DINO TB (by Tom Russell)

Mary Russell

One of the things I'm working on - and if you ask Mary, the only thing I should ever be working on, and why isn't it done yet - is Dinosaur Table Battles, a standalone offshoot of our flagship Table Battles series. This naturally seems like it should be the easiest thing in the world: come up with some dinosaurs, translate their various offensive and defensive abilities into the language of Table Battles, you could do this in a weekend, why isn't it done yet.

But as the director said to the cowboy, would that it were so simple. Because the thing about designing scenarios for Table Battles is that it's not about coming up with actions and reactions for each card in isolation. It's about how those cards relate to one another - it's about building a system of interactions, and each formation card only really has strengths and weaknesses relative to the other cards in that battle. Who can react to who, how often, and in what way is the crux of the thing.

The core series gives me the luxury of leaning on the history; it gives me a rough sketch of what that system will look like, and then I flesh it out with a mix of reactions, dice types, and stick counts. But there's no historical record here. Every time that I would come up with a new scenario, I'd be making it up whole cloth. I don't do well with that kind of blank canvas - I'm just not that creative - and so early on I decided that the game would allow players to draft their "team" of dinosaurs.

This of course creates a much thornier problem, which is attempting to balance the abilities and interactions of fifteen different dinosaurs that will exist in around nine hundred thousand potential combinations. (Thanks to Matthew Waymost, Josh Lamkin, and Steve Lindermann for walking me through that calculation.) I can't have the t-rex attack targets in this particular order because maybe those targets will be friendly dinos, or might not even be in the match. Similarly, I can't have a screen reaction (here called a "block") apply to attacks from specific adversaries. This mandated that both attacks and reactions had to be less restrictive: you would need to be able to choose your targets, and your reactions would need to apply more broadly rather than narrowly.

This probably sounds like a dream for those folks who dislike the semi-scripted nature of interactions in the core series. Finally, I can attack who I want, to heck with the history! The problem there of course is that you might have all of your opponent's dinosaurs hammering away at one of yours, and when it has routed - in this game, "gone to the dinosaur hospital, where they will be fine, I promise" - move on to the next one. So the first major change to the system was that I gave each side a common pool of "hit tokens" rather than assigning sticks to individual dinosaurs, disincentivizing the "gang up on that one" impulse.

Of course therein lies the potential for the opposite problem - if your dinosaurs share hit points, why attack this one instead of that one, why does that choice matter? Each dinosaur has either two or three cards with different actions and passive abilities, and each dinosaur has a "breaking point" number - if the hits dealt to that dinosaur are equal to that number or greater, the owning player can decide to remove one of their cards from play rather than lose the hit tokens. Losing all your hit tokens or losing all your dinosaurs will lose you the game, so you have to strike a balance between the two when resolving hits.

The other reason why your choice of target matters has to do with the reactions. As in the core game, reactions are mandatory in Dinosaur Table Battles - if you can react, you must react. That's really the bit that makes Human Table Battles work, and people who hate that aspect of the mammalian iteration aren't going to find much to enjoy here. But as I mentioned above, those reactions always exist in a carefully constructed system, and my core worry about Dinosaur Table Battles was that without that structure and scaffolding, the thing would become limp and lifeless. An early playtest certainly felt that way, with the screen/block reaction especially feeling much too powerful. Basically, any dinosaur that had a block reaction was functionally invulnerable, and if all the dinosaurs on a side had it, it'd turn into a long and lopsided slog. More than counterattacks or absorbs, screens have always needed some kind of restriction to either limit their scope or the probability of it being reloaded.

And so the solution was to apply a restriction, and it was one that was staring me in the face all along. As in the original game, the counterattack reactions could only be taken if the reacting dino is the target of the attack, and the absorb reactions only if a different dino was being attacked. The block, like the original screen, had been applicable to both situations, but after that bad playtest, I decided to apply the absorb restriction to it - a dino can only block an attack that targets a friendly dino, not itself.

A player who assembles a squad that's all blocks can still provide a formidable defense, but that wall can now be broken through by careful choice of targets. (That's also assuming the opposing player allows them to grab all dinos with block reactions, and because dinos are drafted, this is unlikely.) A blocking dinosaur, like an absorbing dinosaur, is only useful in relation to the other dinosaurs on its side, and is quite vulnerable in isolation. Many dinosaurs also have passive abilities that relate to or help friendly dinos in some way, and so in drafting their teams, players are in a way creating the same sort of ecosystem that powers the core game - they're "designing" the scenarios themselves.

But don't tell Mary I said that, because then she's going to ask, why isn't it done yet?

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