Designer Diary 5: Merge/Swap

Since the Wibbell++ competition ended Forks has remained quite consistent. The number of companies has changed form 6 to 5 (and back to 6 for 5 player games), and one particularly memorable playtest session resulted in a key change to the 2 player game (it turned out not removing any cards and having hand sizes of 12 was as ridiculous as it sounds). But the main change came in the form of Merge/Swap.

Forks has always tried to be about choices. The hook, that you give your neighbour the choices, is what make the game special. But during playtesting the feeling of control early in the game was questioned- if your earlier choices are based on future information, how can they be made? Now all games feature this in someway or another, a game with perfect information is a puzzle to be solved. But when playtesters say something designers have a duty to listen. So we tried a new rule (with thanks to Alex and/or Tyler- one suggested merge and one suggested swap, but I can’t remember which).

Merge enables you to merge cards passed to you with your hand. You then invest using any card from your hand. Immediately this enabled a feeling of control, and a sense of strategy. Players become capable of strategising; you might go heavy into one company early with the intention of dumping cards into it late, or keep low value cards you can throw away to not change a favourable board state, amongst others.

That worked, and the game immediately felt better, more solid as a game. And then we tried another rule- Swap.

When players draw three cards Swap enables them to swap one with an invested card in the middle. This makes the game a lot more volaitle, but a lot funnier. Sinking companies, or drawing investments from them introduced a tactical play to every draw. In order to make sure a card you swapped stayed un-invested you needed to embezzle it, and the options you had to pass to you neighbour increased with every card invested. The game was a joy to play, but a lot more brutal and chaotic than with the merge variant.

Both variants were excellent, drawing on different aspects of the game and making them feel quite different, even though the core remained the same, so we tried them together.

Disaster.

The game has far too much going on for a simple card game, and turns were taking too long. Fine for a 4X, but not for this. So the question was, which one do we keep? The strategical capabilities bought about by Merge or the laugh-inducing tactical chaos from Swap?

The answer- both, but never together. Easy to implement with a double sided card. Now players can choose which variant to play, although never at the same time. We encourage people to start with Merge as that’s the most straightforward, and everyone is also relieved when they realise it means they can get rid of the junk from their hand. And that’s why the card’s double-sided (although you are free to play both if everyone’s prepared for it).

In current news- currently looking at boxes, box manufacturing and box printing. The glamourous part of the job. I want to try and upgrade from the boxes used for promo copies, which wear a little too much (although that may be because I didn’t get a protective lamination, but still). Lidded would be ideal, it’s just getting them for a non-exhorbant price. The search continues!

Designer Diary 4: Fork Your Neighbour.

Whenever I playtest or demo Forks people get the game quickly. Which they should, it’s simple with few rules. It takes a little longer for the penny to drop regarding why the mechanics set up the game- but eventually they turn to their neghbour and exclaim ‘excuse me sir/madam, but you have just passed to me the worst choice which will surely decimate me’, or words to that effect (occasionally unprintable ones). The question which normally comes is ‘Why is it named Forks?’. So here’s why.

That feeling described above, when your neighbour gives you a horrible choice and both of you know it, is what I wanted to name the game after; but ‘aaaggh you bastard’ and variations thereof didn’t really seem appropriate. Whilst I could have just named the game ‘Embezzler’ or ‘Financial Dealings with your Neighbour’ or ‘Enron:The Game’, I didn’t just want to stick to a bland description or allusion to the theme. I wanted something which said ‘Here is a choice, but if I’ve done this well, it’s a horrible choice. If I’ve played really well, it’s a horrible choice which also benefits me’. Something which described the actual game, but if it also alluded to the theme in some way that woud be nice.

Morton’s Fork doesn’t quite fit the above, but it’s close. When it comes to tax people you either admit to being frugal, in which case you must have saved enough to be taxed, or you admit to being a spendthrift, in which case you are wealthy enough to be taxed. It’s a choice, but either way you’re going to lose. The reason it doesn’t fit the game is because it’s a false choice, and in Forks there are no false choices. But it does have that central essential idea of giving your neighbour a choice they are not going to like, and alluding to theme (although in a very slight manner). Morton’s Fork was close, but when considering it I was reminded of other Forks.

I played a lot of chess when I was younger. A lot. And whilst I only teach chess these days I still remember the language used for attacks: pins, skewers and forks. A fork is where you attack two (or more) pieces at the same time, leaving your opponent to choose which one to save and which to lose. And it wasn’t always an obvious choice. Which is an apt description for the choices in Forks- here are two cards which you can invest to save a company, but you take the hit on the one you don’t (possibly). Not an easy choice, and it’s not luck of the deck, but skill from your opponent giving you the choice.

