Saturday, August 12, 2006

Star Wars Life

I played Star Wars Life yesterday. It's a game inspired by the game "Life". Not the Cells-that-Breed Life, but the Need-More-Little-Pink-Tokens Life.

I understand that it's supposed to be a half-hour game, but it is painfully badly designed. Lemme sum up. No, there is too little. Lemme explain.

In SWL, you play a Jedi's life. The tokens are of all the really unappealing Jedi, except Obi-Wan. That is Obi-Wan, right? I'm only marginally up to date on the latest "movies".

You parade around a board by rolling a d10 and moving that many spaces. Technically, you're supposed to spin the spinner, but it's so badly designed that (A) it doesn't feel good to spin and (B) since it is arranged 1-10 in order, it's easy to land in the 8-10 range every time you spin it.

There are more choices than in the standard game of life, which is good, because the standard game of life is really, painfully low on choices. A lot like Chutes and Ladders, really. But not SWL!

First, there are four skills. A lot of tiles and challenges let you pick up more of a skill of your choice. Challenges are fairly common, ranging from lessons to missions to directly challenging another player. You roll a d10, add the relevant skill, and hope for a number higher than the difficulty level. If you win, you gain more skills. If you lose, you frequently lose skills.

That's the first problem. Do you see it?

Yeah, a big-ass positive feedback loop. The more skills you have, the more skills you can get. The less skills you have, the more unlikely you are to get more skills. This leads to an absurd stretching, and if you're one of those in last place, it's not even worth playing to the end, because you can't possibly accomplish anything worthwhile.

Another problem is that the skill distribution is poor, but that's minor and forgivable. The evil feedback loop is not.

Continuing on, there's a lot of cool stuff. You get a mentor (wow! Look at that list of third-rate mentors!) and a light saber as the game progresses. This gives the game a delightful "chunkyness". There are some minor issues with balance - not all light sabers and mentors are equal, but they appear to be at first. These issues are minor. The chunkyness is great.

The big "draw" is that the board is criss-crossed with "dark side" paths, which are shorter than their parallel "light side" paths - sometimes much shorter. Usually, they are also cooler - many dark side tiles give you three skills or let you steal two. Every tile you stop on gives you a dark side point, and most of the paths have a mandatory stop, so you're guaranteed to gain skills and a dark side point.

The problem is that they aren't more powerful. In fact, they're less powerful, because at the end you lose your mentor. While you blaze through, the rest of the characters are sauntering along collecting slightly more skill points.

This wouldn't be bad if the reward for being the first Sith was big enough to make up for it. But, no - the reward for being the first Sith is about as much as the reward for being the second Jedi. I guess the dark side paths are intended to be shortcuts for Jedi who are racing to the Jedi end gate and are willing to lose a few skills due to dark side contamination. Which is, you know, precisely the wrong lesson.

At the end of the game, the best Sith fights the best Jedi. But get this: the Sith has to win all three contests, or he loses the game.

The Jedi has more skill points. As far as I can tell, the odds are something around 100:1 in the Jedi's favor. That's not exaggeration. That's about right.

Now, there are all kinds of things you can say to try to redeem the game. "It's teaching that the dark side is bad!" "It's just a fun half hour!"

The game is badly designed. A badly designed multi-million dollar board game.

It does not include any team work. It does not include any drama. It is a race, even though Star Wars is not. It is fluff, and badly designed fluff.

So, I'm gonna redesign it.

A parody, of course. That's still legal, over here.

I have some ideas. :D

Have any of you played it? Any of you have ideas?


kestrel404 said...

My wife is a huge fan of Life and it's various variants. We own 3 versions (The new 'standard' edition, which is much better than the old 'standard' edition, Star Wars, and Pirates of the Caribbean). Something you'll note is that the only thing they really have in common is: A pseudo-branching path with too few options, random movement based on a d10, and points where you're forced to stop and do something. That's it. Really.

Now, many of the things that the original did right were ignored in the other two games. Proffessions were an excellent addition to the basic form of life - they meant something, they changed how you interacted with the board (if you landed on a space marked with your profession, you didn't have to pay yourself, when someone else landed on a space marked with your profession, they payed you), they gave you a unique field. The 'college path vs. the non-college path' also meant something. In exchange for negative money, you got a choice of profession and salary. Of course, this meant EVERYONE who wanted to win took the college path.

Star wars life is just as you described.

