Surprise and Opportunity
One of the features of Doomtown: Reloaded is the significant strength of action cards to change the outcome of a shootout. With the release of three new Saddlebags and the upcoming Pine Box, Faith and Fear, bringing more great shootout actions, we thought it might be a good time to explain why we first looked at the role and effectiveness of shootout cards.
In previous designer diaries, we’ve discussed how the change in deed costs, the increased focus of in-town deeds, and the new casualty rules actually promote conflict (small and large) as a primary form of conflict resolution in Doomtown: Reloaded. With more shootouts in the spotlight, it makes sense to have enough cards in the game that can serve as surprises and state-changers. This not only can turn the game to your advantage, but allows you to effectively bluff your capacity to follow through with your aggression, adding another layer to your tactics.
Initially, a lot of actions were returning iconic cards, lifted directly from the Classic game. Pistol Whip was the benchmark for a key shootout action in early testing. But we quickly ran into a familiar problem; Pistol Whip was simply superior to almost all other shootout actions you could put in your deck. But was that the problem, or was it something else? Not only can it nullify your opponent’s largest shooter, but it can also serve as an offensive, defensive, control, or softening up card. In short, it had such a universal utility that even though it had a hefty cost of booting a dude in a shootout and losing bullets, there were few games where it wouldn’t be useful. This makes it a really powerful shootout action.
However, this didn’t necessarily mean that Pistol Whip was too good. So, we decided to test another idea. If shootouts are a more critical part of the game, and shootout actions occupy a valuable slot in the deck, then let’s try bringing everything else up to the same level. After all, putting shootout actions in your deck is all about the “opportunity cost,” so the payoff needs to be good to make up for it.
What is opportunity cost? Simply put, the opportunity cost of any action card is the cost you’re paying for putting it in your deck over any other action card or card type. Compared to an easier-to-play card, the more restricted the window is for an action to be played, the more this opportunity cost increases. More plainly, this restriction means that a card has the possibility to further clog your play hand and stall your overall strategy if your opponent does not follow your gameplan.
Free and unrestricted action cards that are Noon plays tend to have the smallest opportunity costs since you can get rid of them immediately to make more space in your play hand. Reserves is a classic example; for a simple Noon play, you gain 1 ghost rock. You can always play it, and it is always useful.
As the situational difficulty to play a card increases, so does its opportunity cost. The opportunity cost of various types of cards, from lowest to highest, is usually as follows: cheap Noon actions, cheap dudes and deeds, cheap goods, more expensive deeds, shootout actions, and finally expensive dudes. Why are shootout actions at the higher end of the scale? It’s because getting into a position to use them requires you to create a table position that allows them to be played. You need to put your dudes in harm’s way in a shootout, where you then have a chance to play them, and even then, they need to make enough of an impact to justify all of their costs.
What happens if your opponent avoids all shootouts for two turns? Even if your actions cost you nothing, they clog your hand so that you cannot improve your situation. You are being penalized for having those cards in your deck, as opposed to some cheap dudes or goods. Similar considerations apply to cheatin’ resolution actions just as well.
So this leads us to two possible solutions for action cards: either their opportunity cost needs to be recouped via their effect, or it needs to be lowered.
The first case is the easiest; one merely improves the power of an action card until it actually feels worth holding on to, even for use in a shootout two turns later. The latter option can be achieved either by loosening the restrictions, or by widening the situations where a card will be useful, thus making it possible and worthy to play out of your hand earlier.
Looking at how easy it is to justify adding a Pistol Whip to literally any kind of deck, we speculated that it’s pretty much on the sweet spot of its cost/reward calculation. This makes it an excellent baseline around which to design other action cards’ power levels and variety of uses.
There is a second factor at work as well as opportunity cost. We want players to make choices about how to win their fights against what values they want. If shootouts are important to Doomtown: Reloaded, then there needs to be more ways to win them than just having a good draw structure. It’s not that draw structure isn’t or shouldn’t be important, it is. But there should be more to the resolution of shootouts than that, and having really effective shootout (and resolution) cards, means that you can win shootouts (and lose them!) by playing cards, not solely on the strength of your draw structure.
So let’s take Sun in Yer Eyes. The classic version merely reduced a dude’s bullets by 2. That looks like a decent effect on paper, but in practice there are just too many situations where it would not make enough difference. What if your opponent has two 2-stud dudes in their posse (not at all hard to do), or a 1-stud and a 2-draw? There are a lot more scenarios like these where a Sun in Yer Eyes really does not improve your situation, thus punishing you for choosing it over another card.