And so the name was chosen ‘Forks’. It’s still one of the earlier questions asked, but I like the name. A youth spent forking people in chess ‘I’ve forked your bishops etc’ meant I didn’t even notice the innuendo until one memorable playtest session. So, as people who know me will attest, that was completely unintentional, but I’ve grown too fond of the name to change it. Also no other game is called Forks (probably for that reason).

Small current update: Just spent some time writing the script for the ‘how to play’ video, and in Kickstarter terms we should be going live in about a months time (still waiting on final Brexit outcome to see how fulfillment can be done). If you’re interested please subscribe to the BGG page/facebook/blog/twitter etc.

Designer Diary 3: With thanks to Wibbell++

Forks (or Rainmakers) as it was sat for while after the microgame competition. There were issues with it (turns out negative numbers can cause issues for some, which means negatives have a downside), but it wasn’t until a competition run by Bez which kickstarted a new design path which fixed a whole load of issues, and discovered a bunch of new game design routes to go down.

Quick note about Wibbell++ by Bez, Wibbell++ is an ingenious set of cards which have a superbly thought out distribution of letters on cards, accompanied with numbers and patterend borders. There are a number of games which can be played with them, but it’s also encouraged to design your own. Bez ran a competition last year looking for new games which can be played with the cards, and after I submitted a word game (one which I still play), I wanted to see if I could submit a game that didn’t use the letters at all.

I adapted Rainmakers to fit the cards. Instead of just positive and negative values there were 6 values (to fit the borders of the cards). Instead of tracking the cards with a counter, the discarded card was added to the centre to see which ‘suits’ had the highest discard value- the 3 with the highest discarded value were considered the winnig suits, the others losers. Winning suits in hand were worth positive points, losing negative. And it revitalised the game. Now the cards in the middle of the table told a story about what was happening, and the choices weren’t completely obvious. The number of cards worked well, the mechanics were solid. The numbers needed work, some suits were objectively worse than others, but that just needed refinement.

The feedback was great. Top 5 at the end, and a load of suggestions which I’ve taken forward and worked on (mitigating the chaos was number 1). Since this contest I never stopped working on the Forks (although the name came later). The prize here was twofold- getting someone like Bez to play through your design and give you feedback, and being pushed into developing something, that nudge to push through a design doldrums state. Now I had structure and mechanics, the small beginnings of a theme (my entry was Economickell) and feedback to work on. Time to start the refine/playtest/refine engine.

And if you see Wibbell++, get it. It’s brilliant for inspiration and fun.

About Forks

Morton’s Fork: A financial choice with two options, both of which will cost you.

Forks is a quick fun card game about embezzling money for 2-4 players that takes about 30 minutes. Players are boardroom members, funnelling money into various companies, but taking a slice for themselves. Each turn players draw 3 cards, choose 1 to embezzle, and pass the other 2 to the player on their left. That player then chooses 1 to embezzle and invests the other. At the end of the game only the top 3 invested companies will score positive points, the other companies score negative points.

Because of this ‘giving decisions’ mechanic, players try to give each other ‘Forks’- decisions in which both options are financially terrible.

Forks comes with a host of abilities and a Merge/Swap variant, meaning it has plenty of replayability and is different each time.

If you are interested and want to be informed when it is Kicstarted please sign up to our mailing list!

Prep-Airecon

With Airecon just around the corner (a week away, unless you’re reading this in the future) I’ve spent a load of time getting prepped for Airecon. And not just pre-arranging a game of Sidereal Confluence and looking at what games I want to sell. This is the first time Forks is going to be really displayed to the public and reviewers. It’s gulp time. So what have I done to prepare:

  1. Volunteered to run the playtest UK stand rather than have a stand purely to demo Forks.

Yep, probably the least wise decision I’ve made. When I finally got to the stage when I was happy booking a demo table (at the end of last november) all exhbition space was gone. Luckily Mark suggested running the Playtest UK stand, and demoing my game there (within certain parameters). So completely not ideal, but it’s something! It also means I get to give back to the Playtest UK community, after they have been fantastic and supportive, so I’m happy with that.

As a result I’ve gone to town on what to have when I’m there. Promotional copies, prearranged times to speak to games press, fliers, a Forks t-shirt, and promotional cards to entice people to sign up to the newsletter and back it when it’s released. The shebang and then some. I’m still pondering how I’m going to get people to play it when I’m helping out on the stand most days, but I’ll try and think of something. The biggest concern for me is that I’ll get sidetracked by all the other fantastic game offerings and lose focus completely.

