• What deduction games like Werewolf tell us about ourselves

    The seer has a problem. During the night, she had a vision: both the troublemaker and the robber are far from her village. Now, she stands in the meetinghouse with five others villagers. Two of her peers, she's nearly sure, are werewolves. Another of her fellow villagers works for the werewolves. In five minutes, the group will vote to kill one member. If she wants the village to survive, the seer must find the other humans in the room and cooperate with them to identify and shoot a werewolf; any other outcome means her own death.

    Tales like this unfold every time a group sits down to a game of One Night Ultimate Werewolf. Guided by a few cards and a script, each player takes a role in a story that lasts just minutes, but might be talked about for days. The quick, compact game has been a breakout success for publisher Bezier Games, making it one of the most visible titles in the fast-growing genre of social deduction games.

    Social deduction games differ from other games because play focuses almost entirely on how players scrutinize each other. Each player wants her team to win, but she may not know who her teammates are. In their purest form, players in social deduction games have no dice or cards to help them, just their wits, cunning and instincts.

    Russian Origins

    Every social deduction game on the market today draws at least some of its inspiration from a game called Mafia. Created by Moscow State University psychology student Dmitry Davidoff in 1986, Mafia pits a group of villagers against a smaller group of mafia within their midst. At the start of the game, each player takes a card that indicates their team. Then, everyone closes their eyes. While the group has its eyes closed, the mafia open their eyes and acknowledge each other.

    Play then proceeds over a number of days in which the group as a whole votes to "lynch" someone. Then, the mafia secretly votess to kill a villager. Dead players leave the game, their voices silenced. To win, villagers must eliminate the mafia threat in their midst. If the mafia ever outnumber the villagers, the mafia wins.

    After its creation, Davidoff's game spread and mutated like a virus. A loose network of geeks and nerds taught each other how to play at colleges, conferences and conventions. Sometimes they added new twists. At some point — probably in the mid to late 1990s — a few players decided to switch the game's theme from organized crime to werewolves. That choice began to solidify in 1997 when an interactive fiction enthusiast named Andrew Plotkin brought Werewolf back to his local game group. The group happened to include Looney Labs founder and game designer Andrew Looney. Four years later, Looney Labs produced custom art and cards for a small, promotional run of Are you a Werewolf. Soon after, the company began selling it.

    Building on a Classic

    While Werewolf's popularity continued to grow, some players grew impatient with aspects of it. The classic version requires at least one person to referee the game, which means that person can't participate. It also requires player elimination, which means that players killed in the first rounds have to watch the remaining action from the outside — which can take hours.

    "We hated that our most fun games of Werewolf were the games where we were the last ones alive and that our least favorite games were the ones where we were the first ones to die," said Sean McCoy, co-founder of Tuesday Knight Games.

    By 2009, game designers were willing to put money behind Werewolf variants that addressed those shortcomings. That year, Looney Labs published Are You The Traitor? and Indie Boards and Cards published The Resistance. Both functioned without moderators or player elimination.

    The Resistance, the more successful of the two, casts players as members of a rebel movement. But some players secretly work for the government.

    The game plays out over a series of votes and missions. One player picks a team, and the rest of the players vote on whether they approve of that team — which is a tricky proposition. If the team includes a traitor, he may sabotage the mission.

    The game's dynamics nearly always lead to a final, dramatic moment when the leader reveals the mission's outcome. Members of the resistance lean forward anxiously, unsure if they chose the right people. The traitors, meanwhile, already know the outcome.

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  • Apps bring new possibilities to board games

    Michael Mulvihill carries the rule book, army sheets and tutorial for his latest tabletop war game with him everywhere he goes. Despite his long history in the gaming industry — which includes work on the influential 1990s Battletech war game — carrying his game materials has never been easier.

    "I carry it on my phone all the time," Mulvihill said.

    His latest game, Golem Arcana, doesn't have a traditional rule book. Instead, publisher Harebrained Schemes embedded all of the game's rules, army statistics and tutorials into an app compatible with most modern tablets and phones.

    The app isn't limited to a simple rules codex; while players maneuver their three-dimensional figures across two-dimensional maps, they communicate all of their choices to the app using a bluetooth stylus. When attacking, players touch the stylus to their chosen attack on the attacking figure's card and then touch the target. The app rolls virtual dice to determine whether the attack succeeds and logs any damage or special effects it caused.

    In theory, players could handle all of these tasks with pen, paper, dice and a physical rulebook, but doing so would create a bookkeeping headache. Golem Arcana uses a "cooldown" system that makes each ability more expensive for a short time after it's used. Players could track this with tokens, but they would have to remember to remove the tokens each turn. This would create an enormous opportunity for cheating — or for simple mistakes that change the outcome of the game.

    But Golem Arcana doesn't allow players the pen and paper option. It has no physical rulebook. Anyone who wants to play must use the app.

