Paleovet Design Diary 3: The Current Mechanics

The final version of Paleovet was more of a refinement of the initial idea than an overhaul. You can read about previous versions in the previous Paleovet Design Diary. As it turns out, the simplest answer was often the right one for many of the mechanics:

  • We simplified the economy down so buying speciality dice always costs 3 of a kind, not variable or escalating costs
  • We also reduced the one-time-use tokens in the game to just Wild DNA tokens. Having different types just wasn’t all that useful and simply caused confusion.

Dino Card Updates

By this point in the design process, the info on our dino cards was also mostly solid.

  • We added variable sleep numbers to each dino, with carnivores waking sooner than herbivores. This led to more interesting choices between the relative safety of herbivores vs a little more danger but bigger rewards from the carnivores.
  • We also switched more of the dinosaur information from text to icons. Making it easier to get information at a glance and increasing accessibility.
  • We also added the dinosaur’s scientific Order to the card for set bonus purposes (described below)
  • Finally, we revamped the ability wording on all the dino cards to be more clear and specific. There is more on this below too.

Set Bonuses

When we originally added set bonuses into the game, people really loved the idea of getting bonus points for sets. Initially, this was set up by specific groups of dinosaurs with matching abilities, having multiple Compys, Raptors, or Triceratops for instance. However, after numerous playtests, we did find a couple of flaws in this:

  1. Set bonuses were too powerful. Getting lucky enough to grab a set or combination of sets could lead to a huge point spread. This was especially true for the Pterodactyl that gave a bonus based on how many carnivores a player had cured.
  2. It also limited our ability to expand the deck. This was mostly a probability issue, the more cards we added to the deck, the less likely it was a person could collect a set (multiple Raptors, for example) making those cards less interesting.

The Solution

First, we just simplified down to two sets, Carnivore vs Herbivore. This prevented some of the wider point spreads but wasn’t as interesting. Soon after, we came up with a replacement mechanic, borrowed vaguely from Wingspan. We removed the set bonus as an ability and added an icon indicating each dinosaur’s scientific order. Dropping Pterodactyl then left us with all dinos fitting into the orders Theropod, Sauropod, or Ornithischian. We decided that the player who cured the most dinos in each order would receive 8 points (8 is approximately the average number of dino cards a player will cure in a game), and the player with the second most would receive 5 points.

We also tried to include set bonuses for having the most Carnivores and Herbivores, but we quickly realized this still wasn’t balanced and overwhelmed players. Settling on just the three sets made the end-game scoring much easier to calculate, gave players an incentive to choose certain dinos over others, and it balanced well.

Ability Text

Clarifying all the dino abilities was probably the most challenging part of the design and playtesting process. We have 27 dinos in the game now. We’ve added and cut several and we have changed abilities on them multiple times in an effort to make them all interesting and impactful.

Dice Control

One of the biggest complaints we had in playtesting was certain players wanting more control over their dice, including re-rolls. We experimented with some re-roll mechanics and none seemed to work well. Eventually, we settled on some dino abilities that filled this niche.

Certain dinos now allow you to turn a die to a specific face while that dino is in your Hospital. Additionally, we gave the Velociraptor an ability that lets you re-roll one dice each turn while it is in your hospital. These abilities are mostly on dinosaurs that wake quickly and thus require taking a little extra risk to use effectively. When properly utilized, they can be very powerful, ensuring they have the resources to cure their dinosaurs. Many of these dice manipulating powers are also on carnivores, so if you aren’t careful all that power can turn into a lot of lost dinosaurs when things wake up.

Velociraptor illustration
Clever Girl: While this dino is in your Hospital, you may reroll one dice once per round.
Art by Zuzana Randáková

Cost Reduction

Another mechanic we added to dinos was the ability to reduce costs to cure dinosaurs of a specific order while that dino is in your hospital. We added dinos to the game that did this for each of the three orders. This is another effect that can be a huge benefit if you can time things correctly.

Pack Leader: While this Dino is in your Hospital, other Theropods require one fewer treatment to cure (minimum 1).
Art by Zuzana Randáková

Ending the Game

The last major hurdle we needed to cross was how the game ends. We went through several iterations looking for a mechanic that would keep the game interesting and within a reasonable play time without adding a bunch of extra bookkeeping or tracking.

Play Through The Deck

In earlier versions, we played through the entire deck of cards. This was fine when we had a small deck, but as we added more dinosaurs it became problematic. It made for long games with predictable endings that felt rather samey.

Round Tracker

The second iteration was simply playing through a specific number of rounds. We built a round tracker, but quickly realized we would need a variable number of rounds based on the player count. This was to keep the game length consistent and to ensure enough cards were played to keep the game interesting.

We stuck with this mechanic for the longest period of time during development, but it always had one glaring flaw: players kept forgetting to update the tracker. I literally don’t know how many games I played where we went through extra rounds because we forgot the simple task of moving the tracker.

End of Game Card

After we realized the round tracker needed fixing, Dave initially suggested simply counting out cards for the dino deck based on the number of players. This worked ok, but still felt like a dud at the end. It also had the problem of the last couple players not having enough dinos to work with.

Then we simultaneously thought of the solution. Borrowing a mechanic from Ravine and similar games, we decided to stack a special card into the deck a certain number of cards down depending on player count. When this card was drawn, it triggered the final round of the game. Thanks to the round tracker and lots of data collection from playtests, we already had a solid idea of how many cards we would need for different player counts.

This solution was simple, solved all of the end-game problems we were having, and also cut down on components compared to the round tracker version. While it increases the setup time slightly, it makes the end game far more interesting and elegant.

Moving Forward

For the next Paleovet Design Diary, I’m doing to let Dave talk about the playtesting and development process of the game. After that, we’ll talk about art and graphic design!

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