The Black Orifice

Tabletop gaming resources and events from grumpy old games designers, Ben Redmond and Nigel McClelland

The Messenger's Guild - exploring game design in Guild Ball

I love all aspects of the tabletop gaming hobby, whether playing in miniatures games, board games, card games or roleplaying games, painting and modelling miniatures or games mastering roleplaying games or organising tournaments. There's probably not an aspect of the gaming hobby I've not had a go at - even crunching data and writing my own games. All of that probably leaves me as a jack of all trades but master of none, as the saying goes. I am comfortably mid-table in most game systems I try to compete at, when I was competing for painting awards in Warhammer I was frequently nominated but never a winner. I am a fairly confident games master and roleplayer, but lack the real extrovert character to be one of those convention GMs who can draw their own crowd because of their name as a GM (and I even hear that some people have been able to make some money as a professional GM!). Overall, I'm good at most areas, but rarely excel.

However, if there's one area of the hobby I think I can claim to have reached some level of excellence with, it is games design. I'm going to blow my own trumpet here a bit, which comes a bit uncomfortably to me, but sod it, it's leading to a more important point. Games I have written have been nominated for the best game of their type, not just a nomination out of 50 or so gamers, but out of everything professionally published in an entire year. Etherscope (the game in question), and a couple of it's supplements, were nominated for one of the most prestigious roleplaying game awards back when it was first released in 2005/6. It's an achievement I am very proud of, despite the fact that when I look back at the game now, I can see a lot of flaws. I have matured and developed my understanding of games design to a much greater degree that I had when I wrote Etherscope. Hence I think I can be justified in saying that I have a particular skill in games design - it brings together both the creative and mathematical aspects of gaming and allows me to create with complete freedom, without any restrictions such as having to use miniatures designed by someone else.

Hence when I look at Guild Ball I can perhaps appreciate the quality of it's game design at a deeper level. With my game designer's head on, the synergy of innovation and simplicity in the core mechanics with depth of character and style is incredible. It was with this admiration that I took it upon myself to have a go at creating a guild of my own. This article is here to discuss the process and look at some of the recent changes I have made to some of the players in the guild.

Starting the Design Process

When I started the design process I needed some ideas as to how I should start. Given that I was basing the players on real people (or at least their "media persona") there was a certain amount of starting material to work with. But that said, the team needed to work together well if it was to have it's own unifying character and work in the game. What are the unifying characteristics of the messenger's guild. The first thing that stood out for messengers was that they should be a fairly mobile team: high defence, low armour, fairly quick and with good access to dodges and pushes. It also felt that they should have an element of control play to them. But this put them in a bit of a clash with the Moriticians and Alchemists, both of which have strong control play elements. I needed a way to differentiate them. Morticians are a high DEF low armour team, but don't really do much pushing and dodging and are a little on the slow side overall. Alchemists, on the other hand, have the mobility but lack the damaging aspects of their play, and have a significant ranged play to them. Morticians tend to win by takeouts, whilst Alchemists win by scoring goals.

I wanted to pitch the team somewhere in-between Morticians and Alchemists. Mobile, but able to score goals and take people out. A control aspect was needed, but I didn't want it to be as strong as it is in these other two teams, so that they could work more by using their control abilities selectively to maximise their natural abilities to score VPs rather than being an essential part of their play style. They would work more by using their mobility to get precision take-outs or goals, rather than through their ability to hinder and control their opponent.

As such I struck upon a rule for deciding what should go into their playbooks, and what should be momentous. They should have access to pushes and dodges, and the push-dodge should be a common feature of their playbooks. As the primary aspect of their design, this should be the main momentum driver, too. They should also have decent access to damage, but it will be non-momentous unless it is also paired with a push or a dodge. This will likely mean that their momentous damage results are higher up the playbook, meaning that they need some help getting there - they need some character plays and traits to help them get up to the top of their playbooks. In order to give them some contrast with Morticians and Alchemists, I wanted their playbook character plays to be largely non-momentous, so that it forces them to be a bit more discerning in whether they use them or not. Finally I needed to consider their footballing ability. There are two aspects that have an impact here - their kick dice and their access to tackles, especially momentous ones. I decided that they should have good kicking skills, which adds to their mobility through the use of teamwork, but without many low tackles, so that they were good with the ball, but would find it difficult to get it back if they lost it - again playing into the precision aspects of their game and making them think about how to use their mobility. Looking at the T results across the playbooks is interesting - did you realise that every player has a T at soe point in their playbook? Most players tend to have tackle results in column 1, 2, or 3 of their playbook. Teams that are good at tackling have more in their first column (Engineers and Masons), whilst the worst teams tend to have mostly third-column tackles, and a few higher up. As such I decided on third column being the default tackle column for Messengers.

