Designer Notes: The Market
When I was writing the designer notes for the mine and the quests in Forge War, I thought to myself, "Do I even need to write a design process for the market? It's pretty basic, after all."
And that should have been a sign. Because I have a rule. No basic board games.
But I was in my little rut and never realized just how basic and boring the market was until I started bringing my game to an Indiana game designers group and ran into the harsh reality head-first.
But let's back up a bit. The market phase was in the game from the very beginning to facilitate the dynamics of a money resource and provide players with the opportunity to collect various bonuses that would help them perform quests and generate more resources. These advantages could simply be resources on the cheap or extra abilities that could be performed every round to exchange resources or whatnot.
In addition, the market is where players bought new weapon plans - a necessary ability for moving players past relying on the beginning copper resource and allowing them to be more efficient with their adventurers. At its heart, that was the idea of Forge War - players climb up a sort of free-form tech tree to be able to use all the resources they can get to more efficiently complete quests. And the market was essential because that is where this tech comes from.
The best example is the quandary of what players can do with the emeralds they collect in the mine. In the beginning, all they can do is sell emeralds to the merchant for 2 gold (in my first few play tests, I didn't have a merchant yet, but I realized the game was too unforgiving and needed some sort of cushion - however costly - so that players could get resources they needed in times of desperation), but market cards can offer the option of doing something more meaningful with the emeralds.
First of all, players can acquire market stalls that allow them to exchange emeralds for copper or iron. They can also buy market savvy cards that increase the emerald's sale value. However, players can also gain new weapon designs that directly use gems in the construction for significantly increased power.
Originally I didn't have an adventurer level system and these "gemmed" weapon designs had no restrictions on their use (and they were also slightly more powerful than they are now), so this final option for emeralds became the run-away best choice. I remember a game I played with a friend where he acquired a "Green Stinger" and then proceeded to use that and nothing but that for the rest of the game, crushing everything. We came up with the level system immediately after to reduce the utility of the gemmed weapons (and add more depth to the adventurer system).
So, anyway, I've got all these market cards and my initial design was just a deck of cards where a certain number was drawn off the top every round and offered to the players. I didn't like the first player having so much influence, so instead of just a first-come, first-serve system, cards were sold through an auction system lifted entirely from Power Grid. With the auction, if a player in last place really wanted a card, he could still take it from someone else, but would have to pay a premium.
In theory this auction system worked, but in practice it was all rather dull. I mean, for starters, auction systems in any game can be kind of dull depending on the type of players your playing with. Plus you easily run into a situation with new players where they have no clue about the true value of a card or even the value of the money itself, making the whole situation sort of restrictive.
Well, I kept the auction system in place for a much longer time than I should have, even using it in my demos at GenCon last year. It was only more recently with playtesting online that caused me to punch-up the mine where I cut out the auction system to streamline the game. It worked wonders in that regard but still remained boring. Players took turns buying a market card from the card offer, and by the time the last player got a go, there wasn't really anything good left and the whole system felt like a lot of empty choices.
Which I didn't realize until I met Travis Chance and the game designers group he organized. They shined a light on the dark, boring spot of the game and pushed me to make it better. I still wanted to give the players access to market cards, but I also wanted to provide them with more meaningful decisions and more reactive interaction.
So the drive to give more choices to the player resulted in market phase that now more closely resembles a worker placement game. In player order, players now have a single action they can take in the market, and the available actions range from buying a market card to buying a new adventurer (formerly managed with a clunky extra functionality of the merchant) to rushing a quest an extra step forward. If players don't have any money to do anything, they can pass instead, which earns them 1 gold so the whole phase doesn't feel like a waste. In addition some of the action spaces have a hard restriction that only one person can perform that action each round, and others have a soft restriction that additional players taking the action have to pay a gold to the previous players.
So let's look at the actions one at a time:
- The first actions are simply buying a market card. Previously all market cards composed a single deck of cards that was drawn randomly, but now the cards are split up into weapon designs, permanent market bonuses and single-use cards, each with its own action. This allows players to see a more diverse selection of market actions each turn. So each turn, one unique weapon design is drawn and only one person can take the action to buy it (obviously), and then two bonus cards and two single-use cards are drawn, but again only one person can go buy one or both of the cards from these offers each turn. So if you want to block another player from taking a specific card, you have a couple options on how to do so.
- The next action space allows a player to hire a new adventurer and/or level up an existing adventurer in their supply. The cost of the adventurer is dependent on the current stage (4, 5 or 6 gold) and the cost to level an adventurer is whatever level they are currently at. This is a powerful spot because more adventurers means more simultaneous quests which means more points - and only one player can go here each turn.
- The next space allows a player to rush a quest, which means they can advance a single quest an extra step, essentially progressing it twice in a single round. I was a little apprehensive about this space because it dulls the teeth of the game somewhat, allowing players to correct poor planning decisions, but it comes at the cost of a market action, which can be powerful, especially late in the game. It also increases the viability of some of the longer quests, since they can get done in a shorter amount of time. I decided to allow any number of players to take this action, as it would have been a little too cut-throat if it could be blocked, and blocking it didn't make much sense thematically either.
- The last action is a space that any number of players can go to, as well, but there is a penalty for going later. You see, the weapon design space is only for the unique weapon designs. All the normal weapon designs are placed below the board in a public offer. This offer is composed of basic copper weapons at the beginning of the game, and iron and mithril weapons are seeded into the unique weapon design decks and move down to the public offer when drawn. Players can claim one of these weapon designs by going to the last action space and paying a base cost, but if the design is already claimed, the player must also pay a gold to each player who has already claimed it. This adds a different kind of player interaction, where if you know someone needs a particular weapon design, you can't necessarily stop them from getting it, but you can profit from it.
- The last option, of course is to pass and collect one gold. This was added in the middle of a play test where players were too frustrated that they didn't have enough money to do anything in the market and were stuck in a cycle of non-productivity. By consoling players with some extra income when they pass, it helps them to possibly do something in the next market phase. Also, if they're stuck at zero gold, getting that extra gold opens up a lot more options when selecting new quests (which are now acquired with money instead of quest tokens).
So now I am really happy with this new action space design. I think it accomplishes the goal of giving each player - from first to last in the turn order - a significant decision to make each and every round in the market. Of course, such decisions will slightly increase the play time of the game as players have to take a little more time to think about the meaningful decision they have, but I think it's worth it. The basic game still clocks in at around an hour with experienced players and full game around three.
Obviously not everyone is interested in a three-hour game, which is why I've tried very hard to make the simple game a fulfilling game experience on its own. That process is probably what I'll discuss next time.
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