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How to Improvise in early design?

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larienna
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In the early game design, when you are about to make your first prototype and never played the rules, most of the time, there are information that you need to define before playing, but you have absolutely no idea what it is.

For example, you design a war game with various types of units. You know how the rules works but have no idea what values and special ability to give to each units.

You can use information from another game or you could use sequences of number that you trust. But in the general, the solution that everybody suggest is to Improvise.

So you just make up some stats without bothering much about balance or impact on the game and you use this data for your first play test.

Some information is easier to improvise than other. For example yu could improvise numbers by reusing some number sequence or pattern (ex: triangular numbers). But it get's more complicated when you have special abilities for example. And for some reason I do not know, I have a hard time to improvise. (I probably have a too much ordered mind)

So my question is:

Do you have any tricks or tips about how to easily improvise during early design?

truekid games
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prototype in pencil. to be

prototype in pencil.

to be more specific, i look at the other factors in the game that influence or are influenced by the numbers in question. then i say "what do i want the result to be of this influence, and how can i ensure (sic) that to be the case", and apply numbers that seem like they would generate the desired outcome- this may be things dying at a particular rate, or the game ending within a particular number of turns, or a mine providing the most valuable resource X number of times in the game. whether my eyeballed values actually yield the desired result (or whether the desired result is as desired as i'd anticipated) is often up in the air, but that's why i do it in pencil ;)

Yamahako
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Math is really your friend in

Math is really your friend in this.

There are some discrete things you need to define - like how often do I want an archer to beat a knight, or a knight to be infantry, or infantry to beat archers.

Balancing a game, for me, is a matter of zero-sums to start with desired outcomes.

I believe that "just improvise" is bad advice. If you don't have method behind your numbers, then what will be the method of fixing problems? It will likewise be direction-less - because you won't understand how all of the numbers integrate fully.

I usually begin with formulas, and variables before I add numbers.

Knights hit for 2x damage, and have x-1 hit points, and have x range
Archers hit for x-1 damage, and have x hit points, and have 2x range
Infantry hits for x damage, and have 2x hit points, and have x-1 range

Abstractly - I'm deciding that range, damage, and hit points are of equal power in my game. I might be wrong, but I always start that way - so when you look at the units, each has a 2x stat, a 1x stat, and an x-1 stat. They all seem balanced.

X could be a discrete number for a hard strategy game, or else it could be a die roll for a less strategic game. But defined in this way, you can see what the expected result is - Archers kill Knights, Knights kill Infantry, Infantry kill Archers.

If X was 3, then the values would look like this:
Unit_________Damage________Health__________Range
Knight_______6______________2______________3
Archers______2______________3______________6
Infantry______3______________6______________2

If you wanted to do dice, it might end up like this (where x = 1d6):
Unit_________Damage________Health__________Range
Knight_______2-12___________0-5______________1-6
Archers______0-5____________1-6______________6
Infantry______1-6____________2-12_____________0-5

Or you could do a combination. Like making Health and Range static, but Damage variable.

Then you play the game (I usually like to keep number small like this). If something seems weak, DOUBLE it - if something seems too powerful, HALVE it. This seems extreme, but it is a much faster way of narrowing down the right value (oh double was too powerful, that means I need to find a value between the original and the doubled value). If you can't get the granularity you need - then double ALL values in the game, this will give you half steps.

But what that means is you need to start with an idea of what you want the outcomes to be. You introduce dice (or a dice like mechanic - ie. a deck of values, a spinner etc) if you want a variable outcome (Knights should beat infantry 40% of the time), and you use static values if you want a discrete outcome (Knights ALWAYS beat infantry). And then lay out the stats on a piece of paper expressed as a simplified formula, and then adjust values in your formula to balance the game.

At least, this works for me - your mileage may vary.

onihero
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Joined: 01/24/2010
math

I use a math approach as well. Working with statistical analysis for 4-5 years as a job didnt hurt.

