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Version 19 Released
by jasonrohrerTuesday, October 15, 2013 [7:15 pm]

Along with several small fixes, version 19 changes the game in two major ways.

First, regular salary payments have been turned off and replaced with bounties that are earned when a robber dies in your house. The point of this change is to discourage salary grinding from inside a scary or impenetrable fortress and encourage more psychological and varied house design. The hope is that the "optimal house" is now the house that tricks the most people, which means that the optimal will forever be changing (a given trick only works a few times before you have to move onto something else).

Second, family defense has been made more interesting through the addition of a shotgun that can be placed for and picked up by the wife as she makes her escape. After she picks up the shotgun, she becomes a deadly close-range threat to the robber. Of course, she can shoot you by accident too when you are testing your own house. This also brings family defense closer to what I want it to be thematically (women are not helpless, and they are plenty willing to arm themselves when necessary).

A full list of changes can be found here:

The Castle Doctrine Change Log

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Version 17 Released
by jasonrohrerTuesday, August 27, 2013 [9:52 pm]

This release has another bunch of small tweaks and fixes.

Three major changes should be noticeable. First, a new Club tool has been introduced to complement the price-rebalanced Crowbar tool. The Voltage Detector has been removed to make room. Second, vision no longer passes partially through diagonal gaps between tiles. Third, living animals now jump back to their starting positions after a successful robbery. No more dogs blocking the front door.

A full list of changes can be found here:

The Castle Doctrine Change Log

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Version 16 Released
by jasonrohrerWednesday, August 21, 2013 [7:19 pm]

Along with a bunch of small bug fixes and improvements, this release changes the way a few different objects work in the game.

Wired wooden walls have been removed, and metal walls no longer transmit power. Doors and trapdoors also no longer transmit power. Animal movement has also changed slightly: animals now stop following/fleeing you when they can no longer see you.

These changes are minor, but they have an enormous impact on the emergent dynamics of the game. I'll be writing more about this soon.

A full list of changes can be found here:

The Castle Doctrine Change Log

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Version 15 Released
by jasonrohrerTuesday, July 23, 2013 [6:39 pm]

This release fixes a few minor bugs, including an inconsistency in the way animals move next to dead animals. It also adds a visual status indicator for Ctrl-click (eyedropper) functionality.

A full list of changes can be found here:

The Castle Doctrine Change Log

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Version 14 Released
by jasonrohrerSaturday, July 13, 2013 [12:14 am]

This release features a seemingly-minor change to animal movement (animals avoid walking in the squares adjacent to another dead animal, unless attacking) that has a huge impact on the game (a dead animal's body can no longer be used as a safe spot from which to lure and club other animals in many circumstances). This makes pit bull placement much more tactically rich.

A minor bug with house change cost computation has also been fixed.

The new animal movement requires that all existing house security tapes be cleared, because they are no longer consistent with the latest movement rules.

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Version 13 Released
by jasonrohrerTuesday, July 9, 2013 [5:41 pm]

This release changes the robbery end condition so that an empty vault that has already been robbed by someone else cannot be reached. This means that reaching an empty vault over and over can no longer be used to cumulatively add damage to a house (damage is saved when the vault is reached or family members are killed).

A "safe movement mode" toggle has been added (to help out in tense moments---this mode enables Enter-confirmation for each move that is made).

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Version 12 Released
by jasonrohrerThursday, July 4, 2013 [6:16 pm]

This release changes animal behavior so that they do not start moving until they have seen you. After that, they switch to their normal following or fleeing behavior, even if they can no longer see you. Thus, they can still follow you from behind walls, but only after they have seen you.

This is a tiny change, but the impact on house design is huge, because animals can no longer move mysteriously and invisibly behind walls to trigger switches. They must be visible at least once to the robber before they can start doing this.

As a result, all houses have been taken out of circulation until their owners re-edit them to work with the new behavior.

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Version 11 Released
by jasonrohrerTuesday, July 2, 2013 [5:24 pm]

This released fixes a minor bug in family death tracking (family member death was not registered until one step later in v10, causing several unexpected results) and adds a tape length statistic to the list of security tapes.

