Venture Capital - Diary #3: Research, Review, Revision

Old draft of Dr. Venture's Character Card: a mess of various fonts, and not quite applicable to the current ruleset.

The very unofficial Venture Brothers boardgame should get a progress update, considering the Season 6 premiere today!

The main struggle in this design for me is balancing strategy with the speed and ease of play. I need a game that captures those gripping dangers, schemes, and showdowns in an engaging and exciting way, but that also provides a sandbox for players to follow a myriad of adventures with characters they're invested in. As a result, I started with the biggest, most multi-faceted design, and have been slowly stripping away extraneous and overly complicated systems with each iteration, trying to hone the game into a more streamlined affair. (Pretty much the opposite of what's generally good game design advice.)

But I've been toying with various partial prototypes, and it's not there yet. So I figured I would run you through different aspects of the past and current iterations of the design, and ask for feedback from the Venture fans! Then I can continue the baby steps towards a solid, well-tested prototype I wouldn't mind pitching to the right people, through an interested publisher of course.

Just testing systems with a mix of many older, and some newer, ideas.

Characters

From the start, I've wanted Project Venture Capital to be able to make use of 6 Factions of 4 Characters each, with players able to meet and make use of the multitudes of side characters in the Venture Bros. universe. Many of these side characters could then theoretically become parts of full fleshed out Factions in potential later expansions. So I broke the Venture-verse cast into 3 categories: Characters (fully playable Faction members), Allies (unique individuals whose trust can be gained by your Faction to help them out in a tight spot) and Henches (generic, Faction-specific fodder). For example:

  • Faction: The Venture Family
    • Characters: Dr. Venture, Brock Samson, Hank Venture, and Dean Venture
      • Allies: Dr. Jonas Venture Jr., Prof. Richard Impossible, Action Man, Col. Horace Gentleman, Otto Aquarius, Kano, Ook-ook (probably will be replaced with the Pirate Captain), Hector Molina & Swifty, Pete White & Billy Quizboy, and Sgt. Vatred.
        • Henches: Clone Slugs (Lvl. 1), Venturesteins (Lvl. 2), Venchmen (Lvl. 3).

Character and Faction Token drafts. I needed a "dormant" side as well for kidnapped or hidden Characters. (Don't tell anyone that Chupacabra isn't exactly alive in that cut-and-pasted pic!)

Currently the other 5 Factions are The Fluttering Horde, The OSI, The Guild of Calamitous Intent, The Order of the Triad, and Monsters (basically a catch-all for people who want to play as a Mummy, Womanaconda, Chupacabra, and Krampus, but it might be replaced with Venturestein's Abomi-Nation/U.R.G.H. instead, or an amalgam of more magical antagonists for the Triad to play off of). Obviously, characters in the Venture Bros. universe change and evolve over time, with shifting allegiances and motives, so nailing down who should work with whom is a little arbitrary, based on what part of the show's arc one's focusing on. So there are still plans to have, for example, fully playable expansion Factions based on the Original Team Venture, or the Other Venture Family (JJ, Sally Impossible, Pirate Captain, Ned), S.P.H.I.N.X. (original and re-purposed), and many more. As long as the design allows for modularly replacing Factions and Characters as they are made available and players wish to use them, the main issue is simply trying to keep a balance between the number of "Protagonists" and "Antagonists," their Factions, and their abilities.

Old prototyping of Character Skill Cards, Item Cards, Vehicle Cards, and Ally Cards. (Yes, the piles of Ally cards are in the wrong rows, what of it?)

Player Boards

I also want the game to still be playable, though it certainly won't be as balanced, if players wanted to mix-and-match Characters to form their own custom Factions of unlikely team-ups. This brought me to the idea of giving each player a neutral, generic player board as a Faction Board to keep track of their Faction's/player's resources, but one that has open spots to place the individual Character Cards of the specific Characters being used.

Old Faction Board drafts.

Stats, Actions, and Combat

Skill totals from the first implementation of Skill Cards. Magic-using Characters have an artificially deflated Skills here because of experiments with a 5th, "Magic" Skill.

