Deadzone Designer’s Notes – Solo Rules

Of all the facets of Deadzone, probably the most challenging in design terms is the solo rules. Actually I should be a bit more specific. There are going to be two versions of solo Deadzone, and what I’m referring to here is the “full” version. The solo zombie thing is lots of fun, but also lots easier to design.

The “full” solo rules are what you need when you want to play a classic 2-player game and only have one player to hand. They are a set of rules that attempt to replicate the decisions your normal opponent would make. Except we all know that you can’t reduce the skill, cunning and silliness of real humans to a simple set of rules in a book. No, we needs cards too.

The solo rules will use a set of cards (we’re calling them an AI deck) as a quick and simple mechanism to generate tactical choices by your imaginary opponent. A card deck allows me to include a lot of sophisticated numerical shenanigans without a lot of rules in your face. Flipping a card for a decision is also a very simple and familiar kind of mechanic that won’t intrude too much into the rest of the game. What the cards have on them is the nifty part.

 

Challenges

The rules need to differentiate between a number of mutable things. Firstly, different models need to behave differently. No point in having snipers running into melee. Secondly, different factions need to behave differently. Real players wouldn’t play Plague and Enforcers the same way so neither should the AI. Thirdly, the AI should respond to differing threats with appropriate responses.

Now I’ve seen all of these elements done badly, sometimes all in one game though the usual problem is ignoring one or more of them. I don’t think I’ve ever seen them all done well in one place.

One of the biggest challenges is predictability. The fewer of these elements you include, the more predictable the AI becomes, and the more the game becomes a case of playing the AI rather than the actual battle. Even with all these elements in place it would be good to have a random seed somewhere in the equation to make the opponent a bit less predictable. What we’re after is an enemy that behaves in character, but not always in exactly the same way. That also allows us to replay the game as many times as we like without it repeating itself.

Video games are an interesting place to look for AI ideas as they frequently use AI systems for single player games. Most of them are surprisingly unsophisticated. A lot of the time you’ve got so much else happening (images, sounds, movement) on screen that you don’t notice the lack of smarts in the AI. On the tabletop it’s another story: you can’t hide behind the shiny special effects. If I want the solo game to be good then it needs clever AI.

Possible Solutions

The AI deck and rules are, in effect, a decision engine. They are there to replace the human opponent with as close a facsimile as possible. That’s a complex process and could easily be a faff to work out in game, so my aim is to pre-calculate as much of this thinking as possible. When it comes to an in-game decision all you should do is turn over a card or two.

To go back to the challenges, the first and second can be dealt with by categorising the models. We already have the idea of leaders, specialists and troopers for building the force. The solo rules just need this broken down one step further into preference for shooting, fighting or support. A shooting specialist can therefore be made to behave differently from a shooting trooper, and that level of subtlety is a good thing. Faction can also be taken into account in a similar way.

The ability to assess threat comes down to a set of rules and priorities which I’m working on now. Streamlining these will be key. However, streamlining them too far makes them fairly pointless and I’ve seen it taken way too far way too often. Often it’s a rigid rule as well, which again makes it predictable, and predictable is both dull and easily defeated. Easily defeated tends to mean “not played again”, and it’s pointless working on rules that are unlikely to be used. Dealing with perceived threats need not be baroque, but it does need to be variable.

Random seeds can be included in the breakdown of responses by each of the model types. The nice thing about a deck of cards is that you can build this sort of complex variation into it whilst having no impact at all on the slickness of the rules in play – one of the reasons I like cards.

Of course, once the AI has made the decision you need a set of rules about how this is implemented, though here you have an ally: yourself. I think it’s safe to assume that you’re going to win a solo game, so the reason of playing is a pure attempt to have fun rather than polish your ego with resounding victories. For this reason we can actually enlist the player as an aid to help us with some of the options if not the decisions themselves.

 

Playing With Myself

The best part of developing solo rules is that they are a doddle to test. Any time you need to try something out you’ve got a ready group, just waiting to go. Compare that with trying to road test 6 player DreadBall and you’ll see what I mean. How easy is it to arrange a 6 player (not 5 or 7) game of anything. By that measure, solo rules should be the most refined ones going.

