Thursday, December 18, 2014

So I Did A Playtest on Google Hangouts Last Night

Well, it was actually Monday night... and it was not nearly as easy as that sounds.

I needed to do some playtesting for the pitting rules that I am tweaking as advanced rules for Championship Formula Racing and getting together 5, 6 or more people on a regular basis for that is hard.  Especially since, these rules are best tested by experienced players.  A newbie isn't going to know if this particular mechanic is unbalancing if they have no experience with the game at all.

The Internets to the rescue!

What Google Hangouts lets me do is share my desktop with up to 9 other players.  That was effectively the board.  I can move the cars around, people can see the track.  They can talk to me and tell me where to move the car.  We can talk through options.  I can point to spaces on the track with my mouse.  It worked well.

But there was a lot that Google Hangouts does not handle well in this scenario... secret information being the first.  Also, player specific information gets clunky as well.  I probably could have tracked that on track as well.  I essentially do it for PBeMs that way.  But once I went down the rabbit hole of dealing with secret information.  I was also worried about cluttering up the limited realestate of the screen with a lot of small information no one could see very well.

For those not familiar, in CFR everyone secretly picks their speed for next turn.  Then we all reveal speeds and then resolve movement.  In order to let people do that part, I had to build some online forms to record speeds then reveal them at the right time.  While I was in there I built forms before that to handle pre-race car set-up and forms after that to record some things that happened -- usage of point pools, car damage, speed changes.

Considering that we were cobbling together Google Hangouts plus a home-built set of web forms for this it held together.  There were some technical issues with the stuff I built, but that's not useful to anyone else.  But Google Hangouts generally worked well for this.

Some things I learned:

  • Sometimes Google Hangouts crashes.  And you have to reload it.  It happened a couple times to pretty much everyone.  But was not hard to fix.
  • You start on mute.  That took some getting used to.  Talking, talking, until someone says "Hey!  Your on mute!"
  • For this scenario, I shared my screen which worked brilliantly.  I did not even have to keep my screen focused on the graphics program that I had the track map and cars in.  But when I did that I had to learn to push the button on the resulting pop-up to share with everyone (or maybe it said to share persistently?).  Effectively that meant it was always in front of everyone so that focus in the big screen did not shift when someone else started talking.
  • That reminds me... so what I was sharing on my screen was a graphics program that I use to built the tracks.  Then I built cars (like above).  Shrunk the cars to fit on the track and moved them around in the graphics program as needed.  Worked well.  I'm using Xara in case anyone cares.
  • I need a headset.  People sometimes had a hard time hearing me with just my computer mike and I tended to start yelling which annoyed people in my house that were not playtesting a game just then.
  • Google Hangouts takes a good amount of bandwidth.  This did not affect the experience for any of us but one of the participants was using a hotspot and noticed that he had used a good bit of his bandwidth.  I think it would not be a problem for most people with high-speed dedicated service but something to think about.  It also might not work well if someone had a low-band width access.
  • Small text can be hard to see.  On a physical board you can focus your eyes in a particular spot or move in closer to see something in detail and then focus on the whole board when you need to independently of everyone else.  With Google Hangouts we are all sharing one eye like the Fates do.  If I zoom in on the upcoming corners, someone who needs to see the whole track right now is out of luck.  I kept it zoomed out and there were a couple of times when people misread the speeds in the corners.
This was a success.  It required some prep work, but I will definitely do this again.  In fact, I'm planning a second play test Monday Night.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Ghost Drivers, Ready to Play-Test.

Ghost Drivers is a system for adding drivers to a race that will drive themselves.  You could race by your self against a field of Ghost Drivers or add some Ghost Drivers to a field of humans to fill out the field.

These Ghost Drivers are basic/generic Ghosts and are set-up to represent a modest challenge for less experienced drivers.  Experienced Championship Formula Racing drivers out there should have no trouble beating a field of 5 Ghosts most of the time.  But that's OK.  We need something for beginners to cut their teeth on.  Mostly I want to make sure that the cars work and the strategies make sense.

The kind of feedback that would be great is to know if a particular strategy doesn't make sense or a car ends up finishing the race with a lot of wear left over or the instructions on the track don't seem to make sense or there seems like there should be a better move that the Ghost should be trying for in specific situations.  In addition to the usual, spelling, grammar, punctuation, or general "I have no idea what Doug is trying to say here."

Feel free to include any thoughts in the comments below or contact me directly with feedback.

