05 November, 2015

NaGaDeMon - Project 1: Bug Hunt (Part 1)

One of my side projects over the past two years has been a little game called Bug Hunt. It was developed as a university project as an educational tool to teach kids about risk and potential reward, through lessons that emerged through the mechanisms of the various game rules interacting. There was nothing specific in the game saying that those who took bigger risks had a better chance of winning the game, and it wasn't simply a die rolling exercise. On the surface it was simply a little game about exploring a swamp and capturing bugs.

I've playtested it maybe a dozen times over the two year period, each time making some minor refinements, and each time pushing it closer to a game that I'd be happy to sit down with my niece an nephew to play... but these modifications have only really occurred at a mechanistic level. I've been hoping to make some more dramatic stylistic changes, and decided I'd start working on those for this years NaGaDeMon.

The essence of Bug Hunt is based on Zombie Dice. You pick some custom dice, roll them and see what the result is... you might find a bug, you might find a trail that leads to a bug, or you might get bitten. You can choose to keep rolling for new bugs as long a you've got a trail to follow, or you can stop and secure your bugs. If you get 3 bug bites during your turn, it's over. It's a basic press your luck game.

The episode of Tabletop where Zombie Dice was played showed an inherent problem in the game. If a player is lucky, they might win before anyone else really gets a chance to do much of anything. So the first thing I did was add "sleepy" sides to some of the dice. If you get a sleepy result, your turn ends but you keep your bugs, it keeps things moving around the table a bit more evenly. The second thing I did was create a modular map of coloured hexes.

Now, instead of randomly drawing three dice, you draw a die matching the colour of your location hex, and a random die. Different locations have more chance of scoring bugs offset by equivalent chances of getting bitten. If a die result gives you a trail, you keep that die, move to a new location and draw a die matching the new location's colour, and a random die. Players are pulled across the board as they follow trails of bugs. This added a new factor where I could increase the degree of interaction for players who weren't currently rolling the dice. A player doesn't get to choose where the trails of their bugs lead, the player on their left does this.

One of the first variations during playtesting saw players on the trail of bugs running across the swamp, securing bugs and continuing their wander. A later version required players to go back to a neutral base camp to secure their bugs, they would automatically "teleport" back there once they had declared their intention to secure their bugs. Next we changed the way hexes were laid out so that "easy locations" were closer to the base camp while harder and riskier locations required a bit of travel to get to. A further iteration required walking back, one location hex at a time.

Throughout all of these variants, there were two constants that have recently come into question. The first is the rule of "3 bites ends your turn", the second is that "the person with the most bugs at the end wins".

There is an inherently demoralising moment when you've been bitten three times. You turn ends, you lose the unsecured bugs, you end up back at base camp and have to start everything all over again. +Jez Gordon made an awesome suggestion, why not start with less than three bites, but every time you get taken out by insect bites you build up a bit more of an immunity to their toxins. So, we give every character a two sided immunity token (face up is healthy, face down is bitten). Let's say everyone starts with 2 tokens because we want there to still be a bit of choice from the very first turn. Player 1 gets through three turns without being bitten once and thus accumulates quite a range of bugs but is still very susceptible to their toxins. Player 2 has been bitten two out of three times, they don't hav anywhere near as many bugs, but they've developed quite a resistance and are in a good state to continue capturing more. The added immunity isn't an absolute game-changer, but it reduces the impact of failed forays out into the field, it's not quite a positive feedback loop, but it's definitely reactive against the negative feedback loop that would otherwise develop.

The second major change to the game, is something I've been toying with for a while.

In Zombie Dice, there is a point (I think it's 13 brains) that initiates an end game sequence. From this point everyone simply takes one more turn in an attempt to match or beat the number of brains accumulated by that leading player. I used the same thing in Bug Hunt, but it was pointed out that if the person on your left had the most, then they'd deliberately send you to the locations where you'd be least likely to match their total. This can be partially mitigated by allowing players to choose which of their neighbours directs the bug paths. Naturally, you'd choose the player who isn't currently winning when the end game comes around.

