if you lost all of your Fudge dice when the hero died on your watch, that'd certainly make the players care about those MVD/KGB rolls.
  • I'm not entirely comfortable with the position that is described in the game text regarding the role of the narrative element in the game. It could be a matter of group chemistry that can be corrected by better gaming environment, but I do feel that we made a half-decent effort at pouring creative energy into the game, only to find that it doesn't really do anything with the narrative elements. This could be fixed by simply removing the narrative requirements as a matter of duty from the game procedures; similar narrative elements appear in certain boardgames routinely without specific enforcement. If the intent behind the narrative frame is nothing but just enjoying the color of the game a bit with friends, then the whole thing might be better served with a much more relaxed attitude towards who narrates and what or if anybody narrates anything at all.
  • Judging this as a boardgame, there is too much repetition by modern standards against too little strategic arc. This can be fixed in pretty routine ways if the designer agrees, but I'm not so sure that I'm reading the whole intent of the game correctly here. What I mean is, our group eventually grew tired of repeating the same rules procedure again and again when so little in the game seemed to be progressing: the narrative structure does not really encourage much in the way of logical progress, and the strategic level does not change in any way from turn to turn (aside from the Dragon powers, which at this point feel too much like an after-thought). This is very similar to something like Under the Bed, except that UtB makes the fiction into the center of attention in a way this game does not, which means that the repetitive structure of the mechanics isn't as much of an annoyment.
  • The game text needs to be written somewhat more exactly, or I need to create a firm sense of purpose and judge the text myself with that in mind. There's just an insane amount of murky exploits lurking around the corners, some of which I find almost impossible to judge on. Like, for example, it's pretty clear that the Dragon power that gives you a die any time the Hero is gifted with one isn't going to break the game even if we read it literally and allow the player to gain double dice on his own hero turns and give dice to others to gain dice himself. In comparison, similar vagueness in timing of the Fade in Shadows power is something of a killer; when a player wanted to activate the power after collecting his bonus dice for a conflict but before rolling the conflict, there wasn't much in terms of rules text to stop this clearly ludicrous interpretation.

I've got three questions for Ron, essentially:

  • Where are you with this game now, yourself? Should I opt for another stab at the game this year if opportunity arises, and if so, what sort of things are we looking for, exactly? I'm asking because the set of questions in the ashcan doesn't resonate with what I'm getting out of the game text at this point. This might be because the questions are raw, or because I need to play the game more to get it to work correctly.
  • Related to the above, would you find it useful if I rewrote the procedural rules of the game in a boardgame style? This might be useful if you want to see how the rules look through the lens of a different gaming subculture, and if you want to hunt for spots where the procedures could be cleaned up and simplified.
  • Could you make the up-to-date Hero and Dragon sheets available as PDFs? It'd greatly facilitate further playtesting, especially if you updated such sheets as and if you revised the materials.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.

Callan S.

I might be reading the idea here wrong, but I think if it involves gambling, pitching it to teenagers is the wrong crowd? You'd want to pitch it to people who are a bit more comfortably off and thus...complacent? And losing some money shakes them from that complacency. While teenagers - they haven't got the resources to do anything even if they do see a bigger picture. But plenty of room for me to be reading the idea entirely wrong here, so just a quick post!
Philosopher Gamer
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Eero Tuovinen

Could be, although I don't think that the gambling bit is too crucial to the overall set-up; mostly it was a pain in the ass to listen them whining about their 50 cent coins. I'll keep an eye out for an opportunity to play the game with a more mature crowd, too, of course.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.

Callan S.

Heh, I didn't say more mature, just more well off and complacent...

I'm just imagining the fifty cents is supposed to create a real life nettling effect, so it can't just be all shrugged off as make belief fantasy escapism. But with the teens, due to finances, it's considerably more than nettling. I imagine the buy in can't be scaled down to...something more relative to the income of the participant? Or do I sound like a commie saying that, lol? (or socialist?...I've never really read them up properly)
Philosopher Gamer
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Eero Tuovinen

That's exactly what we did, Callan. The assumed buy-in in the game is $5, but we reduced it to 50c to make it affordable for the teenagers. The money seemed like a surprisingly big deal for them even then, considering that you can't buy anything with half an euro.

The betting thing isn't that significant for the game at this point, though. It's more important to make the strategic arc of the game more discrete and distinguished, the betting details can be figured out later.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.

Ron Edwards

Hi Eero,

First, thanks for playtesting. I appreciate it, and several of your comments are logged for applying to the game.