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Eliminating grinding (v10 released)
by jasonrohrerFriday, June 28, 2013 [6:20 pm]

With the release of version 9, I was trying to change the direction and feel of The Castle Doctrine, pushing it away from a puzzle designing-and-solving game and toward a tactical, Roguelike, designing-and-bypassing game.

The solution in v9 was unlimited backpack slots, and for the most part, it worked. However, there were a few existing negative dynamics that were magnified by this change.

As intended, robbers are much more powerful in v9, in that, with enough money, they can bypass anything with tools, regardless of their skill. However, money is scarce and always at risk of being stolen out from under you, so acquiring enough money to buy enough tools to brute-force bypass good security requires skill. Or at least it should.


These lingering negative dynamics can loosely be grouped together as grinding. Yeah, it might seem like players grind against their own best interest, because grinding isn't an interesting way to play. However, it's the game's fault for letting them do it in the first place. The game is essentially whispering, "Hey you, pssst, over here. You can play me in this skill-free way too. In fact, that's how I'm meant to be played." Of course, players listen to what the game is telling them.

Problem 1: Grinding past dogs

The first grind-inducing problem is that you start each new life with $2000. You might spend this building a new house, but you might also spend this on tools. In version 8, $2000 would buy not very much house but quite a lot of tools---however, you could only carry 8 tools at a time, so starting tool purchases were not overpowered. In v9 where you can carry an unlimited number of items, tool prices were raised dramatically to compensate for this. For the v9 price of $100, that crowbar better be made in Switzerland out of forged titanium alloy. However, even at this ridiculously steep price, you can still buy 20 of them with your new-life allowance.


20 crowbars means 20 dead pit bulls. By exploiting the mechanics of dog movement (dogs refuse to walk over other dead dogs, and dogs keep getting closer each time you use a tool), it is possible to bypass loads of dogs with those 20 crowbars.

It turns out that dogs are the best way of protecting family members (the family likes dogs as pets, but they refuse to stand near mechanical traps). But if the robber is coming in with 20 crowbars, the family becomes impossible to protect, in practice, with your starting house budget no matter how you arrange the dogs.


Should the price of the crowbar go up even more? After all, the gun in v9 costs $1000. The idea is that the gun shoots safely from a distance, whereas the crowbar must be used while standing right next to your potentially perma-deadly target.

Note that 20 saws, which you can also afford with your starting $2000, are not as much of a problem. Yeah, you can cut through lots of walls with those, but you need to know where to cut. The crowbar is rather unique in the way that it interacts with moving threats.

But no, I didn't want to raise the cost of the crowbar. You have to be standing next to a target to used it. That should be dangerous. The crowbar should be cheap as a result. I decided to focus on making the crowbar more dangerous to use.

As it stood, dog positioning had little tactical impact. If a dog is next to you, you can use a crowbar on it. If a dog is an odd number of steps away, you can take steps toward it, as it steps toward you, and eventually be standing right next to it. If a dog is an even number of steps away, it seems like you're stuck, since taking steps away preserves the distance, while taking steps toward it will eventually result in a final step where the dog lands right on top of you. However, in v9, you could rectify this situation by using a tool somewhere---on a wall or anywhere---which would also trigger the dog to take a step without you taking a step. After that, the dog would be an odd number of steps away. What if there was no place to use a tool? You could always fall back on throwing the incredibly cheap drugged meat, which was supposedly balanced by turning a pit bull into a sleeping land mine. However, a sleeping pit bull is even easier to approach and club than a lively one in v9.

This all seemed wrong to me, because it rendered dogs useless as security in the game, where I had wanted them to be the most tactically rich part of the game. In v10, I changed the movement mechanics so that animals do not move when you use a tool. Now if they're an odd number of steps away, there is no simple way to change that. I also made drugged animals unkillable, so they really do turn into sleeping land mines. Yes, drugged meat is very cheap, but there's now a properly-huge trade-off, since you can block yourself in by using it carelessly.