Codifying the talents and abilities of the breadth of Characters in the Venture Bros. is no easy task. For example, how would you rate Brock Samson's ability to fight on a simple 1 to 10 scale? 11? Where does that leave Shore Leave? Phantom Limb? The Sovereign? Dr. Killinger? The Investors? Sure, Samson's a certified Swedish Murder Machine, but does he always fight at an 11? Sometimes people can get the jump on him, especially if he's distracted by something else. Not only do I need a system that allows for direct competitions of certain skillsets between Characters, but I also needed the ability to model more complex conflicts with Characters using different skillsets. Additionally, It's a challenge to craft a system where a player controls multiple characters with ease and can avoid too much bookkeeping or analysis paralysis.

I started with a deck of Action Cards for each player, made up of 7 Skill Cards and 3 Item Cards for each of the player's 4 Characters. Each Skill Card had 4 number values on it, 1 for each of the game's Skills: Explore, Sneak, Fight, and Think. Item Cards could provide either a boost to 1 or more Skills, or a specific Item Ability. Each player would have a hand of these cards, and to perform an Action, they would need to discard cards for the Character they want to perform the Action, in order to generate Skill Points to pay for that Action.

A glance at a past Brock.

It probably took you far less time than it took me to figure out how long this system takes in practice. With number values needing to be met or exceeded in order to move to certain Areas, search for items or clues, engage in any conflict, or resolve quests or more, it was a lot of numbers to crunch. Plus it was a bit hard to strike a balance between having enough of the right cards in your hand to perform Actions with the Characters you actually wanted to use at that time, having to gauge when to take a Rest Action to reshuffle your discard into your deck, and how many cards you had to play almost every turn to do anything meaningful. Not to mention a single Combat round, if you invested enough into it, could wipe out your whole hand. It was all a bit exhausting.

But speaking of Combat, that was one system I thought worked somewhat better than the others on the first iteration. Wanting to have flexibility in Combat for players to take advantage of their different Skills for different ends, I figured a contest with a few quick, but differentiated betting steps would not only give the opportunity for players to sense a shift in the balance of power during a Combat and choose whether to go all-in or cut their losses, but would also provide a simple process to resolve all types of Combat/direct conflict that could tweak the results based on the Skills used.

Kemet uses a small deck of Battle Cards to provide different options in combat, but in a few different ways. (Balint Lengyel)

There are 2, simple 4 card decks of Combat Cards, 1 for the Attacker and Defender each. Each Card represents choosing 1 of the 4 Skills to use in that Combat: Explore, Sneak, Fight, or Think. After an Attacker declares they're starting Combat, the two players involved follow this list of actions:

But this project's Combat Cards system is far more based on Fury of Dracula's Combat Cards, which have different results based on which card a player chose. (Erik T.A.)

  1. Choose Combat Cards: Attacker and Defender both review their hand and choose a Combat Card, placing it face-down on the table.

  2. Attacker Reveals & Commits: Attacker reveals their chosen Combat Card and Skill, then plays face-down any and all cards from their hand that they wish to commit to this Combat Round, providing potential bonuses to that Skill or "play when in Combat" special effects.

  3. Defender Reveals & Commits: Defender reveals their chosen Combat Card and Skill, then plays face-down any and all cards from their hand that they wish to commit to this Combat Round.

  4. Attacker Feint: Attacker then chooses, without looking at the cards they committed face-down to the Combat Round, whether or not to swap their chosen Combat Card for another from their Combat Deck. If they do swap the card, the new one is still placed face-up on the table.

  5. Defender Feint: Defender then chooses, without looking at the cards they committed face-down to the Combat Round, whether or not to swap their chosen Combat Card for another from their Combat Deck.

  6. Reveal Commitments: Attacker and Defender reveal all the cards they committed to the Combat Round, and add up all points on them for the Skill of their chosen Combat Card.

  7. Victory & Effects: The Character with the highest point value wins this Combat Round, and the appropriate effect listed on their Combat Card occurs.

