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:
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:
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.
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.
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:
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.