Now clever placement of dogs can provide viable security for family members. Consider this simple device, which ensures that the dog is always one tile away from the robber, no matter how the robber approaches:


Yes, there are ways to bypass this device, but they all require careful, tactical play. You have to study the situation and find a weakness. Marching in there with 20 crowbars will accomplish nothing, even against this lone dog. There's no way to grind your way through dog-based security. Well, except if you've got thousands of dollars to waste on loads of guns. But there's no way to accomplish that without skill, right?

Problem 2: Grinding across multiple lives

The second grind-inducing problem is that you start each new life with $2000. Yeah, that should sound familiar from above. However, this grind-strategy also exploits the way that death works.

There is a stiff penalty for dying---you lose everything, including your current house which you may have spent hours building. But what if you have nothing to lose? And when you start a fresh life with $2000, you have exactly nothing to lose, because dying at that point will bring you right back to another fresh life and $2000 more.


Thus, that initial $2000 is totally free of both cost and consequence.

In some ways, this is a good thing, because it creates at least two different classes in the player population: those who have accumulated wealth and become risk-adverse, and those who have nothing to lose and are still risk-taking. Both classes are needed for the game to function well as a whole.


However, I want all parts of the game to be deep and interesting, no matter what class you are currently in. In v9, since the fresh-life player faces no real consequences, they have no interesting or tense decisions to make. Why not just plow ahead into a dangerous house? If you die, then just plow ahead into the same house again. Keep trying. Maybe after enough grinding, you'll stumble your way through via trial and error.

The other factor here is that the player has $2000 to blow on each of these throw-away lives. Combine this with the fact that unused tools are dropped into the target house's vault upon robber death, and throw-away death robbers are motivated to carry a full load-out every time. This increases the payout if they ever manage to break through. You can easily do this many times per minute on a given house, which means that you can pump the value of a house up by $600K or more every hour. Even if the perpetrator doesn't break through for the payoff themselves, it still results in an unnatural economic spike that can be gratifying to create.

Furthermore, the same dynamic can be exploited on weaker houses that a robber knows how to bypass. Why not pump $10K into the house first, across a five lives, before finally bypassing it? Yeah, there is a risk that some other robber will come along and snatch the payout before you do, but if so, you can just repeat the same trick again. Eventually, you will succeed.

A fresh-life robber who pulls this off suddenly has way more at their disposal than the previously-mentioned 20 crowbars. How about an unlimited supply of guns? That was supposed to require skill to acquire, right? And guess what? Players were doing this all the time. It had become the way to play the game.

Both of these problems are related to the consequence-free nature of death when you have just started a fresh life. This issue has been discussed ever since v5, and for a while, adding some sort of static consequence seemed natural: maybe some kind of timeout (where you can't respawn for X minutes after dying) or maybe some kind of financial penalty (where with each new life in quick succession, you start with a bit less money).

(Umm.... yeah, they actually make these. Available in both navy and white.)

The problem with a timeout is---obviously---that it takes you out of the game. Perhaps you have an hour to play today, but you make a mistake at the beginning of that hour and die, and then you spend the rest of your available time waiting in timeout. The problem with the financial penalty is that it must be severe to properly deal with the issue of multi-life tool dumping (even if it's as severe as 50%, $2000 + $1000 + $500 + ... is still $4000). Both of these mechanisms could be tweaked through some kind of dynamism (where the amount of time that passes between deaths is factored into the timeout or penalty), but this is complex under-the-hood behavior that is hard for players to reason about and needs explaining.

Furthermore, both solutions are overkill, because it's not fresh starts generally that are the core problem---starting fresh immediately to work on your own house again with a full $2000 is fine and should be encouraged. The problem is starting fresh over and over to grind against the same target house.

The solution in v10 is to add a penalty for dying in a particular house: a timeout before you can re-enter just that one house. So, if you're trying to grind your way through across multiple lives, or you're trying to dump a bunch of tools by dying there, you'll be stopped right away by the fact that you have to wait an hour between such attempts. The tools you dump will likely be taken by someone else in that time, and trial-and-error grinding is impractical when it must be spread out over days instead of minutes (again, some other player will likely get through via tactical skill before your slow trial-and-error method ever pays off).