What I'm working on next are Ghost versions of Nurbergring and Monza, basic Ghost Drivers for those two tracks, and historic Ghost drivers for Monaco, Nurbergring, and Monza.  Historic drivers will be more challenging.

What I've included below are enough print-and-play materials to run a race with any number of humans against up to 5 Ghost Drivers at Monaco.  In addition, you can see some of the directions I'm going with other components.

Here are all of the files.  Other then these, all you will need are 2 dice (6-sided), something to keep track of wear and skill with (I use poker chips), and an understanding of the rules although, this system would probably work fine with most any recent variation of the game.  Below are descriptions of what everything is and basic thoughts on how to print them out.

Speed Cards
First up, some generic materials.  The first is a set of speed cards.  I print these out on card stock to stiffen them up a little then cut them out.  One sheet is enough cards for a single driver.  You will need to have one set for every Ghost Driver and Human Driver.  You only really need the first page.  Page two are backs.

Attribute Cards
Next are attribute cards.  This is my initial concept for reusable car set-up.  I also print out these two pages onto card stock then cut them out to make a single car set-up deck.  You will only need one car set-up deck for each human players.  Ghost Drivers do not need set-up decks.

For each car attribute (acceleration, deceleration, etc.) there are 4 cards representing the four choices for each attribute.  Set-up points are printed in the corner of each card.  The idea is that each human can go through the deck picking out one card per attribute until they have a net 2 points.  The selected cards can be placed face down in a stack until everyone has set-up there cars.  Then the cards are arranged in front of each driver so that everyone can see.

Also included on these pages are two -20 markers that can be used to mark damaged acceleration, deceleration, or top speed.

Car ID Cards
Last generic file are a couple pages of Car ID Cards.  The idea behind these is that you can pick the card that matches the car miniature you are using on the track and place it next to your attribute cards so that everyone knows which car is yours.  The file below includes cards that match my two favorite sources of appropriately sized formula one cars... Formula De / D and Formula Motor Racing.  I also included a mostly blank page so that you could maybe make your own.  I print these out on card stock as well.  (I print a lot of stuff on card stock.)

Ghost Driver Rules
Now on to the files that directly relate to Ghost Drivers.  First up is the Ghost Rules book that explains how the whole system is supposed to work.  I'll try to get a video up soonish as well.

Ghost Strategy Cards
Next are the Ghost Strategy cards,  The rules explain how these work, but they basically encapsulate generic strategies.  The idea is that these cards will be used for all of the different tracks.  In production these would be two-sided.  After you print these out (on regular paper) fold them in half so that one strategy card is on one side and one is on the other.  I know this wastes some paper, but its easier then getting double sided lined up right, especially since this is play-testing.  It also means you could use both cards that appear on the same sheet if you really wanted to, but the current design is that you would only use one side or the other.

Monaco Ghost Drivers
Now this page are the specific Ghost Driver cards.  They define the stats and strategy combinations for specific Ghost drivers for Monaco.  I print these out on card stock as well before cutting them out since you have to shuffle them a little.

Monaco Ghost Track
Finally, the track itself.  This is the same Monaco you know and love but it has markings on it to give the Ghosts some track related guidance.  This pdf has two pages, that overlap to form the entire track at a scale that works with the aforementioned plastic cars from Formula De/D or Formula Motor Racing.  After printing out both pages, cut the edge of one of them so that it can be placed on top of the other to create one seamless track and then tape in place.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Championship Formula Racing Update -- What I'm Working On

I've been working on two elements for Championship Formula Racing over the last couple of months: weather and automated opponents.

Weather is something that others have taken stabs at.  So this isn't totally new ground.  But it is something Jim and I wanted to have as an optional rule for Championship Formula Racing.  I've thought about weather before and failed to come up with anything I really liked.  I had set it aside for a while but picked it back up again recently.

The three card types that form my weather deck.
My primary goal with my weather system is to keep it from becoming just a random event with no strategic element to it.  In real F1 racing, impending weather adds an element of strategic gambling.  Do I come in early for wet weather tires or stay out as long as I can on dry tires?  If I know the day before that it is likely to rain, do I set up my car accordingly or not?  So I realized early on that I needed some sort of predictive element to weather.  A way for drivers to see the odds of weather affecting the race next lap and be able to do something about it (ie. pit for different tires).  That way weather became a strategic decision point not just a random factor -- even if it is playing the odds at best.

I think I have something that does that.  But it needs play testing.  I'll elaborate later on what I have so far.

