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Co-op w/ traitor war game, need help

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Joined: 12/12/2011

Hullo bgdf, I come at a time of need. I have two ongoing problems with the board game I am designing, and the solutions have been eluding me for too long.

My game, The Rising Shadow, is a co-operative war strategy game where players control factions that are part of a great Coalition and fight together to complete objectives, overcome crises, and do battle on a non-player-controlled antagonist armies. However, one among you has secretly sold himself to the antagonist faction, and has several routes through which he may secretly sabotage your progress and incite paranoia in the Coalition.

There are many games with similar mechanics. The war strategy aspect is quite simple, as there are enough mechanics to make it complicated otherwise, and could best be compared to a lightweight Axis and Allies. The non-player armies are similar to the diseases in Pandemic in the way they spawn and attack, and can become overwhelming if not handled properly. The secret traitor mechanic, as well as the crises presented for the Coalition to handle, are similar to the Battlestar Galactica game.

I have been prototyping and testing my game for about a year and a half now, and I feel like I am closing in on a game that's actually presentable. However, there are two things I feel I need to handle (and much testing afterwards to ensure it was handled properly) before starting to look for a publisher.

1) I need help with the ending.

Like most co-op w/traitor games, the game is a race against time that draws tension from the fact that while all players know they cannot truly trust anyone, they are forced to do exactly that if they want to win. However, I feel like my game often reaches a point where the victor is clearly defined, and the rest is just semantics--either the Coalition dominates the game board and sniffs the traitor out for a walk-in, or the traitor engineers a board position that's unwinnable for the Coalition and they're so far behind that just putting the game away is the best option to save some time. This isn't to say there aren't close games, possibly even a majority of them, but I feel like its not unreasonable to want -all- playthroughs of this game to end in such a fashion that the climax is...well, climactic.

Currently, the tempo of my game is set by control of seven keys. These keys are moveable game pieces that appear throughout the map, and players can go pick them up to gain control of them. At the beginning of each turn, players may elect to break these keys if they wish, but in doing so they give up a (very small) source of victory points each turn. Additionally, past the third turn, a certain type of card drawn each turn causes one (and sometimes two) keys to crumble away. The final battle occurs when the last key is destroyed, during which all sources of victory points are tallied together. Most of these victory points are from predictable sources that players can plan for, but some few are uncertain due to the traitor mechanic. Additionally, I've implemented a "Battle Orders" event at the end where cards are drawn and assigned to individual players; then, players that complete their Orders receive 1d6 victory points, and players that cannot complete their Orders -lose- 1d6 victory points.

I feel like many of these elements have a certain balance to them, but I believe that the keys are the problem. What has often happened in playtesting is that whoever seems to be losing will cling to the keys and not break them, prolonging the game and hoping that the tide turns. This has led to frustratingly long games that players just want to be done with, or low-tension walk-in victories. Additionally, giving players control over the tempo of the game seems to lessen the intensity of the traitor mechanic.

I would greatly appreciate any input or suggestions.

2) I just can't seem to get away from an exact clone of the Battlestar Galactica crisis cards.

For those unfamiliar, in the BSG game players have a hand of colored cards with a numerical value of 1 through 5. They draw these cards from their appropriately colored decks, and in each deck the lower numbers are a good bit more common than the higher numbers.

These cards have a dual purpose. First, they may be played to take a specific action, noted in the text box of the card. Secondly, their numerical value may be contributed to Crisis Cards.

During each player's turn, a Crisis card is drawn. Each Crisis card will depict a number of colored squares along the left side of the card, and these squares determine which color cards will positively contribute to helping the humans overcome the crisis. All other-colored cards will actually have a negative effect. Players, in turn, contribute any number of cards from their hand face-down, and cannot reveal any specific information about their contributions. Once all contributions have been made, two additional -random- cards are added to the pool, then they are shuffled and revealed. The numerical value of all cards with colors matching the requisite are added together, and from it you subtract the combined value of the cards with colors not listed in the requisite. If the final number is greater than or equal to the listed difficulty class, then the "Pass" text is taken (which is usually a "lesser of two evils" deal). However, if that number is less than the difficulty class, then you execute the "Fail" text, which is invariably pretty bad.

For those unfamiliar with my game, I just described to you exactly how my "Dark Design" phase works. Barf.

During initial playtesting, I tried to break away from this exact model, but the more I broke away from it, I found it was simply useless as a mechanic. The design of the Crisis in BSG is very finely tuned, and I noticed very quickly that any variance detracted from its value dramatically. So I kept coming back to it, hoping to hold out until I was inspired. That inspiration hasn't come.

Notably, there are minor mechanical and contextual differences between the BSG crisis and my Dark Design. First off, the difficulty of the BSG crisis scales to players because each player draws and resolves his own crisis card during his turn. Since that would be impractical for a game of my weight, I instead scale the difficulty class with the number of players. Additionally, since there are fewer crises happening in my game than in BSG, I scaled down to one random card per pool to make sabotage a bit riskier and slightly easier to deduce.

My "strength cards" are also a bit different. My cards, while framed exactly the same and used exactly the same for the crisis, are the means by which players can interact with the game. They are responsible for troop deployment, certain one-shot effects used in battle, and a variety of other effects. Players may also gain access to a greater pool of these cards drawn each turn through controlling certain territories on the game board.

I am dissatisfied with my mechanic's similarity to the BSG crisis, and I feel like a suitable replacement is out there. I have come to the conclusion that the mechanic I am looking for has these qualities:

- This mechanic must offer access to some means of -imperfect- information by which they may, over time, deduce the traitor (unless the traitor plays very close to the vest)
- This mechanic must give the traitor a chance to sabotage the game with some risk of exposing himself
- The mechanic must present a challenge for the Coalition with consequences for failure
- This mechanic must use strength cards as a resource, to continue with the strategic depth of resource management.
- This mechanic must offer some limited means of concealment to the saboteur, so his identity is not immediately obvious when something goes wrong.

Thanks for reading,
- Mike

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