How Head of State went from Passion Project to Top-10 Download

  Head of State is on iOS (here) and Android (here).

The Big Idea

I started working in the games industry at a small studio in Paris called Kobojo in 2011. We were making Facebook simulations that were moderately successful, but a far cry from the games that I enjoyed playing myself. Even so, I loved it. Finally hours of playing games from childhood onwards felt justified(!); the process of designing enjoyable experiences was itself hugely satisfying, and the sense of potential was intoxicating. Zynga was a tech industry darling, with Cityville breaking record after record, just as the portents began signalling an even bigger shift to mobile.

Politically though, the times were much less rosy: the far right was growing in popularity across Europe and the US, whilst in Greece Golden Dawn regularly made the headlines showing how fast the slide into neo-fascism could be. I found the politics confusing – I had grown up in the 90s and just about remembered the fall of the Berlin Wall. I thought this was meant to be the End of History and liberal democracy the natural order of things. It was fast becoming apparent that this wasn’t the case, that political entropy did not drag us inexorably towards peace and understanding.

So it was that I had the very first thoughts about the game that would become Head of State. I dreamed of a game that pushed the boundaries of games as a medium (of course!), whilst simultaneously addressing my pet fear of democratic collapse. The aspiration would be to contribute to the ongoing debate on democracy, just as Orwell and Huxley had with Nineteen Eighty Four and Brave New World.

Today we haven’t stopped reading novels, but we have started playing a lot more games, and some of those games have touched just as serious ground. BioShock is a personal favourite – I must have played it through 4 or 5 times. Far from impeding enjoyment of the game, its rich setting drawing on Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism was loved by critics and the game was a commercial success as well. I myself went on to read both the Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged in between replays… whilst the success of TV shows like The West Wing and House of Cards further convinced me that politics was far from a niche interest. However, it was to be four years before the game was anything more than passing fantasy.

A Game is Born

Whilst I loved the concept of Head of State, I had no idea of how the game would actually play. Partly I had had no inspiration for mechanics that would work for the subject matter, and partly I wasn’t trying very hard as I didn’t see how the game might ever get made. It was clear that none of the companies I worked for would ever be interested in the idea. So the concept sat at the back of my mind gathering dust, and only occasionally embellished when I’d had a few drinks and gave an impromptu rant to friends about games or politics.

Then last year, following the encouragement of several friends and developers at Wooga, I started playing around with Unity and built a couple of playable prototypes for other ideas. They were the creative equivalents of a 3-year old’s macaroni collage, but I found coding addictive and my learning trajectory was steep. You Only Live Once was a (very) dark, text based version of the Sims, which I actually pushed to the App Store, just to see if I could. Hardly anyone played it, but it made me realise that publishing a game by myself was possible. At the same time I decided to leave Wooga, frustrated with a number of projects that had been cancelled before launch. With the games industry becoming increasingly tough I didn’t see better prospects anywhere else, so I jumped into e-commerce, but I decided that my swan song to the games industry would be publishing this political game I always dreamed of in some format.

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As I said my goodbyes at Wooga and prepared for an extended break over Christmas and New Year I had a brainwave about how the game might look. I had realised from my growing coding experience that simple simulation games were within my powers, and in particular had spent a lot of time playing both Plague Inc. and A Dark Room. I initially envisaged the game as an incremental similar to A Dark Room where new options opened up to the player as their political influence expanded. One of the key themes I wanted to explore in the game was leading people down an increasingly dark path to more extreme policies and actions, even if they started from relatively pure intentions.

I cobbled something together in a few days, all ugly pastel buttons, stats and the occasional progress bar to look at. I was fairly happy with the results myself, even if it was incredibly simplistic, just because I had managed to match some mechanics to the theme. But when I showed it to my family, they hated it. No one wanted to play the bad guy, the evil dictator with a plan to subvert a nation. They all far too nice for that and wanted to rule the country as well as possible, eradicating poverty and ensuring proper governance. Unless I could make the game fun, it was clear that the audience would be limited at best.

Putting the Fun into Evil

Still, I wasn’t going to be put off too easily, so I reached out to a couple of friends from Wooga – Rebecca Harwick, an American writer, and Ewa Chrusciel, a Polish artist. I had worked with both and knew them to be exceptionally talented, but I also suspected given Trump’s rise in the US and the growing discomfort of liberals with the Law & Justice party in Poland, that they would be interested in the theme (one of the benefits of living in Berlin is that most people are very liberal and relatively politically active). I asked them not whether they liked the game as it was, but whether they could see the potential, and were interested in fulfilling as much of that potential as possible. They both signed up immediately and we began meeting regularly, with the aim of launching a free game as a passion project in around three months.