The other option is to change the end game completely, I'm still thinking that it's a good idea to allow players to choose which neighbour directs their bug trails through the whole game, but a variant end game allows for different levels of play. We could have a very simple version for young kids (or starting players), a slightly advanced version for older kids (or players who are ready to move onto the next level), and a complex version for adults and experienced game players. To these ends I'm looking at bug cards, 36 in total. 6 bugs, 6 colours. Every time a bug is collected, the player draws a card and adds it to their hand, if they end their turn due to being bitten, they return those cards to the pile. If the bugs are secured, they are placed face down in front of the player. Once all cards are either in players hands or in front of them, the game ends. Now players sort their cards into groups of matching colour or matching bug type, scoring a number of points equal to the number of bugs in the group.

Kara ends the game with eight bugs. 

Red Ant, Red Beetle, Green Beetle, Blue Ant, Yellow Dragonfly, Black Beetle, Black Ant, Grey Beetle.

She divides them up into Ants (Red Ant, Blue Ant, Black Ant - 3pts) and Beetles (Red Beetle, Green Beetle, Black Beetle, Grey Beetle - 4pts). The Yellow Dragonfly doesn't match any other bugs by colour or type, so it can't be grouped with anything. (7 pts total)

Kara could have matched by colour with 2 Reds and 2 Blacks, but these would have been lower scoring smaller groups with four non-scoring cards.

Wendy ends the game with nine bugs.

Red Butterfly, Red Dragonfly, Green Ant, Green Spider, Blue Wasp, Blue Beetle, Yellow Wasp, Black Dragonfly, Grey Spider. 

She divides hers up into Reds (Red Butterfly, Red Dragonfly - 2pts), Greens (Green Ant, Green Spider - 2pts), and Blues (Blue Wasp, Blue Beetle - 2pts). The Yellow Wasp, Black Dragonfly and Grey Spider don't match any groups. (6 pts total) 

Wendy could have matched by type with 2 Spiders, 2 Beetles, and 2 Dragonflies. In this case it would have worked out the same with a total of 6 points.  

Mary ends the game with ten bugs.

Red Wasp, Green Dragonfly, Yellow Butterfly, Yellow Beetle, Yellow Ant, Yellow Spider, Black Butterfly, Black Dragonfly, Grey Ant, Grey Dragonfly.

She could divide them up into Yellows (4), Blacks (2), and Greys (2).

Mary instead makes a group of Yellows (Yellow Butterfly, Yellow Beetle, Yellow Ant, Yellow Spider - 4pts) and a group of Dragonflies (Green Dragonfly, Black Dragonfly, Grey Dragonfly - 3pts). There's nothing to say she can't categorise one type by color and one by type. In this configuration, the Red Wasp and Grey Ant don't match any groups.

The player with the largest matched group of bugs wins, ties are resolved by comparing the next largest group of bugs.

In the example, Kara has a group of 4 bugs (4 beetles), so does Mary (4 yellows). They compare the next group size (Kara has 3 ants, Wendy has 3 dragonflies), still a tie. Since neither player an make other groups out of their remaining cards, simply compare the number of unmatched cards. Mary wins but it was closer than things first looked.

I'm still trying to work out the best way to resolve this scoring system at the end of a game, but preliminary tests have shown that this version isn't too random, but it does offer possible reshuffle when total bug captured are close, and can theoretically allow an upset if one player finds six bugs of matching type or colour. It might be worth exploring the option of trading bugs during the course of play (if two players are in the same location), but this would be a part of the most advanced game level.

Here's my current thoughts.

Basic game = 3 Bites, no change during play. No Trade. Most bugs wins.
Intermediate game = Start with 2 bites, increase during play. No Trade. Largest grouping wins.
Advanced game = Start with 2 bites, increase during play. Trade. Largest grouping wins.

There might also be possibility to introduce special character abilities ("If you have a group of red bugs, it counts as 1 size larger", "Ignore the first bug bite you gain each turn", etc.) But this sort of thing would only be included with an expansion set, ad would require some fairly heavy playtesting to confirm none of the abilities are too unbalanced.
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