Category: game design

Approaching Beta – improving hel’s BELLEs

More playtesting has occurred. It admittedly feels a bit weird to be trying things out so frequently; in the past it’s been literally months between playtest sessions. That said, the ideas have been flowing, and there are always things that can be done to smooth out the playing experience.
Command tiers. As I mentioned last time, comand tiers were in some trouble, as yellow had been nerfed by a recent timing change. I like the timing change, and so I will probably keep it, which means efforts continue to re-zowie the yellow tier. Last night I tested out the most recent thought, whch was to let opponents ignore a planned move, but it had mixed results. There were opportunities to use it, but just not as many. Or rather, those opportunities simply weren’t very powerful. Mostly the yellow-tiered commands just ended up being cheaper greens. No good.
Next up will be a shot at a simple trumping system, where some command tiers are resolved before others. The nature of turn resolution should prevent it from slowing down the game significantly, while in crucial moments it could be important enough to justify the purchase of one tier over another. Also could make red commands more strategic (they’d go before the other tiers, but would continue to end the player’s turn, as they always have). The colours/codings of the tiers will probably change, but that was always likely, as green, yellow, and red aren’t very colourblind-friendly.
I’ve also made significant changes to the deck makeups, with an eye towards being a bit more consumer friendly where multiplayer expansion is concerned. Previously, while the game was primarily a 2 player duel, I was also working on a 3-4 player expansion that would increase the availability of specific cards to enable multiplayer skirmishes. Much of my effort over the last couple of days has been directed towards changing the deck makeup so that a multiplayer game can be more easily played simply using two decks (whether they be the same one or two different ones). Multiple duel decks would still mean more variety, but multiple copies of one (say, the base game owned by multiple players) would allow for multiplayer without requiring somebody buy a specific expansion. That I won’t be able to fully test without at least a few other people (last night’s playtest only involved 2 of us), but we did give the second deck a go in a 2 player duel and it seemed pretty solid. I have some thoughts regarding cpus and mecha balance that I want to consider a little further, but right now I feel like things are progressing well, and that the game is starting to run much more smoothly.

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Keep it or drop it; adventures in game mechanics

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Did a bit more playtesting the other day, after making numerous changes to Hel’s BELLEs. Biggest change was the timing resolution that I talked about last time. I cut the individual phases way back (almost halved) while slightly boosting the secondary effects of the cards in question to maintain the value of each upgrade. All of that went really well, and the game played much more quickly and smoothly. All is not perfect though, as the reduced phases have had another effect that hadn’t occurred to me.
The cards that one plays have 3 colour-coded tiers, with each tier effecting gameplay a little. Green resolves normally, red ends the turn, and yellow provides room for an opponent to revise his already-selected actions. I really like this aspect of the game. The yellow effect didn’t become really obvious until later in the game, when an increased number of phases increased the opportunities for revision. Well, now you never get quite that many phases, and as a result I kinda nerfed the effect.
I’ve since come up with a (potentially better) slicker method of revising one’s turn, but in asking one of my regular playtesters, the issue of the mechanic’s validity/necessity came up. He also likes the concept of spontaneous revision,  but isn’t sure whether its really necessary to the game. And if its not necessary, then I shouldn’t keep it around. I agree with the theory, but I’m waiting to see what happens in practice.
With any luck, I might get a couple playtesting games in this weekend. I’ll probably try it both ways with a few different people before I make a decision. I’m tempted to keep it in, even if I need to make it an ‘advanced’ game, but I know that’s partly just me not wanting to let go of something I’m attached to. Wish me luck!