The design evolved rapidly with the experienced feedback from Rebecca and Ewa. At the same time, the addition of a writer and artist supercharged the project’s skillsets, vastly expanding the creative possibilities for the game. We quickly divided the tech tree into Policies to allow the game to cover revolutions of all colors and not just the descent into facism. We also built out Control factions to reflect the importance of other state institutions, oblivious that over the summer Turkey’s coup would justify our decision to keep the Army and Police separate. The game also dragged towards the end, and I’ve never been a fan of fast forward options, so we added Momentum and the Revolution mechanic to bring things to a climax. Meanwhile, Ewa started working on more visual ways of showing the mechanics, whilst Rebecca worked on events and decisions that we wanted to include.

By March the game had come on leaps and bounds, and was unrecognisable from its initial incarnation. At the same time, we began to realise that we were only just getting started on the changes that we wanted to make, and had already used up the time we initially set aside. The process was fun though, and the team dynamics were working well, so we agreed to continue iterating on the design and push it further. We started play testing, and again got feedback that the game felt too dry, more political statement than game. We knew adding humour was the solution, but struggled to find a tone that was the right mix of enjoyable without being superficial.

After several discussions and exploring different styles we found an irreverent sarcasm that seemed to fit the bill, and we spread it generously all over the game. Meanwhile, as we dug deeper into the mechanics, I also picked up a renewed appreciation for why so many things in Plague Inc. are designed the way they are – we added a map and then pins for Influence, Events and Protests to give the player more to do.

Summer meant various holidays and other commitments for everyone, but the game was looking far better than I could have ever imagined. We decided to charge $1.99 for the game as we felt the quality would be high enough, and anyone interested in a political simulation game wasn’t likely to baulk at the price. Trump had already clinched the Republican nomination and then Brexit happened, and we were reinvigorated with the need to launch the game as soon as possible. July was a blur of polishing and testing, putting together marketing materials and grabbing lunches with anyone we knew in PR or App Store optimization. Finally, we set a launch date for August 7th and arranged a small BBQ for friends and family to celebrate all our hard work over the past months.

With the icons ready and App Store description written, I couldn’t wait to see the game go live. I called Tom Kinniburgh, a friend in the publishing industry excited to push the button, when he bluntly informed me that proper launch prep for any chance of featuring would take 5-6 weeks, rather than 10 days. It was a frustrating moment, and I considered pushing ahead regardless – we thought our chances of getting featured given the political theme were only 20% or so, and knew that the game wouldn’t capture the zeitgeist forever. Every day seemed to count and we had already been working on the game twice as long as we had initially expected.

Patience Pays Off

Fortunately Tom was quick to talk me out of rushing the launch, and we picked a new release date of September 8th. With development finished we focused on launch PR, reaching out to as many journalists as we could think of, calling in favours from anyone remotely involved in the media, and sending out a barrage of speculative tweets. We set up a thread in the TouchArcade forums and sent very polite yet enthusiastic emails to Apple and Google.

At last, launch day arrived. Nervously we checked and rechecked the App Store to see if we were lucky enough to get any featuring. We had not had art requests for banners, but hung out for a minor feature somewhere. Then finally, around 5pm, we noticed the UK store features had been updated, and Head of State was included in the “New Games We Love” section at position 14. A few hours later we realised we were also hidden in the simulation games features in the US. The next day we started climbing the charts, appearing first in top paid apps (UK) at 41, then climbing all the way to 5 in paid games, and number 1 in paid RPGs in the UK and number 9 in paid RPGs in the US.

         

Now, the game is less than week old, but by time of going to press (3 days of data) we’ve seen over 3.6k downloads and over $7.8k in revenue, with an average rating of about 4.5 stars in both the US and UK (we never localised the game). We’ll see where the figures go from here, but the journey has already been far more satisfying, and exhilarating, both in development and launch than I ever could have imagined. In today’s market, I’m not sure anyone can guarantee this level of success, but if there’s a game that you desperately want to make, there’s always the chance that you’ll be surprised by just how well it does…

Big Fish, Small Pond: Surviving in a Maturing Market

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Last week I attend Quo Vadis in Berlin and gave a talk on the title above. The slides are below.

