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!

Stay lofty!

Design Tips: (Diary) Numbers Solve Design Problems

This is a personal story.

So I'm designing a "dicebuilder" game inspired by Splendor and Century. It also involves a lot of cards. This particular game involves five different dice colours and four different factions, each of which aligns to a colour. Cool. 

I set out on a quest to make this dice game interesting and decided to make a bunch of cards that let you exchange dice [among other effects]. The idea was this: 
- make generic cards that helped you gain dice.
- make faction-specific cards that did neat effects with your dice.

Both types of cards are placed in a pile, then the top six are laid out on a trade row a la deckbuilders. This means players will see six out of ~100 cards at a time.
I was wrong to think it'd be that easy.

Playtest 1

Problem: the faction-specific mechanics weren't useful. They didn't do much on their own and required you to have more of each other. But because of the trade row size, you'd often be stuck with either generic-but-useful or cool-but-useless cards.

Solution: design new faction cards that made cool synergies with existing faction cards. Players would now be able to make more synergies happen.

Playtest 2

Good thing I printed out 19 sheets and spent half an hour cutting them into squares before considering alternate solutions!

Good thing I printed out 19 sheets and spent half an hour cutting them into squares before considering alternate solutions!

Problem: nope, still not useful. The cards kinda just sat there in hand, not having good synergies 90% of the time.

Solution: design MORE new cards! More bonkers combos! This'll work now!

Playtest 3

Problem: ...and nope, still not useful. Sometimes you go off, but mostly it's just janky half synergies that you can't capitalize on. The new cards I made were awkward as I stretched to make something new.

I hope that at this point, you as the reader figured out the solution before I did. The problem was that I was stuck in the mindset of qualitative, generative design. I thought that the problems could be solved through more creative thinking, more designs, etc. But nope - the solution is in fact much easier.

Solution: get rid of the awkward cards made in a desperate attempt to bring faction synergies. And then... just clone the most versatile of the faction cards x3. And then, just increase the amount of visible cards in the trade row for players to choose from. 

Yes, I would need to do further tweaks, but the game became much smoother right there - and for way less work and complexity. 

The ideas I want to pass from my experience are:

1) Realize when a design problem can be solved by tweaking the quantities of existing variables, instead of wasting time making something new.

This problem seems more prevalent for people with a Humanities background: the problem-solving approach where we try to change the inherent qualities of a thing, instead of messing with its quantitative values. But the latter is extraordinarily efficient with regards to its impact on development logistics: brainstorming, art, animation, modeling, bug testing, and many other time/effort factors can be mitigated when opting to modify the frequency of objects instead of objects themselves.

2) Realize how much you can use quantity manipulation to make gameplay feel different. You can impart tone/mood without needing to do a whole design process - without making the game unnecessarily complex.

This is hard to describe because it's so obvious when spoken that it's hard to properly internalize as new information. At its most simple level, it's making an assassin character have a higher damage value and a protector having a higher health value. But on a more complex level, you can creatively increase the assassin-vibe with numbers by [ie] secretly widening the timeframe window of counterattacks, making daggers spawn just a little more often, or trimming a few recovery animation frames after an attack.

Summary: look at your numbers! Make sure they're at the right amount! Remember you can change them!

And see you next time!

Flash Thoughts: Borderlands and Loot Signifiers

My past few Flash Thoughts have felt more like just Regular Thoughts. The original plan was to have these be bite-sized, so let's get back on track with that.

I noticed something neat today with the loot in Borderlands: they all have a bright green label when unopened, and then turn grey and dark after being opened.


You'll notice that, in fact, every lootable thing has the same shade of green in a vaguely square/rectangular shape. Interactible things as a whole are also green, but can also be button-shaped for things like. buttons.

This is cute UX design. Signifier consistency (green rectangles) across different box shapes enforce the signified of "loot". Players will automatically get a baby hit of dopamine when they see the green, and also of course by turning that green to grey through looting.

Additionally, it helps players know at a glance how to differentiate between lootable stuff and generic objects, since the devs were careful to avoid putting tiny green rectangles on nonlootables. 

Flash Conclusion: use a specific sign for special objects of the same kind to enforce satisfaction and make them easy to find.