Captain's Log: Bluffing

Captain’s Gambit has a bluffing mechanic in which players can attempt any action in the game - regardless of whether or not they actually have the appropriate card in front of them. If you successfully call someone else’s bluff, or if you trick someone into calling a bluff when you were honest, you’ll deal 3 damage to them. While the number has fluctuated a lot, the core concept of bluff calling was actually one of the very first ideas we had.

I always bluff overcharge

I always bluff overcharge

The bluffing mechanic was one of the first concepts we wanted in Captain’s Gambit. When our game design professor first prompted us to make a game about Shakespeare (in space???) we immediately latched onto the idea of making deception a core design pillar, alongside the concept of each captain having their own win condition. Deception made sense because it was a common theme across many of Shakespeare’s plays - a game full of manipulation and deception in this way would set the perfect stage for drama to unfold.

Inspired by games like poker, cheat and Coup, our bluffing mechanic does the strongest job of exemplifying that design pillar. Because each player’s permit cards stay face-down, regardless of whether or not people are telling the truth about their permits, you’re encouraged to get suspicious every time an action is declared. If you don’t call a bluff, you’re just letting someone get away with lying - but if you call a bluff, you may be walking into a 3-damage trap! We’ve enjoyed this mechanic a lot as it gave everyone lots of room to manipulate information and keep tensions high even during the quiet setup turns.

What’s in a number?

Bluffing takes a lot of guts - to reflect that, in our first iteration of Captain’s Gambit, the loser of a bluff call actually took 5 damage instead of 3. That’s half of a player’s health! While some players loved the high stakes, many more players felt intimidated by the consequences of messing up. And since we wanted to encourage players to interface with what we had deemed to be a core element of the game, we decided to adjust the value of bluff damage to make it more approachable.

We tried playtesting with 4-damage bluffs, but players still felt it was too high stakes. A few of us felt apprehensive about dropping it even lower - shouldn’t players just get good? - but we dutifully lowered bluff damage, again, to a final 3-damage resting point. And there it stayed! It didn’t take many games to realize that this was the magic number. There’s a delicate balance between feeling confident in making / calling bluffs, and feeling like successfully doing so had a proper amount of weight to it. A few curious playtests of 2 damage quickly illustrated that there was such thing as too little consequence. Bluff calls on every single turn wasn’t ideal, as there had to be enough turns where people ‘let it slide’ - both for the flow of the game, and to make good lies feel better.

The bluffing mechanic now feels like it’s in a good place. The final, final piece to the puzzle that truly made bluffing feel great was the introduction of a new “maximum health”, and it helped in the most intriguing of ways. But that’ll be for next time!


Thanks for reading! Please check out our Captain’s Gambit page to learn more about the game. We are also releasing a FREE Print & Play version of the game very soon, so sign up for our newsletter so that you can get your copy as soon as it’s available!

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Captain's Log: Drain

Balancing Drain has been by far the hardest part of designing Captain’s Gambit. Since the very beginning, Drain was meant to serve three main functions:

1) Allow passive captains (i.e. Puck, Rosalind, etc.) to “attack” other players without actually attacking them;
2) Prevent players from stockpiling too much energy (this really matters for keeping Prospero in check); and
3) Disrupt other players from executing their plans

This was our first attempt at making a permit that met all three of these goals:

 
Drain I:    Take 2 energy from another target captain. [Negated by Drain and Network].

Drain I: Take 2 energy from another target captain. [Negated by Drain and Network].

 

Seems good, right? Well…not so much. While it might seem fine at first glance, we quickly discovered two major problems with it: The Vampire Effect and The Lockdown Effect.

The Vampire Effect: After a player is drained (i.e. they didn’t successfully block it by declaring they have a Drain/Network), the rest of the players target them for the rest of the game because they know they are a “safe” target to steal from.

The Lockdown Effect: An inescapable loop where a player loses all their energy, cannot do any actions on their turn except Charge up to 2 energy, only to have their 2 energy immediately drained away again.

Being on the receiving end of these effects feels absolutely terrible. You feel powerless, and you get extremely frustrated because you feel like you are unable to play the game. So we knew we needed to fix these issues, but we weren’t certain the best way to do it. Here are all the different solutions we tried, but none of them quite worked:

_Draining.png

Drain II: Take 2 energy from another target captain. That player gains a drain protection token. [Negated by Drain and Network].
[While you have a drain protection token you cannot be drained again. The token goes away when you start your turn with 3 or more energy.]