Naturally I will still get other folk to play them as well, and already have a number of volunteers lined up. It’s funny how many solo gamers creep out of the woodwork as soon as you mention there are rules to be had. As a group it appears that solo gamers have long been starved of attention and it’s obvious why when you look at the problem of designing the rules. Getting solo rules right is not easy to do and often avoided because of that. I’m just banking on me being more stubborn than it is difficult ;)

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22 Responses to Deadzone Designer’s Notes – Solo Rules

  1. redfox4242 says:

    Yes, I would certainly try the solo rules. I am another solo gamer and here I am creeping out of the woodwork.

  2. ph3brickid says:

    Very exciting stuff!
    The only AI board game I’ve played is the Gears of War board game, so my experience is limited. The problem I have with that system is that sometime one group of enemy just wouldn’t act for ages, making mopping them up a whole lot easier.
    I can imagine trying to develop solo rules will be both the ultimate enjoyable challenge and a complete mind destroyer at times.
    Off topic slightly; will 45 zombies be enough for P.vsZ. solo play?

    Good luck on your Herculean task Jake! Looks like you may just need it. ;)

    –Luke Howell-Williams

  3. Ma says:

    Speaking of volunteers to test the solo rules…

    • ph3brickid says:

      If I didn’t have 6 A2 exams next month I’d be down at mantic towers now… Just kinda pestering people until someone let me in! ;)

      • Ma says:

        Shoot, I’d join you if I wasn’t on the west coast of the US. Somehow I think the pestering wouldn’t end at the front door :)

  4. Troy Baker says:

    I think you’re on the right track, particularly if you use a few options on each card (Shoot/Assault/Support?) and encourage the solo player to pick the option they feel is the most appropriate for the enemy model being activated. You’ve already done this with the player cards (two options) so extending the same idea to AI cards would suggest/establish a broad design aesthetic.

    Target priority and assault beast behaviour (Lurk/Rush) will be useful instructions and would help build faction flavour. Italic flavour text is always welcome when space allows ;)

    Controversially I believe too much weight is placed on the importance of human cleverness on the tabletop – in established games competent players know how to play their faction to the best of its potential so that (despite popular opinion) most armies tend to employ the same tactics to fulfill the same strategy. This is further compounded by players tending toward cookie-cutter builds (as discussed in one of your earlier posts). The ‘human’ factor usually becomes evident when players are unfamiliar with the game, unfamiliar with their opponent’s force or when table conditions change unexpectedly; for example when dice rolls are extremely divergent from probable results. By way of support I would suggest you worry less about creating an AI deck which is compared to ((the illusion of)) human cleverness and instead focus on simply making AI decks which best capture the *feel* of the faction they are designed for and, as you’ve suggested, let the solo player control how smart their imaginary opponent is.

  5. Daniel Morey says:

    I’ve played a couple of test games of Deadzone and have really liked it. However the last game proved particularly odd. I had a close combat situation that didn’t quite work. I had an assault enforcer, who ended up with 4 third generation plague surrounding him, and they couldn’t touch him. Both sides were just getting relatively average rolls, so would end up with one or two sucesses. This meant that there was a lot of “fight tennis”. One success on the attack, two on defense, defender doubles so gets a free attack. Oh, he now rolls one success, and the defender two success, and so on. The same with an attack that was double but not enough to wound, there’d be a free attack which would then also fail to do anything. I made it up to three free actions following a single attack, with nothing to show for it. In the two rounds that these models were together, two third gen got injured (thanks to the AP1 of the assault enforcer), but that was it. I hope it was just some boring rolls, but the doubling effects were really annoying.

  6. Dear Jake
    Are you going to release the solo rules as and alpha/Beta, like the main rule set?

  7. sho3box says:

    I dont play solo games, but like ph3brickid above I do play co-op games with friends against an AI (card deck(s) ) opponent. I would love to be able to ally up with a former-foe-now-enemy-of-my-enemy Deadzone player against AI controlled opponents as part of a campaign. Co-op zombie games where each player had their own individual objectives versus card based AI have been some of the most enjoyable tabletop gaming experiences that I have had, ever.