My main take away was that companies need to set themselves smart constraints within which to be creative.

The four ideas I gave for setting yourself smart constraints were:

1. Know your strengths

Whatever your strengths are, be that an existing audience, particular technical expertise, or genre knowledge, you have to build on that. The market is tough enough without you giving yourself the best chance.

2. Find your pond

Incumbent games have too much market presence and content and too many systems and players to go head to head with. Define your market as a niche that is small enough for you to dominate (though big enough to pay the bills).

3. Manage the Risk

All game production is risk management – no one knows for sure if a game will be a success or not before it launches. Make sure that you manage the risk in production as well as possible. Do a risk assessment as you start out a project to get an objective feel for the number and scale of risks involved, and an idea of when they can be addressed (sooner is better!). This will also help you tackle the biggest risks first wherever possible.

4. Stick to the plan

It’s very easy half way through production, when things aren’t going well, to convince yourself that you just need a couple more months to fix things. Set yourself some fixed targets at the start of the project that trigger a full scale review of the project if they are missed. That way you will waste the least amount of time on projects that are doomed.

This post was originally published on Adventures in Mobile Game Design.

Content Hunger and How to Sate it

The cost of content

Games are content, and so the economics of games are largely the economics of content. Content is what players pay for, and content is what takes time and money to build, with both the quality and amount of content increasing production costs. I’ve been playing a lot of Dragon Age: Inquisition recently, and having a great time. I’ve already sunk just over 20 hours into it, and if friends and reviews are to be believed, I have at least another 30 to go before I finish the main storyline.

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Dragon Age Inquisition has a huge amount of high quality content to explore

The world you can explore is vast, filled with scripted missions, side quests, wild beasts, roaming bandits and hidden secrets. Romping across the landscape from rocky deserts to dank marshes I am both awe struck at the variety and volume of content in the game, and slightly sickened by it. Sickened, because now I work in the industry I know how much time will have been invested into producing everything I see, and how countless days must have been put into dark corridors, rock formations and other mundane details that give the world authenticity, but will be largely forgotten and ignored by players.

Mobile is some way behind the production values of consoles. Partly the hardware isn’t as good yet, and so cannot support such high end graphics. Partly developers have not needed to deliver such high quality games to win customers. But mobile is rapidly catching up, and whilst the quality of content may not be as high, the amount of content needed is already probably larger. The F2P business model dominates mobile, and success here is highly dependent on retaining your players for months or even years. Having something for players to do a year after they start playing your game is no mean feat. Wooga’s hidden object game Pearl’s Peril has 90 weeks of content – something that few if any console games can match, and as a result of this the retention in the game is phenomenal.

Content is a key competitive angle

It’s clear on both console and mobile that the amount of content you can deliver, and its quality are key factors for success. It’s hard to imagine an RPG without the amount and quality of content that Skyrim or Dragon Age has being a success. For a competitive  HOG you need to deliver a similar amount of content as in Pearl’s Peril – something that only one or two developers apart from Wooga can hope to do. One of the reasons that World of Warcraft has become so entrenched is the amount of content that it has built up over the past decade is now almost impossible for other MMOs to replicate.

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Pearl’s Peril has 90 weeks of content, each with 5 hidden object scenes and a point-and-click adventure scene

For many games the number of man-hours that have been put into content determines the production quality and amount, together with the efficiency that this time is converted into content, given the tools utilized. The older a genre is, the higher the production values are – by pushing the content bar ever higher, developers shut out competition and establish themselves in franchises for the long term. With each game developers up the stakes, both because they can due to improving tools and existing assets to start from, and because they must to continue attracting players.

Maximizing content

To be successful developers must therefore invest in their tools and production pipeline to match the incumbents in the genre they are going head-to-head with. Failure to do this sort of preparation can only result in failure. Indies and smaller developers that cannot match the content output of bigger companies must innovate on the gameplay mechanics more to succeed. By innovating they can produce a new experience that players will not directly compare with established games. No one compares Realm of the Mad God to World of Warcraft, or Faster than Light to Mass Effect. There are also a number of techniques that can be used to stretch content for as long as possible, and all developers, regardless of their content output are wise to use as many of these as possible.

