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Designing “Bullies” – Part 1

Published on 2013-12-22, by in Game Design.

Backstory

Every monday night is board game night at Gamescape in San Francisco. As it happens with these sorts of things smaller groups formed within the larger group. While those groups continue to intermingle one ritual has stood out. 8-10 of us like to play various board games from 6:30, and then cap the night off 9:30-11pm with several rounds of Resistance.

Resistance is a game derived from  Mafia aka Werewolves and Villagers. The key difference being that with the advent of missions players are no longer eliminated. Instead of eliminating players from the game the “resistance” aka the uniformed majority are tasked with creating and approving via vote teams with no “spies” aka the informed minority. 

Basically it’s more fun to play because you are always in the game, and you don’t need a moderator. Actually when I say we played Resistance in reality I was running them through Resistance Avalon using the Resistance deck because Avalon was sold out. Resistance Avalon is an improvement upon Resistance . Made by the same company it expands upon resistance with new special roles including Merlin, a good player who knows who the bad guys are, the Assassin who counteracts the advantage of Merlin and more.

Normally anyone that knows me would expect me to create complicated, highly tactical games that involve either combat, movement, numbers, economies, engines and money. But weeks and weeks of Resistance will affect any designer. I consider Bullies to be within the same realm of genre as resistance with some influence by a game called Lunch Money. The key difference being there are (currently) no pre determined roles or alliances.  That’s really what I wanted to test, an intrigue game where you can form little alliances but without any underlying goal to guide you. Click here for the rules.

Bullies

What almost made it into the game

I formulated a few different rule variations including

  • Players playing their cards face up
  • Players playing their cards face down (current)
  • Players casting their cards into a communal pot (secret votes)
  • No effect for 1 role played
  • Deal damage equal to the amount of roles played if =>2

I actually really like the idea of players being able to optionally play the card face up in front of them, or face down into a secret vote pile. I think giving the players this sort of choice between boldly playing a card face up to try and steer others vs the anonymity of trying to hide your vote among others would be really interesting. The reason it never got tested though is the physical mechanics of it. Everytime people cast a vote  anonymously you have to also anonymously refill their hands. This means players would have to cast in their entire hand and make new hands. Not the type of thing you want to repeat every round. Obviously a digital version or different physical mechanic would solve this dilemma.

2 Opposing ideas we’re planned and 1 player even brought it up during play. Which is to have no effect for 1 role played vs gaining 1 life for 1 role played. The reason I don’t need to test this is you can determine what is lost/gained by simple thought exercise. Let’s look at the effects of NOT having the “1 role played gain 1 life” rule in effect

  • There would be no downside if you try to just target someone and no one else joins you; currently if you are the only one to attack someone you actually help them not hurt them. Thus you are encouraged to form alliances
  • There would be no way to be sneaky to try and give yourself +1 life.
  • The game loses the interesting Risk/Reward dynamic that comes with throwing 1 of your own role. IE not only are you countered by anyone else throwing your card, but you actually lose 2 life instead!
  • We lose the interesting game theory dilemma of “I know, and you know, but did you know that I know you know?” of goading someone else into thinking that your going to play your own role to gain a health, so they play your role to counter you, but you didn’t play your own role so they just ended up healing you instead!

Basically it should be quite clear, after a bit of thought to determine the influences and outcomes, that having the gain 1 life option is a lot more interesting than not having it. And after burning out my friendly playtesters in the past, I consider this process of mentally working through these options before playtesting an important aspect of being a Game Designer. You want to think through the options if you can, and not just force people to test things too soon. In other words don’t be lazy.

What I expected

First off, I wasn’t 100% sure I even had a “game” to test. I really felt like I was testing just 1 mechanic and I was open to the idea that the mechanic might be flawed in some way and not even work. I thought it would work, I couldn’t find any reasons for it not to, but I just wasn’t 100% sure yet. This comes from having the experience of thinking a game will work, and then failing miserably once putting it into action. It happens sometimes.

I did expect players to sort of branch off into secret alliances and deal making. “Hey gang up with me to take down Kyle and I will help you take down one of your adversaries later”, “Join me this round and I’ll join you next round” or “Join us or we’ll attack you!”. I expected people to boldly make claims targeting others and trying to lead and rally people behind them. I expected others to quietly whisper or signal to each other, forming secret pacts until an opportune time came to betray your ally and stab him in the back.

