A Change of Plans: Wind, Snow, and Drafts

This weekend I had planned to take a trip to London for a Playtest UK meetup, as is my wont, but our more-wintery-than-usual winter came back and did its thing, so I decided that it would be more sensible to stay at home for the day than risk the roads. So that was a general scuppering that I would have been happier with, but I did get the opportunity to spend a chunk of the afternoon discussing various projects (via a Google hangout) with a friend had also been planning to go playtesting and had opted to stay warm and safe for the day.

Anyway, this friend and I had previously discussed the possibility of designing games based on multiple types of drafting mechanics.  Drafting is basically where players select resources from a shared pool, and this can take many forms like the system we used to have at primary school for picking teams where each team captain took it in turn to choose one player from those so far unselected (I was invariably in the last few chosen), or a "pick and pass" system where players simultaneously choose a card from a selection they hold, and then pass the rest to the next player. There are many other mechanisms that could be broadly described as drafting.
As I keep telling people: stop thinking about making a game, and just make a damn prototype,
even if it is not a complete one. Sometimes I do take my own advice!

After a load of chat about this type of mechanism, we each had an idea for a game that could exploit the multiple draft concept. If either of these games comes to anything in the future, I think we can be clear that they were "mechanic first" designs, in case anyone asks.

My idea was based on the not-massively-exciting concept of settling and developing an area of land, building production facilities and exploiting them for profit.  Each round would consist some event or action that would allow for a different variant of drafting to resolve. In other words, each round there is something to distribute between the players, and that distribution is done in assorted ways.

I made a load of notes about this after our original discussion (and we kept the discussion going online for a little while) but I moved on to other things before I actually built a prototype.

Our discussions again this weekend did a good job of reminding me of this project and set me off again. A short while with some index cards, Sharpies, and assorted components from stock, and I had the beginnings of a prototype. It's not yet enough to play, but once I start handling physical components, new questions and answers start presenting themselves, and I start needing to make decisions which will inform how the game will develop.  Like, for instance, how do I handle resources? There are many ways to do this, but I have decided to use a short track on individual player boards to mark the quantities of each commodity held by each player rather than, for example, having tokens to represent quantities.

I don't quite have enough made to allow me to play a full round of the game, but I know what I need to do next, so once I've finished blogging about it, I'll get back to construction for a couple of evenings, and solo test parts as I am able.

Kinda related, Toucan Play That Game recently shared a good video of a panel at the recent Airecon on how to teach games to people. Paul Grogan (of Gaming Rules!) talked about the method the CGE team use for demonstrating their games at conventions by explaining just enough to get going and revealing the rest of the rules as it makes sense during play. This may be terrible if you want to construct and execute a winning strategy on your first play, but it can be a great way to learn the game.  Similarly, last year, a friend and I played our way through the card game, Fast Forward: Fortress, which doesn't has a rulebook but instead gradually reveals the rules as you work your way through the deck over the course of a dozen plays. This works well and we really enjoyed playing that. 

The reason I bring that up is that my drafting game now looks like it will involve a series of rounds, during which, players each choose one of a selection of available event cards.  These events then trigger the main actions of the game, so one gives everyone an opportunity to build production locations, another allows locations to produce goods, and another allows everyone to sell to the market.  Because of this, it looks like the game will be playable by simply explaining each of the events revealed in each round as they come up, and learning the game could be an organic experience where play can start almost immediately after sitting down for the first time.  I rather like that and hope I can pull it off.


Trying to Find a Balance

Over the last few years of learning to design games, I've picked up all sorts of tricks and techniques, but possibly the most interesting things I have learnt have been about my own processes and how I design games, as well as how those processes have changed over the years.

Many years ago, back in the 80's and 90's when I occasionally dabbled a little in tabletop game design, the games I came up with worked OK but were invariably duller than ditch water.  I never really got very far with any of those designs.

More recently, as I have been making a more concerted effort to develop my game design skills, I have come to realise that one of the reasons I had previously failed was that I obsessed too much about balance, and almost certainly misunderstood what balance is about in the context of tabletop games.  I probably still don't really have a complete handle on it, but I think I'm moving in the right direction.

My current feelings on the matter are that balance does not mean making everything in a game equally powerful, but rather to mean that there are no strategies and no individual components or elements that as good as guarantee victory.  And similarly, there should be no component in the game (I'm talking cards, units, etc) that is never any use in a winning strategy.
I have some confidence that these two cards are reasonably well balanced.

So to make things a little more concrete, in the example of Scurvy Crew, it is totally fine for some crew cards to be more powerful than others, but there should not be any combination of crew that you could acquire without other players being able to stop you, that would make your ship into an unstoppable, loot gathering juggernaut.  Similarly, every crew card in the deck should be of enough utility that experienced players would at least sometimes choose to recruit them.

