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Developer Talk #1 - On the evils of the Strategy Deck
Tuesday , 11 April 2017

Hello everyone,

Welcome to the first of my Developer Talks. These are a new way for me to discuss Infamy, the development of Infamy: The Big Smoke, its models, art, ambitions, and any other random things that are on my mind. The posts will probably be lengthy, so brace yourselves for that! Perhaps they will be interesting, useful and, if I really get the hang of things, insightful too.

Oh, I'm James, by the way. I'm the owner and overseer of all things Infamy. I've been running the company for about five years now, and I've been into the hobby for over 25 years. After a tricky period of stabilisation, Infamy is finally in a pretty good place, and I've found some much-needed personal balance and calm now that's happened. There's a range of high-quality models that I'm very proud of and a ton of exciting possibilities ahead. Perhaps more importantly, I feel like the guy that can progress all that stuff once again!

The foundations of Infamy feel solid. Now it's time to build on them so it can soar higher than London's Shard (which I'm wearing as a massive hat in the accompanying picture)...

I'm talking about myself quite a bit here aren't I? I'm not an egomaniac, honest! However, as much as it pains me to say it, I'm pretty much the voice (And face? God help us!) of Infamy. If you followed the progress of the Big Smoke's Kickstarter (and the 100+ updates there) you're no doubt aware that there were periods of time when I struggled with the project. When that happened I got less effective at being this voice. In failing to deliver casts or progress game design I also failed to deliver the one thing that production problems and design issues can never stop - a good line of communication!

Here, without any Kickstarter related extras to throw me off, with the company supported by a solid infrastructure, and in a better personal place, I can put more focus on being that voice and keeping you informed. I thought that was important to mention that early on!

Why did the game stagnate for so long?

With that said, onward, to the meat of this first Developer Talk. I'm going to discuss what has been going on with the game, focusing on a particular problem area that has been the Kryptonite in this whole process.

I imagine most of you have some Big Smoke models in your collection. Kickstarter backers have had the opportunity to download the Background Book too (if you've not done so yet I highly recommend it) and the first set of rules I made available (these have had some big changes, ignore 'em!). So, you've seen some good stuff from the Big Smoke and know that I've had no problem with certain aspects of development! The game, however, is the notable area where things have been difficult.

It's felt like it's been 'almost' sorted for a long time, perhaps if I'd been less precious about it I could even have locked it down and got it out there. But, I knew that launching a good game was really important, I wanted to get it right rather than release something that had issues at its core. I say issues... really it was always one major issue, bubbling under the surface, beyond any personal or work pressures, that stopped me getting to the finishing point.

The evils of the Strategy Deck

All development cycles are about making your game better through iteration - encountering problems and dealing with them. This has been the case with much of Infamy: The Big Smoke, I've tried stuff out and improved, discarded or replaced it with something similar but better. But, there's been one element, no matter how much I iterated on, that seemed to over-complicate many other parts of the game. It became my focus, perhaps my obsession. This thorn in my game design side was the Strategy Deck.

It had seemed like such a good idea early in development but the way it worked in the melee of combat was clunky. The more I tested things the more difficult it seemed to make the flow and balance. It was leading to lengthy descriptions and multiple stat-lines clogging up character profiles, it made for too much referencing, it was confusing. In short, it really didn't work in the way I initially envisioned it!

The worst thing was that I had made this problem, I had created it and removed get-outs! When I launched the Big Smoke Kickstarter I had a good understanding of and a developed vision for the models, art and background. I didn't have the same kind of understanding for the game. There were some interesting ideas of how Infamy: The Big Smoke's combat would flow, but these were less developed and tested than they should have been. What I presented in the Kickstarter and the early videos was broad-strokes that set a precedent, an expectation of the game mechanics. At the forefront of these was the Strategy Deck - pretty much the unique selling point in Infamy's rules. I was naive in doing this in the campaign (lesson learned for any future games, obviously) and through that naivety I created an issue that would still give me panic attacks years later!