    So no pressure Jake, just make sure that these rules are perfect (and co-op/multiplayer) ;)

  8. killaminis says:

    Sounds like a great foundational start to the solo engine. Hopefully, you will want to share this in an alpha to allow us creepers from the woodwork to playtest it for you :)

  9. I’m very happy with the solo play rules and ai, is something that is always useful for learn, practice and try different strategies.

    One thing i would love to see is having difficulty levels, that for example combining certain cards you get certain difficulty level that makes things a lot harder for you and give the ai more versatility. This is part of the core mechanic of Kingdom Death: Monster box game and is something that blow my mind when i heard of it. The great thing about this is that you could make expansions that are only composed of a simple set of rules and boosters with new cards.

    Simple example will be 3 Gen Plagues that are human Dreadball players and their minds have been twisted in such a way that they will try to slam you and throw you the ball at your face when they see you but they will always try to catch the ball and if you destroy it they will remain drooling and looking everywhere for a new ball… ( a grenade might look pretty similar for them…. ). Just a crazy example but just a few extra cards and rules might do the job.

    Hope you like it, it will be awesome to have periodic expansions that we could use for solo and co-op play. Also the comunity could create their own decks for custom campaings and such.

    • ph3brickid says:

      Yeah, different difficulty levels would be great. That would be a hell’uva lot o’ work for Jake though!
      He did say he was stubborn… We’ll have to wait and see how stubborn exactly. ;)

  10. I’m a solo gamer and I cannot wait!!!!

  11. Jeff Henson says:

    I have become more of a solo and same side gaming since I had kids — they are just the right ages for same side gaming now. I don’t really have the time for traditional gaming, so I have started a quest for solo gaming. The solo gaming rules are what attracted me to Deadzone (and the terrain and miniatures of course)

    All that being said, I would like to add in the idea of being able to adjust the difficulty of a solo game. Some of my favorite solo games are some of the ones that I have lost many times over, but still feel they are a challenge to win. I understand that it is a trade off because if a game is too difficult to win then the game will be shelved after its won the first time. Anyone ever play chainsaw warrior? This is true if it is too easily won also.

    So I guess what I’m saying is that not all solo games should be easily won and a solo games lifetime can be increased by a systematic way of increasing/decreasing the challenge of the game.

  12. Iñigo says:

    Tiene pinta de ser muy interesante la propuesta . Además un dato curioso los juegos que mas triunfan en kikstarter son los que se puede jugar solo como zombicide , Kingdom Death: Monster … Estoy deseando probar esas reglas en solitario seguro que Son fantásticas.

  13. Lee says:

    I prefer to play an opponent, but I do enjoy solo games. In fact, my schedule sometimes necessitates it if I am going to get any type of regular gaming in. The mention of this was a big draw for me, as you have provided so many options in one game, from standard to multiplayer and even us solo gamers. THANK YOU!

  14. euansmith says:

    In On Line Gaming I tend to avoid player vs player and stick to co-op as it is nice when at least one side in the fight acts sensibly (usually the AI side) rather than dashing around with no strategy and precious few tactics. I’m looking forward to the Solo Rules for Deadzone, so I can play co-op with my fiends.

  15. RMBLees says:

    Looking forward to Solo rules.
    Couple of questions.
    1) Are the solo rules and AI cards planned to ship with the first shipping batch (main game) or second shipping batch?
    2) I’m very curious about the cards. Will they be specifically for use with Dreadzone, or do you think the AI cards will have a broad enough AI to be useable with other games/systems?
    (There’s a difference between telling a generic unit to move – it can be used with any game, as opposed to specifying “Marauder Specialists move X”)

  16. RMBLees says:

    Also, someone mentioned about playing with kids. My kids enjoy playing co-operative games.
    Having a solo/AI system, that allows for a “co-operative” experience, will make the game EVEN better.

  17. Craig Johnson says:

    I can seldom round up my gaming friends and a lot of the time they are pretty negative of new game systems that I want to try. My son is more open to new systems, but our schedes rarely allow us to game as much as we’d like. So I’m really looking forward to the solo rules. Sounds like another great way to pass my nights off of work whe everyone else is sleeping. Right now I play a lot of Zombicide. Hope your solo rules are equally as fun!

  18. Pingback: Deadzone Designer’s Notes – The Other Solo Rules |

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