So we needed to widen its use and/or boost its power level. We achieved that by making it also turn the targeted dude into a draw, which immediately covered both scenarios mentioned above. It is easily more powerful than simply removing 2 bullets, but it also increased the number of situations it will combat, turning a 5-stud into a 3-draw, or even hitting an opponent's only 0-stud, so that they have to make their hand with only 5 cards. With this change, we immediately saw a jump in usage for the card, even making it a staple for aggressive decks instead of the value-filler it was before.
Let’s take another action that we were testing, Unprepared, based on a classic card, Caught With Yer Pants Down. It gave a dude -1 bullet and prevented them from using their goods for one shootout round. It was OK if you had to fight a gadget-heavy deck and you could win the shootout in one round, but otherwise, it was too limited. Its transition into the new card, Unprepared, saw it boot all attached cards outright and prevent their use for the rest of the shootout. This immediately widened the scope of use to include anti-goods AND anti-spell. In fact, now that nearly all spells require booting to use, the new card acts as a deterrent to decks that pile spell after spell on one single dude, turning them into what is affectionately called “the railroad dude.” With Unprepared in circulation, this is now a weakness to be exploited rather than a strength. It’s a risk you have to be prepared to take and avoid in spell or gadget decks. And even if you survive the current shootout, your dudes and all their cards are pretty much out of commission for the rest of the turn.
But this still was not enough. Against non-spell, non-goods decks, Unprepared might as well be a dead card since -1 bullet is not strong enough to warrant inclusion. The opportunity cost was still too high. So we widened the scope once more. Now Unprepared boots the dude and prevents them from using any shootout abilities as well. Not only does this serve to counter dudes like Xiong “Wendy” Cheng, who can be brutal in an opposing starting posse, but it can preemptively protect against a suspected Point Blank or Pistol Whip.
Say your opponent sends their influence-heavy weakling to your important deed. You send a shooter to protect it. Unexpectedly, the weakling calls you out. You just know a Pistol Whip is incoming, so you Unprepared the opposing dude first, making them easy pickings. Even simply booting an opposing dude in the town square to prevent further movement can be useful. Unprepared has arguably just surpassed its opportunity cost.
This is the design principle you will see behind a lot of other action cards as well. Pinned Down serves to both reduce bullets and/or snipe at an important dude before they have a chance to run off after sacrificing an expendable dude. The Stakes Just Rose not only acts as a defence against Pistol Whip, but as a great boost card with a high bullet stud or draw somewhere else on the table. Cheatin’ Varmint can be used to punish cheating or to leverage your economic superiority, and so on.
With The Stakes Just Rose we also added another principle, we want cards that are worth playing not just for the penalty that they give your opponent, but for the boost they give you.
In New Town, New Rules we again expanded this design principle. One example is Make ‘em Sweat, where we went for a card that has offensive and defensive utility. It provides a nice value for those people striving for a Dead Man’s Hand deck, where shootout actions were missing, it allows you to use some of those expendable draw dudes to attack another player’s stud bullets, and finally, as is often the case, you can prevent anything that has booting as part of its cost from being used by a particular dude. None of those things on their own make the card outstanding, but together they can represent great versatility in a deck.
Similarly in Election Day Slaughter, we have added Tail Between Yer Legs, which you can use as a simple bullet reduction to bypass cards such as Hiding in Shadows, but also in more defensive scenarios, where you want to see what your opponent will commit to the fight before you do. This makes it an excellent choice for town square campers of all kinds.
If this applies to shootout actions then it also applies to resolution actions, including cheatin’ resolution cards. In the upcoming Faith and Fear, This'll Hurt in the Mornin' should provide great versatility in decks which would like to use 8s in the draw structure, as it is one of the few cheatin’ actions that provides great results both in lowball and in shootouts. If your deck is sufficiently legal, then you’ll generally be able to use its more powerful level and attempt to ace cards in your opponent’s draw hand. A great choice might be one copy of your opponent’s Steven Wiles, which would prevent them from playing any more in the future. Or you might hit those frustrating Unprepareds to give your Mad Scientist time to breathe. Of course, your opponent can always decide to pay you to keep those cards, but even then, a free swing of four ghost rock is nothing to scoff at. But this card also works wonders during shootouts as well, by disrupting your opponent’s cheating hand. It’s not as powerful as a Bottom Dealin’ but turning a five of a kind into three of a kind is usually more than enough to win you the critical fight.
Did we succeed in tweaking all action cards to perfection? Undoubtedly not, and we didn’t expect to. But hopefully the wealth of options that they now provide make them far more likely to get used in the game, rather than sitting in your collection or clogging your hand as you wonder where your design choices went wrong.