    And Golem Arcana isn't alone. By the end of 2014, three different publishers will have released tabletop games that use smart device apps as an integral part of the game. Fantasy Flight Games demonstrated its app-enabled board game version of the XCOM video game at Gen Con, and Czech game company CGE announced that it would release an app-enabled game called Alchemists at October's Essen game festival in Germany.

    While publishers have sold board games with electronic components since 1910, this new wave breaks away from the pack. In the earliest electronic games, players plugged one end of a wire into a question and the other into an answer. The right question/answer combo lit a bulb. While novel, the system accomplished nothing that players couldn't handle with Trivial Pursuit-style cards.

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  • Making better use of dice in games

    In five millennia, dice and their use have barely evolved. In 2004, archaeologists at an Iranian archaeological site known as The Burnt City found the oldest dice known to man. The 5,000 year-old stone cubes accompanied a Backgammon set — a game you can still buy today at Target — and used the same dot pattern familiar to modern gamers.

    But a handful of game designers over the past decade have injected new life into this long-stagnant, but always reliable technology.

    In 2010, publisher Clever Mojo Games Kickstarted a game called Alien Frontiers. The game raised $14,885 on a $5,000 funding goal and successfully made the transition from Kickstarter darling to brick and mortar product based on its novel approach to dice.

    In Alien Frontiers, each player rolls between three and six dice at the start of his turn. Then, based on the roll's result, the player assigns dice to areas of the board. In one area, players can only use dice that have a value equal to or greater than the dice already there. In another area, the player must assign two dice of the same value. Their common value establishes the exchange rate between energy (a cheap and common resource) and ore (a less common and more valuable resource) — making a pair of ones the best dice for this space.

    "I wanted it to be [that] higher is not always better," said Tory Niemann, the game's designer. "I wanted each number to be useful in a particular way."

    This differs from traditional game design where higher is almost always better. A 12 in Monopoly moves players around the board faster than a two, and a six in Risk beats a five. While Yahtzee rewards players for completing some configurations agnostic to individual die values, four sixes still scores more points than four ones.

    Even classic games that differ from this formula usually do so only by reversing it. In the World War II game Axis & Allies, players score hits when they roll a number less than their troops' attack value. In this way, the one and the six trade roles.

    Niemann's Alien Frontiers up-ends that formula, and he's not the only game designer to do so — nor is he the first.

    In 2005, Queen Games published Roma from German game designer Stefan Feld. In this two-player game, players assign actions to die faces, and can only activate those actions by spending a die of the matching value.

    Since then, Feld has embarked on a personal crusade to make dice more interesting.

    "I really like dice," Feld said, but he wanted players to have control of the game. He didn't want them to win or lose based on simple luck. In most classic games like Monopoly and Risk, that's exactly what can happen, and often does.

    Risk aficionados often build strategies around statistical likelihoods. Ardent fans have calculated the likely outcome of every possible attacker-on-defender matchup. An attacker with six armies, for example, has a 64 percent chance of conquering a territory defended by four armies.

    But those overall odds fail to matter on individual battles. If the defender in the six-on-four scenario starts the combat round with a pair of sixes, the attacker's win probability drops to 36 percent. If the attacker presses on and loses two more armies, the attacker's chance of winning drops to 5 percent. Worse, the attacker weakened his own territory, and the defender will likely capture it on the next turn. The player fell to this unfortunate and unwanted outcome simply because the dice weren't on his side.

    Even games that depart from the higher-is-better framework leave players at luck's mercy. In Settlers of Catan, players roll two dice at the start of their turn to determine which territories produce goods. Players can position their settlements to increase their statistical chance of gaining resources each roll, but luck still determines their actual outcomes.

    This, Feld said, is what he wanted to eliminate.

    "Sometimes it is hard to control the chaos that dice introduce," Feld said in an email interview. "There shouldn't be bad rolls."

    In the past nine years, Feld has designed eight published games that all focus on dice. Each takes its own approach to using the 5,000-year-old randomizers without creating a random winner.

    Castles of Burgundy typifies his efforts. In this European-style game, players take the role of French aristocrats who compete to earn the most prestige by creating the most interesting and prosperous estate. At the start of each turn, each player rolls two dice in her color. The sum of the dice doesn't matter, but their individual value does.

    In Feld's Burgundy, no die value is inherently different from another. Each die value can either help players gain or place territory tiles — just so long as those tiles are coming from or going to a place with a value that matches the spent die.

    When players become completely stuck, they can spend a die to gain two worker tokens — but this happens rarely. When players lack a die that matches an action they want to take, they can spend a worker to increment the die's value up or down by one. Notably, this can modify a six to a one and vice-versa.

    While Alien Frontiers isn't as egalitarian as Castles of Burgundy, it provides players with more ways to modify their dice. Players can buy an advantage that lets them increment one of their dice by one. Another advantage allows players to "flip" a die to show its opposite face — a five to a two or a six to a one. This makes it easier for players to achieve their goals, especially if they use a little intellectual gymnastics.