Incidentally, in this case, having crew with special abilities and skill icons, as they do, is a decent way to help this: if an ability proves to be too powerful, I can reduce its effectiveness, or decrease the icons provided by the card; conversely, a card with a weaker ability could have an extra icon added.

Thinking about this has brought be to a realisation about how my game design process has developed. Where once I worried about balance from the very start, I now leave such matters until very late on, when most of the game is settled into what I think is close to a final form.  This seems to work well for me, as it allows me to concentrate on getting the flow and the experience of the game where I want it, and it also means that I don't waste too much effort on balancing elements of the game that might change dramatically, or even disappear from the game.  See, it all comes down to constructive laziness.

I only recently started working on the balance of Invaded, after it had been in development for more than a year, and the main focus of my balancing efforts, the strategy cards, didn't even exist for a lot of that time, though they are partly based on the objective cards that I had in some early iterations.  Stressing about balance much earlier would have led to wasted effort.  And, going back to my earlier point, as I balance these strategy cards, the aim is not to make them all equally useful, but rather to make all of them compelling in some situation, even if that situation only comes up in the occasional game.  Some will get chosen most of the time, while I hope the others attract "remember that time when..." stories for those moments when they were perfect.

This delayed balancing approach does have its down sides though, primarily for me when dealing with playtesters.  When testing a game, players give their feedback based on how they perceive the game and how things go for them, so it is not unreasonable that they focus on issues that they see as being wrong with the game, and that is quite often when they see that a particular strategy or decision is stronger or weaker than they expected it to be.  One data point does not necessarily mean that there is a problem, but it can muddy the waters when, for instance, I am wanting to see how the game flows and if there are any parts of the game that cause cognitive hiccups for the players.

This sort of issue is actually more about how I handle the testers than about them, and while I have been working on games for a few years now, I still consider myself relatively inexperienced, particularly at running playtests with a wide variety of players.  As such, I am trying to learn the best ways to brief testers on what to expect from the session, and how to read their reactions and respond to them.  I feel that it is fine to tell the testers that, in this particular test, I am not looking to concentrate on balance, but when they come up with these points, it is best to just write the concern down and move on if possible. After all, knowing about the perceived imbalance may help later, and it may be easy to fix for the next prototype iteration.

Oh, and this whole "balance later" thing is, as with so many things, more of a guideline than an actual rule. Sometimes it's worth tweaking and balancing along the way, if only to remove a distraction. But remember: a little imbalance makes a game far more interesting.

Credit where credit's due: I've been thinking about this subject for a while, but it came to the front thanks to an as-always interesting post on Bastiaan Reinink's Make Them Play blog.


Scurvy Treasures

The game of the moment is definitely Scurvy Crew, and I have managed to get another playtest group assembled to test the changes I have made over the last couple of weeks. The main changes involve the way treasure is handled, with custom treasure cards, plus a treasure bonus for the player who sinks each merchant ship in addition to the "area control" rewards.

Towards the end of the game, with treasure and tea nearly run out.

So, some of the take-aways from this play included:

  • The game took 70 minutes to play, with several pauses where I needed to clarify some rules. Without those pauses and bits of confusion, the game would have been within an hour, and almost certainly a load quicker with more experienced players. This I take as a win.
  • BUT those pauses for clarification are a huge problem. Part of the problem is that the terminology I have on the cards is woolly and inconsistent, so fixing that should reduce confusion significantly. I will also have to think long and hard (and observe more) to see what complexity in the game is unnecessary and should be cut or simplified. There is bound to be something.
  • The bonus treasure for actually sinking a merchant was an incentive for people to jump in and actually finish them off, but when the final scores were reckoned, it turned out that these bonuses didn't effect anything and were in practice disproportionately small. Shouldn't be hard to fix that.
  • The set collection aspect of treasure collecting didn't really pan out as hoped: there was a feeling that you were getting random rewards and then you ended up with some sort of a score that you had little control over. 
  • Balance is terrible.  I know this, and am slowly chipping away at it, but my style of play is to not worry too much about balance until late in the development process. The players were aware of this, but it can be hard for them to not worry about it. Maybe I should rethink my process a bit here.
  • There was general agreement that there should be parrots, monkeys and rum. :/

I ended up with plenty more notes than this, so I have a lot to be working with. Big thanks to the Some-Mondays group for some great feedback.  My next opportunity to playtest is likely to be next week, so I'd better get to it...


Three pirate ships, two pubs, and some prehistory

This weekend I made my almost-monthly pilgrimage to London for an afternoon of playtesting thanks to Playtest UK.  For the second time I brought along Scurvy Crew, my card game about pirates, incorporating some changes to address issues identified last month.  I had two playtesters to work with this time, and I joined in to make a three.