Randomness: Games with randomness are far more playable than those without some element of randomness. In Candy Crush Saga, levels are different each time they are played due to the random way that gems drop into the board. Players replay levels effectively waiting for the right combination of gems to drop. Imagine the game without this randomness and each level has a solution that can be found by trial and error relatively quickly, and the levels become boring.

Alternative choices: Allowing players to customize their play experience in different ways allows them to go back and replay the same content to explore how their decisions influenced the game. Whilst this requires some additional content that not all players may see, it allows die hard fans to play through most of the same content several times with minor variations. A good example here is how Telltale games allow you to replay episodes making different decisions each time. These decisions allow you see how the other characters react and the story pans out. In Dishonored the skills you upgrade give you different ways to complete each level, and the amount of violence that you employ throughout the game affects the way the story pans out to give replayability significant appeal.

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The way you play Dishonored affects how characters interact with you, the overall ending and even the weather in levels.

Events: Most successful mobile games run timed events of some form. Often the mechanics of the event are very similar, but the appearance of exclusive content that is only available for a limited period engages players extremely well. For the chance of getting a new unit, building or item players will happily grind through a lot of content that they have already seen before, and the most active players will often only be playing for the events schedule, having already exhausted the other content in the game.

Difficulty levels: In games where the difficulty of levels can be increased, then replaying the same content is fun because it requires players to master a higher skill threshold than before to complete. Changes in difficulty can often be made with config changes that are cheap to implement, and the players will still enjoy the content. Guitar Hero or Rock Band use this mechanic to allow you to replay the same tracks again and again at a level that is always challenging.

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Rock Band lets you play through the same songs at several different difficulty levels

User Generated Content: In Clash of Clans, players spend most of their time attacking the bases of other players. As the layout of each base is set by the defending player then an incredible amount of variation is generated by the players. All Supercell needed to do was to give players the tools reason to vary their base layout and the players take care of the rest. Different bases require different tactics to attack and so even though additional buildings and units are released only very slowly, players stay engaged in the game.

Wrap Up

In any genre, games compete on the amount of content offered and its quality, both of which drive up the cost of production. It is important to recognize the demands of producing this content before starting production and only choose genres where you can compete. Having chosen a genre it is vital that developers build the tools and pipeline to deliver the required content, as well stretch the playtime from their content however possible.

This post was originally published on Adventures in Mobile Game Design.

3 Flavours of Social: Facebook, Guilds and Beyond

Facebook has had a big impact on games. Before Facebook, video games were seen as an antisocial activity for spotty boys hiding in their bedrooms. Together with the ubiquitous usage of smart phones and Nintendo’s family marketing of the Wii, the perception of both the gender bias and social nature of video games is gradually shifting.

In fact, arcade games originally followed the distribution of pinball machines in bars where adults would socialize, before spreading to family friendly venues such as cinemas and malls. Reacting to a dire recession in the early 80s Nintendo decided to focus its marketing of consoles as toys for boys, rather than entertainment for all, and in doing so set the popular view of video games for the next 30 years.

Now, finally, the industry is beginning to come full circle, and it’s the social aspect that I want to focus on here. It was on Facebook that the term “social games” was coined. Of course, games were social before, whether you were playing Mario Kart with your friends or raiding with your guild in World of Warcraft. But now, even as Facebook is steadily replaced by mobile as the new platform for gaming, everyone is still talking about social.

It’s not hard to understand why. Kongregate spoke convincingly at GDC 2013 on the importance of social features, and particularly guilds. Their talk highlighted the dramatic ways that guilds can improve retention, engagement and monetization. A few facts summarized from their presentation:

  • Every one of their top 10 games has some form of guild structure
  • Dawn of the Dragons (5th Planet Games): conversion rate for non guild members: 3.2% vs. guild members: 23%
  • Tyrant Unleashed (Synapse Games): ARPU for non guild members: $36.59, vs. guild members: $91.60

But guilds are only one part of “social”, just as Facebook and your real life friends are. Humans are social beings, but their social interaction can take many different forms depending on the context. There is not a one-size-fits-all solution to social in games, and each game must work out what is appropriate for its own audience and mechanics (and the same is true if you are building an app). I believe that the nature of social interactions depends on whether your game is really about your Friends, the Mechanics, or the Content.

 

Friends

When you play a game with your real life or Facebook friends, things work best when the experience is about your friends, and not about the game. Playing with people is a great way of strengthening your relationships with them. Games are appropriate for the majority of family gatherings, whether it’s Risk or Charades.