More recently I've been tinkering with a set of rules that would allow you to race against automated opponents.  The idea came from Jim who wanted to let people race against their favorite historical greats.  First I needed a system for automating the tactical and strategic decisions of the game.  Not perfectly, but credibly enough that it would be fun to race against -- maybe even challenging.

I'm currently tinkering with a system where 6 possible tactics are determined semi-randomly for each automated driver based on their over all strategy.  Those tactics correspond to different speeds marked on the side of the track for that row of space.  Its worked well enough that I ended up running a 6 car race of all automated cars until 1 am Sunday night because I lost track of time.

I've also started researching which drivers I might want to model and how I would model them.  I think the biggest challenge with this system is to make sure it is easy enough that someone other then me can do it.  I'll try to get into this more in my next update as I've been testing it every night for almost a week now.

Testing auto-piloted cars on Monaco.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

A Short History of Championship Formula Racing

Almost 2 months ago, Jim Dietz at Jolly Roger games emailed me out of the blue.  We had a very quick email conversation that resulted in plans to publish Championship Formula Racing based on my house rules to the game people know as Speed Circuit.  I'm going to spend a lot of time on this blog talking about Championship Formula Racing, how it came to be, why I made different decisions over the years, and what's going on right now.

Consider this post to be issue 0 -- the origin story.

CFR in action at WBC 2013
As a kid I probably played more board and card games than most American Gen-Xers.  Mom, Dad, and I played a lot of hearts because it was a card game that worked very well with 3 people.  We also had some of the Avalon Hill bookcase games: Twixt (pretty cool), Wilderness Survival (I never remember getting very far in that game), and other games of that ilk.  Most importantly we had a copy of Speed Circuit.  I really liked that game and we played a fair bit of it.  Almost always Monaco, with just the 3 of us, for 1 lap.

I also got into role playing and that took over most of my game playing life from high school through college.  Soon after college Magic the Gathering took over parts of my time and wallet.  I didn't play Speed Circuit again for many years.  Then I got back into it by chance.  My first real job out of college I ended up working at the U.S. Navy Memorial.  My boss at the time wanted to start a naval themed gaming convention to attract people to the visitor center and I joined him for a day one summer at Avalon Con.  I mostly played in open gaming that day but spent a good bit of time wandering around to see what everyone was playing and how things were set up.

And there is was -- back in a dark corner of the hotel next to the room where the Klingons were practicing their ritual dances -- they were playing speed circuit.  But this was only nominally the game that I grew up with.  Rob Cunningham ran the tournament then and he had his own custom rules bolted on to the Speed Circuit chassis and used 1/48 scale model cars and custom built tracks at the same scale and 3 lap races with 14 or so cars in each race.  It really was like a completely different game.  And I loved it even more.

I came back the next summer and many, many summer after that.  I also started up a local group and started building my own tracks at 1/64 scale (because matchbox cars are 1/10 the price of 1/48 scale cars... at least).  One year Rob stopped running the tournament at Avalon Con and I took up the reins.

I suppose this is the point at which I became one of the many nodes of speed circuit out there.  Unlike a lot of other board games, speed circuit has evolved and branched over time into multiple related games.  A good friend of mine recently compared it to card games.  There are more variations and versions of poker then any one person could probably enumerate but they all share a recognizable core.  Same with Bridge and Rummy and other games like that.  Monopoly kind of has this given the fair number of house rules that people play with.  But I can't say that I have seen this effect with many hobby board games.

There are a lot of Speed Circuit camps out there that have a set of rule modifications that they like.  Just like how some people prefer Texas-Hold-Em to 5-Card-Draw or 7-Card-Stud.  Even the Avalon Hill version of speed circuit was a pretty serious modification of the original 3M game and there are those who prefer the 3M version as their jumping off point.  Over 15+ years of modifying and tweaking rules, my list of roughly described modifications is longer than the complete Avalon Hill rules for the game.  I suspect most others who have heavily modified rules sets could say the same thing.

My version of speed circuit started with parts of Rob Cunningham's modifications (which I gather he borrow many of from another group of gamers) and branched off from there.  As I've modified things over time my flavor of speed circuit has coalesced around some core concepts:

  • Don't stray too far from the path -- I want people to recognize the core mechanics.
  • Accommodate ~10 drivers per track.
  • Balance simulation desires with game play realities.
  • Generally make multiple different strategies workable.
Subconsciously, I've also hewn to the American style of direct knife fighting as opposed to the more gentlemanly European model.  It seems like a slight thing but the difference between just finishing first and driving as quickly as possible has knock-on effects throughout the game.

