Arena: Grand Champions has been a blast to develop. In this article I’ll go over some of the points in the development cycle that ultimately changed the entire game for the better. Every problem that we encountered had multiple solutions that were successes or failures in their own right. Some solutions like ‘Events’ were ineffective at resolving the problem, but we kept in the game because it was fun. Because we had multiple successes, failures, and ineffective solutions I’m only going to offer 1 failed and 1 successful solution for each problem discussed to hopefully provide some insight on how we learned from our failures to overcome our problems.
Double or Half
The first step into developing the gladiators we took was establishing a baseline for creating them. We developed a fairly simple system of point buying to create multiple gladiators, and thought out rough ideas for their maneuver cards. We built the system with the idea of using the smallest possible point values we could. We didn’t want big numbers for the sake of big numbers. This created 3 problems: Cost of maneuver cards vs. the over/under powered effects, zero room for mistakes, and later on random chance.
Why was this a problem?
The cost of the maneuvers were low to correlate with the small point values of the gladiators. We didn’t build them in as part of the point buying system instead we played it by ear. This ‘low value everything’ idea created a very sensitive scale in which 1 point made a huge meaningless impact in every decision. If you were the first to the fight your odds of winning went up astronomically. It didn’t matter if a gladiator's maneuver would cost all of their maneuver points, or just a few points it was almost always powerful enough to cost someone else the game. We thought this is great!
They may lose the game, but now they have a vendetta that would make them more likely to support another gladiator thus creating a team. Albeit a lopsided team, but a team nonetheless. However, this wasn’t the case. In one of the earliest play testings during round 2 Nolyn got stabbed and then shot with an arrow. He immediately died before even getting to play the game. This happened over and over again. Every mistake made, or every gamble failed meant that gladiator had no chance at winning, or worse they lost extremely early. The player’s had no room for error.
Failed Solution: Random Chance
When the system worked it worked… negatively. When the pre-game is filled with aggravated talks of alliances, and the second round of the game is filled with bitter in fighting it wasn’t fun. So we identified the weaker gladiators and tried to even things out by incorporating random chance. One of the ways we did this was to give the assassin a basic action that let them avoid all damage N% of the time. No matter how much we adjusted this number, or how much we changed the damage it negated, or the effect it caused it was unbalance-able at this scale. It drastically slowed game-play. It also killed the strategy. This became glaringly apparent for every gladiator we gave a chance ability to. We could see then that random chance had no place with the gladiators because it was only satisfying for one player a fraction of the time, and made everyone else miserable every time.
Successful Solution: Double or Half
In the very wise words of Sid Meier “Double it or cut it in half. You are more wrong than you think.” We did just that. We doubled every attribute point. Immediately the game became more fun. You could plan for failure and still have a shot at victory. Alliances occurred more organically, but more importantly were never a pre-game discussion. This alleviated that bitter tension of the previous iteration, however, it created a new issue: Rock, Paper, Scissors.
Rock, Paper, Scissors:
This wasn’t the first time we encountered this Ouroboros. In the earliest stages of development we had a perfectly symmetrical system with the intentions of the game feeling more chess like. Where strategy would always win out.
What was the problem?
With not enough resources at one’s disposal it became a slug fest with zero strategy where avoidance was the only way to guarantee victory. We solved it initially by changing up stats, and adding more asymmetrical maneuvers. Now it was back. Barbarian > Enchantress > Assassin > Soldier > Barbarian. Knowing this within a few turns you could accurately predict the outcome of the game as well as who was going to ally with who. Nathan was pivotal in pointing this out. This dominant strategy solution offered a stale sense of game-play.
Failed Solution: Hard Counters
We knew exactly what the opposing gladiator could do to gain the upper hand, so we tried to raise the stakes. We gave everyone a costly maneuver or a stack-able basic action that would hard counter their specific weakness, and then leave the opposition wide open. Once again knowledge of the game beat out our intentions. As I’m sure you figured it out, this created a zero-sum game. Everyone was always at a stand still, and with more points to go around everything drug by. No one took risks until they were sure their opponent couldn’t hard counter. All attempts to remedy this became a tragedy of commons that lead back to dominant strategy solutions.