Yamahako states pretty much exactly how I figure these values out. I work from the probabilities of success that I expect in the game and figure the values that go into that formula from there. This goes for special abilities as well. How often they can be used, how much of an impact they give, etc, all are based off of my idea of how easy it should be to succeed in performing an action (or attack, or whatever).

You do have to have some solid math skills if you want to work out probability with something more involved than a single dice roll though. If you add in something like opposed rolls, or even multiple dice on single rolls, things get tricky.

So basically you give a valuation to your end result, then work backwards. Then you adjust as need be for feel/special powers, etc.

kos
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Pure vs Applied maths

I second (third?) the maths approach for dice-based games.

With regards to calculating probabilities, as onihero says it quickly becomes very hard to do theoretically (i.e. using Pure Maths). Luckily, a spreadsheet can help you here (i.e. using Applied Maths).

For example, I was experimenting with a game system that involved opposed rolls to inflict casualties over 3 rounds of combat. Each unit has a size and skill level. Theoretical probabilities are very difficult to calculate in this scenario. Instead, I used a spreadsheet to conduct a combat between my two units using the built-in random number generator to roll the dice. By putting the initial size and skill ratings of each unit as editable fields, I can play with the outcome. Once I'm relatively happy with it, I cut-n-paste the combat 100 times and tally the number of wins. Hit F9 to "reroll" and watch the outcome. This gives me a good approximation for the probability of side A beating side B.

This spreadsheet approach is also good for determining "lethality" in a wargame. In my example above, I found that there were too many draws -- that is, after 3 rounds of combat between evenly matched sides neither side had eliminated the other. For my game, I wanted draws to be rare, not common. So I tweaked the combat resolution to increase the casualty rate.

Similarly, you can play with different scenarios. If a Skill 4 unit is facing off against a Skill 1 unit of equal size, of course the Skill 4 unit wins. But what if the Skill 1 unit is bigger? What is the probability of a Skill 1 unit with 400 men beating a Skill 4 unit with 100 men? My spreadsheet can answer this question within seconds. This then guides my decisions about the relative cost of recruiting troops.

Yes, I like spreadsheets.

Special abilities are hard to work into a spreadsheet like this, because it gets very complicated very quickly. But I focus on balancing the game for "normal units" first, then gradually add special abilities once I know that the core of the game works.

Regards,
kos

red hare
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very interesting

all of these comments are very interesting. i found the math side of game design the most difficult, but really it's where the game play finds its shape... i look forward to reading any more comments people have... fascinating!

le_renard
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Very useful answers ! Thanks

Very useful answers !
Thanks to Yamahako and Kos, your replies are very inspiring....

Yamahako
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Spreadsheets

Spreadsheets are invaluable

Here's one I created for a game that is still in progress - this game involves multiple rounds of combat that is determined by competing 2d6 roles. It also has a resource generation mechanic.

I use this spreadsheet to push numbers in the direction I would like the result to be. In the last sheet you can see where I am wondering what a larger board will do to resource generation in terms of resources per turn.

I'm TERRIBLE at excel, and there are far better ways to do what I've done here - but it's at least an example you can do with little expertise in spreadsheet software.

https://spreadsheets.google.com/ccc?key=0ApUge-xbUlSOdHM5dl9OM1dON0tQckZ...

larienna
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I understand that math is

I understand that math is very useful for balancing the game. But when you start to balance the game, you are in the middle or near the end of the design process.

But when you start a new game, you cannot spend time balancing stuff, because you do not even know if it will work. You might end up scraping everything you have designed after the first play test.

So you must improvise.

As for the spreadsheet. I am not a fan of excel but I did not know that you could generate random values in cells. That could indeed be interesting to create simulations. I'll have to check some tutorials about randomness in excels.

Grall Ritnos
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What about non-combat mechanics?

This discussion was very helpful and gave me a lot of great ideas. I was curious if anyone had any insights regarding non-combat mechanics. For example, in the game I'm working on right now, when players complete tasks they can be rewarded in terms of money, resources, units, action cards, victory points, or virtually any combination of the these. Since its hard to determine the relative value of these commodities in a vacuum, does anyone have any tips regarding assigning starting values to these rewards for the purposes of balance? Thanks in advance!

CloudBuster
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You guys are all a lot smarter than I am about this....

...I generally just throw numbers that seem "right" when I start and adjust as the playtesting goes. Sometimes, we'll stop playtesting right then and there and just start over again with new numbers if we can see that some numbers are weighted so badly that the game is broken from the start.

The spreadsheet idea is brilliant! I never thought to use Excel that way (for those of you that don't have/want Excel...just grab OpenOffice...it's free and it's compatible with Excel...you'll also get a word processor, presentation software, some drawing software, etc.)

My latest game is a Sci-Fi based space game. One aspect is mining asteroids. Some asteroids have better yields than others, but you don't know what your yield is going to be until you start mining. So...I used a Fibernachi sequence to determine the possible mining yields. To get a Fibernachi sequence, you simply start a number line and add the next number to the one right in front of it to get the next number: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, etc. The asteroids can yield anywhere from 1 mineral to 4 minerals per turn. I have a bunch of mining tokens in a bag. When you start mining, you grab a token from the bag.

There are 3 tokens that yield 4 minerals
There are 5 tokens that yield 3 minerals
There are 8 tokens that yield 2 minerals
And there are 13 tokens that yield 1 mineral

You'll notice that I didn't start the sequence at one or two....that's because I wanted just a few more chances to get the big 4...there's nothing that says you can't start the sequence anywhere you want.

I still need to playtest this, but it gave me a good place to start. I might find that the 4's are just too much...fine...I'll eliminate them and make it so the most an asteroid can yield is 3 minerals. All my adjustments can come from a lot of playtesting, which is what everyone should do anyway...playtest, playtest, playtest! :) The game also allows you to blow up an mining operation, or you can battle over it and take it away...I have to playtest this, too.

Anyway...I thought it was a good place to start and adjust from there. I hope it's helpful.

-CB-

CloudBuster
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This is an interesting topic and I think...

Grall Ritnos wrote:
This discussion was very helpful and gave me a lot of great ideas. I was curious if anyone had any insights regarding non-combat mechanics. For example, in the game I'm working on right now, when players complete tasks they can be rewarded in terms of money, resources, units, action cards, victory points, or virtually any combination of the these. Since its hard to determine the relative value of these commodities in a vacuum, does anyone have any tips regarding assigning starting values to these rewards for the purposes of balance? Thanks in advance!

...you should post it as a separate topic! :) Make a new thread with this one!

-CB-

Yamahako
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larienna wrote:I understand

larienna wrote:
I understand that math is very useful for balancing the game. But when you start to balance the game, you are in the middle or near the end of the design process.

But when you start a new game, you cannot spend time balancing stuff, because you do not even know if it will work. You might end up scraping everything you have designed after the first play test.

So you must improvise.

As for the spreadsheet. I am not a fan of excel but I did not know that you could generate random values in cells. That could indeed be interesting to create simulations. I'll have to check some tutorials about randomness in excels.

Ahh, ok I get it.

I did a poor job of explaining in my example is why I start with math.

You don't know what numbers will work, you have to determine how the parts of your game work in relation to each other. For this reason its easiest to work in a formula.

If you're trying to create different elements, you come up with things like "I want this mechanic to cost twice as much as this mechanic because it does 1.5 times as much - and I want actions in the game to be precious."

So you've decided 3 things, each of those effects will cost 1 action (static value), they each have a cost, and they each have an effect. That creates 2 game elements

Element # 1
Actions: 1
Cost: X
Effect: Y

Element # 2
Actions: 1
Cost 2X
Effect: 1.5Y

Now, it is true that how I'm choosing the cost relative to the effect seems arbitrary - but it does come from a specific design goal - That of making Actions have greater value. Since it costs twice as much to do an additional 50% of an effect, It's more cost effective for me to do element 1, twice - but I save an action by doing element 2 - meaning (roughly) an action is worth (Y/2).

This means I can express all of the elements in this game in terms of "Y" based on a semi-arbitrary valuation of game parts.

Element # 1
Actions: Y/2
Cost: Y
Effect: Y

Element # 2
Actions: Y/2
Cost: 2Y
Effect: 1.5Y

You'll notice, that if you add up the "Y"s, each Element is worth 2.5Y, which I could then use to balance all of the other cards in the game to that standard.

This type of balancing is just a beginning to the balance of the game, its a way to start with a goal in mind. But you're not sure if what you've designed is going to work properly. You will need to define what Y means in costs and effects as well. If you want the smallest amount of currency in the game to cost 100$, and the effect to be deal 20 damage. Then you know that

Y = 1/2 action
Y = 100$
Y = 20 Damage.

You can then fill out all of your elements with a discrete value. If you later determine that you are over, or under, valuing a stat - you can adjust its "Y value" - This is the actual balancing of the game values to its mechanics.

You've already "balanced" the game to itself previously by relating all the mechanics back on each other - in sometimes arbitrary ways - so the really balancing comes in tweaking those values.

For example - If I've found in playtesting that 100$ is too much in this game to deal 20 damage, because the economy doesn't generate enough income - I can go a change the value - so I halve it. Now I have

Y = 1/2 action
Y = 50$
Y = 20 damage.

And all my numbers will change - but they will all change in relation to each other - because I know how I WANT the game to work.

If you have some great mechanics, but don't know what you want the outcome of those mechanics to be yet - then you might not really ready for a full on prototyping - I think you still want to do some thought experiments on the game. Thinking about how you want the narrative of the game to go will help a lot in this. Do you want a lone solider to have a chance to defeat 20 (variable combat mechanic)? Do you want people to mostly be playing with boats, but planes to exist (disproportionate costing)? All of these things can be expressed mathematically without having a single created digit.

Sometimes you know what you want a player to do (roll a die to combat against other players) and need to make sure you understand the consequences of that on the game (there will be a chance for either side to win) before you can express that in numbers - and that might be where people run into some problems.

Some other people might run into issues where they want combat to, 5% of the time, the loser totally wins - but not know how to express that in game terms. This board, I think, is perfect for helping out with that kind of assistance as well. But you still need to know, at least to a small effect, what you WANT to happen before you begin - then make a prototype with your best effort of that outcome being present - and then make all the tweaks that will certainly be necessary as your playtesters break your game.

kos
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Playtesting

larienna wrote:
I understand that math is very useful for balancing the game. But when you start to balance the game, you are in the middle or near the end of the design process.

But when you start a new game, you cannot spend time balancing stuff, because you do not even know if it will work. You might end up scraping everything you have designed after the first play test.

For me, the maths / spreadsheet comes in early in the design process. I use it to answer the question "Will it work?" before I ever get to a playtest. Or to think about it another way, every time I press F9 to reroll I'm conducting a playtest of the core mechanics.

The "real" playtesting then focuses on aspects of the game that the spreadsheet can't help me with, such as player interaction, flow, turn sequence, game length, and "fun-ness".

So my design process is usually something like:
- Random thoughts in my head
- Scratchings on paper
- Spreadsheet
- Playtest with paper / index cards
- Prototype
- Much more playtesting

YMMV, of course. The maths / spreadsheet approach doesn't work for everyone, and in fact doesn't work for all types of games. But I've found it helpful for combat-based games and resource-based games.

Regards,
kos

larienna
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To sumarize some of the

To sumarize some of the suggestions that were given, it seems that to improvise effectively you could use:

Number sequence: Various sequences used in different areas seems to create some artificial balance

Determine proportions: Setup relative proportions between some game elements which allow changing values and keeping proportions.

Quote:
Fibernachi sequence : 2,3,5,8,13,21

I did not even know this sequence had a name. This is the sequence I used for my Rumor cards in my fallen kingdom game.

I think I'll dress up a list of number sequences.

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