The Combat Cards have different effects for winning or losing based on which Skills the Attacker and Defender chose to use, for example:

The Skill and Combat systems have changed a bit since and still need several tweaks, but as I said earlier, the numbers and math of the Skill Points were just too much. So I figured I would keep the same 4 Skill system, but lighten the cognitive load of making decisions with it by using a series of symbols or icons for each Skill instead. That way, I could still have requirements that count the number of Icons of a certain Skill used, but I could simplify a lot of requirements with just symbol matching. Naturally, I still overcomplicated it again by mandating 10 Skill Icons for each Skill! (Well, technically 11!)

But I also tweaked Actions as a whole by shifting to an Action Cube system where at least a few of each Skill's Icons are available to each Character at any time, and a limited supply of cubes are used to activate any Skill for a certain Character for them to perform an Action. By limiting the number of Action Cubes and forming an automatic, but partial, refresh of the cubes at the end of each Round, instead of when a player runs out of cards or wishes to reshuffle their deck, I was able to streamline decision-making a little while increasing the amount of strategic decisions to be made. 

For example: placing an Action Cube on Dr. Venture's Think Skill gives him 1 of each of the Think Icons next to it to immediately spend on an Action. If he needs more Icons, or Icons of a different Skill Type as well, more Cubes can be used for the same action, or 1+ of the 4 (cut down from 7) Dr. Venture Skill Cards can be played to add its Icons to the current action. Additionally, Items and Allies are both now tokens that are placed on their controller's Faction Board, and are always available to be have their Icons added to an action by flipping them face-down. (Each has a requirement on the back to "ready" the Item or Ally again, such as spending money, another Action Cube, or certain Skill Icons.) Action Cubes can be saved, of course, to generate more Icons on a player's next Turn, or outside their Turn in response to Combat or other challanges from other player's Characters. 

Newer, but still out-of-date Skill cards, Character Cards, Faction Board, and Item/Vehicle Tokens.

I have since cut the Skill Icons in half by limiting each Skill to 5 Icons, shifted their hierarchy a bit, and am playing with different uses for them. It's not a massive change in the amount of analysis on a turn, but combined with the Action Cube system, it narrows down initial Action consideration to simply which 1 of the 4 Skills will you use with a Character, and/or whatever Free Actions one may wish to use. This keeps players out of their own hands more and paying attention to the Map and their Faction Boards. I am, however, considering the possibility of adding a unique ability to each of the 4 Skill Cards for each Character, so that they may be used either for bonus Skill Icons or for a special, Character-specific ability beyond the 1 every Character has on their Character Card. But I'll have to first see if everything is already just too much to think through on a turn-by-turn basis.

Faction Actions

Considering too much to think through: for a while, I vacillated between handling a series of other Actions as either Free Actions or Faction Actions. Free Actions could be done whenever on a player's turn as many times as they wished. Faction Actions would be performed by adding 1 of a player's 4 Faction Tokens to an Faction Action Space, and it would take further Actions to restore a player's supply of these tokens. Now all of these are either no longer a part of the design, or are simple Free Actions if a Character is in an Area that allows for it:

Hire or Recruit

Players can hire a Hench by paying Cash, or Recruit an Ally they have enough Influence over to use later. Henches only add Skill bonuses when played, and Allies, costing more time and energy to recruit, can either add (higher) Skill Bonuses or perform special abilities.

Influence

At first, 1 Influence was generated for a Faction in a specific Area by a Character using up 10 points of any 1 Skill. An Influence Token was then placed in that Area. It could then be used to try and Recruit an Ally or Build an Installation. 

More recently, I'm handling Potential Influence as a track of tokens on one's Faction Board, obscuring bonuses and spaces to place Recruit Ally Tokens. When a Character gains Influence, typically through completing Adventures, it is removed from the Potential Influence/Ally Track and placed on that Character's Card. A Character's Influence can then also be moved to a specific Area if they wish. A Character or Area having a certain amount of a Faction's Influence is a requirement for a variety of Adventures and special Actions.