For the experience to work out well for everyone, then the game needs to be right. The game should facilitate building relationships, and act as a backdrop to this, rather than be the main event. Games of low skill typically work best as they allow participants of all ages and abilities.

This is why games like Draw Something and QuizUp work so well, and more complicated simulation games have quickly fallen out of favour on Facebook. In the former, the experience is more about your friends, and in the latter it is more about the game. Real life friends and family are not the way to drive distribution or underpin retention unless your game is about the people you are interacting with. As we all know from the complaints about people’s newsfeeds being spammed, it isn’t that common for our friends to share our taste in games.

 

Draw Something.Chibi Pikachu by HoangArtist

Draw Something.Chibi Pikachu by HoangArtist

Mechanics

In this category I would put everything from people who like playing otherwise family games to a competitive level, to immersive experiences such as World of Warcraft or Clash of Clans. If you are REALLY into bridge then you don’t invite your real friends over and grind them into the floor. You are going to have an unsatisfying time both in terms of the quality of gameplay, and social experience. Instead you either play a friendly match where everyone can enjoy the social aspect, or you join a bridge club and enjoy the gameplay.

Clash of Clans

Clash of Clans

This latter case is still a social experience of course, but it’s unlikely to be one with your immediate friends and family. It’s more appropriate to share it with other people that share your love of bridge. This is exactly what Netflix and Spotify have realized as they’ve shifted their recommendations engines from showing you what your friends like, to what other people like you like. Generally we do not really care what our friends have been watching. But if we enjoyed The Godfather and The Departed, then we are interested in what other people who also liked those films would recommend.

For games that rely on their mechanics, adding in a social layer can have some powerful effects. Initially, players can even be taught how the game works by more experienced players and this knowledge flow continues as players exchange thoughts on more advanced strategies. A social aspect can enrich the gameplay by requiring the coordination of several different players such as in raids in World of Warcraft or Destiny. Finally, as these interactions build new relationships between players, they develop a sense of duty to each other, which leads them to keep coming back even if they tire of the gameplay itself.

For the social layer to add value to players, and by extension developers, it doesn’t need to involve people who are real life friends. It’s much better to group people together by the intensity that they play the game, so that they can engage at the same level as the others in their group. This is exactly what happens in Clash of Clans and many other clan based games, where the top clans demand a certain level of engagement as a requirement for membership. Not that the developers need to worry about this, as given the right tools the players organize themselves.

 

Content

There is however a third, much rarer way of organizing people. In games where there is a strong narrative and the experience is largely single player and driven by consuming content in a linear manner, it makes more sense to group players by their progress through this content.

This is what happens when people live-tweet TV shows. Using Twitter, viewers can feel part of a larger experience and share in the unfolding drama, regardless of whether they are actually sitting with other people watching the same show. I believe there is an innate human desire to calibrate your social responses, and this fills the same role. It helps people comprehend their own reactions, see if they are appropriate and ensure they understand the situation in full.

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This is the equivalent of catching a stranger’s eye and enjoying a moment of shared understanding – we know it in a diverse set of situations from sharing the frustration of waiting in line to sharing the elation of hearing the opening beats of a favorite song at a gig. The same sort of social experience could enhance games like BioShock and Mass Effect, maximizing the impact of the most dramatic moments. However, most games that would fall into this category do not have any form of social layer, because of two problems.

Firstly, how do we bring together people who are all experiencing the content at different rates and different times? The solution here might lie in something akin to the comments sections on newspaper and magazine articles. Here the comments don’t need to be by people you know, or written whilst you read the article. But they are still relevant to you, because the person commented after they experienced the same content as you just did, and they enrich your experience of the article by providing additional information and opinions.

Secondly, how do we allow people to be social without breaking the immersion of deeply engaging games? The last thing people want after deciding who lives and who dies in The Walking Dead is for the drama of the moment to be shattered by being prompted to see what everyone else did. Luckily TellTale have the good sense to wait until the end of the episode, a natural break point before allowing you to review what everyone else did and connect you to the forums. In free to play games this might in fact be even easier, as the breaks between sessions and timers are natural point to allow people to engage with each other, both savoring recently enjoyed drama and anticipating exciting things to come.