If you've played at Avalon Con or WBC or in my PBeM or the official WBC PBeM, you've played Championship Formula Racing and just not known it.  And you've contributed to it's evolution to where it is today.  So thank you and welcome to the ongoing story of that game.

Monday, January 6, 2014

UFO Racing League and Collisions

My whole description of this game broke down when I tried to write about collisions... because... I still haven't figured them out completely.  This has been the piece of the puzzle that has seen the most revisions.

The collision system has always involved two things: damage and changing momentum.

Your UFO takes damage when you hit a wall or are hit by another UFO.  That damage then reduces the amount of energy you get to help you maneuver.  But you also heal so that you will eventually be back to full effectiveness.  Exactly how much damage and how much effect and how you heal have all been tinkered with over the years.

Your momentum is also altered when you hit something or are hit by a UFO... exactly how has also changed a lot over the years.

The damage problems have usually been about finding the right balance between making damage have a real effect without too much of an effect.  A lot of this has to do with the kind of race I want -- a race where the UFOs are barely in control, banging off an occasional wall for strategic reasons and definitely hitting other UFOs because they can -- a cross between a demolition derby and NASCAR race.

The other issue I've struggled with is complexity.  My early systems where way to complicated both in relation to the amount of damage meted out by different collisions as well as how momentum would change after a collision.  Until recentlyish, I was the only person who understood collisions well enough to play the game.  That has improved a lot.  Hopefully enough.

Right now, if you hit a wall or get hit by another UFO you take 1 damage.  You track that damage on the chart shown on the right.  I'm using the plastic orange flame to note that I've taken 1 damage.  That means that next turn I will only get 3 energy instead of 4 energy.  As soon as I get that energy, I will heal 1 damage.

Back in the day, you could essentially take infinite damage.  But then UFOs could end up in situations where they would spend several turns doing nothing but tracking their ship's damage and floating around the track aimlessly -- often taking more damage in the process.  It wasn't fun.

So one thing I've done is cap damage at 3.  You will always get at least 1 energy on a turn.  Also, if you already have 3 damage and then take another damage, you actually gain an energy in your battery.  So beating on a defenseless ship actually helps that ship.  This system seems to be working.  Taking 1 damage isn't too harmful and doing it on purpose can be worth it.  But if you take 2 or 3 it can be a pain.

Collisions themselves come in two flavors: hitting walls and hitting other UFOs.  The system involving momentum and collisions is similar for both.  In either case half of your momentum in that direction will go away and you will keep the other half.  If you hit a wall, that momentum you keep gets flipped to the opposite direction -- you bounced.  If you hit another UFO, you give half of your momentum to the other UFO -- you push it.  Both effects can be used strategically.  That other UFO may not really want to be going that fast in that direction.  And bouncing off of walls can be the best way to change directions sometimes even if it causes you damage.

I am glossing over some details here.  And the fact that there are more details is something that is constantly a concern and most of play testing these days focuses on collisions and track design.

One great suggestion I got at a play test a couple of months ago was to add more things to do with energy then just movement.  Especially if it could add more control to when and how you got hit in a collision.  Sometimes it just seemed like there was nothing you could do about that UFO bearing down on you at ramming speed when there should be.

So I added a couple widgets.  Initiative can be used to try to move before everyone else or after everyone else.  Inertial fields can modify how a collision goes down.

A UFO with two positive initiative will move before any UFO with less then two initiative.  It now supersedes total speed for determining who goes first.  Negative initiative works exactly the opposite because sometimes you want everyone else to get out of your way first.

Using the anchor field makes your heavier and harder to move around in a collision.  If you hit a wall you shed all of your momentum in that direction but you take an extra damage.  If a UFO hits you its just like that UFO hit a wall.  If you hit a UFO that UFO takes an extra damage.

Using the spring field makes you bounce more.  If you hit a wall you keep all of your momentum when you bounce it to the opposite direction.  If you hit another UFO, that UFO gains all of your momentum instead of half.  You also do not take any damage from collisions.

Each energy you place on each field allows you to use that field for one collision that turn.  Mostly, I think these effects will be used for strategic collisions with walls, especially the spring field.  However, having an anchor available can be a nice deterrent for someone is thinking about hitting you.

That said, these things need play testing beyond myself.  But if they work, I could see interesting possibilities for upgrading or downgrading your ship's capabilities before the race by making these options better or worse.