Build

Installations were supposed to be something like City of Remnants' Development Tiles, but unique to each Faction. (Rodney Smith)

Early versions of this design included 4 Installation Tiles for each Faction that could be constructed in different Areas with enough Influence, in order to provide special bonuses and abilities. While it's fun to imagine a scheme by the Monarch to establish a forward operating base in Dr. Venture's E-Den Bio Facility and how that may play out, Installations seemed to be just another system too many to deal with, and might eat up too many turns with Influencing an Area, Building the Installation, defending it from attacks, etc. But I'll keep it in mind, possibly as an expansion idea, as it would probably still be less work to include than the next set of Faction/Free Actions...

Workbench and Research

The Workbench was supposed to be an on-going puzzle that was sort of like a cross between the Lock Puzzle...

...and the Wiring Puzzle in Mansions of Madness. But it felt too much like a distraction. (Charles Simon and Cameron Suey)

For a long time, I wanted a side system of Research Points players could generate in 4 different types to gain bonuses. I thought it would be nice to have a mechanic that rewarded players simply investing time and resources into researching super science. Essentially, players could spend Think points to draw Research Tokens that look like little Tetris pieces with part a wiring puzzle on them. They would place new Research Tokens in the Workbench grid on their Faction Board in an effort to connect dots of the same color. More Research Points could be spent to rearrange Research Tokens, or to discard the tokens with touching dots of the same color to spend that many Research Points on a Finding. For example: spend Think Skill Points from your Action Cards to discard Research Tokens from your Workbench with 4 touching red dots for 4 Fight Research Points, and spend them on a Research Finding of a new Weapon Item Card. You can see why it felt like unnecessary complexity. All Workbench and Research stuff is currently cut from the design.

Map

Naturally, I wanted to try and cram in as many iconic locations from the Venture Bros. as I could. But also wanting a reasonable amount of maneuvering strategy, wanting a space big enough for up to 6 players, and wanting different Areas to feel somewhat different, I knew board real estate would be at a big premium in this design. Knowing I wanted something modular and re-arrangeable, though, I started with 9 Location Tiles, each with 8 Areas. Colored lines leading from Area to Area and off of each Location Tile would connect spaces together for players, telling them what types of Skills their Characters would need to use in order to enter various Areas. At first, the center of each Location Tile had a space for that Location's Search Deck, but I later combined all potential Search Action results into a single deck, no matter where it occurs, freeing up the center of each Location for a 9th Area.

I went through a few iterations, with different styles of connecting Areas and Locations for clarity of information and conservation of space, before finding that hexes might maximize the potential for both space per Area and density of Area. Such an arrangement requires a bit of creativity in the Area placement, but it seems to be the best solution thus far, as long as I can keep the requirements for moving form one Area to another small enough to fit on the borders of the hexes. The visual clutter caused by so many Entrance Requirement Icons is probably the biggest obstacle to my current draft.

Old Location Tiles. The 4 unlabelled ones from front to back are Venture Compound 1 & 2, NYC, and The American Southwest.

Old Location Tile being tested.

Oldest Location Tile. (I don't like looking at these anymore.)

Drafting of newer, hex-based Location Tiles, with Entrance Requirements based on Skill Icons, that have become out-dated while I was working on them. (I also have a feeling I'll have to revamp the NYC Tile anyway as Season 6 airs!)

Searching, Adventures, and Victory

As any Giant Boy Detective knows, the key to stumbling upon mystery and adventure is looking for clues! Less work has been done on the Searching and Adventuring systems than others because I'm wanting to make sure the mechanics work well for the player-vs-player direct conflict first and foremost. After that, the other objective design elements are somewhat simple: just an issue of making a lot of content, balancing it, and ensuring it's all fun.

That's not to say exploring, scheming, plotting, and striving towards other goals haven't gone through a few revisions already. There were earlier ideas of an Arch and Foil system, where Antagonist characters could get a lot of victory points for doing things to their current Arches, Protagonist Characters chosen from those in play, and the Protagonists could likewise gain points by obstructing their Antagonist Foils. This came with an extra Obstacle system where Characters could spend points in the right places to give their rivals Small, Moderate, or Big Obstacle Cards that place restrictions on things like Skills and Abilities or certain Characters teaming up and working together. Arches, Foils, and Obstacles could also be gained with results from Searching different Areas.