    "I wanted to players to feel clever and have those a-ha moments on their turn, not just on a strategic level but on a tactical level," Niemann said.

    In addition to high and low values, Alien Frontiers rewards players for building other configurations, including straights and three of a kind. These configurations resemble those found in Yahtzee, but Niemann bristles at that comparison. People who call his game "Yahtzee in space," he said, either misunderstand Yahtzee or they misunderstand Alien Frontiers.

    What Feld and Niemann have done is change dice from a mechanic to determine outcomes into a mechanic to determine starting conditions. In most games, players decide what they want to do and roll dice to find out if they succeed. In Alien Frontiers and Feld's games, players roll dice at the start of their turn and use them to make decisions.

    Any given turn of Castles of Burgundy, for example, can give players an almost paralyzing number of options. When a player's roll doesn't match the actions he wants to take, he may spend workers to make it match. Or he may spend a die to get workers and ensure that he can take the action most important to him. Or he may conserve his workers, ignore the actions he planned to take, and hope he can do them more cheaply on the next turn.

    In the 5,000-year scale of dice history, that's an incredibly new dynamic, but it may be an idea whose time has come. Feld and Niemann arrived at their designs independently. At the time that he created Alien Frontiers in 2010, Niemann had never heard of Feld's work — despite the fact four of his dice games had reached publication. Instead, Niemann said he drew his inspiration from a game called Kingsburg.

    Kingsburg excited Niemann because he read that it blended dice with worker placement. But Kingsburg doesn't play the way Niemann imagined it. Players roll dice and assign them to a board, but the effects dice can achieve grow more powerful as their values grow higher. What Niemann expected was a game that played more like Alien Frontiers. So, he made it.

    Since the release of Alien Frontiers and Castles of Burgundy, game designers have increasingly taken non-conventional views of dice. In 2012, game design website The Game Crafter held a game design contest that challenged designers to use dice in new and innovative ways. In 2014, French publisher Fun Forge published a game called Quantum that's composed almost entirely of dice, but involves very few die rolls. Instead, the dice represent ships. Their value reflects both their speed and their combat strength. Higher-valued ships move faster, but are easier to destroy.

    As the board game hobby continues to grow and attract more designers, those new minds will continue to find novel new approaches to dice. Feld, Niemann and a few others jolted the technology out of 5,000 years of stagnation. Now, others are helping.

    Photo: Wikimedia
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  • D&D 5th edition Monster Manual review: a deep resource for DMs

    Wizards of the Coast released the D&D Fifth Edition Monster Manual today. The book gives dungeon masters not just statistics for various baddies and monsters for players to fight, but also a deep well of story ideas.

    Owing in part to Fifth Edition's streamlined approach to mechanics, this edition's Monster Manual spends much less space and energy explaining each creature's statistics. In some cases, creatures' stat blocks take up as little as a quarter of a page, a sharp reduction from how their presentation in the third and fourth edition Monster Manuals.

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    Instead of using that compression to cram in more foes, the writers behind the 5E Monster Manual used the space to inject nuggets of story that could serve as the foundation for whole adventures — or even entire campaigns.

    Take the blights, for example. The three creatures — the twig blight, needle blight and vine blight — amount to varieties of animated plants. Previous iterations of the Monster Manual might have noted the creatures' connections to each other and that they might be created through dark magic, but that would be the end of the background story. Dungeon masters would be left to fill in the blanks.

    In contrast, the newest Monster Manual includes half a page of history on where the blights came from. They originated from the blood of a particularly malevolent vampire named Gulthias. After a hunter jammed a stake through Gulthias's heart, Gulthias's blood mixed with the wood and generated a new form of evil plant life known as a Gulthias tree. The tree corrupted flora around it, killing some plants and transforming others into blights. Later, a deranged druid took the Gulthias tree sapling and replanted it elsewhere, where it could be nurtured.

    A dungeon master is free to ignore that story and focus on the blights' combat stats, but the backstory seeds ideas and suggests a progression: a merchant goes missing on a forest path. A local governor sends the adventurers to investigate. They find the merchant's body. Then, twig blights ambush them. Pressing deeper into the forest, the adventurers find a darkening wood. Needle and vine blights assault them, and the vine blight even speaks. The party flees back to town, where they learn that there must be a Gulthias tree at the heart of the darkness. They'll need an enchanted axe to hack down the tree, which means going on a separate quest. Then, once they destroy the Gulthias tree, other questions emerge. Who planted it? And why?

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    The writers took a similar approach throughout the 352-page book. They took pains to describe the hobgoblin and kobold hierarchies, as well as the general societal structure for lizardmen, giants and bullywugs. In many cases, they included additional stat blocks for more advanced versions of the monsters, such as hobgoblin captains and hobgoblin warlords.

    In total, the writers' approach means that this version of the bestiary is a far greater resource than a simple collection of stats. Flipping through will give dungeon masters ideas on how to flesh out their campaigns or create new ones from scratch. It may be Wizards' best Monster Manual ever.

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