Some changes for Hel’s BELLEs

Had another playtest last night. Once again forgot to snap a photo (I swear I’ll remember one of these days!). Had a new player out, which was fantastic, as it lead to a pretty productive discussion afterwards. He liked it very much (yes!) and had some thoughts regarding streamlining some aspects of the timing. Good stuff, and they look to work really well in conjunction with some ideas I was already messing around with.
At this point I think most of the changes are going to be related to streamlining the gameplay. The game works well, but takes a while. Which isn’t a problem in itself. What I don’t want is for it to take longer than it *needs* to. If 2 hours is what it takes to get the best experience possible then I’m fine with 2 hours. But if 1 hour can accomplish the same experience, then that’s how long it should be.
Right now, simultaneous turn resolution can combine with highly individualised mechs to create a syncopated turn effect that slows gameplay, especially over the available number of phases in a given turn. I had already been looking at methods to eliminate most of the syncopation, but hadn’t wanted to decrease the phases because it would limit customisation options, and I think that the on the fly customisation is a huge strength of the game. Last night’s discussion resulted in a method of decreasing phases that would work with my de-syncopation ideas while maintaining high customisability.
The other thought that my new playtester really liked was the idea of using maps and miniatures/tokens in addition to the cards. Not a new idea – I have it in the ruleset as a potential variant – but his intensity really demonstrated how nice it would be to do that, and I don’t disagree with him. Early iterations of hel’s BELLEs used all of those ideas. I made them an optional variant (or future deluxe version) because they aren’t totally necessary, and they drive the potential cost way up. Right now, hel’s BELLEs fits in a small box (think onirim or chronicle) and requires you to use some dice or scratch paper to keep track of some details. Adding tokens, counters, miniatures, dice, maps, playmats and so on would look fantastic, but would also mean a game that cost much more and took up a lot more space. I really like the idea, I’ve even thought about what those parts would look like and how they’d enhance gameplay, but when it comes down to it I just don’t think it’s feasible at this point. I’d certainly be up for the enhancements if I was in discussions with a publisher, but as I’m more likely to be self-releasing the first edition through gamecrafter, keeping costs down is pretty important to me.
Plus, I love the essential portability of the game in it’s current form.

Tweaking BELLEs

Making a few more changes to the hel’s BELLEs prototype before moving on into printing a beta version. Terrain has seen minimal use so far; it’s interesting and fun, but doesn’t quite have the appeal damage-wise. Since the goal of hel’s BELLEs is to destroy your opponent’s BELLE (potentially several times over), there can be a bigger payoff in spenig the time and resources in weapons and armour over terrain. With this in mind, I’ve boosted the collateral damage of terrain significantly. It should make it a more viable option (even more so in games involving more players).
When I first started this project, I knew that balancing would be an important aspect of tweaking the prototype, and it has been, but it’s interesting to note that it hasn’t been in the way that I expected. My expectations were that most tweaks would be cost-to-value ratios on various mecha parts, but a lot of it has been related to card economy. Playtesting has really demonstrated what cards – even if decent value for cost, just aren’t as valuable in terms of gameplay. Some stuff has been cut or pushed back into expansion territory (some ideas are solid, but lack the cohesion you’d get with a larger quantity of similarly-themed cards), but some of the cards, like terrain drops and defensive actions, just need a bit more oomph. Often as not, it’s the cards that I was worried would be overpowered that are lacking (I may have removed their teeth in the early stages without realising it).
All in all, an interesting process.

playtesting hel’s BELLEs

Got in a bit of playtesting last night. Felt good. 1 new player, who gave the rules a once over and then tried a game. I went over some stuff, but she actually played a duel against somebody that’s only played twice before, so much of the in-game questions and answers were handled by him. Seemed like a good sign. I need to try and get playtest sessions happening a little more often; I find the first run at it is a little slow each time because it’s never very fresh in people’s heads. This wouldn’t be an issue if hel’s BELLEs played in 20-30 minutes, but it’s more of a 60-120 minute sort of deal, which means we rarely get in more than a couple games in a night. That said, we were clocking much closer to the 60-minute mark this time than we used to, which would seem to indicate that my efforts to streamline the Market/Upgrading were not in vain.

While I am simultaneously considering and developing a 3-4 player option, the base game is a duel between two players, and this is what we focused on last night. There were four of us, but we paired off to play separate games, and managed to get 2 full games in, and well into a third. GroupA’s first game went smoothly, with a couple of questions coming up, all of which are at this point covered in the rules (which need a table of contents or an index!) and could be quickly looked up. Balance between various options seemed good, and the recent tweaks I made to CPU upgradeability were lifesavers. It would have been a much longer trek without. Also had a chance to see the newly-added boot sequence (for when a mech’s entire core is replaced) put to use, and it was well-received all around; previously, mech replacement was a little too much pro and not enough con. GroupB’s game was very Market/upgrade heavy, and ran a little longer as a result, but both players were having a blast customizing their mechs, so this wasn’t a problem. It meant a longer game, but both players were fine with that. Had either one pushed the fight a little more, things would have moved along more quickly; they both enjoyed being able to explore some more options on the customization front (the new player was in this group, which likely played a role in the customization focus). GroupA got a second game well under way before we all had to call it a night, and it was a very close match with both players walking a fine line between customization and combat.

As I mentioned, balance between different aspects of the game seems to be more or less achieved at this point. Next time I expect to test out a new repair procedure (the old one just isn’t efficient enough to make it an attractive option) and make some terrain tweaks. Defending is still up in the air as to whether it’s valuable enough to keep around.

the Concept

So, what’s hel’s BELLEs about? What have I been trying to do?
Well, first off, I don’t think I’m the only one that enjoys giant robot fights. I also like board games. A lot. Especially board games that put it all in my own hands. I don’t mind losing, but it sucks to lose because you keep rolling 1’s (or 6’s, or whatever), or can’t draw the random card you need (need, not want; I’m talking about manascrew, not just failing to draw your ultimate combo). I also like tactical games with limited actions, like 40k, or jagged alliance, or even fallout 1 and 2.
Hel’s BELLEs is the game I want to play that doesn’t exist. Or didn’t, anyway, until I made it. The battlefield is built on the table in front of you. Minis, terrain and complex maps could all be used if you want to, but are completely unnecessary.
The cards you play define the battlefield, and you move about within that battlefield. Weapons, ammunition, armour, equipment, mecha, all upgraded and tweaked as you play, mid combat. Your movement improves over time as well, and every upgrade (equipment/maneuverability/supplies/terrain) is purchased by you, which means you get to decide whether you’d rather be agile or sturdy, whether you want the biggest guns or prefer a subtle game of modifications.
Commands are revealed and executed simultaneously, meaning you need to read through your opponent’s strategy and react while he’s still acting. Your tactics either work or they don’t; there are no dice rolls to determine results. Mecha, battlefield, action, equipment, market, terrain, all in a thick deck of cards.
As I said, I’m currently in the process of putting together a beta deck, making some adjustments that came up during early playtesting. I have a full ruleset written up at this point (putting it all into words was probably one of the hardest aspects of this whole process), and look forward to getting my beta prototype assembled so I can start doing some blind playtesting.
Hopefully I can find some time this weekend to tweak some card design details.
And maybe squeeze in a game…

Hel’s BELLEs

For the past year or two I’ve been mucking about in the world of board game design. The idea that’s been getting most of my attention is a mechanized combat game. It started out as a board game full of bits and tiles and other miscellaneous extras, but as I worked to streamline it I cut it down in size immensely, until it became a double deck of cards. It still has lots of flexibility in terms of components (a board and minis could very easily be added for extra fluffiness), but can be played with just the cards and some scratch pads.
A lot of effort has been sunk into limiting random chance, which might appeal to war and strategy gamers more than traditional mecha fans, but I like it. Working on a beta deck now, making some changes based on early playtesting, and I just recently put together a ruleset. That was a much bigger job than I’d anticipated, but I think they work. I guess I’ll find out before too long. Once the beta deck is done, I’ll probably start looking into blind playtesting it, which will be the real test.
Response from gamer friends has been great; should be interesting to get some non-friend input. The complexity is far lower than it was in the early days, but there’s still a lot going on.