Envelopes of Cash Designer Diary 2: The VMD - what gives?

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Envelopes of Cash Designer Diary 2: The VMD - what gives?

Post by andyhre »

Today I am writing about the VMD component of the game and its purpose. This is follow-on post to my prior diary entry (https://boardgamearena.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=32220), and I wanted to get it online fairly quickly because I alluded to the VMD in my discussion of Vegas.

As I referenced there, the VMD is a source of randomness not commonly found in Euro designs, and as a result, it has been somewhat controversial among the people with whom I’ve discussed the game in any detail.

I want to make a few points upfront:

First, the VMD is heavily centered on zero as the expected value, with a 33% chance of rolling a zero and a 50% chance of rolling a +1 or a -1 (split evenly, 25% chance each). The extreme values of -2 and +2 each occur with only 8.33% probability. That is, 10/12s of the time, it will alter your recruit’s value by no more than 1 point, and on average you will gain/lose an equal amount of points so the net impact is zero.

Thus, second, there is no requirement to use the VMD when you play and if you exclude it, it does not change the game’s balance in any way. Because the expected value of each VMD roll is zero, if you omit the die, the game’s expected outcome remains the same. You’ve just removed a little variance, and if that sort of variance makes game play less fun for your group, by all means, omit it. This is why there is a “No VMD” option on the Board Game Arena implementation of the game, which you can find here: https://boardgamearena.com/gamepanel?ga ... opesofcash

Now, with those caveats out of the way, let’s talk about why the VMD is in the standard game. In short, it’s for theme. Envelopes of Cash is a Euro with set collection and pickup-and-deliver mechanisms that drive your scoring. The “goods” you are picking up are supposed to be college football recruits, but of course they are really just cardboard tokens. it takes good theming to convince yourself thst cardboard QB is actually the star quarterback your team desperately needs.

Euros are often chided for having their themes “pasted on” so that you could take a game about medieval trade guilds and change the artwork to make it a game about genetic mutation experiments in an alien space lab, and nothing would really change about the game. When I set about to make a Stefan Feld-like game with an American theme, I wanted to do two things. First, I wanted to make a game that people who like the mid-2000s Feld kind of games, like Bruges (now redone as Hamburg) or Macao (Now redone as Amsterdam) could dive in and really dig the game for its Feldian feel, but also appreciate the change of scenario.

Second, I wanted to tell a very different story than in a typical Feld game, and I wanted that story to feel dyed in the wool rather than pasted on. I very much wanted players to see their actions as corresponding to the process of gathering together high school seniors to become college freshman football players. Clearly, coaches don’t ride around in buses like a band on tour, but the idea of needing to build a diverse roster (positional scoring), the develop a base in which you “own” the recruiting space (regional scoring), and to meet the specific needs of the current year (the recruiting board) should sing out. To that same end, the Personnel & Facilities and Culture cards, should complement that immersion. (These scoring goals will be the subject of a future Design Diary.)

The example I always give is that when Feld made a card that cost 4 green cubes and gave you 1 cube per turn, the character was called Ms. Green. There was no explanation of why Ms. Green wanted to give you a green cube every turn, how she fit into your commercial empire, etc. It was just: here’s Ms. Green, do you want to pay her 4 and get 1 back every turn? In contrast, in EoC the card that costs 4 green envelopes of cash (“ECs” for short) is an Oil Baron Alumnus of your school, and once you’ve wined-and-dined him to become a supporter of your football program (i.e., paid out 4 green ECs), he’s committed to funding your recruiting efforts with a green EC every month. It’s the identical mechanic, but when every card is set more deeply into its milieu, it is my hope that the theme stands out.

The VMD exists as part of the thematic immersion. College football recruiting is not a precise science. Colleges have to look at hundreds or thousands of high school players playing very different levels of competition and try to guess which of these 17-year-old boys will mature into 21-year-old men who are good enough to play in NFL in a year. They can rely on consensus “star ratings” put out by magazines and websites that follow high school sports, but in the end, until you get a guy into camp and play him against your other athletes, you won’t really know if he’s the 4-star you thought you had, a 2-star who will ride the bench, or a once-in-a-decade superstar. The VMD is designed to capture the reality of the recruiting space the game is set into.

Of course, it turns out the people who spend their lives trying to recruit the best players are pretty good at figuring out who the best players are. So on average, they get it right. This is why the expected value of the VMD is zero – to capture the fact that the consensus opinion of recruits tends to get it right, and to be wrong on the upside and downside about equally. And when they are wrong, more often they are just a little bit wrong – a 5-star turns out to still be a pretty 4-star good player – and only rarely do they completely blow it. Hence the VMD has more zeroes than ones (positive or negative), and more ones than twos (positive or negative).

Moreover, because this is a Euro, whenever there is luck, there should be ways to mitigate it. Two cards in particular are aimed at giving players a chance to lower their risk to bad VMD rolls. One is “Good Mojo” capturing the sense that some coaches just have a sixth sense about things. This card turns all negative rolls into zeroes, which ensures you’ll always earn at least the base value of the recruit, and also increases the VMD’s expected value to about 0.42 points per roll. So over the course of 5 recruits, a player with Good Mojo will gain about 2 more points than a player without the card.

The other is the transfer portal. In real-life, the transfer portal has radically changed recruiting, especially with respect to when a coach makes a mistake and recruits a guy who underperforms his expected rating. The “dud” will be encouraged to transfer to a lesser football program and a new recruit will be brought in as a transfer student from another college. The transfer Portal Card therefore lets you get a “second bite at the apple” – if you don’t like the first VMD roll you reject that first recruit and take your chances (reroll) on the second. Combine the two cards and you’ll really see some positive upside.
So the answer to “why is there an unmitigated luck in this supposed Euro?” is three-fold. First, there are ways to mitigate that luck. Second, it is designed to enhance the game’s theme without altering the players expected scores. And third, you can always leave it out if you don’t like it.

But before you take that third option, I do hope you’ll play a few games with the VMD included before making your final judgment. In the many playtest sessions I’ve hosted, I’ve found the woops of excitement or groans of disappointment from a good or bad VMD roll end up being a source of fun for the players. Maybe you’ll like it too!

In the meantime, Always Be Crootin,
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