Adding Character

The next stage was to start designing the individual players. For this I decided to let the people that they were based off be my main guide, and look for quirks and catch phrases that would help me decide on how they should play in the game.

The Captains

I'll focus my discussion on the captains for now, to highlight the processes and the thinking behind the designs.

The first decision I had to make was who would be the captains. As the first podcaster, having started up whilst the game was still in kickstarter, Phil Bowen of Guild Ball Tonight was the obvious first choice, but I wanted to give them two captains and the second came down to a tough choice. There were three I think you could say had a genuine claim - Jay Finnegan of Guild Ball Informer (another early adopter of the game), Steve Newton (has his own podcast and no.1 ranked player) and Jamie Giblin (the official "face" of Steamforged). In the end the deciding factor came down to thinking about how the captains would work. Now we're into season two, all teams have a "support" captain who helps the team maximise it's potential, and a "super-star" captain who goes out and scores most of the VPs him- or her- self. Phil Bowen is known to avoid tournament play, so he would make the perfect support captain, so the obvious super-star, as the no.1 ranked player, is Steve Newton.

Names are important. I wanted the players to be more than just the media personas of their RL counterparts, but a genuine player in the Guild Ball world. The player names are one of the most evocative things about the game, so it was important that these were right. I needed names tied to messages or ways of communicating in some way. For Phil, one of the traits I picked up on was his slow style of speech on the podcast - something he's commented on in the show and blamed on his Texas education (IIRC) so I hope it's not something that would cause him any offence. Snailmail, the term used to refer to regular posted mail, instead of email, came to me quite quickly, and it gave me an idea for how the character would be in the game. He would be slow, which is to some extent counter to the play style of the team, so I needed a way to keep him slow but remaining mobile over the short distances that he moved. For Steve, one thing that stood out is the constant references to the amount of time he has to spend editing, so "Editor" was an obvious choice.

Next came starting to work out their cards. I started with the base stats on the card. Snailmail needed to be slow, so 4"/6" worked as the lowest standard base move of any player in the game. I went for a fairly standard captain stats of TAC 6 and KICK 3/6" as there wasn't really any thematic reason to be any different. However, for his DEF and ARM I wanted to emphasise his slowness, so opted for DEF 3 ARM 2, so fairly low DEF, but keeping the hard-to-hit theme of the team by giving him the armour. Finally for influence, I figured he should contribute more than most, so set him at 5/7, so he's between Midas and Obulus. Next I started to think about what character plays and traits I should give him. Wanting him to be a support character I thought of a couple of different buffs to help them out for both mobility and combat: Marked Target and Commanding Aura. For his traits, I wanted him to be similar to Corsair in how difficult he is to affect with different special effects. I opted for two-out-of-three of Corsair's trinity of abilities, giving him Sturdy and Close Control. Next I needed some new stuff to link him to Phil. I started by thinking about his movement - how could I give him the mobility without just adding to his overall speed. I came up with an ability called Slow and Methodical, which basically allows him to do his jog move as a dodge. He has to spend an INF and sacrifice his advance, but can then make a 4" dodge, keeping him slow at getting across the pitch but able to get to wherever you want him (within his limited range) regardless of what other players are trying to block his path. Finally I took some inspiration from Esters for his Heroic/Legendary play combo. I gave him a Heroic play similar to Esters signature charater trait, and effectively the same legendary, that let her use the ability three times without spending momentum. For the actual play itself I modelled it on Esters' but tried to make it slightly weaker, whilst also giving it a dual purpose so you can use it as either a buff for your own players, or to debuff an enemy. As such I swapped effects on MOV to KICK, DMG to TAC and DEF to ARM, but I also added the ability to reduce enemy's stats instead of increasing your own. Esters also has the ability to stack everything on one player when she uses her legendary. I decided to instead organise the effects so that they have to be spread out. I fugure the flexibility of the play is stronger than Esters' ability, so it needed some restrictions to balance it out a bit more. Finally I put together his playbook, adding in Marked Target and Commanding Aura at the earliest points they are usually found, but keeping them non-momentous in line with my rules, and a KD at 3 and a T at 5. I then then added in some pushes, the team signature push-dodge, and damage dotted around to fill out the book.

