Published on November 19th, 2016 | by Luke Turpeinen0
Designer Diary: Power Struggle
Iterating a Prototype
Here at WhiskeyGinger we’ve passed our first game (Food Truck Champion) along to a publisher, who is developing it for Kickstarter as we speak. Now that most of our part of that process as designers is finished, we’ve moved on to our next game- Power Struggle. Here I’ll take you through the initial phases of design for the game as it currently stands.
The idea for Power Struggle started during a discussion with friends about games with hidden allegiances or “traitor” mechanics. I have a love/hate relationship with these games- on the one hand I love the idea of being a traitor and working as a double agent in a game with none the wiser; on the other hand, everyone I game with knows this and is out to get me from turn one.
I always seem to be the first one air-locked in Battlestar Gallactica, and I’ve had games of Shadows Over Camelot where the other players burned a V.P. sword on the first turn- just to make sure I wasn’t the evil knight. It comes with the territory- these sorts of social deduction games are meant to be meta-games in a lot of ways, so an argument could be made for using these tactics. That said, it’s not fun to be on the hard end of the Prisoner’s Dilemma every time you play a “traitor” game.
I wanted to design a game where everyone was a traitor, and the point was to figure out which player was which traitor- while not relying solely on a social deduction mechanic. I wanted the game to also be an interesting card game in its own right, outside of the social element.
The first prototype
The first iteration of Power Struggle was a trick-taking game in the same vein as Rook or Bridge. Cards had a second suit that corresponded to secret player roles that were dealt out randomly at the start of the game. Points could be earned by winning tricks with suits that match your role, and you could reveal your role to change one non-trump card into the trump suit for one trick. At the end of the game, players would guess which player was which role, and gain points for guessing correctly.
The idea is that you were sending a representative to the Galactic Senate, and winning arguments to pass resolutions which benefit certain hidden interests (the player roles). I loved the idea, because I love trick-taking games, I grew up playing Hearts with my family, and I felt this game fit right into the theme. Unfortunately, during play testing people just didn’t equate the idea of “Galactic Senate” and “trick-taking” so the theme/mechanic disconnect became a large hurdle in explaining the game.
Revising the core concept
One of the main mechanical concepts I felt was lacking from the experience in the first prototype was the idea of being able to vote for a tangible law. Before, passing a law didn’t really mean anything- the laws themselves were abstracted. I wanted laws to be constants that shaped the rules of the game going forward.
Now that I was modelling the game rules a little more after actual legislative process, it made sense to ask players to vote differently. Instead of just trying to submit the highest card they could (if they wanted to win the trick), now a player should have the ability to vote “approve” or “reject” to the bill being put before them. This means that all of the “approve” votes will add together and all of the “reject” votes will add together, then the side with the higher value will win.
So, what does winning mean? Winning means that the law card is passed and enters into a limited size tableau. When the tableau is full, or the legislation deck is empty, the game is over. Each legislation card has a symbol corresponding to a secret player role, and a player would score points at the end of the game for each of their symbols in the tableau.
Separately, the player who contributed most to the “approve” vote would get a victory point if the law passed, and the second-most player would get to choose the target of a power listed on the law card. If the “reject” vote won, the player who contributed the most on that side would get a victory point.
At the end of the game each player would guess which player was which role by placing a token marked with a role symbol face-down in front of the corresponding player. For each symbol placed in front of a player that is incorrect, the player it was placed in front of gets points. This rewards players for being deceptive, instead of rewarding them for being perceptive- a small distinction I wanted to make from the previous iteration.
Play testing feedback
The initial way of playing delegate cards to pass a law seemed to be too basic for most play testers. Simply submitting one card of the appropriate influence type, with a value from 1 to 10 was too swingy and boring for sustained play. We introduced the idea of being able to submit up to three cards- they can be of any suit but only the suits that match the law count towards the vote. This lets players ditch cards they don’t want out of their hand, and lets them feel like they can bluff if they need to.
We realized that a 1 to 10 value range was great for a trick-taking game, but Power Struggle had evolved into a different beast already and had different needs. By slimming the values down to a 1 to 5 scale, and allowing value repeats of lower value cards (eg: now there are several 1s and a few 2s and 3s) the possible amount one player can contribute to one delegation is anywhere from 1 to 15, but values of 3 to 5 are easy to come by and anything over 7 is difficult without building up to it.
One of the main difficulties we encountered at this stage were the distribution of law cards. As mentioned before, one secret player role was represented on each law card and at the end of the game these symbols were worth points if that law card is in the “passed laws” tableau. The problem was in making sure that in any given game enough of each player’s symbol showed up in the random deck, while still having enough cards in the deck to make the game take long enough.
One play tester suggested solution was to introduce the role of “the Chancellor” as a replacement for the 1st player token. Every turn, instead of drawing a card from the top of the legislation deck, the Chancellor would be able to draw the top three cards of the legislation deck then choose one, which is then voted on by the group and the other two cards are placed at the bottom of the deck. This makes the process of what’s chosen less random, and gives the players a method of exercising personal agency on that outcome.
While I like the direction our latest prototype had been going, there were still parts of it I wasn’t happy with. Our draw mechanics were overly complex and difficult to explain. Finally, one play testing session I just didn’t feel like explaining that set of rules again so I just declared that everyone would draw up to a hand size of 5 at the end of turn. This worked great, so it’s a rule we’ve used ever since.
We’ve also gotten rid of powers on legislation for the time being. Legislation still keeps a player role symbol in play, which counts for end-game scoring- but now players who submit the most for the winning side get to draw a card from the top of delegate deck and keep it face down in front of them. They score points equal to its face value at the end of the game. This has the added bonus of helping to keep players from card-counting, which has been an issue in play testing.
In addition, the player who submitted the most to the losing side (if any) gets to become “the Opposition Leader” which is a token that represents the order in which ties are broken. Tie are broken in favor of the Opposition Leader, and then down the line in turn order. This used to be part of the Chancellor, but that gave the position too much power.
Other ideas that we have begun to playtest include: forcing players to submit 3 cards to a delegation every turn, re-adding a secondary suit and issuing bonuses based on pairs and 3-of-a-kinds. There will definitely be rules changes as we further refine the way the game reflects our desired player experience, and these changes or suggestions don’t always come from us.
Play testing your game with dozens of people of different backgrounds and getting their feedback will lead you down design roads you had never considered (or even knew existed). I’m a strong believer in play testing well outside one type of group or demographic- experienced board gamers or newbies can both offer valuable feedback on your design, as can players who are very young or much older than we may otherwise consider “a gamer”.
The future of Power Struggle is more play testing. We organize monthly playtest events at a local board game bar/cafe (The Raygun Lounge, in Seattle, for those in the area who might be interested) where we playtest our games and get to play the games of other designers. We iterate a new prototype, rule set or generate a new player aid every month for these events and then we play that version in-house until the next event.
I know that Nicole is beginning the concept art for Power Struggle, and the keywords so far are: Space Opera, Flash Gordon (1980), Time Lords, Gatchaman, Saint Seiya. I’m looking forward to seeing what she comes up with!
If you would like to get a peek at the rules for Power Struggle, and offer suggestions or just have fun with it all you have to do is to support us on Patreon!