A few games do manage to solve these problems and pull people together in this way, however. Dark Souls 2 allows other players to leave messages as you work your way through the world and narrative. These can either be helpful tips or troll postings luring you to an untimely death. You can also summon other players into your world to help out with particularly hard bosses. These interactions with other players enrich the single player experience by adding a new, social layer to it. In both cases the associations with players work because they fit into the context of your game, not because of the relationship that you have with the other players. Other players appear as phantoms and in doing so stay consistent with the Dark Souls narrative, and do not break immersion.

 

Wrap Up

Social rightly continues to be a buzzword in the games industry. However, there is not a single solution for what social should look like. Different types of social interactions are suited to different game experiences. When designing a game there is almost certainly some way that it can be enhanced with a social aspect, but this needs to be designed according to the type of experience that you are building for your players, rather than the design fads of the day.

This post was originally published on Adventures in Mobile Game Design.

Tank’s Camp Revised

So as promised, I wanted to do a quick update to the rules of Tank’s Camp. Whilst the game played well the first time round, we needed some fairly detailed accounting to record all the numbers going on. I realized (and a couple of people commented) that a simpler version would make things even more fun. So here is an attempt to keep the core mechanics, but reduce the complexity to the point that:

  • Anyone who has played it once can explain it to someone else without notes
  • No score sheet is needed to record figures during the game
  • No calculations are needed to determine results during the game

Tank’s Camp was designed as a game that pitted players in an asymmetric Prisonners’ Dilemma with an element of randomness. Foragers and defenders must work together to maximise their chances of survival as a group, but betray each other to maximise their chances of survival individually. Players know that defenders are acting altruistically, but don’t know for sure if foragers are being honest or selfish.

The New Rules to Tank’s Camp

Set Up

You will need:

  • 2 packs of cards
  • 1 six sided dice

Place one diamond for every TWO players in the middle of the table face up – this is the camp’s supplies (round up).

Remove any jokers from the cards, shuffle them and place the deck face down in the middle of the table.

Objective

Gather enough food to reach the next camp site, before your camp is overrun by zombies. How much food is enough? When you decide to make a break for it, roll one dice. This is the amount of food you need to reach the campsite safely. If you have less food than the dice roll then you die.

Turns

Each turn players can go in any order. They can decide to either forage for food, or stay in the camp and defend.

Foraging for food

Take 1 card from the pack in the centre for each consecutive round you go foraging, up to a maximum of 3 cards. The amount of food is calculated as follows:

  • Hearts: these cards are worth 3 food
  • Diamonds: these cards are worth 1 food
  • Clubs / Spades: these cards are worth 0 food

After everyone has taken their turn, players who went foraging declare how much food they found in the forest.

Players MUST place black cards face down in front of them without showing other players what cards they got. Allowing other players to see these cards is an automatic capital offence.

Players may place other cards EITHER face up in the centre of the table with the other camp supplies (sharing the food with everyone) OR they can place these cards face down along with other discards in the pile in front of them (stash food for themselves)

Conflict resolution

If disagreements break out at any time, they are resolved in the following ways:

  • With a majority vote a single player can be lynched at any time (apart from when escaping)
  • Without a majority, a fight can break out with one or more players on each side. Each player rolls the dice once. The two sides add up the scores of all the players they have. Players on the side with the lower score are killed.

Any food in the discard / stash piles of players that are killed by lynching or in combat are shared by the victors. Weapon scores are not affected by fighting inside the camp.

Night time

After players have made their moves three things happen in the camp in sequence:

  1. Food
  2. Zombie attack
  3. Escape

Food

Players must have enough food for the night. Each player eats 1 food – remove this from the camp supplies in the centre of the table.

If there is not enough food to go round in the camp’s shared reserves, players decide how to distribute it by majority vote, fighting for it (see rules above) or they may draw food from their stash (the discard pile in front of them). NB if players end up fighting for food then at least one will be killed in the process. Players can only elect to take food from their stash BEFORE fighting commences.

Players that do not have food to eat by either of these methods die of starvation.

Zombie attack

Finally, every night AFTER the first night, zombies attack. EACH player rolls the dice.

A roll of 1 ALWAYS kills that player. Beyond that players survive if their individual score is higher than: # foragers – # defenders

e.g.

2 foragers, 4 defenders = players roll 2 or more to survive

4 foragers, 2 defenders = players roll 3 or more to survive

Escape

Any surviving player can now try and escape the camp if they want to. They roll one dice. If they have enough food stashed in the discard pile in front of them, they make it, and get one victory point (Yay!). If they do not have that amount of food, they die in the attempt (no points L).