And thematically, the per-house timeout fits. After all, it was a little strange to be able to start new lives so burden-free in previous versions. Your previous self and previous family are gone forever, but you move on without a care? Now there is some trace of your previous life still lingering: a temporary chill that prevents you from re-entering the house where you died.


In previous versions, there was plenty of tension surrounding death when working on your own house (you stood to lose the whole house you were working on), but not enough tension on robbery death in many cases (when you had nothing to lose). Along with dealing with the multi-life grinding issues, this house-chill mechanic also adds needed tension to all robberies.

Which, when you think about it, is the same thing as eliminating grinding from robberies.

A full list of changes can be found here:

The Castle Doctrine Change Log

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Changing the direction of the game (and v9 released)
by jasonrohrerFriday, June 14, 2013 [10:57 pm]

Several public releases and several thousand players later, I took a hard look at what The Castle Doctrine had become, and I realized that it had veered off in a troubling, unsustainable direction.

My original goals for the game were as follows.

I wanted to make a game where players generated content, but where that content actually mattered to gameplay. Where that content was the gameplay.

The house design side would naturally be whatever it would be: players would strive to design a house that would keep robbers out in the most effective way possible. Designs would evolve over time as players discovered this or that emergent combination. I always imagined that the house design side of the game would quickly blossom into something beyond what I could imagine, so I didn't spend too much time trying to imagine it (people have built working CPU logic in Minecraft, so the sky is really the limit).


But I had very specific goals for the robbery side of the game. Yes, the robbers would obviously be trying to overcome whatever fiendishness the best homeowners had devised, but they would be able to overcome it tactically. They'd sneak through a darkened house, peering around corners, and pressing their luck. A poke here, a cut there. Trying to find and exploit a weakness in the design. Cutting through in exactly the right spot and finding themselves behind the scenes, exploring the inner workings of the house, like going behind the walls at the end of Portal. With permadeath always one mistake away, this would be a tense experience. But with enough explorative poking and cutting, over multiple scouting trips, any house design would eventually be vulnerable to a successful break-in. "Aha! If I just cut through these wooden walls, snip this wire, and throw this brick across the pit to hit that switch, I can get to the vault."

And that's how I envisioned the two sides interacting. No homeowner would be safe forever. This would be a game about vulnerability and violation. Yes, some would rise to the top, but only for a short time, since being at the top would mean that the attention from robbers would increase. Through skill, opportunism, and some "right place at the right time" luck, a player might rob a few small houses, gaining enough money to buy tools to rob a few bigger houses, and so on, climbing carefully up through the ranks---a kind of meta-layer of tactical gameplay, a Roguelike where the dungeon-tower was built by other players. But they'd get to the top only to be knocked back down by another upstart with less to lose. Then they might climb again, building a house that would prevent the kind of break-in that got them last time. An endless, every-cycling arms race between robbers and homeowners, where the landscape is always changing and no optimum exists for either side.


As owners start building more wood walls, robbers start carrying more saws. Then some smart owner notices this and starts building metal walls. This trend builds, an then robbers start carrying more torches. In response, homeowners might move on to concrete, and robbers explosives. In which case owners would switch to dogs, and robbers to guns, and then back to wood versus saws, or pits versus ladders, or a mixture of dogs and wood versus a mixture of guns and saws.


The system would remained balanced by the fact that both obstacles and tools cost money, and money is scarce. Furthermore, since every homeowner needs to get through their security with no tools at all, every house would have certain vulnerabilities that skilled players could discover and exploit.

Okay, that sounded pretty cool to me! So, I tried to build that game.

It's pretty clear, though, that the current state (v8) of The Castle Doctrine does not match the above vision. So what happened over the past 3 months since the first public release?

Shortly after the initial alpha launch, things were pretty great. Homeowners were trying out this and that, discovering little emergent design combinations, and generally making really cool, clever, and interesting houses. Robbers were sneaking around nervously, poking this and cutting that, and eventually breaking through every house. Wealth and paintings were passing from player to player and different kingpins rose and fell.