Carribean Life is the best of the three in many ways. You get a captain (who is either a pirate or a landlubber), a ship (which is really just one of five options: attack rating of 1-5, with the 'Black Pearl' having the highest rating AND giving you a cash bonus every time you pass a payday). Each captain also had their own 'share of the loot' associated, in effect their salary. Also, each captain had certain event cards associated with them, so that drawing them would change the game slightly. This happens so little as to be no real effect. Done right, it would have made each captain feel unique. As it was, the only difference that mattered was whether your captain was a pirate or a landlubber. Pirates got an immediate payday, and invariably had better events, more money, and less hardship on the board. Landlubbers got a slightly longer path. The two things that made the game: You could challenge someone for their ship, stealing it (along with some of their money), or buying it off them. This made the game 'hunt for the Black Pearl' more than anything, which is just like the movies, so I rather enjoyed that. The other thing was the Event cards, which you drew when you landed on a life space. They either told you how many life tiles to take (and once the supply ran out, as it invariably did, you took them from other players), or caused something random to happen (like a pair of captains getting drunk and trading ships). This would have been a poor game feature, except that once you get to the end of the board, your treasure is relatively safe (only one life tile can be stolen at a time, and you cannot be attacked and get your cash stolen). Thus, you suddenly have a REASON to get to the end of the board quickly, once the life tiles run out.

So, those are the three version I'm familiar with. A few notes on their attempts at 'balancing' the obvious positive feedback loops:
Paydays are unapologetically uneven in both the games that have them (Carribean and regular). However, in regular, you frequently have the option of changing or trading your paygrade with another player. Theoretically, this means that the highest payscale swaps evenly between players. In my experience, what happens is that the highest and lowest player swap payscales frequently, while the middle payscale player (or the person with the second highest payscale if there are four+ players) get a nice-but-not-highest pay grade and keep that to the end, easily outpacing the other's strictly-average payscale.
The first person to reach the end of the board gets more skills/life tiles than people after them. This is because on average the person who is on the board the longest collects the most money/skills. However, unless the positioning is relatively close (which should theoretically happen often, and realistically happens rarely), the value of those tiles isn't even close to the value of staying on the board longer.
Movement speed on the boards is close to truely random, even with the branching paths. You CAN be a very-very slow darksider or a very fast Lightsider. You can rush any of the games, and lose horribly because of it. The only game where I won as a darksider, I'd ended up with an even dozen darkside points by the end. On a gameboard where movement is d10 based and there are no more than 20 darside spaces total, and various ways to lose darkside points at random. I won two of my matches agains the jedi in that game by DEFAULT because my skills were more than 10 higher than his.

Suggesstions: Shorter game board with more choices. D4 for movement instead of D10. Initial choice of 'profession' with choices of paths/card options/skills/money dependent on that choice. Balance those choices. Don't call it Life (because if it's not broken, it won't be). Some way for the player to interact directly, and some way for them to interact indirectly (one method each). Perhaps the ability to attack one another, and the ability to 'set roadblocks' in order to limit path choices. Skills were better than money, but perhaps money can be treated as another 'skill' (accumulated and used to solve problems).

Craig Perko said...

Money has no place in the Jedi universe, heh.

Everything else I agree with you - or even take more aggressive stances. A d4 movement is the questionable one. It makes it very difficult to "catch up". But I do like the idea... and I can put in some "roll again if you're not in first" tiles.

kestrel404 said...

Money is a perfectly valid exchange medium...if you're not a Jedi. I did suggest including professions - like Bounty Hunter, Starship pilot, Imperial officer and Princess, in addition to Jedi Consular and Sith Apprentice. ;)

Starting skills based on profession would be good. As would starting 'salary'.

As for why d4 - I suggested that because I was thinking of a much shorter but more complicated gameboard. Where it's possible for a player to finish the average game of life in a dozen moves if they roll too high, with a d4 and a path of 100 spaces, the minimum game length would be 25 moves, which is probably too long for this kind of game. A d6 would work just as well - for a slightly longer board.

As for being unable to catch up with others, you have just as much of a chance of catching up or falling behind with a d4 as you do with any other single die. The difference is that the d4 has a standard deviation very close to 1 - meaning that you're probably only going to catch up or fall behind by 1 space every turn. With a d6, it becomes 2 spaces. With a d10, it's 3. Roughly, on average.

Really, it just comes down to how many spaces long you want to make the board. I was going for a short board, because you'd need to make a LOT of spaces for ever space of length on the board itself. Now here's my idea on the board itself.

Imagine a very loose three string braid, it comes and goes, interweaving continusouly, so that there is never less than two and never more than three parallel tracks that all intersect one another at regular intervals. Each one of these intersections is clearly labeled - with who can take which path. Jedi are forced away from the path where people get payed and require money. Bounty hunters and imperials can't go on the path to through the rebel base. Only Princesses and Sith Apprentices can wear makeup. That kind of thing. Some of the paths may ALSO require certain skill levels, starships, or other widgets picked and lost up during the game. But there are constant choices, while all of the options are never available to one person. you want to create a mockup of this for gaming weekend? We can discuss over e-mail.

Craig Perko said...

No, I want to create a game which is all Jedi, all the time. There are some very strong reasons for this, chief of which is potential team play and interplayer fighting. If you really stretch, you can theoretically have jedi and princesses and bounty hunters using team play, but it's a huge stretch. I favor stronger play cohesion, rather than wider play cohesion. Personal preference.

I've got my rules already made up - I have to finish writing cards and designing a board. Then I have to turn card write-ups into cards, which requires a printer and some google searches...

Also, I won't be at gaming weekend, because my sister decided she wanted to get married exactly then.