Players that do not try to escape get to play another turn.

End game

The game continues until all players are dead or have escaped to the next campsite. Matches are played by replaying the game from the start (no food or weapons are carried over), until one or more players have 3 victory points.

Tank’s Camp

“And simply put, it’s a stunning zombie game because, like every half-decent zombie flick, it’s not about zombies. It’s about panic, who you are, and what you’re willing to become.” – Eurogamer review of Day-Z

I’ve just spent a very enjoyable afternoon playing Tank’s Camp – a game I designed to mix elements of the Prisoners’ Dilemma and randomness to create the sort of scenario described in the quote above. I’ve also been inspired by Hordes Die2Nite and I’m extremely grateful to Yannick Bourquin at Kobojo for introducing me to these games, sharing his thoughts with me and getting me thinking along these lines.

I’m not sure the balance is quite right, but first play tests went well, with a good mix of treachery, mob rule and viciousness quickly appearing among nine good friends. If you have any comments then please let me know.

Dedicated to my good friend Tankred Finke, on the occasion of his 30th birthday.

Setting

You are survivors of the zombie apocalypse – for now. You know that eventually you too will fall victim to the zombie hordes. You find yourself together with a group of fellow survivors and form a temporary camp with them. You cannot stay too long as each night zombies will attack, and the longer your camp is in place, the more zombies will attack. Perhaps the others can help you gather enough food to make it to the next camp site. Perhaps not…

Pieces

You will need:

–          2 packs of playing cards (jokers removed)

–          1 six sided dice

–          Scorecard / piece of paper

Shuffle the cards and place them face down in the middle of the table. Calculate the starting food and defence rating of the camp:

–          1/2 food point for each survivor (rounded up)

–          2 defence points for each survivor

Objective

Gather enough food to reach the next camp site, before your camp is overrun by zombies. How much food is enough? When you decide to make a break for it, roll one dice. This is the amount of food you need to reach the campsite safely. If you have less food than the dice roll then you die.

Rounds

Each round players can go in any order. They can decide to either forage for food, or build defences.

Foraging for food

You venture out into the forest hunting for scraps. Who knows what you will find, and how much you will share with your companions.

Take 1 card from the pack in the centre for each consecutive round you go foraging, up to a maximum of 3 cards. The amount of food is calculated as follows:

–          2 – 5: these cards are worth 0 food

–          6 – 10: these cards are worth 1 food

–          J, Q, K, A: these cards are worth 2 food

After everyone has taken their turn, and those building defences have said what they built, players who went foraging declare how much food they found in the forest.

Players MUST place cards numbered 2-5 face down in front of them without showing other players what cards they got. Allowing other players to see these cards is an automatic capital offence.

Players may place other cards EITHER face up in the centre of the table (share food with everyone) OR they can place these cards face down along with other discards in the pile in front of them (stash food for themselves)

Defences

Players that stay in the camp can either build defences against the zombie attack that evening or improvise personal weapons.

–          If the player works on camp defences then the camp’s defence rating is improved by +2

–          If the player works on personal weapons then their weapon rating is increased +2

–          The player may also decide to work on both, adding +1 to both camp defences and their own weapons

Justice and fights

It’s a post apocalyptic world and there’s only one form of justice: execution. If players feel someone isn’t pulling their weight in the camp, perhaps not sharing all their food with the camp, then they can mete out some rough justice at any time (apart from when someone is trying to escape).

By majority vote players can lynch any member of the camp. Players can abstain from voting if they don’t want to take sides. There is no appeal, and the lynched player is immediately killed.

If a player (or players) wants to try and kill someone without a majority, a fight breaks out. Players in danger of being lynched can call on the support of others to protect them by joining their side. Each player involved in the fight roles the dice and adds their weapon rating to give an attack score. Only the highest attack score from each side counts. Everyone on the side with the lower attack score is killed.

Any food in the discard / stash piles of players that are killed by lynching or in combat are shared by the victors. Weapon scores are not affected by fighting inside the camp.

Night time

After players have made their moves three things happen in the camp in sequence:

  1. Food
  2. Zombie attack
  3. Escape

Food

Any surviving players must have enough food for the night as well. Each player eats 1 food. If there is not enough food to go round in the camp’s shared reserves, players decide how to distribute it by majority vote, fighting for it (see rules above) or they may draw food from their stash (the discard pile in front of them). NB if players end up fighting for food then at least one will be killed in the process. Players can only elect to take food from their stash BEFORE fighting commences.

