Sails & Sorcery Progress

I have been continuing to develop Sails & Sorcery, Micheal's "Victorian era organized crime" themed game. After a disappointing few tests with the TMG guys at Origins and GenCon, and several attempts to balance the Plunder role, I have come to the conclusion that the way the role works is too problematic -- it cannot be fixed just by tweaking the costs and rewards.

The Plunder Role

The Plunder role allows you to remove opposing pirates from the board. You get some points for this, but the captured pirates go back to their owner's ship to be re-deployed. Deploying pirates to the board helps you win majority in an area, and then they stay in play for later, while Plundering an area helps you win majority in that area for the round, but nothing more. This sounded like a decent trade-off to me, but in practice it always seemed to be problematic. Part of the problem is the ability for a player to wipe another player out of an area entirely, reversing their progress, or cutting them out of scoring. Some of this might be groupthink, but it tends to scare players away from recruiting and deploying pirates (in an area control game about putting pirates on the board and moving them around).

We tried several versions of Plunder costs (capture 1 pirate per icon, pay N icons, capture N-1 pirates, Capture 1 pirate per *2* icons...), and considered several versions of rewards as well (you can capture ships and they're worth points, you can capture ships and they're NOT worth points, you can't capture ships, you get 1 point per pirate captured, you get 1 point per COLOR of pirate captured, you don't get points at all...). Over the different iterations of the game we even tried giving captured pirates back right away, vs the next round, and we experimented with those pirates going back to the player vs back to the general supply. The point is, we tried a lot of variations, and while each idea had its merits, none of them combined to make the role work correctly!

Re-imagining Plunder

A few times it crossed my mind that perhaps Plunder should do something else entirely, but I hesitated to change the effect because I liked the idea of having a way to remove pirates from areas. After all, El Grande (one of the main sources of inspiration for this game) has effects that add and remove pieces from the areas, as well as move them around. After a recent playtest, the idea of changing the nature of Plunder altogether came p again. One player suggested that perhaps there could be some kind of set collection associated with the role. Another something to the effect of digging up buried treasure. The epiphany I had that got me interested in it this time (when I was hesitant before) was this: perhaps there could be a set of "treasure" tiles, which you "buy" with Plunder. Each one could either give you an effect similar to Davy Jones (add one of your pirates to an area and capture 1 pirate from each opponent there), or some set collection scoring icon (like a gem of a certain type).

This way, a player could "Plunder for control" by going for the tiles with effects, or "Plunder for points" by going for the set collection stuff. My first attempt at this format was to make a bunch of tokens like that, put 4 of them on each area during setup, and make the cost of plundering an area go up each time one of them is taken. I figured that matched the Summon and Build cost structure, so it made some sense. I wasn't sure whether to go with the more strategic option (placing the tiles face up), or the more thematic option (face down), so I sort of compromised -- the tiles were face down, and when you plundered an area, you got to look at all the remaining tiles there and choose one. I tried that version last week, and it had some good points and some bad. Nobody missed the thought of having all of their pirates wiped off the board! However, it was weird that the choice went down as the cost went up (assuming the best tiles get taken first), and I would have preferred less setup anyway.

Thinking about it some more, I decided that this new format is similar to the old one, but limited in how many pirates you can capture, so maybe better than effect or points, it should be effect and points. So for the next playtest, I will try a tweak: I'll put 2 tiles on each area, each with a random plunder cost (between 2 and 6). Then I'll have a deck of treasure cards to the side of the board, with 4 of them face up. Each card will have both an immediate effect, and a gem for set collection scoring. This way, the plunder cost doesn't escalate like it does for building or summoning, but it'll still matter where you are when you Plunder, and it'll still be worth having plunder in your deck to afford the higher cost opportunities. And you'll get to capture or add pirates according to one of the available cards, plus you'll score a few points. We'll see if this version feels better.

If that doesn't feel right, another idea is to make the cost "2 + 1/player with presence in the area" -- which would scale in a potentially interesting way, but might not scale well with player count. But it would save the plunder cost tiles, and a little setup hassle.

A word on theme

At the top of this post I mentioned the theme was supposed to be Victorian era organized crime. Michael did mention that when he dropped off the game, but as far as I could tell, the game was a generic pirate game with monsters you can summon. If he hadn't told me he intended the players to be pirate captains backed by countries, doing espionage and etc, then I would never have guessed it. When I told him about this "buried treasure" version of plunder, he suggested we do something more in line with the Victorian era organized crime theme... which made me consider theme in general...

I think it's good to have a specific or interesting theme to a game. The less generic, the better. However, if the interesting, unusual theme looks the same as a more common, generic theme, then Occam's Razor would suggest that people won't even see the interesting theme.

So it's not a surprise to me that a player actually suggested a buried treasure sort of mechanism in this game, which is not intended to be a "pirate" themed game, but which clearly looks and feels like one.

If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and plays like a duck...

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