Murder your darlings

The concept of murdering your darlings is not a new one (originating from a chap called Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch) but it made its way into the design vocabulary of many up-and-coming geeky types (myself included) through an article penned by Jervis Johnson and published in White Dwarf about 100 years after Sir Quiller-Couch. JJ designed Blood Bowl (the best game system GW's ever released as far as I'm concerned) so I paid attention to his words and remembered them as I was struggling with the Strategy Deck. Murder your darlings means (in a nutshell) that it doesn't matter how bloody good it sounds, how well written, how awesome a concept it is - if it doesn't fit, if it doesn't work, if it breaks the flow, just kill it!

Admittedly the Strategy Deck had become anything but a darling to me later in development... but in those early days, when the concept of it still seemed full of potential (if I could just unravel its mysteries) it was certainly a darling that I should have killed, and in doing so I know it would have made my life easier. But it would have potentially pissed off almost 1,000 Kickstarter backers who were expecting it! It would have especially pissed off the many people who had purchased the Infamy specific Black Market Deck to use as a Strategy Deck in their games. And it did seem important still. If it wasn't there the game would need something else to add interest in its place...

Sinking deeper

So, I was defeated! Spread too thin after the Kickstarter campaign, struggling to keep the many aspects of the business ticking over while fulfilling the physical part, I couldn't give game development the intense focus it needs. I couldn't build a tight-knit and passionate group of fellow playtesters to hammer out the problem. I just couldn't afford to put time into those things while also trying to keep the business going. If I was primarily a game designer, solely a game designer, maybe I would have much sooner, but maybe you'd still be waiting on the models now instead... who knows?

What I do know is that I found myself focusing on what I knew - the models. I struggled to lock down a final game system and its profiles while doing what I could to keep Infamy: The Big Smoke moving forward through sales. Yet I knew, all the while, that the best possible way to encourage people to buy models would be to have a cool game! As you can probably imagine, this was all a bit of a downer! And through it all I desperately wanted to make all of you happy. Which added to the pressure (not making excuses, just giving you the full lowdown!)

My free time was not spent well, the game had me in a state of funk, I was unable to focus on the job at hand but unable to enjoy any time away from it either (because that enjoyment certainly was not earned in my mind)! I had gotten so disheartened with Infamy: The Big Smoke that I'd fallen out of love with the idea of playing other games too. And playing other games is utterly essential in getting the synapses firing, staying inspired and making your own game better!

Breaking free

Sorry if this is all sounding rather melodramatic - by telling this tale of woe I'm hoping to never have to talk about these specific negatives again. The focus now is on positive steps forward. I know that some of you will be disappointed by what's currently available on this site. You want the profiles for the models you have in your collection and I understand that completely. In the last Kickstarter update I promised I'd launch this site and as much stuff as I had locked off today though and my days of missing deadlines are over.

So, here's the site - this is the reset point now, from which I push ahead.

You'll see, if you looked at the previous rules, that there are some big differences here. They are largely to do with the Strategy Deck and its application. The ridiculous thing is that until a couple of weeks ago, many of these rules were as they were in the earlier release, they were still a bone of contention for me and the game and its profiles were set to be launched as something that I wasn't terribly happy with.

Now, however, I've reached a point where I'm happy about the systems. With the changes I've made the game feels... right! I'm considering it in different ways and although there's a bit of back-tracking required, it's making for more interesting character and gang design. It keeps the character I wanted without over-complicating things.