But in less than a week, something very big happened. A rather wealth player made some wooden walls that were 9 tiles thick. Since a backpack only has 8 slots in it, and can thus carry only 8 saws, a robber cannot cut through such a wall. At first, this didn't seem like such a big problem. After all, every house has to be solvable without tools (as demonstrated by the owner). So, there's still a way to get to the vault in such a house---just not a way that involves cutting. Of course, the 9-wall-thick idea spread quickly.


Shortly after that, however, something else big happened. A rather clever player devised the first push-button combination lock. 9-tile-thick walls protected the internal logic, and a robber would be faced with pressing the right subset of 16 buttons in order to pass through a 9-door-thick corridor to the vault. Yes, it's possible to reach the vault with no tools. But if you don't know the secret pattern, it might take you 65,536 guesses. This idea also spread quickly.


Shortly after that, someone devised a 22-button combination lock (over 4 million possible combinations to try). This was essentially overkill, though, because the 16-button one was unbreakable, in practice (the top houses had a few hundred attempts, at most). You know, if each attempt takes even as little as one minute, you're looking at 44 days of non-stop, no-sleep trying to break a 16-button combination lock.

Finally, a very clever player figured out how to build an effective combination-style lock for only $1400 by exploiting an electric floor loophole. Given that each player receives $2000, for free, when they start from scratch after permadeath, this meant that unbreakable security was now available to even the least-wealthy players in the game.


A few weeks later, there were pages and pages of houses employing some variation on the combination lock, and they were all sitting there, unbroken. Yes, there were some lovely little innovations along the way, but they were all uncrackable, in practice.

For robbers, the experience of entering such a house involved very little sneaking, poking, or cutting. No tactics were employable. If you were foolish enough to even try, you'd push a few buttons before realizing hopelessness and facing your death (one lovely innovation: pushing any button at all traps you in the house, so you must enter the correct combination, or press nothing at all, to survive). The smarter players would see a combination lock and leave.

Thus, the robbing side of the game degenerated to picking away at the broken or abandoned houses lurking at the bottom of the list, and skipping pages and pages of houses to find them.

From my perspective, players had pushed the game in an interesting and unexpected direction: they were getting so good at the game that they seemed to be designing real locks, tile by tile. Security through puzzles. So this was a puzzle game, after all, and not a tactical game!

I was a little uncertain about this, but there seemed to be no way around it: even if I doubled the backpack size, puzzles would still be possible with 17-thick walls. And making the backpack even bigger than that (like 30, the width of the map) would be unwieldy and also completely subvert house design (if you could plow through any obstacle by cutting, what would be the point of designing a house at all?).

Still, there was a huge problem: hidden information (through limited visibility) meant that practically-impossible puzzles were easy to make.

Amid deep community worries about ruining the game, I thought about ways to reveal this information. I didn't want to spoil the "sneaking around a dark house" feel that the visibility shroud creates, so I wanted a source of information that was separate from the robbing view. Blueprints seemed thematically appropriate: suppose you could study a house design in its entirety, before you even stepped in the door?


Combination locks would be easy to bypass, since you could see the otherwise-hidden logic of their inner workings. But would this ruin puzzles in the game? I knew that the answer to this question was provably "no" through some very dusty memories from computer science classes long ago. Any suitably-powerful formal system can be used to encode expressions from other formal systems. Thus, provably hard-to-solve problems (from logic, for example) could be encoded into Castle Doctrine maps in a way such that reaching the vault on the map would provide a solution to the encoded problem. Essentially, there was no limit to how hard a Castle Doctrine puzzle could be, even with no hidden information.

And sure enough, with the advent of blueprints, top-house puzzle complexity exploded, getting harder as needed. At one point, a house remained at the top of the list for a full week before it was solved. So, the puzzle aspect of the game wasn't ruined by full information. At that point, I realized that puzzles rarely have hidden information, almost by definition. Hidden information turns a puzzle into a trial-and-error guessing game.


But something else happened in response to blueprints: the game world was split in two, with one small portion pushed way up, and the rest of it pushed way down. If you were clever enough to design a really hard puzzle (basically requiring that you be a practicing electrical engineer---even I had trouble doing it), then you could keep people out for a long time and prosper in the game. Everyone else, however, would design a house that would be broken right away through the reveal of its internals. These players, who were also unable to crack the hard houses, had nothing worthwhile to do and left the game. The remaining engineer-type players were secure in their puzzle-fortresses with too much to lose, so they couldn't even risk robbing each other.

Every once in a while, after time passed for sufficient study, one of these top houses would be solved. But doing so required days of painstaking work on the part of the solver. I'm sure those final moments of victory were some of their most exquisite game experiences, but that experience was out of reach for almost everyone, including me (I spent several hours trying to figure out one of the top houses, only to eventually resign to the fact that it was beyond my capabilities).


So, it was clear that something had to change, but what? I could remove this or that feature to limit puzzle design in this or that way, but it was clear that anything short of drastic limitations would still allow sufficient complexity for provably-hard puzzles to emerge. I certainly didn't want to make a game with no wiring, but even then, a maze with moving animals might be enough for provably-hard puzzles. Chipping away clearly wasn't going to work.

I was also uneasy about the way blueprints had changed the feel of the game. You were no longer sneaking your way through a mysterious house, coming around corners and being shocked by what you discovered. You saw it all up-front, so you knew exactly what to expect.

Still, without blueprints, combination locks would rear their heads again, right? And what about real puzzles, where hidden information has no place?

Then I realized something: I never wanted to make a puzzle game here. Looking back through my notes from the fall of 2011, the word "puzzle" does not occur. But the game grew into a puzzle game, and I fostered that. My original vision of a tactical, player-generated, Roguelike, every-cycling arms race was nowhere to be found, though. Was there some way to get it back?

The problem, it seemed, were puzzles. Puzzles aren't tactical and in-the-moment. They're about studying something from the outside and discovering the one, correct solution, and then applying it. But if players can design anything they want, won't they be able to make puzzles? Well, only if they can somehow force other players to solve the puzzles. The 9-thick wall trick was the first step taken in this direction: "You cannot bypass my buttons now. You must figure out how to press them correctly to pass."

What if there was some way to bypass anything, eventually? Then the keystone of the problem became clear: the 8-slot backpack (or the N-slot backpack). What if players had infinite backpacks? Well, then they'd just plow through everything and not even need to think. But what if there was a way to balance it so that there was an enormous cost to doing this?

First of all, what if tools were much more expensive? Then you'd certainly think before you'd use one. But still, you might as well fill the backpack to the brim for every outing. Then you'd have plenty of whatever you'd happen to need. You might think a bit in order to conserve tools, but every house would be crackable in one go, and you wouldn't make any hard choices about what to carry. No cycling arms race. That's what the original limit of 8 slots was for---to force hard choices. But house designers exploited that known limit to the point where tools became useless (no choices at all).

So, there has to be some cost to a brim-full backpack. What if unused tools are lost at the end of every robbery? So if you bring 100 saws, but there are nothing but concrete walls, you're really screwed. You'd need to scout, and plan, and think, and come in with just a few tools to scout some more, and then finally load up with exactly the right combination to get through the house (and then perhaps find that the owner made last-minute changes that screw you).

And thematically, this makes some sense. You need to empty your backpack to carry out the loot. And if you run out the door without taking anything, you're in such a hurry that you ditch your backpack. Even more interesting: what if the extra tools you ditch end up in the owner's vault?

This has the nice side-effect of bringing a cost to scouting that seemed to be missing. It also helps to grow the prize in a well-scouted house, and can leave a victimized owner with a little something as a bootstrap (the extra tools left by the robber who reached the vault).

Of course, there's a sticking point that prevented me from seeing this solution all along: an infinite backpack isn't realistic. But this game wasn't meant to be realistic, obviously.


Thus, with a great hopefulness, I give you version 9 of The Castle Doctrine. A game with hidden information and soft puzzles, where with enough money, you can buy your way through anything, but where money is so scarce that you'll end up thinking your way through most things. Where you'll sneak around corners, make tactical decision, and try to take subtle advantage of current trends. And where you'll die. A lot. At least that part hasn't changed.

A full list of changes can be found here:

The Castle Doctrine Change Log

Discuss this post in the forums


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