Why it didn’t work: This solution is what I like to call an “inelegant solution.” While it completely fixed the problems with Drain when done correctly, players found it too convoluted and were constantly forgetting to remove their drain protection tokens.

remove background drain2.png

Tax: Steal 2 energy from another target captain. That captains draws a Permit card, and then shuffles any of their permit cards back into the deck. [Negated by Drain and Network].

Why it didn’t work: The idea with Tax was that since the drained captain got a new Permit card, there was a chance they could draw (or bluff that they drew) a Drain/Network permit to protect themselves from being drained again. But like Drain II, players found this solution way too confusing and were always mixing up which player was supposed to draw a permit card.

symbol_siphon.png

Siphon: Take 1 energy from another captain. If they have 4 or more energy, take 2 instead. [Negated by Drain and Network].

Why it didn’t work: This version was actually really close. By scaling the amount of energy that gets drained, players were encouraged to always target the captains with the most energy (which pretty much eliminated the Lockdown Effect). Unfortunately, it didn’t quite do enough to discourage the Vampire Effect and the player with the most energy could very quickly lose it all.

Reconnaissance: Take 1 energy from another captain. That captain may show you one of their permit cards. If they don’t, take 1 more of their energy. [Negated by Drain and Network].

Why it didn’t work: This version was only ever internally tested, but we learned very quickly it wasn’t going to work. While Reconnaissance was supposed to give players a choice about what to lose, no one ever chose to give up 2 energy. While this felt great for the player getting drained, for the player using Reconnaissance it felt way too weak and unsatisfying, especially since it could still get blocked by Drain/Network.


Finally, after many attempts, we found a version of Drain that solved all our problems:

 
Drain III:    Target another captain with 4 or more energy. Steal 2 energy from them. [Negated by Shield].

Drain III: Target another captain with 4 or more energy. Steal 2 energy from them. [Negated by Shield].

 

Here’s why this version works so well:

  • The 4 energy threshold completely eliminates the Lockdown Effect;

  • By reducing the number of permits that block Drain, more players become “safe” drain targets (which essentially eliminates the Vampire Effect);

  • Shield is now the only permit with a reaction, which makes Drain and Network much easier to understand;

  • Drain can still be used to prevent Prospero from stockpiling; and

  • Drain can still be used to “attack”/disrupt other players

This is our current (and hopefully final) version of Drain. While this version may seem like an obvious solution, I can’t even tell you how many hours of discussion and playtesting were needed to get there. It just goes to show that sometimes the best solutions are deceptively simple.

Thanks for reading! Please check out our Captain’s Gambit page to learn more about the game. We are also releasing a FREE Print & Play version of the game very soon, so sign up for our newsletter so that you can get your copy as soon as it’s available!

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Sequels Don't Need to be Better to be Good

sequelworse.png

It’s hard to make sequels. Adding more of the original game can make the formula stale - the sequel will feel more like DLC. Making something entirely new may alienate the original audience, and you may lose the core of what made your game fun. Even making something new-ish, with several core concepts maintained, can fall short of the original if your audience’s tastes have shifted over time. Plus, the novelty or surprise of the first playthrough is often a significant portion of a game’s enjoyment - an advantage that direct sequels won’t have.

Therefore, it’s pretty common for a sequel or expansion to not top the original game. It just happens. But also… I think that’s okay.

I see sequel frenzy most often in the game industry - the assumption that each new thing will top that which goes before. And personally I blame boring videogame marketing tactics like MORE BULLET. IMPROVED AI. SOFTER DOG… which understandably has instilled in players a mood that they’ll have even MORE fun with this new game than the original. A formula for disappointment, I think.

The second dog may not be as fluffy as you hoped, but he’s still a very good Dog

The second dog may not be as fluffy as you hoped, but he’s still a very good Dog

Yes, sequels can be worse. Expansions and seasons, in particular, are probably going to fall short of the original experience. But that doesn’t mean the game itself is necessarily awful. It may even be excellent, the second-best game you’ve ever played. It it just may not better than the original. It may just miss a few of the notes that hooked you in the first place.

I think what kills sequels is often that expectation of strict improvement, that pervasive tinge of comparison. It’s not our fault as players that we have this expectation in the first place, but if we can set it aside and appreciate what’s in front of us in the moment, it can help make the latest experience still feel meaningful on its own merits.

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