That's all been discarded in favor of Search Results Cards and Adventure Cards drawn from two robust decks that are created at the start, based on what Characters and Locations are in play for that game. Basically, the backs of Search Results Cards have a Location and at least 1 Area on them, indicating where someone must Search to draw that Search Result Card. When performing a Search, a player looks through the deck from the top until they find the back of a Search Results Card that matches where their Character is Searching. That's the one they draw and resolve. Adventure Cards have Characters listed on their backs, and likewise, when gaining a new Adventure, the player looks through the deck until they hit an Adventure Card with a back that matches the Character that is gaining an Adventure. The trick is that the Characters on the back of Adventure Cards all have to match Characters in play to be a part of the deck at the start of the game. This will allow for more direct Character vs. Character Adventures amongst players, preventing them from feeling like their Adventures are happening in some safe, side-universe where it doesn't matter who's trying to stop them, but it might also limit the number of available Adventures somewhat, depending on what Characters are in play. I'm still messing around with different ideas for this to find what balance of direct conflict, ease of set-up, and theme or plot believability works best for this objectives system. (And I'm toying with whether or not Protagonist and Antagonist Adventures need to be broken down into two separate categories of Plots and Schemes, with both maybe even working a little differently.) 

A glimpse at Yedo's Mission Cards. (Marcin Mościki)

While borrowing from Yedo's Mission Cards for Adventure system ideas, it became very clear that one thing I don't like about Yedo is that it's really painful when you go through a lot of trouble to get a new Mission Card, and when you do, it's requirements are not anything you are set up to accomplish, nor do you have hope you could get it done before game end. Extraneous quests are doubly a waste of time and resources if you have to invest something to get a new one and can't do anything with it. So while I enjoy Yedo's bonus objectives on the Mission Cards for extra rewards, characters in the Venture Bros. are far more likely to spontaneously, and often irresponsibly, abandon their plan for a radical new change of strategy if it seems things aren't working out. So for Project Venture Capital I thought rather than using bonus objectives, each Adventure Card should also have a "Simple Goal" option. If you feel you can't or don't want to accomplish the full Adventure's main goal, you can meet one of a subset of much simpler, more generic objectives, such as stealing an item, earning a lot of money, or taking a hostage for ransom or rescuing a hostage, in order to get a smaller reward more quickly and discard the Adventure Card. This helps keep players flexible in their short and long-term goals, and with the right balancing, searching for a bunch of Adventures and then quickly getting rid of them for their Simple Goals as quickly as possible should be a viable strategy towards winning.

Speaking of winning, the victory conditions are often one of the first, and most important aspects of a tabletop game design to figure out, but with a more sandbox-oriented approach, victory conditions often come last. And it can definitely show in a design. Considering how broad I want players' options to be, I would like the paths to victory to be equally as broad. This has so far only lead me to the "point salad" approach to victory conditions, where victory points can be gathered throughout the game by a variety of means, and currently the development of a Faction's Influence sets the pace of the game, where the first Faction to earn all of their Potential Influence triggers the end-game.

While I'm not fully satisfied with this everything-and-the-kitchen-sink goal in the game, I haven't come across too many other viable options unless I want to really over incentivize one aspect of the game. For example, if completing adventures lead to victory, the player that wants to stay true to The Monarch's character and just arch and obstruct Dr. Venture all day doesn't have much of a shot at winning. Victory point salad might be the best to aim for in this particular design.


The game is still in need of more trimming, a sharper focus, and a lot more content creation once the system is more-or-less set. (Don't even get me started on my wasted time spent with the old Vehicle rules, terrain system, and much bigger map.) But I have to ask what Venture fans I can reach: what kind of direction would you want a heavier, Venture Bros. strategy game like this to go in? I'm not looking to make a game of Mage Knight levels of size and complexity, but still do want considerable strategy and a varied series of options available for player tactics. Considering that, what parts of the game, mechanics, or theme would you like more of a focus on? What parts should be minimized or removed? Or do you want a completely different Venture Bros. tabletop gaming experience than anything shown here? Let me know in the comments below, on Twitter, on Facebook, or just email!