For Editor I wanted him to be a combat monster, so I went for a big TAC 7, dropped his KICK to 2/6, but kept the rest fairly standard for a captain. He needed a special combat ability that was his real signature play. I googled editing terms, and found "Rough Cut" which sounded awesome as a Guild Ball play, and inspired me to come up with a souped-up version of scything blow, which did less damage, but added in pushes and bleed (which seemed thematic given the play name). I also wanted him to be a little bit like Obulus (given that Steve plays Morticians), so gave him a cut down version of Puppet Master that only let you do the jog. Given that Seduce lets you do 2 different things for 3 influence and Puppet Master 3 things for 4 INF, I thought 2 INF would be a good starting point for this ability. Just in case it is too powerful, I reduced the range to 6". I also gave him Unpredictable Movement, like Obulus. Finally, I wanted some way of maximising his damage output, so opted for "Shove the Boot In" as a way to get him a DMG bonus. Finally, he needed a Legendary Play. Steve's catch phrase on the show is "Friend of the Show" (he gives out special badges and everything - which reminds me, I've not got one!). This stood out to me as a sort of buff aura, so I gave him something in-between Corsair and Ox's aura. When it came to his playbook, I wanted to make sure he had a strong spread of damage, and some good momentous damage effects, so I put in 1 and 2 damage in columns 1 and 2, and then started adding them in with momentous push-dodges later on. I put both T and KD at 3. Rough Cut went in at 5, and momentous as it included a push, and I added a 4 DMG result to the final column.

Power Balance

Very shortly after I published the cards for the guild I received a number of comments suggesting that I'd made them a little overpowered. The Battlehammer played a game with them and certainly found them a bit too powerful - I don't think Straw enjoyed the beating Parker was able to hand him with them. I also played a game against the with my son to try and get an idea of what were the strongest aspects of the team and where could I improve them. This is quite often a process in games design, and why if you're publishing professionally you should give something plenty of playtesting before you go to print. Guild Ball creator, Rich Loxam, said that he quite often starts the design process with something too strong and then reduces its power as he refines the design. This is a process I can appreciate, not only in what I've created with the Messengers, but also what I've done with other games I've designed in the past.

So the Messenger's Guild need an errata. But in actuality, this a much earlier step in the process than an errata would normally come it. It's time to have a look over the cards with a bit of distance and try and work out where changes are needed. Just the fact that a bit of time has passed since I wrote them allows me to look at them in a new light, and having watched and played a couple of games with them helps too. When looking at them again, it's not only a case of giving them a bit of a nudge with the nerf bat, but also trying to think about them from a more thematic point of view, and to look at the team more holistically.

Nerfing the Captains

Let's take a look at the captains again to see how the process can work.

The first thing that stands out about Snailmail is his lack of a 2 DMG result. Secondly, for a supposed support character he has a great potential to kick out damage - stacking him up with his maximum 7 INF against a target he can reliably hit the upper ends of his playbook means that he could be dealing 24 damage on an activation. That really isn't the point of the character, so he's going to need a few things changing to bring him in line with the concept. Firstly, dropping his influence to 5/6 means that he's still generating influence like Obulus, but you're not able to stack him up any more than most captains. Secondly, his playbook needs a bit of sorting out. Not doing any damage until the second column is unheard-of for a captain, and I think I'd rather him have better access to the guild special push-dodge rather than the big pushes. His first GB icon result needs to be on the first column, so therefore he needs to have both this result and the 1 DMG in the first column. He also needs a 2 DMG result - as he's not a front-line brawler, the third column seems to be the natural place for the first such result. This would then have to replace the KD result, but it suits the style of the character to have a decent knock-down ability, so I'll move this into the slot in the second column vacated by the 1 DMG result. I also don't like the push - double push - push dodge progression in the first three columns. As the single push has gone from the first column, I will get rid of the double push and put the single push into column 2. The Tackle and Commanding Aura results will stay where they are, but the upper damage on the playbook needs reducing - If he can hit 3 damage regularly it creates the situation where he can take out most players in a single activation, especially if you add in commanding aura. Midas has no 3 DMG result, so limiting a captain's playbook to 2 damage is not without precident. As such the last to slots in the playbook will become 2 DMG and a single push and 2 DMG and a push-dodge. Finally, the essential problem with any support character is that they inevitably gain the benefits of their own support abilities. As such I have come up with a new trait for Snailmail, using another of Phil's catchphrases: "Not My Thing". With the benefit of +3 TAC and +1 DMG from Commanding Aura and his heroic play, Snailmail can still kick out a ton of damage when stacked up. Not My Thing prevents him from gaining the benefits of these abilities when he makes an attack. He can still use his abilities on himself, to gain the extra charge range, kick or armour, but not to stack up TAC and DMG and go to town on an enemy player. Finally, I think the KICK benefit from Errata Buff is a bit strong. As +2 TAC is found in Attack Support and +1 ARM in Protected, I will reduce the KICK bonus to +1/+1", bringing it in line with Kick Support and Football Legend. I'll leave the nerf abilities where they are, though, as these are in line with the new Blind rules.

