Monday, January 26, 2015

Fully Cooperative

My wife and I played 5 games of Shadows of Brimstone in this past week. Three 2-player games, and two games with other couples. While I’ve only recently been keeping track on the exact count, I’d guess that I played the game at least 20 times before this week.  I haven't paid much attention to the clock, but my instinct is that they've probably averaged around 3 to 4 hours a piece.  So I’ve got at least 100 hours of play under my belt, plus an unhealthy amount of time thinking about it and a day or two spent assembling minis. So I clearly like it a lot, is what I'm saying.

For the two most recent sessions, we tried out making the game _fully_and_actually_ cooperative (as opposed to _just_fully_cooperative_, as the game is written). Meaning that we divvied up the XP and $ rewards of the mines evenly. Artifacts and Darkstone, too, though that sometimes required some negotiating. For the main part, we handled it like an old D&D party, giving everyone fair, if not exactly equal loot. (You know how it works. If your party only has 1 fighter, but the only two magic items found were a bastard sword and platemail, you give those to the fighter and reduce his share of the gold somewhat to compensate.) 

I was amazed how much more satisfying an experience this was. I've really enjoyed Brimstone, but there's always this little bit of either envy or guilt tainting the experience every time we play. If I personally had a bad game, I was envious of the XP or Wealth that others were getting instead of me. Conversely, if my dice were hot while someone else was struggling with bad luck, I always felt really guilty about it. It’s because I’d look ahead at the big picture and the long campaign.

This dissatisfaction was basically unique to Shadows of Brimstone amongst all the cooperative games we own. Other co-op games don't trigger this emotion in me.
  • If we're playing Pandemic, and I’m the Researcher while the other two players are the Dispatcher and the Medic, I don’t feel any envy. Those two characters acting in combo is brokenly good, but having it at the table makes the win more likely for everyone. Go team! 
  • In Space Hulk: Death Angel, I’m naturally a tiny bit more protective of my own fireteams than others', but if something bad happens to my guys I don’t take it personally, and I often sacrifice my marines for the sake of the mission (or to save someone else's character whose special power I feel is vital to our success). 
  • Even in other Flying Frog Productions games, there was rarely a sense of envy or guilt. If you have terrible luck when drawing cards in A Touch Of Evil you might end up with only hardship instead of building up stats and equipment, but even with the worst possible draws you at least know that the next time you break out the game it will all reset to a level playing field. You might feel a little bad that you’re not carrying your weight in the cooperative game, but if someone else is having a good run of luck you can still be excited for them (and hope they’ll do well enough to carry you to a victory). 
In any of those other cooperative games, I've never or rarely felt a need to be competitive.

Brimstone is different, because XP is awarded individually per attack roll or skill check. Each session in which you underperform makes it more likely you’ll have subsequent bad sessions (or at least relatively bad when compared to the other characters) in the future. Someone scoring a little more XP or cash than another in one session is no big deal, but if it enables them to level up sooner and buy more potent equipment it could compound and lead to an ever-increasing power gap between the Heroes.

Because it's in my nature to look at the big picture and evolving patterns, I rarely felt completely happy with the way Brimstone played out. Fear that the XP disparity would eventually get out of hand was sometimes distracting me from enjoying the game. Not enough to ruin it, but enough to undermine the fun just a little every single session. Splitting up the rewards equally fixed that entirely. We played two games yesterday with the new reward system, and even though my Bandido flopped horribly and got KO’d in the second game, I still had fun cheering on the other player as she fought valiantly over my not-dead-yet body. A good game, now made better.

We tracked XP with poker chips, and divided them out evenly at the end of each fight, during the Catch Your Breath phase of each turn. Cash went into a common pool, and was split up right before the Traveling step at the end of the Adventure. Dark Stone gained during the adventure was counted as $75 towards your share of the cash. Realistically, it sells for about $90 on average at the Frontier Outpost, but it comes with extra risks (Corruption check, Town Events, etc) that caused us to settle on a figure that compensates you a little for those dangers. Gear and Artifacts found were also counted against cash share. It worked well. We did all the splitting up before heading to town, and didn't split up rewards (or consequences) from Traveling or Town Events. While this did leave some room for variation that could theoretically matter in the longest of runs, it was a small variance and a lot less work than trying to divvy up again every day in Town.

Chasing Brimstone

Over at Board Game Geek, someone was asking for ideas for Shadows of Brimstone scenarios that wouldn't just play out as the same "stumbling about in search of clue tokens" feel that is the default experience for most of the published missions.

Here's the rough idea I threw at him. I figure I might as well cross-post it here, since I haven't blogged much lately.

I propose a mission that is a chase through a tunnel, where you place ~4 tiles in a row at the start. Place the Corrupt Sheriff token (or an unused red mini) at the far end from where the Heroes start. Players are trying to catch up with him.

How far he moves each turn depends on the Hold Back The Darkness rolls / Depth Track, or a custom chart. Some rolls trigger him to jump ahead to the start of the next tile, and other rolls just send him a number of spaces forward.

You could avoid Exploration Tokens entirely, so no clues at all. Maybe the only Encounter cards drawn are ones that correspond to the "Advanced" block at the bottom of room tiles. Threats are produced by the same chart that governs the Corrupt Sheriff's movement. Instead of being Threats determined by your Posse level, it'd be only Low Threats entering via side doors, and the frequency (instead of Threat Card color) is determined by your posse level.

They want to bring the Corrupt Sheriff back to justice, which requires getting adjacent to him and making a 6+ Strength check to wrestle him down. Once he's down, no more monsters spawn, and the players win if he's down and they've killed all the monsters that had appeared during the chase.

Stopping to fight the monsters while the sheriff is still on the loose is counter-productive. There'd be a rapid pace forced on the players, with optimal play being about punching a hole through the monster formation, not fighting everything to death (which would only allow the Corrupt Sheriff more time to run away).

Catching Your Breath wouldn't be triggered by eliminating all the monsters, as there's never a moment without at least that one Enemy (the Corrupt Sheriff) in play. So instead Catching Your Breath comes from some entry on the Sheriff's movement chart, which also provides the Loot rewards, and can happen even if there are monsters still in play.

The Corrupt Sheriff is himself carrying a Lantern, so if a Hero is faster than the rest of their posse, they could risk running ahead and try to use the villain's light instead.

The idea would be to reward characters with Move bonuses, since they'd be able to catch up with him fairly quickly. In one of the posses I play with, there's a character with +3 movement, that's pretty much always wasted as she can't safely move ahead of us slow-pokes. In this scenario, she'd excel, provided she can slip around the Low Threats as they come up.

It would also make "discard and redraw the map tile" powers somewhat better than they are in most missions. You'd use them to redraw large rooms (since the Corrupt Sheriff can sometimes jump the whole length of a room in a single turn) in favor of short passages and small rooms.

Building the chart and getting the timing right on the Sheriff's movement and monster spawns would take a lot of playtesting and number-crunching, but it's a starting point.