How did all of this happen? I think it's down to a few things:

  1. I've worked with and played the game with other people, including co-designer Tom, with whom I've chatted over tons of problems. Having a sounding board has been great, as has a perspective that's not been locked in the misery of the Strategy Deck problem for too long!
  2. I've sorted myself out, got happy and stopped playing a certain Blizzard MOBA every night. Instead I've brought in a regular schedule, ticked off jobs that have needed doing for too long, found time to chill and be calm in that time.
  3. I've played a ton of different board and video games and got a passion for design back. I'm also diving into all sorts of reading and videos about the design process of different games.
  4. And finally (bear with me on this one) I'm getting myself showered and dressed first thing in the day rather than at 5 in the evening (if at all!). Yes, too much information perhaps, but it is relevant! I was working from home while in a bit of a downer - you can see how the urge to make myself presentable may have vanished somewhat right? But (I told you it'd be worth bearing with me) the shower is where, somehow, I seem to come up with all of my best ideas and the solutions to problems!

The big changes

And so, over the course of three days last week, as the pattering of the warm water helped my brain chug into action, inspired by all the stuff I'd been playing and that I was no longer exhausted by work, I totally re-imagined the way that Strategy Values could work in the game!

The first big breakthrough (during shower number one!) was that I came up with the idea of 'Inflection Points'. Where a model had previously had all sorts of rules and stats written around their personal Strategy Value (SV) I started to condense it to a few Inflection Points - certain totals that would change things when they were passed. This started to clear up their action cards and massively simplified the most confusing section in the previous rules!

The next development (during shower number two) was a double-whammy. I started to think about how better to visually and practically display these Inflection Points. That led to me focusing in on the mass of off-board things you need to do during the course of a game. I'd been seeing these as just profile card management, but it was really so much more. With all of the statuses and the manipulation of SV that could happen it was an integral part of the game.

After enjoying games like Scythe and Blood Rage I started to see how I could create an identity for each gang through their off-board elements and keep track of various things there too. Through this each gang's Homebase was born - an off-battleground area that encompasses their housekeeping. The previous mess of cards that would build up by the board became less confusing. More than that, having a new space to define each gang helped me focus on their identites. And so I realised that Inflection Points didn't need to just be related to SV. In the case of Holmes and his Baker Street Irregulars, the whole gang is defined by their Kingpin's mastery of SV manipulation, so it made sense that their Inflection Points had an SV focus. However, with someone like Tesla, inflection points could be hit by having a certain amount of power in the mainframe that connects his mechanical marvels. For Jo March, a character driven by momentum, Inflection Points could be unlocked through accumulation of tokens based around completing certain actions.

And then (we're onto shower three now) a final, scary realisation. Maybe it wasn't necessary for each individual model to have an SV. A minimum of 10 cards had to be dealt to a gang before the turn even got started in the previous system, then there was faffy manipulation based on card draw that meant even more cycling of cards. If a gang all shared an SV instead though, it would become a question of manipulating that one total at certain times, and activating models in a certain order, to best manage the resources at your disposal. How would that work with someone like Holmes though? Well, perhaps a character like him could have an SV of their own, making them even more special, and gang members in range could elect to use his SV instead of the gang's.

So, that's where things are at! It's been a very late rush of progress and it now means some re-engineering, but it's already feeling much better. I'm tightening up the rules and fitting character profiles around these new developments.

My initial scribbling after those showers, trying to work out a way that I can simplify inflection points and cut down on the amount of stuff on character cards.

And where things are at now - Holmes' part of the Homebase (Kingpins take up the most space, as befits their importance in the game) showing all of his basic abilities, his Wound and Action Point trackers, his current Kingpin SV, his available actions (If he gets to 22 or more SV this card is flipped to show his more defensive options on the other side and modify his Kingpin Trait too), his two Kingpin Trait counters (to be tossed into the Spill (discard area) once used each turn), and finally, up by his SV is a Sustained Damage token, showing that he'll suffer 1 wound in the end phase.

So, things are a bit different now, I'm a bit different now... I know this blog post is something of a tease, asking you to wait a little longer once again. However, the site that was promised is here, there's a clear plan for moving ahead (see my Statement of Intent - I'm going to be very accountable), check the site events to see what's due and when. I'm focused on the Big Smoke right now in a big way, I'm really excited about developing the game again and I'm pushing to get things progressing at apace now!