So all in all it’s going to be interesting, and hopefully fruitful. No matter what happens I’ll have something to write about for the post-mortem!

And if you see a chap wearing this:

Then that’s me! Come and ask for a demo or just say hello!

Forks Designer Diary 2: Making it Rain with 18 cards

Often the best way to help promote creative fecundity is to restrict things. My boss used to blinfold people and get them to describe polyhedrons to help with their use of descriptive language (note: he was a teacher). So it’s no suprise that 2017s BGG 18-card microgames competition got me thinking. Make a game with only 18 cards. Including rules and tokens in that 18. I love challenges like this, that make you rethink your ideas and conceptions, and trim down all that’s unnecessary. I wasn’t going to enter, but during the day my mind kept on coming back to it, and to my previously thought of as-yet-unamed-not-quite-social-deduction game.

As I mentioned prevoiusly, I got rid of the role cards, so the only things left were a tracker and the values. The tracker could be put onto three of the cards, along with the rules, leaving 15 for play. Obviously 15 cards is nothing, games would be over in a heartbeat, so how to extend? Recycle the discard pile. A small change, but one that leads to more complex situations. Now every card you discard has the opportunity to affect the score multiple times, whereas the ones you keep are out the game for good. The restriction had bought about an interesting predicament for players.

The system was set, now for a theme. I needed something strictly binary which players could push for, and settled for Rain or Sun. Players now had to take payment for the weather, but by doing so were making it less likely for that weather to happen.

 

So I entered, and got joint best game! Which naturally I was delighted with. Looking back, it is a fun little thing, but the main issues were: the lack of cards in the game, even with recycling the discards it was too few and the number of cards needed to make the recycling have a big impact was massive. The second was choosing any other player. A lot of downtime was coming about from this decision, which also resulted in some players having very few cards in their hand and fewer decisions to make. I loved that central mechanic and decision point, but it was just slightly lacking and I wasn’t sure why (until another competition some time later).

You can tell I'd just discovered photoshop filters

If you want to try Rainmakers it only needs 2 sheets of A4 and can be downloaded here: https://drive.google.com/file/d/19rUsTvn6RS3Gr_Llx_J83RIrm3Obobnm/view

Forks Designer Diary 1: Choices

Forks started out as a social deduction game. It’s moved away from that in its various iterations, but the first idea, borne from playing a lot of resistance, was one of shared problems in which you need to work out who you can trust. At it’s most basic:

Begin with 32 cards, ranging from -8 to +8

Draw 3 cards keep 1, pass 2 to any other player.

That player keeps one and discards the other.

A tracker in the center records the total value of cards discarded. If total is negative the bad guys win, otherwise the good guys win.

Immediately there are a couple of issues with this. Whilst in theory this allows for deductive logic- Give someone a negative and a positive and you’ll know from which they discard which team they’re on (unless it’s a bluff); in real life it falls down in a fair few places:

Well actually one place really- where are the choices?

You’re good? Keep the lowest value card and pass /discard the others.

Bad? Do the opposite.

The only choices come from choosing who to trust, which players have little information about to begin with, and really players only need to trust one other player.

And a game without interesting choices is not much of a game.

So instead it became a semi-coop. Whoever kept the highest value cards won if the discarded total was positive, otherwise only the bad guy(s) won. In this case, with an added incentive for players to keep the high value cards, fewer baddies were needed to even things out. But this still has problems:

Are there really interesting choices for the baddies here? If every player is now wanting high value cards, what’s to differentiate the baddies from the goodies in how they play? And, more importantly, the semi-coop problem:

If players aren’t going to win, what’s to stop them throwing the game to the bad guys?

I’ve found this is a key issue for many semi-coops, and have never seen a solution I’m 100% satisfied with. I play games with loads of different people with different views, and the question of is it okay to sink a game you’re losing just so someone else doesn’t win is still unanswered. There have been 100+page threads on forums about it, and it’s not something I want here. The fix: give people a legitimate reason why they want the value to be negative, make it a possible way to win outside of being on the bad team.

Now, if the final discarded score was negative, players with the lowest possible score won. This turned out to be a really elegant solution, but it meant one thing- there was no use in the traitor anymore. Now players could switch allegiance depending upon which cards they had, in fact it didn’t really make sense to think of them as teams or allegiances anymore. The choices of what to do were never obvious and always impactful. And so, the game was no longer Social Deduction.