I was unsure if people would actually like the game though. After all it’s kind of a brutal game that encourages both clique forming (out-casting) and betrayal. The type of social scenario that could spill out of the game and damage peoples feelings. I was, and still am, unsure how much people will bring their social and relationship grudges into the game and how much those same relationships will lead to in game alliances. Jun and Norna (The couple from Netherlands) for example could have colluded the entire game. I suspect because their honest, loyal, upstanding and logically thinking Dutch; they decided to embrace the spirit of the game and try to kill each other instead.

So how did it turn out?

It was very encouraging. Right away people we’re laughing and having fun. People genuinely liked the concept of the game and wanted to see how things would turn out.

However, there wasn’t as much discussion or boasting as I thought there would be. I expected people to take the full 2 minutes (now 1 minute in the rules) to really solidify their alliances and influence others. Instead rounds we’re finishing rapidly with simple “I’m playing Kyle” type comments followed by others either following suit or targeting the instigator instead.

I guess in retrospect this makes perfect sense. A sort of “lay low, hope no one targets me” style of play is likely the dominant strategy of making it into the final 3. I guess I just expected individual personality to override this and see both more bravado and more collusion.

Still the game is fun, the rules are simple and easy to learn. People enjoy the concept and are willing to play again. All and all it’s off to a good start and just needs some innovation and refining.

What I have my eye on

Comeback strategies: Currently once a player reaches a life total lower than the rest of the group. A prey on the weak mentality takes over. Everyone joins in on beating up this weakened if for no other reason than to not make themselves a target. While I was hoping this situation would be fixed with discussion and alliances such as “Hey cmon, don’t knock me out, I’ll help you” that really hasn’t been the case so far. What is interesting to watch though is as that player gets close to being knocked out a couple people from within the “predator” group will branch our a wound another predator, thus lowering his HP to the 2nd lowest and making him the next wounded animal to eliminate. It’s all very interesting in a Game Theory + Psychology sort of way.

Sexes: I’m really interested to see what happens if a group of all females play it.

Self Resolution: It’s possible that all of the problems I’ve discovered, are not really problems. I mean this kind of game can develop metagame strategies via repeated play sessions. Plus individuals and groups will react differently to the game and the situations that arise. It might be that no changes are really necessary (for balance), that the hard edges of the game will soften themselves out as players become more and more accustomed to playing it. This is certainly the case with Mafia and Resistance as players begin to learn new ways to tell who is innocent and not so innocent.

Considered Planned Changes (Ideas)

One shot cards that get played in addition to role cards such as

  • Auto Hit: Play with a role card, that player loses 1 life
  • Heal: Play with a role card (but not your own), that other player gains 2 life
  • Self Cauterize: Play with your own role card. Gain 2 extra life if no one else played your role. If someone did lose 1 extra life instead.
  • Vengeance: If every other player played your role card take no damage this round and every other player loses 1 life.
  • Last Hurrah: If you would be eliminated this turn, take no damage and gain 4 life instead. If not, lose 2 life.
  • Bluff: Return this card to your hand.

Situational rules:

  • If you have 11 life at the end of a round, you win the game.
  • If you have 11 life at the end of a round, you lose.
  • If you have 3 or less life, you can play 2 cards each round.

Role Cards:

  • Abbot: When you heal a player, heal them for 2 instead.
  • King Lious XVI: Reduce damge deal to you by 1. If you have 11 or more life you lose.
  • Pierre: Win ig King Lious is eliminated before you.

Thematic Changes:

Rename the game “Smear Campaign” and instead of players eliminating themselves they would be dealt cards with various goals and try to eliminate NPC Political Candidates.

Dead but not out: When a player reaches 0 HP they can no longer win, they can no longer gain HP but they can still play cards. Update: I actually got to test this the other day with a table of 4 players. None of the other players had ever played Bullies before and surprisingly despite teaching the game with this rule intact, all players except the outed forgot that the eliminated player could still play cards. So it was a bit of a shock each time to see the unexpected results of 4 cards since we we’re all playing as if only 3 cards could possibly come up. I was never the outed person, and they had never played the previous way so the verdict is still out on whether this is a good mechanic or not.

Bullies

 

Track with abilities: Thanks go to Becca for this one. It was her feedback that instead of each payer using their own HP chart like the example above that the game use a Map. As players go down in hit points they move their marker to the designated square and they gain the ability listed on the square. There was also some note about giving the player an option of what route/track to follow so as to avoid certain squares and abilities. Since having those abilities might make you an elimination target.

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