As an aside, it is generally more effective to sit out and observe a playtest, which allows you more easily to watch what the players are doing, and make notes as you go along.  I find, however, that at this stage of a game's development, where it is changing quite rapidly, being involved can be a very effective way to get a feel for how the game plays, even at the cost of weaker in-play notes.

My usual blurry photography (not got effective shake compensation on the phone),
but going for more interesting angles this time.
My players were atypical for the Playtest UK meetups, as neither were game designers, they were just a couple of keen gamers who wanted to come along and try something new and potentially wobbly.  This meant that I could probably expect their feedback to be a little gentler and less critical than from the regulars, but getting thoughts from people I don't know at all (and watching them play) is generally useful.

As it turned out, the game ran smoothly, and these two players were really enthusiastic about it.  There were a few areas where the rules were less than perfectly clear and I had to re-explain a few times, and we cut the game off at about an hour of play, as it looked like it would run maybe another twenty minutes or so before ending.

A few really useful take-aways from this session:
  • Adding a full set of crew abilities so that every crew member had some text ability paid off, and I think most of the abilities in play were actually used at least once. Some fun combo play emerged, but I'm going to need to go through the possibilities carefully (and some of the details of card play) to ensure things don't get out of control.
  • Thinking of the details of card play, I have a couple of suggestions on how to tidy things up, and one of the players instinctively found a really efficient way of laying out their card tableau.
  • The game, as I mentioned before, was running long, which is partly because as it stands, player-versus-player combat just tends to make the game longer.  I have a couple of ideas to help here, including ways to keep the treasure and merchant decks ticking over, but also...
  • The treasure deck as it stands is just a regular deck of playing cards, which has been more or less adequate so far, but now really needs to be rethought. My feeling at the moment is to have a smaller deck, containing three "suits", with many cards providing treasure for more than one suit, to make set collection both easier and more interesting.
  • As for the p-v-p combat, this went down remarkably well, with one of the players building a crew that made it effective for them to attack other players, while I managed to build a crew that could generally evade attacks and recover quickly if that didn't work out.
Overall, while we didn't find deep problems (I always feel suspicious when that happens), this was a really positive experience, with both testers giving me a lot of encouragement to keep moving forward. I'm sure to find more problems in the coming weeks and months (I'll certainly be looking!) but it's nice to know that even in a flawed form, the game can, at least sometimes, entertain. That's a great place to be.

So my focus for the next iteration is to get the playing time down.  I would really like the game to play in less than an hour -- and if I can get it down to within 45 minutes I'll be a lot more confident about it's future.  

After the first round of testing, there was a bit of disruption due to our usual venue having a large party booked from the later part of the afternoon, leaving no space for us to stay.  During the first round of testing, our esteemed leader had taken a trip to another nearby pub and negotiated a room for us to use. So we went on a short walk to the new place and a function room that was comfortable, spacious and quiet, perfect for our needs.

Once we were relocated I only really had time to play one other prototype, but it was a fun one, inspired by Japanese hanafuda cards, and made into a game of prehistoric hunting and gathering. Very enjoyable.


Reindeer FTW!

Knock me down with a reindeer, I won the December 24 hour contest with my game, Loading the Sleigh! Thanks to Kai for running the contest and to the kind folks who voted for my entry.
Prize! (Image is Kai Schauer's)
If you go and look at the entry, you'll see that there were very few votes cast last month, as often happens.  The point of the contest really is more about participation than voting and prizes, but it would be cool if more people did vote, and I'm not sure how things can be improved. But if you have a little time and you have a BGG account, it would be really appreciated if you could go and take a look at the entries for the January contest ("Hope") and thumb the one you like the look of most. Playing the games isn't really expected, but if you do so, all the better.


Craggy Wars

A few weeks ago I stumbled across the 2018 Wargame Print and Play Contest on Board Game Geek, which is a long run-up contest with a development period running from last summer until the submission deadline in September this year.  I've not really thought much about making a wargame, but somehow ideas started churning in my head.  This year's theme (you don't have to go for it, but it basically means that there is a bonus prize category) is "sci-fi and fantasy", which added to the mental mix.

So, the concept I came up with was something loosely based on the battles for Gondor in the Lord of the Rings: Minas Tirith, Osgiliath, and the Pellenor Fields.  Mechanically, I wanted to try out action triggering in the style of the awesome Assault on Hoth (flip cards which indicate what groups of units can move or attack, making for a very dynamic battle), and combat resolution to be quick and straightforward but take account of mutual support of combat units.  The terrible working title for the game is currently Battle for Craggy City, and you can see the work in progress thread on BGG here.

I tried out a few things on my own with solo tests of a few options, and this week I finally got as far as having a reasonably full, playable prototype, with a friend to help test it.  Basically we had a map with two cities on it, one being a major fortified city and one being a port some distance away, plus a bunch of units for each side.  The defending player had control of both cities and a limited number of units, including some supply wagons that needed to be moved from the port to the main city.  The attacker had a larger army and more opportunity for reinforcements from the action deck, and a vague objective to capture the cities or wipe out the defenders.
Beautiful, huh? I also had dice that matched the unit bases.

We played the game twice, not going to a real conclusion, but going twice through the action deck on each play, which allowed for the battle to develop a reasonable distance and try out pretty much all aspects of the game as it stood.  The first game was played with the card flipping, and the second using the cards in a different way, each having a hand of cards to play, sometimes triggering an action for yourself and sometimes for your opponent.

Obviously the game has a very long way to go, but there were a few elements that worked pretty well (the basic combat system was OK, especially after tweaking the way damage was handled, for instance), and we identified a heap of elements to look at and some possible solutions to some of the problems we found. We also decided that we liked playing cards from hand a lot more than we liked the basic card flipping, so I think I will focus on that -- though the other way offers a potential other play mode that could be fun.

My immediate plans for the game are to make two main changes:
  • Modify the board to allow more space in general, but also to make the main city and the port closer together and to make a larger marshalling area for the attacking army.
  • Modify the action cards so that each activates one action for each army.  These can be used either in the order in which they are written or in the order chosen by whoever plays the card, and I will playtest this both ways to see what I like best.
A little further down the line my shopping list for changes currently includes things like:
  • Making the different unit types a little more distinct in their behaviour.
  • Enhancing the asymmetry between the armies.
  • Adding some fantasy elements like magic or special events.
  • Working on the background story for the game.
  • Figuring out more concrete and meaningful objectives for each side.
I think we're off to a decent start here though.


Scurvy London

Having revived Scurvy Crew over the Christmas and new year period, made a new version of it, tested it solo, then hastily revised the revision, I took the rather scrappy prototype to London for the first Sunday playtesting meetup of the year.

Once again the journey was not uneventful, as the skies saw fit to drop quite a lot of snow on me, starting just before I got into the car to drive to the station, making the half-hour drive far more hazardous than expected, and the wait for the train rather colder and wetter than normal, but the rest of the journey was just fine.  The snow appears to have followed me to London, where it started falling a couple of hours or so later, leaving rain behind at home, so there was no sign of snow on my return.

I'm British. We talk about weather.  Sue me.

Anyway, at the meetup, I got to play an early prototype of a worker placement game that was quite a lot of fun.  It was a bit fiddly, and had issues with the scoring, but was engaging and had a lot to think about and I was surprised when the designer said it was only the second playtest of the game, as it felt like it was a complete game that just needed a bit of tidying, streamlining and balancing.  Good stuff.

I was up in the second session and my pitch for Scurvy Crew (the routine is that everyone tapped for a slot gets a minute or so to outline their game so players can choose what they will play) was full of caveats about how wonky and untested it is, and how I had no idea of how long it would take to play.

Mid-play, with a couple of merchants being engaged, and the black ship in port to resupply.

So, we had four of us playing (thanks to Rob, Kieran and Gavin for playing and valuable feedback), and the game mostly went OK, though had some terrible balance issues (we made a couple of tweaks to the rules during play -- something that is easy to get away with when you have game designers testing) and ran long (we called it off after about an hour of play), but gave me a very good feel for how it works at the moment, and yielded some great feedback. 

Some of the main points that came up:

  • My mechanism for scoring treasure (gaining cards from a deck of regular playing cards and scoring your longest suit at game end) was very warmly received, which surprised me a little as I had pretty much just thrown the mechanism in as a place holder. This was made even better by the option to discard (an increasing number of) treasure cards to get extra actions.
  • Men o'war weren't handled quite right: they caused big problems and there was no incentive to do anything other than steer clear.  This isn't necessarily a bad thing as such, but it didn't seem much fun. Some changes introduced during play improved this, but I have a few other ideas to try.
  • There was no real incentive to attack other players, something that the players wanted to do in a pirate game.  We had some discussion about possible ways to improve this, and I think it is actually going to be my biggest challenge for the next version.
  • Overall, most of the mechanisms of the game seemed to have good thematic resonance, including the overhead of spending actions to move between port and sea, and from the general sea area to go hunting merchants, which provided a nice reward for ships that were able to stay at sea for longer.
I have a lot of work to do, but the main changes I made in the last revision (the new way to handle hunting and capturing merchants) seems to have been a real success, even if the balance is way off at the moment.  There was a lot more discussion about the game, identifying many other problems, but I am really happy with how things went.

So next up: rethink player vs player battles, take another look at men o' war (I definitely want to keep them), set up some crew cards for starter hands, a little tidying and simplification, and see how we go from there...