Editor, on the other hand, doesn't seem to have much fundamentally wrong with him, other than he's a bit powerful. Let's have a look at what we can strip back. The first thing that strikes me as unnecessary is Unpredictable Movement. Secondly, given that Seduced, as a lesser Puppet Master, doesn't let you move someone, and Lure also costs 2 and means that you move directly towards the model, I think Precision Play can happily be put up to 3 INF cost. That said, I think having a player knocked down is an important part of how he works, so I want to give him an extra playbook result that gives him a momentous knock-down. given the rules of how Messengers gain momentum, I give him a KD with a push-dodge on his 6th column, so that he can charge in and get the momentous KD, improve his positioning and then start going to town with the rest of his attacks. Finally, on reflection I'm not entirely happy with his legendary play. It's a bit too much of a support ability for a player who is supposed to be greedy. Instead, I will make him an ability that combines his Obulus-like nature with Old Jakes. Friend of the Show is now a heroic play that gives him the attack option from Puppet Master. However, it also comes with a +2 TAC bonus, so he can use it on himself for that extra attack, to ensure a KD early on, or just as a final attack to finish things off. He can also use it to have another player, friend of foe, position or set up the target for him before he goes to work. All in all, I think these abilities allow him to be just as dangerous, but a bit more manageable for the enemy.

Other players...

I have made a few other changes to some of the other players, so I'll finish off with a quick whistle-stop tour of the changes I've made. I'll probably miss one or two, but it'll give you an idea of some of the changes and the thinking behind them...

Firstly, 4 DMG is quite rare in Guild Ball. It is common on characters with Crazy, but beyond that, most teams only have one or two players who can deal a raw 4 DMG. The Messengers have five! As such, I'm going to strip back the 4 DMG results from Flighty and Postal. Broadcast gets to keep his, as he's less of a control or support piece than the other two, as does Hack, because he's crazy. However, it's not going to be momentous damage on any of them. But to compensate, Postal is going to have the brewers-style short playbook (given that I've called this ability Drunken Fighter in Guildforged, those of you who watch the Battlehammer will understand why this was appropriate).

Flighty also needed a bit of a shift in his heroic play. It is a powerful ability so, like Fangtooth's heroic play, I've added a pulse that causes 5 DMG to friendly models when he uses it. He also loses his 4 DMG result and a few hp to bring him more in line with Kraken.

Semaphore was another character that stood out as being a bit too powerful from the first Battlehammer playtest of the guild. In that game they stacked him up with influence, gave him an extra one from Broadcast's Thanks For Watching trait and Precision Play-ed him so that he had a total of 18" basic movement before spening 3 INF on attacks and then making a supershot-boosted goal. That all seems a bit much. I don't want to take away from his basic potential, which is a 21" threat, so an inch less than Mist and Flint. The trouble with him comes when he starts to stack up bonuses from other models. As a result, the obvious choice is Maverick. With super shot and 4 basic kick dice he becomes a 5 dice kicker with ease. Only Angel has this ability, and her basic threat range is much shorter. As such, I will drop his base kick score to 3 dice. A final tweak I've made to him, which is more to bring him more in line with the team weakness of high tackle results, is to swap his column 1 tackle and column 2 dodge.

With the change to Blind, it now has overlap with Advocate's Smashed Shins ability. The point of Advocate is to be a control piece, and the combination of Blind and Smashed Shins meant that he could beat down a player's MOV, TAC and KICK. with blind doing this all in one now, detracted from his ability to pick a stat to nerf. As a result I have swapped Blind for Heavy Burden, which hits MOV and character plays. He loses his abilty to nerf TAC, but gains the ability to nerf character plays instead. I've also given him Chain Grab, because there's a little bit of a troll in me.

The final player to get a significant nerf is Hot-Foot. This player was basically Shank with extras. Shank is already considered one of the best players in the game, so Hot-Foot needs a serious rethink. I've made a minor tweak to his playbook to bring it more in line with others in the guild (high damage results are momentous), but the biggest change is to his Too Hot To Handle ability. This changes from fairly simple trait to a special character play that also replaces Where'd They Go. The real cost of this new ability is that it causes 2 DMG and the burning condition. It also limits his ability to use the big 4" dodge as opposed to the freedom of Where'd They Go. I'm not entirely certain I've reduced his power enough, but he only generates 1 INF, so that also reduces his power.


You can have a look at both sets - before and after the nerf - here: