Around mid July I wrote about the Artiste project that I’m undertaking with The People’s Orchestra. It’s been a month and a half so it feels like a good time to offer another update and perhaps tie some of the previous blog posts to their actual impact on game development.
When we left off I’d just introduced the idea that the core game was working and that development was focusing on free expansions to add (since we had cards spare and it’d be a shame to waste them). Five expansions were being considered but hadn’t yet been developed, each of these has mutated plenty since their introduction, one has been dropped and two have been earmarked for definite inclusion.
The dark horse has been the “performance” expansion. I didn’t expect a lot from an expansion that didn’t slot perfectly into the core gameplay and replaced power use with roleplaying requirements. It turned out that cards asking players to drum, hum or be troublesome were extremely well received and made the game a riot to play.
Development of this set has focused on stronger integration with the core game. Allowing the artiste to duplicate any of the roleplaying effects in an effort to hide makes speaking like a pirate a tactical decision rather than just a charming affectation. The “always lie” role tended to make player start with a lie like “I don’t have the only tell lies role” and other players would mentally reverse their statements making the card irrelevant to the gameplay (if still amusing to some players). In the current iteration the player with that card was fixed with a victory condition change: They win if the artiste wins and therefore wants to mislead the group. As the “lies” card is known to be in the hands of a traitor there’s motivation for the player with it to try to cover it up, avoiding outright lies and instead making arguments in hypothetical questions and careful deceptions.
You may also notice the little devil icon replacing the player count. The player count made setup a chore and as most cards were in the 3-4 player range and the 3 player game was often dull (who plays three player social deduction games?) it was better to drop it and raise the minimum player count rather than let some groups have a sub-par experience of the game. The signalling for icons is better than number as well, since this is a casual game and like it or loathe it plenty of people associate numbers with complexity.
Instead icons indicate whether a role may be motivated to lie to the manager about who the artiste is and whether the artiste could successfully mimic that role. They don’t do anything that the text doesn’t, but it smooths the learning curve for new players.
Finally the characters were broken into “power” and “endgame”. Ongoing communications don’t work brilliantly in the power use phases because nobody says very much at that point of the game, so instead having one effect during the power phase and a different one if you have the card in your hand at the end of the game created a nicer overall effect. It also allowed a mix of powers relating to the core game and performance expansion specific effects.
Jumping to the other end of the spectrum: The technical rehearsal expansion was dropped. In theory adding a new type of card and a mandatory role that interacted with it could have done lots, but the idea was riddled with problems from the start. An extra mandatory role increased the minimum player count. The extra type of card made the game a little harder to learn. Working out how many special cards to dish out and when varied by player count in frustrating ways. Needing players to do things to end the tech effects on them didn’t work well, nobody wants to skip a turn (you only get three) and other requirements often relied upon certain powers and effects being in the game.
We tried a lot of different versions and having a tech who cared about the endgame discussion along with glitches that influenced but didn’t ruin games was the strongest iteration, but ultimately it wasn’t up to the strengths of the other expansions.
Unsurprisingly the artistes expansion has been very popular, moreso with the gaming crowds than with the casual crowds. For the gaming crowds the core game may be a little light, bordering on solvable – so adding artistes making it possible that the artiste is any player, not just one who’s used a certain subset of powers – goes a long way towards improving the game for them. For casual crowds they appreciate the variety that a collection of artistes bring, but it didn’t solve a specific problem.
Editing here has been much lighter and generally focused on making the text more comprehensible. Tinkering with things which work is a risky proposition, but it’s good to mix things up a little bit. We’ve been trying out artistes that have abilities that break the usual mould – being able to copy any power is a start, but also playing with notions like “You need to hide who you are” by having victory conditions like “You were not ejected and you’ve shown this card to at least one other player.” Some of these have worked and others haven’t, but the expansion as a whole has remained a noticeable improvement and will be included in the final game.
That leaves two expansions still in contention: The nomination and the lovers. These are mechanically similar so it’s perhaps no surprise that the feedback puts them neck and neck. In both cases 1-2 status cards are placed in the middle of the table and a bunch of roles are shuffled into the deck. The roles can assign the status cards to players who then have their options and win condition altered by having that status card.
The nomination powers have changed a lot over the editions. It originally meant that the player nominated for the award couldn’t be ejected from the orchestra – but that made the endgame, the hypothetical peak of the game, boring for them as often it guaranteed a win whatever happened. It could also lead to situations where the manager had perfect information yet couldn’t win which wasn’t any fun. The new version ensures that the critical “ejection” moment remains critical for all players.
The lover effects have been subject to less variation. Having one lover who wins based on the other’s victory condition and one that refuses to target their lover syncs well with a lot of the tensions in the core game. Instead changes have focused on making the moment of the ejection critical to more players, initially the lover roles had a lot of win conditions like “The artiste is in love with you” which meant that they didn’t care about who got ejected. Over the iterations those have shifted towards conditions which are thematically similar but which don’t detract from the final decision. For instance “The artist is ejected or in love with you (but not both)”.
Competition between the expansions is fairly tight. The nomination expansion has some very slight mechanical advantages, it adds one more role to the game and the status has a more focused effect. The lovers expansion has a very slight thematic advantage, players get excited about love just a little more than they get excited by the idea of prizes. Normally I’d favour the mechanical advantage, but the effects are very small and the thematic advantage seems a little larger so it’s tough to call. Ultimately both are adding a great deal to the game and I wouldn’t be ashamed to put my name to either – but spending a bit more time testing and improving these aspects will help to decide which of them is ultimately the strongest.
The other aspect of the game that needs a serious push is the art. We’d had two tentative artists for the project drop out so its artistic development lags far behind its gameplay development, which ultimately may threaten our intended November launch. One of our volunteers is looking at filling the role and the sketches are looking good so perhaps I’ll have exciting news for you all next week.