I have a lot of responses, but so far haven't had time to compose them well. There are some aspects of your game which almost disallow this as a meaningful session, most especially the idea that you could "point and shoot" the current text at a completely naive group. Playtesting something like this pretty much requires that everyone present genuinely wants to do it and cares about the project, not that one person sort-of-might want to, and the others are being led along without any clear idea of what the game is about.

I did say "almost," and would like to discuss the parts of your account that are the most important for me, but again, time is against me. I'll be back when I can.

Best, Ron

Eero Tuovinen

No prob, take your time.

Also, I basically agree about the validity of this test, it definitely didn't come to the game in the best possible light. I still decided to write about it, as I thought that I had something solid regarding the dice economy. I'll be adjusting with experience the next time around.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.

Ron Edwards

Oooh, a couple of free minutes. Let's see.

1. The dice economy you encountered surprises me a little bit. In my playtests, dice pools never rose beyond single digits for each player. Now, I'm pretty sure why you saw something different - after a playtest without me, some folks suggested that the number of pips in the existing goal granted the Dragon player that many dice as an instant bonus. I added that to the rules, and I bet that's where the sudden ballooning in dice totals comes from. Can you confirm me on that, or otherwise point to where all those dice came from? I think expecting this game to require more than about 20 Fudge dice is absurd, and if the current rules take it that far, they need instant repair.

2. The issues of Color and basic narration tie directly into group interest in the subject matter. If the game is not introduced with at least some excitement about the subject matter, then it's not worth playing. If that excitement is there even to a minor extent, then playing the Hero and People become lots of fun for their own sake - although never divorced from or overriding basic strategies of victory. And since there are two kinds of victory, the narrations and continuing events do tend to influence whether individual players tip toward one kind or the other when the choice between the two really does go up into the air for them. But again, none of this dynamic occurs if the setting and ideas for the situations are ignored.

Or to put it in Big Model terms, The People's Hero is Gamist, with no nuances regarding Creative Agenda. (It's hard to tell from your post, when you say "narrative," whether you mean Narrativist. There is nothing Narrativist here.) However, in Gamist terms, it's very nuanced because there are two ways to win. Which way it goes cannot be left merely to "play and see," it's integrated with the SIS. If narration is exhausting, that's the sign right there that the SIS is not working for that group, period. I'm inclined to think that in your game, that was the case from the outset and has little to do with the workings of the game in action.

All that said, though, I'm not averse to providing some 'automatic' narrations, particularly for the MVD and 2nd Main Directorate outcomes.

3. You wrote,

QuoteJudging this as a boardgame, there is too much repetition by modern standards against too little strategic arc.

Maybe. But considering that you literally ignored the heart of the strategy when introducing the game, and then dominated it yourself because you understood it better than the other players, I have a hard time accepting this conclusion from your account.

That doesn't mean I dismiss the conclusion entirely. In fact, given the ballooning of the dice pools, one thing that didn't happen in your game is the feature of a Dragon or Hero player facing a very small number of dice, and thus relying heavily on gifts from others (or falling hard because of their lack). The dice economy is supposed to result in the possibility of sucking wind more than once, and clearly that didn't happen for you - and hence the strategy became less interesting. It also obscured another feature, the choice of who gets tagged as the Dragon next. That can be a very ruthless choice if the dice pools are all above five dice except for one person who's holding, say, two.

4. Your offer to help with the text is premature. The text is the last thing I'm concerned with at the moment; I'm concerned with basic mechanics, outcomes, and the SIS. The rules chapters are very likely going to be re-written from scratch eventually, and after that point, I'd be happy for you to critique them in boardgame terms.

Best, Ron

Callan S.

Heh, I feel silly for trying to see something else in the cards and money than flat out gamism!
Philosopher Gamer
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Eero Tuovinen

Yeah, this is gamist, no ambiguity about that. The narrative I referred to is the fictive events furnished by the players.

I agree with your suspicions regarding where the dice are coming from. I think that we played the game correctly rules-wise, and that rule about the Dragon adding his pips to his pool really inflates the number of dice. It's a nice tactical element in that it orients the players somewhat in choosing their pips (so it's not arbitrary how many pips you have in each goal), but the number of dice does become unmanageably large soon enough. My sense is that it'd be fun to fix this by having some effect that resets a player back to one die, but perhaps you could just reduce the number of incoming dice somehow.

For the strategic arc, I concur that it'll play differently once we know from the start how important the Dragon powers are. That's the place where this game makes or breaks, I think; mathematically the Dragons can't really win without those powers, while their presence should drive the game inevitably towards a conclusion. So lots of attention to that part in the coming playtests.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.