Successful Solution: Meaningful Asymmetry, and Utility
The problem at its core was that it could be predictably resolved through dominant strategy in which each player in sequential order knew what first order optimal strategy to perform. There was no incentive to deviate; no mystery to the game-play. We needed a way to introduce choices that had equal value with starkly different outcomes. At this point most of the actions and maneuvers were somewhat symmetrical, and there was almost no utility abilities. Starting with the basic action we redefined them on an individual level matching them more to the theme of the gladiator with the same idea in mind: A move, an attack, a utility, and a recovery.
This impacted the Enchantress the most. She went from feeling like a Soldier with some range to an Enchantress. Her basic actions fit better within the context of the character she no longer dealt direct damage, but instead caused other gladiators to hurt themselves. She didn’t buff herself to defend, but instead placed others in harm's way. This felt good on every gladiator, but still wasn’t quite enough. The maneuvers needed to be changed with the same concept in mind, and their costs needed to locked in to better fit the context of the gladiators.
Firstly, the cost of the maneuvers became locked in at 2, 4, and 6. Next, we changed them to reflect not only the context of the gladiator, but to piggyback on the idea of hard counters. Hard counters were a failure, however, the insight we gained from testing them really showed us the shortcomings of each gladiator.
The best example is the Barbarian he had no real range abilities, and against the assassin could never catch up enough to inflict damage. It’s important to remember most maneuvers have a cool-down, and can only be used once per turn. What worked for him, that didn’t unbalance the entire game, was to offer maneuvers that increased his speed, and gave him a powerful ranged attack. It seems like a no brainer, but honestly it was not.
Finally, some gladiators were awarded out of turn abilities(or response abilities) actions that they could take whenever on credit. This last tweak alone really made the game more fun. It opened up a lot of branching options for some of the more boring gladiators. These changes all took a great deal of testing, and the game was finally shaping up. However, something was still missing. Something major that was lurking just beneath the surface out of sight. Try as we may we were unable to determine what it was that dramatically broke the equilibrium of the game every other game. I’ll call this problem customer support.
The game was playable, and it was okay. However, the cost of manufacturing and distribution was too steep for a just ‘okay’ game. No game is ever really finished, and there is always more that can be done, but we felt we had done it all. This sub-par game was the best it could be
What was the problem?
“Testers don’t like to break things; they like to dispel the illusion that things work.”— Kaner, Bach, Pettichord
Our efforts to suss out a major issue had been met with failure. The game was trapped in a perpetual state of not fun enough often enough. We had a sizable play testing team of friends, but no fresh eyes.The game needed a new perspective.
Failed Solution: Relentless In-house Play Testing
The game was tested into the ground. It was tested to the point that everyone dreaded the thought of having to play it. In fact, I'm pretty sure Nolyn, who was over testing, begin to believe everyone hated him because every time he was around that meant test time. We were exhausted and the game was stagnant. Hope was running thin.
Successful Solution: Customer Review
Nolyn found the solution from a great source that every game or product needs to go to before being finalized: the customer. When I said customer support earlier you probably thought of a company providing support for a product to a customer, but this was not the case. The customer was providing support to us. During a convention, a group of young board gamers sat down to play our game. Their feedback was invaluable.
The biggest change that came out of their feedback was the way in which the Enchantress played. She was the linchpin of the stagnation of the game. We had given some credit to a few of her abilities allowing them to be used out of sequence, but her real issue was how restrictive this was in the context of the game. The solution for her was to give her a permanent basic action investment. She could now choose to use only 1 basic action or 1 maneuver on her turn then use another basic action at any point before her next turn. It wasn’t tied to any one basic action, and let her respond through careful strategy and thought instead of being billed later because of an unforeseen circumstance. Since her basic actions aren’t as powerful as her maneuvers, freeing them up to be used later didn’t break the game either. We called the ability Delayed Gratification, and it was one of the biggest successes for the game.
The development cycle of the game has ended. The limited print run and models for the Kickstarter have been shipped. Now we are contemplating our next actions for Arena: Grand Champions, but in the meantime you can pick up a copy from The Game Crafters.
If things go well we’re hoping to start a back stock of the game meaning we will be able to sell the game cheaper through our website, and put it on store shelves. Thanks for giving this a read I hope it was helpful.