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!

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Stay lofty!

Phantom Choices: Conflicting Design in Metal Gear Solid V

One of my interviews tasked me with choosing a game and describing two things I would do differently if I was working on that title. I really enjoyed answering the question so I wanted to share it:

Conflicting Systems

While I enjoyed my time with MGSV, the further into the game I played, the more I felt that the systems within the game were at odds with each other. MGSV’s systemic design offers players the potential to come up with really creative plans in order to achieve mission objectives.

However, there are a few things in the game that discourage players from fully exploring the possibilities offered to them. The most fun I personally had with the game was when I had to come up with “outside the box” solutions to complete missions. The two changes I would make are both in service of the same goal, which is to encourage players to come up with creative uses of the dynamic systems and variety of gadgets included in the game.

Remove Dominant Strategies

The first change is to reduce the effectiveness of the tranquilizer weapon + silencer combo. This is because using this combination becomes a dominant strategy within the game, especially with the leniency offered by reflex mode. The player is able to play through most of the game without ever needing to use any other loadout, removing the incentive to explore the other tools and systems available for the player to engage with. There were only a few missions in my experience that really forced me outside of that strategy, and those missions really opened my eyes to the possibilities lying in wait.


Time for bed

For example, one mission tasked me with tailing an NPC to find an army major and kidnap/eliminate him. Both the NPC and the major had troops closely accompanying them so I had to figure out a way to grab him without starting a firefight. All the enemies were situated too close together for me to just use the tranquilizer gun on all of them, so I had to come up with another solution. I threw a bunch of decoys to change the focus of all the enemies multiple times and kept them distracted while I kidnapped the major and escaped with him. Not being able to fall back on the tranq + silencer combo really forced me to really understand the underlying systems (specifically the enemy AI behavior and alert system) within the game and use that knowledge to figure out what gadgets I could use to achieve my objective. Reducing the tranquilizer + silencer combo’s ability to be a catch-all solution would push players to learn the underlying systems when dealing with the scenarios offered in the game.

Encourage Experimentation

The second change I would make is to modify certain systems in the game so that they don’t encourage one style of play over another. Most of the internal systems focus on rewarding players for being a ghost and leaving no trace of your infiltration. This creates a “right” way (or at least a default way) of playing and discourages experimenting with the vast amount of tools at the player’s disposal.

One of the biggest proponents of this is the scoring system, which combined with the alert system, really put an emphasis on perfect stealth. After the mission is completed, the game ranks the player’s performance and rewards players with currency to spend on researching and developing new weapons and gadgets. The more stealthy the player is (i.e. no kills, no alerts etc.), the more bonus currency they receive.

While this might work in most stealth games, the vast amount of lethal weapons and gadgets offered in MGS:V puts it at odds with both of these systems. A huge array of lethal weapons such as shotguns, assault rifles, grenade launchers and other loud weapons are available for the player to purchase. Using them however, can mean players receive less points and a lower score when they finish the mission.


Guns, Guns, Guns

Rehauling the scoring system, or removing it entirely would take away the perception that there is only one “right” way to play the game and encourage players to explore the vast amount of tools they have access to.