Monday, April 6, 2015

Streamlining Rules With Pandante

This Monday, we're going to do something a little different! As the Pandante Second Edition Kickstarter winds to a close this Friday, I'd like to use it as a platform for talking about how designers streamline rules. If you don't know much about Pandante, here's a good overview post that not only talks about the basics of the game, but also about some of the design decisions that went into it. Then, come back here and read up on how the game changed. (I'll also summarize how the old rules worked, if you really don't feel like learning about panda gambling.)

So, let's get started. You can pull up a link to the rules changes here, to get an idea of what sorts of things altered. I'll only be touching on a few of these, but I'll talk about the general philosophy behind that sort of rules change, and how you can apply the same mindset when you're working on your own designs!

Cutting Breakfast: putting rules on a diet
The first change I'd like to discuss is the removal of the "breakfast" rule. In the first edition of the game, every turn (except for the first turn), players could ante up some chips (outside of the normal ante) in order to get rid of their hand and draw a new hand. If you had won the previous hand, breakfasting was mandatory. In the revised rules, there is no breakfast rule; instead, you always draw a new hand every turn, and you ante more chips at the start of a round. So why the change?

In practice, game designer David Sirlin found that there was a lot of rules complication being added for very little effect. The only option that breakfast gave the players was the ability to keep a hand that had lost previously: maybe it wasn't good enough to win the last hand, but it might be good enough to win this hand. Most of the time, though, using the breakfast rule to get a new hand was a better option anyway. When weighing that against the fact that the breakfast rule had a couple weird exceptions ("no breakfast on hand one" and "the winner of a hand always has to take breakfast"), Sirlin opted to fold the rule into the normal flow of play, and remove the option.

This points to a very powerful (and, arguably, fundamental) principle of streamlining a game's rules: if players get a choice that doesn't meaningfully impact gameplay very much, it's often best to remove the choice or else make it more meaningful to gameplay. If you're working to economize a game, err on the side of removing the choice. You can often use that freed-up design space to augment another choice in your game. Look for choices that don't benefit strategy, and make them non-choices.

Free Abilities: focusing the game
The next change that will draw a lot of attention has to do with the abilities that players could use. In the first version of the game, there were six main abilities, and each one was tied to one of the six colors of cards in the game. After the third round of betting, you got to use up to two abilities, corresponding to the colors of the cards in your hand--but you could also lie about the abilities you had. In the new version, the bluffing element gets taken out; you can use up to two abilities, from a list of six abilities, and they can be whatever you want. That's a pretty big alteration!

Ultimately, this happened as a way to focus the bluffing element on one place: bluffing about how good your hand is. The core mechanic of the game is betting about which hand you have, and then daring the other players to call your bluff. When there's two things to bluff about, the game loses a bit of focus. And, although you could probably play some amount of mindgaming because the abilities you claim aren't in line with the hand that you're claiming (e.g., claiming a flush when you claim two abilities that don't match anything in the community cards), it's only something which impacts a small number of cases. And, on a practical level, there was no non-awkward way to show that you weren't bluffing about an ability, because you had to reveal the card's color without revealing the card.

When two parts of a game wind up being very similar (i.e., a round of bluffing about special abilities followed by a round of bluffing about your hand), it's often best to carefully examine if you really need both of them for your game to be complete. Often, it's better to cut one out so that gamers can focus on the other one, because having two game elements that don't really bolster one another is a design decision which weakens the game. Be economical with the mechanisms of your game, and try to focus them on a single objective if you can.

The Panda Coin: increasing practical usability
The last revision in this post is a very particular reward that got changed in the game. In the original game, David wanted to give players who won a hand by bluffing some reason to reveal that, so he introduced an award. If you won a hand by lying about your cards, you got to take one of six Panda Lords from the center of the table. Each Panda Lord had a unique ability that you could then use in future hands. In the revision, the reward changes: instead of taking a Panda Lord, you get the Golden Panda Coin, which you can spend as an ability to draw five cards and then discard five cards. That's a huge change! Why did it change?

This time, it comes back to the experience of game players; while letting players choose a Panda Lord was well and good, all of the Panda Lords have a bit of text that you need to read over to understand how they work. Since winning a hand by bluffing isn't necessarily a common choice, inexperienced (and sometimes not-so-inexperienced!) players only really wind up reading the cards after they win a hand by lying. Since there's six cards to choose from, and you have to read them and think about how they work, it can often be really hard to figure out what choice to make, especially because each Panda Lord drastically changes your playstyle. Instead, giving out the same award, with a very straightforward ability, was a good way to reward players and move along to the next round.

Be on the lookout, during playtests, for parts of the game that players have a hard time with, for whatever reason. Maybe it's complex abilities that don't get frequently invoked, which are consequently hard to understand and evaluate. Maybe it's confusing interactions between abilities at different timings. If players at the table start hesitating because of some reason or another, find out why. Get rid of confusing elements that slow down gameplay.

One Last Roundup
Hopefully you had fun with this look at the revision of an amusing and entertaining game about lying pandas. I think that finding ways to streamline a game into a more accessible experience also benefits game strategy, because it gets rid of busywork and lets you jump right into the "hard decisions" area, which is the point of strategy anyhow. If you're interested in Pandante, the new Kickstarter lets you get in on the game's latest and greatest version, and if you own a prior version, there's an "upgrade pack" that also includes some new goodies from the edition. Swing by, ask about #LyingPandas, you know the drill.

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