Players that do not have food to eat by either of these methods die of starvation.

Zombie attack

Finally, each night zombies attack. If the strength of the zombie attack is greater than the camp’s defence rating, then the zombies breach the camp’s defences and anyone without personal weapons is killed.

The strength of the zombie attack = (round number  x number of starting players +1) – 8 + roll of dice

Or for simplicity use this look up table and add the roll of a dice:

If the camp defences are breached, anyone with a weapon rating survives, but their weapon rating is reduced by 1 point. The base defences are not decreased if zombies breach them. Remember to remove 2 points from the camp’s defence rating for each player that dies or escapes.

Escape

Any surviving player can now try and escape the camp if they want to. They roll one dice. If they have enough food stashed in the discard pile in front of them, they make it, and get one victory point (Yay!). If they do not have that amount of food, they die in the attempt (no points L).

Players that do not escape get to play another turn.

End game

The game continues until all players are dead or have escaped to the next campsite. Matches are played by replaying the game from the start (no food or weapons are carried over), until one or more players have 3 victory points.

Numbers

If everyone shares everything, you can theoretically generate enough food for you all to escape … But if anyone starts thinking about themselves, or you have a bad day foraging, well, it is the zombie apocalypse…

Score sheet:

Interesting Games

Sid Meier is often quoted as saying that “a good game is a series of interesting decisions”. When building the economy for a social game, it often pays to bare this in mind.

An interesting decision is a choice between options where no single option is clearly better than the others. As it is more difficult to trade off factors without a direct exchange rate, interesting decisions involve choosing between loosely or unrelated factors. This is perhaps even more true in real life that in games – think of the job offer with poor pay but interesting work vs. the one with good pay and less interesting work – it’s a difficult choice because it’s hard to work out an exchange rate for pay and interesting work.

In social games this equates to having multiple factors influencing each decision, so that when players weigh up their options, the optimal choice is not obvious, or is not the same for everyone depending on their style of playing.

The economy in Atlantis Fantasy is an interesting one (we’re pretty proud of it at Kobojo J) – it successively challenges players to balance the three main resources: coins, population and workshop materials (there are over 20 different workshop materials, but for the purposes of designing the economy, they can generally be considered a single resource). When building a house a player is left trying to balance the following options:

–          The cost in coins and materials

–          The population it will provide

–          The rent (in coins) that it will generate

But really this is just a short list. If you take into account that houses take up space on the map, and players are often space constrained, as well as the fact that players are constrained by the amount of energy they have to collect rent then you realise that savvy players will be trading off more complex metrics:

–          Population density

–          Cost per population

–          Rent per energy (and therefore amount of energy to pay back)

–          Rent per hour (and therefore number of hours to pay back)

Not to mention how different houses fit into their artistic vision of their city…

Whilst the basic metrics need to improve with each house that the player unlocks to give them a sense of progression, balancing the secondary metrics to give each house its own strengths and weaknesses means that each house is interesting to players for longer.

Take the following two houses, unlocked by players at level 10 and level 18 (i.e. at significantly different points in the player lifecycle):

Broadly, the Mansion is better for rent, and the House on the Seabed (HotS) is better for population. But that’s only true if players are both energy and space constrained. Relax the energy constraint and HotS is best for both, relax the space constraint instead and the Mansion clearly superior.

This means that even though HotS is unlocked later and at first glance appears to offer more population and rent, the Mansion is still an interesting choice for more advanced players in certain conditions.

Finally, I’d life to mention my favourite piece of wisdom from Tom Perkins (the founder of VC firm Kleiner, Perkins, Caulfield & Byers): that a difficult decision means the options before you are equally attractive, and therefore the opportunity cost of a “wrong” choice is actually small. In this context, a game that is finely balanced for hard core players is actually still very playable for casual gamers – because whichever house a casual gamer builds, they won’t make a wrong choice and break their experience.

Wrap Up

To create an interesting game economy, consider the following points:

  1. Make your basic resources as independent from each other as possible, to prevent players calculating a direct exchange rate
  2. Make sure the headline figures of buildings improve with players’ progression to give them a reason to level up
  3. Balance options on secondary metrics as well as headline figures to make options more interesting
  4. Check the experience for casual gamers – will any choice break the experience?