Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Tesla vs. Edison: Powering Up! Developer's Diary, Part 1

Howdy - I'm JR Honeycutt, the developer for Tesla vs. Edison: Powering Up!, the expansion to Tesla vs. Edison: War of Currents by Artana. I'm writing this developer's diary to talk about some of the things introduced in TvE: Powering Up! and how I got involved. This is part 1 - parts 2 and 3 will come later in the campaign. 

The expansion is currently on Kickstarter, and I'd love it if you took a moment to click here and check it out! 

In November of last year I was at Rob's place in Massachusetts finishing up dev work on SeaFall. Dirk Knemeyer and Marcus Muller, the folks who run Artana, stopped by for a playtest of one of the early iterations of Chronicles: Stone Age, which I tagged along for since I was already in the room. 

It was a blast, and I noticed right away that I had good chemistry with Dirk and Marcus. They asked me to be involved in demoing the game at BGG.Con, which turned into a lunch conversation with Dirk about developing the Tesla vs. Edison expansion. 

I had never played Tesla vs. Edison when Dirk first offered to let me work on it, and it took me a few weeks to get it the table enough times to start doing real development. One of the criticisms of the base game was that the rulebook was hard to understand, and sure enough the first few times I played I got a fair number of things wrong. That was an early hiccup that Dirk and I worked through by playing together on Tabletop Simulator - an awesome resource for long-distance testing. Huge thanks to Andrew Christopher Enriquez for building the module for us and keeping it updated through the process. 


From the get-go Dirk told me had a few things he wanted to address in the expansion, in no particular order: 
  1. Mitigate the power of the stock market action in the base game, in response to lots of BGG posts about "best strategies" that involved not experiencing the game the way Dirk intended
  2. Introduce a 6th player (Madam C. J. Walker) into the game
  3. Introduce Event Cards into the game
  4. Create a downward pressure on stock prices so that players wouldn't hit the stock price cap of $77 as often
  5. Introduce solo play in some way 
  6. Introduce Company Headquarters, ways for players to differentiate and specialize their companies 
  7. Change the end-game scoring to accommodate HQ Cards, final cash, and take some emphasis off of having the most shares of stock. 
I'm sure Dirk had more things in mind, but I'm highlighting the things that stood out to me. This is a lot of stuff, and Dirk already had design documents, files, and components ready to go, so after learning the base game I dove in and started testing what Dirk had created. The original version didn't use "HQ Cards", but instead had player mats with mutually-exclusive tracks that players could use invention/manufacturing ratings to move up, gaining special abilities. 

These were really cool, and ended up being the basis for a lot of the HQ Card abilities for each inventor. They weren't specific to each company, and there was a lot of information on each board - 18 choices across 3 tracks, each of which was divided into two mutually exclusive sub-tracks. That's a lot of information to keep track of during a game, so it was evident pretty early on that we needed to "hide" a lot of it by putting it on cards. 

Dirk, Mack (the other developer on staff at Artana) and I spent time in Tabletop Simulator and google docs working through various iterations of what the cards could do and how players could get them - buying them from a deck, dealing them out randomly, drafting them, etc. At this point Dirk was really adamant that each set of HQ Cards needed to be company-specific, with their own set of powers and abilities. That's where the set of four HQ Cards per company came in - Lab, Works, Office, and Studio - and from there it was all about making the abilities interesting and balanced. 

Originally the Event cards didn't have stock market effects on them (we introduced this later during playtesting, I'll talk more about it in part 2), but did have effects mostly similar to what you see in the final version. This is the thing that changed the least in function over time - each turn you flip an event card and resolve its effect. These are really fun, too! Lots of playtesters enjoyed having the random element added into the game, particularly the auctions that led to powerful, unbalanced effects at high costs. 

A lot of the process early on was around streamlining the expansion and making it "fit" with the base game. As a player I like it best when expansions introduce new game elements without making me re-learn how to play the base game. Concordia is my prime example for this. I put a lot of emphasis on keeping the expansion rules as close to the base game's rules as possible, which included keeping the per-phase multipliers, the propaganda cards and effects, and most of what happens in bookkeeping. We ended up taking out a few rules to make the game easier to play, but I'll talk more about that in part 3. 

We focused on replacing the stock market action (stripped out of the expansion) with the new "Develop HQ" action and still having the general action economy of the game be balanced, and prevent players from needing to skip turns late in the game. Dirk's instinct was that stripping out the stock market action would leave players with not enough to do on their turns, especially later in the game if all the projects were claimed, so we added an extra propaganda card per phase to entice players to take those actions, and tried to make the HQ Cards emphasize and reward taking propaganda and technology actions. 

I think we were really successful in this through the entire process - what we're seeing early in the game is a race to develop important technologies and claim patents, then a priority on company fame and developing projects and HQ cards. In playtesting it's been a more balanced experience with closer scores and shorter game times, two signs that we were doing a good job. 

Coming up in part 2 - Early "robot" decks for solo/multiplayer play (eventually called AI), working through Madam Walker's ability and balancing her against the other inventors, and creating Artana's playtesting network that helped TvE: Powering Up so very much.